Taking his cue from his master, Growler let down his guard too.
Rya and I also relaxed. She had been more tense than I, perhaps because she could not detect the aura of good intentions and goodwill that surrounded Horton Bluett. Guarded and cautious goodwill but goodwill nonetheless.
Horton said, “I could tell you was different from the moment you walked into my driveway and offered to help with the shoveling.”
“How?” Rya asked.
“Smelled it,” he said.
I knew at once that he was not speaking figuratively, that he had indeed smelled a difference in us. I recalled how, when he had first met us, he’d sniffed and snuffled as if suffering from a cold but had not blown his nose.
“I can’t see ’em clear and easy the way you two see ’em,” Horton said, “but from the time I was a tot, there’ve been people who smelled wrong to me. Can’t explain it exactly. It’s a little bit like the smell of very, very old things, ancient things: you know . . . like dust that’s been gathering for hundreds and hundreds of years, undisturbed in some deep tomb . . . but not actually quite dust. Like staleness but not quite staleness.” He frowned, struggling to find words that would help us understand. “And there’s a bitterness to the smell of them that’s not like the sourness of sweat or any other body odor you’ve ever whiffed. Maybe a little like vinegar but not really. Maybe just a touch like ammonia . . . but, no, not that, either. Some of them have a subtle odor, just tickles the nostrils, teases—but others reek. And what that odor says to me—what it’s always said to me ever since I was a tyke—is something like: ‘Stay away from this one, Horton, he’s a bad one, a real no-good, watch him, be careful now, beware, beware.’”
“Incredible,” Rya said.
“It’s true,” Horton said.
“I believe it,” she said.
Now I knew why he had not thought us mad and why he had been able to accept our story so readily. Our eyes told us the very thing that his nose told him, so on every fundamental level our story rang true to him.
I said, “Sounds like you’ve got some sort of olfactory version of psychic ability.”
Growler said, “Whuff,” as if in agreement, then lay down and put his head on his paws.
“Don’t know what you’d call it,” Horton said. “All I know is I’ve had it my entire life. And early on, I knew I could rely on my smeller when it told me someone was a nasty bugger. Because no matter how nice they looked and acted, I could see that most of the people around them—neighbors, husbands, wives, kids, friends—always seemed to have a lot tougher time of life than was reasonable. I mean, these ones that smelled bad . . . shoot, they carried misery with them somehow, not their own misery but misery for other folks. And a powerful lot of their friends and relatives died off too young and in violent ways. Though, of course, you could never point a finger at them and say they was to be held responsible.”
Taking it for granted that she was free to move now, Rya zipped open her ski jacket and slipped it off.
She said, “But you told us you got a whiff of something different about us, so you’re able to detect more than just goblins.”
Horton shook his grizzled head. “Never did until I met you two. Right away I picked up a peculiar scent about you, something I’d never smelled before, something almost as strange as when I’m around those ones you call goblins . . . but different. Hard to describe. Just a bit like the sharp, pure smell of ozone. You know what I mean . . . ozone, like after a big thunderstorm, after the lightning, that crisp odor that’s not unpleasant at all. Fresh. A fresh odor that gives you the feeling there’s unseen electricity still in the air and that it’s crackling right clean through you, energizing you, purging all the weariness and sludge out of you.”
Unzipping my own jacket, I said, “Do you get the same scent now as when you first met us?”
“Sure do.” He slowly rubbed his reddish nose with the thumb and forefinger of one hand. “Fact is, I got it the very moment you opened the door downstairs and stepped into the house.” He grinned suddenly, proud of his peculiar ability. “And right away, smelling you, I said to myself, ‘Horton, these kids is different from other folks, but it’s not a bad difference.’ The nose knows.”
On the floor beside Horton’s chair, Growler made a grumbling sound deep in his throat, and his tail swished back and forth across the carpet.
