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Horatio T. Dogg… Canto 7

4-H Softball, Done the Pirate Way

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.

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Horatio T. Dogg… Canto 5

Mike and Blueberry Come Knocking

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.”

“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.

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Horatio T. Dogg… Canto 4

Talking to the Stone

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.

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Horatio T. Dogg… Canto 2

A Good Old Boy

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.

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