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Blastin' the Blues

(Part of Sluggers)
By Loren Long, Phil Bildner

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1

Walking the Dark Tracks


on’t say a word,” Woody whispered, his finger pressed to his lips. Griffith nodded once. He could feel his heart beating in his chest. With a trembling hand, he gently stroked the back of Dog’s head. The Chancellor’s thugs stood just yards away, and the faithful hound refused to stop his purrlike growling.

Under the cover of darkness, Griffith, Woody, and Dog huddled together in the thick brush by the side of the tracks. After leaping from the speeding train bound for St. Louis, Woody had used the skills he’d honed fighting in the jungles of Cuba to steer them to this patch of high grass. So long as they remained silent and motionless, they would be safe.

Griffith looked up. Even in the pitch dark, he could make out the shapes of the Chancellor’s thugs. He was able to hear their every word, too.

“We need to get out of these woods,” one said.

“We need to find that baseball,” said a second. “Boss man’s gonna—”

“We’re never going to find it out here!” the third thug cut him off. “I ain’t staying in no woods all night.”

“Boss man’s going to have our necks when he learns we don’t got it.”

“That dumb dog got it.” The first thug kicked at the ground.

Griffith covered his eyes from the spray of pebbles and dirt, while Woody leaned over and shielded Dog.

“I reckon city thugs ain’t the same animal as wilderness thugs,” Woody mouthed. He rubbed Dog’s hind leg, the one he had hurt jumping off the train. “We’re gonna be fine, Griff. Let’s just wait ’em out.”

Griffith nodded. He rubbed the scrape on his elbow, the only injury he had suffered from the leap.

“I ain’t looking for no mutt out here,” the first thug went on. “We’d run into a wolf or a bear wandering these woods.”

“Boss man’s going to be furious we didn’t get the kid.”

“To heck with the kid and that ball!” The first thug kicked the dirt again. “Too late to do anything about either one. Might as well go back now before some creature comes along.”

The Chancellor’s men headed off. In a matter of moments, their voices and footsteps could no longer be heard. Still, Griffith, Woody, and Dog remained in their hiding spot.

“If you ask me,” Woody said softly as the minutes passed, “they’re long gone.” He rubbed the bruise on his cheek. “But I reckon we’re gonna hold our position a little while longer.”

Despite Woody’s assurances, Griffith didn’t believe they were entirely safe. The Chancellor’s men could still be lurking in the woods, preparing to pounce. He tried to tell himself that Dog would’ve been growling if they were, but it didn’t help. And the constant rhythms of the tree frogs and crickets, and the periodic hoot of an owl, also kept him on edge.

He ran his hand through his hair. The Chancellor’s men had tried to kidnap Graham. Griffith had known the Chancellor was capable of anything, but in his worst nightmares, he’d never thought the Chancellor would order his thugs to try to take his little brother. The goons had tried to steal the baseball, too. They’d ripped it away from his sister. The Chancellor had instructed grown men to rough up a young girl.

Griffith slipped his still-trembling hand into his pocket and gripped the baseball. The attack had taken place more than an hour before, but he wondered if he would ever stop shaking.

“I still can’t believe you jumped off that train,” Woody said, as they headed down the tracks.

“I can’t believe you jumped off either,” Griffith replied, flinching as a rabbit or raccoon darted across the rails.

Woody smiled. “I wasn’t about to leave you behind. A soldier never leaves another behind.”

“It wasn’t like I was alone. I had Dog with me.”

Griffith reached down to pat the hound’s head, but the shriek of a bird caused him to recoil again.

Dog drifted over and brushed his snout against Griffith’s pants. As they walked along, the canine favored his left hind paw. At times he raised it off the ground and used only three legs. Griffith wondered if Dog would be able to make it all the way back to Minneapolis.

When they’d started walking a short time ago, Woody had told Griffith and Dog that they would head back to the city. At the time they’d leaped from the train, they couldn’t have traveled more than ten or twenty miles. While it would be a long trek, one that would more than likely take all night, it was the safest course of action, since they had no way of knowing if the next town was five or fifty miles ahead.

“You still worried ’bout them bandits?” Woody asked.

