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Crook 'Em Cowboy

BY Wilfred McCormick and S. Omar Barker

The Circle Dot Outfit Hires a Baseball Coach for Its Game with the
Cross T and the Fun Begins

LONG Tom McGinnis and Shorty Woonmacher of the Circle Dot awaited the arrival of Pelota Junction's wheezy old onea-day choo-choo with all the patience of two unbusted grains of hot popcorn. When it finally limped in, one lone passenger got down, his hands full of sleek baggage. The two cowboys started toward him at a high lope. But as they drew near they put on the brakes, looked from him to each other, spit out their chawin' and let their jaws drop well down toward their briskets in token of surprised disappointment.

"That cain't be him!" Shorty shoved the words out to Long Tom in a whisper. "Why that ain't been weaned a week!"

Before Long Tom could answer, the stranger, as fresh and pink-cheeked as the first rose of summer, his pearl gray hat with the lavender band cocked down over his right eye, his equally pearl gray line- striped golf suit wrinkling jauntily as he moved, stepped forward. The left-hand corner of his mouth drew suddenly down to the southwestward, revealing one gold tooth among the white. From the scant opening thus developed, his words popped out like grasshoppers from a bait can. His round blue eyes, a little wrinkly at the corners, looked from Tom and Shorty to the lone station shack of Pelota Junction, on out to the gray expanse of sagebrush hillocks and back to the cowboys again.

"Greetings, gents!" he said. "Somebody pull a Houdini with the town—or was it a cyclone?"

Long Tom's pale eyes had been staring at the young man's baggage. From the top of a circular bag protruded the ends of several baseball bats. There was no getting around it, this unweaned yearling must be their man. Long Tom brought his lower jaw back up where it belonged.

"Mister Brune?" he questioned.

"You guessed it, colonel! Little George himself. Hottest little baseball coach in the catalogue! Excuse me if I seem to repeat, but who has run off with the town? Or is it hidin' somewhere?"

Long Tom grinned half apologetically.

"There ain't any town," he explained. "It's the Circle Dot ranch that's got the baseball team— fifteen miles out. We play the Cross T's from acrost the Creston. We drive out in the flivver. I'm Long Tom, catcher an' captin' fer the Circle Dots. This here's Shorty. He wrangles third base. We're right pleased to meet you, Mister Brune!"

Long Tom didn't sound right pleased. But he put out his hand. Jim Elliott, Big Auger of the Circle Dot, had written his old friend Steve Douglas back in K.C. to ship them the best baseball coach he could for the money. Well, if this pink- meat yearling with the sidewinder mouth was the best old Steve could do!

"Call me George!" said Mr. Brune, showing his gold tooth in what was meant to be a friendly grin as he shook hands. But in spite of the grin he looked disgusted. These bowlegged yips play baseball! Wow!

Long Tom started picking up the sleek baggage. Shorty Woonmacher shook hands, but he still looked sullenly belligerent. He yanked off a new chunk of chawin' and pocketed the plug without offering it to the new coach. Long Tom was already headed down the cinders toward the flivver with a load of baggage. Shorty picked up the rest of it.

"Say you," he growled suddenly back over the shoulder. "D'yuh reckin' yuh kin toddle down to the bus all by yer lonely-lonesome? We never thought to bring along a baby buggy!"

"One more strike like that, you cow herdin' yipyap," snapped the new Circle Dot coach, "and you're out!"

Silence, except for the trap drum music of a rambling flivver, ruled the fifteen mile jaunt from Pelota Junction to the Circle Dot ranch. A chorus of assorted whoops and whees from about a dozen impatient, whang-skinned cowpunchers greeted their arrival as they rattled over the last cattle guard into the shadow of the big cottonwoods that shaded the ranch house, only to die suddenly down to silence as they saw the passenger in the back seat.

"My gawd, lookit!" groaned Tex Elkins, the pitcher. "An' nary a nipple on the place!"

The others stood, for the most part, either gnawing their mustaches or rolling their cuds. Plainly they shared Tex's more vocal disappointment at the looks of the new coach.

"GREETINGS, gents!" side-mouthed Mr. Brune, climbing stiffly out of the flivver. He eyed them up and down sharply. Big Jim Elliott stepped forward uncertainly. The stranger gave him the twice over.

