Take Me Out to the Ballgame

by Angie

This one came to me after watching the little boy at the baseball game in Texas who was ‘trampled’ by the man trying to get the foul ball. It just wouldn’t stop until I put it into words. Thanks to Crystal and her girls for beta reading and suggesting the name for the New England team.

Mary Travis hurried down the boardwalk with a paper in her hand. Excitement burned brightly in her blue eyes as she sought the darkly clothed gunslinger. Nodding politely to people as she passed them on the way, she quickened her pace as the object of her search stepped out of the saloon.

“Mr. Larabee, if I could have a minute of your time?”

“Sure Mary, what can I do for you?” Chris asked. He was a little surprised at the aggressive way the woman approached him.

“Have you seen this?” she asked, handing him the paper.

“The Eagle Bend Announcer? No, can’t say as I have.”

“Not the paper, the article!” she told him. Opening the paper and pointing to the headline across the top, ‘Eastern Baseball Team Challenges All Players’ the two-inch high letters proclaimed.

“Baseball?” he asked hesitantly.

“Yes, the article says that they have exhibition games scheduled all over the territory. If we put together a team, I’m sure they would come here to play,” she answered.

“Baseball?” he repeated.

“I was thinking of the seven of you and a few others. It would be wonderful publicity for the town. It would bring people from all over the territory to see the game. Just imagine all the business for the local shopkeepers,” the newspaper woman gushed enthusiastically.

“The seven of us? You expect us to play baseball?” He couldn’t quite believe his ears.

“It wouldn’t kill you! I could get a book with the rules and I’m sure Miranda could make shirts for the team. Perhaps Yosemite and a couple of the other men in town would like to play.”

“Mary, I hate to put the damper on your fire, but I don’t think the others will go for it,” he said cautiously.

“If I can convince them, will you captain the team?”

“If you can get all the men I’ll need for the team, I’ll think about it,” he half-heartedly promised.

With an approving nod of her head, Mary turned and started away. Chris figured that was the end of the subject.

Vin was walking across the dusty street when Mary called out to him.

“May I speak with you for a minute, Vin?”

Ever since the tracker had admitted to the newspaper woman that he couldn’t read, their friendship had blossomed. She had gone to great pains to teach him the rudimentary skills he needed to learn to read. Protecting his fragile pride, she had weathered the looks and rumors about the two of them. Vin could now reason his way through almost any word and Mary was thrilled for him.

“What can I do for ya, Mary?”

“I wanted to talk to you about getting a team together to play baseball,” she explained as she invited him into her office. “There’s a team from back east that is traveling around playing exhibition games with teams from the local towns. I thought perhaps we could get a team together for Four Corners and invite them here.”

Of all the seven lawmen, Vin was the most likely, after JD, to understand what the woman was suggesting. During his time among the Indians, he had found friendly competition the best way to show off one’s skills. His smile settled in his eyes as he fondly remembered the games he had played with his Indian brothers.

“Sure, I’ll play. Ya got anybody else in mind?” He knew the answer but he wanted to hear it from her first.

“Mr. Larabee said if I got enough men to play that he would captain the team. I was thinking of the seven of you and perhaps Yosemite. After that, I guess we’ll have to find a couple of others.”

“Let me know when you have enough. It sounds like fun,” he told her. “I’d better be on my way, Mary, I have patrol.”

Buck and JD were quick to agree that they wanted to play and offered to talk Nathan and Josiah into it. That left only Ezra. Folding the paper under her arm, Mary took a deep breath and started into the saloon. The gambler sat at his usual table, playing cards with a couple of the locals. He smiled warmly at the blonde woman as she stood beside the table.

“Mrs. Travis, care to play a little game of chance?” he asked, raising his eyebrows as he challenged her.

“No, thank you, I don’t gamble,” she declined.

“I abhor gambling myself, but these young men were kind enough to offer to join me in a friendly game,” he assured her.

“A friendly game? You have all my pay for the month and you call it a friendly game?” one of the men said as he glared across the table.

“And I have continued to allow you to play in the hope of winning some of it back, haven’t I?” Ezra asked as he put his cards on the table. The man who complained held two pair and took the small pot. Pocketing the money, the man quickly tipped his hat and left the table. The others excused themselves and headed for the bar.

“May I have a minute of your time?” Mary asked as she took one of the recently vacated chairs.

“Certainly, you have my undivided attention,” he said as he shuffled the cards.

“Have you seen this?” She placed the paper on the table.

“Yes, I take delivery of several of the local publications. Only for curiosity’s sake, you understand,” he quickly assured her.

“Of course. The reason I asked was because I wanted to get a team together and get involved with this,” she said as she indicated the article on the front page.

“Baseball?” the gambler asked.

“You sound just like Mr. Larabee,” she told him with an exasperated smile.

“Who did you have in mind to play for the honor of our fair town?”

“Well, so far, all of the others have agreed to play. I was going to ask Yosemite and maybe a couple of the other business owners,” she hedged.

“All of the others as in my compatriots?”

“Well, Mr. Larabee said he would captain the team if I got enough people to agree to play,” she admitted. “I already ordered the rule book, too.”

“Although my sainted mother would have a fit if she found out, I would be delighted to participate,” he told her. “Perhaps Miranda could be persuaded to make up a team uniform.”

“I thought of that but I haven’t had a chance to talk to her about it. I was going to ask some of the business owners to consider sponsoring the team to cover the cost of the uniforms,” she said.

After securing the last of the seven lawmen, Mary approached Yosemite and a couple of others. By the time she returned to her office that evening, she had ten people committed to play. Her hands shook with excitement as she set the letters for the next morning’s paper.

Josiah stepped into the saloon after his patrol. Seeing the others gathered around a table, he made his way to them. Spread out on the table was a piece of paper with a square on it. JD was enthusiastically explaining the game to the others.

“First thing we have to do is figure out who is going to throw the ball. That’s most important. If someone is really good, the other team won’t even hit the ball,” the easterner explained.

“I thought the point of the game was to hit the ball and run around the bases?” Nathan questioned.

“Yeah, but if you don’t hit the ball, you don’t get to run. If the guy throwing the ball is really good, they won’t get a hit. We really should have a try-out to see who will throw for our team.”

“JD, have you played this game before?” Josiah asked.

“No, but I watched it once. The family my ma worked for took us to a game. They had this one guy, he threw the ball so fast that you couldn’t even see it go by!” JD’s excitement was contagious and several of them wore smiles.

It took a couple of days for the rulebook to arrive. Mary handed off the hardbound book and smiled as JD ran up the boardwalk shouting for the others.

“Buck! Josiah! It’s here! Vin! Come on! Ezra! Hurry up! The book is here!” JD shouted at each one as he spotted them.

“Calm down, JD. You’re scaring people,” Chris said as he took hold of the young sheriff’s shoulder. People had stepped onto the boardwalk to see what the commotion was all about. Not seeing any imminent danger, they soon returned to their homes and businesses.

