Black Yarn: A Fictional Series (part 8/10)

cont’d from parts 1/10 , 2/10, 3/10, 4/10, 5/10, 6/10, 7/10)

Dumb Luck

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Now you’re probably thinking the state pen must have had about the greatest company ball team in history around this time on account of the sudden influx of talented players landing themselves, with more than a little bit of help as you know, behind bars. Heck, maybe O’Malley had his hands in the pockets of the jail system,  and was trying to build himself a team on the inside. Truth is, I don’t know if Honus or Chief, or any of the countless numbers of men sent to their confinement on one of O’Malley’s whims, ever played the game of baseball or looked up at the brilliant, blue sky without the impediment of barbed wire.

One thing I can tell you for sure was the Canaries Baseball Club would never be the same. Now down to only three of the original members in Sheriff, Foggy, and Rube, and comprised almost exclusively of O’Malley’s clunky henchmen and a few of his wealthy busher friends, the team was on a downward spiral. Hadn’t won a game in over two weeks after Honus left town. He also left a hole at short bigger than any I’d ever seen, even in the caverns of the Northern Colliery itself.

Some lanky fella with a scraggly beard whom O’Malley kept referring to as ‘Lug’ was filling in for Honus. But he wasn’t filling much—certainly not his glove with any baseballs. One thing I swear he could have filled was a whole bushel-load with his excuses. Always ranting about the sun in his eyes, or how the umpire got in his way, or how the ball was too dirty. More than once I came close to telling him he was playing the wrong game, maybe should have taken up Badminton instead. But when you’re losing like we were on such a routine basis, you don’t see much point in it.

Well, I could tell the boys–that is to say Sheriff, Foggy, and Rube–were getting mighty fed up; especially Rube. One day, before a rare Saturday afternoon game, I heard him say to Sheriff, “You know, if I don’t go out there and strike every one of ‘em out, we ain’t never getting’ home tonight.” Sheriff just stared off in the distance like he was watching something. “Sheriff, you hear me?”

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“Wha? Oh. Oh yeah,” he said after snapping back to it. “You said you need to strike every one of ‘em out. Well go ahead and do it then.”

Rube burst out laughing. “Go ahead and do it? You must be crazier than I thought! I’ll be lucky to get eleven-twelve of ‘em.”

“Naw, Rube, you ain’t that much of a weakling,” Foggy chimed in, half-laughing. “I expect you can finish ‘em all off before dinner. Gives you about an hour and a half. What do think, Sheriff?”

Sheriff was startled by the question. “Wha? Oh, yeah. You prolly need less time than that even.” They laughed and clapped each other about the shoulders. I had to admit, it was pretty refreshing to see those guys stay so loose and keep things light the way things had been unfolding for the team and the town at the time. I swear those boys were smiling from ear to ear when they took the field that day. Probably contributed to the unlikely, albeit unlucky, chain of events that followed.

From the very first warm-up pitch Rube hurled across the plate that day, I knew we were in for a real treat. Boy, was he just zinging lightning bolts! Just one after another! They crashed into O’Malley’s mitt in thunderous claps. I thought the black-hearted businessman would wince and cry right there on the spot.

But the heat didn’t translate to success. At least not early on, despite the fact Rube was throwing his darts right where he wanted them. A leadoff groundout urned into a leadoff single when Lug watched it squirt between his legs at short. What should have been a one out fly out to right, put runners at the corners with no outs when it bounced off Mitch’s shoulder and dropped to the grass. After a rare base on balls issued by Rube, the bases were loaded with no outs. Things seemed to be headed in the same direction they had been for the Canaries.

Then I saw Rube’s eyes flash with rage and his chest heave with the anger he was holing up inside him. He toed the rubber, and by golly, didn’t he throw that baseball on the very next pitch harder than I’d ever seen him throw it. Heck, it was harder than I’d ever seen anyone throw a baseball before or since. It snapped from his hand and popped O’Malley’s mitt such a short time later it was almost like Rube had simply handed it to him.

