English Literature

The Half-Back by Ralph Henry Barbour

The Half-Back by Ralph Henry Barbour

CHAPTER I.

THE BOY IN THE STRAW HAT.

“How’s craps, Country?”

“Shut up, Bart! he may hear you.”

“What if he does, ninny? I want him to. Say, Spinach!”

“Do you suppose he’s going to try and play football, Bart?”

“Not he. He’s looking for a rake. Thinks this is a hayfield, Wall.”

The speakers were lying on the turf back of the north goal on the campus at Hillton Academy. The elder and larger of the two was a rather coarse-looking youth of seventeen. His name was Bartlett Cloud, shortened by his acquaintances to “Bart” for the sake of that brevity beloved of the schoolboy. His companion, Wallace Clausen, was a handsome though rather frail-looking boy, a year his junior. The two were roommates and friends.

“He’d better rake his hair,” responded the latter youth jeeringly. “I’ll bet there’s lots of hayseed in it!”

Joel's arrival at school. 
“Joel’s arrival at school.”

The subject of their derisive remarks, although standing but a scant distance away, apparently heard none of them.

“Hi, West!” shouted Bartlett Cloud as a youth, attired in a finely fitting golf costume, and swinging a brassie, approached. The newcomer hesitated, then joined the two friends.

“Hello! you fellows. What’s up? Thought it was golf, from the crowd over here.” He stretched himself beside them on the grass.

“Golf!” answered Bartlett Cloud contemptuously. “I don’t believe you ever think of anything except golf, Out! Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night trying to drive the pillow out of the window with a bed-slat?”

“Oh, sometimes,” answered Outfield West smilingly. “There’s a heap more sense in being daft over a decent game like golf than in going crazy about football. It’s just a kid’s game.”

“Oh, is it?” growled Bartlett Cloud. “I’d just like to have you opposite me in a good stiff game for about five minutes. I’d show you something about the ‘kid’s game!'”

“Well, I don’t say you couldn’t knock me down a few times and walk over me, but who wants to play such games–except a lot of bullies like yourself?”

“Plenty of fellows, apparently,” answered the third member of the group, Wallace Clausen, hastening to avert the threatening quarrel. “Just look around you. I’ve never seen more fellows turn out at the beginning of the season than are here to-day. There must be sixty here.”

“More like a hundred,” grunted “Bart” Cloud, not yet won over to good temper. “Every little freshman thinks he can buy a pair of moleskins and be a football man. Look at that fellow over yonder, the one with the baggy trousers and straw hat. The idea of that fellow coming down here just out of the hayfield and having the cheek to report for football practice! What do you suppose he would do if some one threw a ball at him?”

“Catch it in his hat,” suggested Wallace Clausen.

“He does look a bit–er–rural,” said Outfield West, eying the youth in question. “I fear he doesn’t know a bulger from a baffy,” he added sorrowfully.

“What’s more to the subject,” said Wallace Clausen, “is that he probably doesn’t know a touch-down from a referee. There’s where the fun will come in.”

“Well, I’m no judge of football, thank goodness!” answered West, “but from the length of that chap I’ll bet he’s a bully kicker.”

“Nonsense. That’s what a fellow always thinks who doesn’t know anything about the game. It takes something more than long legs to make a good punter.”

“Perhaps; but there’s one thing sure, Bart: that hayseed will be a better player than you at the end of two months–that is, if he gets taken on.”

“I’ll bet you he won’t be able to catch a punt,” growled Cloud. “A fool like him can no more learn football than–than–“

“Than you could learn golf,” continued West sweetly.

“Oh, shut up! I know a mule that plays golf better than you do.”

“Well, I sha’n’t attempt to compete with your friends, Bart.”

“There you both go, quarreling again,” cried Clausen. “If you don’t shut up, I’ll have to whip the pair of you.”

Wallace Clausen was about two thirds the size of Cloud, and lacked both the height and breadth of shoulder that made West’s popular nickname of “Out” West seem so appropriate. Clausen’s threat was so absurd that Cloud came back to good humor with a laugh, and even West grinned.