Ezra commandeered the book and sat down to read it from cover to cover. He and JD diagrammed the various plays described in the book. Josiah and Buck laid out the diamond on a broad, flat expanse of land to the north of town. Drawing heavily on the measurements in the book, they marked out the bases and tacked down the sand filled canvas bags.

The day came for the men to try out for the various positions on the team. Josiah had acquired an old catcher’s glove and volunteered to fill that position. Buck jumped at the opportunity to be first to throw the ball. Walking out toward the center of the diamond, he stopped and turned to throw the ball. The ladies man did a passable job of delivering the ball to the glove until Ezra pointed out that he was not standing on the mound. Turning around and looking behind him, Buck’s jaw dropped.

“You mean I have to throw from way back there? No way I can get the ball across the bag from that far away. You sure you read that book right?” he protested as he stormed over to where the gambler stood with the book in his hand. After reading the description of the distance from the mound to ‘home’ he let his shoulders drop and surrendered the ball.

“Mr. Dunne, you’re next!” Ezra called.

They discovered that JD could get the ball to Josiah but he had very little control over it and they spent several minutes running down the ball when his wild throws missed the older man completely. Chris had better control of the ball but couldn’t consistently hit the mark. Nathan frequently overshot the mark. Billy Travis and the Potter children were happily chasing down the wild throws.

Josh Adams, the young man Yosemite hired to help out at the livery, and Horace Tompkins, who worked in the grain exchange, both had better control and managed to get the ball to Josiah a large percentage of the time. Yosemite tended to overthrow the mark, his powerful arms hurling the white sphere harder and farther than any of the others.

Finally, the only two left to try were Ezra and Vin. The southerner threw and the ball bounced in the dirt, several feet short of the mark. After three tries, the embarrassed gambler walked off the mound and took up the book again. The tracker took up the ball. He gripped it in his hand and turned it until he found the right grip. Walking out to the mound, he let his relaxed gaze wander around the field. Drawing a calming breath, he threw the ball.

Josiah’s eyes widened at the speed with which the ball crossed the distance from the mound to his hand. He hadn’t even had to move the glove, the ball slammed into the pocket neatly, stinging his hand as it arrived. Each of the next four throws arrived exactly the same way, perfectly smacking the pocket of the glove without the older man having to move to intercept them.

“I think we have a winner,” Ezra called from the sidelines. He watched as Josiah pulled off the glove and shook his hand to get rid of the stinging sensation. They all gathered around the gambler to see what he had worked out on the piece of paper he was holding. On the paper was a sketch of the field with the bases and field positions marked. In pencil, he had written their names.

“Hey! How come I got to be short stop?” JD protested.

“Because the book says that the short stop should be able to move quickly to provide coverage for both 2nd and 3rd base as well as back-up for the pitcher and relay from the outfield. It is a very responsible position, JD,” Ezra explained. He wanted the young sheriff in a position to take advantage of his naturally exuberant nature.

“How come you got me way out in the field?” Buck protested.

“Because you throw harder and farther than the others. The book says that the majority of the balls will come to your position or to Yosemite. We need the strongest arms out there,” the gambler explained.

“Then how come you put yourself out there?” JD innocently inquired.

“Because very few players hit to that side and you will be there to back me up,” he offered. The book said to put the weakest fielder in that position and he fit the description to a tee, he felt.

“What do we need to do now?” Chris asked as he studied the diagram.

“We should practice hitting and fielding. There are a series of plays the book suggests that we practice depending on where the ball goes. Right now, I think we should work on catching and throwing the ball to the bases. Later, Horace can hit the ball and we can practice our positions. If this doesn’t work, we can make changes until we get the right person in the right place,” Ezra asserted.

They spent an hour throwing the ball back and forth. Chris and Josh traded places for a while but quickly switched back when they realized that the first baseman was going to be getting the ball thrown in his direction a lot more than the other positions and Josh was better at catching. JD ran himself nearly ragged trying to field all the loose balls that came his way before Ezra carried the book over and showed him the descriptions of how he should play his position.

“Okay, I think we’re ready to practice catching a hit ball,” Chris suggested. Josiah offered to toss the ball and hit it after Billy offered to run down any loose balls.

Pitching the ball into the air, Josiah swung the bat and felt it connect solidly with the ball. Shading his eyes, he watched the ball arc neatly through the air and come down near JD and Ezra. The gambler was doing his best to get under the ball without revealing that he was terrified of being hit by the little white sphere. The young sheriff was like an overexcited puppy, wanting the ball every time.

As JD was backing up to catch the ball, he kept his head tipped up. Ezra was also looking skyward at the ball and didn’t see the approaching body until it struck him, sending both men to the ground. The ball landed with a thud just beyond Ezra’s outstretched hand.

“I’m sorry, Ez! I didn’t see you. Are you all right?” JD scrambled off of the body he had landed on.

“I’m fine, JD. Perhaps we should attempt to call the ball when we have it?”

After the third ball Josiah hit came directly to Ezra, Buck protested. “I thought you said the ball wouldn’t come out there very often?”

“As I attempted to elaborate, not many batters are left handed, therefore, the ball would not come over here too often. Perhaps we should allow Horace to hit for a while,” Ezra offered.

The new batter did a better job of varying the location where the ball landed, forcing them all to move around. After everyone had gotten a chance to catch a ball or two, they called it a day and headed for the saloon to cool off.

For the next week, the men got together for a couple of hours each evening to practice. At first, they spent their time learning to field the ball and throw it to the correct base. Since they didn’t have many extra players, they were forced to make due with the children who came to watch. Horace would hit the ball and yell ‘run’ to the child standing next to Josiah. If the outfield caught the ball, the child returned to the plate to run again, if not, they stayed on base and ran the next time the ball was hit. In this way, they learned how to get the lead runner to prevent the other team from getting into a scoring position.

After they had the basics of fielding, they practiced hitting and running. Chris volunteered to be the first hitter. Taking up his position beside the home plate, he stared at Vin and waited for the ball. The first pitch passed so quickly that he barely registered it as it went by. He was better prepared for the second pitch and swung mightily. The Potter girl couldn’t resist giggling as the gunslinger missed the ball. A brief Larabee glare silenced the laughter but didn’t erase the knowing grin.

The third time Vin threw the ball, Chris got a piece of it and the ball struck the ground midway between himself and the pitcher’s mound. The tracker ran out and scooped up the ball, tossing it neatly to Josh.

“You’re out!” Billy yelled before falling down in helpless giggles.

Each man took a turn at bat starting with the outfield. Buck managed to get a pair of hits, one a beautiful pop up which Josiah pushed him out of the way to catch and the other a line drive that had Vin dropping to the ground to avoid decapitation.

“Let that be a lesson to you, Vin. Don’t throw it so hard and I won’t try to knock your head off with it on the way back!” the ladies man yelled in a boasting tone. He never even got a look at the next three balls that Vin hurled across the bag.

