Play It Square

Only two people knew what that game meant to Tucker— the girl who loved him and the boy who would take his job

CLARK LEWIS January 1 1947

Play It Square

Only two people knew what that game meant to Tucker— the girl who loved him and the boy who would take his job

CLARK LEWIS January 1 1947

Play It Square

Only two people knew what that game meant to Tucker— the girl who loved him and the boy who would take his job

CLARK LEWIS

TUCKER AMES, the goalkeeper, the lean and handsome goalkeeper whom the newspapers had once called "The Cat," said: "I remembered your promise. Sonny.”

Sonny Hallock nodded. "I don’t go back on my word. Only sometimes well, it can be wiser to forget, Tucker.”

Tucker let that sink in. He tried to collect his thoughts. His body occupied an uncomfortable chair in Sonny's office in the Auditorium, his ear remained tuned to the familiar sounds of the preseason practice on the ice sheet within the building, fuit his mind and heart were miles away in Los Angeles.

Alison’s parting words lingered with him still. “Don’t do anything too silly w hile I’m away.” Tucker remembered every little thing about her. Alison looked well, so nice. She was a tinv girl, with soft brown hair that glistened amber when sunlight caught it. Her nose turned up, but just a bit., and her skin had a Californian sheen, smooth and glowing. He had never ceased wondering how she could have fallen in love with him.

"I’ll stay smart," he liad said lightly, and all the while there had been the sad. sweet ache of parting from her. “I’ll enjoy more space to myself in our one-room suite, and 1 can build a model bridge without finding your nylons on a girder. Possible I’ll miss you but that’s the penalty of being your husband.”

Her arms had been tight around him. "Miss me. Tucker. Miss me more than anything in the world."

But all this had been in Toronto’s Union Station a week ago. Now it was the Toronto Auditorium and Sonny Hallock, coach,of the Beavers in the National Hockey League. “'Fucker, you Listenin’ t’ me? I said it can be wiser to forget.”

Tucker stirred restlessly. "Look—how much will

the Club pay?”

Sonny sight'd, and named a figure. It was good. For a player who had been away from the game for six long years even a star like Tucker Ames—it was exceptional. Sonny was more than keeping his word.

Tucker realized now that it was the money, far more than his yearning for hockey, that had led him to discuss the coming season with Sonny.

W hy was it that a man in love always made promise's to bus bride always painted a brighter picture than the one reality presented? When he had married Alison he had not let her understand UK) much of the fact that ever since he had graduated from high school, for seven lighthearted years, professional hockey had been his living. He had not dwelt too long on his off-season schedule

the hunting and fishing, the brief spans as Liquor salesman, factory timekeeper, ticket collector on St. L-awrence River pleasure cruises. He had promised himself that this indefinite part of his life was forever ended.

His Army experience with the Engineers had opened his eyes to a new future. The Government had approved his ambition to learn a lasting profession. He liked engineering—-the idea of creation, the permanency. He liked college, despite his status as the oldest student in the class.

But now.....during his second year—the pursuit of

happiness was slow. Painfully slow’ each time he checked the progress of the dream he had promised Alison. Alison’s idea of contentment was a modest but beautiful home among nice neighbors, a steady income, a flower garden, a pew ín the nearest church and something extra with which to enjoy the uncertainty of minor adventures in comparative safety. It was this way with Alison’s parents in Los Angeles.

Here in Toronto he had given Alison the exquisite

monotony of life in a furnished room in M; Theresa Gahagan’s mid-Victorian dwelling. T; soon he had discovered that building the hon t hey had planned would cost twice as much as t savings—that mere daily living cost more in thousand intangible ways than he had ev expected.

Yes, he had promised too much. Yet he cou not cancel half a line nor wash away a word. L did not wish to. From the first momen! he m Alison—a sightseeing WAC sergeant in Londor Kew Gardens—she was the strongest challenge! had ever encountered.

He said to Sonny: “You’re very generous,

appreciate it.”

Sonny smiled out of his gaunt, lined face, 1 tired old eyes. “I l)een married a long time, Tuck hoy. Sure, it’s swell. Only babies’ shoes, measl; insurance—that’s the way things go. Say—wb can you bring your wife around to meet Sarah?” Tucker didn’t want to talk about that. “I se her to her people in Los Angeles. She needs a go rest.” He stood up. “About the contract—” Sonny nodded. “Mmm. Well, I’ll tell Joe Hav — Joe’s managing this club now, y’know—and yt c’n drop by and look the contract over in a day two. Joe might want to hold off, but I doubt Check?”

