“You’ll have trouble finding substitutes for all the fellows who didn’t come out to-day.”
“So that’s it,” said Roger. “I’m glad you didn’t make the same excuse as Hunk Rollins – didn’t claim you had work to do. Sage, the academy football team will not be broken up by the underhand work of any one, nor do I propose to knuckle to the man who is seeking by such contemptible methods to force my hand. Don’t pretend that you don’t know what I mean, for you do. If I yielded in this case, any fellow who had a grudge against another chap might try the same picayunish, selfish, discipline-wrecking trick. A chap who is so unpatriotic that he will quit his team because he had a personal grudge against some fellow on it is of no real value to the team anyhow; and when he seeks to lead others to follow his example he’s worse than a traitor. You have lived in Oakdale long enough to know that I have influence and a following, and I’ll tell you now that I’m not going to be whipped into line by the fellow who is trying to force me to yield to him. No matter how much the team is weakened by deserters, it will go ahead and play football – it will do so even if we don’t win a game this season. I would like to see you at the field for practice to-morrow afternoon, but you’ll not be asked again to come out. Good night.”
Sage stood there looking after Eliot as the latter’s sturdy figure melted into the darkness.
“By Jove!” he muttered. “Roger means it, and when he makes up his mind in that fashion nothing in the world can change him. He has all of old Urian Eliot’s stubbornness. Bern never can make him bend.”
Eliot contemplated seeking Berlin Barker next, but suddenly he decided to go straight to Hayden himself. He arrived at the latter’s home just as Bern was bidding Barker good night. Berlin looked a trifle startled as the captain of the eleven appeared, but into Hayden’s eyes there sprang a light of satisfaction; for he fancied Eliot had come to temporize, possibly to plead.
“Good evening. Glad to see you, old fellow,” he said with pretended friendliness. “Berlin and I have just been having a little chat. Won’t you come up to my room?”
“Yes,” said Roger.
Once in Hayden’s room, the visitor did not beat about the bush in the least. He declined to sit down. Facing the dark-eyed youth, who regarded him expectantly, he spoke deliberately and with a grimness that gave assurance of his unalterable resolution.
“Hayden, I can’t find words to express my contempt of the methods to which you have resorted. I’ve something to say to you, and I hope you’ll not interrupt me. You have succeeded in leading your friends and certain weak-kneed fellows to follow your lead in failing to come out for practice. There are four of you, all told. I doubt if there’s another fellow in Oakdale who can be induced to do such a thing, and I’m sure there can’t be more than one or two. I’m not asking anything of you; play your cards to the limit.
By this time Hayden’s face was pallid with rage and his eyes glowing. He trembled a little, and his voice shook as he retorted:
“You seem to fancy yourself a perfect czar, Roger. Have you got an idea that you alone can throw me off the team? Answer me that.”
“If you leave the team it won’t be necessary to throw you off; you’ll take yourself off by your own act.”
“You know why I refuse to play. You’re the one who is weakening the team by insisting on retaining that miserable – ”
“It won’t do you any good to slur Ben Stone, and I don’t think you’d better call him names before me. Of course I wouldn’t put a hand on you here in your own home, but – ”
“Great C?sar! you’re threatening me, Eliot.”
“Stone will remain on the team, Hayden; you may as well make up your mind to that. If you haven’t manhood enough to come back and work for the team, you’re not worthy to be on it. You’re going to find it a losing fight, my boy; you may hurt me, but you’ll hurt yourself far more. The poorer record the team makes without you and your friends, the more you’ll be blamed when the season is ended. Think that over. It’s all I have to say.”
Without even adding good night, Roger left the room, descended the stairs and passed out of the house.
It is almost impossible to describe the mental condition of Bernard Hayden immediately after Roger’s departure. Resentful wrath nearly choked him, and for a few moments he raged against Eliot like a lunatic. Even when he grew calmer outwardly, the fierce tumult in his heart continued.
“How dare that fellow come here and talk to me in such a fashion!” he snarled, pacing the floor of his room; “how dare he! So he’s going to stand by Stone at any cost! Judging by what I’ve heard about him, he’s just mule enough to do it, too. I presume he’s right in believing he has pull enough with the fellows to carry the thing through. I’ve got to down Stone, and I will; but I can’t afford to hurt myself while I’m about it, and, with Eliot taking the stand he vows he will take, it will be necessary for me to try other tactics. I hate to give in a whit, and I’ll only seem to do so, in order that I may adopt some other plan – some plan that can’t possibly fail. Perhaps you think you have me nipped, Mr. Eliot, but at any cost I’ll win eventually.”
