The Story behind the Story
and Parent Resources
Cruz de la Cruz Saga
The Desperado Who Stole Baseball
NO INTERIOR, exterior, nor ulterior motive is to be found or implied within the following text. Anyone caught searching for some such will be mortified, if not stupefied, by the effort.
Having said that, the careful reader may yet stumble upon certain historical facts, around which this folderol has been concocted. For instance: The wealthy coal mine operator, Mr. William Hulbert, did in fact own the 1880 National Champs, the Chicago White Stockings, whose entire roster has been correctly identified in this book along with various personal foibles. And yes, there were seven balls to a walk that year (six balls, the next), and the pitcher did pitch from only 45 feet away. As speed increased, so did the pitching distance, along with the use of catchers’ mitts and such.
References to the life and times of Billy the Kid, including his desire to quit outlawing and his affection for Paulita Maxwell, are based on sound historical research. His trip out west, as depicted herein, was, however, pure concoction, sparked solely by the fact that Billy’s precise whereabouts after his final jailbreak in April, 1881, were at times rather unknown.
The rest of the story is pretty much made up too, including that fellow Vernon Toots, as befits a novel of no particular literary or moral aspirations, having been parsed together, as it were, out of a cowboy’s bootful of rabble, cuss, and drang.
I thank you kindly.
In the very big inning…
THE gruff-and-tumble founders of Dillontown were a scrappy bunch. From fist-fighting misfits and cattle rustlers to gold-digging drunkards and cardshark hustlers. And that’s just the women.
The men were all that, plus they smelled bad.
However, over the years, that hard scrabble gold-mining camp began to attract a great big inning of a more civilized folk wishing to settle the boomtown down. And from no matter whence they came, from El Paso, Texas, to Bangor, Maine, they would each and all tell you that it was the Dillontown Nine Baseball Club, the likes of which America had never seen, that’d drawn them west. With fellows like Long John Dillon and Shadowfox Coe, Blackjack Buck and Fence Post Hayes, that rip-rollicking ball-walloping baseball team had built as high and as mighty a reputation as any club in all the land.
But one day, everything changed. Riding along that westward trail came some wild and cagey hombres, including none other than one William H. McCarty Antrim Bonney, erstwhile known as Billy the Kid—the cold-blooded killingest, back-stabbing stealingest, double-crossing, double-dealingest desperado on the sundown side of the Mississipp’. Or so folks say.
In Dillontown, we say something else.
May 5, 1881. Somewhere in the California desert…
THE bullet ripped into the crown of the boy’s hat with such force, it blew his black felt derby into a cactus patch. Startled, he hunched forward in the saddle, teeth-whistled into his horse’s ear, and spurred that bronc with boots a-flying.
The next bullet nearly kissed his cheek. Gripping the baseball bat stowed in his rifle holster, he unstirruped a foot and swung himself to the safer side of the saddle.
“Hee-yaw!” he yelled, and kept blasting whistle bursts until the galloping steed surrendered to its brighter instincts and bucked the boy off into a sandy wash, then streaked away.
The boy dropped, falling, cannonballing through sand and sage toward the tall canyon wall and into the thin shadowline of a small rock cave.
His sudden arrival did not set well with the silver-gray side-winder coiled within, which had likely been resting in cool comfort until then. When that rattlesnake’s rattlesnap began, the stark choice between being snakebit or leadball hit rose up quick in the boy’s mind.
Figuring the shooter in those granite cliffs to be decidedly less accurate than an agitated, close-range snake, he darted back out of solid cover and dove under the branches of a mesquite bush in the middle of the riverwash canyon.
He’d been warned of Apaches, as well as thieves, but he had thus far avoided both, keeping to the whisper of less-traveled trails. It seemed to him, however, that neither of those parties would fire from afar, when a simple face-to-face ambush would’ve been more appropriate.
“Hey!” he shouted, hearing his voice echo off the tall valley walls. “I have no money.”
“I’m just a boy!” Again the lifeless cliffs stood quiet. High in the sky, three red-tailed hawks sailed in wide circles.
He searched northward, up into the crook of the rocky canyon, for a trace of his startled horse, but saw none, until he caught a tailflicker in the late afternoon light. It would take a daring sprint, but if he could reach the horse, he’d have a chance.