Well, that batter didn’t move the bat off his shoulder more than the length of a molecule. Didn’t budge on the next pitch neither. And when old Rube popped the mitt for a third consecutive time and the umpire punched the batter out with vocal exuberance, I was reminded again: we were in for something special.

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In fact, the next batter found himself sitting down after three pitches as well, and the final out of the inning, made with the bases full of visitors and a ball seemingly destined for the openness of right field, a scrawny little infielder came diving from somewhere near Timbuktu to make the play. You better believe old Rube slapped Foggy on the behind about as hard as he could after that. But the little second baseman wasn’t done there. He came up in the bottom of the inning and looped a single into centerfield to get the Canaries offense moving.

With two outs and Foggy bouncing off first, Sheriff came up to the plate. He seemed a bit distracted still, but it wasn’t too out of the ordinary for a man who always seemed to have just one too many things on his mind. And, by golly, if those things didn’t always seem to wear lipstick and rouge.

Well, he stepped up and I saw him stare off down the third base line. Course it’s mighty hard to hit when you’re not looking at the ball, and the pitch shot through the zone for strike one. Then I saw him staring off down the first base line. Boom! Strike two. Well, I guess Sheriff decided he’d taken in enough scenery, because he wasn’t so gentle with the next pitch. It floated in about letter-high, just where Sheriff liked them. He took one mighty wallop and sent that ball soaring deep over the left field fence. He raised his cap as he rounded the bases to a few of the more exuberant lady fans who always seemed to follow him around. And when he tapped home plate to score the Canaries’ second run of the game, I had this realization that that was all Rube would need to close the door.

I’m proud to report to all of you, on this day so far removed from Rube’s special day, that I couldn’t have been more correct in my instincts. Rube was masterful. His teammates, though I doubt Rube would have called them that, managed to boot five balls on the day. But Rube kept a goose egg on the board by mowing down twenty batters and having this eerie knack for sending all the tough plays in the direction of Foggy or Sheriff. Hey, call it luck, but that was the way things usually happened for Rube when he stepped between the lines.

It was the first and last time old Rube would ever strike out that many batters in a ball game. Course, that season like so many of his original teammates, his only real family, Rube couldn’t have known he was playing his final ball game, or that he’d be taking a few more of his friends down with him.

After that game it was all smiles and celebration for Rube, who seemed to have forgotten all of the atrocities that had befallen the people he cared about since the season had begun. Foggy jumped on his back and hitched a ride on his stocky friend from the mound to the dugout. Sheriff smacked Rube playfully in the head and told him he’d done real good. Even O’Malley came over and shook his hand. And Rube loved every minute of the win. He danced around the dugout and screamed out all sorts of stuff that amounted to one big pile of gloating. Course Foggy joined right in, but not Sheriff. He was too busy packing up his stuff about as quickly as he could. Seemed to be in a real hurry.

“Hey Sheriff,” Rube finally said to him. “I reckon it’s time to celebrate. Head down to the Bull?”

“Nah, Rube, not tonight,” he said. “I got a few things to do.”

“Come on, just a few rounds.” But Sheriff had already brushed past him and up out of the dugout. Before Rube could go after him, a stranger drifted into Sheriff’s shadow.

He was shabbily dressed, in a wrinkled suit and a hat with a small tear in the brim. Looked like he’d been traveling for quite some time, like some kind of door to door salesman who’d been on the road and away from his family for months. He walked right up to Rube as if he’d been searching for him since the day he was born.

“A diamond in the rough,” he said to Rube as he approached. “The man I’ve been looking for all season long. My one true prospect.”

“I’m sorry, mister,” Rube said confused, “Do I know you?”

“Sorry son. So sorry,” the man said dusting off his hat. “Name’s Pete Garczynski, my boy. Talent scout with the Cincinnati Reds. I cover the whole Northeast region.”

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“Nice to meet you,” Rube said extending a hand. “I’m Ruben Harriss. Fellas call me Rube. Not sure why, but I do know I’m a pitcher.”

“This much I know, my boy. And a damn good one at that. I’ve watched a lot of players. Even more pitchers. Lord, have I watched me some pitchers just this season alone! And boy, I’ll tell you I’ve never seen a single one of them strike out twenty in nine innings. Well, that’s just unbelievable if you ask me.”