"Am I seein' cockeyed," he ventured, "or has Babe Ruth grown a mustache?"

Big Jim didn't seem to hear him. Long Tom did the honors.

"Jim, this here's our new coach. Mister Brune, this here's the Big Auger."

"Howdy, son!" Big Jim still looked puzzled. "You mean you're the—"

"Sure," broke in Shorty. "Ol' man Brune's boy! An' is he salty! Yessir, the best dang coach in knee pants. If yuh don't believe me, ask him yerself."

"Come in, son!" Big Jim's broad, heavy face looked troubled as he led the way into his office- bedroom. "Set down."

For a moment he sat in embarrassed silence.

"Look here, colonel," spoke up the pink-faced stranger. "Give us the low down! What's all the gloom about? Am I the announcement of a funeral or what?"

Big Jim sighed.

"To tell ye the truth, sonny," he said slowly. "I—er—that is—we—well we didn't exactly figger to rob the cradle fer a baseball coach. "We kinder—well—that is we expected anyways a full- growed man. We—"

"Yeah?" Brune sidled it out at a mouth corner as if it tasted bad. "Well, you yips should weep an' wail! I expected a baseball team to coach, too. An' look what I'm dealt. If this bunch of foot-in-the-grave cow kickers is all you've got, I move we adjourn! I signed a contract to jazz out here an' pep up a ball team, not—"

"These boys," interrupted Big Jim, "has been playin' baseball for goin' on five years. One big game with the Cross T's ever' season after the round-up. The fust year we beat 'em, but fer the past three they've took us, an' it's beginnin' to eat kinder deep into my ridin' strings. The standin' bet, yuh see, is nine o' my top saddle hosses agin nine top mounts from the Cross T, not to mention most of the boys layin' side bets of ever'thing from saddles to socks. An' it looked like they'd take us agin this year. They got right close to twenty punchers over there, half of 'em young sprouts, to my eleven here, countin' myself an' the cook, some of us kinder stiff in the j'ints at that. So we hatches the idee that if we can sign on a shore 'nough baseball coach fer a week or so, we'd have a chance to take them Cross T wahoos. I writes to ol' Steve Douglas to ship me a coach, an' I was kinder hopin' he'd—"

The sudden blustery entrance of two cowpunchers interrupted him. Slanty Chuggins and Home-Run Hank McRuppe were the boastful bearers of a message from the rest of the Cross T baseballers. Into the room behind them came old Long Tom.

"Dammit," welcomed Big Jim Elliott with a grin that belied his words, "who's been leavin' my gates open?"

"We'uns," swaggered Slanty, "don't need no gates. We're the original fence-jumpin' wahoos, wolf eatin' an' wild. An' not to waste no words nor wind, we heared yuh'd brung on a baseball coach to top off yer ball droppers fer next week's game, an' do we give a ding? Hell, no! You tell 'em, Hank!"

Home-Run Hank, a towhead waddy built like a Hereford yearling, took the floor.

"Jest to celebrate your hirin' of a coach, Jim," he said, "us boys has raised a hundred fer a pot bet on the side. An' I'll bet you four bits personal that you bushwhackers ain't got the nerve to cover it!"

Mock soberness spread like spilled clabber over Big Jim's broad face.

"Well, now," he said slowly, "I reckon it wouldn't be plumb fair to you boys to take your money, seein' we've kinder entered the professional class by takin' on a coach, but—"

"Pig's knuckles!" snorted Slanty Chuggins, giving George Brune's knee pants a cross-eyed twice-over. "Is this here rosebud yer coach? Yeah! Well, listen: let him learn yuh, pitch fer yuh, catch fer yuh, do all yer battin' fer yuh if yuh want! We've still got a hundred that says we'll lick yuh! Do yuh cover it or—"

George Brune got to his feet, showing his gold tooth in a wide grin.

"LISTEN, you with the cross-eyed jaw," he addressed Slanty. "Recite that pome agin! You mean you'll let me into the line-up for this alleged game an' still put up the hundred?"

"You guess it, sweetheart!"

Home-Run Hank nodded agreement.

"You an' eight more like yuh," he said. "If Big Jim can ship 'em in by then. I reckon they ain't no law agin takin' candy from babies when it's shoved at yuh!"

