By Badgergater
(for the 4th of July challenge)

Jess Harper stood poised, weapon at the ready, his blue eyes locked on those of his opponent. He shut out the noise of the spectators who were gathered to watch the confrontation, focused, intent, concentrating. Mort, he knew, was standing nearby; not there to interfere but watching carefully, making sure this face-off was fair.

The battle was nearly over, time had almost run out; the end was near.

Two from Laramie were already dead.

It was all up to him.

In Jess' hands alone.

One last chance to save the day.

Failure, no, he couldn't even think of that.

The consequences were far too great.

He felt sweat trickling down his back but ignored it.

He glared at the mustachioed man who faced him, a man he knew well. Gus Grantley from Cheyenne was a big, big man, tough and strong, a skilled, wily veteran who wasn't about to be intimidated by Jess' glare.

A mere forty-five feet separated them.

Jess could feel the sweat on the palms of his hands, threatening his grip; but then he had no more time to think, or to worry.

Grantley made his move, but Jess, unflinching, waited patiently, biding his time, needing to be sure.

Oh that Grantley, he was a thrower, the best thrower in all of Wyoming, but not that day. His aim was off, his toss wild. The missile flew past Jess' head, and with quick reflexes he ducked, spinning around quickly to glare at Grantley while "That's a ball!" shouted umpire Mort Cory and the behind retrieved the errant throw.

The Laramie crowd roared its approval.

"C'mon Jess," hollered Slim, standing at second base. If Jess could get a hit, Slim would score and Laramie would be tied, and keep alive the nine's chance to triumph in the annual Fourth of July townball match. If they won, they'd have bragging rights over the Cheyenne boys for a whole year.

And, for the rest of the day, all the free beer they could drink.

All this ball-playing in the hot July sun was making him thirsty. "C'mon Jess! You can do it."

They couldn't let it happen again like last year, when Laramie had been the loser and the boys from Cheyenne had rubbed it in, every chance they got, for the past 365 days. It had gotten so bad that the last few weeks Jess had flat out refused to go to Cheyenne at all.

"C'mon Grantley, throw me a decent one, eh?" Jess demanded. He held out a hand, just over waist high. "Right here."

The Cheyenne hurler nodded, his face still grim, and readied himself; legs crossed, left hand behind his back, the leather ball in his right hand, the perfect thrower form as he began his underhand motion.

Jess let the ball go by.

"Harper, that was a good throw!" Grantley complained.

"It was low," objected Jess.

"It was a good one," decided Mort. "Jess, you gotta take a crack at a good throw. You know the rules," he warned.

Jess glared over at the sheriff, then returned the bat to his shoulder and readied for the next throw.

He swung at the pitch this time, felt the shiver as the wooden bat made contact, and knew immediately that he'd made a mistake. The throw was a dew drop, fat and slow, and Jess had mistimed his swing. The ball simply ticked off the bat, but if the behind caught it in the air, he'd be dead and the game over …

Jess held his breath as Hearndon, Cheyenne's behind, reached out, lunging for the ball. It hit his fingertips, eluded Hearndon's desperate clutching fingers, and dropped to the ground.

Jess, and Laramie's team, were still in the match!

The crowd sighed in relief.

"C'mon Jess. Hit it square. Get me home." Slim shouted encouragement. He knew his pard was the team's best striker.

Jess readied himself once more.

Grantley hurled the next pitch.

Jess swung. The bat made full contact this time, the impact stinging his hands, the ball soaring off into the outfield. It flew over Jim Kenny's head, bounced once and skipped between the wires of the fence, into Mr. McKinny's sage-brush dotted pasture. Slim was already running, on his way from second to third with Jess legging it toward first as Kenny dived under the barbed wire fence and began a frantic search for the ball.

On the sidelines, Mike was bouncing up and down, hollering with excitement, "Run, Jess, run!" He enthusiastically joined in the wild cheering of the holiday crowd of Laramie cranks. "Faster! Faster!"

Slim quickly completed his trip around the bases, touching home base, his ace upping the Laramie tally and tying the score of the game.

Leaving Laramie's fate up to Jess Harper.

Jess was running hard, arms swinging, legs churning as he flew past second base and then third, careful to touch each stake as Kenny finally found the ball under a clump of grass and threw it toward home. Jim Kenny had a good arm - his throw soared fast and true, on a straight line toward the behind who now stood guarding home.

Jess saw Hearndon waiting in his path, but he didn't slow, his gaze fixed firmly on home and victory.

Which would get there first, the runner, or the ball?

Jess arrived a split second ahead of the throw, the cowboy barreling into the Cheyenne man who was trying to guard the plate, the thud of the crash resounding across the hushed crowd. Both men went down in a tangle of arms and legs, tumbling over and over, but somehow Jess found his feet, his reaching hand searching out and touching home plate.

"Safe!" decreed Mort.

The crowd erupted into wild applause.

The Laramie club nine ran out onto the field, celebrating, slapping Jess on the back, hoisting him up on their shoulders.

