Bobby had always been amazed at the calm, easy-going way that Grandpa Butch handled a crisis. He had examined Horatio himself when he had first learned of the eating of a part of Whitewhiskers Billy’s poisoned corpse.
He had then called the vet in Belle City. They put a couple of soft but old blankets in the back of the red pickup and then driven Horatio to see his doggy-doctor while Bobby and Shane rode in the back to keep Horatio calm and safe.
The doctor had checked him over carefully, determining that the dog probably had not eaten enough of the poisoned rat to get any of the poison in his own system. So, they gave Horatio some precautionary anti-coagulant injections, induced some vomiting, forced a bit of activated charcoal into him, and then, knowing Horatio would be better tended back home at the Niland farm than he ever would be in the Belle City animal hospital, sent him home.
“So, they’re sure that Horatio’s not gonna die?” Shane asked on the ride back home.
“Pretty sure, yeah. It’ll be our job to make sure he doesn’t eat any more poisoned rats. And we have to tell Grandpa if he vomits again, or shows any more symptoms.”
“Yeah, that makin’ the dog vomit thing was sure icky.”
“But it got rid of any poison still in his stomach, Shane.”
Bobby put one hand on Shane’s shoulder as he continued to stroke the fur on Horatio’s neck with the other hand. Shane had both hands deeply buried in Horatio’s brown-and-white fur coat.
“So, did Professor Rattiarty win this round?” Shane asked.
“No, he didn’t,” said Horatio confidently. “He meant to kill me with this poison-eating ploy. And we made him fail.”
“Horatio said he didn’t because Horatio is still alive.”
“Oh, that’s good.”
Rattiarty glared at Darktail Ralph.
“Don’t look at me. It isn’t my fault the damned dog didn’t eat enough of Billy to do the job!”
“Well, we just have to try again.”
“Not that way. There has to be some other plan. Something that works better.”
“This plan will work if you eat more of the poison. Saturate your system with toxins to make the dosage more lethal!”
“But there are only two of us left! Why should I be the one to sacrifice myself? Why don’t you let Horatio eat you? You have a lot more poison in you than I have in me.”
“It may come to that if you fail too.”
Ralph snarled at the Professor. “I won’t even try. You can’t make me do it!”
“We shall see about that.”
Rattiarty made the first lunge, going for Ralph’s throat.
Ralph was a veteran rat-warrior, however, and still very quick to dodge. He had the advantage of youth over Rattiarty, as the Professor was quite old for a rat.
As Rattiarty’s attempt at grabbing Ralph with teeth in his throat, the old rat’s superior strategy came into play. The lunge having missed, the Professor snagged the right nostril of Ralph’s nose with one claw. He ripped the skin all the way up to the Darktail’s right eye.
Blood half-blinded Ralph.
Rattiarty built on that advantage to swing his thin body up onto Darktail Ralph’s back. Stabbing rat teeth descended on Ralph’s neck, gouging into his spinal cord and effectively paralysing him. In mere moments more, the head was off, and Rattiarty was alone, but ready to drag the poison-filled body to some place where Horatio T. Dogg would see it and eat it.
“I love you, Horatio. You are my only true friend in the world.” Said Bobby while giving the old collie a tight hug around the neck.
“I may only be your brother, but I like to think I’m your friend too,” said Shane, sitting on the opposite side of Horatio.
“Well, yeah… but you’re the stinky little brother. That’s not the same as the kind of friend that a dog can be.”
“That is very true, a dog is faithful one hundred percent,” said Horatio. “But don’t forget. Shane is my boy too. All the members of your family are thoroughly and equally loved by your faithful dog and rat-detective.”
“Well, of course, that is true too,” said Bobby.
“What is? Are you talking to yourself again?” asked Shane.
“No. Answering Horatio.”
“Oh. Right. The talking dog.”
Bobby punched Shane on the shoulder behind Horatio’s back.
“Really, I find the dog to be the perfect person to tell all my troubles to too,” Shane continued. “But Horatio is not our only friend. There are others too.”
“You don’t see what it’s like in school. They pick on me constantly. That’s where the whole Bedwetter Bob nickname came from.”
“But Mike Murphy doesn’t call you that, does he?”
“Well, no… not frequently anyway.”
“And Blueberry Bates… she’s like your girlfriend almost.”
“No. She’s Mike’s girlfriend.”
“But you like her a lot, too… right?”
“And you saw her naked when you were both swans and you had to take the feathers off when you got back home.”
“No, I didn’t see her naked. Never did. Never would.”
“What? You had your clothes on under the swan feathers?”
“No, but… Well, we both sorta passed out when we got back home from that winter flight.”
“And you woke up with your clothes on?”
“Who put the clothes on your naked bodies?”
“No one did. Um, Blueberry says that probably it was maybe only our dream-selves, or maybe our astral bodies that turned into swans. And when we woke up, we were both back in our normal bodies.”
Shane grinned like he didn’t believe a word of it. Of course, there were a lot of things about the whole fairy-spell thing that didn’t ring completely true. Sometimes, when you tell yourself stories a lot, you may have convinced yourself that a good story was true even though, deep inside, you knew it wasn’t completely true.
“Why would it matter to you if I’ve seen Blueberry naked anyway?”
“Well, you know… she has… um… boy parts. I wonder what they look like.”
“You should never wonder about something like that. It’s her private business. And if I ever had the chance to look… well, I wouldn’t, okay?”
“Did you ever have the chance?”
“I don’t think so. But that doesn’t matter. She and Mike are my good friends. And he loves her. I can’t argue with that.”
“Even if you loved her too?”
“Even if… Wait! Now you’re invading my privacy!”
“Okay! Sorry… sorry.”
They didn’t talk for a few minutes. Bobby just glared at Shane. When Bobby looked away, he still didn’t say anything more.
“My, that was certainly tense,” said Horatio, blowing smoke rings from his imaginary pipe.
“I guess I do love her too… as a friend,” Bobby whispered.
