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The youngest hero, p.1
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       The Youngest Hero, p.1

           Jerry B. Jenkins
 
The Youngest Hero


  Novels by Jerry B. Jenkins

  The Left Behind series

  Hometown Legend

  Though None Go with Me

  ’Twas the Night Before

  The Operative

  The Margo Mysteries

  Copyright

  Copyright © 2002 by Jerry B. Jenkins

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

  The Youngest Hero was originally published in a completely different version as Rookie © 1991 by Jerry B. Jenkins.

  Warner Books, Inc.

  Hachette Book Group

  237 Park Avenue

  New York, NY 10017

  Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com

  First eBook Edition: October 2009

  ISBN: 978-0-446-56788-6

  Contents

  Novels by Jerry B. Jenkins

  Copyright

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Chapter 46

  Chapter 47

  Chapter 48

  Chapter 49

  Chapter 50

  Chapter 51

  Chapter 52

  Chapter 53

  Chapter 54

  Chapter 55

  Chapter 56

  Chapter 57

  Chapter 58

  Chapter 59

  Chapter 60

  Chapter 61

  Chapter 62

  Chapter 63

  Chapter 64

  Chapter 65

  Chapter 66

  Chapter 67

  Chapter 68

  Epilogue

  To Robert W. and Mike H.

  With thanks for your confidence

  1

  Don’t be giving me the credit. I’m just the mother. Seems like yesterday it was just Elgin and me on the Trailways from Hattiesburg. That was four years ago. He was ten.

  “You’re not gonna go barefoot in Chicago,” I told him. “And you’re not gonna say ‘not gonna’ up there neither.”

  “‘Either,’ Momma,” he said, turning from the window to face me. “You mean ‘either.’”

  I pursed my lips. “Thank you, Mr. Know-It-All.”

  My hair hung heavy from sweat. I shook my head, but I wasn’t really upset. I was the one who taught him to read when he was four. I’d watched him devour baseball books and schoolbooks ever since.

  Elgin climbed over me and into the aisle where he stood on tippytoes and dug an aluminum bat out of his bag. I saw the driver watching him in the mirror. “There’s no room, El,” I whispered.

  He climbed over me again—this time with the bat—to sit by the window. “I just want to hold it,” he said. “Daddy told me—”

  “If you’re gonna play with that thing, you can go sit by yourself.”

  Elgin let the bat slide between his knees. “You shouldn’t have said that, Momma. You know I’d rather sit with you than even feel a bat.”

  It was the highest compliment I could hear from him. I wasn’t much bigger than Elgin, but when I hugged him I felt strong. Ownership and responsibility, I guess.

  “Elgin, just don’t—”

  “I know,” he said, closing his eyes. His arms were moist and cool against mine. “Don’t talk about Daddy.”

  Elgin and I lugged four suitcases from the bus station to a Chicago street littered with trash. A transient hotel was all I could afford. In my purse I carried nine hundred and ten dollars in cash. I had squirreled it away over seven months on a salary that would have made a panhandler blush. I only broke even when I sold our house trailer. That cash was my net worth.

  By the end of the day, we had settled into a two-bedroom flat on the sixth floor of a building that smelled like the rescue mission in Hattiesburg. Like I told Elgin, at least it was better than living where people knew your business.

  I know Momma was worried cause I was sitting there so quiet while she cooked red beans and rice. There was stuff I missed already. Like screen doors. Room to move. Buddies.

  Momma said, “If I never see another IRS form as long as I live, it’ll be too soon.”

  “But you were good at it, weren’t you?”

  She snorted and nodded, setting a full plate in front of me. “I don’t believe I saw more’n two, three adjusted gross incomes lower’n mine.”

  She had her wish. She was out of it, away from it, away from Hattiesburg. If only she could explain it. I didn’t understand why we had to move. She’d tried to tell me enough times. I learned to quit pestering her.

  * * *

  The next day Momma found a job in the accounting department of a distributing company four and a half miles away.

  “You could act a little more excited,” she told me. ‘This is food and rent.”

  But I had my own news. I had discovered a game close enough to baseball to hold me until Momma could find a real league she could afford. ‘They call it fastpitch,” I said. “You stand on one side of the street with a building behind you and the strike zone chalked on the bricks. The pitcher stands in the street with a tennis ball that has the fuzz off it. He tries to strike you out before you get a hit. You make singles, doubles, triples, and homers by how high your hit goes on the front of the building across the street.”

  “How did you do?”

  She would ask that. “Haven’t hit a foul yet. But I will. A couple of Puerto Ricans can really fire.”

  Three days later, Elgin came home crying.

  “A kid stole my bat,” he told me. “And we can’t get it back cause he’s not from around here.”

  “Can’t you use someone else’s?”