“Thanks, sir. First time I ever done it myself, but that don’t mean it’ll be the last if I’m lucky.”

“It certainly may not be the last, Mr. Harriss. Ah, Rube. It’s ok if I call you Rube?”

“Course. You were starting to confuse me with all that Mr. Harriss stuff.”

Mr. Garczynski was tickled by how Rube handled himself and by how entertaining he was even off the field. “Of course, Rube. Well, that’s why I want to offer you a shot..”

“A shot?”

“Why yes, a shot. See, the owner ain’t keen on signing nobody he hasn’t seen play with his own eyes. If you want to know the truth, his eyes ain’t so good, but he’s the one who writes the checks so he gets what he wants. Anyway, I want you to come on out to Cincy with me so you can show him your stuff. It’s mostly a formality cause once he sees what you can do and hears a glowing report from yours truly, ain’t no way he’ll pass up the chance to sign you.”

“Sign me? You mean to play in the bigs?”

“To play in the bigs.”

“You hear that, Foggy?! The bigs! I’m gonna play in the bigs!” Foggy and Rube were now holding hands like a couple of school kids and jumping around in a circle. Garczynski smiled like he’d witnessed the scene a hundred times but it still brought him some joy. When the two overgrown idiots calmed down Rube said, “So, when do we leave?”

“Tomorrow morning. Meet me down at the train station at eight and bring your stuff, both figuratively and literally.”

“I’ll be there,” Rube said shaking Garczynski’s hand a final time. Even though I was sure he wasn’t up to snuff on figurative and literal meanings, I was quite sure Rube would do what was needed to impress the higher powers within the Reds organization. Just as long as he could make it through the night.

See, Rube was about as charged up as I’d ever seen him and who could blame him? He’d just thrown a complete game shutout, struck out twenty men, and was offered a shot to play in the major leagues all in the course of a few hours. Not too many people could be that lucky. But, like I said, Rube was always enjoying outrageous luck on the field. It was just what happened when he set foot on dry ground that plagued him. Which is why I couldn’t help but shudder when I heard him say to Foggy, “You ready to head on over to Dempsey’s place for some celebrating?” And a mischievous little smirk from Foggy and a nod was all it took to set everything in motion.

Those two boys hustled down to Pop’s tavern like they were racing to a fire. I couldn’t tell you just how many rounds they had before I got my own tail through the door, but I don’t think it mattered much. Rube was in such high spirits he could have made friends with a rabid raccoon, and Foggy, well he was always one to adapt to his surroundings like a chameleon. I knew they were having themselves a grand time even before I pushed through the corner doors, because they were shouting and whooping it up so I could hear them half way down the block.

Must have been at least an hour or more before old Rube could peel himself away from the crowd. He must have approached every single gentleman in that bar, smacked him on the back whether he knew him or not, and told him the minute details of his incredible evening. Only thing we could do to get him to sit down for more than a few seconds at a time was to start up a game of cards around his favorite table.

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If there was one thing Rube loved about as much as baseball, it was playing a few hands of stud poker. I can’t tell you why he liked it so much. He didn’t have the slightest touch of luck when it came to playing cards–when it came to anything outside of pitching, really. It was the only time I didn’t see that man smile, watching pile after pile of his hard-earned money pulled in the opposite direction. But, by golly, if he wasn’t the first man to go searching for a game the very next day, and despite the improbable string of fortune that met him at every turn earlier in the day, this particular round of cards was playing out according to form for Rube.

“Alright, I’ll match your penny-pitching, Foggy, and I’ll raise you a few more,” he said, still revved up to his highest gear.

“I’ll match,” Foggy said pitching a few more pennies into the middle of the table. “Call.”

“Nothin’ gonna stop old Rube tonight, Foggy,” he said smacking his cards on the table to reveal a full house, kings over eights. He wrapped his arms around the pile of money like it was some bundle of joy, but before he could reel it in, Foggy put his cards on the table.

“I ain’t never had a hand like this in my life,” he said apologetically. All four jacks and the two of hearts were staring up at us from the table.