“Of course, you do,” Shane answered softly.
“Look, I see a rat!” barked Horatio.
“Where?” asked Bobby.
“There!” said Shane, pointing.
It was apparently Whitewhiskers Billy. He was sorta stumbling through the yard like he was drunk or something.
“Rabies?“ asked Shane.
“Poison,” assured Bobby.
Horatio, in his eagerness to get the intruder, pushed hard through the screen door, and would have broken it if it didn’t luckily open outward instead of inward.
As speedy as Horatio had ever been for as long as they had known the old dog, he now closed on the fleeing rat and swatted it onto its back. Then he grabbed it by the throat, and he shook the life out of it
“Bobby, Grandpa poisoned the rats.”
“So, if he eats it, won’t he get poisoned too?”
In a flash, Bobby was out of the screen porch and out to where Horatio was dismembering Whitewhiskers Billy. The rat died with a snort. Bobby pulled Horatio off of most of what was left of the dead rat.
There was blood on Horatio’s muzzle. He swallowed something. Bobby dreaded to think of what it might have been.
It is located in the deepest, darkest place in the very heart of the barn. Underneath the pig-chow storage bin. Down where it smells like wet grain, festering and percolating with evil.
Professor Rattiarty, Whitewhiskers Billy, and Darktail Ralph were the only remaining rats in the gang. The cat was banished for now. And it was all right according to the ways of evil rats. You see, those three truly vile rodents had founded the gang, built the lair out of an old packing crate located under all the sacks of food and supplements. They had also all three participated in chewing out the tunnels through the wooden walls and sacks of feed.
“How do you know they built the place, Bobby? That’s not something that Horatio’s nose can tell by smell.” Shane squinted in mock suspicion.
“I just know it… okay? Horatio and me figured it all out a long time ago. Now, listen!”
Professor Rattiarty called the meeting to order with a snarl as the three were in a circle around the pan of strange green food that Darktail Ralph had discovered on the other side of a wall.
“It has the old grandfather’s smell on it. It is something he must’ve left in the barn,” said Ralph.
“Is it food? Can we eat it? Maybe it’s his lunch and he left it here for later,” said Billy.
“No, no. It is obviously poison,” said the Professor.
“How do you know? It smells like food,” said Ralph.
“Do you not smell something slightly off about it? It has a faint hint of strange potions they use around their wheeled things. It has the look and odor of things that proved to be poison before when the old man plotted against us.”
“Oh! In that case, we must not eat of it. Leave it where we discovered it. Maybe the old man will eat it himself.” Billy’s eyes sparkled as he knew he had to be right.
“The old man is not so dumb that he would ingest his own poison. He is much too careful for that. We just don’t eat it!” declared Ralph.
“Gentlerats, don’t misunderstand me… as you do so at your own peril… but we WILL partake of this poisonous food.”
“But why, Professor?” complained Billy.
“Because that is how we will defeat this trap. We ingest barely enough of it to make ourselves slightly sick. We will, in this way, make ourselves resistant to the poison over time. In fact, we made ourselves immune back in the old days.”
“But what if we get too much poison, by accident, say…?” Billy complained with hesitation.
“Then you will die a horrible, painful death,” sneered Ralph.
“But if you do make the mistake, dear William of the White Whiskers, you must drag yourself out of the barn where Horatio T. Dogg will smell you, pounce on you, and eat you.”
Ralph and the Professor both laughed. Billy was confused.
“Why do I let the dog eat me?”
“Because you will be full of poison in that case, and it will kill the dog,” sneered Ralph./
“Kill Horatio with the old man’s own poison!” crooned the Professor, his voice dripping with menace.
“Let’s dig in,” said Ralph.
“But slowly… carefully…” suggested the Professor. “You don’t want it to kill you if you can help it.”
“Very true,” said Ralph while crunching up the poison gingerly in his mouth.
“Ummm, this actually tastes good!” said Billy.
“Don’t eat it so fast you fool,” said the Professor.
“Wow!” said Shane to Bobby. “You tell that story like it was a cartoon show on TV.”
“Thanks, but it’s just the way Horatio told it to me,” said Bobby with a grin.
The next day, of course, was Sunday. And after Sunday School and Church, Bobby knew exactly where to find Horatio. It was a screen porch with room enough for two rocking chairs, a futon couch/bed foldout, an old easy chair, and a small table for iced tea, lemonade, and the checkerboard. But there was also a spot on the homemade rug in front of Grandpa’s rocking chair where the sunbeams converged and made a warming zone that was absolutely perfect for warming arthritic dog joints and soothing old-dog complaints that needed to be soothed to allow half-day-long naps.
“So, Horatio, here you are!”
The elderly collie yawned. “Yes, Bobby. Here I are.”
“Silly old dog! You’re supposed to say Here I am.”
“Yes, I know that. You must remember, every time you hear me speaking like this, the voice is actually coming out of your own imagination.”
“Sure, and I guess I must’ve made you say it wrong on purpose for some evil reason.”
“Not an evil reason. A familiar one. Grandpa Butch makes that kind of joke by mirroring the things you say as if they were incorrect on purpose. It’s the way his sense of humor works, and you are really smart enough to know that, though you often pretend that you aren’t. Your mind filled in the blanks in a way that sounds right to you, even when there’s joking involved because that’s the world you’re used to.”
Of course, Bobby knew one hundred percent that he was writing the entire discussion in his head because he wanted Horatio to talk like he knew Sherlock Holmes probably would.
Bobby sat on the porch floorboards in his short pants and buried his right hand in the silky fur of Horatio’s neck.
“Why do dogs make such good friends?” Bobby said more to himself than to Horatio.
“Because dogs love their chosen humans. And a dog knows how to listen to people much better than any cat or parrot, or goldfish. Dogs may not know the words you are using all of the time. But they know your smell. And they know how to read what you are thinking and feeling because the see it in your face. No stupid cat can do that.”