“You’re out!” Billy yelled, again falling on the ground laughing.

Yosemite was a little shy as he took up the bat and stepped up to the bag. The big man was a blacksmith and had biceps as big as most ordinary men’s thighs. He clenched his fists around the bat and nodded to the long-haired Texan to throw the ball. The explosive crack as the bat met the ball caused Josiah to lose his balance and fall back on his haunches as the ball sailed into the air. Horace and Buck walked backwards for a few paces before they realized how far the ball was going to go. They turned on their heels and ran a few yards only to watch the ball drop well beyond their reach.

“Whoo! If I didn’t see it, I wouldn’t believe it. Yosemite, that was incredible!” JD yelled from his position.

When the livery owner had smashed the ball deeply into the field a few more times, he handed off the bat. Ezra timidly approached the bag and took up the bat. Josiah had dusted off the seat of his pants and resumed his place squatting behind the home base. He noticed that the gambler seemed uneasy about what was about to happen.

Ezra Standish normally exuded confidence but the man standing with the bat reminded the former priest of a painfully shy adolescent. Instead of the proud, square shouldered posture, Ezra had his shoulders in a rounded hunch. The first two throws smacked the glove soundly and Josiah saw the gambler flinch at the sound.

“Time out!” Josiah called as he came to his feet. “Ezra? Can I talk to you for a minute?”

The two men stepped away from the bag while the others practiced throwing the ball back and forth. Josiah led the young southerner out of earshot of the kids and other spectators.

“Is something wrong, Ezra?”

“No, I’m just not good at these kind of things. My mother never allowed me to engage in such activities growing up. Interacting with my peers was something she discouraged,” he explained.

“So here’s your chance. You can’t hit the ball if you don’t swing the bat. Let’s get back-up there and get you swinging, okay?” Josiah flashed an encouraging smile as he patted Ezra’s shoulder.

Ezra missed all three of the next throws, coming just an instant too late. His shoulders slumped in shame as he let the bat dangle limply from his hand.

“Hold on a minute,” Josiah called to Josh as he started forward to take his turn at bat. Pulling Ezra aside, the older man stared hard into the defeated green eyes. “You can do better than that. You’re fast as Chris on the draw and as accurate as Vin with a gun. You have the eye; you just need to work on the timing. Watch the ball, not Vin. When the ball leaves his hand, he can’t control it anymore. Concentrate on the ball and let’s try it again.”

As Ezra took his place next to the bag, Vin nodded to Josiah and threw the ball again. The gambler’s heartbeat actually slowed as he watched the ball coming toward him. Time seemed to slow as the ball came closer. Suddenly, he tightened his grip on the bat and swung.

The crack of the bat striking the ball startled him so badly that he nearly let go of the bat. The ball was a line drive, right into the empty space between Buck and Yosemite. Ezra let the end of the bat touch the ground as he watched the ball bounce before Buck managed to get to it.

“Good hit!” Josiah yelled over the whooping and hollering of the excited children.

“What just happened here?” Ezra asked as he turned to the older man.

“You hit the ball!”

“I did, didn’t I?” the gambler whispered, shock etched in his handsome face.

Eagerly, Ezra made ready to hit the ball again. Focused on the ball and not the man throwing it, he hit the next three balls into the same gap between the outfielders. There was a bit more spring in his step as he returned to his place in the outfield.

Josh hit one for every three throws. The first time he hit the ball, it soared straight to JD. The young sheriff caught the ball and held it for all of two seconds before he threw it down and began to shake his hand, hissing in pain. Nathan trotted over to check him for injury.

“Ah, I’m all right, it just smarts is all,” he said as he shook his tingling hand.

“Good catch, kid,” Vin called.

The second time Josh hit the ball, it grounded to Nathan who threw it to Horace on first base. His third hit went long and dropped into the space between Chris and Yosemite. Handing off the bat, the men changed positions.

In order for Vin to practice hitting, Josh volunteered to throw the ball. The tracker managed to hit nearly everything thrown his direction. He didn’t have the control some of the others had, but he could hit long ball and grounders. With more consistent pitching, he would be one of their strongest players.

When it came time for Josiah to bat, Vin was a little off. He had gotten used to the right-handed batters. The first couple of times, he missed the catcher. The third throw nearly clipped the older man.

“Hold up!” Chris called. He strode to the tracker. “What’s wrong, Vin?”

“I don’t know. It’s just different having him stand on the other side of the base.”

“Just hit the catcher’s glove like you’ve been doing and don’t worry about where he stands,” Larabee suggested.

The next throw was dead on and Josiah barely saw it go by. When he did get a piece of the ball, it grounded to JD, who threw it to Josh. The next hit lofted over the young sheriff’s head and he called for Ezra to get it. The startled and nervous gambler actually flinched as the ball came toward him. Nathan immediately started for the outfield, anticipating that the southerner was about to be hurt. The ball glanced off of Ezra’s hand, rolling a few feet away before he grabbed it and threw it to JD for the relay.

“Ezra? Are you all right?” the healer called, as he got close.

“I’m fine!” came the embarrassed reply.

“Just checking,” Nathan called as he turned and headed back to third base.

As the date for the game drew closer, the number of town’s people showing up to watch the practice increased. Casey Wells showed up to watch one afternoon. She had listened to JD as he regaled her with their improving skills until she had to see for herself. Miranda was so busy making shirts for the team that she hardly had a free moment, but that afternoon, she squeezed in a few minutes to watch them, too. Mary Travis had become a regular after hearing Billy recount the comic incidents that he witnessed in the beginning.

A week before the game was to be played, the challengers arrived by stagecoaches. Bright, colorful signs proclaimed them the ‘New England Hurricanes.’ The team traveled with an entourage of their own, to the surprise of the Four Corners team. Chris and Vin could only shake their heads in amazement at the number of people fawning over the men. They even brought a photographer along to document the event. Mary Travis was right in the thick of the crowd, pleading for interviews with the team members.

That evening, the men made a point of stopping in the saloon. They had not been introduced to the other team they would be playing against and had no idea that most of the Four Corners team was in the saloon. Their pitcher, a wiry young man named Patrick O’Malley, approached a table where he noticed a poker game in progress.

“Gentlemen, could I perhaps buy in to your game?” he asked hopefully.

“Certainly, my good man, pull up a chair. You’re new in town, aren’t you?” Ezra asked, unable to contain the smile that spread across his face.

“I’m just here to play an exhibition game against some of the locals. You don’t happen to know any of them do you?” Patrick asked as he took the first hand of cards.

“We know them quite well. Let’s see, there’s the old guy and the kid,” Ezra rambled as he dealt the replacement cards to the players.

“And a couple of guys from the livery. Don’t forget about them. I hope you don’t have to be down wind of them,” Vin added, catching on to the gambler’s ploy.

“Why, I’ve even seen them playing with a Negro!” the southerner drawled as he put down his cards and raked in the pot.

