About the Author
Phil Bildner is a former New York City public school teacher who lives in Newburgh, New York. He spends much of his year visiting schools and libraries around the country and world. He is the author of over twenty books including the middle grade novel A Whole New Ballgame and picture books Marvelous Cornelius, The Soccer Fence, The Hallelujah Flight, and Twenty-One Elephants. Along with Loren Long, he is the coauthor of the New York Times bestselling Sluggers series. Visit him online at PhilBildner.com.
Read an Excerpt
Walking the Dark Tracks
on’t say a word,” Woody whispered, his finger pressed to his lips. Griffith nodded once. He could feel his heart beating in his chest. With a trembling hand, he gently stroked the back of Dog’s head. The Chancellor’s thugs stood just yards away, and the faithful hound refused to stop his purrlike growling.
Under the cover of darkness, Griffith, Woody, and Dog huddled together in the thick brush by the side of the tracks. After leaping from the speeding train bound for St. Louis, Woody had used the skills he’d honed fighting in the jungles of Cuba to steer them to this patch of high grass. So long as they remained silent and motionless, they would be safe.
Griffith looked up. Even in the pitch dark, he could make out the shapes of the Chancellor’s thugs. He was able to hear their every word, too.
“We need to get out of these woods,” one said.
“We need to find that baseball,” said a second. “Boss man’s gonna—”
“We’re never going to find it out here!” the third thug cut him off. “I ain’t staying in no woods all night.”
“Boss man’s going to have our necks when he learns we don’t got it.”
“That dumb dog got it.” The first thug kicked at the ground.
Griffith covered his eyes from the spray of pebbles and dirt, while Woody leaned over and shielded Dog.
“I reckon city thugs ain’t the same animal as wilderness thugs,” Woody mouthed. He rubbed Dog’s hind leg, the one he had hurt jumping off the train. “We’re gonna be fine, Griff. Let’s just wait ’em out.”
Griffith nodded. He rubbed the scrape on his elbow, the only injury he had suffered from the leap.
“I ain’t looking for no mutt out here,” the first thug went on. “We’d run into a wolf or a bear wandering these woods.”
“Boss man’s going to be furious we didn’t get the kid.”
“To heck with the kid and that ball!” The first thug kicked the dirt again. “Too late to do anything about either one. Might as well go back now before some creature comes along.”
The Chancellor’s men headed off. In a matter of moments, their voices and footsteps could no longer be heard. Still, Griffith, Woody, and Dog remained in their hiding spot.
“If you ask me,” Woody said softly as the minutes passed, “they’re long gone.” He rubbed the bruise on his cheek. “But I reckon we’re gonna hold our position a little while longer.”
Despite Woody’s assurances, Griffith didn’t believe they were entirely safe. The Chancellor’s men could still be lurking in the woods, preparing to pounce. He tried to tell himself that Dog would’ve been growling if they were, but it didn’t help. And the constant rhythms of the tree frogs and crickets, and the periodic hoot of an owl, also kept him on edge.
He ran his hand through his hair. The Chancellor’s men had tried to kidnap Graham. Griffith had known the Chancellor was capable of anything, but in his worst nightmares, he’d never thought the Chancellor would order his thugs to try to take his little brother. The goons had tried to steal the baseball, too. They’d ripped it away from his sister. The Chancellor had instructed grown men to rough up a young girl.
Griffith slipped his still-trembling hand into his pocket and gripped the baseball. The attack had taken place more than an hour before, but he wondered if he would ever stop shaking.
“I still can’t believe you jumped off that train,” Woody said, as they headed down the tracks.
“I can’t believe you jumped off either,” Griffith replied, flinching as a rabbit or raccoon darted across the rails.
Woody smiled. “I wasn’t about to leave you behind. A soldier never leaves another behind.”
“It wasn’t like I was alone. I had Dog with me.”
Griffith reached down to pat the hound’s head, but the shriek of a bird caused him to recoil again.
Dog drifted over and brushed his snout against Griffith’s pants. As they walked along, the canine favored his left hind paw. At times he raised it off the ground and used only three legs. Griffith wondered if Dog would be able to make it all the way back to Minneapolis.