"O.K., gents!" George flashed out his little roll. "I play an' the hundred's covered! An' with the sugar I'm due for this week's ivory polishin', I raise you another! An' don't forget to bring over those nags all curried and washed behind the ears ready for delivery! An' tell the rest of your Cross T cross-eyes that if they want to make any more donations it's all O.K. by Mister Brune, see?"

Home-Run Hank and Slanty Chuggins looked from George Brune to Big Jim Elliott.

Before Big Jim could answer, Long Tom unlimbered his tongue.

"We back him, Slanty!"

Big Jim nodded agreement. They would lose, of course, but he was no man to dodge a bet.

"Bueno!" said Home-Run. "It's two hundred, then, on the side, an' if you want to play Rosebud here, go to it! Until Sunday, adios! "

"For easy donators," opined George Brune when Slanty and Home-Run had spur-clinked out and ridden away, "these Cross T lads win the stick-candy ball bat!"

"I wisht I thought so!" groaned Big Jim Elliott. "Of course, son, we'll cover anyways one hunderd of that ante ourselves—even if we lose."

"O.K., colonel, an' when, may I ask, do we eat?"

Gloom glommed itself all over the Circle Dot supper table that evening. Bad enough to get beat without a coach, but to git yer spirits all r'ared up over some feller comin' out to learn yuh baseball in a week an' then have 'em bog plumb outta sight agin when he comes—not to mention that extry side bet—comes mighty high bein' plumb to the bottom of the arroyo!

After chow, Team Captain Long Tom herded his balky nine out to the diamond. It was a good diamond, the infield smooth as a table. It had cost the Circle Dot punchers quite a few hours of sweat and muscle.

George Brune yanked off his shirt, stuck a long- billed cap on his head and took charge.

"All right, gents!" he snapped. "Take the field! Your regular spots. I gotta get a line on you before we start the mill. All set? O.K. Pass 'er around some, see?"


Like a young cannonball the pill snapped from his fingers and zizzed out to third. Shorty Woonmacher got in front of it all right. He didn't have time to get anywhere else. It hit his mitt, stung its way past his bare hand and still had force enough to thump him a good one in the ribs. Shorty looked surprised, hurt. But he said nothing. Somehow he fished the ball out of his shirt front. It had never touched the ground.

"Hey, you!" yelled the coach. "Is that any way to receive a baseball?"

"Damn yuh!" Shorty yelled back. "I caught it, didn't I?"

"Yeah—you'd catch cooties too if they hopped inside your shirt! What you got a mitt on for? Come on, come on! Snap out of it!"

"Damn yuh!" grunted Shorty, throwing down his mitt and starting for home base. "Who yuh think yer bellerin' at? I'll—"

George Brune met him halfway, but Long Tom stepped ahead of him. He took Shorty by the collar and faced him about.

"Back to yer base, yuh runt!" he growled. "Any more back talk to the coach an' I'll set on yer head, savvy?"

Grumbling, Shorty obeyed.

"Go easy on the razzberries, kid!" Long Tom advised as they turned back toward the home sack. "These boys ain't used to it."

George Brune groaned.

"Is there anything about baseball they are used to?" he asked. Then he grinned and gave Long Tom a whack on the shoulder.

"O.K., colonel!" he said. "I see you an' me's goin' to be great playmates!"

HE turned to face the diamond, driving another bullet-like ball out to Tex Elkins on the mound. Tex missed it. Shorty winged his ball over to first about a mile over the head of Slim Barnes. A fielder picked up Elkins' missed ball and rainbowed it back in the general direction of home. Long Tom was there when it came down and he caught it. But instead of making tracks for a mock put-out at the plate he tossed it out to Tex.

George Brune groaned aloud.

"Oy yoi! Oy yoi!" he mourned, taking off his cap and stomping on it. "One hundred smackers throwed to the birdies! Oy!"

He called them in from the field and for the next half-hour pegged hot ones zizzling to their mitts at varying distances. When he put them back on the sacks and the field spots, their hands were tingling. So were their faces. This baby rosebud could "shore shoot a ball." Presently they began to imitate him. Shorty Woonmacher laid down a low one so hard to right field that it put a stiff limp into Smitty's knee where it popped him. And whenever they pegged one to the coach it did have steam behind it, but George Brune's mitt never failed to meet it easily.

