The Ball Game
Part 21 of the Ranch Days series
By Maz McCoy
Jed Curry let out a long sigh and tossed a stone at a can lying in the dust below the bunkhouse porch. A resounding ping broke the afternoon’s silence. Beside him Nathan handed Jed another stone. Jed threw it.
He received another.
Gerrard whittled something out of an ever diminishing piece of wood. The shavings lay scattered on the ground around his feet.
Heyes, resting against the porch post, turned the pages of a book, ostensibly reading.
Bill leaned back against the bunkhouse blowing smoke circles with his cigar.
Henry carved a face in a potato and took a sly glance at Bill Napier before cutting out the next chunk.
The foreman of the Bar T strode towards them from the direction of the main house.
Jeff Collins drew closer.
“What’s going on, boys?” Jeff asked.
“Nothin’,” Bill informed him.
Jeff looked from one man to the next.
“Horses fed, Heyes?”
“Stalls cleaned, Jed?”
“Cattle moved, Nathan?”
“Yes, Boss. Down by the river, just like you said.”
“Fences mended, Gerrard?”
“Stores checked, Henry?”
“Of course! But you feel free to check ‘em if ya don’t believe me!”
Collins smiled as the cook bristled.
“I reckon I’ll take your word for it.”
“Glad to hear it. You wanna check on the stew?”
“No, Henry I don’t.”
Collins’ eyes narrowed in thought. “So what you’re all telling me is that you’ve got nothing to do?”
“In that case, Nathan, I must be employing too many of you.”
“Guess I should let some of you go.”
“NOW WAIT A MINUTE!”
“BOSS! You’re kiddin’ right?”
“Well, I can’t afford to pay ya for sitting around doing nothin’!” Jeff looked at Bill. “Do any of you have anything you should be doing right now?”
“Then I guess we have time for it.”
Jed caught whatever it was the foreman threw at him without thinking. He looked down at the ball in his hand.
“Not bad,” Jeff mused. He looked at the men sitting before him. “Time for a game of baseball! Jed, you’re on my team.” The youngster grinned at his friend. “Nathan, you get next choice.”
“All right Boss Man!” Gerrard whooped.
“Be quick, Nathan, before I choose for ya.”
Finally catching on Nathan made his choice.
“Best batter on the Bar T,” the man boasted as he tossed down the wood and adjusted his hat.
“We’ll see about that,” Collins scoffed. “I’ll take Bill.”
And so it went on until each man had his team.
“We’re on opposite sides, Heyes,” Jed informed his friend.
“Bet we beat ya.”
“How much d’you bet?” Brown eyes fixed on the blond boy.
“I don’t have any money.”
“You don’t hafta bet money.”
“I’m not betting with you, Heyes.”
“No faith in your team, huh? I can understand that, I mean you got a lot of old guys…”
“We’ll beat you anyway!”
“Bet ya don’t.” Heyes smirked.
“I bet we do!”
“Bet all your chores for two days?”
“You mean when I win you’ll do all of mine?”
“If you win sure, but it goes both ways. When you lose you’ll do all my chores for two days.”
Jed stared at Heyes. Heyes stared at Jed.
Heyes held out his hand. Jed pulled his shoulders back, stuck out his hand and shook Heyes’.
Heyes smiled just as Nathan reappeared from the bunkhouse carrying a bat. Three sacks were gathered for the bases and a diamond of sorts was quickly measured out by scraping heels on a flat piece of ground behind the bunkhouse.
“We need to toss for who bats first,” Jeff informed them.
“Whose coin?” Jed asked with a glance at Heyes who just happened to have one hand shoved into a pocket. Heyes removed his hand and held it, palm up, towards Jed.
“I don’t have one,” he announced unconvincingly.
“We should stand an even better chance of winning then,” Jed muttered as he strolled towards his team’s captain.
“Call,” Nathan instructed his rival captain as he tossed a coin in the air.
It landed with a thud in the dirt and both men peered down.
“We’re up first!” Nathan announced, with a smile and his team gathered in an orderly line near the plate.
“Jed, come here!”
The blond boy turned at the foreman’s call and jogged over to him. Collins placed a conspiratorial hand on Jed’s shoulder.
“Jed, you’ve got a good pair of hands on ya. So I’m putting you on first base. Bill’s good as catcher and Marty’s great in the field. So you need to be ready to catch anything we throw your way.”
“I can do it.”
“Knew you could.” Jeff gave him a slap on the back. “Get to your base.” He surveyed the field and his team. Yep, seemed like a good arrangement. “Batter up!”
Finally, Nathan stood at the plate and took a practice swing. Jeff rolled his neck from side to side and rotated his right shoulder. His eyes narrowed as he studied Gerrard on third waiting to steal home. Nathan caught Gerrard’s eye and nodded.
“Anytime you’re ready, Boss,” Nathan informed Collins as he took his stance and grasped the bat in both hands.
“You ready, Bill?” Jeff asked.
“Sure thing, Boss. Just don’t knock his head off.”
“I’ll try not to.”
“You gonna pitch the ball or talk all day?”
Jeff threw the ball and Nathan ducked.
“S*%#! What the heck you trying to do, kill me?” Nathan glared at Collins. The ranch foreman smiled.
“I thought you were ready for me. Guess you can’t handle my curve.”
“I can handle anything you throw at me.”
“Big talk, Nathan.”
“Just pitch the darn thing.”
Collins did just that. This time, when the ball left Jeff’s hand, Nathan was ready. The ball hit the wood with a resounding thwack and flew way over Jeff’s head.
