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“We'll stay,” Nora said at once.


“But after the distemper is beaten,” Travis said, “he's going to be weak, isn't he?”


“At first, very weak,” Jim said. “But gradually he'll get most if not all of his old strength back. I'm sure now that he never went into second-stage distemper, in spite of the convulsions. So perhaps by the first of the year he'll be his old self, and there should be no lasting infirmities, no palsied shaking or anything like that.”


The first of the year.


Travis hoped that would be soon enough.


Again, Nora and Travis split the night into two shifts. Travis took the first watch, and she relieved him in the surgery at three o'clock in the morning.


Fog had seethed into Carmel. It roiled at the windows, softly insistent.


Einstein was sleeping when Nora arrived, and she said, “Has he been awake much?”


“Yeah,” Travis said. “Now and then.”


“Have you . . . talked to him?”


“Yeah.”


“Well?”


Travis's face was lined, haggard, and his expression was grave. “I've asked him questions that can be answered with a yes or no.”


“And?”


“He doesn't answer them. He just blinks at me, or yawns, or he goes back to sleep.”


“He's very tired yet,” she said, desperately hoping that was the explanation for the retriever's uncommunicative behavior. “He doesn't have the strength even for questions and answers.”


Pale and obviously depressed, Travis said, “Maybe. I don't know . . . but I think . . . he seems . . . confused.”


“He hasn't shaken the disease yet,” she said. “He's still in the grip of it, beating the damn stuff, but still in its grip. He's bound to be a little muddleheaded for a while yet.”


“Confused,” Travis repeated.


“It'll pass.”


“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, it'll pass.”


But he sounded as if he believed that Einstein would never be the same again.


Nora knew what Travis must be thinking: it was the Cornell Curse again, which he professed not to believe in but which he still feared in his heart of hearts. Everyone he loved was doomed to suffer and die young. Everyone he cared about was torn from him.


That was all nonsense, of course, and Nora did not believe in it for a moment. But she knew how hard it was to shake off the past, to face only toward the future, and she sympathized with his inability to be optimistic just now. She also knew there was nothing she could do for him to haul him out of that pit of private anguish-nothing except kiss him, hold him for a moment, then send him off to bed to get some sleep.


When Travis was gone, Nora sat on the floor beside Einstein and said, “There're some things I have to tell you, fur face. I guess you're asleep and can't hear me, and maybe even if you were awake you wouldn't understand what I'm saying. Maybe you'll never again understand, which is why I want to say these things now, while there's at least still hope that your mind's intact.”


She paused and took a deep breath and looked around at the still surgery, where the dim lights gleamed in the stainless-steel fixtures and in the glass of the enameled cabinets. It was a lonely place at three-thirty in the morning.


Einstein's breath came and went with a soft hiss, an occasional rattle. He didn't stir. Not even his tail moved.


"I thought of you as my guardian, Einstein. That's what I called you once, when you saved me from Arthur Streck. My guardian. You not only rescued me from that awful man-you also saved me from loneliness and terrible despair. And you saved Travis from the darkness within him, brought us together, and in a hundred other ways you were as perfect as any guardian angel might hope to be. In that good, pure heart of yours, you never asked for or wanted anything in return for all you did. Some Milk-Bones once in a while, a bit of chocolate now and then. But you'd have done it all even if you'd been fed nothing but Dog Chow. You did it because you love, and being loved in return was reward enough. And by just being what you are, fur face, you taught me a great lesson, a lesson I can't easily put into words . .


For a while, silent and unable to speak, she sat in the shadows beside her friend, her child, her teacher, her guardian.


“But damn it,” she said at last, “I've got to find words because maybe this is the last time I can even pretend you're able to understand them. It's like this . . . you taught me that I'm your guardian, too, that I'm Travis's guardian, and that he is my guardian and yours. We have a responsibility to stand watch over one another, we are watchers, all of us, watchers, guarding against the darkness. You've taught me that we're all needed, even those who sometimes think we're worthless, plain, and dull. If we love and allow ourselves to be loved . . . well, a person who loves is the most precious thing in the world, worth all the fortunes that ever were. That's what you've taught me, fur face, and because of you I'll never be the same.”