“But cats are better at catching mice and rats,” said Shane, while stepping out on the porch with a piece of Mom’s cherry pie on a small plate that he handed to Bobby.
“You’re welcome. I had mine in the kitchen, and Mom asked me to bring yours out here.”
“It’s good,” Bobby said with the first bite in his mouth. “But, hey, wait. How did you know what Horatio said about cats?”
“And how did you get the information so wrong, too?” added Horatio.
“It wasn’t Horatio talking. It was you.”
“See, my dear Robert, I told you my words all come out of your imagination. And sometimes your mouth,” said Horatio.
“Did you hear Horatio say that last thing?”
“That thing he said about where the words come from?”
“I didn’t hear the dog say anything,” said Shane.
“I told you, dear boy, it’s only in your head.
“Well, of course, it is.”
“Is what?” asked Shane.
“You shouldn’t be holding two conversations in your head as the same time. You are confusing your brother Shane,” said Horatio.
“Yes, see. Only I can hear the dog talking.”
“You’re weird,” said Shane, grinning at Bobby as he left him to enjoy his pie with Horatio as company.
Then, something in the yard caught Bobby’s attention. Out between the porch and the barn, on the gravel drive, a large rat was slinking along doing rat business as if he didn’t care who or what saw him.
“Who is that, Horatio?”
“That, dearest Robert, is Whitewhiskers Billy. He’s an evil, egg-sucking rat.”
“So, that’s Whitewhiskers Billy, is it?”
“Why would that rat be Whitewhiskers Billy?” asked Grandpa as Bobby realized that Grandpa Butch had suddenly appeared at the doorway between the porch and the house.
“Did you hear Horatio call him that?” asked Bobby.
“No, I heard you say it,” said Grandpa.
“Oh. So, why is he called Whitewhiskers Billy?
“Because his whiskers smell white. He eats chicken droppings. It makes them sort of bleached white,” said Horatio.
“Because his whiskers smell white,” said Bobby.
“Smell white? Horatio tell you that?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, I think we should put some rat poison out, maybe in the barn and under the hen house..” said Grandpa. “That will give old Whitewhiskers Bill something to think about.”
“Will that kill him?” Bobby asked.
“It should. But we will have to be careful that the dog and the stupid turkens don’t get into it. We would hate to lose any of them by being less than careful.”
Bobby nodded wide-eyed. He certainly didn’t want Horatio to get poisoned. Of course, if it got a turken or two, he wouldn’t be too upset.
“I need to check the flyer I got from the hardware store in Clarion. I think I remember a sale on a good poison to put in the barn.” Grandpa left the porch again too.
As Bobby continued to sit in the warm, yellow sunshine with Horatio, he began noticing his bare white legs, how girlish they looked in the sunlight.
“Can you tell if Blueberry is a girl or a boy by smell?”
“She definitely smells girlish. No boy smell. No boy pee. Lots of girly flower smells.”
“I have always believed she is a girl.”
“Yes, and you kinda like her too. It’s a shame she already has a boyfriend.”
“You know I can tell how you feel about her by the scent of romance whenever you’re around her. And I know that whatever gender-irregularities she may have, you are convinced that she must be a girl. Remember, I will always know what you are thinking because…”
“Because you are the world’s greatest dog-detective with your all-knowing sniffer.”
“See there? You are a lot smarter than you let people think you are. And you are a great imaginer too.”
The A&W drive-in in Belle City was the place to go after a game, especially if you lost and needed consoling. The A&W, known for its root beer in frosty mugs, had once had car-hops on roller skates, and delivered the food to your car on trays they hung on your window. But too many trays got spilled, definitely too many spilled into the window of the car directly on the customers, and a few unfortunate falls, and a couple of broken legs, had eventually transformed the place into a sit-down fast-food restaurant on the model of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King.
When Grandpa Butch invited the whole family to go there, he specifically extended the invitation to Mike and Blueberry as well. Not the usual thing. And it required two cars to get everybody there. But Grandpa was paying, and so it was up to him. Dad and Mom and Bobby and Shane went in the Niland minivan while Grandpa drove Mike and Blueberry in his red Toyota pickup.
They were fortunate to find a booth with room for four and a smaller table with chairs next to it, so that it was kinda like they were seated all together in a fairly crowded Saturday evening gathering place.
“Now, Mike, we don’t want you to hold back on ordering what you and your pretty girlfriend need to eat,” said Grandpa Butch. “We know the legends about the appetites of the Murphy boys, and we have actually watched Danny eat before. That was an amazing spectacle at the Wright County fair when he must’ve had at least ten chili dogs in a row. And we have enough money to cover anything your amazing Murphy appetite can inhale.”
Grandpa was joking and exaggerating like he always did. And Mike and Blue both knew it. But the ten-chili-dog thing was actually true, which made the comment all the funnier.
“Why did you want to bring Blue and me here, anyway?” Mike asked/
“Well, we really wanted to thank the two of you for the way you stood up for Bobby after the game. It takes a special kind of friend to defend someone from bullies that way,” said Dad with a smile.
“Oh, he woulda done it no matter what, Mr. Niland,” said Blueberry. “Bobby is my good friend. And Mike does everything he can to please me. And he looks after all the Pirates the same way.”
“Yes, we know he does. He’s practically the leader of the Pirates,” said Mom, also smiling.
“Oh, no! Tim Kellogg is the leader of the Pirates. I am more like his Sir Lancelot, doing all the sword-fighting and stuff,” said Mike, sounding a little upset.
“Yes, we know about the Pirates’ fearless leader,” said Dad. “He’s like a sort of Genghis Kahn or Attila the Hun sort of leader. In my day, when Brent Clarke was the leader of the Pirates, we thought of him as being a sort of King Arthur. A ruler, but not one that ever cut anybody’s head off.”
“Oh, Tim is like King Arthur more than Shmengis Kone or Atlas the Hunter,” said Blueberry. “He’s Mike’s best friend.”