Hoping to pinpoint the shooter’s location, he called again. “I’m no claim jumper. Is that what you think?”
Gaining no clue from that attempt, he grabbed a stone and flung it some thirty yards into the brush as a decoy. Hearing it hit, he then dashed the opposite way, toward his horse, as desperate and determined as if he were legging out an infield hit to keep the game alive.
Arriving safely in the shadow of the canyon wall past the first bend, he spotted his horse still up ahead in the open ravine, grazing on bunch grass.
It would take one more sprint. Hugging the canyon wall, he crept slowly toward a dash-off point—until a small avalanche of rocks clattered down and landed directly in front of him in a dusty heap.
He jumped back, just as a rifleman dropped from the mountain and onto the pile of stones.
“Hold it, jackrabbit!” he said, his knees bent, a rifle perched at his hip. “Don’t try nothing you won’t live long enough to regret.”
The boy’s hands rose in surrender, and he began to do what he did best. He talked. “I told you, sir, I have no money nor items of value.”
The young rifleman, maybe twenty years old, with a smooth, boyish face, stared forcefully. “If I wanted your money, you’d be dead by now.”
“You desire my horse then? Shall I retrieve him?” He took a step.
“Freeze.” Through gritted teeth, he added, “I got a horse.”
“Then why in the ’tire nation are you trying to kill me?”
“If I wanted you dead….” The rifleman held his weapon chest high and let the sight of its long barrel finish his thought. He brushed back his wild blond hair, which splayed out from under a high-domed drover’s hat.
His eyes danced from the boy to the length of canyon beyond. “Son,” he said, “I was just trying to attract your attention.”
“Well, sir, you attracted it.”
“Good. Now, why are you following me? And who else is with you?” His eyes once again swept the canyonsides.
“I am only with my horse, sir—the roan yonder.” He motioned with his head. “Or, I was until he bucked up and shed me rather rudely. And if I’m following you, it is by pure coincidence, having to do with the fact that you and I, sir, are on the same trail, and we’re heading in the same direction.”
“And where’s that?”
“Well, westerly, mostly. I’m on my way to the gold hills of San Diego.”
“This here’s an old Kumeyaay trail, quite a ways off the settlers’ road.”
The boy nodded. “Reckoned it would be safer.”
“Is that what you reckoned?” The gunman, now sounding a notch less tense, smiled slightly, his front teeth protruding over his bottom lip a bit like a squirrel’s grin. “You know who I am?”
The boy shook his head, but the very question planted a wildpatch of worry in the fertile fields of his mind.
“Put your hands down.”
The boy obliged, lowering his arms, slow as a landing crow.
“Heard you coming half a mile away,” said the rifleman. Now his clear eyes, tinted a see-through blue, covered that half mile in a flash-glance before shooting back at the boy.
“What’s the hurry?”
“Well, it’s almost dark, and I’d hoped to reach San Diego County by nightfall. Beyond that, I have been advised by those in a position to know that the quicker I cross Apache Territory, the longer I might walk this earth.”
“Those are sound words. But you’re long past it now.” He steel-eyed the young rider again. “How old are you?”
“Seventeen.” Reading a flinch of disbelief on the rifleman’s face, the boy added, “Nearly.”
“Nearly?” The man angled forward with a narrowed scowl.
The man leveled his rifle at the boy. “Wanna think that over?”
Being tall for his age, the boy was vexed by the man’s disbelief, as he jerked his hands up high again. “Twelve full years, if you must know,” he spat, angered at having to resort to facts. “Plus pretty near eight months.”
The man lowered the rifle. “Well, now, son. The truth has set you free. Hands down. You running off from home?”
Sensing a gentleness in the gunman’s spirit, the boy slowly began to lay out his story. “I don’t have a home, sir. My folks’re dead. Shot and killed outside Tombstone, Arizona, in a bloody gun battle.”
The man narrowed his focus. “Sorry to hear that. What happened?”
“What happened was, they were outlaws, sir. Desperados. And on that day, their luck turned cold.” The boy now spoke in a hush. “A posse of forty men hunted ’em down, right up to our doorstep, and killed ’em like dogs. But I will tell you, that’s how it is, being an outlaw. It is not all glory and sunshine.”
“You don’t say.”