The following morning, watched by Jimmy, Stone was mending a broken swing in the orchard behind Mrs. Jones’ house when, looking up, he discovered Bern Hayden standing not twenty feet away. Their glances met and clashed, and, startled by the strange look on Ben’s face, Jimmy glanced round, discovering the frowning, dark-faced intruder.
“Oh!” gasped the little chap nervously. “I didn’t hear nobody coming.”
Ben had straightened up to his full height. His stout shoulders were squared, his feet planted firmly, and he fronted his foe without a symptom of quailing. He had felt that this time must come, but now the dread of it passed from him instantly, and he was almost frightened by that feeling of eager fierceness and uncontrollable rage which had possessed him in the hour when he was led to wreak physical violence on Hayden for the destruction of little Jerry’s fiddle. Slowly and unconsciously he lifted his hand and touched his mutilated ear.
Bern, seeing that movement, flushed until his face took on a purplish tinge.
“It would have been a good thing,” he said in a harsh voice, “if in self-defense I had struck more effectively.”
Every nerve in Stone’s body seemed to vibrate. Without looking at the lame boy, who had begun to creep toward him, he said:
“Jimmy, you had better go into the house. I’ve some private business to transact with this person.”
The little lad hesitated a few steps away. “Ben,” he whispered, “oh, Ben, I’m afraid!”
“Go into the house, please,” urged Stone; and, with many fearful backward glances, Jimmy limped away.
For yet some moments they continued to stare, those two who hated each other with all the intensity of their natures. If stabbing eyes could have killed, both would have sunk, mortally wounded, beneath the orchard trees.
“What do you want?”
It was Stone who asked the question. With a start, Hayden advanced a few steps, but he stopped while yet well beyond reach of the other lad’s powerful hands. As he noted that Bern was disinclined to come nearer, something like a hideous smile momentarily contorted Stone’s uncomely face.
“As I was passing I saw you here,” said Bern, “and I decided to tell you just what you’re doing. You’re ruining the Oakdale football team, for there are a number of decent fellows who absolutely refuse to play on the same eleven with you.”
“Decent fellows!” scoffed Ben. “Your friends! If they knew you for what you are, as I do, the least decent among them would have nothing to do with you.”
“Eliot is mulish, and, having taken a stand, he dislikes to turn back; but I know – and others know – that he would rejoice to be rid of you. You would realize it yourself if you were not so dull. Of course he tells you he wants you to play, for since you protected his sister he feels that he can’t do anything else. You saw last night that the fellows are quitting the team. It’s because you’re on it, and besides those who have already quit there will be others. I’m in a position to know just how they all feel about it, and unless you take yourself off it won’t be long before Eliot will have no team behind him. You can’t play football, anyhow.”
It was this final taunt that brought Stone’s retort. “I can play as well as you, Hayden, and I’ll prove it, too. In Hilton you always had your own way, but you can’t in Oakdale. You helped break my mother’s heart; you disfigured me for life, and you drove me, an outcast, from Hilton. Here, assisted by your cold-blooded, heartless old father, you tried your best to get me turned out of school and to force me in disgrace from the town. You failed in that, just as henceforth you’ll fail in all your vile schemes. I was compelled to run from you once, but I’ll never do so again, Hayden. I’ll never turn my back on you; I’ll fight you to the finish, and may the best man win.”
“By which, I presume, you mean that you’re going to stick on the team?”
“I’m going to stick on the team; I’m going to stick in the school; I’m going to stick right here; and for all of you I’ll come out on top.”
It was a flat defiance, and at last Hayden realized that mere words alone would be quite as potent to move a mountain.
“Very well,” cried Bern, “then you’ll have to take the consequences, you – you son of a – ”
“Stop! My father is dead – murdered – an innocent man. It will not be safe for you ever again to utter a slur against him in my hearing.”
The threat in the speaker’s face was far more effective than in his words, and Bern Hayden did not complete the interrupted sentence. Turning, he walked swiftly away, followed by the eyes of the lad he had failed to intimidate.
