CHAPTER I HEROES IN MOLESKIN
"Third down, four yards to gain!"
The referee trotted out of the scrimmage line and blew his whistle; the Hillton quarter-back crouched again behind the big center; the other backs scurried to their places as though for a kick.
"9--6--12!" called quarter huskily.
"Get through!" shrieked the St. Eustace captain. "Block this kick!"
The ball swept back to the full, the halves formed their interference, and the trio sped toward the right end of the line. For an instant the opposing ranks heaved and struggled; for an instant Hillton repelled the attack; then, like a shot, the St. Eustace left tackle hurtled through and, avoiding the interference, nailed the Hillton runner six yards back of the line. A square of the grand stand blossomed suddenly with blue, and St. Eustace's supporters, already hoarse with cheering and singing, once more broke into triumphant applause. The score-board announced fifteen minutes to play, and the ball went to the blue-clad warriors on Hillton's forty-yard line.
Hillton and St. Eustace were once more battling for supremacy on the gridiron in their annual Thanksgiving Day contest. And, in spite of the fact that Hillton was on her own grounds, St. Eustace's star was in the ascendant, and defeat hovered dark and ominous over the Crimson. With the score 5 to 0 in favor of the visitors, with her players battered and wearied, with the second half of the game already half over, Hillton, outweighted and outplayed, fought on with the doggedness born of despair in an almost hopeless struggle to avert impending defeat.
In the first few minutes of the first half St. Eustace had battered her way down the field, throwing her heavy backs through the crimson line again and again, until she had placed the pigskin on Hillton's three-yard line. There the Hillton players had held stubbornly against two attempts to advance, but on the third down had fallen victims to a delayed pass, and St. Eustace had scored her only touch-down. The punt-out had failed, however, and the cheering flaunters of blue banners had perforce to be content with five points.
Then it was that Hillton had surprised her opponents, for when the Blue's warriors had again sought to hammer and beat their way through the opposing line they found that Hillton had awakened from her daze, and their gains were small and infrequent. Four times ere the half was at an end St. Eustace was forced to kick, and thrice, having by the hardest work and almost inch by inch fought her way to within scoring distance of her opponent's goal, she met a defense that was impregnable to her most desperate assaults. Then it was that the Crimson had waved madly over the heads of Hillton's shrieking supporters and hope had again returned to their hearts.
In the second half Hillton had secured the ball on the kick-off, and, never losing possession of it, had struggled foot by foot to within fifteen yards of the Blue's goal. From there a kick from placement had been tried, but Gale, Hillton's captain and right half-back, had been thrown before his foot had touched the leather, and the St. Eustace right-guard had fallen on the ball. A few minutes later a fumble returned the pigskin to Hillton on the Blue's thirty-three yards, and once more the advance was taken up. Thrice the distance had been gained by plunges into the line and short runs about the ends, and once Fletcher, Hillton's left half, had got away safely for twenty yards. But on her eight-yard line, under the shadow of her goal, St. Eustace had held bravely, and, securing the ball on downs, punted it far down the field into her opponent's territory. Fletcher had run it back ten yards ere he was downed, and from there it had gone six yards further by one superb hurdle by the full-back. But St. Eustace had then held finely, and on the third down, as has been told, Hillton's fake-kick play had been demolished by the Blue's tackle, and the ball was once more in the hands of St. Eustace's big center rush.
On the side-line, his hands in his pockets and his short brier pipe clenched firmly between his teeth, Gardiner, Hillton's head coach, watched grimly the tide of battle. Things had gone worse than he had anticipated. He had not hoped for too much--a tie would have satisfied him; a victory for Hillton had been beyond his expectations. St. Eustace far outweighed his team; her center was almost invulnerable and her back field was fast and heavy. But, despite the modesty of his expectations, Gardiner was disappointed. The plays that he had believed would prove to be ground-gainers had failed almost invariably. Neil Fletcher, the left half, on whom the head coach had placed the greatest reliance, had, with a single exception, failed to circle the ends for any distance. To be sure, the St. Eustace end rushes had proved more knowing than he had given them credit for being, and so the fault was, after all, not with Fletcher; but it was disappointing nevertheless.
And, as is invariably the case, he saw where he had made mistakes in the handling of his team; realized, now that it was too late, that he had given too much attention to that thing, too little to this; that, as things had turned out, certain plays discarded a week before would have proved of more value than those substituted. He sighed, and moved down the line to keep abreast of the teams, now five yards nearer the Hillton goal.
"Crozier must come out in a moment," said a voice beside him. He turned to find Professor Beck, the trainer and physical director. "What a game he has put up, eh?"
"Best quarter in years," he answered. "It'll weaken us considerably, but I suppose it's necessary." There was a note of interrogation in the last, and the professor heard it.
"Yes, yes, quite," he replied. "The boy's on his last legs." Gardiner turned to the line of substitutes behind them.
The call was taken up by those nearest at hand, and the next instant a short, stockily-built youth was peeling off his crimson sweater. The referee's whistle blew, and while the mound of squirming players found their feet again, Gardiner walked toward them, his hand on Decker's shoulder.