By the time the man left the table, he was convinced that the Four Corners team was going to be no challenge to them at all. Ezra and Vin left the table a few dollars richer and laughing at the surprise they hoped to put over on the unsuspecting baseball players.

The next afternoon, the Hurricanes headed out to the field to practice. Several of the town’s people followed them and stood around to watch. Ezra and Vin convinced the others not to go out but to keep themselves out of sight until they had an opportunity to check out the competition. They managed to mingle with the crowd and watch the practice without the other team realizing that they were being observed.

Their strongest hitter was the man who played first base. He hit the ball high and deep every time at bat. They had one left handed batter and a switch hitter. Ezra made notes on each man as they came up to bat. Vin’s jaw hung open as he watched the man throwing the ball. The man had a wind up that amazed and entertained the tracker.

That evening, Ezra called the team together in the livery for a talk. He made absolutely sure that they weren’t seen going into the building.

“What’s all this about, Ezra?” Chris asked testily.

“Vin and I spent the afternoon observing the competition and thought you might be interested to know what we learned,” the southerner replied dispassionately.

“Okay, so tell us. I just about had Marni talked into spending the night with me and I’d like to get back before she changes her mind,” Buck announced.

“Then perhaps we could meet tomorrow at the Wells place to discuss our game strategy,” Ezra suggested.

“Strategy? What strategy? We just go out there and play like we practiced, right?” JD asked.

With a deeply disgusted sigh, Ezra lowered his head. He had thought they would be more interested in winning than this.

“Never mind, we will do as our young sheriff suggests and play it the way we practiced,” Ezra announced as he came to his feet and prepared to leave the livery.

“I heard them bragging over in the restaurant this afternoon. They think we’re a bunch of yokels anyway. No challenge at all,” Horace told the group. His voice was ripe with disappointment.

“Mrs. Travis said they trounced every other team they’ve played in the exhibition,” Josh whispered.

“They been all over town bad mouthing us, course they don’t know what any of us looks like, so they weren’t at all careful about what they said,” Nathan said.

“Or to who,” Chris spat bitterly. It had been all he could do to keep his tongue after hearing two of them complaining about having to play against a ‘darkie.’ “Let’s get together tomorrow at Nettie’s and go over what you two learned about them, all right Ezra?”

It was as close to an apology as he was going to get and the gambler snapped it up. He tossed a two-fingered salute before slipping out of the livery. Buck made a beeline back to the saloon to the lovely Marni. Vin began to saddle Peso for his patrol. The others went about their business, each secretly plotting to drive those strutting peacocks into the ground.

The team met at the Wells place early the next morning. All of them had gotten breakfast at the restaurant before riding out. Realizing that they might be out there all day, they brought lunch in their saddlebags. Horace was the last to arrive and then they all gathered on the porch to make plans.

“Vin and I watched them play yesterday. They have some very good players. I also noticed them giving each other signals while they played,” Ezra told them as he reviewed his notes.

“Signals? I didn’t see that,” Vin protested.

“They are very subtle. You were too engrossed in the wild gyrations of the man throwing the ball,” the southerner teased.

When JD chuckled, Vin protested.

“You shoulda seen him! He looked like he was havin’ a fit or something.”

The Texan jumped up and demonstrated. JD giggled until he nearly fell off the edge of the porch. Casey stepped out of the house just as Vin was beginning his demonstration and the young woman clung to the doorframe as she laughed.

“It looks like you have a squirrel in your pants!” the young woman gasped over her laughter.

When everyone had calmed down from the throwing demonstration, Ezra began to explain about the individual players. He showed them the signals he had caught. By lunch time, they had come up with a few signals of their own. Nettie made a pitcher of tea for them as they ate their lunch. Afterwards, they moved out to an open field to practice their new signals.

The Hurricanes practiced again that evening and Ezra and Vin mingled with the crowd, watching and learning. JD had stayed at Nettie’s to practice his catching and throwing. Casey was throwing him the ball and he was relaying it to a pair of burlap sacks anchored to the trees. It soon became apparent to the young sheriff that the tomboy was deadly accurate with her throwing arm.

“How’d you learn to throw like that, Casey?” he asked when they took a break.

“Throwing rocks and such,” she replied. “You think I could play on your team?”

“NO! I mean, you’re a girl! Baseball is a man’s game,” he recovered.

“That’s silly! I throw as good as you do. Why couldn’t I play?”

“You just can’t. Now are you going to help me practice or not?”

After the Hurricanes finished practice, they retired to the saloon to cool down. Ezra caught sight of the seamstress as he was stepping up on the boardwalk and made a quick detour in her direction.

“Would you like to see the shirts?” she whispered into his ear.

The warmth of her breath made goose bumps race down his back and he nodded. She led him into her shop and into her private quarters in the back. She handed him the shirt she’d made for him. Ezra held the hanger at arm’s length and smiled.

“It’s perfect,” he told her.

“Turn it around,” she urged. He turned the hanger so he could see the back. His first name was embroidered across the back of the shirt above the sponsor information. Since no business could afford to sponsor all the shirts, they decided to let one business sponsor each. The seamstress herself, of course, sponsored his shirt. ‘Barton’s Clothier’ was embroidered below his name.

“But wasn’t this supposed to be our last names?” he asked as he turned his attention back to his name on the shirt.

“Vin came in and asked me not to put his name on it if I was going to use his last name so we changed them,” she explained.

‘Damn, I didn’t think of that,’ the southerner berated himself silently. Out loud, he asked, “How many had you finished before he spoke to you?”

An embarrassed blush warmed her cheeks. “All of them, but please don’t tell him.”

“Your secret is safe with me,” Ezra whispered into her ear.

The team got together for a few hours each day to practice in Nettie’s field. JD continued to stay behind after the others had gone to practice with Casey. Besides being eerily accurate throwing the ball, she was also pretty good at batting.

Josiah was watching the other team practice one afternoon and became interested in their switch hitter. The man could bat as well left-handed as he did right-handed. At first, the older man could not understand the value of that ability. Then he overheard them talking in the saloon afterwards.

“If they put their weakest fielder where we think they will, Lenny will slaughter him. Remember in Eagle Bend? They couldn’t field our lefties at all. I just wish Morgan hadn’t hurt his shoulder,” the catcher bemoaned.

“But remember that they’ve probably never seen a squeeze play so we’ll steal our way around the bases,” the short stop said as he grinned.

“These poor sod busters will never know what hit them,” one of the out fielders crowed before saluting his friends with his mug of beer.

The next morning, the Four Corners team met to discuss the latest reconnaissance of the other team. Josiah relayed everything he had heard the other men say. Ezra delved into the rulebook until he found a description of a ‘squeeze play.’ He recruited Casey to help them practice.

As the others were getting ready to leave for town, Josiah called Ezra back.

“I was just wondering, have you ever tried to bat left-handed?” the older man asked.

