56. Before The Battle

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Henry marched through the hallway to the dugout alongside Dale, the two of them lagging several yards behind the rest of the Pioneers. Henry's breathing shallowed as he stepped out of the dugout into the blinding sunlight.

From the stands, cheers and boos hailed down, filling Union Steel Ballpark with an energy that seemed to possess everyone. You could see the electricity in the fans ... in their animated faces ... in their pumping fists. You could hear it in their chatter ... and in their shouting. And as big as the exhibition game was, this had the feeling of something much bigger.

The seats were filling fast like water rising in a well during a rainstorm. From Henry's vantage point down on the field, the view of the crowd looked visually striking. An ocean of ivory faces bordering a sea of brown and black waves.

The Pioneers spread out along the right outfield grass and started to warm up. Jake and Rusty were playing catch. Several players were sitting on the grass, stretching out their legs. Garrett and the three subs were running short sprints.

A tense chatter echoed throughout the ballpark.

Henry stood and brought an arm across his chest. Grabbing the elbow with his opposite hand, he pressed slightly, stretching the back of his shoulder.

"Louis! You're a black two-bit bum!" someone shouted from the stands.

Henry wanted to holler back. He could feel all the angry stares, the back of his neck prickling at the thought. He wondered how he must have looked to all those white fans. A lone black figure surrounded by a pride of white players.

Henry glanced over to the opposite side of the field. The Mason City Renegades looked like a bunch of cocky young bucks, led by their ace pitcher Josh Carter. Henry had read about him in the paper. A young stud with a statuesque build and a natural arm.

The Renegades took turns glaring at Henry, raising eyebrows, and scratching their underarms. Carter met Henry's gaze and his mouth curved into a smug grin.

Then Jake stepped in front of Henry, followed by Rusty and Garrett.

Henry stopped stretching and lowered his arms.

"Better not mess up today," Jake said.

Henry went back to stretching. "I don't plan to."

Jake looked like a snake ready to strike when Dale moseyed over to Henry's side. "Hey boys, what's the pow wow about?"

Dale's timing was priceless. Henry couldn't help but snicker on the inside. But Jake looked like he was getting hotter by the second.

Rusty tapped Jake's arm. "Hey, keep those fangs in check."

Garrett looked at Jake. "Remember what Coach said. He's not worth getting kicked off the team."

"I've got my eyes on you, Louis" Jake said. Then he turned to Dale. "You too, country bumpkin."

And with that, Jake and his crew stalked away.

Henry stood there for a moment. Just staring at the outfield crowd full of colored fans, willing his hands to stop shaking.

"Don't let him get to you, Henry," Dale said. "You'll do just fine. And don't let your nerves get the best of you."

"I'm not nervous!" Henry said, a faint quiver in his parched lips. He picked up his bat and started swinging it loosely.

Dale shot him a funny look. "It's okay, Henry. New season. First game. I've got some butterflies myself. Don't you worry about the white crowd. They'll simmer down."

"I don't have first game jitters!" Henry insisted. "I told you, I'm not nervous. What do I care what any of these people think?"

Dale just stood there for a moment, head tilted. "You know, my first game with the Pioneers was an absolute disaster."

"Serious?" Henry stopped swinging the bat and straightened up.

"Oh yeah," Dale said. "I made every single mistake a player could make. At bat, I missed every ball that came my way. When I was pitching, batters hit every single time. The final score was twelve to nothing. I was sure I was going to get kicked off the team. But Coach Taylor gave me a second chance."

Henry gave Dale a dumb look before bobbing his head up and down in a comical nod. "Thank you for that motivating speech!"

Dale's mouth popped open in protest, but then he saw the smirk sliding into Henry's lips.

Then the two of them burst out laughing like old buddies.

Author's Note

This chapter is really about setting the stage for the first game. The Pioneers aren't a well-oiled machine. They're more like pistons firing at different times. Totally not in sync.

Also, this chapter is about maintaining that tension between Henry and Jake and his buddies. And it's about building that relationship with Dale.



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