“Well, I do. Yes, sir. That’s why, once I shot my way out of town, figured I’d better head out to the hills of Californ’ where my uncle John owns a couple thousand acres of land and five hundred head of cattle. Plus a hacienda—which is a mighty house.” At that, the boy coughed into his hand, clamping his jawbones tight, lest he spool out more yarn than he could weave.
But the gunman did not challenge his tale. His eyes seemed to light up as he sent them over the boy’s head, across the dusty arroyo. “Five hundred head, huh? Sounds like Uncle John’s doing all right for himself.”
“Yes, sir. All from being a prospector, which is how he struck it rich enough to build a whole town named after himself. Plus put together the finest baseball team in all the land. I aim to do some gold mining myself out there.”
The man studied the boy a glint. “Would that explain the pick-ax handle I saw sticking up out of your rifle stow?”
The boy glanced off, deciding any man who could spot his fine-turned piece of ashwood from a canyontop, then fire a perfect warning shot into his hat, must possess the eye of an eagle in flight.
“That, sir, is a baseball bat, as I am a skilled practitioner of the sport. If you’ll allow me to retrieve my horse, Homer, I’ll show you.” Seeing an eyebrow twitch as permission, the boy started off. Glancing back, he said, “Fact is, I am soon to participate in the greatest baseball match ever held.” He tapped his cloth vest. “I carry a newspaper clipping describing the competition. I can read it to you if you like.”
“Just keep walking.”
“Well, sir, I hope you’ll allow me to retrieve my hat as well. Bought it brand new on the day I left Wichita.”
“Wichita? Thought you came out of Tombstone.”
The boy caught himself. “Last year, it was. That’s right. We moved around quite a bit, in fact—before we turned outlaw and left civilization to scandalize the Territories.”
“But, truly,” said the boy. Reaching inside his cotton vest, he pulled out a folded clipping. With a dramatic snap, he shook it open. Using his finger as a guide, he began to read.
“We, the Baseball Club of the great and glorious gold mining community of Dillontown, California, being undefeated, do hereby declare ourselves Champion Baseball Club of America, and, as such, we are willing to meet and contest with any other top professional club who says we ain’t, bar none.
“Thus, we hereby propose a Series of Seven Games against the top teams from the top seven Baseball Leagues in America. Any Ball Club which defeats the Dillontown Nine will receive One Thousand Dollars in gold.
“In addition, we propose a Grand Finale to be held on Sunday, May 8, 1881, between the Dillontown Nine and the National League Champion Chicago White Stockings, should they have the courage to accept our challenge. Each side shall put up Ten Thousand Dollars in cash or gold, winner takes all, as well as the undisputed title of: Champion Baseball Club of America.
“Signed, Captain Long John Dillon, Owner and Manager of the Dillontown Nine Baseball Club.”
The boy glanced up. “That’s my uncle, Mr. John Dillon. And I’m heading out to help his boys win that title.” He folded the paper and put it away, feeling satisfied he had established the merit of his journey. However, the man’s reaction was hard to read. Reaching for the reins of his red gelding, the boy also reached for camaraderie. “Have you ever played the grand game of baseball, sir?”
Feeling relief at the man’s answer, as well as a hint of brotherhood, the boy pulled Homer close and extended his hand. “My name is John Jefferson Jackson Dillon. Most folks call me ‘Jack.’”
The man reached out slowly. They shook. “Henry,” he stated in a gruff voice. “You handle a gun, Jack? Being an outlaw and all.”
Sensing a tone of mockery, Jack released his grip. He now wished he actually owned a gun. “I can manage.” Dissatisfied with how that sounded, he added, “I’ll say this. You wouldn’t want to test me.” Instantly, he regretted that remark as well.
Henry didn’t flinch, but continued moving his eyes, past the boy, from side to side, never resting, always on the prowl. “Well, then,” he said, “since you’re headed where I’m headed, I say we trail up together.”
Jack pondered the plus and minus of the bargain—riding with an eagle-eyed rifleman, albeit one who almost killed him, versus riding as he had, being his own boss, free to pick his course, albeit being unarmed and alone in unknown territory and spending endless hours addressing the top of his horse’s head for social comfort.
“Well, I don’t know.”
“I wasn’t giving you a choice.”
(End of Chapter One)
The Desperado Who Stole Baseball is published by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Group USA, New York.
© John H. Ritter, 2009 ISBN #978-0-399-24664-7.