“Grandpa Butch laughed. “Yes, I’m sure you truly believe that, dear. And Tim probably thinks it too.”
“But, Blueberry, honey, he wasn’t very nice to you over your little gender problem, was he?” Bobby’s mom was putting it delicately. Everybody in Norwall knew that Blueberry had been born a boy with boy parts, but was a girl in her mind from the very start. And they all knew it because Tim found out and spread the girl’s personal information everywhere.
“Tim knows I’m a girl now, though…” Blueberry frowned at the table in front of her. “The doctors x-rayed and scanned me, and they found my ovaries on the inside. My problem was just like a birth defect on the outside.
Bobby didn’t like his parents bringing this thing up when Blueberry and Mike were his guests. Blue was definitely a girl. And it wasn’t right to bring up the old scandal thing. Bobby and Mike didn’t want to hear about it all over again. And it was embarrassing to Blue, Bobby thought.
“She’s definitely all girl,” said Mike, apparently willing to talk about it more. “Mom knew it even before the doctor revealed the whole x-ray thing.”
“Yes, and if your mother, Mary Murphy herself, believes it’s so, then it most certainly is,” said Grandpa Butch. “Even I am afraid to ever argue with her about God’s truth about anything.”
Everyone laughed, and then the topic was apparently forgotten. And that made Bobby even more happy.
“Bobby was telling Mike and me about Horatio T. Dogg’s war with the barn rats,” said Blueberry as Grandpa started a list of what everyone wanted to order. Mike had him put down three chili-dogs, two for him and one for Blue. Mike was not in Danny Murphy’s hot-dog-eating league by any means.
“That’s what his grandpa was telling us too,” said Dad. “Apparently Horatio can talk now, and solve rat-crimes like a dog version of Sherlock Holmes.”
“Well, of course he can,” said Blue. “If Bobby said it, it has to be true.”
“Did you ever hear Horatio talk with your own two ears?” asked Shane, looking somewhat sly.
Grandpa wrote down burgers for himself, Dad, Mom, and Shane.
“But I want a chili-dog like Mike and Blue,” said Bobby.
“Sure thing. And root beer for everybody?”
Everyone nodded, and Grandpa took the order to the counter.
“We all know Horatio is a very smart dog. And it can almost seem like he’s smart enough to talk,” said Dad.
“But he does talk! It’s just that only I can hear him.”
“Bobby, you actually thought that you and Blueberry had turned the music teacher into a swan!” said Mike.
“Yes, and we both turned ourselves into young swans and went flying to Belle City to find her and remove the curse,” said Blueberry earnestly.
“No, Blue, you and Brainiac Bobby just got carried away with imaginary stuff during Miss Morgan’s lessons for that Hobbit novel we were reading in her class. It was all idiot-imagining,” said Mike, distaste for the subject plainly showing on his face.
“You saw the fairies too, didn’t you? And the magic spells?” Bobby was trying hard to make Mike remember what he clearly saw when everybody else saw it.
“I saw the drawings Blue made about it. I heard the stories. And I did the lessons. But Tim was lying about there being little people everywhere. And you two did not fly to Belle City in winter wearing only feathers! You both made that up and fixed your imaginations on it too much.”
“Mike has a point,” said Mom. “You know you get carried away with imagination.”
Bobby, looked at the table downhearted. He almost felt like crying. That moment of flight through the crisp, cold winter air was so bracing. And flying above the snow-covered farms had seemed so real. How could he ever accept that it was not a real thing?
“Sometimes, imagination is a good thing. It can solve problems that you couldn’t figure out any other way. And besides, daydreaming and a creative imagination are a sign of intelligence,” said Dad as Grandpa sat the food down on the table in front of him.
“I always thought of imagination like this, it’s the sum of things I can use my mind to take control of,” said Grandpa Butch. “I mean, the things I most need to happen, the conclusions and solutions I need to come to… well, I use the bowl of electrified noodles in my old head to stir up an answer I create for myself. The things I need to happen, I make happen with my imagination. Now, the things that fail, the things I don’t control… well, that’s the universe using its facts and reality to make happen what it needs to happen. I can’t control that. Except maybe later I can use my imagination again to rewrite what really happened so I have memories of it that I can live with.”
“Yeah, that’s the way to look it. Imagination is a good thing if you never use it for evil,” said Dad.
Well, everybody seemed to accept that as the end of the discussion. Mike wrinkled his nose up like he didn’t understand, or maybe wanted to argue more. But the food was there. And Bobby was almost certain that the chili dogs were what kept Mike from saying anything more. After all, you can’t eat and talk at the same time.
Mike and Blueberry sat next to the hero of the bottom of the first, happier than Bobby had seen them in a long time. And what was even better, he knew he was himself the reason. The Pirates led three to nothing. But Tim got out on the next fly ball, popping it to Delwyn of all people. And, wouldn’t you know it, this time Delwyn didn’t drop it.
It was, like all 4-H softball games, a five-inning game. And being the home team, the Pirates only had to hold on to the lead until the top of the fifth inning was over. And Mike was on his usual game. That fastball, even though it was underhanded and using a ball that floated through the air like a watermelon, burned holes through the Lincoln township bats and Tim Kellogg’s catcher’s mitt for good measure. Three more strike-outs in each of the second, and third innings.
But Clarion’s blond Apollo wasn’t going to stay shook up for a whole game either. And he could also windmill in a scorching-hot fastball. He matched Mike strikeout after strikeout.
In the fourth inning, both teams got a couple of runners on base. But the Leaders scored two runs when Watson hit a double with runners on base. And the Pirate’s fourth had two men on base, one of whom was a girl, but Bobby struck out instead of driving them in, and Tim made the last out again after him.
So, it all came down to the final inning, and the Pirates with only a one-run lead.
Bobby, of course, spoke directly to the Big Guy in the Sky. “Don’t let them hit it to me. Whatever you do, don’t make that ball come to me.”