I realized that the unusual affinity of this man for his dog—and of the dog for him—might be related to the fact that in both of them the most powerful and reliable of the five senses was smell. Strange. Even as that thought occurred to me, I saw the man move his hand from the arm of the chair in order to reach down and stroke the dog, and the dog simultaneously raised its burly head to be petted, at the very instant the hand began to move. It was as if the dog’s need for affection, and the man’s intention of providing same, somehow produced vague odors that each detected and to which each responded. Between them existed a sophisticated form of telepathy based not on thought transferral but upon the production and swift apprehension of complex scents.
“Your scent,” Horton said to Rya and me, “didn’t seem to be a sign of evil, as is the case with the stink of those . . . goblins. But it worried me ’cause it was different from anything I’d ever smelled before. Then you started nosing around, prying at me for information but trying to act casual, asking questions about the Lightning Coal Company, and that spooked me for sure.”
“Why?” Rya asked.
“Because,” Horton said, “since the mid-fifties when the old mine owners were bought out and the name of the place was changed, all the new Lightning employees I’ve ever met—every man-jack-one of them—stinks to high heaven! For the past seven or eight years, I figured that was a bad place—that company, those mines—and I wondered what in tarnation was going on up there.”
“We wonder too,” Rya said.
“And we’re going to find out,” I said.
“Anyway,” he said, “I worried that you might be a threat to me, that you had something nasty in mind for me, so coming here and nosing in your business was purely self-defense.”
Downstairs, we prepared dinner together, using the few groceries we’d laid in: scrambled eggs, sausages, home fries, whole-wheat toast.
Rya worried about what to feed Growler, who was licking his chops as the kitchen filled with delicious fragrances.
But Horton said, “Oh, we’ll just fix him up a fourth plate, same stuff as we’re having. They say it isn’t healthy for a dog to feed him the same as people get fed. But that’s the way I always treated him, and it don’t seem to have done him great harm. Look at him—he could take on a bobcat and win. Just give him eggs, sausages, home fries—but no toast. Toast’s too dry for him. He likes blackberry or apple or especially blueberry muffins, though, if they’ve got plenty of fruit in ’em and they’re real moist.”
“Sorry,” Rya said, clearly amused. “No muffins in the pantry.”
“Then he’ll make do with the other stuff, and I’ll treat him to an oatmeal cookie or something when I take him home.”
We put Growler’s plate in the corner by the back door, and the rest of us ate at the kitchen table.
Snow—still flurrying in fluffy flakes that accumulated at only a small fraction of an inch per hour—looped out of the darkness and slid along the windows. Though the snow was light, the wind was strong, imitating wolves and trains and cannons in the night.
Over dinner we learned more about Horton Bluett. Because of his bizarre talent for smelling out the goblins—call it “olfactopathy”—he had led a relatively safe life, avoiding the demonkind whenever he could, treating them with great caution when avoidance was impossible. His wife, Etta, had died in 1934, not at the hands of goblins but from cancer. Although she was forty when she passed away and Horton was forty-four, their marriage had produced no children. His fault, he said, for he was infertile. His years with his wife had been so good, their relationship so perfectly intimate, that he never found another woman who measured up or for whom he was willing to dim his shining memory of Etta. In the subsequent three decades he had shared his life primarily with three dogs, of which Growler was the latest.
Looking fondly at the mongrel where it stood licking its plate clean, Horton said, “On the one hand, I hope my sorry bones give out before his, ’cause it’s going to be hard on me to bury him if it comes to that. It was terrible hard with the other two—Jeepers and Romper—but it’s going to be even worse with Growler ’cause he’s been the best dog there ever was.” Growler looked up from his plate and cocked his head at his master, as if he knew he had just been complimented. “On the other hand, I’d hate to die afore him and leave him to the mercy of the world. He deserves to be kept comfy all his days.”
As Horton stared affectionately at his dog, Rya looked at me and I at her, and I knew she was thinking much the same thing that I was: Horton Bluett was not merely sweet but also uncommonly resilient and self-reliant. All his long life he had been aware that the world was full of people bent on doing harm to others, had realized that Evil with a capital E stalked the world in very real and fleshy forms, yet he had not grown paranoid and had not become a humorless recluse. The cruelest trick of nature had stolen his beloved wife from him, yet he had not grown bitter.