The second half of the evening before twilight's dusk went to hitting practice. Here some of the punchers "showed him." They met the hard straight ones smack on the nose more often than not, and more than one ball sailed high over right field and spudded to a quick stop on the sand flat beyond, from Long Tom's left-handed hitting.

When George Brune called quits there was no razzberry crop on tap. Nobody called him either Sweetheart or Rosebud. "The Kid" knew his baseball. But whether they could learn it from him in one short week was another question. Plainly enough George Brune had his doubts about it.

"Listen, gents," he advised from a mouth- corner, "if this Cross T outfit can play ball it's just gonna be too bad—even with me in there, unless"—his gold tooth showed in a sidewinder grin—"unless somebody springs a surprise! If your sluggin' didn't rate up pretty fair I'd still advise you to cancel. But with good sluggin'—an' the breaks—well, yeah, maybe we'll click!"

"If my hand," grumbled Shorty, "keeps on thisaway, by Sunday it'll be swoll up like the face of a lump-jawed cow!"

"O.K., fella!" grinned the coach as he pulled on his shirt. "In that case you won't need no mitt!"

George Brune lingered at the diamond after the others went in. The moon was up now and they could see him walking slowly along down first-base line, then out to the edge of a field of foot- high alfalfa some thirty feet from it and running parallel to the line from home to first; then back to the diamond; to pitcher's box and the home plate again where he stood for several minutes as if in thought. When he came on in to the bunkhouse he was whistling gaily.

Work on the ranch was slack. The next morning Big Jim Elliott let Brune have the boys.

Sore-muscled as their arms were from harder throwing than they were used to, they went at the practice with new pep. New loyalty, too, for the Kid had them convinced. They did whatever he said—or at least tried to.

Even when he decided to make them all bat left- handed they raised no more protest than to ask him if he didn't think they might bat still better with their feet.

"Never mind the feet, gents," said the Coach. "Battin' with the head's what counts. Now slug 'em! Whack off the covers! An' place 'em! See that gray gooseberry bush 'bout twenty-five yards back of the baseline between first and second?"

"Yuh mean that clump o' sage?"

"O.K., then—that sage. Call it a ginger tree if you wanta, but whack them pills right at it! Attaboy! Whoa, hold on there. Shorty, left-handed, I said! Attaboy! We gotta win this turn with the stick, see? Colonel Elkins here has got speed to his pitchin', but that's all. They'll slug him, sure! What we gotta do is lift the pill right over the right field, see? I hear"—he winked broadly—"I hear they've got a bum out in the right, see?"

IT didn't go bad at all now—on the hitting. In the field the boys still caught a good many of 'em with their shirts and some with nothing but their imaginations, but the stick work looked pretty slick. The Circle Dot punchers hadn't trained their eyes and arms to work together with a lass rope for nothing. They savvied timing without being taught. But then, so would the Cross T's.

After practice the punchers stretched out under the cottonwoods. Brune went on to the house.

"Member that big blaze-faced roan of ol' Slanty Chuggins?" grinned Shorty. "Well, I've done asked Big Jim to cut him to my string. Boys, that there's a real hoss!"

"If we win 'em!" put in Long Tom. He looked worried.

"Pig's knuckles!" snorted Shorty. "'Course we'll win 'em!"

"Y' know," put in Slim Barnes, "they's somethin' kinder fishy about this here Brune. What for's he got us swingin' on the left thataway? We no savvy!"

"Well, he ain't no rosebud, Slim," put in Shorty. "He's a tough little rannyhan—too damn tough. I'd take great pleasure in kickin' the seat of his pants— BUT, boys, he savvies baseball, an' me fer one, I'm doin' jest whatever he says. If he tells me to stand on one foot an' suck my own boot toe, I'll do it!"

Long Tom said nothing.

The next day Brune broke some more news.

"I've got you sized up now, gents," he warbled, "an' what you need an' ain't got is a hotsy-totsy right fielder. Smitty here wasn't so rotten till his hands got sore. Or maybe it's that crack Shorty give him in the knee—anyhow Smitty goes on the bench part the game, an' for nine—n-i-n-e—nine (count 'em) innings I'm in the right field, see? That O.K., colonel?"

"No," replied Long Tom slowly. "I'm afeered it ain't. I been thinkin', George, about us ringin' you in thisaway, an' it don't look to me plumb fair. Maybe you hadn't better play after all."