“I told you that my mother discouraged any play as a waste of my time and energy. I never touched a bat before agreeing to this exhibition game. Why do you ask?”

After the older man explained, the gambler was eager to give it a try. Casey and JD were still practicing in the field when Ezra and Josiah joined them. Both of the younger men tried their hand at batting left-handed. Not surprisingly, the southerner was pretty good and the easterner was determined to get better.

Finally, the day of the big exhibition game arrived. People had been arriving by stage all week and the hotel and boarding house were full. Wagons of people were setting up a makeshift camping area near the river. The street was teeming with excited children and all the shops were doing a brisk business. The restaurant had to put out extra tables and started taking reservations for supper.

Mary Travis couldn’t get the smile off of her face as she handed out the newspapers that morning. She had certainly been right about the amount of business that poured into the town. Mrs. Potter was all smiles as she restocked the shelves in the store. Miranda Barton had put out several of her finished pieces and was altering them for the buyers. She also had several articles that needed repair. Inez was grateful for the willing help she had found for the saloon. Each evening, when the other team came in from practice, the place was packed with people wanting to talk to the players.

The game was scheduled for mid-afternoon. Just after lunch, people began gathering around the ball field. The Four Corners team gathered in the seamstress’s shop to change into their team shirts. The men compared notes on who had sponsored their shirts and laughter ensued. Inez sponsored both Vin and JD’s shirts and embroidered the saloon name on them herself. Buck’s jaw dropped that the fiery barmaid had not wanted to sponsor him. Ezra blushed as he took the good-natured teasing that went along with having the name of his ‘paramour’ across his back. Mary had sponsored Chris’s shirt and had only just finished the embroidery that morning. The church ladies guild sponsored Josiah and Buck’s shirts, causing more teasing for the ladies man. The grain exchange sponsored Yosemite’s shirt and Mrs. Potter sponsored Nathan’s shirt. The restaurant sponsored Horace and Josh’s shirts.

The men changed and got ready to head for the playing field. They didn’t see Casey as she slipped into the shop and picked up the shirt she had ordered for herself. She changed and raced to get to the field ahead of the team.

There was quite a crowd gathered around the field when the men arrived. Several children were running around with balloons on the end of thin reeds. Inez had set up a table and was selling tea and lemonade. The church ladies guild was also selling snacks for the game. The people who didn’t want to stand for the duration of the game had gathered an assortment of stools and chairs.

Judge Travis had heard about the exhibition and hired a man familiar with the game to be the umpire. The two men had arrived a couple of days before and were staying with Mary. The newspaper woman was collecting an interview from the man before the game started. The Hurricanes, wearing bright red shirts proclaiming them ‘The Best Team West of the Big Muddy.’ They were busy signing autographs and shaking hands with the spectators when the Four Corners team arrived.

The crowd parted like the Red Sea when they recognized the normally darkly clothed gunslinger leading the team onto the field. The color chosen for the team was a steel gray; it was the only way Chris would agree to the matching shirts. The throng of people grew silent as the seven regulators slipped through the opening along with the other men.

Vin picked up one of the bats and raised it above his head, using it to stretch the tense muscles of his neck and shoulders. His eyes flitted over the crowd as the uneasy feeling that had been building all morning threatened to overwhelm him. Chris slid up close to his friend and whispered behind his fisted hand.

“We won’t let anything happen, you know that, don’t you?”

“Easy for you to say. You aren’t the one wanted ‘dead or alive.’ I never expected there’d be so many people show up for something like this. ‘Specially since they played in Eagle Bend last month,” the tracker whispered as he continued to use the bat to stretch.

“We’ve got your back,” Chris announced, slapping Vin on the shoulder as he moved to speak with the rest of his team. “Keep your eyes on the crowd. The last thing we need is for someone to get collecting a bounty in their head.”

Each of them glanced over at the Texan for a moment before scanning the crowd. Their hands came down to rest on the guns at their waists. No one would get away with Vin while they were around.

Judge Travis stepped out toward the mound and called through his cupped hands. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the baseball exhibition game! If everyone would take their seat or clear the edges of the playing field, I would like to lay down a few rules. You’ve noticed the ropes around the field. No one can be on the inside of those ropes. Please stay behind the ropes. And if a ball should roll under the rope, don’t touch it. I would like to introduce James McClendon, he has agreed to judge the game for us. The decision of the umpire is final. Play ball!”

Benches for each team had been specially built and placed on the field only that morning. The two teams stood before the benches and watched as their respective captains walked out to talk with the umpire.

“Home team, call it in the air,” McClendon called as he flipped a coin from his hand.

“Heads,” Chris announced.

“Home team takes the field first,” the umpire called as he started back to the home plate.

It actually took several minutes for the first ball to be thrown. The Four Corners team took their positions on the field and waited for the other team to get ready to bat. Their catcher was first up to bat. The wiry looking man took a couple of practice swings before stepping up to the plate. Josiah made eye contact with Vin and nodded. The ball slapped into his glove loudly.

“Strike!” McClendon announced.

“Strike? I didn’t even see the ball!” the man protested. “He can’t throw it like that! We’ll never be able to hit it!”

Chris and Vin strode in from their positions. The blond looked like he was just busting to fight and he might get a chance.

“Is there a problem?” Larabee asked.

“He can’t throw the ball like that!” the batter protested.

Casey ran out with the rulebook in her hand. Chris nodded his thanks to the girl before offering the book to the other team’s captain, who had joined them from the bench.

“Show me where it says he can’t throw it that way,” the blond challenged.

Five minutes later, the umpire shook his head and sent the eastern coach back to his bench. There was nothing in the book about how the ball was to be thrown. The game resumed. When all three of the first batters struck out, the teams changed places.

For no reason except that they not argue about it, the Four Corners team batted alphabetically. Buck took a bat and sauntered to the bag. The Hurricanes pitcher, Patrick O’Malley, glared at the bigger man and wound up for his first pitch. The ball arched slightly before dropping toward the catcher. The ladies man swung the bat and connected solidly. An excited roar came from the spectators as they watched the ball soar through the azure sky. Buck dropped the bat and ran the bases, stopping on third as the outfield relayed the ball back to the pitcher.

The Four Corners captain walked out and took up the discarded bat. He watched Patrick go through his wind up and couldn’t suppress the chuckle that bubbled up inside as he was reminded of Casey’s description of the motion. The ball landed in the catcher’s glove and the umpire called a strike. He didn’t think about it when the ball came at him the next time, he swung. The ball flew off the bat and struck the ground, bouncing up and into the hands of the short stop and he threw it to first base. One out.

A light slap on his shoulder sent the gambler to the plate. As he was passing Chris, he heard a softly whispered bit of information.

“Don’t watch him wind up,” the blond imparted. Ezra tugged on the front brim of his hat in acknowledgement of the advice.