Griffith didn’t answer.

“Well, I ain’t gonna tell Griff Payne not to worry, because I know that won’t do any good.” Woody chuckled. “I reckon we focus on something else. Like that baseball. I’d like to see it.”

Griffith reached into his pocket for the ball and handed it to Woody. Cradling it with both hands, the Travelin’ Nine’s right scout held the sphere to his face and examined it as closely as he could in the darkness.

SCOUT: outfielder. The right fielder was called the “right scout,” the center fielder was called the “center scout,” and the left fielder was called the “left scout.”

“I’ve only held this treasure in these here hands one other time,” Woody said. “And believe it or not, I was walkin’ the tracks just like this.”

“Where was that?”

“Before heading off to Cuba, most of us were stationed in Tampa, Florida.” Woody spoke softly and deliberately. “Thousands and thousands and thousands of soldiers all in one place. We Rough Riders came in from San Antonio, but by the time we arrived, them train tracks was so clogged with freight cars, we had to get out and finish the journey on foot. Walked the tracks like we are now.” Woody tightened his grip on the baseball. “It was durin’ that walk that your pop let me hold this here baseball. The only time he did. And you know what he said to me?”

Griffith shook his head.

“Your pop made me a promise, Griff. Promised me my life. Promised all the Rough Riders our lives. Said we’d all return from Cuba.” Woody lifted a hand from the baseball and raised a finger. “But he said there was one condition. You know what that was?”

“I do,” Griffith replied, smiling.

On many occasions, his father had told him what he’d said to his fellow soldiers before heading off to war. They were the same words he so often said to Griffith and his sister and brother.

“Be together,” Griffith said, gazing up at Woody. “Always.”

Woody ran his fingers over his smile, then placed the baseball back into Griffith’s hand.

“Uncle Owen gave us the baseball the night of the funeral,” said Griffith, slipping the object back in his pocket. “He told us not to tell anyone we had it.”

“I figured that’s when y’all got it,” Woody said, nodding. “But some of the others didn’t think it showed up till Louisville or Chicago and—”

BARNSTORMERS: team that tours an area playing exhibition games for moneymaking entertainment.

“Wait,” Griffith interrupted. “All the barnstormers knew we had the baseball?”

“’Course we knew!” Woody laughed. “We’ve known for some time. But we was all too amazed at how well you kids could keep a secret to say anything. A seven-year-old boy, a nine-year-old girl, and an eleven-year-old boy all kept their mouths shut.” Woody laughed again. “Now, that’s magic!”

Griffith thought back to the exchange he’d had with Happy in the dugout during the game in Minneapolis. Happy knew about their baseball; he’d made that perfectly clear. But what Griffith hadn’t realized was that all the Rough Riders knew about it too. There was no need for secrecy when it came to the baseball (especially after what had just taken place on the train), and for the first time since the attack, Griffith felt a hint of relief.

He looked ahead and squinted his eyes. They had to have been walking for at least a couple of hours now, but the faint glow of lights from the city still didn’t appear to be getting any closer.

“I reckon there’s a bigger secret we need to deal with on this team,” said Woody. “Scribe and I have been talking about it, and we’re concerned that—”

“There’s a mole on the Travelin’ Nine,” Griffith interrupted again.

Woody stopped. A wooden railroad tie cracked underfoot. “How do you know?”

Griffith could see the anguish on the Rough Rider’s face.

“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Griffith answered. “Ruby thinks so too.” He swallowed. “And that’s what the old man told us.”

“The one you spoke about in the dugout?”

Griffith nodded. “We didn’t want to believe it, but once the old man said what we were thinking, we couldn’t deny it. It hurts so much to…” His words trailed off.

“It sure does,” Woody said. “I reckon it’s a hurt like I’ve never experienced. Never.” He started walking again. “On the one hand, I’m so angry I want to grab this man by the throat. But at the same time, we’re talking about one of us, a brother who served by our side in the war. It’s heartbreaking.” Woody pinched the bridge of his nose. “How can a member of your family betray you like this?”

Griffith frowned. It was as if Woody was speaking Griffith’s own thoughts. And Ruby’s, too.