"Cripes, colonel! Don't be a sap!" The words came out like grasshoppers from the corner of Brune's mouth just southwest from the gold tooth. "Them Cross T gazaboos ain't kickin' on my playin'—where does our stomach-ache come in?"

"Well," Long Tom's voice was sober, "it's thisaway when ol' Home-Run Hank an' Slanty agreed to let you play, they done so what yuh might call sight unseen. They'd seen you, o' course, but they hadn't seen you play ball. They didn't know what you could do."

"Pretzels! I told 'em, didn't I? Did I ever claim I wasn't a ball player? Not this baby! An' do you think I'd of ante'd my roll so quick if I'd thought you yips was gonna rule me out? Say, colonel, don't be a sap! I gotta play—in the right field, too!"

Big Jim Elliott cleared his throat.

"No call to go chokin' yerself down about it, son," he rumbled. "Fact is, I figger Long Tom's plumb right. But here's what we'll do. We'll send over to the Cross T an' tell 'em that we've found out you're a top hand. If they've got a kick on us playin' you, then you're out. If not, you play! Tom, let's you an' me saddle up an' ride over! What say?"

Long Tom nodded and got to his feet.

"O.K., colonel!" snapped Brune sourly. "But if you've gotta play Santa Claus why dontcha wait till Christmas? Cripes!"

Exasperation, protest, almost disgust sat heavy on Brune's boyish face, already beginning to redden and peel under the glare of southwestern sun. But when Long Tom and Big Jim rode back late that night to report that the Cross T boys said to play the coach—a dozen coaches if they wanted to—and be damned, he cheered up again. And Smitty, nursing a swollen knee, raised no holler about being left out. Baseball, he said, wasn't his weakness anyhow.

After the last practice on Saturday, Coach Brune sprung another little surprise. The diamond, he decided, had to be shifted a quarter way around, putting home plate at what was now third.

"What the hell for?" Slim Barnes raised the protest.

"NOW listen, gents," said the coach, "am I the kingpin here or am I the water boy? Cripes, have I got to explain everything? First place, it's the lay of the ground. Second place, it's the sun—who wants to field the last four innings with the sun in his eyes? Third place I want it changed! O.K., colonel"—he addressed Big Jim and Long Tom together—"or am I vetoed?"

"That'll put this here alfalfa," said Long Tom, "behind right field."

"You said it, colonel," snapped out Brune's answer. "But what of it? Read your rules. What's that far back of the baseline don't make no never mind, see? On some diamonds it's a fence. An' what's fair for Peter ain't gonna cramp Paul, now is it? That alfalfa will be back there just the same when we're fieldin' as when they are, won't it? Cripes, am I—"

"Go ahead and change it, son," interrupted Big Jim. "I don't see no harm in it."

"O.K., colonel!" Brune's smile let the sun shine in on his gold tooth.

"Main idee," said Shorty Woonmacher when they had the job done, "is to do what this baby says, see? He ain't no rosebud, boys, but he does know baseball."

The Cross T punchers arrived for the game like the wild bunch they were. And they brought no extra horses to ride back on if they should lose nine of those they were riding. From the ranches and squatters' homes around Pelota Junction came a sizable crowd. The annual Nine-Horse Baseball Game of these two rival outfits was an event of the rangeland. Jess Cross, Big Auger of the Cross T drove out from his town home at Deming to see it, bringing an umpire with him. Everybody and his dog was there.

"Now gents," said Brune as a last word. "Slug 'em! Don't git worried. One base on an overthrow at first, third or home an' you've gotta make it. No limit on bases if a fair ball is lost, see? Lift 'em to right field! Peg 'em in hard to the bases, see? An' anybody that loses a ball in his shirt—well, don't do it! O.K.?"

Circle Dot took the field. The first Cross T man up knocked an easy roller to shortstop. Shortstop's peg to first flew wild. The Cross T man got to second. The next man up was Slanty Chuggins. One strike. One ball.

Ping! A clean double to right center. The first runner came in. One to nothing, no outs and a man on second. Wow! Another walkaway. Four runs checked in before the third out.

Slanty Chuggins passed Shorty on his way out.

"Ain't coachin' wonderful?" he grinned.

Shorty put a slightly swollen hand up to his nose and waggled his fingers.