"Play slow and steady your team, Decker," he counseled. "Use Young and Fletcher for runs; try them outside of tackle, especially on the right. Give Gale a chance to hit the line now and then and diversify your plays well. And, my boy, if you get that ball again, and of course you will, don't let it go! Give up your twenty yards if necessary, only hang on to the leather!"
Then he thumped him encouragingly on the back and sped him forward. Crozier, the deposed quarter-back, was being led off by Professor Beck. The boy was pale of face and trembling with weariness, and one foot dragged itself after the other limply. But he was protesting with tears in his eyes against being laid off, and even the hearty cheers for him that thundered from the stand did not comfort him. Then the game went on, the tide of battle flowing slowly, steadily, toward the Crimson's goal.
"If only they don't score again!" said Gardiner.
"That's the best we can hope for," said Professor Beck.
"Yes; it's turned out worse than I expected."
"Well, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that they've played as plucky a game against odds as I ever expect to see," answered the other. "And we won't say die yet; there's still"--he looked at his watch-- there's still eight minutes."
"That's good; I hope Decker will remember what I told him about runs outside right tackle," muttered Gardiner anxiously. Then he relighted his pipe and, with stolid face, watched events.
St. Eustace was still hammering Hillton's line at the wings. Time and again the Blue's big full-back plunged through between guard and tackle, now on this side, now on that, and Hillton's line ever gave back and back, slowly, stubbornly, but surely.
"First down," cried the referee. "Five yards to gain."
The pigskin now lay just midway between Hillton's ten-and fifteen-yard lines. Decker, the substitute quarter-back, danced about under the goal-posts.
"Now get through and break it up, fellows!" he shouted. "Get through! Get through!"
But the crimson-clad line men were powerless to withstand the terrific plunges of the foe, and back once more they went, and yet again, and the ball was on the six-yard line, placed there by two plunges at right tackle.
"First down!" cried the referee again.
Then Hillton's cup of sorrow seemed overflowing. For on the next play the umpire's whistle shrilled, and half the distance to the goal-line was paced off. Hillton was penalized for holding, and the ball was on her three yards!
From the section of the grand stand where the crimson flags waved came steady, entreating, the wailing slogan:
"Hold, Hillton! Hold, Hillton! Hold, Hillton!"
Near at hand, on the side-line, Gardiner ground his teeth on the stem of his pipe and watched with expressionless face. Professor Beck, at his side, frowned anxiously.
"Put it over, now!" cried the St. Eustace captain. "Tear them up, fellows!"
The quarter gave the signal, the two lines smashed together, and the whistle sounded. The ball had advanced less than a yard. The Hillton stand cheered hoarsely, madly.
"Line up! Line up!" cried the Blue's quarter. "Signal!"
Then it was that St. Eustace made her fatal mistake. With the memory of the delayed pass which had won St. Eustace her previous touch-down in mind, the Hillton quarter-back was on the watch.
The ball went back, was lost to view, the lines heaved and strained. Decker shot to the left, and as he reached the end of the line the St. Eustace left half-back came plunging out of the throng, the ball snuggled against his stomach. Decker, just how he never knew, squirmed past the single interferer, and tackled the runner firmly about the hips. The two went down together on the seven yards, the blue-stockinged youth vainly striving to squirm nearer to the line, Decker holding for all he was worth. Then the Hillton left end sat down suddenly on the runner's head and the whistle blew.
The grand stand was in an uproar, and cheers for Hillton filled the air. Gardiner turned away calmly and knocked the ashes from his pipe. Professor Beck beamed through his gold-rimmed glasses. Decker picked himself up and sped back to his position.
"Signal!" he cried. But a St. Eustace player called for time and the whistle piped again.
"If Decker tries a kick from there it'll be blocked, and they'll score again," said Gardiner. "Our line can't hold. There's just one thing to do, but I fear Decker won't think of it." He caught Gale's eye and signaled the captain to the side-line.
"What is it?" panted that youth, taking the nose-guard from his mouth and tenderly nursing a swollen lip. Gardiner hesitated. Then--
"Nothing. Only fight it out, Gale. You've got your chance now!" Gale nodded and trotted back. Gardiner smiled ruefully. "The rule against coaching from the side-lines may be a good one," he muttered, "but I guess it's lost this game for us."
The whistle sounded and the lines formed again.
"First down," cried the referee, jumping nimbly out of the way. Decker had been in conference with the full-back, and now he sprang back to his place.
"Signal!" he cried. "14--7--31!"
The Hillton full stood just inside the goal-line and stretched his hands out.
The center passed the pigskin straight and true to the full-back, but the latter, instead of kicking it, stood as though bewildered while the St. Eustace forwards plunged through the Hillton line as though it had been of paper. The next moment he was thrown behind his goal-line with the ball safe in his arms, and Gardiner, on the side-line, was smiling contentedly.
"Touch-back," cried Decker. "Line up on the twenty yards, fellows!"