“Check.” agreed Tucker. He had a thought, had been with him for a long time. "Sonny, doy honestly think I can come back with the Beaver Sonny drummed his gnarled fingers softly agar the desk top. "I dunno, Tucker. A lot of war vs tried last year. Some stayed, some didn’t. Frank I’ve never liked cases such as yours. You’ll have fight for your job with a youngster, Nick Dohat) He’s sensational. But maybe you’re still Tucker: Cat. The thing is, the eyes of all the people v once had ability—people who ain’t got nothings except a hope and a prayer—will be right on you. you don’t come back, they’ll die a little. If you —well, perhaps that’s even worse. They’ll foil your star, and pretty soon be banging their f heads against a stone wall, until they get some se: beaten into ’em—the hard way! Still, you’ve{ to give your best. Tucker!”

Tucker breathed deeply. He hadn’t quite thout of the situation that way. Sonny’s words bothe: him. They left him with a strange feeling of resp: sibility. as though he were the personal represen tive of all the men who were trying to regain success that had once been theirs, in hockey orí part of living.

He said, "I’d like to meet the team.”

"Sure thing.” Sonny led the way downsta through the Auditorium corridors. His dry vc echoed hollowly, mentioning names, abilit changed conditions in the game. “We’ve got a g! club this year. Plenty of get-up-and-go.” In dressing room Sonny hesitated. “Feel in sha Like to work out a bit ?”

Tucker nodded. He could feel the old excited stirring through him. And then he was on the the soft hiss of the skates pleasant to his ear, pads familiarly weighty and tight against his k the stick’s curved balance businesslike in his bal The Beavers acclaimed him. "Hey, the old mi * here!” I

They crowded around, pummelling him affectionately, respectfully. Six years had made changes in the team. Only Burrow's and Gonnick remained from his old defense, Lupien from the forward lines. Borzelli, Andersen, Gauthier—all had failed to stick last year. This, the second postwar hockey season, show-ed many new faces, big young men— but not too heady-looking. The old-time skills were gradually being lost.

Sonny gestured. “Out of Drayton, Man., one Mr. Nick Dolíanos—your opposition, Tucker!”

TUCKER turned. The boy skating forward, hands outstretched, was baby-faced, not more than 19, surely. He had golden hair, freckles, and everything about him was quick and alive. “Tucker the Cat! Boy, this is my lucky day!” In his eyes shone the devotion Tucker had seen in children.

Tucker said, “Hello, Nick.” He shook hands. And then he was skating around the rink, loosening up. He was aware of Nick alongside him; conscious of Nick’s voice spurting eagerly through the noise of the practice, saying something about style and speed, saying he had patterned his goalkeeping after Tucker, that he had watched him ever since he was a kid, that it was going to be wonderful playing on the same team with him.

He made Tucker feel a hundred years old. It hurt.. Tucker felt it in a lot of little echoes, and he thought,

Well, what did I expect? I should haue seen this moment long ago. I’m 31, with nothing except a scrapbook filled with pretty words and pretty pictures.

Ten minutes of action told him three things. His timing was away off, his clearing w’as unsteady and his legs were not quite the same. It would take time, time and work, to make him “The Cat” again.

Sonny’s leathery features were understanding. “Nobody expects miracles, I ucker. An’ it’s a long

season, boy—a lot longer than usual this year.” I ucker leaned over t he boards. “Sonny, here’s a promise. When I have to think twice about a play — then it will be my time to quit .”

The Beavers had split into two scrub teams and Sonny gestured: “Watch the kid. Watch his hands. They’re your hands, Tucker, and he’s young yet.” Lupien, the speedball from Chicoutimi, with the hardest shot in hockey, skated in on Nick’s right. He came in almost to the goal crease, and then he fired the puck. He drove if with everything he possessed.

Tucker saw the play developing with camera clarity. Nick did not seem to move. Yet his left hand snapped downward with the speed of a striking falcon. The puck slapped into his glove six inches from the ice. In the same motion he cleared it instantly to the side of Ins cage for the return foray.