The gambler’s first swing sent the ball driving straight into the gap between the outfielders. He had safely made it to first before the ball was relayed back to the pitcher. Buck stomped on the home plate before strutting back to his bench. Marni was standing behind the rope near the bench and he gave her his biggest, brightest smile.

JD launched off of the bench like a jack-in-the-box and stepped up to the plate. Because he wasn’t used to the slow pitching, he swung twice without connecting with the ball. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to concentrate as the third throw came at him. He hit the ball and it just missed the outstretched hand of the pitcher. Putting his head down, he propelled himself toward the first base. He stepped on the bag just a heartbeat after the ball was relayed to the first baseman. Two out.

Josh hit the ball and made it to first while Ezra advanced to third. The outfielders chuckled when they saw Josiah coming toward the plate. The oldest member of their team was barely thirty; surely they wouldn’t have any trouble with this old man. They did exchange worried glances when the graying man took a left-handed stance by the bag. Like JD, he was used to the faster throws of Vin and missed the first slow pitch. The second throw was not as lucky. Josiah swung and the bat connected solidly with the ball. The entire bench came to its feet as the ball sailed well over the heads of the outfield players.

The southerner jogged easily across the plate and stepped back to make way for Josh. Both men turned to watch the progress of their teammate as he left second and headed for third. The center field player had reached the ball and threw it with all he had toward the infield. Josiah rounded third and headed for home. The second baseman fumbled the ball for a moment before throwing it toward the catcher. The winded former preacher crossed the bag well ahead of the ball.

Excited shouts and scattered applause sounded from the spectators as Josiah made his way to the bench. As he passed Nathan, the healer raised a questioning eyebrow. A nod was all the answer he got as the older man was still panting from his mad dash around the bases.

After missing the first throw, Nathan hit the second. The ball made a neat arc and landed in the hands of the short stop. Three outs.

The challenging team did manage to hit a couple of times in the next inning and scored one run. They were growing angry that this motley group of misfits was showing them up. Their captain began to come up with ways of taking them down a notch or two.

It took until the fourth inning for the eastern team to get in a position to take out a Four Corners player. Running from second base, the center fielder had no hope of beating the throw to third and he dropped into a slide. Josh never saw what hit him as the dust flew up around the man gliding across the ground. He landed badly, his arm snapping as he tried to halt his fall.

The crowd surged against the ropes as the injured man rolled on the ground, holding his arm against his chest. Nathan ran across the diamond and knelt at Josh’s side. He quickly assessed the limb and drew the man to his feet.

“It’s broken, I’ll just be a little while to set it and make him comfortable,” the healer announced.

“Put your bench players in and we’ll go on with the game,” Patrick called from the mound.

“We only have one bench player. It won’t take him long to set Josh’s arm and then we can pick up where we left off,” Chris said.

“Are you forfeiting the game?” the umpire asked.

“No! I just want to get my man tended to and then we can finish the game!” the blond man growled as he glared at the player who had slid into Josh.

“If you halt the game, you’ll have to forfeit,” McClendon explained.

“I’m all right. Put Horace in for me and I’ll get my wife to tend to it until the game is over,” Josh hissed through his clenched teeth.

The game resumed, but with a new, vengeful urge in the Four Corners team. Horace and Nathan traded places, hoping to intimidate the other players. The eastern team scored no runs that inning. Vin and Yosemite both scored in the bottom of the inning.

By the eighth inning, the Four Corners team was still ahead by three runs. The eastern team’s catcher was up to bat. He tossed a sneer at Vin as he stepped up to the bag. For the past three innings, the Hurricanes had done everything they could to frustrate and irritate the Four Corners team. They had tried sliding into the bases. At one point, Chris noticed that Nathan seemed to be glaring at the man standing just off of the bag.

“Time out!” the blond called as he motioned to the umpire. When McClendon nodded, Chris strode over to the first base. “What’s going on over here?” he asked softly.

“Nothin’ I can’t handle. He’s just letting the ignorance of his raising show,” the dark skinned healer quipped. “He’s trying to rattle me is all.”

Slapping Nathan on the shoulder, Chris strode out to Ezra as he was standing talking to JD.

“Signal that we want to catch the guy on first,” the blond whispered. The gambler smiled slightly as he returned to his position in the field. The signal was so subtle that the man on first never realized that they were plotting against him.

Vin tightened his grip on the ball and hurled it to Josiah. The batter flinched at the sound the ball made as it slapped the glove. He stepped back from the bag for a moment and drew a deep breath. When he stepped back up, the signal was given.

The man on first took the two long strides he had been taking. He never saw the throw until he turned and saw Nathan reaching out to receive the ball. The umpire’s yell caused him to boil with rage.

“You’re out!” Cheering from the spectators followed McClendon’s yell. The enraged man stomped off the diamond and dropped onto the bench, cursing and glaring at the longhaired man on the mound.

The batter stepped back up to the bag and took his position. He caught the signal from his captain and clenched his teeth. The next throw came and he gauged his swing to deliver the ball straight up the center of the diamond. The man on the mound dropped, clutching his ribs where the ball had hit.

The Four Corners team surged forward, rage and concern vying for control of their expressions. The Hurricanes surged off their bench, swarming the field. As the two groups converged near the mound, guns were drawn. The eastern players froze in their tracks. Chris stepped up to the man who had hit the ball. The two men were evenly matched in height, so the blond gunslinger’s eyes were level with the batter’s as he growled.

“You did that on purpose!”

“Prove it!” their captain challenged.

Nathan had uncurled the tracker and was gently probing his ribs. From the guarding and cursing, he knew they were painful but not broken. He and Buck hauled the injured man to his feet and helped him to the bench. Chris glared balefully at the other captain before turning to see how Vin was. He stepped up behind the healer and spoke softly.

“How is he?”

“Not broken but he’s done playing,” Nathan answered, quickly silencing the coming protest from the Texan. If Chris had asked Vin, he would have gotten the standard ‘I’m fine’ and tried to continue playing. The blond scanned the faces of the people closest to the rope. He could tell that forfeiting the game would leave a lot of disappointed people.

“I can play!” Vin insisted as he tried to stand. “You can’t let them win!”

A hand came to rest on his shoulder and JD looked up to find Casey standing behind the bench. For the first time, he noticed that she was wearing a shirt like the ones the team was wearing. A thought popped into his head and tumbled out of his mouth before he could call it back.

“How about Casey?”

“What about her, JD?” Buck asked.

“She can pitch. She’s really good!” the young sheriff announced.

“It’s either Casey or we forfeit the game,” Ezra reminded them.

“Put her in,” Chris declared. “Let’s show these sons-of-bitches how the game is played.”

Mary and Inez moved in to tend to Vin as the others took the field again. The blond gunslinger draped an arm across the shoulders of the tomboy and gave her a reassuring nod.

“Hey, you can’t put a girl in the game!” the Hurricanes' captain yelled from the bench. Casey whipped the rulebook out of her back pocket and offered it to the loud mouth.

“Show me where it says I can’t play!” she challenged.