“Come on, Wall–there’s Blair,” said Cloud. “You’d better come too, Out, and learn something about a decent game.” West shook his head, and the other two arose and hurried away to where the captain of the school eleven was standing beneath the west goal, surrounded by a crowd of variously attired football aspirants. West, left to himself, sighed lazily and fell to digging holes in the turf with his brassie. Tiring of this amusement in a trice, he arose and sauntered over to the side-line and watched the operations. Some sixty boys, varying in age from fifteen to nineteen, some clothed in full football rig, some wearing the ordinary dress in which they had stepped from the school rooms an hour before, all laughing or talking with the high spirits produced upon healthy youth by the tonic breezes of late September, were standing about the gridiron. I have said that all were laughing or talking. This is not true; one among them was silent.

For standing near by was the youth who had aroused the merriment of Cloud and Clausen, and who West had shortly before dubbed “rural.” And rural he looked. His gray and rather wrinkled trousers and his black coat and vest of cheap goods were in the cut of two seasons gone, and his discolored straw hat looked sadly out of place among so many warm caps. But as he watched the scene with intent and earnest face there was that about him that held West’s attention. He looked to be about seventeen. His height was above the ordinary, and in the broad shoulders and hips lay promise of great strength and vigor.

But it was the face that attracted West most. So earnest, honest, and fearless was it that West unconsciously wished to know it better, and found himself drawing nearer to the straw hat and baggy gray trousers. But their owner appeared to be unconscious of his presence and West paused.

“I don’t believe that chap knows golf from Puss-in-the-Corner,” mused West, “but I’ll bet a dozen Silvertowns that he could learn; and that’s more than most chaps here can. I almost believe that I’d loan him my new dogwood driver!”

Wesley Blair, captain of the eleven, was bringing order out of chaos. Blair was one of the leaders in school life at Hillton, a strongly built, manly fellow, beloved of the higher class boys, adored from a distance by the youngsters. Blair was serving his second term as football captain, having been elected to succeed himself the previous fall. At this moment, attired in the Crimson sweater, moleskin trousers, and black and crimson stockings that made up the school uniform, he looked every inch the commander of the motley array that surrounded him.

“Warren, you take a dozen or so of these fellows over there out of the way and pass the ball awhile. Get their names first.–Christie, you take another dozen farther down the field.”

The crowd began to melt away, squad after squad moving off down the field to take position and learn the rudiments of the game. Blair assembled the experienced players about him and, dividing them into two groups, put them to work at passing and falling. The youth with the straw hat still stood unnoticed on the side-line. When the last of the squads had moved away he stepped forward and addressed the captain:

“Where do you want me?”

Blair, suppressing a smile of amusement as he looked the applicant over, asked:

“Ever played any?”

“Some; I was right end on the Felton Grammar School team last year.”

“Where’s Felton Grammar School, please?”

“Maine, near Auburn.”

“Oh! What’s your name?”

“Joel March.”

“Can you kick?”

“Pretty fair.”

“Well, show me what you consider pretty fair.” He turned to the nearest squad. “Toss me the ball a minute, Ned. Here’s a chap who wants to try a kick.”

Ned Post threw the ball, and his squad of veterans turned to observe the odd-looking country boy toe the pigskin. Several audible remarks were made, none of them at all flattering to the subject of them; but if the latter heard them he made no sign, but accepted the ball from Blair without fumbling it, much to the surprise of the onlookers. Among these were Clausen and Cloud, their mouths prepared for the burst of ironical laughter that was expected to follow the country boy’s effort.

“Drop or punt?” asked the latter, as he settled the oval in a rather ample hand.

“Which can you kick best?” questioned Blair. The youth considered a moment.

“I guess I can punt best.” He stepped back, balancing the ball in his right hand, took a long stride forward, swung his right leg in a wide arc, dropped the ball, and sent it sailing down the field toward the distant goal. A murmur of applause took the place of the derisive laugh, and Blair glanced curiously at the former right end-rush of the Felton Grammar School.

“Yes, that’s pretty fair. Some day with hard practice you may make a kicker.” Several of the older fellows smiled knowingly. It was Blair’s way of nipping conceit in the bud. “What class are you in?”

“Upper middle,” replied the youth under the straw hat, displaying no disappointment at the scant praise.

“Well, March, kindly go down the field to that last squad and tell Tom Warren that I sent you. And say,” he continued, as the candidate started off, and he was struck anew with the oddity of the straw hat and wrinkled trousers, “you had better tell him that you are the man that punted that ball.”