  “All they have are broom handles with black tape. And I was just starting to hit with my bat. I’ll never hit anything with a broomstick! Anyway—”

  “I know, Elgin,” I said. “Your daddy gave you that bat.” I gathered him in. “A broomstick is about all I can afford right now. Everything costs so much more up here.”

  “Daddy says I should hit with a wood bat anyway. Get a better feel of the ball.”

  I sighed. “Money never meant much to your daddy. If he had his way, you’d have had a breakable bat whenever you needed one.”

  Elgin shook his head and pulled away.

  “I don’t want to hear about it all the time, Momma. I know. Okay?”

  It burst from me before I could think. “You would’ve had a sister by now if it hadn’t been for that man.”

  “I hate when you call
him ‘that man.’ He has a name.”

  “Yeah, and he’s also got a number.”

  He brightened. “Daddy’s playing ball again?”

  Just like Elgin to assume the best.

  “That’s not what I meant.” I reached into a cupboard and handed him an index card.

  Neal Lofert Woodell

  Lockbox 092349

  Alabama State Penitentiary

  Birmingham, Alabama

  The pain in Elgin’s eyes pierced me. “What for this time?” he said.

  I stalled and sat next to him. “Reckless homicide.”

  “What’s that?”

  “You know. Figure it out.”

  “Why do you have to make everything like school? Homicide is like murder, right?”

  “Um-hm. Drivin with no papers, drivin while drunk, hit an old man on a bike.”

  Elgin stared at the card. “Then he’s not going to come see me? He said he would.”

  “When did he say that?”

  “My birthday, and also the last time I talked to him on the phone. Just after Christmas.”

  “He was already in jail by then.”

  “He didn’t tell me.”

  “Probably embarrassed.”

  Elgin nodded, his eyes wet. “Can I go see him?”

  I shook my head. “What do you want to see him for when he’s only seen you once in more than a year?”

  Elgin shrugged. ‘That’s why.”

  * * *

  On my way to the bus the next morning, I mailed a letter from Elgin to his father. It had taken him most of the evening to write it. I told him I wouldn’t read it unless he said I could.

  “You can.”

  How are you? I am fine. I didn’t know you were in prison. I’ll bet you’re as sorry as I am. Momma says it could be lots of years. I hope not. I miss you and especially talking and playing baseball. Is there anyone there that can strike you out? I’d like to see them try!

  I’m switch-hitting like you taught me. My metal bat got stolen, so I’m going to get a wood one when I get enough money. I lost my batting helmet too. Sorry.

  Chicago is different, but we like it. At least I do. I can’t go barefoot. I’m not looking forward to school, but Momma is. She doesn’t like leaving me all day. I have to call her from the pay phone in the hall at the same time every day. Once I forgot, and once I got my money stolen. I got whipped the first time and haven’t forgotten since.

  I didn’t get whipped for getting my money stolen, but Momma told me how to tell the manager so he could call her. She worries too much, but I’m not scared. I just play fastpitch all day. I’ll tell you about it when I see you. How much would it cost for me to come see you?

  I love you and miss you, Daddy. I wish you would have told me what happened. It’s bad, and I know you’re sorry, so don’t worry about me not loving you anymore or anything like that.

  You still love me, don’t you? Mom doesn’t love you anymore because of that night, you know. I was mad at you too, but I knew you meant it when you cried. I’m never ever never going to drink beer or anything like that, Dad. It makes you do stuff you don’t want to do, and it makes people quit loving you, but not me.

  Love, Elgin

  2

  It was September before I started to get the broomstick on the tennis ball. I was in school most of the day, and they didn’t allow fastpitch during recess. Too many broken windows last year, I guess.

  Every day at 3:40 I had to call my mother from the hotel pay phone in the hall. Usually, I was still catching my breath from the run home.

  “No letter from Dad,” I’d tell her, wishing she would care. She’d just tell me what to put on for supper so it would be almost ready by the time she got home. She let me play fastpitch as long as I was home when the streetlights came on.

  Work kept my mind off being lonely, but getting supper on the table wasn’t enough to keep me from missing Elgin. He played only a few blocks away, but five minutes after I expected him, I would think about heading out to find him. I fought darker thoughts, thoughts of something happening to him. I couldn’t risk embarrassing him again. I had wandered over to watch him once, but the game stopped until the others found out who the woman was. They teased him unmercifully. No adults allowed. Not even to watch.

  Elgin always made it home just before dark. Every day he told me that the next day he would get the letter he wanted so bad.

  “You think Dad still loves me? Could he forget about me?”

  “I never knew anybody who could forget about you,” I said. “I’m sure he loves you the best he knows how. He was never much good at lovin anybody but himself.”

  I knew I shouldn’t bad-mouth Elgin’s daddy, but I was tired of covering for him. For a year before we moved to Chicago, we lived in a trailer park in Hattiesburg with bad memories. Before Neal had moved away and then been sent to prison for what was probably the last time, he had raced stock cars on a dirt oval and hit something like .550 in a local semipro league.