The first batter up was Leroy Watson. And wouldn’t you know it, the gol darn Apollo hit a ball to deep left field that Billy Martin could only get to on the bounce. Billy’s arm was good enough to wing it into the home plate to hold Watson to a triple. Still, the tying run was on third base.
Mike on the mound had to really bear down and throw hard strikes for the rest of the inning. The next two Leaders struck out. But you could see the strain on Mike’s face. In fact, you could see it all the way from deep right field. “Please, don’t let that ball come to me. Hit it to Billy. He’s good at catching fly balls. He’ll win the game for us.”
But it didn’t get hit out to any field. In fact, the bats didn’t get near the ball for two more batters. Mike pitched eight consecutive balls outside the strike zone.
“It’s okay, Mike. Let your fielders help you. Your arm is getting tired of throwing it so hard,” Coach Kellogg said in a wise old voice that made Bobby’s heart drop down from the middle of his chest, down into his behind, and eventually down his right leg and all the way out through the bottom of his right shoe.
And Bobby knew where it was coming. Delwyn Marmoody was up to bat. And Bobby’s heart was tunnelling down into the grass somewhere beneath him.
“Be on your toes, fielders!” cried Tim from his position at catcher.
“You can do this, Bobby!” cried Blueberry from the bench.
Why did she have to yell that? She put the curse on him! He wished he could turn into a swan once again and fly away.
Two strikes and two balls later, Delwyn swung. The bat went, “TUNK!” And the ball was flying through the air… Directly at Bobby in right field.
“Gotta get under it”
“You can do it, Bobby!”
“Shut up, Blue!”
And then it settled into Bobby’s open glove.
And he was about to lift it high in the air in triumph…
When it rolled out again and hit the ground, somewhere on top of Bobby’s buried heart.
“AW, NO!!!” cried the Norwall crowd in unison.
The runners were going with the crack of the bat, so two of them had already crossed the plate when Billy came scrambling into right field, got the ball and cannoned it to home plate to keep them only one run behind. The runner trying for a third score was out at the plate.
There was a shallow hope in the bottom of the fifth inning. Two runs would win the game. One run would tie it and give them an extra inning.
But Johnny Miller struck out.
And when Dilsey Murphy got up, she hit a double to right field. And there was a glimmer of hope with one out.
Then Mike got up. Mike was the most dangerous hitter the Pirates had. Watson intentionally walked him.
“It’s gonna be hero time again for you, Bobby,” Blueberry whispered in his ear.
Frosty Anderson got up to the plate with his meanest game-face sneering away at the Clarion Apollo. He banged the heavy bat Mike had used on the plate to show how much business he actually meant.
“Hit it out, Frosty!” hollered Tim Kellogg. “Or you-know-who is up next!”
Bobby did know who. And there went his heart again, headed for the depths of the dirt in the dugout.
The pitch swished in at just about the perfect spot for Frosty to hit it, and he swung with all the might of Hercules. He topped the ball to the third baseman who stepped on the bag and zipped to first for the double play.
Frosty Anderson came barrelling over to the Pirate bench with so much anger that fire was blazing up out of his ears and lighting his blond hair on fire.
“You know who really lost us the game, don’t you?” he screamed directly at Bobby. Suddenly he was directly in front of Bobby, pushing him with two hands. Bobby went backwards over the bench and landed on his back in the sand.
Mike grabbed Frosty from behind, whirled him around, and presented him with a cocked right fist, ready to knock the angry boy’s block off just like in the Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots commercials.
“You need to blame somebody, hero? Who hit into the double play at the end? Bobby’s on our team. And he’s the one who drove in three runs to put us ahead.”
“Okay, okay… Sorry, Bobby. But he did drop the game-ending out.”
“Whatta you think, Bobby? Should I hit him?”
“No, please don’t. He’s a Pirate too.”
“Good boy, Bob. That’s the way we hold a team together,” said Coach Kellogg as he picked Bobby up off the ground and set him back on his own feet again.
The whole group said that it wasn’t Bobby’s fault that they lost, mostly because Coach Kellogg asked them to, but not all of them meant it.
“We almost won,” said Blueberry.
“No, we didn’t,” Bobby said quietly so only Blue could hear, “But thanks for thinking so. You have a good heart.”
Softball was a summer thing that boys had to do. There really was no choice in the matter. 4-H Clubs were part of how boys became men and girls became ladies in small Iowa farm towns. And, of course, in order for small town like Norwall to have enough members to have their own separate 4-H Club, they needed every boy in the whole town, and all the surrounding farmland to join. And worse, in order to field a softball team, in the 1990’s, you had to let the girls play too.
“Bobby, I’m glad you remembered your glove. You will take right field and we’ll let Blueberry be our bench tonight.” Tom Kellogg was Tim’s Grandpa and the coach of the team. He’d been involved in 4-H for more than 30 years. What he said always goes. And, anyway, right field was where you always played your weakest players. It was the one place Bobby was most suited to be during the game.
“Right coach. Did Blueberry forget her glove?”
“No. She always remembers. I just think it’s your turn to get the playing time this week.”
“Thanks, coach,” he said totally without enthusiasm.
“Hey, Bedwetter Bobby! Good to see you in the line-up again,” Frosty Anderson said with a wicked, sneering laugh. Old Forrest Woodley Anderson played short stop like a pro. He was actually on the Belle City Broncos High School Baseball team too that summer.
“You owe us a home run this season,” said Tim Kellogg. Tim played catcher. He was the leader of the Pirates and basically the boss of every high school and junior high kid in Norwall. He was referring to the fact that last summer, Bobby had let a fly ball drop in front of him and then roll past him out to the road behind the softball field. It had been a home run for Delwyn Marmoody of Clarion, playing for the Lincoln Leaders of the Clarion 4-H Club. And Delwyn was a runty little loser who only played softball as a sport, nothing else, and had only hit that one home run in his whole entire lifetime. That home run.