Titters of laughter rolled across the crowd. The objection was withdrawn and the game continued. The young woman threw the ball and it met the catcher’s glove smartly. The spectators cheered, much to the dismay of the eastern team.

“Strike!” the umpire called, with just a hint of awe in his voice.

The challengers scored no runs during the rest of the inning. As the teams traded positions on the field, the third base player, Zackary Johansen, pinched Casey on the behind as she was heading for the bench.

“Hey!” she shouted as she slapped the offensive man. JD saw the inappropriate touch and jumped off the bench, hell bent for blood.

The young sheriff was at least a head shorter than the other man. JD grabbed the other player with both hands fisted into his shirt. He pushed the man back several steps before Zachary dug in his heels.

“Don’t you EVER touch her like that again, mister, or I’ll throw you in jail so fast your thoughts will have to catch up with you!” JD menaced the man.

Looking down into the outraged face of the young man, Johansen laughed. He started to make a smart mouthed comment when he felt something pressed into his side. Looking down, he saw the barrel of the pistol digging into his ribs. The mustached man’s deep, blue eyes burned with rage as he stared down the third baseman. Swallowing the comment, he assembled a contrite expression.

“Sorry,” he whispered.

Buck took hold of JD’s fists and forced the enraged sheriff to release his grip on the wrinkled material. He turned the young man and nudged him towards the bench. Both men looked up in surprise as the spectators broke into applause. The ladies' man was next to bat and walked over to the home plate.

Although he hit the ball hard enough to have gone around to third, Buck stopped at second and tossed a meaningful wink at Chris. The blond looked from second base to the man who had upset JD and nodded. As he approached the plate, the noise from the crowd dropped considerably. They knew something was about to happen and they all wanted to be watching when it did.

Chris knocked a grounder past the first base man and jogged out without looking to see what was happening on the other side of the diamond. Buck took off from second like a charging bull. The ball was relayed and Zachary reached for it just as the larger man knocked him to the ground.

The field emptied as the Hurricanes players ran to the defense of their man. The big catcher drew back as if to hit Buck and found himself facing five gun barrels. He stepped back, his mouth hanging open in shock. The captain slunk over to the umpire and softly but urgently stated his complaint.

McClendon was torn. He knew there was nothing in the rulebook about the players having guns, it wasn’t something the designer’s of the game ever anticipated. Looking to Judge Travis, he made a silent plea.

The two teams were still facing off around third base when the judge made his way through the crowd. He reached out and gently lowered the nearest weapon, causing the others to be withdrawn at the same time.

“Gentlemen, perhaps we could finish the game without the guns?” he suggested.

“I don’t need a gun to whup some ass!” JD called loudly.

“I, too, would prefer to use my fists on miscreants such as these,” Ezra announced as he unbuckled his gun belt and swung it from around his hips.

Judge Travis collected all the side arms and carried them to the table where Inez had set up her stand. Josh was sitting near the table with his injured arm in a sling and he nodded at the unspoken request.

Zachary winced as he rotated his arm at the shoulder. He knew he couldn’t continue to play and he walked off the field. A bench player took his place, looking nervously at the mustached man. Even without his gun, he was an imposing figure.

Ezra strode out to the plate and took up a position on the left-handed side of the bag. The volume of chatter from the crowd rose suddenly as the people wondered aloud what was happening. The gambler had been batting right-handed for the entire game and now was going to bat left-handed?

The background noise distracted the man on the mound. He threw the ball and watched in amazement as it soared over his right shoulder. The shortstop started for the ball until he saw the blond round second and the ball went right over his outstretched hand. Both Buck and Chris reached home as Ezra stopped on second.

At the other end of town, four men rode in, unnoticed by anyone. They found the town deserted. Not quite believing their luck, the men dismounted in front of the bank. While two kept watch, the other two snuck around the building and checked the back door.

Ernie couldn’t believe his luck! The four bank robbers were destitute, having been foiled in their last two attempts. They had lost half of their gang in Spring Creek and another man when they tried to hold up the cantina in Green Bluff.

Jack and Dennis signaled an ‘all clear’ and Ernie and Clyde rushed between the buildings. They kicked in the door at the back of the bank and crept inside. Two men kept watch at the front while Clyde attempted to crack the safe.

The Four Corners team managed to load the bases before Nathan came up to bat. They were ahead by eight runs. The healer hefted the bat as he balanced his weight on the balls of his feet. Ezra had given the signal and all the men on base were ready. The ball was thrown and the healer shifted his weight, swinging with all he had. The bat shattered as the ball stopped for the fraction of a second required to reverse directions. Dropping the broken, fragmented wooden bat, Nathan sprinted for first base.

The roar of the crowd caused Ernie to press against the window of the bank to try to see what was causing the noise. Clyde was cursing the interruption of the silence in the building as he listened for the tumblers in the big safe. This was the sixth time he tried to divine the combination.

Nathan glanced toward the bench as he rounded second and saw both Chris and Ezra urging him to go on. Digging into the dirt, his arms pumped in rhythm with his legs as he raced toward third. Pausing for an instant to see where the ball was, the healer put his head down and ran for all he had. They had just started to relay the ball back toward the infield.

The second baseman caught the ball and turned to hurl it toward home. He knew the throw was bad as soon as it left his hand and the ball slammed into the dirt just past the pitcher’s mound. Nathan stepped on the plate and raised his arms triumphantly as the crowd cheered.

Crossing his fingers, Clyde grasped the lever on the safe and pulled. The lever shifted and the vault door swung open. Suddenly, there was another set of hands reaching over his shoulder to grab handfuls of money from the neat stacks on the shelves. Ernie remained at the front of the building, straining to see what was going on at the far end of town.

“Hey, maybe it’s a hanging! We ought to mosey up there on our way out and see if it’s anyone we know!” He laughed at his own joke; none of the others thought it was funny. They shoved the money into their pockets.

The Four Corners team was ahead by fifteen runs when the dejected eastern team took the field for the last time. They had never, ever been beaten as severely and as thoroughly as now. They barely concealed their disdain for the little tomboy who strode proudly to the mound. The first batter struck out in three. The second batter managed to get on base. The third man tipped the ball up and Josiah lurched to his feet and stepped out beyond the plate to catch it. The next man put a grounder in the space between first and second, nearly hitting his own man as he advanced.

They thought Ernie was kidding about going to see what was happening! Dennis flat out refused and an argument ensued.

“Who appointed you our leader?” Dennis demanded to know.

“I did! What are you gonna do about it?” Ernie yelled, drawing his pistol.

“Come on you two! Let’s get the hell out of here! You can have your pissing contest another time!” Jack whined.

The batter had two strikes and the bases were loaded. Casey could feel her knees shaking as she turned the ball slowly in her hand. The crowd had gone unnaturally quiet as they waited for her to throw the ball. On the bench, Vin leaned forward in anticipation of the throw that would end the game. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as the ball left the young woman’s hand. He watched the gentle arc as the ball rose slightly before dropping just below the hard swung bat. When the ball slapped into Josiah’s glove, the crowd exploded into excited cheers.