Spotty Davis, leaning on the orchard fence, had been watching them for some moments. Hayden scarcely noticed Spotty as he passed, and Davis grinned at Ben, to whom he called:
“Come on, Stoney, let’s toddle up to the acad. You’ll be late if you don’t come along now.”
A strange calmness had come over Ben Stone. This had taken the place of the wrath that had burned in his veins, and now he felt that he was indeed master of himself. And whoever masters himself may likewise master fate.
“You’n Bern are gittin’ kinder friendly, ain’t yer?” chuckled Spotty, as Ben came out. “Sorter surprised me to see him makin’ a mornin’ call on you.”
As he passed through the academy gate, Hayden glanced back and saw Stone and Davis coming. A strange look flashed swiftly across his face, and the words which he muttered no one save himself could have understood had they heard them.
That night Roger Eliot noted with satisfaction that Fred Sage was promptly on hand at the football field. Hunk Rollins likewise put in an appearance; and, to complete Eliot’s triumph, both Barker and Hayden arrived before practice began.
There were others who took notice of these things, and Sleuth Piper, whispering mysteriously in Chub Tuttle’s ear, observed:
“My deduction is that Capt. Eliot has put on the screws and brought the delinquents to time. The before-mentioned delinquents have come trotting up to the dough dish as gentle as lambs, and – ”
“Lambs don’t like dough,” said Chub. “Your figures of speech are shocking, Sleuth.”
“Mebbe so,” said Piper. “Gimme a peanut, will you?”
At practice that night Stone astonished everybody, even himself. All hesitation and doubt seemed to have left him, and at everything he attempted he was amazingly sure and so swift that not a few of the boys who had fancied him heavy and awkward gasped with astonishment and confessed to one another that they had “sized him up wrong.” Those who had fancied him dull of wit were also led to wonder over the rapidity with which he seemed to grasp and understand every suggestion of the coach. He was able to catch punts on the dead run; when he fell on the ball he got it cleanly, never once permitting it to bound away from him; and he could kick, too, his sturdy right leg sending the pigskin sailing far through the air.
Bern Hayden likewise practiced well, putting all his usual snap and dash into everything he did, his accomplishments plainly demonstrating why he had been generally singled out as the fellow who would certainly be chosen as captain of next year’s team. Of them all he was, perhaps, the only one who gave no attention to Stone; as far as he was concerned – outwardly, at least – Ben did not exist.
All this was most encouraging and stimulating to Capt. Eliot and the others. The coach, who on the previous night had felt greatly disappointed in the material from which he had hoped to build a clever high school eleven, betrayed his relief and satisfaction by the altered expression of his face and the change in his manner. In fact, every one seemed happy, and possibly, with the exception of Hayden, every one was.
With remarkable craft Bern masked his feelings. He did not even betray the wrath that stirred his soul when, standing a short distance away, he heard Dash Winton say to Eliot:
“I think I was mistaken about that chap Stone. I fancied he wasn’t much good, but I’ve changed my mind since watching him work to-night. He ought to make one of the most valuable men on the team.”
“I’m glad you think so,” returned the captain; “for we certainly need him to stiffen the line.”
“To-morrow night,” said Winton, “we must have enough fellows out here to make up a scrub team for a practice game. You’ll need all that kind of work you can get if you’re going to play next Saturday.”
Hayden and Barker left the field together. “Peace has spread itself like oil upon the troubled waters,” observed Berlin, with a faint smile. “Too bad you had to give in, but I suppose it was the only thing you could do.”
His companion’s dark eyes flashed him a look. “If you fancy I’ve given in you don’t know me. I’ve never yet been downed, Barker.”
“But you had to give up your plan for bringing Eliot to time.”
“That’s all right. A good general who sees one of his movements blocked changes promptly to another style of campaign.”
“Then you’ve another scheme in view?”
“I always believe in keeping a few cards up my sleeve.”
Bern betrayed no disposition to show these cards even to his friend, and Barker refrained from asking questions he felt might not be answered, being confident that in good time Hayden would let him into the secret.