Hillton's ruse had won her a free kick, and in another moment the ball was arching toward the St. Eustace goal. The Blue's left half secured it, but was downed on his forty yards. The first attack netted four yards through Hillton's left-guard, and the crimson flags drooped on their staffs. On the next play St. Eustace's full-back hurdled the line for two yards, but lost the pigskin, and amid frantic cries of "Ball! Ball!" Fletcher, Hillton's left half, dropped upon it. The crimson banners waved again, and Hillton voices once more took up the refrain of Hilltonians, while hope surged back into loyal hearts.
"Five minutes to play," said Professor Beck. Gardiner nodded.
"Time enough to win in," he answered.
Decker crouched again, chanted his signal, and the Hillton full plunged at the blue-clad line. But only a yard resulted.
"Signal!" cried the quarter. "8--51--16--5!"
The ball came back into his waiting hands, was thrown at a short pass to the left half, and, with right half showing the way and full-back charging along beside, Fletcher cleared the line through a wide gap outside of St. Eustace's right tackle and sped down the field while the Hillton supporters leaped to their feet and shrieked wildly. The full-back met the St. Eustace right half, and the two were left behind on the turf. Beside Fletcher, a little in advance, ran the Hillton captain and right half-back, Paul Gale. Between them and the goal, now forty yards away, only the St. Eustace quarter remained, but behind them came pounding footsteps that sounded dangerous.
Gardiner, followed by the professor and a little army of privileged spectators, raced along the line.
"He'll make it," muttered the head coach. "They can't stop him!"
One line after another went under the feet of the two players. The pursuit was falling behind. Twenty yards remained to be covered. Then the waiting quarter-back, white-faced and desperate, was upon them. But Gale was equal to the emergency.
"To the left!" he panted.
Fletcher obeyed with weary limbs and leaden feet, and without looking knew that he was safe. Gale and the St. Eustace player went down together, and in another moment Fletcher was lying, faint but happy, over the line and back of the goal!
The stands emptied themselves on the instant of their triumphant burden of shouting, cheering, singing Hilltonians, and the crimson banners waved and fluttered on to the field. Hillton had escaped defeat!
But Fortune, now that she had turned her face toward the wearers of the Crimson, had further gifts to bestow. And presently, when the wearied and crestfallen opponents had lined themselves along the goal-line, Decker held the ball amid a breathless silence, and Hillton's right end sent it fair and true between the uprights: Hillton, 6; Opponents, 5.
The game, so far as scoring went, ended there. Four minutes later the whistle shrilled for the last time, and the horde of frantic Hilltonians flooded the field and, led by the band, bore their heroes in triumph back to the school. And, side by side, at the head of the procession, perched on the shoulders of cheering friends, swayed the two half-backs, Neil Fletcher and Paul Gale.
CHAPTER II PAUL CHANGES HIS MIND
Two boys were sitting in the first-floor corner study in Haewood's. Those who know the town of Hillton, New York, will remember Haewood's as the large residence at the corner of Center and Village Streets, from the big bow-window of which the occupant of the cushioned seat may look to the four points of the compass or watch for occasional signs of life about the court-house diagonally across. To-night--the bell in the tower of the town hall had just struck half after seven--the occupants of the corner study were interested in things other than the view.
I have said that they were sitting. Lounging would be nearer the truth; for one, a boy of eighteen years, with merry blue eyes and cheeks flushed ruddily with health and the afterglow of the day's excitement, with hair just the color of raw silk that took on a glint of gold where the light fell upon it, was perched cross-legged amid the cushions at one end of the big couch, two strong, tanned, and much-scarred hands clasping his knees. His companion and his junior by but two months, a dark-complexioned youth with black hair and eyes and a careless, good-natured, but rather wilful face, on which at the present moment the most noticeable feature was a badly cut and much swollen lower lip, lay sprawled at the other end of the couch, his chin buried in one palm.
Both lads were well built, broad of chest, and long of limb, with bright, clear eyes, and a warmth of color that betokened the best of physical condition. They had been friends and room-mates for two years. This was their last year at Hillton, and next fall they were to begin their college life together. The dark-complexioned youth rolled lazily on to his back and stared at the ceiling. Then--
"I suppose Crozier will get the captaincy, Neil."
The boy with light hair nodded without removing his gaze from the little flames that danced in the fireplace. They had discussed the day's happenings thoroughly, had relived the game with St. Eustace from start to finish, and now the big Thanksgiving dinner which they had eaten was beginning to work upon them a spell of dormancy. It was awfully jolly, thought Neil Fletcher, to just lie there and watch the flames and--and--He sighed comfortably and closed his eyes. At eight o'clock he, with the rest of the victorious team, was to be drawn about the town in a barge and cheered at, but meanwhile there was time to just close his eyes--and forget--everything--
There was a knock at the study door.
"Go 'way!" grunted Neil.
"Oh, come in," called Paul Gale, without, however, removing his drowsy gaze from the ceiling or changing his position.
"I beg your pardon. I am looking for Mr. Gale, and--"
Paul dropped his legs over the side of the couch and sat up, blinking at the visitor. Neil followed his example. The caller was a carefully dressed man of about thirty-five, scarcely taller than Neil, but broader of shoulder. Paul recognized him, and, rising, shook hands.
"How do you do, Mr....