There is one amongst you who cannot be trusted.

The old man’s words echoed in Griffith’s head.

“How are we going to figure out who the mole is?” asked Griffith.

Woody sighed. “It could be almost anyone.”

“How do I know it’s not you?”

Woody stopped again.

Griffith gasped. He couldn’t believe that question had just left his lips. How could he be so disrespectful? But as he started to wish the words back, he caught himself, because a part of him was glad he’d been courageous enough to ask.

“I reckon you don’t know it ain’t me,” Woody said. He turned to Griffith and rested both hands on the boy’s shoulders. “But I offer you my word, Griff. Your pop made a promise to me, and I make a vow to you.” He paused. “I am a man of honor.”

Woody wasn’t the mole. Griffith was certain. But it was more than merely his words that told Griffith that.

Some things you just know.

Griffith turned and looked up at the tracks. The moonlight reflected off the rails, two white lines pointing the way back to Minneapolis.

“We’re gonna be spendin’ a whole lot of time together these next few days, you and I,” Woody said, draping an arm over Griffith’s shoulder as they started walking again. “I reckon you’re gonna get to hear all my war stories.” He let out a short laugh. “Heck, by the time we make it to St. Louis, you’re gonna know just ’bout everythin’ that went on down there in Cuba.”

“I’d like that,” Griffith said. He reached down to Dog and stroked his neck. “I’d like that a lot.”

In the past, Griffith’s father had tried to tell him stories from the battlefield, but Griffith had always made him stop. The only tales he was able to tolerate were the ones from San Antonio, when the Rough Riders had first met. Griffith didn’t want to know about those days without food and water and those nights without sleep. Nor did he want to hear about all the brushes with death.

But that was before this summer. Now Griffith needed to know absolutely everything. What happened in Cuba could very well contain some of the—

Suddenly Dog’s ears perked up. The hound glanced around and then gazed into the night sky, his eyes appearing to follow something in flight.

“What is it, Dog?” asked Griffith.

For a brief instant, he thought he saw the outline of a moving object, but it quickly disappeared.

As dawn began to break, Griffith, Woody, and Dog finally reached the city limits. Because of the eerie fog hovering over the metropolis, the lights of Minneapolis had never seemed to get any closer as they walked back. But now daylight had brought the city into full view, and Griffith began to recognize some of the buildings, streets, and signs. He even spotted the bridge they had walked across on their way to the match in Nicollet Park.

MATCH: baseball game or contest.

However, when they neared downtown, Woody steered them from the tracks.

“Where are we going?” Griffith asked. “We need to go to the station to catch a train.”

Woody shook his head. “I reckon you can’t board a train without a ticket,” he replied. “And how you comin’ up with a ticket if you don’t have any money?”

Griffith gulped. “I forgot about that.”

“I didn’t.” Woody pointed ahead. “Let’s see if we can find ourselves a friendly face or two.”

Woody was leading them back to the university. Perhaps someone they’d met at the dorms or the library was still there. Maybe they’d be willing to provide them with food, a place to wash, and money for train tickets.

As they turned up the road leading onto campus and headed for the quadrangle, Dog held his head high. He recognized the spot where he and Griffith had played catch a few days earlier. Soon he was prancing, almost as if he was trying to tell the boy that his hind leg was completely healed. But Dog wasn’t ready to play. He was still limping, more than ever. Like Woody and Griffith, Dog needed rest.

Griffith peered in the direction of the dorms. Through the early morning fog, he spotted a figure standing by the front entranceway. He appeared to be staring back at Griffith, almost as if he was expecting a visitor. Griffith approached the silhouette, and the fog thinned, revealing the familiar and unforgettable face.

© 2010 Phil Bildner and Loren Long
2

Recovery and Reality


lizabeth pulled Ruby and Graham closer. “For so long, I didn’t want to believe that the Chancellor was behind all this,” she said. “Now look what I’ve done.”

“You didn’t do anything,” Graham said, squeezing his mother’s hand.

“You can’t blame yourself,” added Ruby. She dabbed the tears from the corner of her mother’s eye with the napkin that had been sitting on the table.

