The Decree of the Woodshed Court
ENTERTAINING SHORT STORIES
M.F. Ferguson in Uncle Remus’ Magazine
HE was not precisely a pretty boy; indeed, it would have been almost flattering to call him plain. For his face was thin, and thickly sprinkled with freckles; and his ears stood out from his head a trifle too prominently, and his hair—what you could see of it under the tattered rim of the coarse straw hat—was of that insistent red that at first sight shocks the beholder. Nor did it add to his general attractiveness as he knelt in the onion bed, plucking weeds, that the sun shone in his eyes, forcing him to contract them to a narrow squint; nor that his hands were abnormally large, and his uncouth frame conspicuously lean and angular.
There was something pathetic in the dogged persistence with which he stuck to his task, despite the fact that three lads of about his own age, crouching behind a near-by hedge, were beseeching him in stage whispers to desert it.
“Aw, come on, Dan,” urged one of them, peering at him cautiously over the top of the boxwood. “You’ll delay the game.”
Dan unbent himself gradually to his full height—there was a great deal
of him when he was all unwound— and ran his eyes along the rows of weed-chocked plants with a sigh of resignation.
“When I finish the job,” he said, laconically.
“But it’s all up with us if you ain’t on the spot when the umpire says Tlay ball,” suggested the tempter.
“Look-a-here,” retorted Dan; “I’m goin’ to sneak off, all right, but I ain’t a-goin’ to dodge my work in the bargain. I promised to weed these onions, an’ I’m calculatin’ to do it if it takes all afternoon.”
There was a whispered consultation on the other side of the hedge, a scramble over, and in a moment the red-headed agriculturist found three active assistants sharing his labor. Divided by four, the undertaking dwindled into insignificance, and the last obnoxious weed was speedily uprooted. Thereupon the boy, directing his friends to await his return by the roadside, made a cautious reconnoissance in the direction of the house, and, shielded from the view of its occupants by a well-covered grape arbor, secured from beneath a pile of boards in a corner of the wood shed
a bat, a cap and a pair of low, spiked shoes.
As he hastened to rejoin his comrades and trudged along the dusty road with them, he flattered himself that his departure was unobserved. Therein he was mistaken. One pair of prying, inquisitive eyes had followed his every movement from the moment of his companions’ arrival to the precise second when he disappeared over the top of the first hill on the way to the neighboring village of Abington.
Half an hour afterward Abel Gordon, who had been down by the cornfield mending a break in the fence, came up to the house to look for a bolt for the bucksaw. In the kitchen doorway his wife sat, shelling peas. A shrewd-faced youngster of seven played about her feet, dividing his attention between a dilapidated Noah’s ark and a string of empty spools.
“Where’s Dan?” asked Abel, casually, as he paused for a moment to watch the child arranging a procession of crippled animals before the ark.
“Clearing up the onion patch,” replied the woman.
“He wasn’t there just now, when I came by,” remarked her husband.
“Then I don’t know what’s become of him. I saw him there an hour ago.”
“I know where Dan is,” piped the little fellow, in a shrill treble. “He’s gone to play baseball over at Abington. I saw him.”
Gordon leaned his bucksaw against the wall and picked up the child roughly.
“Don’t tell me a falsehood,” he said.
“I’m not,” whimpered the informer, boring into his eyes with a pair of grimy fists. “He went with the Melcher boys and Joe Simmons. They came and helped him with the weeding, and I was up in the apple tree and heard them talking. Dan’s goin’ to pitch for Hillsboro, ’cause Shorty Davis is sick and can’t play. Joe Simmons said so.”