Normally, Rube would have smashed a closed fist down on the table and unleashed a string of obscenities on us the likes of which were liable to educate some of the simpler folk. But Rube somehow held back his anger, and after only a momentary pause to take a deep breath, he let out a loud cackle and pushed the winnings across to Foggy.

“Foggy, you old sonuvagun! I owed it to you anyway for flashing so much leather out there today.”

And the cards were dealt again and again. Each time old Rube found his stack of money getting shorter and shorter. And each time a little bit of the excitement he’d entered the Bull with earlier that night started to transform into rage. Before long, there was a defeated look on Rube’s face. You might have thought he hadn’t just been offered a chance to sign a pro contract if you didn’t know any better.

“I’m gonna stop the cheap skate attitude at this table right now,” he said, a darkness hovering over him. “You guys ain’t gonna shoot me down and leave me for dead.” And then he pushed the rest of his money across the table.

Now I’m no poker expert, but had I been part of that game and had I held the strings over that particular hand, I surely would have done everything in my power to sacrifice it over to Rube. The man looked fit to explode. But Pop didn’t like to lose, especially when he had a good hand, and he took one quick glance at his dough before pushing it into the middle of the table.

“Let’s see what kinda men we are,” he said to Rube, who nodded as they both tossed their cards on the table. Pop had three sevens. Rube had been bluffing.

But he sure wasn’t bluffing when he slammed a fist against the table, shattering two glasses in the process. And then we all saw it: a thin stream of red fall upon the dark table and run directly from Rube’s throwing hand.

“Somebody get a rag!” Pop shouted, and I hustled behind the bar and back so fast it was like Dusty had possessed my body. Pop rung it out and then tied it tightly around Rube’s injured hand. “Looks like you got lucky,” Pop continued, “a whole lot more blood than wound.”

“Will I be able to throw tomorrow?”

“I’m no doctor, Rube, but I’d say we’ll be able to stop it bleeding without stitching it up. Long as you ain’t getting soft on us you’ll be able to pitch.”

“Thanks, Demps. Sorry about the glasses. Now, for my sake, let’s banish the card game and finish celebrating. That’s why we came down here, ain’t it Foggy?”

And for the rest of the night I didn’t see Rube sit down, nor did I see him without a frosty mug of libation gripped between a blood-stained rag. He and Foggy were in high spirits, as you can probably imagine, by the time they were the only two customers standing in the Bull’s Head.

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When we grew tired of dealing with those two buffoons hanging on each other for support and spitting all sorts of unintelligible dialogue, Pop gave me a look that said ‘enough is enough’ and we covertly decided, under the guise of washing glasses, to walk them back home.

Neither Rube nor Foggy could claim to be native Centralians. They’d come into town from Ohio strictly to pull in wages at Northern Colliery. They didn’t have no family to account for them locally and neither one had found the opportunity to settle down with one of the fine young women of Centralia. They weren’t the only miners with such status at Northern. We had a whole mess of guys O’Malley had shipped in to round out his workforce and save him a few extra pennies on wages. Most of them made camp and lived collectively in a small clearing just a few hundred yards away from the coal patch houses. People used to call it Miner Town, though I doubt it was the only one of its kind in the region. Lord knows there must have been dozens of Miner Towns, all providing the lonely miner with a large tented shelter like you might find in the military and a small well where fresh water could be extracted for any number of daily routines.

It was quite an undertaking trying to find the camp on a cloudy night. The darkness covered our eyes like a heavy blindfold and trying to keep Rube and Foggy from bumping into each other and falling off course wasn’t helping matters. Finally, after roaming around the woods for nearly an hour, I caught a scent of burnt wood which I figured must have been coming from  an extinguished campfire. We followed our noses for a few hundred feet until the scent grew in intensity and we found ourselves roaming into a dark and snoring campsite full of tired miners.

Well, things wouldn’t be so restful for long, because as soon as those two drunken buffoons realized they were home, they decided to start whooping it up again.

“WhoooHOOO! I’m going to Cincinatttti!” shouted Rube, and Foggy chimed in with a raucous bout of uncontrolled laughter. Two or three mining lanterns flickered on as a match was struck somewhere off in the corner of the tent.

