In Lil’s experience, her mother could get anybody to talk, make anybody smile. But Cooper Sullivan from New York City seemed to be the exception. He spoke when spoken to, minded his manners, but little more. They sat out at the picnic table, one of Lil’s favorite things, and feasted on fried chicken and biscuits, on potato salad and snap beans her mother had put up last harvest.
Conversation ranged from horses and cattle and crops, to weather and books and the status of other neighbors. All the things, in Lil’s world, that mattered.
Though Cooper struck Lil as stiff as his shirt, he managed to eat two helpings of everything, though he barely opened his mouth otherwise.
Until her father brought up baseball.
“Boston’s going to break the curse this year.”
Cooper snorted, then immediately hunched his shoulders.
In his easy way, Joe picked up the basket of biscuits, offered it to the boy. “Oh, yeah, Mr. New York. Yankees or Mets?”
“Not a prayer.” As if in sympathy, Joe shook his head. “Not this year, kid.”
“We’ve got a strong infield, good bats. Sir,” he added as if he’d just remembered to.
“Baltimore’s already killing you.”
“It’s a fluke. They died last year, and they’ll fade this year.”
“When they do, the Red Sox will pounce.”
“Oh, a smart-ass.”
Cooper paled a little, but Joe continued as if he hadn’t noticed the reaction. “Let me just say, Wade Boggs, and toss in Nick Esasky. Then—”
“Don Mattingly, Steve Sax.”
For the first time, Coop grinned. “Well, you can’t have everything.”
“Let me consult my expert. Sox or Yankees, Lil?”
“Neither. It’s Baltimore. They’ve got the youth, the momentum. They’ve got Frank Robinson. Boston’s got a play, but they won’t pull it off. The Yankees? Not a chance, not this year.”
“My only child, and she wounds me.” Joe put a hand on his heart. “Do you play back home, Cooper?”
“Yes, sir. Second base.”
“Lil, take Cooper on around back of the barn. You can work off the meal with a little batting practice.”
Coop slid off the bench. “Thank you for dinner, Mrs. Chance. It was very good.”
As the children walked away, Jenna looked over at Lucy. “Poor little boy,” she murmured.
The dogs raced ahead, and across the field. “I play third base,” Lil told Coop.
“Where? There’s nothing around here.”
“Right outside Deadwood. We have a field, and a league. I’m going to be the first woman to play major-league ball.”
Coop snorted again. “Women can’t play the bigs. That’s just the way it is.”
“The way it is isn’t the way it has to be. That’s what my mother says. And when I’m finished playing, I’m going to manage.”
He sneered, and though it brought her hackles up, she liked him better for it. At least he didn’t seem as stiff as his shirt anymore. “You don’t know dick.”
He laughed, and even though she knew he was laughing at her, she decided to give him one more chance before she clobbered him.
He was company. A stranger in a strange land.
“How do you play in New York? I thought there were buildings everywhere.”
“We play in Central Park, and sometimes in Queens.”
“It’s one of the boroughs.”
“It’s a mule?”
“No. Jesus. It’s a city, a place. Not a donkey.”
She stopped, set her fists on her hips, and fired at him out of dark, dark eyes. “When you try to make somebody feel stupid when they ask a question, you’re the stupid one.”
He shrugged, and rounded the side of the big red barn with her.
It smelled like animal, dusty and poopy at the same time. Coop couldn’t figure out why anybody would want to live with that smell, or the sounds of clucking, snuffling, and mooing all the damn time. He started to make a sneering remark about just that—she was only a kid, after all, and a girl at that—but then he saw the batting cage.
It wasn’t what he was used to, but it looked pretty sweet to him. Somebody, he supposed Lil’s father, had built the three-sided cage out of fencing. It stood with its back to a jumbled line of brush and bramble that gave way to a field where cattle stood around doing nothing. Beside the barn, under the shelter of one of the eaves, sat a weatherworn box. Lil opened it, pulled out gloves, bats, balls.
“My dad and I practice most nights after dinner. Mom pitches to me sometimes, but she’s got a rag arm. You can bat first if you want, ’cause you’re company, but you have to wear a batting helmet. It’s the rule.”
Coop put on the helmet she offered, then checked the weight of a couple of bats. Holding one was almost as good as the Game Boy. “Your dad practices with you?”