For the last thirty years, he’d been alone but for his dogs, yet he had not become eccentric as did most people whose primary relationships were with their pets.
He was a heartening example of the strength and determination and sheer granite durability of humanity. In spite of thousands of years of suffering at the hands of the goblins, our kind could still produce individuals as admirable as Mr. Horton Bluett. Such people were a good argument for our value as a species.
“So,” he said, turning his attention from Growler to us, “what will your next step be?”
“Tomorrow,” Rya said, “we’ll go back into the hills and follow the Lightning Coal Company’s fence until we find a place from which we can see the mine entrance, see what’s happening there.”
“Sorry to tell you no such vantage point exists,” Horton said as he mopped up a final puddle of egg yolk with his last wedge of toast. “Not along the perimeter, anyway. I think maybe that’s no accident, either. I think maybe they made sure no one could see the entrances to the mine from off their property.”
“You sound as if you’ve gone looking,” I said.
“I have,” he said.
“When was that?”
“Oh, I guess it was about a year and a half after the new owners—the goblins, as you call ’em—took over the company, changed its name, then went and put up that crazy damn fence. By then I’d begun to notice that a lot of good people who’d worked there all their lives were gradually being put to pasture ahead of their time, pensioned off early. Real generous pensions, though, so as not to upset the unions. And everyone being hired on, down to the lowliest worker, seemed to be the kind who have the stink about them. That was a startlement to me because, of course, it seemed to mean their kind could recognize one another, that they knew they was very different from my kind of people, and that they sometimes got together in groups to plan their devilment. Naturally, living here, I wanted to know what devilment they was planning at the Lightning Coal Company. So I went up to have a look, walked the whole length of that damn fence. In the end I couldn’t see nothing, and I didn’t want to risk going over the fence to poke around on the other side. Like I told you, I always been wary of them, eager to keep my distance. Never did think it was wise to associate with them, so it sure as the dickens wouldn’t be wise to climb over their fence.”
Rya seemed amazed. She put down her fork and said, “So what’d you do? Just put your curiosity on hold?”
“Wasn’t easy,” Horton said. “But we’ve all heard what killed the cat, haven’t we?”
“Turning your back on such a mystery . . . that took willpower,” I said.
“No such a thing,” he said. “Fear is all it took. I was scared off. Just plain scared off.”
“You aren’t a man who scares easily or often,” I said.
“Don’t go romanticizing me, young fella. I’m no glamorous old mountain man. I told you true—all my life I been leary of them, scared of them. So I’ve tucked my head down and done my best to keep them from taking notice of me. You might say I’ve lived a lifetime in camouflage, trying to be invisible, so I’m not suddenly going to put on bright red pants and start waving my arms for attention. I’m cautious, which is why I’ve lived to be a grumpy old codger with my own teeth and all my wits about me.”
Growler had curled up on his side in the corner after licking his plate clean, and he had seemed to be settling in for a nap. However, he suddenly rose and padded to a window. He put his forepaws up on the sill and pressed his black nose to the cold glass, staring out. Maybe he was only weighing the advantages and disadvantages of going into that bitter night to relieve his bladder. Or maybe something out there had attracted his attention.
Though I had no sense of imminent danger, I decided it would be prudent to be alert for sounds other than those caused by the wind—and to be prepared to move fast.
Rya pushed her plate aside, picked up her bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon, took a swallow, and said, “Horton, how on earth did the new owners of the mine explain the fence and the other security measures they installed?”
He folded his big-knuckled, work-scarred hands around his own bottle of beer. “Well, before the original owners had to put the company up for sale, there was three deaths on that land in a single year. Thousands of acres belong to the company, and some of it’s been over-mined too near the surface. Which causes certain problems. Like sinkholes, which is where the upper levels of the earth slowly—or sometimes quickly—settle into the cavity the mines left far down below. And there’s some old shafts, gone rotten, that can cave in under a man’s feet and just swallow him up. The ground opens—gulp—like a trout taking a fly.”
Growler finally got down from the window and padded back to the corner, where he curled up again.
The wind sang at the windows, whistled in the eaves, and did a dance on the roof. Nothing threatening in any of that.