Sonny said, softly, “You see? Pretty, isn’t it?

One of the press boys says he has a name for th’ kid already set up in type. ‘The Kitten.’ Yeah. I kinda like that too. It tits.”

Fucker sat on the bench quietly, the thoughts flooding him. This was it. This was another challenge he must meet. First Alison, and his promises, and staying at college. Now this boy.

He said, “Nick’s good, Sonny. I should know!” Sonny kept his eyes on the play. “I shouldn’t believe you’re glad, Tucker. But I know you are. I wanted your okay on the kid. Because he’s starting the season for us. You mind being insurance?” I mind, ’ said Tucker. “I mind like nobody’s business.” He laughed wryly. “Funny, I never gave insurance a thought before. I do now. And then insurance policies are subject to change to cover varying needs, aren’t they?”

Sonny chuckled. “Philosophy, sounds like! Marriage is certainly doing things to the old Tucker Ames!”

Continued on page 34

Continued from page 11

“Marriage does things, period,” said Tucker.

When Tucker reached Mrs. Gahagan’s second floor back, he found the air-mail letter awaiting him. He sat on the bed and read it through slowly, savoring all the warmth and excitement that Alison could attach to each quiet day. The ending caught at his heart. “. . . Mom and Dad will never stand me for six weeks. Expect me home for Christmas! The menu will be one kiss on arrival, cook’s special, and you may order dessert. That is, if you’ve taken proper care of yourself . . .”

After a long while Tucker wrote his own letter. He wrote several, crumpling the sheets, laboring. The words came hard, although what he wanted to say was simple and clear in the foreground of his mind.

“I’m doing this for us, Alison. 1 promise you won’t ever have occasion to feel that all you’ve married is a broken-down athlete.”

When he had finished the letter he went out and posted it, very quickly.

WITH Nick playing brilliantly in the nets, the Reavers won their opening game. They continued to win. By the middle of December they were winging along in front with a clear lead over their nearest rivals, the Cougars. Despite Sonny’s cautious overtones— “Ever hear of injuries? We haven’t had our share yet”-—it was gloomily predicted around the circuit that the Beavers were a shoo-in for the Stanley Cup. They had everything a fast-breaking attack, experience on the defense and a fluid balance. But most of all they had drawn an ace in Nick the Kitten.

From the beginning fandom had loved Nick. Sonny’s explanation, Tucker knew, was the true one. “He’s got color, Tucker. You’ve never had that. You’ve been mechanically perfect so long that sometimes I guess th’ fans wondered if you were human. This kid hits ’em around the heart.”

Tucker could understand that. There was something devil-may-care and exciting in the way Nick played—his cornsilk hair flying about his boyish face, his nervous antics, his constant verbal peppering at the Beavers. He gave the team that little extra something— the willingness to take a chance. He made the sometimes grim business of hockey into a lighthearted game.

Off the ice he was different. Amused at first by what Sonny considered shrewdness in assigning Nick as his roommate, Tucker was inclined to take the boy lightly. He found him, instead, to be serious, sensitive and desperately eager to succeed. Out of the hockey scene that comprised hotel lobbies and Pullman card games came the threads of Nick’s life.

His parents had died in a highway crackup, there had been harsh years, Dreams must have faded for Nick many times during those years. Only his hockey dream, born on some prairie rink, remained. And Tucker realized that in the back of Nick’s mind, hidden by the happy-go-lucky defiance, lingered always the fear that something, somehow, would come along to snatch this new happiness away.

Tucker found himself inordinately pleased with the way things were going. Nick’s fine work made his own role of second-string insurance goalie a logical one; in addition, it gave him muchneeded time for his engineering course. That he did not often make out-oftown trips with the Beavers suited him well. The newspapers were tolerant,

too. They merely spoke politely of the old order changing, and passed on to more vibrant matters in new names and new faces. Tucker felt sadness, but no pain—he thought no longer of fame or glory, as Nick did.

And then Alison came home.

Tucker forgot hockey. From the whirl of motion that started with the arrival of her telegram until the moment she set foot in their room, there was only Alison.

She said, “Tucker—may I order now?” and he knew again the full breathlessness of having her with him, the softness of her arms, the remembered music of her voice.

The afternoon went too quickly, and the long evening. Too soon it was the following day, the day the fifth-place Falcons were in town to play the Beavers. And it was Alison, her voice quite level, who spoke of it first.