The rest of the long night, Einstein lay motionless, lost in a deep sleep.


Saturday, Jim Keene kept hours only in the morning. At noon he locked the office entrance at the side of his big, cozy house.


During the morning, Einstein had exhibited encouraging signs of recovery. He drank more water and spent some time on his belly instead of lying limply on his side. Head raised, he looked around with interest at the activity in the vet's surgery. He even slurped up a raw-egg-and-gravy mixture that Jim put in front of him, downing half the contents of the dish, and he did not regurgitate what he had eaten. He was now entirely off intravenous fluids.


But he still dozed a lot. And his responses to Travis and Nora were only those of an ordinary dog.


After lunch, as they were sitting with Jim at the kitchen table, having a final cup of coffee, the vet sighed and said, “Well, I don't see how this can be put off any longer.” From an inner pocket of his old, well-worn corduroy jacket, he withdrew a folded sheet of paper and put it on the table in front of Travis.


For a moment, Nora thought it-was the bill for his services. But when Travis unfolded the paper, she saw that it was a wanted flyer put out by the people looking for Einstein.


Travis's shoulders sagged.


Feeling as if her heart had begun to sink down through her body, Nora moved closer to Travis so they could read the bulletin together. It was dated last week. In addition to a description of Einstein that included the three-number tattoo in his ear, the flyer stated the dog would most likely be found in the possession of a man named Travis Cornell and his wife, Nora, who might be living under different names. Descriptions-and photographs-of Nora and Travis were at the bottom of the sheet.


“How long have you known?” Travis asked.


Jim Keene said, "Within an hour after I first saw him, Thursday morning. I've been getting weekly updates of that bulletin for six months-and I've had three follow-up calls from the Federal Cancer Institute to make sure I'll remember to examine any golden retriever for a lab tattoo and report it at


Once."


“And have you reported him?” Nora asked.


“Not yet. Didn't seem any point arguing about it until we saw whether he was going to pull through.”


Travis said, “Will you report him now?”


His hound-dog face settling into an expression that was even more glum than usual, Jim Keene said, “According to the Cancer Institute, this dog was at the very center of extremely important experiments that might lead to a cancer cure. Says there that millions of dollars of research money will have been spent for nothing if the dog isn't found and returned to the lab to complete their studies.”


“It's all lies,” Travis said.


“Let me make one thing very clear to you,” Jim said, leaning forward in his chair and folding his large hands around his coffee cup. “I'm an animal lover to the bone. I've dedicated my life to animals. And I love dogs more than anything else. But I'm afraid I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who believe that we should stop all animal experimentation, people who think medical advancements that help save human lives are not worth harming one guinea pig, one cat, one dog. People who raid labs and steal animals, ruining years of important research . . . they make me want to spit. It's good and right to love life, to dearly love it in all its most humble forms. But these people don't love life-they revere it, which is a pagan and ignorant and perhaps even savage attitude.”


“This isn't like that,” Nora said. “Einstein was never used in cancer research. That's just a cover story. The Cancer Institute isn't hunting for Einstein. It's the National Security Agency that wants him.” She looked at Travis and said, “Well, what do we do now?”


Travis smiled grimly, and said, “Well, I sure can't kill Jim here to stop him-”


The vet looked startled.


“-so I guess we've got to persuade him,” Travis finished.


“The truth?” Nora asked.


Travis stared at Jim Keene for a long time, and at last said, “Yeah. The truth. It's the only thing that might convince him to throw that damn wanted poster in the trash.”


Taking a deep breath, Nora said, “Jim, Einstein is as smart as you or me or Travis.”


“Smarter, I sometimes think,” Travis said.


The vet stared at them, uncomprehending.


“Let's make another pot of coffee,” Nora said. “This is going to be a long, long afternoon.”


Hours later, at ten minutes past five, Saturday afternoon, Nora and Travis and Jim Keene crowded in front of the mattress on which Einstein lay.


The dog had just taken a few more ounces of water. He looked at them with interest, too.


Travis tried to decide if those large brown eyes still had the strange depth, uncanny alertness, and undoglike awareness that he had seen in them so many times before. Damn. He was not sure-and his uncertainty scared him.