“That chap has got to learn golf,” said Outfield West to himself as he turned away after witnessing the incident, “even if I have to hog-tie him and teach it to him. What did he say his name was? February? March? That was it. It’s kind of a chilly name. I’ll make it a point to scrape acquaintance with him. He’s a born golfer. His calm indifference when Blair tried to ‘take him down’ was beautiful to see. He’s the sort of fellow that would smile if he made a foozle in a medal play.”

West drew a golf ball from his pocket and, throwing it on the turf, gave it a half-shot off toward the river, following leisurely after it and pondering on the possibility of making a crack golfer out of a country lad in a straw hat.

Over on the gridiron, meanwhile, the candidates for football honors were limbering up in a way that greatly surprised not a few of the inexperienced. It is one thing to watch the game from the grand stand or side-lines and another to have an awkward, wobbly, elusive spheroid tossed to the ground a few feet from you and be required to straightway throw yourself upon it in such manner that when it stops rolling it will be snugly stowed between you and the ground. If the reader has played football he will know what this means. If he has not–well, there is no use trying to explain it to him. He must get a ball and try it for himself.

But even this exercise may lose its terrors after a while, and when at the end of an hour or more the lads were dismissed, there were many among them, who limped back to their rooms sore and bruised, but proudly elated over their first day with the pigskin. Even to the youth in the straw hat it was tiresome work, although not new to him, and after practice was over, instead of joining in the little stream that eddied back to the academy grounds, he struck off to where a long straggling row of cedars and firs marked the course of the river. Once there he found himself standing on a bluff with the broad, placid stream stretching away to the north and south at his feet. The bank was some twenty feet high and covered sparsely with grass and weeds; and a few feet below him a granite bowlder stuck its lichened head outward from the cliff, forming an inviting seat from which to view the sunset across the lowland opposite. The boy half scrambled, half fell the short distance, and, settling himself in comfort on the ledge, became at once absorbed in his thoughts.

Perhaps he was thinking a trifle sadly of the home which he had left back there among the Maine hills, and which must have seemed a very long way off; or perhaps he was dwelling in awe upon the erudition of that excellent Greek gentleman, Mr. Xenophon, whose acquaintance, by means of the Anabasis, he was just making; or perhaps he was thinking of no more serious a subject than football and the intricate art of punting. But, whatever his thoughts may have been, they were doomed to speedy interruption, as will be seen.

Outfield West left the campus behind and, with the little white ball soaring ahead, took his way leisurely to the woods that bordered the tiny lake. Here he spent a quarter of an hour amid the tall grass and bushes, fighting his way patiently out of awkward lies, and finally driving off by the river bank, where a stretch of close, hard sod offered excellent chances for long shots. Again and again the ball flew singing on its way, till at last the campus was at hand again, and Stony Bunker intervened between West and Home.

Stony Bunker lay close to the river bluff and was the terror of all Hillton golfers, for, while a too short stroke was likely to leave you in the sand pit, a too vigorous one was just as likely to land you in the river. West knew Stony Bunker well by reason of former meetings, and he knew equally well what amount of swing was necessary to land just over the hazard, but well short of the bluff.

Perhaps it was the brassie that was to blame–for a full-length, supple-shafted, wooden driver would have been what you or I would have chosen for that stroke–or perhaps West himself was to blame. That as it may be, the fact remains that that provoking ball flew clear over the bunker as though possessed of wings and disappeared over the bluff!

With an exclamation of disgust West hurried after, for when they cost thirty-five cents apiece golf balls are not willingly lost even by lads who, like Outfield West, possess allowances far in excess of their needs. But the first glance down the bank reassured him, for there was the runaway ball snugly ensconced on the tiny strip of sandy beach that intervened between the bank and the water. West grasped an overhanging fir branch and swung himself over the ledge.

Now, that particular branch was no longer youthful and strong, and consequently when it felt the full weight of West’s one hundred and thirty-five pounds it simply broke in his hand, and the boy started down the steep slope with a rapidity that rather unnerved him and brought an involuntary cry of alarm to his lips. It was the cry that was the means of saving him from painful results, since at the bottom of the bank lay a bed of good-sized rocks that would have caused many an ugly bruise had he fallen among them.

But suddenly, as he went falling, slipping, clutching wildly at the elusive weeds, he was brought up with a suddenness that drove the breath from his body. Weak and panting, he struggled up to the top of the jutting ledge, assisted by two strong arms, and throwing himself upon it looked wonderingly around for his rescuer.

Above him towered the boy in the straw hat.

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Categories: English Literature

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