“You’ve got me a seat for tonight?”

Tucker looked at her, and the sudden glow he felt, the glow that he had not expected, made him stumble. “Alison . . . you don’t mind being there with me?”

“But your letter . . . you said . . . Tucker, you’re playing! Aren’t you?”

That made him uncomfortable; he felt the quick stab at his pride. Tucker Ames playing! In the old days only a pair of broken legs kept Tucker Ames out of a hockey game. But these were the new days.

He explained carefully. Alison listened, too quietly, her dark eyes intent upon him. When he had finished, hurrying, repeating himself, she said: “Tucker, I met a friend of yours on the way in from Chicago.”

He sat up straight. “Oh? Somebody from my old gang?”

“No. Tingle, his name was. You’ve never heard of him, I know. But he seemed to know you very well. To see —that is. He’s never met you.” Alison’s voice went on easily, “He was just coming home, here in Toronto, after serving with the American occupation forces in Japan. He was rather excited about seeing the Beavers again. He said he’d heard Tucker Ames was back.”

Tucker wanted to laugh it off, but somehow he couldn’t. He said, “Well. Well, that’s nice.” He breathed unevenly. “You—told this Mr. Tingle who you were?”

Alison’s smile wras dreamy. “Yes, after a while. After I’d had a grand time saving up the news. Then I think I didn’t stop chattering about my husband until the train pulled in.”

Tucker felt his heart turn over. He said, “Honey—”

And then Alison was close against him, laughing, crying, her words spilling over each other. “Oh, Tucker, can’t you see? Everything you’ve done for me is perfect, everything! No—don’t explain. I love you, Tucker. I want so very much to be a real part of everything you love. I liked the things Mr. Tingle said. He said I wouldn’t find anything in Canada more honestly Canadian than hockey. He said I would find that it was a game like the people who played it—square, all the way, and that you played it best, always.”

Tucker stood up. He knew what must be done. He said, “Where would you like to sit tonight, baby?”

THE FALCONS were flying high.

Tucker wiped the sweat frpm his eyes and dived for the right of his cage. Players whirled in front*of him. Sticks crashed; he heard the crowd roar as the puck clanged the post. He went to his knees to block a backhander. The puck bounced crazily across the crease.

He tried to deflect it out to Lupien on right wing. Brewer, the Falcon centre,

hooked it clear, spun on a dime, shot. Tucker spread-eagled. Prone, he did not have to look behind him. He knew the red light was on. The sound mushroomed downward from the rafters of the Auditorium and drummed against his ears.

The final bell jangled. Tucker avoided the sympathetic hands on his way to the dressing room. The voices were kind or studiedly casual. He dressed stolidly. The game kept coming up before his eyes, the places where he had been too slow, the places where things should have gone differently. He had never relived a game before. It was a new experience, baffling him.

Outside the door Nick’s young voice echoed, cursing someone. “So the Falcons won 7-2. So what? They hit a lucky night out there, that’s all. You wanna make something out of it, scribbler?”

Sonny was alongside. “Forget it, Tucker. It’s still a long season, ain’t it?”

Tucker couldn’t say anything. He knew that all over the League teams would be taking new heart from this game. The Beavers had been beaten. They could be beaten again. The road to the Stanley Cup would now develop unexpected ruts.

He went outside, and after a while he was with Alison in a restaurant that featured music and soft lighting and quiet tables for two. He said, “Not a very royal welcome, was it?”

Alison drank her coffee. “Tucker, tell me—that nice young boy I met before the game, Nick, whose place 3'ou took—are you a better player than he?”

Tucker had been content not to give that possibility too much thought. He considered it now, gravely. He said, “I don’t know.”

Alison mused. “You say Nick’s had a rough time of it. I can understand how one small pleasure could grow to be his whole world. Hockey is that for him, isn’t it?”

Tucker said, carefully, “He’s a good kid.” He paused; he knew Alison was driving at something. He looked at her. “The way things are with Nick—that hasn’t made any difference to me, has it?”

AlLson said quietly, “Perhaps it hasn’t, Tucker. But it might.”