“Sure. He played minor-league for a couple seasons back east, so he’s pretty good.”
“Really?” All derision fled. “He played professional ball?”
“For a couple seasons. He did something to his rotator cuff, and that was that. He decided to see the country, and he ended up out here. He worked for my grandparents—this used to be their farm—and met my mother. That was that, too. You wanna bat?”
“Yeah.” Coop walked back to the cage, took a couple of practice swings. Set. She pitched one straight and slow, so he got the meat on it and slapped it into the field.
“Nice one. We’ve got six balls. So we’ll field them after you hit.” She gripped the next ball, took her position, pitched another easy one.
Coop felt the little lift inside as the ball sailed into the field. He smacked a third, then wiggled his hips and waited for the pitch.
She winged it, and blew it by him. “Nice cut,” was all she said as he narrowed his eyes at her.
He choked up on the bat a bit, scuffed his heels. She fooled him with one that curved low and inside. He caught a piece of the next pitch, fouling it off so it rang as it hit the cage.
“You can toss those three back if you want,” she told him. “I’ll pitch you some more.”
“That’s okay. You take a turn.” And he’d show her.
They switched places. Rather than soften her up, he burned one in. She caught enough of it to have it shooting foul. She caught the next, popped it up. But she got the fat of the bat on the third pitch. If there’d been a park, Coop was forced to admit, she’d have hit it out.
“You’re pretty good.”
“I like them high and inside.” After cocking the bat against the cage, Lil started toward the field. “We’ve got a game next Saturday. You could come.”
Some dumbass boondockie ball game. Would be, he thought, a lot better than nothing. “Maybe.”
“Sure. My father’s got season tickets, box seats, right behind the third-base line.”
It felt good—a little—to impress her. And it didn’t suck to have somebody, even a farm girl, to talk ball with. Plus she could handle the ball and the bat, and that was a serious plus.
Still, Coop only shrugged, then watched Lil slip through the lines of barbed wire without mishap. He didn’t complain when she turned and held the lines wider for him.
“We watch on TV, or listen on the radio. And once we went all the way down to Omaha to watch a game. But I’ve never been to a major-league ballpark.”
And that reminded him just where he was. “You’re a million miles from one. From anything.”
“Dad says one day we’ll take a vacation and go back east. Maybe to Fenway Park because he’s a Red Sox fan.” She found a ball, stuck it in her back pocket. “He likes to r
oot for the underdog.”
“My father says it’s smarter to root for a winner.”
“Everybody else does, mostly, so somebody has to root for the underdog.” She beamed a smile at him, fluttered long lashes over dark brown eyes. “That’s going to be New York this year.”
He grinned before he realized it. “So you say.”
He picked up a ball, tossed it hand to hand as they worked their way toward the trees. “What do you do with all these cows, anyway?”
“Beef cattle. We raise them, then sell them. People eat them. I bet even people in New York like steak.”
He thought that was gross, just the idea that the cow staring at him now would be on somebody’s plate—maybe even his—one day.
“Do you have any pets?” she asked him.
She couldn’t imagine not having animals around, everywhere, all the time. And the idea of not having any brought a lump of genuine sympathy to her throat.
“I guess it’s harder in the city. Our dogs . . .” She paused to look around, then spotted them. “They’ve been out running, see, and now they’re back at the table, hoping for scraps. They’re good dogs. You can come over and play with them sometimes if you want, and use the batting cage.”
“Maybe.” He sneaked another glance at her. “Thanks.”
“Not many of the girls I know like baseball all that much. Or hiking and fishing. I do. Dad’s teaching me to track. My grandfather, my mom’s father, taught him. He’s really good.”
“Animals and people. For fun. There’s lots of trails, and lots to do.”
“If you say so.”
She cocked her head at the dismissive tone. “Have you ever been camping?”
“Why would I want to?”
She only smiled. “It’s going to be dark pretty soon. We’d better get the last ball and head back. If you come over again, maybe Dad will play or we can go riding. You like to ride?”
“You mean horses? I don’t know how. It looks stupid.”
She fired up at that, the way she’d fired up to hit the ball high and long. “It’s not stupid, and it’s stupid to say it is just because you don’t know how. Besides, it’s fun. When we—”
She stopped dead in her tracks. As she sucked in her breath, she grabbed Coop’s arm. “Don’t move.”
