88. Big Plans

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Henry bustled into the locker room after another victory.

Carrick Graybeards 2, Hester Pioneers 5.

Several players cheered his name, and Henry returned a wave and a smile. He still couldn't believe the new mood in the room.

Marshall and Willy were sitting at a table, playing checkers. On the other side of the locker room, a group of players erupted in laughter; Rusty was at it again, telling dirty Irish jokes. All the while, Jake and Dale were having a spirited debate over whose pitch was better – Jake's fastball or Dale's knuckleball.

Henry hurried to get changed. He couldn't imagine things going any better. The Pioneers were now at twelve wins. He pulled on a white shirt and dark blue trousers. Just as he finished getting dressed, Big Willy towered up to him, and they slapped hands.

"Great game, Henry!" Willy said. "You know, it sure feels good to be playing together again. It's hard to believe, after all these years, we're still swatting baseballs on the same team."

"I guess you're just stuck with me," Henry said, chuckling.

"Guess so," Willy said with a grin.

Dale wandered over and threw and arm around Henry's shoulder. "Yeah, that was some nice fielding in the ninth inning."

"Thanks," Henry replied, warmth filling his cheeks.

Dale winked. "Good thing I taught you everything I know about short stop."

Henry feigned a look of surprise. "Just like I taught you everything I know about pitching."

The trio let out a collective laugh.

Moments later, Ramon came up to the three men. The substitute player had shown flashes of brilliance during practice. When he connected with the ball, it was anyone's guess how far it would go. And when he ran, the young man looked like a gazelle with those long, graceful strides. "Hey, guys!" he said with a tense expression.

Dale said. "That's no way to look after a shiny win. What's wrong?"

"Oh ... nothing," he said before giving a hesitant grin.

"Well, for nothing, it sure seems like a lot of something," Henry said, preparing himself for some bad news.

Ramon straightened up. "You guys want to come to the team dinner tonight?"

"What? Us? You're inviting all of us?" Henry couldn't believe his ears. The team had established a routine of going out to dinner after every win. But they had never invited Henry, Dale, or Willy. They had always been considered The Outcasts.

"Yeah, all three of you guys. Will we see you there?"

"Absolutely," Willy said.

"Wouldn't miss it," Dale added. Then he leaned in a little closer and whispered, "I just can't believe Jake's going to dinner with us."

Henry was about to say something, but Ramon beat him to it. "Uh, Jake said he can't make it."

The group fell silent.

A few weeks back, Henry wouldn't have given a spit about Jake. But since the Pioneer's turnaround, the Cowboy seemed to be pulling further and further away from the team's celebrations. Henry wondered if Jake was starting to feel like an outcast himself, and that thought just didn't sit right in his stomach.

"I ... really can't make it either," Henry blurted out, a stammer of anticipation in his words.

Surprise dropped into Dale's expression. "What?! Why aren't you going?"

Henry pressed his lips together before saying, "It's just that I've already made other plans." Reaching into his pants pocket, Henry pulled out a small white box. He removed the lid and held up the box, revealing a diamond ring.

Only Dale and Willy knew about Sarah and Henry's intention to marry her.

Just before the game, Henry had picked up the ring at Bellman's Jewelers, a small family-owned shop in the Black Business District. Henry had been saving his money for a whole lot of reasons, all having to do with Sarah, and this was one of them. It had cost him five whole paychecks, but it was worth every last cent.

The four men stared at the diamond, sparkling under the electric ceiling lights.

Ramon's eyes stretched wide. "Wow! Is that ... what I think it is?"

Henry nodded. "Yeah," he said, a smile tugging the corners of his lips upward.

Willy stared. "That sure is a nice rock, buddy."

Dale patted Henry on the back. "Sarah's going to love it."

"I can't believe it!" Willy said, excitement in his expression. "You getting married! That's gonna take some getting-used-to. But I'm happy for you. You're gonna make a great husband!"

The guys continued to congratulate Henry with handshakes.

Then Dale called the other players over. For several minutes, the Pioneers showered Henry with well-wishes and a deluge of vulgar marriage jokes. But mostly they reminded Henry that he was making the best decision of his life.

From across the room, even Jake gave Henry a nod of approval, and Henry quirked a brow in surprise. Was the Cowboy having a change of heart? Henry nodded back in reply.

Several minutes later, the players said their good-byes, wishing him luck one last time before heading off.

Alone, Henry sat down on the bench in front of his locker and looked down at the ring in his hand. His heart hammered in his chest. But it wasn't from nerves.

His teammates had said it: He was doing the right thing.

He and Sarah were meant to be.


Author's Note

I'm going to let the next few chapters speak for themselves.

As always, thanks a ton for the reads and votes!

Feedback and constructive comments are always welcome!  ;)

Thanks,

Tom

P.S. The chapter image is an authentic 1910's 1.01 ct. diamond ring.

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