In the days that followed Tucker realized what Alison meant. Hfc was muddling through the season. With the engineering course rolling along prettily, the money coming in, the Beavers ahead, Nick elated—he hadn’t made a fight of it. It was not his wish, he wanted to play the game square and all the way. Yet Alison had sensed the change in him. Alison knew. Alison was telling him that once a job got by through the back door it became only too easy to let that way apply to other things. More important things. Things like a man’s whole approach to living.

He worked, then, as he had never worked before. He practiced long hours on the ice, until his^body ached and his mind bogged at making decisions. It appalled him to realize his lack of condition, how apathetic he had become toward the business of keeping a rubber disc away from a cage.

Sonny glowed. “For a while there, Tucker, I was sure you’d lost the old desire. Now' you got it back»” Sonny spread his fingers wide. “But th’ hell of it is—I still can’t use you! Man, I can’t take Nick out of there! Not th’ way he’s been playing. The fans’d kill me. It’d be more than my job is worth, now or anytime later.”

So Nick stayed, and they were into the play-offs at last, and it was precisely then that the Beavers began to meet the inexorable law of averages. Lupien fractured an ankle, Connick went out with an infected finger, rookie

Stevens, who had led the League in assists, came dow'n with a walloping case of scarlet fever.

Sonny turned haggard overnight. “They say there’s a turning point in a club’s fortunes. Tucker, next week’ll be it. We play the Stars on Thursday, an’ a home-and-home series against the second-place Cougars on th’ week end. If we lose these games, it’ll be the Cup. I know.”

TUCKER catalogued the Star system of attack with Nick in the dressing room. “Watch Cazen—he likes to hold his shot until you go down, so play him stand-up-straight. Touhey is an ice scraper on ganging plays. What defense we have left should take care of Emery, but if he slips through—well, all you can do is pray.” Tucker felt the numbness through his wrists, almost as if he were playing himself. He made his grin hearty. “The pressure is really on now, kid, but things aren’t as bad as they look. Good luck.”

Nick leaned on his stick. The respect and devotion had never left his face. “You’ve taught me everything I know, Tucker. I’ll always remember.”

Tucker joined Alison in the stands near the penalty box. Her smile was gay. His heart warmed anew toward her. She had worked like a slave at learning hockey, because she knew his love for the game. He didn’t deserve her. He must make every promise a reality for her. He must not muddle through anything he did.

The Stars scored the first goal, a deflection shot off Boisvert’s shins. They counted the second on a slider from the blue line that Nick never saw. And then they went to town. They skated the shorthanded Beavers into the ice.

But it was only when Emery lobbed in a high drifter from almost mid-ice and Nick went down before Cazen’s rush, seconds early, that Tucker realized what was happening. It was the pressure. The Beavers had always given Nick a quick lead, given him goals to work on, provided him with a comfortable margin for error. Without this, and under the screws for the first time in his young career, Nick was showing the strain.

Alison’s gloved hands were clenched tightly together. “Oh, Tucker! Can’t you help him?”

Tucker shook his head. “Alison, almost every goalkeeper has this experience. The good ones come back.” The Stars ripped in, lightning-fast. Emery rounded the net in a shower of powdered snow, flipped a snap shot. Nick juggled the puck, cleared wildly onto Varshak’s stick. Varshak, overeager, spanged the post. Burrows blasted Emery with a crushing body check, temporarily relieving the pressure. But when Halliburton took a penalty for boarding, the Stars returned to the attack, inexorably.

Tucker shouted at the Beavers. “Skate . . . skate!"

The leg-weary Beavers floundered. The Auditorium seethed with sound and motion. Nick charged out of his nets—went down and out of position. His familiar, loved antics spelled color in reverse; they seemed a cloak he had deliberately worn to cover his ineptitude.

When Cazen counted for the fourth time, Tucker heard the new sound from the crowd. It wasn’t long, nor deep, just a sprinkling from a section of fandom that is a part of every city. But it broke Nick into little pieces. His face went white. He put his arm up before his face in a single, helpless gesture. The game ended, mercifully, at 11-1. The dressing room was too quiet. The players dressed quickly. They

hurried out into the night. Nick remained slumped in the corner. Tucker went on taping a new stick carefully.

Sonny came in at last. His harsh voice was gentle. “What happened tonight, kid inside?”

Nick’s face was bleak. He stared at the floor, saying nothing. Sonny continued, “A bit of rest an’ you’re right ’n’ tight again. Meanwhile, 'fucker works.”