JD raced to the mound and grabbed Casey around the waist. His lips found hers as he spun her in a circle. Both of them were blissfully unaware of the pandemonium going on around them as they shared a moment. The young sheriff almost protested when Casey was pulled from his arms. Josiah and Buck lifted the young woman to their shoulders and carried her around the mound while the crowd cheered around her.

A look of surprise spread over Jack’s face as he looked down at the bullet hole in his stomach. Ernie was shouting about how he was tired of the whining tone of voice Jack used. The young would-be bank robber’s last thought was that he wouldn’t have said anything if he’d known it would get him shot.

Ernie quickly pulled the money from Jack’s pockets and stuffed it into his pants. He never saw Dennis pull his pistol or felt the bullet that slammed into his brain. His body slumped across Jack and the handful of bills in his hand fluttered across the floor.

The unmistakable sound of gunfire reached Vin over the roaring of the crowd. Knowing that there wasn’t supposed to be anyone in town, he slipped around the bench and went to investigate the noise. He spotted the four horses tied outside of the bank and quickened his pace.

In the midst of the revelry on the diamond, Chris felt a tingle and turned to look for Vin. Suddenly concerned, he began to elbow his way through the crowd. He was almost in a panic when he saw that the bench was empty. Running toward the table with their gun belts, he snatched his and Vin’s before running to catch up.

The door to the bank burst open and the two men stepped out. Vin’s hand automatically slapped his thigh and he inwardly groaned, his gun was on the table by the baseball diamond. On impulse, he stooped down and picked up a couple of rocks.

Dennis mounted his horse and wheeled him around. Clyde was pulling the saddlebags from the other two horses before mounting his. The sight of the unarmed man standing so calmly in the middle of the street surprised the bank robber.

“I reckon y’all will be wantin’ to put that money back where ya found it,” Vin announced calmly. His thumbs were hooked in the top of his pants as he cocked his hip to take the hitch out of his ribs.

“How you figuring to make me? You ain’t even armed!” Dennis challenged coldly.

“No, but I am,” Chris announced from a few yards back.

The mounted bank robber yelled, startling the horses that were only barely hitched to the rail. When the horses began to bolt, he pulled his pistol and aimed at the long-haired man. A bullet slammed into his chest and he dropped the gun as his entire focus became drawing his next breath. He was dead by the time he slid out of the saddle in a boneless heap beneath the feet of his horse.

Clyde ducked behind the horses and tried to make a break for it. The gunshot that killed Dennis frightened the horse he was using for cover and he turned to run.

Before Chris could squeeze the trigger a second time, Vin hurled the rock he had been turning in his hand. It struck the man on the base of the skull, dropping him in the dirt.

“Good throw, pard,” Chris complimented as he handed over the mare’s leg. “I don’t guess you’ll be needing this too much longer. You can just throw rocks at all the bad guys.”

“What ever works,” Vin said with a slight smile.

As the crowd made its way down the street with Casey still being carried on the shoulders of Buck and Josiah, Chris and Vin had already moved the body of the dead bank robber to the undertakers office and were securing the other robber in the jail. They didn’t want anything to upset the victory celebration that was coming. Inez threw open the doors to the saloon and someone got on the battered, old piano, playing a jaunty tune. Young Casey was treated to the first glass of lemonade and saluted by the raising of mugs of beer.

The Hurricanes slunk dejectedly into the saloon. They wanted to make their departure as soon as possible and needed to find Mrs. Travis. The team captain stopped at the end of the bar, thinking to ask the barmaid where to find the newspaper publisher. He looked up in surprise when the captain of the Four Corners team joined him.

“Guess us ‘sod busters’ taught y’all a lesson? No hard feelings?” he said as he offered a smile and a handshake.

After the festivities wound down, Nettie burst into the saloon. Her eyes went wide at the sight of her niece sitting on the knee of the young sheriff as she laughed at some comment. Casey felt an odd tingle and looked up to see her aunt storming across the floor.

“Looks like trouble coming,” Ezra commented dryly. Casey ducked her head and swallowed hard. Her eyes betrayed her feelings as she looked up at Nettie.

The old woman stood glaring down at her niece until she slipped from JD’s knee and came to her feet. A hard glare drifted around the table, taking in every one of the regulators before returning to the young woman. Nettie cocked her fists on her hips and stared at Casey.

“I hear you won the game for them,” Nettie said, releasing her niece from her wrath. Turning her steely gaze on the young sheriff, she added, “Have her home before dark. And no funny business!”

JD straightened up in his chair. “Yes ma’am,” he responded.

Nettie scanned the table again, smiling fondly at the tracker, before wading through the crowd. Casey slumped back onto JD’s knee and wiped the back of her hand dramatically across her forehead.

“Whew! That was close!” she declared.

Vin nudged his empty plate away and looked across the table. Chris looked at the dishes and then glanced toward the darkening street. JD had gone to escort Casey home and the others were basking in the admiration of the townspeople. Buck was standing by the bar, regaling everyone who cared to listen with his play-by-play of the game. The tracker slid his chair away from the table and announced to the others.

“I guess I’ll be taking supper to our prisoner. He ought to be hungry by now.”

Startled looks from the others caused Vin to explain.

“Couple of guys took a notion to rob the bank while we were playing the game. Chris killed one and I thumped the other one on the head with a rock. We left him to sleep it off in the jail.”

“You left a wounded man in the jail and didn’t bother to tell me?” Nathan asked.

“He ain’t hurt all that bad, Nathan. I imagine he has a goose egg on his head but he’s lucky all I had was a rock to throw at him,” Vin protested.

“Why were you throwing rocks?” Josiah asked.

“Because the judge took our guns and I didn’t stop to get it when I went to investigate,” the Texan replied.

“B’sides, Vin don’t need a gun, he can just throw rocks,” Chris teased.

Nathan left with Vin to check on the prisoner. They found the man pacing in the confines of the jail. He looked up at the opening door and began to yell.

“It’s about damn time somebody came to check on me! You can’t just knock a guy in the head and go off and leave him like that!”

“Shut up before I chuck another rock at your ugly head,” Vin warned as he moved to open the cell door. Nathan stepped into the cell and motioned for the man to sit down. Clyde hissed as the healer’s hand found the knot on the back of his head.

“You’ll live. What the heck were you thinkin’?” Nathan enquired, his curiosity getting the better of him.

“We’ve been following that exhibition team across the territory. They keep the town busy for a couple of hours and we clean out the bank. That is, until the boss got greedy and tried to hit the towns between the games. It was just the four of us left and we thought we’d hit the bank here before heading for Mexico for a while. Hey, how’d you learn to throw like that?” the prisoner asked of the long-haired man.

“I throw for the Four Corners team,” Vin announced proudly.