Bobby was supposed to hit the only home run of his whole entire lifetime this season to make up for it. His error had been the reason for all three runs that the Leaders had beaten the Pirates by in what was supposedly a very important game.
And now Mike Murphy was walking out to the mound where he would pitch his famous “Wicked Windmill” underhanded fastballs and try to make it impossible for the Leaders to hit one out into the right field again this year. Billy Martin was out in the outfield too. And he was good at catching practically anything hit into left or center field. He played both positions in softball. He was the varsity baseball left-fielder for the Belle City Broncos, and definitely good enough to play two positions at once in 4-H.
Bobby trotted out to the lonely grass of deep right field. Nothing was going to get past him this year. Especially if no one hit it to right field.
And nobody did in the first inning.
Mike whiffed two of the three Lincoln Leaders he faced in the top of the inning. And the other one, Leroy Watson, the blond Apollo of Clarion High School, tried to beat out a bunt, and Dilsey Murphy, Mike’s older sister, and a girl playing third base. threw him out by five feet.
Then it was time for the Pirates to take to the plate. Johnny Miller, a farm kid from the country East of Norwall, but who went to Dows High School instead of Belle City, led off with an out. Dilsey, the third baseman but second hitter, was thrown out at first.
Next, Mike Murphy was up. He took his big blue bat up to the plate. It was a twenty-ounce bat, the heftiest one the Pirates had. And he clubbed it with the same stroke he had used to slay the rat at the Niland place. The ball went out to center field and Mike was on third before the fielders could get it back to the infield.
“Now you’re going to see something!” Frosty Anderson bragged, as he picked up Mike’s blue bat and took several practice swings.
And Frosty was right. He watched Watson get totally rattled by Mike’s hit and throw four straight balls, allowing Frosty to stroll on down to first with a walk and a smirk on his face.
“Alright, Niland. You are up next. I’m gonna save Tim and Billy to see how many we can score if you can get on.”
“But, coach!” Tim Kellogg was livid. He would normally be batting next. And with two men on base!
Bobby was mortified. “Coach, no! Please!”
“Bobby, yes. This will work. The boy is rattled, and you are a smaller strike zone than Tim. He will walk you for sure.”
Grudgingly the Pirates did see the logic in this.
“You can do it, Bobby. I believe in you,” Blueberry said with a pat on his back and an encouraging smile.
Bobby walked to the plate with one of the two lightest bats the Pirates owned. He reached it out to tap the plate as if he knew what the hell he was doing, and then took a semi-awkward stance and glared at Greek-god Watson.
Sure enough, the first pitch was high and outside, a pitch even Bobby couldn’t be fooled into swinging at.
“Way to watch ‘em, Bob! That’s a good eye!” shouted Mr. Kellogg the coach.
“Don’t swing at the next one unless you’re sure you can hit it!” hollered Grandpa Butch from the stands where he was sitting with Dad, Mom, and Shane.
But, that, of course, only served to convince Bobby that he would hit the next one, no matter what.
The pitch came in high and outside, almost precisely the same spot the first pitch had fluttered by. This time, of course, Bobby swung at the ball with home-run-hitting-Casey-at-the-bat confidence. He could see in his mind’s eye where the ball would fly out in a gloriously high arc, all the way to the road, and be the home run that he owed the team.
It was a complete whiff. His bat didn’t come anywhere near the ball, missing by at least two feet.
“Aw, no!” groaned Mike from third base.
“Why’d you swing at that, Bedwetter Bob?” hooted Frosty.
“You’ll get the next one, Bobby!” called out Blueberry.
“I’ll get the next one,” Bobby muttered to himself.
Another outside pitch and another swing brought another miss. More groans and insults came from the Pirate bench.
Bobby choked up on his light bat. In fact, he was strangling it now.
The next one was way low. But with two strikes, you have to protect the plate, right? He swung down below his knees at it, hoping to golf it over the road.
But when he connected, he dribbled a weird bouncer right back to the pitcher. Watson’s eyes bugged out. He saw Mike dashing for the plate. He whipped it to the catcher underhanded to get Mike out.
And he proved how shook-up Clarion’s blond Apollo still was. The ball bounced past the catcher’s sneakers all the way to the backstop. And then it caromed back to the plate where Mike had already scored. Watson caught the ball and threw at Frosty at third. This time it bounced past the third baseman and went past the left end of the backstop into weeds behind the bleachers.
Frosty stepped on home plate and shouted at Bobby who was standing on first.
“Run god-dobbit! Run you bouncy-ball smacker!” Whatever it was Frosty intended to say, what he did say had the effect of making Bobby take off to second base. And then as both the third baseman and the short stop searched for the ball in the weeds, Bobby realized he could make third. And as he got to third, the short stop fired the ball over the head of Delwyn Marmoody, the second baseman into right-centerfield. Bobby could’ve walked home. Instead, he slid into home, causing a painful abrasion to his right wrist.
It was Blueberry Bates who pulled him to his feet with the biggest, goofiest grin he had ever seen on her pretty face. And it was Mike Murphy who caught Bobby under the armpits and lifted him into the air.
“A three-run home run!” crowed Mike.
“More like a three-run triple-error!” said Frosty, who was also grinning and patting Bobby on the back. Bobby knew that Frosty was more right than Mike, but it was a feeling he had never had before. Well, except maybe in daydreams and his imagination. All those pretend home runs he had hit for the Minnesota Twins in his backyard fantasies had finally paid off.
The next morning was a Monday morning in Summer. No school to worry about, and the beans were not tall enough yet that the boys had to worry about walking them yet. Walking beans was a summer project whereby farm kids walked up and down the rows of every family-owned beanfield with gloves and hoes and hats, to protect against sunburn, looking for evil, intolerable, low-down filthy weeds to chop or pull out by the roots.
You had to be on your toes all the time to truly combat evil. That’s why Horatio T. Dogg was always thinking about the crimes he had to solve. And that’s why Bobby was also always thinking about Horatio thinking about the crimes he had to solve. Like the murder of Little Bob the stupidest turken by the evil Professor Rattiarty.