Nick’s head snapped up. He clubbed his fists together. “No! I mean— please let me stick! If Tucker goes in, he’ll stay! I know! And I’ll never get another chance! Not with this club or any other major club. I’ll be finished! Don’t you suppose I understand that? Don’t you suppose I’ve thought about it ever since I joined the Beavers?”

Sonny said, “Take it easy, boy.”

Nick buried hls face in his hands. He sobbed unashamedly. The confidence -the wonderful confidence of his youth -had been bludgeoned out of him.

Tucker looked away. He knew, better than anyone, just how Nick was hurt.

Nick realized he had cracked. The very fear of it must have been with him always. And he knew that unless he had a chance to come through in an even sterner test, the Beavers—the entire hockey world—would never quite have the same confidence in him again. Always, deeply hidden though it might be, the feeling would continue that he was a fair-weather goaler. That when the going became really tough, as it inevitably must, sometimesomewhere he would break again. Tucker’s heart ached for the kid.

But he felt, too, the old excitement coursing through his body. This was his own opportunity, come at last. And he would go in and prove to Alison and Sonny and Mr. Tingle and himself that he was still the great Tucker Ames, playing it all the way.

SATURDAY NIGHT. The Cougars skated out to a deafening accolade from the fans in their home Arena. Watching the Cougars, Tucker felt the tightness through his stomach. They were a team now—all power, all precision, victory bright in their eyes.

He smiled for Alison through stiff lips. Seated in a box beside the Beavers’ bench, Alison returned the smile. Alison said, softly, “Make them remember you, darling. Make me proud.”

Nick leaned over the railing, hand extended. Nick had not recovered. His drawn face still held heartbreak. “All the best. Tucker.”

Tucker breathed deeply. “Thanks, Nick.” He had dreamed of this moment.. But now, with the moment reality, he felt no elation. He felt only a certain grimness, bred of war, bred of his knowledge of the life Alison had enjoyed in California before he had married her. The world judged a man by his ability to come through when the chips were down.

Sonny had a parting admonition. “Forget Nick, Tucker! Forget everyone here, yourself included! Just concentrate on keeping that puck outta the net.”

Once in between the pipes, Tucker felt better. Then the whistle shrilled for the face-off. The Cougars came, whirling in upon him, breaking fast for this last barrier.

Tucker took the puck against his chest. He batted it to the right of his cage. Felder, the Cougars’ ace centre, bodied Burrows into the screen, flipped a deft pass-out. Goode drove a whistling backhander. Tucker stabbed with his stick. The puck ricochetted into the box seats. Tucker felt the

quick beads of sweat prickling his body. Too close !

The Beavers chopped ahead valiantly. They dammed the Cougars in for five dogged minutes and rammed in a goal from a scramble. Then Dunlevy, brittle-boned fancy dan of the big line, hit into the Cougar defense and was through for the evening. The Cougars clawed forward once more.

Tucker blocked and cleared, kicked and caught. A rolling puck spun across his crease. He dived for it. Skates screamed past his face. Bodies piled atop him. He spat chopped ice from his mouth. The bell came as welcome relief.

Sonny grinned at the scoreboard. “Ames—1, Cougars 0.”

Alison was waiting beside the dressing room door. “I’m sure our Mr. Tingle is listening on his radio.”

Tucker caressed her chin gently with his fist. He said, lightly, “Skip the pep talk. I won’t let the guy down. And stop worrying, baby!”

Seventeen minutes and 41 seconds later he could not reconcile these words with the position he found himself in, which was alone, left for dead, with Goode parked on his doorstep. The puck graced Goode’s stick. Goode had all night to make the shot.

The crowd rose in a single undulating mass. Someone shouted: “Now,

Tucker!”

Tucker watched Goode’s eyes flicker . . . he saw Goode’s shoulders hunch . . . Left corner! He was moving when thought struck again. Wait! Right corner! Yes! No! No/Abruptly,thesands of time ran out. Even as he dived sideways, Tucker knew— and the pain of it cracked deep within him —that he was not going to stop Goode’s shot. Kah-lang!

• The sound drove the cobwebs from his brain. He whirled. The puck had spun high off the left side of the crossbar, and now Halliburton had it, and was away on a return rush along the left lane.

An awed voice spoke for the crowd. “Gawd . . . what luck!”