At the far end of the dining car, Scribe stepped through the doorway. Crazy Feet and Tales followed close behind.

“We searched every car,” the Travelin’ Nine’s massive center scout announced. “The Chancellor doesn’t have any more of his men on this train.” He waved to Bubbles and Doc, standing guard by the far door, and pointed them to the tables in the center of the coach. “Let us sit and collect ourselves.”

Preacher Wil and Happy shifted over so that there was room for all the barnstormers to sit next to one another. For a few moments, they huddled together in silence. Everyone was still reeling from the attack that had taken place only a short time ago.

“Do you think they found shelter?” Tales finally ended the quiet.

“What if they’re hurt?” the Professor asked.

“What if the Chancellor’s men found them?” Bubbles added.

Graham squeezed his mother’s hand again. Sitting against her, he could feel her tension growing with each question being asked. He looked over at his sister. Ruby was sensing it too.

“Woody’s with Griff and Dog,” Graham spoke up. He glanced to Preacher Wil as he mentioned the hound. “He’ll keep them safe.”

Ruby looked back at Graham. Even though he was the youngest of the group and the target of the assault, he was the voice of reason and reassurance. She was stunned by her little brother’s cool calm.

“I have all the confidence in the world in Woody,” Doc agreed.

“The Chancellor is behind everything,” Elizabeth blurted. She gazed around at the barnstormers. “That’s what I was telling Griff when the attack happened. All the money must be owed to him.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” said Tales.

“I am,” Elizabeth insisted.

For the first time since the raid, Elizabeth let go of her two children. She stood up and began explaining to the Rough Riders the truth about the debt. Like Tales, Bubbles and the Professor didn’t want to believe what they were hearing, and they tried a few times to refute her statements. However, when she had finished spelling everything out, the remaining holdouts could hardly deny the harsh truth: The debt belonged to Uncle Owen, not to Guy Payne. The debt was owed to the Chancellor, which was why his men had attacked them.

“I didn’t allow myself to believe it either,” she said, directing her words to those most reluctant to accept what she was saying. “I didn’t want to believe what my own son was trying to tell me.” Her voice was riddled with guilt. “If only I’d listened to him…”

“It’s not your fault, Mom,” said Ruby, reaching for her mother’s hand. “You know it’s not.”

“Mom, you’re trying to protect us,” Graham added. “You’re doing a great job.”

“Your children are right, Elizabeth,” Scribe said. “Listen to them now.”

“If anyone’s to blame,” Bubbles said, “it’s Owen Payne.”

But Elizabeth shook her head. “I should have listened to Griff. My son is in danger because of me.”

“Griff’s fine, Mom,” Graham assured her. “He’s with Woody and Dog. They’re all looking out for one another. I promise.”

Graham lowered his eyes. On the floor by his feet, he noticed a black hat that belonged to one of the goons. It must have fallen off during the skirmish. He reached down for the hat and placed it on his head. It was too big, and when he lifted the brim from his eyes, he was met with many disapproving looks. Graham removed the hat and placed it in his lap. He would try it on again later when the others weren’t around.

“I need to listen to you kids more,” Elizabeth said. She sat back down and pulled Ruby and Graham close again. “Much more.”

“He’s after much more than money,” Ruby whispered to Graham, who perched on his bed across the compartment from her. “The Chancellor’s after you.”

“No!” Graham smacked his cheeks and pretended to be shocked by the news. “He’s after me? Thanks for letting me know, Ruby. I don’t think I would’ve been able to figure that out.”

Ruby rolled her eyes. “Very funny, Grammy.”

She glanced at the door to their sleeping quarters. After the meeting in the dining car, which had lasted for more than an hour, several of the Travelin’ Nine had escorted Graham and her back to the compartment. One of the conductors had offered it to them, in light of what had transpired. Even though the train had been searched, and everyone was certain all of the Chancellor’s thugs had jumped off, the ballists weren’t taking any chances. They vowed to remain by the entrance to the private sleeping area the entire night.

BALLIST: player.

“I hope they have the baseball,” Ruby said, staring across at her brother and wrapping the covers around her shoulders like a shawl.