When they’d started walking a short time ago, Woody had told Griffith and Dog that they would head back to the city. At the time they’d leaped from the train, they couldn’t have traveled more than ten or twenty miles. While it would be a long trek, one that would more than likely take all night, it was the safest course of action, since they had no way of knowing if the next town was five or fifty miles ahead.
“You still worried ’bout them bandits?” Woody asked.
Griffith didn’t answer.
“Well, I ain’t gonna tell Griff Payne not to worry, because I know that won’t do any good.” Woody chuckled. “I reckon we focus on something else. Like that baseball. I’d like to see it.”
Griffith reached into his pocket for the ball and handed it to Woody. Cradling it with both hands, the Travelin’ Nine’s right scout held the sphere to his face and examined it as closely as he could in the darkness.
SCOUT: outfielder. The right fielder was called the “right scout,” the center fielder was called the “center scout,” and the left fielder was called the “left scout.”
“I’ve only held this treasure in these here hands one other time,” Woody said. “And believe it or not, I was walkin’ the tracks just like this.”
“Where was that?”
“Before heading off to Cuba, most of us were stationed in Tampa, Florida.” Woody spoke softly and deliberately. “Thousands and thousands and thousands of soldiers all in one place. We Rough Riders came in from San Antonio, but by the time we arrived, them train tracks was so clogged with freight cars, we had to get out and finish the journey on foot. Walked the tracks like we are now.” Woody tightened his grip on the baseball. “It was durin’ that walk that your pop let me hold this here baseball. The only time he did. And you know what he said to me?”
Griffith shook his head.
“Your pop made me a promise, Griff. Promised me my life. Promised all the Rough Riders our lives. Said we’d all return from Cuba.” Woody lifted a hand from the baseball and raised a finger. “But he said there was one condition. You know what that was?”
“I do,” Griffith replied, smiling.
On many occasions, his father had told him what he’d said to his fellow soldiers before heading off to war. They were the same words he so often said to Griffith and his sister and brother.
“Be together,” Griffith said, gazing up at Woody. “Always.”
Woody ran his fingers over his smile, then placed the baseball back into Griffith’s hand.
“Uncle Owen gave us the baseball the night of the funeral,” said Griffith, slipping the object back in his pocket. “He told us not to tell anyone we had it.”
“I figured that’s when y’all got it,” Woody said, nodding. “But some of the others didn’t think it showed up till Louisville or Chicago and—”
BARNSTORMERS: team that tours an area playing exhibition games for moneymaking entertainment.
“Wait,” Griffith interrupted. “All the barnstormers knew we had the baseball?”
“’Course we knew!” Woody laughed. “We’ve known for some time. But we was all too amazed at how well you kids could keep a secret to say anything. A seven-year-old boy, a nine-year-old girl, and an eleven-year-old boy all kept their mouths shut.” Woody laughed again. “Now, that’s magic!”
Griffith thought back to the exchange he’d had with Happy in the dugout during the game in Minneapolis. Happy knew about their baseball; he’d made that perfectly clear. But what Griffith hadn’t realized was that all the Rough Riders knew about it too. There was no need for secrecy when it came to the baseball (especially after what had just taken place on the train), and for the first time since the attack, Griffith felt a hint of relief.
He looked ahead and squinted his eyes. They had to have been walking for at least a couple of hours now, but the faint glow of lights from the city still didn’t appear to be getting any closer.
“I reckon there’s a bigger secret we need to deal with on this team,” said Woody. “Scribe and I have been talking about it, and we’re concerned that—”
“There’s a mole on the Travelin’ Nine,” Griffith interrupted again.
Woody stopped. A wooden railroad tie cracked underfoot. “How do you know?”
Griffith could see the anguish on the Rough Rider’s face.
“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Griffith answered. “Ruby thinks so too.” He swallowed. “And that’s what the old man told us.”
“The one you spoke about in the dugout?”
Griffith nodded. “We didn’t want to believe it, but once the old man said what we were thinking, we couldn’t deny it. It hurts so much to…” His words trailed off.