“What?” Because the hand on his arm shook, his heart slammed into his throat. “Is it a snake?”
Panicked, he scanned the grass.
“What? Where?” Suspicious, sure she was just screwing around and trying to scare him, he tried to pry her hand away. At first he saw nothing but that brush, the trees, the rise of rock and hill.
Then he saw the shadow. “Holy shit. Holy freaking shit!”
“Don’t run.” She stared as if mesmerized. “If you run, he’ll chase you, and he’s faster. No!” She yanked on his arm as Coop edged up, getting a firmer grip on the ball. “Don’t throw anything, not yet. Mom says . . .” She couldn’t remember everything her mother had told her. She’d never seen a cat before, not in real life, not near the farm. “You have to make noise, and, and make yourself look big.”
Quivering, Lil rose to her toes, lifted her arms over her head, and began to shout. “Get away! Get away from here.
“Yell!” she shouted to Cooper. “Look big and mean!”
Her eyes, keen and dark, measured the cougar from tip to tail. Even as her heart pounded with fear, something else moved through her.
She could see his eyes glint in the oncoming dusk, glint as they seemed to look right into hers. Though her throat went dry, she thought: He’s beautiful. He’s so beautiful.
He paced, powerful grace, watching them as if deciding whether to attack or retreat.
Beside her Coop shouted, his voice raw with fear. She watched the big cat slink toward deeper shadow. And then it leaped away, a blur of dull gold that dazzled her eyes.
“It ran away. It ran away.”
“It didn’t,” Lil murmured. “It flew.”
Through the roaring in her ears, she heard her father shouting for her, and turned. He charged across the field, scattering surprised cattle. Yards behind him Coop’s grandfather ran, carrying a rifle she realized he’d gotten from the house. The dogs raced with them, as did her mother, with a shotgun, and Coop’s grandmother.
“Cougar.” She managed to get the word out just before Joe swept her off her feet and into his arms. “There. Over there. It’s gone now.”
“Get in the house. Coop.” With his free arm, Joe pulled Coop against him. “Both of you, get inside. Now.”
“It’s gone, Dad. We scared it away.”
“Go! Cougar,” he said as Jenna sprinted past Sam and reached them.
“Oh, God. You’re all right.” She took Lil, giving Joe the shotgun. “You’re all right.” She kissed Lil’s face, her hair, then bent down to do the same to Coop.
“Get them in the house, Jenna. Take the kids and Lucy, and get inside.”
“Come on. Come on.” Jenna draped her arms around both children, looked up at Sam’s grim face as he reached them. “Be careful.”
“Don’t kill it, Dad!” Lil called out as her mother pulled her away. “It was so beautiful.” She searched the brush, the trees, hoping for just one more glimpse. “Don’t kill it.”
Coop had a couple of bad dreams. In one the mountain lion with its glinting yellow eyes jumped through his bedroom window and ate him in big greedy bites before he could even scream. In another, he was lost in the hills, in the green and the rock, in the miles of it. No one came to find him. No one, he thought, even noticed he was gone.
Lil’s father hadn’t killed the cougar. At least Coop hadn’t heard gunshots. When his grandfather and Mr. Chance had come back, they’d had cherry pie and homemade ice cream, and had talked of other things.
Deliberately. Coop knew all about that adult ploy. Nobody would talk about what had happened until after he and Lil were in bed, and couldn’t hear.
Resigned to and resentful of his prison, he did his chores, ate his meals, played his Game Boy. He hoped, if he did what he was told, he’d get a parole day and be able to go back to the Chance farm and use the batting cage.
Maybe Mr. Chance would play, too, then he could ask him about what it was like to play professional ball. Coop knew his father expected him to go to law school, to work in the family firm. To be a big-shot lawyer one day. But maybe, maybe, he could be a ballplayer instead.
If he was good enough.
With his thoughts on ball, on escape, on the misery of his summer sentence, the big yellow-eyed cat might’ve been just another dream.
He ate his breakfast of flapjacks, as his grandmother called them, in silence at the old kitchen table while she fiddled around at the stove. His grandfather was already outside doing some farm thing. Cooper ate slowly, even though the Game Boy was forbidden at the table, because when he finished he’d have to go outside for