“I GOT IT!” Marty called, his eyes following the ball in flight. He held out his arms ready to make the catch and ran straight into Seth Tyler, one of the younger ranch hands. Both men went down hard and the ball dropped in the dust.
“Marty, you all right?” Seth asked, helping the older man to his feet.
“I’m fine! I’m fine! Get the darn ball back to Jeff!”
Tyler picked it up and threw it to the Boss.
“You all right, Marty?” Nathan asked with a smile as he made it home. Marty waved his query away and beat the dust off his pants with his hat.
Heyes hit the ball and ran. Jed saw the ball heading towards him and prepared to catch it when…
“ARGH!” All eyes turned to where Henry lay on the ground clasping his leg. “ARGH!”
The ball sailed past Jed.
“Henry?” Jeff took a step towards the cook and the older man sat up and shouted.
Heyes took off, ran past Jed laughing as he did so and headed for second base. Jed cussed and ran after the ball, tripped and landed face first in the dirt. Jeff ran past him.
“I am gonna fire that ol’ fool!”
He caught up with the ball, grabbed it, turned and threw it to Bill who threw it to Marty, now at home plate who…collided with Heyes.
“SAFE!” Nathan cried.
“OUT!” Marty yelled.
“He was safe.”
“He was out.”
Nathan faced Marty.
“Heyes had his foot on the plate.”
Marty faced Nathan.
“He stepped on the plate alright, but not until AFTER I tagged him with the ball!”
“Nathan, he was out,” Jeff announced as he strode towards them.
“Well of course you’re gonna say that, he’s not on your team. I say he was safe.”
“Boys, I think we’re gonna hafta agree to disagree,” Bill suggested in an attempt to pacify them.
“No way, Bill, he was safe!”
“Maybe we need an independent witness?” Bill tried.
“Yeah, like who?” Jeff looked around at the men watching him.
“How ‘bout me?” a female voice trilled from beside the bunkhouse. All eyes turned to see Mrs Culver wave. She walked slowly towards them. Hats were quickly removed as the ranch owner’s wife drew near.
“Ma’am, I hope you didn’t hear any of our cussin’?” Jeff stated.
“Nothing I haven’t heard before from Mark. Now, what needs to be decided?” She smiled at Nathan and Marty.
“We were not sure if Heyes made it to home plate before Marty tagged him,” Nathan explained. “That means he had to…”
“I know what it means, Nathan.” She looked from Marty to Heyes. “What do you say, Marty?”
“I had him, ma’am.”
“Hmm. And you, Hannibal?”
“I believe I was safe before Marty tagged me.”
“Quite a conundrum then.” She smiled. “From what I could see Marty tagged him…”
“Huh! Told ya!”
“…At the exact same time that Heyes reached home…sack.” She looked at Jeff. “So does that make it a tie?”
“Yes, Mrs Culver, it does.”
“So what does that mean?”
“Means we’re still even. By the way, ma’am, did you want something? Is that why you were down here?”
“I have some boxes I need moving.”
“You should have sent Carlos to…”
“I wanted some fresh air. It’s too nice an afternoon to be stuck inside.”
“I’ll get the boxes for you.”
No, Jeff, they can wait. I’d like to say and watch, if that’s all right?”
“Of course it is.” He turned away. “Tyler! Go get Mrs Culver a blanket to sit on.”
“That’s very kind of you, Jeff but you don’t have to.”
“Yes, ma’am, I do.”
She placed a hand on his arm.
“Miss Tanner should snap you up quickly if she knows what’s good for her.”
“I don’t think she’s that desperate.”
“Fooey! I’ve seen the way you two look at each other.” She smiled. “I’ve embarrassed you enough. Now, what’s the score?”
Jed gripped the bat.
Nathan’s eyes narrowed and he did his best to look mean as he prepared to pitch.
Jed stood ready.
The ball flew through the air and…
THWACK! It soared out to left field and Jed ran.
Nathan put his hand on Heyes’ shoulder as they headed back to the bunkhouse.
“Not a bad bit of running for a skinny kid.”
“You weren’t so bad yourself for an old man.”
“Practically ancient, grandpa.”
“Sheesh, I’d better marry Annabelle soon or there won’t be time for grandkids.”
Heyes stopped walking and looked at him.
“You gonna marry her?”
“You know until I said it I hadn’t thought too much about it?”
“So I guess it’s not such a bad idea.”
“She’s a nice lady.”
A silly grin formed on Nathan’s face.
“She sure is.”
“So when you gonna ask her?”
“Don’t rush me, Heyes. I only just realised I want to.”
“What are you two grinning at? You lost remember?” Jeff walked towards them.
“Nathan’s gonna ask Annabelle to marry him.”
“He is?” Jeff grinned and Nathan blushed.
“We were just talking. I just…”
“He ain’t asked her yet.”
“I only just thought of it, so how could I have asked her?” Nathan grabbed Heyes’ shirt front and pulled him closer. “This is a secret. You breathe a word to anyone else and I’ll…”
“What’s it worth to keep me quiet?”
“I could silence you permanently.”
Jeff grabbed Heyes by the arm.
“We’ll keep quiet, Nathan, just as long as you don’t take too long about asking her. It’s rude to keep a lady waitin’.” He gave Heyes a shove. “You’ve got Jed’s chores to do. Get going.”
Heyes ran off and Jeff turned to his friend.
“You sure about this?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I am.”
“Well, good for you.” Nathan looked worried. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve never been married before, Jeff. What’s it like?”
“Like coming home.”