“It sure does,” Woody said. “I reckon it’s a hurt like I’ve never experienced. Never.” He started walking again. “On the one hand, I’m so angry I want to grab this man by the throat. But at the same time, we’re talking about one of us, a brother who served by our side in the war. It’s heartbreaking.” Woody pinched the bridge of his nose. “How can a member of your family betray you like this?”
Griffith frowned. It was as if Woody was speaking Griffith’s own thoughts. And Ruby’s, too.
There is one amongst you who cannot be trusted.
The old man’s words echoed in Griffith’s head.
“How are we going to figure out who the mole is?” asked Griffith.
Woody sighed. “It could be almost anyone.”
“How do I know it’s not you?”
Woody stopped again.
Griffith gasped. He couldn’t believe that question had just left his lips. How could he be so disrespectful? But as he started to wish the words back, he caught himself, because a part of him was glad he’d been courageous enough to ask.
“I reckon you don’t know it ain’t me,” Woody said. He turned to Griffith and rested both hands on the boy’s shoulders. “But I offer you my word, Griff. Your pop made a promise to me, and I make a vow to you.” He paused. “I am a man of honor.”
Woody wasn’t the mole. Griffith was certain. But it was more than merely his words that told Griffith that.
Some things you just know.
Griffith turned and looked up at the tracks. The moonlight reflected off the rails, two white lines pointing the way back to Minneapolis.
“We’re gonna be spendin’ a whole lot of time together these next few days, you and I,” Woody said, draping an arm over Griffith’s shoulder as they started walking again. “I reckon you’re gonna get to hear all my war stories.” He let out a short laugh. “Heck, by the time we make it to St. Louis, you’re gonna know just ’bout everythin’ that went on down there in Cuba.”
“I’d like that,” Griffith said. He reached down to Dog and stroked his neck. “I’d like that a lot.”
In the past, Griffith’s father had tried to tell him stories from the battlefield, but Griffith had always made him stop. The only tales he was able to tolerate were the ones from San Antonio, when the Rough Riders had first met. Griffith didn’t want to know about those days without food and water and those nights without sleep. Nor did he want to hear about all the brushes with death.
But that was before this summer. Now Griffith needed to know absolutely everything. What happened in Cuba could very well contain some of the—
Suddenly Dog’s ears perked up. The hound glanced around and then gazed into the night sky, his eyes appearing to follow something in flight.
“What is it, Dog?” asked Griffith.
For a brief instant, he thought he saw the outline of a moving object, but it quickly disappeared.
As dawn began to break, Griffith, Woody, and Dog finally reached the city limits. Because of the eerie fog hovering over the metropolis, the lights of Minneapolis had never seemed to get any closer as they walked back. But now daylight had brought the city into full view, and Griffith began to recognize some of the buildings, streets, and signs. He even spotted the bridge they had walked across on their way to the match in Nicollet Park.
MATCH: baseball game or contest.
However, when they neared downtown, Woody steered them from the tracks.
“Where are we going?” Griffith asked. “We need to go to the station to catch a train.”
Woody shook his head. “I reckon you can’t board a train without a ticket,” he replied. “And how you comin’ up with a ticket if you don’t have any money?”
Griffith gulped. “I forgot about that.”
“I didn’t.” Woody pointed ahead. “Let’s see if we can find ourselves a friendly face or two.”
Woody was leading them back to the university. Perhaps someone they’d met at the dorms or the library was still there. Maybe they’d be willing to provide them with food, a place to wash, and money for train tickets.
As they turned up the road leading onto campus and headed for the quadrangle, Dog held his head high. He recognized the spot where he and Griffith had played catch a few days earlier. Soon he was prancing, almost as if he was trying to tell the boy that his hind leg was completely healed. But Dog wasn’t ready to play. He was still limping, more than ever. Like Woody and Griffith, Dog needed rest.
Griffith peered in the direction of the dorms. Through the early morning fog, he spotted a figure standing by the front entranceway. He appeared to be staring back at Griffith, almost as if he was expecting a visitor. Griffith approached the silhouette, and the fog thinned, revealing the familiar and unforgettable face.
© 2010 Phil Bildner and Loren Long