“Of course they do,” Graham assured her, swinging his legs off the edge of his cot. “Dog’s catch was amazing! There’s no way he was letting go of it after that grab!”

“I hope they’re all okay,” Ruby added.

She squeezed the back of her neck. She and Griffith had promised Graham that on the trip down to St. Louis they would tell him everything there was to know about the men who were chasing them. They would let Graham in on all the secrets. She had to keep the promise, even without her older brother by her side. After seeing Graham handle himself with such poise in the dining car, she owed it to him.

“The Chancellor confronted Griffith,” said Ruby.

“He did?” Graham stopped swinging his legs.

Ruby nodded. “Back in Chicago.”

“When?”

“The night after the game,” Ruby replied.

“You mean the night before we were supposed to leave for Minneapolis.”

“Yes, Grammy,” she said, frowning. “That night.” Ruby sighed. “I’ve come up with theories about the Chancellor. Griff and I have talked about all of them.”

“What are they?” Graham inched forward. “What did the Chancellor say to Griff?”

Ruby reached under her mattress, pulled out her journal, and flipped to the entry she’d written earlier in the week on the train ride to Minneapolis. She then read the three quotes listed under the heading “The Chancellor’s Words.”

“‘That’s not all I want,’” Graham repeated. “‘You have something else that I want too.’ He was referring to me, right?”

“Yes, Grammy.”

Graham lay down on his bed. As he stared into the darkness, thought after thought after thought bombarded his brain. All of a sudden, he realized he knew things that not even his brother and sister did. Some of what Ruby proposed as theories—that he was connected to everything and that the Chancellor was setting a trap—Graham knew as facts. He didn’t know why or how he knew; he only knew that he did.

And the knowledge terrified him.

Graham sat back up and reached for the black hat hanging from the nail above his pillow. Since the others weren’t in the room, he could put it on. He pulled the brim down over his eyes, just like the Chancellor’s thugs wore theirs, but because the hat was so big, the front covered almost his entire face.

“There’s another problem,” Ruby said, rewrapping the covers over her shoulders. “One of the Travelin’ Nine can’t be trusted.”

“I know. I heard the old man’s warning too,” Graham replied flatly. He lifted the brim. “I’m sure there’s a mole on the team.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know,” Graham said. “Like you and Griff do.” He dipped his feet into his slippers and shuffled across the dark compartment to his sister’s bed. “I don’t want to believe it,” he added, sitting down beside her.

“I hate thinking about it,” said Ruby. “I hate thinking that one of the Rough Riders can’t be trusted. How can… how can someone so close to us do something so cruel?” Her voice cracked. “Why would one of them want to harm us?”

“Who do you think it is?” Graham asked, resting his hand on his sister’s shoulder.

“I have no idea. Do you?”

Graham shook his head.

“I only know it’s not Scribe,” Ruby said.

“How do you know?”

“He shares some of what he writes in his journal with me,” she replied, speaking slowly. “The things I’ve read, the things he’s read to me—it can’t be him. He would never have written some of those things if it was.” Ruby swallowed. “And like Griffith says, and like you just said, some things you just know.”

Graham drew his sister close, and when he did, the brim of his hat brushed against the side of her head. All of sudden, he wanted no part of the hat. It belonged to men who worked for and stood alongside the most evil man there was. He ripped the hat off his head and threw it to the floor. Then he stood up, stormed over to it, and stomped on it with both feet.

“It’s about time,” Ruby said, managing a smile.

Graham turned back to his sister. “Now I understand why everyone was so upset when I—”

Knock! Knock!

Ruby and Graham froze. But then they saw the soothing shape of their mother sliding open the pocket door.

“I heard a commotion,” she said. “Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine, Mom,” Graham replied. He picked up the hat, crumpled it into a ball, and tossed it into the corner. “I was just doing something I should’ve done an hour ago.”

“I’m sorry to bother you at this late hour,” she said, stepping in and shutting the door. “But since I heard the noise and the talking, I knew you weren’t sleeping.” She placed the lantern she was holding on the floor next to Ruby’s cot and sat down on the end of her daughter’s bed. “I need to talk to you.”

“What is it?” Ruby asked.