Horatio and Bobby were both sitting on the porch as two of his classmates from Belle City Middle School came walking hand and hand down the gravel road to the Niland farm.
“Hey, Mike, I haven’t seen you since school got out,” Bobby said.
“I needed to beat somebody up today. I haven’t slugged anyone since that last day in Loomis’s class,” said Mike with a grin.
“I can smell that he’s not telling the truth,” said Horatio with a snort.
“Oh, I know. Mike is my friend. He’s only joking,” said Bobby.
“Oh, you can talk to the dog?” asked Blueberry. She was a cherub-faced girl that Bobby secretly adored, but was definitely afraid of for various reasons.
“Well, yeah. Horatio is a very special dog. Can you hear him when he talks?”
“No. But I will be trying to learn to hear him,” she answered. “There is nothing that would make me happier than having a talking dog for a friend.”
She blinked her big brown eyes at Bobby in a way that seemed to melt his knees Not enough to make him fall down, but enough to make him wobble.
“Blue, dogs don’t talk in real life,” Mike said matter-of-factly. “That’s just a weirdo Bobby-thing.”
“Oh, I know. But Bobby has a beautiful imagination. And that’s what I like about him most.”
“I like her,” said Horatio.
Bobby didn’t comment, because Blueberry would hear and that would be embarrassing.
“But that’s what made the two of you think you turned the music teacher into a swan by magic, and then turned yourselves into swans to rescue her. How dumb a thing was that?”
“But that was real. We both became swans,” insisted Blueberry.
“I remember that,” said Horatio. “You didn’t really change. I would’ve smelled the difference.”
“I know,” said Bobby.
“You are both screwy,” said Mike.
“Tell him why you came to talk to him,” said Blueberry.
“The reason we walked all the way out here from town was to ask you about walking beans. We’re putting together a crew. Danny has promised to drive us to and from the fields.”
“So, you want me to walk with your crew? Or you just came to ask my dad to work in our fields?”
“Both,” said Blueberry.
“We’re only charging three dollars an hour,” said Mike.
“Well, that’ll get you hired by Dad anyway. That’s less than I asked him to pay me and Shane. But if you get the job, and I’m working with you, he won’t pay me what we first agreed on.”
“Sorry. But we need the job. And you don’t want me to beat you up for real, do you?”
“No, of course not.” Bobby knew he would have to make the sacrifice. Dad wouldn’t hire Mike and the gang at the price he was originally going to pay Bobby and Shane to do it by themselves. And the cheaper price for more workers meant it would get done faster and would be cheaper over-all. It was a sacrifice that Bobby had to make to help both the family farm and Mike and the gang. Besides, there would be more money to make with Mike’s crew on other farms.
“You shouldn’t be so mean to him,” insisted Blueberry. She was a very thin, small, and perky girl who was never afraid to say what she thought. “If we are going to have him on our team and we’re going to work for his dad, you should be nice to him.”
“Aw, Bobby knows I don’t mean it when I say I’m gonna beat him up. You know that I’m only joking, right?”
“Actually, you beat up Steven Shanks for picking on me. And Frosty Anderson is only nice to me because you make him.”
It was true. Mike was like a protector for Bobby. Of course, that was partly because Bobby was a Norwall Pirate and Mike protected all the Pirates. The Pirates were the town’s 4-H softball team, and also the local liars’ club.
“You should tell Mike about Professor Rattiarty and the recent murders. He might be a good boy and help you defeat him,” Horatio said with a dog grin.
“I will definitely ask Dad to let us walk his beans. He’ll hire your crew,” Bobby finally said. “But I also want to talk to you about barn rats.”
“Yeah, they been killing Mom’s favorite turkens.”
“Those silly-looking things with no feathers on their chicken necks?”
“Yeah. Let’s go in the barn with Horatio’s nose to help us and talk about the evil Professor Rattiarty.”
“Uggh! Imagination again! Too many darned Pirates have too much imagination for their own good,” said Mike.
“Now, you don’t say bad things about imagination, Michael. You know I wouldn’t be your girlfriend if it weren’t for the power of our imaginations.” Blueberry often got hot about the topic of too much imagination. She was in favor.
“Yeah. I know. But you and he wouldn’t have gotten turned into swans, and flew all the way to Belle City in the snow, or saw each other naked if you didn’t have too big of a imagination,” growled Mike. Yeah, jealousy was probably part of it. But Bobby never actually saw Blue naked, and you can’t exactly turn back into a boy from being a swan all covered in feathers without being naked at some point.
“Do you want to see the Professor’s evil lair, or not?”
“We certainly do want to see,” insisted Blue.
“Okay. We go into the damn barn.”
“You shouldn’t say damned, Mike,” scolded Blue. And so, they went into the brick-walled, white barn to look for clues with the detective, Horatio T. Dogg.
Grandpa Butch pulled the pickup over on the side of the road. Bobby and Shane quickly piled out. Horatio jumped down out of the pickup bed where he had ridden to the cemetery.
Grandpa had two roses with him, just like always.
The little Norwall cemetery was a rectangular space of well-tended grass surrounded by stately pine trees just off the south side of State Highway Three. Numerous marble grave markers and family monuments were fairly tightly packed there. Across the gravel road to the East was a newer rectangle of grass surrounded by recently planted white pines that were supposed to be the new addition to the cemetery.
“Grandpa, your folks are buried up there in the old cemetery, right?” Shane asked.
“Yep. The Niland family monument up there contains three generations of our family.”
Bobby nodded at the monument on the hill. He had been taught reverence for the place by both Grandpa Butch and Dad.
That wasn’t, of course, where they were headed.
“I brought you your flower,” Grandpa said to the headstone in the new addition. He kissed one of the roses and put it in the brass vase. The other rose was stretched out to the first, pressed against it as if the blossoms were giving each other a kiss, and then hooked the stem around the left suspender of his overalls.