Tucker breathed heavily. Luck it had been—the pure blind winds of chance. But the Arena could not know what he alone realized. He had failed within his own mind. The echoes of his own voice pounded high in his ears. 'Sonny, when I have to think twice about a play—then it will be my time to quit.”

He played throughout the balance of the second period with a mechanical ferocity. As he clumped down the ramp toward the dressing room, he felt a tug at his shoulder. It was Nick, his eyes penetrating. “Tucker, you’re having trouble out there, aren’t you?”

Tucker cursed him. “Like hell I am.” Hls body was trembling with the reality of the new fear. He forced himself to speak calmly. “They didn’t score, did they?”

Sonny paced the dressing room floor. “We’ve got to win this one! How do you feel. Tucker?”

Tucker struggled to regain control of his nerves. “Ask Nick for details. He can tell you what it’s like on the firing line.”

Sonny flushed. “Look, Tucker— if you’re worried about Nick, I can tell you I haven’t lost faith in him. All he needs to do Is tell me he’s ready. I’ll know if he really feels right again.” Tucker tightened the straps of his pads. “That’s fine, Sonny.” He gulped w’ater, sloshed it around his mouth, spat it out. He tried to make his voice jaunty. “Relax, Pappy. Remember that when sorrows come, they come not single spies hut in battalions.”

Back in the nets, he was still thinking of Nick. Nick was the only one who really understood the battle he was

fighting with himself. He shared a common bond with Nick. And Alison —even from here he could sense the tension in her. Yes, Alison wras counting on him, too, in a different way. Both Alison and Nick were an integral part of his approach to living. They were asking for an answer from him. He must show them how a man played it square and all the way when the chips were down.

When the Cougars came sweeping in again, tireless, roughriding the shorthanded Beavers, Tucker baited them. He needled them with ribald, cutting jibes. He laughed at them, daring them ‘to test him. The Cougars took up the challenge. They poured shot after shot at him. It was one man against a team —and everyone in the Arena knew it.

Tucker slashed the puck clear with hiij stick. Red jerseys and blue jerseys gyrated before his eyes. Powdered snow sprayed his face. He heard Burrows shouting. He did not see the screened shot that bulleted in.

Pain exploded inside his head. His knees were putty ... he was going down . . but Elder had the rebound . . . Elder was shooting . . . Tucker flung up a gauntleted hand. He felt the quick sting against his fingers—and hugged the puck against his chest, dully immune to the slashing and prodding of Cougar sticks.

Dimly, from a great distance, he heard the bell sound, ending the game. Hands began pounding him, voices screamed in his ear. The cheers came to him as if out of a long, dark tunnel, blossoming from every corner of the Arena, swelling and breaking like the surge of the sea against the Dover cliffs he had known.

Later, through the bedlam outside the dressing room, with Alison clinging to his arm and Nick at his side, he re-

minded Sonny and the Beavers of the promise he had made.

Sonny’s face was proud. “So you think twice now. So what! You’ve proved yourself, Tucker! You can go out at the end of this season with your head up. We know how much you love hockey—it counta plenty with us when you say to put Nick back in.” Sonny smiled. “That’s playing it square, Tucker.”

Nick was quieter than they had ever known him to be. His young features were calm, set, very sure. “When I saw Tucker come through tonight, I knew he was telling me I could too. Believe me, I won’t let you down, Mr. Hallock.”

Sonny nodded. “As soon as you came in that door, kid, I knew you were all set again —thanks to Tucker. But don’t let any reporters know 1 think so. I want the fans to feel I’ve got some guts too—enough to take what they’re sure to feel is a big risk !”

Tucker held Alison close. “Our Mr. Tingle should be mighty happy, huh?” Alison’s smile was slow—a smile to remember. “Darling, Mr. Tingle doesn’t exist. I made him up when you explained to me about your not playing. I knew, right then, how much you needed the faith of your fans, as well as my faith. Oh, I know you so very very well, Tucker! Don’t you understand that I went to California only because I realized you wanted to be alone for a while?”

Tucker tipped her chin up. “Sprite! Alison'—nothing I want is anything unless you keep on helping me to get it.” He kept thinking of the spring exams, the home they would be building together, the wonderful life they would continue to share. He said, “Garnished with assorted caresses?” “Well, natch,” said Alison. ★