Jim examined Einstein, noting aloud that his eyes were clearer, almost normal, and that his temperature was still falling. “Heart's sounding a little better, too.”


Worn out by the ten-minute examination, Einstein flopped onto his side and issued a long weary sigh. In a moment, he dozed again.


The vet said, “He sure doesn't seem much like a genius dog.”


“He's still sick,” Nora said. “All he needs is a little more time to recover, and he'll be able to show you that everything we've said is true.”


“When do you think he'll be on his feet?” Travis asked.


Jim thought about that, then said, “Maybe tomorrow. He'll be very shaky at first, but maybe tomorrow. We'll just have to see.”


“When he's on his feet,” Travis said, “when he's got his sense of balance back and is interested in moving around, that ought to indicate he's clearer in his head, too. So when he's up and about-that's when we'll give him a test to prove to you how smart he is.”


“Fair enough,” Jim said.


“And if he proves it,” Nora said, “you'll not turn him in?”


“Turn him in to people who'd create this Outsider you've told me about? Turn him in to the liars who cooked up that baloney wanted flyer? Nora, what sort of man do you take me for?”


Nora said, “A good man.”


Twenty-four hours later, on Sunday evening, in Jim Keene's surgery, Einstein was tottering around as if he were a little old four-legged man.


Nora scooted along the floor on her knees beside him, telling him what a fine and brave fellow he was, quietly encouraging him to keep going. Every step he took thrilled her as if he were her own baby learning to walk. But what thrilled her more was the look he gave her a few times: it was a look that seemed to express chagrin at his infirmity, but there was also a sense of humor in it, as if he were saying, Hey, Nora, am I a spectacle-or what? Isn't this just plain ridiculous?


Saturday night he had eaten a little solid food, and all day Sunday he had nibbled at easily digestible vittles that the vet provided. He was drinking well, and the most encouraging sign of improvement was his insistence on going Outside to make his toilet. He could not stay on his feet for long periods of time, and once in a while he wobbled and plopped backward on his butt; however, he did not bump into walls or walk in circles.


Yesterday, Nora had gone shopping and had returned with three Scrabble games. Now, Travis had separated the lettered tiles into twenty-six piles at one end of the surgery, where there was a lot of open floor space.


“We're ready,” Jim Keene said. He was sitting on the floor with Travis, his legs drawn up under him Indian-style.


Pooka was lying at his master's side, watching with baffled dark eyes. Nora led Einstein back across the room to the Scrabble tiles. Taking his head in her hands, looking straight into his eyes, she said, “Okay, fur face. Let's prove to Dr. Jim that you're not just some pathetic lab animal involved in cancer tests. Let's show him what you really are and prove to him what those nasty people really want you for.”


She tried to believe that she saw the old awareness in the retriever's dark gaze.


With evident nervousness and fear, Travis said, “Who asks the first question?”


“I will,” Nora said unhesitatingly. To Einstein, she said, “How's the fiddle?”


They had told Jim Keene about the message that Travis had found the morning Einstein had been so very ill-FIDDLE BROKE-SO the vet understood what Nora was asking.


Einstein blinked at her, then looked at the letters, blinked at her again, sniffed the letters, and she was getting a sick feeling in her stomach when, suddenly, he began to choose tiles and push them around with his nose.


FIDDLE JUST OUT OF TUNE.


Travis shuddered as if the dread he had contained was a powerful electric charge that had leapt out of him in an instant. He said, “Thank God, thank you God,” and he laughed with delight.


“Holy shit,” Jim Keene said.


Pooka raised his head very high and pricked his ears, aware that something important was happening but not sure what it was.


Her heart swelling with relief and excitement and love, Nora returned the letters to their separate piles and said, “Einstein, who is your master? Tell us his name.”


The retriever looked at her, at Travis, then made a considered reply.


NO MASTER. FRIENDS.


Travis laughed. “By God, I'll settle for that! No one can be his master, but anyone should be damned proud to be his friend.”


Funny-this proof of Einstein's undamaged intellect made Travis laugh with delight, the first laughter of which he had been capable in days, but it made Nora weep with relief.

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