"Pig's knuckles!"

Slim Barnes led off. Foul ball! Foul ball! Two strikes! Ball one! Slim reached for a wide one! Strike three! Long Tom clipped a liner to second. He dropped it. But Long Tom, half-dazed with the apparent walkaway, didn't hurry fast enough. Second pegged him out at first. The next man got to first. Then George Brune came to bat, took his left-handed stance.

Socko! High over the right fielder's head sailed the pill, straight into the waiting alfalfa. By the time the Cross T fielder found it, Brune had clipped the bases for a homer, scoring the man ahead of him.

Cross T, four; Circle Dot, two.

For five innings thus waggled the game. Plenty of runs, but always a few more for the Cross T than for the Circle Dot. Big Jim, Shorty, Long Tom and two others lifted homers into the alfalfa. And luckily, too, for the younger Cross T boys outfielded them to a standstill everywhere else.

Home-Run Hank always came to bat with a wide grin. He was the Babe Ruth of this rangeland baseball. He never waited for good ones. He reached for everything—and generally hit 'em. He did so today, too. Four times he cracked the ball high out into the alfalfa. But only once did he make the circuit. The other three times George Brune jumped into the alfalfa patch, grabbed up the ball like a man with magic eyesight and pegged it in to put him out—once at third, twice at second.

"That damn dude coach!" growled Slanty Chuggins. "He could spot a bug in the middle of a feather bed at midnight! What idjits we was to let him play!"

"That there," razzed Shorty as they passed, "is baseball!"

THE game was nobody's walkaway. It came to a tie in the eighth at sixteen to sixteen. Long Tom was on third.

They had two outs. The Circle Dot cook, pretty worn out and winded, popped a bounder down between second and third. Slanty Chuggins could have pegged it across to first, but he didn't.

It looked easy enough to head off Long Tom. He pegged it home. It was a close play. The umpire called it safe. Long Tom got up and turned around to the umps.

"You're blind as hell!" he said. "He got me, fair an' square!"

George Brune rushed at him like a wild man.

"Holy cripes!" he yowled. "Are you nuts! Keep your trap shut! Dontcha know we got a tied score? Dontcha know a run counts one—an' this is the eighth? He's umpirin' this game—you're playin' it, see?"

Long Tom looked just a little bit solemn. His eyes narrowed.

"Save yer fits, sweetheart!" he said. "We ain't aimin' to steal nothin'—even if the umpire don't see it right. I'm out!"

The umpire, himself a ranchman, knew these boys. If they said they were out—or safe—they were.

"Yuh're out!" he decided. "My mistake!"

"Cripes, colonel—" George Brune was stumped. He took the field in a daze. Sixteen to sixteen—beginning the ninth—and that old yip of a cowboy giving away runs!

But the Circle Dot's dander was up. Shorty and the left fielder collided after a fly, but the fielder got it. One out. Two Cross T men got on the sacks. One scored, leaving two on. Circle Dot sixteen, Cross T seventeen.

Home-Run Hank came to bat. Straight into the alfalfa soared the ball. It looked like a home run. But it wasn't. George Brune was mad. He made one jump into the alfalfa, whirled and pegged the ball in to second. Home-Run Hank was out. The man on third had scored. The man who had been on first was on his way. Home zipped the ball. Long Tom stretched himself to reach it, one foot on the plate. He got it.

"Yuh're out!" yelled the umpire.

Sixteen to eighteen!

Circle Dot came into bat. Then something seemed to happen. The Circle Dot boys spit on their hands and got busy. Shorty Woonmacher came up right-handed and he got to second. Brune began to cheer up. Long Tom winged out a possible two-bagger but got caught while Shorty scored. Slim Barnes knocked a homer. The score was tied. Another man struck out.

When Brune came to bat his face was pale. And how he socked that ball! He trotted around and in home while the right fielder searched the alfalfa patch.

"If he had eyes like you, son," boomed Big Jim, "they might have a chance!"

Brune grinned. The game was won. He felt quite cheerful again.

Circle Dot scored one more. Then the cook fanned.

Eighteen to twenty! For the first time in four years the Circle Dot had won.