“Why do you always take one of the roses home with you again?” Bobby asked.
“She knows I brought it here to her, and she sends a little bit of her bright spirit home with me to watch over us for another week.”
“Grandma’s an angel now, isn’t she?” asked Shane. The goof asked that same question every time he came along to the cemetery. And every time it made a tear come to Grandpa Butch’s eye.”
“Of course. She’s right here with her wings spread wide, standing guard over us.”
“Does she ever answer you when you talk to her?” Bobby asked.
“Of course, she does. Don’t you, old woman?”
“So, you inherited the ability to hear voices who aren’t really there,” said Horatio to Bobby. No one but Bobby could hear him, though, so Bobby didn’t say a word in response.
“What you gonna tell her this week?” Shane asked. He often asked that same question too.
“Sassy, ain’t he?” remarked Grandpa Butch. He was talking to Grandma. “You know they can talk to dogs now, your grandsons?”
“What does she say back?” Shane asked.
“She says it’s only Bobby that does. And not to worry about it. It’s natural for Niland boys to have that ability. It’s a sign of smartness and a good imagination.”
“Does that mean that I’m not smart like Bobby is?” Shane’s eyes were open a little wider than usual.
“Oh, no, of course not. You’re both smart. Just in different ways.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, I can vouch for the fact that I talked to voices that weren’t really there back in the 40’s when I was a boy. And your dad used to imagine werewolves and monsters he could talk to when he was a boy back in the 70’s. Bobby has the same kind of smartness we had.”
“And how is my smartness different?” Shane asked.
“Your Grandma tells me she was a very perceptive girl when she was your age. She was very aware of how everybody around her was feeling. And she would referee fights and arguments, always the peacemaker… always trying to make other people happy. And she also tells me all the times you’ve done the same exact thing for Bobby and some of his friends. You have a loving intelligence that works more with what you know is real than what you can dream up.”
“Is that a good kind of smart?”
“In some ways it is the best kind of smart. A kind of smartness the rest of us need to rely on.”
“So, Shane is better than me?” Bobby asked, feeling a sad spot in the depths of his stomach.
“No, no… Your Grandma just thinks it’s a different kind of smart. And you are both brave and handsome and good-natured. That’s what it means to be a Niland. You are near to the land, and you can make it blossom and grow.”
“What if I don’t wanna be a farmer?” asked Shane.
“That can be a good thing too. You could be like your Uncle Nat. He felt like that too, so he went to college at ISU and became an engineer. Now he’s a civil engineer in Des Moines, figuring out how to make city things work better and helping people get along with one another better.”
“Can you see her, Grandpa?” Bobby asked, looking at Horatio.
“Your Grandma? Of course, I can. She’s right here by her memorial, in the place that I’ll be one day too.”
“I can see her,” said Horatio.
“Dogs can see ghosts?” Bobby asked before thinking.
“I don’t know about ghosts,” Grandpa Butch said. “But I’ll bet they can see angels. Dogs see with their heart more than with their eyes. That’s why I see her here, and any place I put the second rose in the house.” Grandpa Butch’s eyes were wet. He didn’t say anything more. Neither did the two boys, both of them trying hard to see their grandmother too.
Bobby brought the drowned body of Little Bob into the kitchen. He had carefully wrapped it in a rag that was in the clean pile where his dad kept the rags for working on the tractor.
“Oh, no! What happened?” Mom put her dish towel down on the edge of the kitchen sink.
“It’s Little Bob,” said Bobby.
“The turken with the black feathers on the top of his head?”
“Yeah, I found him in the horse trough. He was already drowned.”
“So, no mouth to mouth to save the stupid thing, huh?” said Dad from where he sat at the kitchen table reading the Mason City Globe Gazette from yesterday.
“Todd, don’t joke like that. It’s morbid.”
“I’m sorry, Sandy. I should be more respectful of the mutant turkey-chicken.”
At that moment, Grandpa Butch wandered into the kitchen from the den. “So, another chicken dreamed of being a penguin and drowned himself, huh?”
“Dad, don’t joke like that. It’s the turken we named after Bobby, Little Bob.”
“Oh, sorry, Bobby.”
Bobby smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand. The sense of humor in this family was genetic. And probably a mutant gene at that. Bobby could grow up to be an X-man… Bad-Joker Boy, or something like that. Paralyzing criminals with stupid jokes.
“How did the stupid chicken come to be in the horse trough, do you think?” Grandpa Butch asked.
“Well, Horatio thinks it might be a rat that chased the stupid naked-necked chicken in there,” answered Bobby.
“Old Horatio talks now, does he?” asked Grandpa. Horatio, on hearing his name, padded over to Grandpa for a good scratching behind the ears. Grandpa had originally bought Horatio as a puppy almost fifteen years ago now.
“You mean he’s still talking,” said Dad.
Grandpa Butch laughed at that. He looked down at the old collie dog that he was scratching on. “So, you can talk now? Who’s a smart boy, then?”
“Bobby is the smart boy,” said Horatio. “He’s the only one in the family who knows I can talk.” Of course, no one but Bobby heard him say that. Everybody else heard something like, “HROWLWrrrrrUmmmph…” and then followed up by slobbering noises.
“Horatio and me will use Horatio’s detective skills to find and execute that murdering rat.”
“Horatio is a detective too, is he?”
“Sure, he is… Horatio T. Dogg, super sleuth!
“Wow. Last name and everything. What does the T. stand for?”
“It stands for the word THE. And Dogg is with two G’s at the end.”
“Well, isn’t that something?” Old Butch Niland smoothed down the hair on the back of Horatio’s neck. “But don’t be surprised if this old boy doesn’t have the get up and go it takes to track down and eat any old criminal rat. His best rat hunting days are in his past.”
“But he’s still a pretty good old boy, isn’t he?” reminded Dad.
“Being old means I am definitely not a boy!” said Horatio. Though nobody but Bobby heard him say it.