“What’s the big idea?” shouted a gruff voice. “Keep it down!” Pop and I struggled to restrain Rube and Foggy as their wild cackling threatened to wake up everyone in camp.

“Did you hear that, Foggy? Somebody got a big idea!” And the laughter continued. Cots were squeaking and blankets were shuffling every which way. More lanterns were being lit, and miners to the left, right and center were grumbling and trying to get their bearings after waking up so abruptly.

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“Can’t even steal a wink of shut-eye ‘round here!” a miner shouted somewhere nearby.

“Don’t worry, sire” Foggy joked in response, “I’ll stand guard while you steal a few of them winks.” Rube unleashed another obnoxious cackle while Foggy reached down beside his own bunk and grabbed a shotgun. The barrel seemed to sparkle in the dim light of the lanterns, which wasn’t surprising because it was Rube’s, and the man liked to polish it about every chance he got.

Old Foggy wobbled around on shaky legs as he slung that shotgun up on his shoulders and marched back and forth like a drunken, wooden soldier.

Everybody in the tent, with the exception of Rube who was laughing so hard I thought he was fit to burst, rolled over and looked for cover when they saw how precariously Mr. Foghorn handled the loaded piece.

Well, Pop and I reacted before we had time to think things through, and I thank God for that cause if I’d have thought about grabbing old Foggy by the waist while Pop wrestled the gun out of his hands, I would have ran the other direction. As it was, we did manage to get the shotgun back on its rack and the two gentlemen in question into their bunks so everyone could finally get back to sleep.

We left the tent, happy to be rid of those two idiots, quicker than a gust of wind through the trees. But I do wish we’d have stayed only a few moments longer because Pop and I couldn’t have been more than fifty, sixty yards outside of camp when we heard a stir coming from within the tent. Then we heard more of Rube’s wild cackling and we knew him and Foggy were at it again. I looked at Pop and we both started laughing cause we knew we’d just escaped from dealing with them until the sun came up.

But our laughter wasn’t meant to last.

First we saw a flash that lit up the tent from the inside as if somebody were x-raying it. It was followed by a short explosion, and then what seemed like the light of every lantern inside the tent.

Pop and I turned and sprinted through the dark until we reached camp once more, and then I followed Pop who had flung himself through the flap that led inside the tent.

What we saw next I won’t describe to you in great detail. Not cause I know it’ll disturb you, because it will, but because it’ll disturb me. It’s an image that haunts my nightmares to this day.

But I will tell you, after Pop and I left the tent the first time that night, old Perry was up and at it again, doing his soldier routine with Rube’s shotgun. Rube had climbed out of his bunk to join the hysterics and when Foggy spun around, clicked his heels together and smacked the butt of that shotgun against the ground, he gave his best friend the worst of it. Buckshot entered Rube at the neck and dropped him in an instant. Probably stopped breathing before he hit the ground.

Foggy, as Pop and I confirmed with our own eyes just as soon as we’d reentered the tent, was sobbing and screaming and clinging to Rube’s lifeless body like he’d just killed a part of himself. Not even the burliest miner in that tent could pull him from his friend, and his shrieks grew more and more shrill until at last we thought he’d burst his own eardrums. Didn’t stop lamenting until Dr. Henrich arrived and slipped some kind of pill down Foggy’s throat. Diagnosed him as “raving mad.” I actually saw him jot the exact phrase on his ledger before Pop dragged me off towards home.

Heard they took Foggy across the river to Danville to be evaluated. He never came back into town as far as I knew and rumors spread that he’d been sent to a special ward back in Ohio where his poor mother could watch over him.

Rube’s body was sent back to Ohio as well. He was buried in a cemetery with the other deceased of his family. Garczynski, the Cincinnati scout, upon hearing of the tragedy arranged for Rube to be buried in official Reds regalia. But his family declined. Somehow they knew their son would have wanted to go to his reward wearing the uniform of the only team he’d ever known.

TO BE CONTINUED

Come back next Thursday for Black Yarn part 9/10 – “DUMB LUCK”

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