A little crestfallen, but still able to grin, the Cross T hands paid their bets. Jess Cross helped Home-Run Hank deliver the nine horses. Big Jim offered to lend them back for the trip home. But the Cross T boys good-humoredly told him to take his horses and go to hell. Then, nine of them riding behind, they pulled out in a cloud of dust.

The Circle Dot boys crowded cordially around Brune. Even Shorty stuck out his hand.

"It was your fieldin', Kid," said Long Tom, "that saved us the game!"

"Yessir," said Shorty. "Yuh shore savvied spottin' them balls. Now if I—"

Brune laughed.

"Listen, gents!" he said. "The secret of winnin' baseball games is to use the ol' noodle! Come out here a minute!"

Puzzled, they followed him out to the alfalfa patch back of right field.

Brune stopped and kicked aside a little mesquite root. There were not ordinarily any mesquite roots lying around in this alfalfa patch. Beside this one, smuggled close to the ground lay a slightly used baseball. He showed them several more like it. Also quite a number of roots with no baseball there.

"NOT my eyes, gents," he said, "but my head. You see I got to thinkin'—maybe we'd get cleaned—so I slipped out here last night and planted me a flock of baseballs with these roots for markers. When those Cross T yip-yaps lifted one into the alfalfa all I had to do was jump in, reach down by one or another of those markers, grab me a ball and peg her in! Clever, eh, Colonel?"

Brune laughed. Strangely enough nobody joined him.

"Why yuh damned crook!" exclaimed Shorty Woonmacher. "I'll—"

Long Tom stopped him. His lean face looked solemn. His keen eyes were narrowed.

"O' course that, Brune," he said, "makes it different. What ain't win square in these parts, I reckon ain't win at all." He looked around the group. Their faces, with the possible exception of the cook's showed approval.

"So now, boys," he said, "I reckon we'd better saddle an' see can we ketch up with the Cross T's an' return 'em their horses before they get home! Come on!"

In another five minutes a dazed dude coach watched the whole bunch of them disappear in a cloud of galloping dust over the first ridge east. Nine of them were leading horses.

They came up with the surprised Cross T outfit at the Arroyo Seco crossing. They rode up on them in a breathless swoop.

"Hold on!" Long Tom was spokesman. "Boys, that game wasn't ours after all. It was a crop of extry baseballs growin' out in that alfalfa that nary a one of us knowed about that win it! Our dude coach planted 'em there, an' that's how come he could find the ball so quick ever' time an' slam it in fer an' out. An' what's win thataway ain't win a- tall on the Circle Dot. Boys, here's yer bosses, an' yer bet money!"

Home-Run Hank McRuppe worked his chawin' back out of the way of his grin, reined his horse around and stuck out his hand to Long Tom.

"That's mighty white of you, Tom," he said. "Kinder hate to accept it. But to show we ain't a bunch of scrubs ourselves, we'll play you that game over agin next Sunday! What say, fellers?" Slanty Chuggins spoke.

"I jest wanted to ask yuh, Tom," he drawled, "if yuh'd lend us yer coach fer a few days? He might have some more good idees, an'—"

"Not a chance, Slanty!" interrupted Long Tom. "The way he was droopin' at the ears when we left him, I reckon' he'll be plumb gone by the time we're back!"

But for once Long Tom was wrong. While the punchers lingered here to talk it over, a little dust cloud appeared over the hill. A few minutes later one of Big Jim's work mules heaved up at a lumbering gallop. Astride of her, bareback, sat George Brune, hatless, one golf sock down on his ankle, his shirt tail out.

Without ceremony Shorty Woonmacher started for him. Once more it was Long Tom that stopped him. He saw that the coach was trying to say something. He held up his hand for silence and got it. George Brune gulped. Then the words came:

"Listen, gents," he said, and the grasshopper snap was somehow missing from his words as they sidled out past his gold tooth. "Cripes! I didn't suppose—why hell's fire, colonel, I didn't suppose there was any such notions of square shootin' left anywheres! Back where I come from I—I ain't such a bum, an' by golly, I ain't goin' to be out here! An' to prove it, here's back what I win! An' I gotta proposition: play this game over again next Sunday an' I'll stay this week to coach both you outfits in honest-to-God baseball. No pay, gents, no monkeyshines. An' so help me hector, if I don't play you square this time, I'll eat up that whole damned alfalfa field without salt! You gotta gimme my chance!"

"O.K., colonel!" he grinned.