To every one else, as the days slipped by and Bern made no move, it seemed that something like a truce had been mutually agreed upon. To be sure, it might be an armed truce in which both parties were patiently waiting the time when the certain course of events would again bring open warfare; for never in all that time did the two bitter enemies betray, even by a look, that either recognized the existence of the other. In football practice, when necessary, they worked together harmoniously enough for the accomplishment of the plays in which they were involved. It frequently happened that Stone, breaking through the line of the scrub, became a part of the interference which assisted Hayden in advancing the ball, and always he was an effective part of it. Both Winton and Eliot arrived at the conviction that one of the team’s best ground gaining plays would be that in which Stone and Piper opened a hole between the opposing guard and tackle to let Hayden through.
On Thursday the coach requested that the gate of the field should be closed and guarded to keep out the throng of spectators who were eager to watch the practice, and that night, having strengthened the scrub, he kept the regular team working constantly on the defensive; for he claimed that a good defensive game was fully as essential as an offensive one.
Saturday came at last, and at ten-thirty in the forenoon the players were at the railway station to take the train for Clearport. Quite a crowd gathered to see them off and cheer them heartily, while about a dozen of the scholars, including several girls, all bearing banners, accompanied them.
On the train Hayden and Barker sat together and took little part in the general conversation. Even when Clearport was reached and the arrivals were welcomed by Capt. Merwin and a delegation, this pair held themselves aloof, finally walking up to the hotel behind the rest of the crowd. And at dinner, coming late, Bern and Berlin sat at a separate table, having made arrangements in advance with the head waiter.
Eliot did not wholly hide his displeasure over this, for he had expected that the players, the substitutes and the coach would all sit at one long table. Nor did the distant pair betray any interest in the jests and laughter of their teammates.
Dinner over, Winton had a private word with Roger. “As an exhibition of snobbishness,” he said disgustedly, “that was the limit. If you don’t look out, Eliot, those fellows will yet make trouble for you.”
“There’s only one,” returned the captain, “who is at all dangerous, and I have an idea he realizes he can’t afford to make any real trouble. Of course I don’t like the spirit he displays, but he’s such a valuable man that I presume we’ll have to put up with it.”
The hour for the game drew near at last. It was a bright, snappy day, with a strong westerly wind blowing, and when the Oakdale lads arrived at the field they found quite a crowd already assembled, while a steady stream of people came pouring in. Not a few persons from Oakdale had come over the road in teams and automobiles, and the most of these were gathered in a group on the seats at the southern side of the gridiron. With a cheer they welcomed the appearance of Eliot and his followers.
That cheer gave Ben Stone a tingling thrill; he seemed to feel that a little of it was meant for him. This thrill was intensified as he heard them crying:
“There’s Roger!” “Good boy, Eliot!” “There’s Bern!”
“What’s your deduction about this game, Sleuth?”
“Got any peanuts, Chub?”
Then suddenly some one cried distinctly:
“Look at Stone! ’Rah for old Stoney!”
They shed their sweaters. A ball was tossed out, and immediately they began passing, punting and falling upon it. And now Stone, painfully self-conscious, fumbled. When, a moment or two later, the pigskin came bounding his way over the ground, he flung himself at it only to have it squirm out of his grasp and spin off to one side. He rose, his face crimson, realizing that something was the matter.
A hand touched him lightly on the shoulder, and Eliot’s voice sounded in his ear.
“All right, Stone, old man; don’t mind the crowd. Forget it.”
That was the matter; he knew it in a twinkling. Getting a grip on himself, he became steady and sure.
Presently he found himself, with others, watching the two captains who had stepped aside to consult with the referee. For a moment his eyes roved over the scene. On one side of the field the seats were already well filled. A mass of blue banners indicated where the scholars of Clearport High were grouped. At the south the crowd was thinner and the crimson banners of Oakdale were not so plentiful. East and west the goal posts rose against the sky. Between those posts the regular white chalk marks made a huge checkerboard.
Oh, it was a fine thing to be living! And it was a marvel indeed to be there, a member of one of those two teams of healthy, brown-faced lads who would soon be struggling for supremacy on that field.
His eyes came back to the two captains and the referee. He saw the latter toss into the air something that spun and glittered brightly. He saw all three stoop to observe how the coin had fallen. Then Eliot slapped Merwin on the shoulder, said something, turned and came trotting toward his comrades.
“Come on, fellows,” called Roger; “I won the toss. We’ll take the western goal and have both wind and sun at our backs.”