Elizabeth rested her hand on Ruby’s knee and gazed down at Graham, now seated on the floor. “We need to have another conversation,” she said. She waited for Graham to look up at her. “It’s about your father.”

“What about Dad?” Graham’s eyes widened.

“Graham, I need you to listen to me.”

“Is he coming back for my birthday?” Graham pressed. “Will he be at the party?”

Elizabeth exhaled. “What I’m about to say to you is not going to be pleasant, but I need for you to hear me. Do you understand?”

Graham nodded.

“Your father is dead, Grammy,” she said, her voice firm, but warm. “He isn’t coming back. Ever. That’s what dead means. No matter how badly you may want him to come back, and no matter how hard you wish for him to return, he can’t. We must believe he’s gone on to a better place, and that he’s watching over all of us at this very moment.” She looked deeply into her son’s eyes. “Do you understand what I just said to you?”

Graham did understand. Every last powerful and crushing word. In all his life, he had never heard his mother speak that way to anyone. He knew she didn’t do it to be hurtful. She did it because she needed to be heard and understood.

Closing his eyes and pressing his palms against his temples, Graham couldn’t stop his mind from returning to his experience during the game in Minneapolis. How could he have imagined something so real?

Maybe because it involved his father?

But he could see his father waving; he could hear him calling, “Happy birthday!” And no matter how many times he tried to tell himself it was just a dream or vision, and no matter what his mother said, Graham couldn’t get rid of his lingering doubts. He had done things when time had stopped for everyone else. There was evidence: There had been snow on Griffith’s head—snow that he had put there; the pitched ball had not passed right over home plate after all— he had moved it. Something had happened.

“I need… I need to go for a walk,” he whispered. He stood up slowly. “I need to get some air, Mom.”

“I completely understand,” she replied. “But I don’t want you going out by yourself.” She shuffled over to the door, slid it open slightly, and peeked her head out.

A moment later the Professor and Scribe stepped in.

“I’ll take a stroll with you,” the Professor said to Graham. “If that’s okay.”

Graham nodded and headed for the door. The Professor followed him out.

“I’m glad you called us in,” Scribe said as soon as Graham and the Professor exited. “I was looking for a way to begin a dialogue. I know it’s been quite an evening, and the last thing I want to do is burden you with anything more, but I feel it is my duty.” Scribe paused. “It’s about Owen.”

“Everyone believes me now about the money and the Chancellor, yes?” Elizabeth asked.

“Indeed they do,” replied Scribe. He removed his quill from behind his ear and ran the feathered end across his forehead. “It is difficult news to digest, as you can imagine. Some are having a harder time than others.”

Ruby stared at the Travelin’ Nine’s center scout. In the small confines of the sleeping compartment, he looked even larger than usual. Entering the room, Scribe had ducked low through the doorway, and now inside, instead of standing hunched over, he sat on one knee, his elbow on his leg and his chin in his hand.

“Everyone is so terribly disappointed in him,” Scribe went on. “None of us can quite believe the danger and harm his poor judgment has caused. I sympathize with him. So does the Professor. We forgive him because he’s Guy’s brother, but only because he’s Guy’s brother. If he were not, it would be extremely difficult. Perhaps impossible.” Scribe tucked the feathered pen back behind his ear. “Unfortunately, some of the others… Bubbles and Tales are rather enraged. They are not thinking forgiveness, not at the moment. I am hopeful that they will come around, but I am concerned. We need them.”

Ruby dabbed the corners of her watering eyes. Scribe was usually a man of few words. She wasn’t used to hearing him speak in such a manner. It only added to her fears and worries.

“They will come around,” she said, resting her hand on Scribe’s knee. “I know you believe that.”

“I do, Ruby,” Scribe said, smiling. “Nevertheless, I felt it was my responsibility to tell you all that is taking place.”

Ruby closed her eyes. Scribe was not the mole. If there was ever any doubt in her mind—not that there was—it had been removed. Scribe would never lie to her. He would never betray them.

“We cannot keep secrets from one another,” he continued. “Not in these dangerous times. We need to be a family. We need to be together. Always.”

© 2010 Phil Bildner and Loren Long

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