The Cheyenne nine had run out onto the field, too, hoping to celebrate but their hopes were now dashed.

In the surging crowd of players, no one knew who threw the first punch, but someone did.

Celebration suddenly turned into wild melee.

Mort, overwhelmed and outnumbered, shouted at everyone to stop but was ignored, and could only stand back and watch the fists fly.

Daisy latched onto Mike's shoulder and pulled him away, out of sight of the fisticuffs.

"Aw Aunt Daisy, it was just gettin' exciting!" the youngster proclaimed unhappily.

"Much too exciting, young man!" she proclaimed, standing on tiptoe, peering back at the field to see what was happening.

The fight slowly died out until only Jess and Slim were still on their feet, standing back to back, fists raised, smiling. Slim's hair had flopped down over his face, and he had a growing bruise on his aching jaw. A lone curl dipped over Jess' forehead, and he wiped at a trickle of blood dripping from his nose, already feeling his eye beginning to swell shut. Finally aware they were the last men standing, they looked at each other and began to laugh, laughing until neither one could stay on his feet.

It was Gus Grantley who eventually helped them up and all together, the two nines walked together over to the big tent where beer was being served.

Slim wasn't sure who bought the first round, but after the hard-fought match out in the hot sun, the cool brew was welcome. Someone proposed a toast to the Laramie nine and the boys chugged their beers in one long swallow, and someone ordered another round after that, and someone else another, and somewhere after the fifth, or maybe the sixth round, they quit counting. But kept drinking.

Just before dark, Daisy recruited Cal the blacksmith and two of the Markum boys to help her load the buckboard. As they pulled out of town, Slim sat with his back leaning against the back of the seat, his long legs splayed out in front of him. Jess, bleary eyed, groaned as the wagon lurched into motion, cradling his head on his bent arms which rested on his knees. "I think I'm goin' to be sick," he mumbled.

"How many beers'd you drink?"

"Don't know. Stopped counting after five."

Slim chuckled, then let out a groan of his own. "My head hurts."

"Must a' been somethin' in those beers." Jess grinned sloppily. "But we sure sent them Ch'enne boys packin', didn't we?"

"Yup, sent 'em home, tails tucked. Won't see 'em 'til next year," Slim grinned crookedly.

"How many aces did we get?" Jess asked.

Slim shook his head, then scowled. "Don't know the tally, Jess, and it don't matter. Long as we had more'n they did."

"An' we did."

"We shure did," Slim smiled. He patted Jess on the shoulder. "Knew there was a reason I hired you. Best durn striker in Wyoming."

"Uh huh."

"Ya run slow, tho."

"Slow? I ain't slow!"

"Slow as my Aunt Matilda," Slim grinned crookedly.

"Why, I'll, I'll," Jess sat up, groaned, clutched his head and decided he'd prove later how fast he could run. Besides, he knew it didn't matter. "Hit the ball far enough, you don't have to run fast," he decreed.

"I'll drink to that," said Slim, then, realizing there were no more drinks, he closed his eyes. "Next year."

Daisy was driving, Mike sitting beside her on the seat. She looked back at the two men, smiling, and shook her head, glad the Fourth of July came only once a year.

- The End (At least until next Fourth of July) -

(Terminology and relevant rules used in this story: from Rules for the play of Baseball, circa mid 19th century)
These rules are designed to facilitate play of baseball (Townball). The basic object and course of play are assumed to be familiar to the reader. These rules in general specify variations from modern practice. (I included only those relevant to this story) -
1. The thrower must attempt to throw the ball where the striker wishes it thrown.
2. The thrower must throw the ball underhanded beginning his throw with his legs crossed, the ball in one hand before him and his other hand behind his back. He may take one step forward while throwing.
6. The striker is obligated to hit well-thrown balls. The umpire normally will not call "balls" or "strikes", and no player "walks". The umpire may encourage the striker to attempt to hit well-thrown balls. The umpire may call strikes or even declare a striker dead if the umpire believes the striker is consistently failing to swing at well-thrown balls.
7. A striker who swings and misses at three consecutive pitches is dead. The umpire may penalize a striker for repeatedly and intentionally allowing a well-thrown ball to pass to avoid a strikeout.
22. All handling of the ball should be done with the bare hands. Gloves may not be worn. If a ball is caught in a hat or with another item of clothing or is received from a spectator, it must be returned to the thrower before being used further in play.
23. The behind may play anywhere on the field.
25. The loss of a ball in play in vegetation, over a fence, onto a building, or because of other obstacles does not retard play. (There are no "ground rules doubles: or similar restrictions.)

Vocabulary from the early years of baseball:

19th Century Term 20th Century Term
Aces Runs
Behind Catcher
Club Nine Team
Cranks Fans
Dead Out
Dew Drop Slow Pitch
Foul Tick Foul Ball
Hurler Pitcher
Leg it Run to Base
Match Game
Muff Error
Striker Batter
Tally Score
Thrower Pitcher
Wide Ball (poorly thrown pitch)
Hands Players