If he had been told that his eldest son had deliberately set fire to the house or stolen a hundred dollars from
the old iron box under his bed Abner Gordan could hardly have experienced a more unpleasant shock. It was part and parcel of his philosophy that outdoor sports were ruinous to the mental development of the young. Sane enough in other respects, he had a deep-rooted conviction that to permit Dan to participate in the competitive recreations of his companions would be to put in his way an irresistible temptation to neglect the more serious things of life. Seymour Dutton’s Dave had set for college with every promise of development into a brilliant scholar, and had returned barren of intellectual honors, a brutalized semi-professional football player. And there was the Methodist parson’s son Jed, who had cut his course at the Hillsboro preparatory School to join a minor league ball team! There were “horrible examples” that confirmed Abel in his exaggerated view of the harmfulness of athletics. As for physical development, that could better be attained by work than by distracting play.
And so it befell that this youth of seventeen was sternly held in leash and forbidden even to play the role of spectator at the baseball, football and tennis matches of the countryside. But the boy was human, and pursued in secret the natural inclinations be could not openly gratify. He had an intimate acquaintance with the fine points of outdoor diversions wholly inconsistent with frank submission to his father’s will.
Abel Gardon was a man of action rather than of words. He silently lifted Dan’s little brother from his knee and arose. His wife watched him anxiously as he rapidly shed his overalls, washed his hands at the pump and took his “good” hat from its accustomed peg.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
The question was superfluous, and he did not answer.
“Be careful, Abel,” she said, as he brushed past her in the doorway. “Don’t you let your temper get the better of you.”
“I know what I’m doing,” he re-
torted, savagely. “I’ll thrash that boy within an inch of his life.” And he looked as if he meant it.
Practically all of Abington and half the population of Hillsboro had gathered on the enclosed field where the rival teams were to cross bats. Abel Gordon recognized many of his friends and neighbors as he pushed his way to the opening in the low fence barring the spectators from the diamond, and nodded to them curtly; but he turned neither to the right nor to the left to exchange civilities with them. His eyes were fixed with grim determination upon the awkwardlooking, brick-topped youth in a neat gray uniform who occupied the pitcher’s box—the most conspicuous figure in the field. In a moment he would make a public example of Dan and show him how serious a matter it was to defy paternal authority. But at the players’ entrance he was halted.
“You can’t go through here, brother,” said the gate-keeper, pushing him back. “Nobody allowed on the field.”
“I must speak to Dan Gordon. I’m his father.”
“Sorry, but you’ll have to wait until the end of the inning,” retorted the gate-keeper, with an air of finality.
Abel attempted to call to Dan across the intervening space, but at that instant arose a mighty cheer that completely drowned the sound of his voice. On all sides of him people were tossing their hats in the air and yelling like maniacs. An elderly man close at his elbow poked him in the ribs familiarly and shouted in his above the din:
“Great boy, eh?”
Mr. Gordon had been too angry to comprehend what was going on before him. He was vaguely aware that the batsman, a hulking fellow grown to a man’s estate, had thrown down his club in a fit of rage and was walking away from the plate ; but he had no notion what the tumult was about.
“What’s the matter?” he asked of his excited neighbor.
“Matter !” exclaimed the other, contemptuously. “Where are your eyes?
Don’t you know who that was he struck out? No? Why, that’s ‘Noodles’ Griffin, the Interstate League man. He has no business to be playing with Abington—he’s a professional. But that doesn’t feaze Dan Gordon a little bit. This is twice he’s fanned him.”
Abel looked at the retiring batsman with a new interest.
“W’d lick Abington yet if young Gordon had decent support,” continued the garrulous spectator. “But it must be mighty discouraging to be backed up by such a lot of chumps.”
“What’s the score ?” involuntarily inquired Abel. He was provoked with himself for putting the question, but it was too late.
“Six to two, favor Abington, end of the fifth—and not one of those six runs earned. They can’t hit Gordon for a cent—Jumping Jehosophat, did you see that !” screamed the enthusiast, clapping his hands with astonishing vigor. For Dan, leaping high in the air, had caught a red-hot liner with one hand and shot the ball to first in time to complete a double play at the expense of an overconfident runner who had assumed that the hit was safe.