  I never thought I asked for too much. Just a husband who kept a job and came home after work and didn’t get drunk. When Neal got drunk, he got crazy. He had never attacked Elgin, but I know Neal terrified him when he was drunk. Even when I was pregnant with our second child, I felt like I was Elgin’s protector, keeping Neal’s attention. I swore I’d leave and take Elgin with me if Neal dared hurt him. I wouldn’t even let Neal spank him. “I don’t trust you,” I’d tell him. “You could kill that boy and call it an accident.”

  One night, drunk and sobbing, Neal fell on his knees in front of me when I said something like that. “You can’t hurt me more’n sayin I could ever hurt my own child, Miriam!”

  “You can hurt me and I shouldn’t think you’d hurt him?”

  “He’s my own flesh and blood! You’re not!”

  “I’m your wife!”

  “That was my mistake,” Neal said. “We’re only related by law.”

  “You can say that after all we’ve been through?” I said. “The nights I’ve bailed you out, put you to bed, made excuses for you, forgiven you?”

  Neal was still on his knees, but I saw his muscles tighten. “I had a momma,” he said, rising. “I don’t need another.”

  I told him I didn’t want to mother him, that I didn’t want to have to. Neal cursed me and called me ugly names. That I could take. I’d done it many times. But when he punched me in the stomach, the pain shot through me and made me dizzy. As I lurched forward he drove his knee into my abdomen and I slammed to the floor, desperate to protect my baby. Lying there I saw Elgin, standing frozen in the doorway of his tiny bedroom.

  Neal immediately started in with his apologies. “Oh, honey, sweetie, I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Forgive me! I’ll kill myself if I’ve hurt you! Oh, God! Oh, please! Jesus, don’t let anything be wrong with the baby!”

  I fought for breath as I struggled to my knees, keeping an eye on Neal. He reached for me, but I wrenched away. “Don’t touch me,” I said. “You will never touch me again.”

  While he cried, I dialed the phone. “Yes, sir,” I told the cop, “I’m willin to press charges this time.”

  Neal sat at the kitchen table with his head in his hands, sobbing. He said, “Forgive me, Mir, I swear I’m sorry. I’ll never—”

  “If anything happens to this child, Neal,” I said, “I hope you die in prison.”

  Neal spent sixteen months in the county jail that time. And I lost the baby, a girl. The prosecutors couldn’t prove the beating caused the miscarriage.

  It seemed to me Elgin was as sad and almost as mad as I was, but he believed his dad was sorry. “That’s what matters, right, Momma?” he’d say. “If he’s truly sorry, we have to forgive him, don’t we?”

  “I don’t,” I said, though I knew I shouldn’t be countering what he learned in Sunday school. “Someday you’ll learn to never believe a drunk, no matter what he says.”

  During more than a year in jail, Neal went to the hospital twice with deli
rium tremens. I never visited, wrote, or called. A sheriff served papers on me, requiring me to let Neal see his son. I let him go with his great-grandmother Lofert.

  Elgin told me Neal spent each visit holding him, crying, and pleading with him to try to convince me he was truly sorry.

  “Tell him it’s too late,” I said. “Better yet, don’t tell him anything. Don’t even promise him you’ll give me his messages. He has no right to ask you.”

  When Neal was finally set free, I got a court order to keep him from coming to the trailer. We’d bought it used, eight years before, in my name because I was the one with a job.

  I let Elgin visit Neal at a park close to town, while I watched from a distance. I didn’t change my feelings about Neal, but at least something good was happening. Elgin was learning to play ball. Not only that, but I had to admit he was learning the game from one of the best players I had ever seen.

  Against everything I ever knew as a Christian, I had grown to hate Neal, but I could never deny he was a marvelous baseball player, born to the diamond, a man everybody loved to watch play. Play was the perfect word for what Neal Woodell did on a ball field. He was a center fielder, but he could play any position. He knew what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. He was fast, graceful, powerful, and smart. Most of all, he seemed to truly love the game. If only he had loved me as much.

  Even when it was just Elgin and his dad, playing catch, hitting fly balls, pitching, and batting, I watched in awe. I did not, could not, would not ever again love or accept or even want to talk to Neal. But as he taught Elgin rules, strategy, technique, even style, I had to watch. Whenever he noticed, he hollered something to me, often something about Elgin’s progress. I just stared, acknowledging nothing. He finally quit trying to connect with me and concentrated on Elgin.

  “Aggressive, boy!” he would say. “Always look for the extra base, the advantage.”

  Elgin threw right-handed and batted left. Neal taught him to switch-hit. “See how you can see the ball better, El?”

  When Dad and I would take a break and sit under a tree, he would tell me his favorite stories—of childhood games, of incredible plays, of his four home runs in a rookie-league doubleheader.

 
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