Dan’s admirer wept for joy as he laid his hand on Mr. Gordon’s arm. “Wait,” he yelled, as soon as the noisy demonstration that followed the play had subsided sufficiently for him to be heard ; “wait till you see him at the bat! He’ll probably come up this innings—oh, he’s a corker!”
Abel was about to make tor the gate, as the inning was ended ; but at this he paused. An inning more or less would make no difference. He could deal with Dan later as well as now. In the meantime he would stand back a little bit. It might unnerve the boy if he should see his father among the spectators. He would wait and see how Dan handled his bat.
The first man up for Hillsboro in the sixth was hit by a pitched ball, and took his base. The second was given a base on balls. The third won safety on a miserable little
scratch, and Dan faced the pitcher with the bases full.
Two balls in succession passed close to the edge of the plate, and from the way Dan held his bat it looked as though he were trying to bunt. The fielders edged in a little in anticipation of a short infield hit, and people held their breath. In the midst of the stillness a deep bass voice yelled:
“Hit it out!”
And that voice was Abel Gordon’s, although he was hardly conscious that he had opened his mouth.
But Dan knew what he was doing. Twice he made as if to bunt the ball with horizontal bat, and twice the umpire called strikes, while the outfielders crept in still nearer. The next ball sailed in straight as a die, square over the centre of the plate ; and Dan, changing his attitude like lightning, swung his bat to meet it. There was a resounding crack, and before the centre-fielder could overtake and return the flying sphere three runners had filed across the plate. And it was once more the voice of the implacable opponent of sport that screamed to Dan as he rounded third and seemed about to make an impossible try for home :
“Go back ! Go back !”
Before the side was retired Dan got home on a long fly, and the score stood six to six. Abel decided to postpone the fulfillment of his mission until the end of the game. There were many people from Hillsboro there, and they were bent on seeing Hillsboro win. To remove the star player from the game at this critical juncture would be to incur their strong displeasure. Yes, it was better, for the sake of interested folk, to wait. So he waited.
Up to the beginning of the last inning the score remained a tie, and the excitement continued at fever heat. Then, with two out in Hillsboro’s half of the ninth, Dan Gordon knocked the ball outside the lot for a home run, and the crowd went mad. Abel forgot for the moment the stern purpose that had brought him to the field; forgot Dan’s flagrant disobedience, the dangerous lure of sport, the dread-
ful fate of Dave Dutton and the parson’s son. He clapped his horny hands till the palms ached ; he put his forefingers between his lips and emitted an ear-splitting whistle that he had not practiced since his boyhood ; he shrieked and howled till he was hoarse. And a thousand other half-crazed men and boys did likewise. By the time the pandemonium subsided the last Hillsboro player had been put out, and Abington came in to bat. If Hillsboro could prevent a score this once, the game was won.
A hush fell over the spectators as the first Abington man came up to bat in that momentous ninth ; but only for an instant. The Abington element in the crowd, taking its cue from a lcud-mouthed coacher who sought to “rattle” the pitcher, began to chant rhythm icaly :
“Up-in-the-air ! Up-in-the-air ! Upin-the-air !”
The monotonous cry seemed to get on Dan’s nerves, for he pitched four balls in succession wide of the plate, and the batter went to first. Encouraged by their success, the Abington “rooters” re-doubled their noisy efforts, and were almost instantly rewarded. Dan dropped an easy pop fly that his little brother would have been shamed to miss. Abel Gordon’s face lengthened perceptibly, and he began to remember the punishment he had in store for his contumacious son. Two men were on bases. It looked blue for Hillsboro.
The next batter bunted, and heat the ball to first. With nobody out, the bases full, the pitcher unnerved and but one run needed to tie the score, it was a critical situation. Besides, the formidable “Noodles” Griffin, of Interstate League fame, was at the bat. The Hillsboro captain came in from centre field to hold a brief consultation with Dan and his catcher, apparently with a half-formed purpose of taking the hero of the day out of the box. But Dan shook his head vigorously, and the other conferees dubiously retired to their respective positions.
“Noodles” Griffin swung his bat viciously, and hit—the air. Again
the ball came hurtling by on a level with his head; again he aimed; again he missed. The third ball looked to be far beyond his reach, and he stood motionless as it passed by. Before he heard the umpire’s decision he realized that it had curved sharply inward just before it reached him, and cut the corner of the plate. For the third time in the game he had struck out. Hillsboro’s partisans began to gather confidence. Dan himself felt that he had settled down.
This was the beginning of the end of a baseball game that few who witnessed ever forgot. “Noodles’ ” successor, shaken by the ignominious downfall of that renowned heavy hitter, fell a victim to three puzzling curves twirled with unerring aim, and shamefacedly retired to the bench. As the last batter stepped up the spellbound rooters forgot to root. Amid a silence so tense that the ball seemed to fairly sizzle through the air he struck once, twice, managed to foul one, and then ended the game by lunging widly at the sphere as it passed even with his knee. Dan had not only struck out the side with three men on bases, but had achieved that rare feat with ten pitched balls.
Twenty minutes later, after Dan had made his escape from a horde of frenzied admirers, he emerged from the dressing room and came face to face with his father. The bat which he carried so jauntily over his shoulder all but slipped from his nerveless fingers. He would rather have confronted an untamed lion than this accusing figure that stood before him with lowering brow.
“So!” said Abel. “Here you are at last! I’ve been looking for you quite a while.”
The boy’s guilty conscience clogged his tongue. His was not a case for defense, but for expiation. Meekly enough he followed as his father plucked him by the sleeve, and in moody silence the two pursued their way homeward. Others traveling in their direction forbore to join them, but passed by with different nods or fell behind; for there was that in the father’s countenance which repelled
intrusion, and something in the son’s demeanor that implied a shamed desire to escape from the flood of wellmeant compliments that had been showered upon him. Not until they reached the house did Dan open his mouth to speak. Then, as Abel took down from its resting place on a couple of nails high up on the kitchen wall a heavy hickory switch that had not been used for years, the boy’s high spirit rebelled.
“Not that, Dad!” he cried. “I’m not a child, to be flogged.”
“Come out to the wood shed, sir,” said his father, curtly, leading the way. Dan’s face went white, but not with fear. His contrition had given place to indignation. Physically he was almost a man. He felt that he had outgrown corporal punishment, and with that conviction came a hasty resolve to snatch the rod from his father’s grasp at the first blow and break it in a dozen pieces. With great deliberation, Abel took off his coat and hung it on the latch.
“Daniel,” he said, grimly, as he picked the pliant hickory and faced his son, “did you ever do wrong by me without getting properly punished for it?”
“I guess I pretty nearly always got what was coming to me,” the boy acknowledged.
“I reckon you did,” reiterated his father, “and sometimes maybe a little more. Now, turn about is fair play. I’ve learned something this afternoon. I’ve seen enough over at Abington to convince me that when a man tries to bring up a boy just as he would a girl he isn’t giving the boy a square deal. I’ve been doing the wrong thing by you ever since you were big enough to let go of your mother’s apron strings. Here—take this.”
Dan took the proffered switch mechanically.
“Now,” said his father, turning his back and folding his arms, “I won’t feel right comfortable till I’ve had my medicine. You roll up your sleeve and lambast me just as hard as you know how.”
So amazed was Dan for the moment that he was hardly aware of the move-
merits of his own hands as he bent the rod across his knee until it snapped and tossed the fragments from him. For the first time since his triumph on the ball field he felt the full joy of a victor.
“Dad,” he said, with a grin that extended from ear to ear, “we’re going to play Mount Union next Saturday. If you’ll come along I’ll get you a good seat in the front row of the grand stand.”