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There are some fine, bright days in early winter when certain things must be done that are pointless or downright impossible much earlier—butchering, starting hard cider, setting muskrat traps, flying passage hawks. Or perhaps cutting wood. You wait till a powder of snow is on the ground and the sun is strong enough to melt the snow by noon. This day is a time that was anticipated months before. In February trees were felled—tulip poplar for kindling and a quick blaze, oak and maple for steady, lasting heat—the timber cleaned, cut into 10-foot lengths and dragged and rolled down the hill. Now the logs are dry and they are wrestled onto a buck to be cut into two-foot lengths for the workshop stove, three-foot lengths for the fireplace in the house. It is not complicated, not even very hard work. It is rather soothing. On the right early winter day, with dry wood, a level buck, sharp saw, a comfortable ax and enough time, there seems to be nothing that you should or would rather be doing than making firewood. You feel you could go on sawing, splitting and stacking until the woodpile is the size of the Ritz.
An old red dog, Dain, climbs up the hill on stiff legs and eases under the gate. He finds a sunny place on the lee side of the log pile, lowers himself slowly and curls up on a jacket that has been shucked off and thrown there. He remains all day, as long as the work goes on. Sedentary as he is, he is on duty, doing what he has done all his life: being at my heel, on a car seat beside me, on my sleeping bag, under my bed, under my desk. Dain is a companion dog, specifically my companion. Responding to my moods and activities has been his life's work.
Dain watches with mild interest. If he is spoken to or patted during a break, he raises his head and beats his tail on the ground in response. Otherwise he scratches, lifts his nose to catch scents, dozes in the winter sun.
Once he was a burly 100-pound dog who could run by the hour, climb cliffs like a goat, tree a coon and kill it when it came down if that were permitted. Now he is 11 years old and 20 pounds lighter, his flanks gaunt, his hams shaky. His coat, which was once remarkable—a solid red-gold pelt the color of fallen oak leaves, thick as a beaver's—is now thinning, and is flecked with white. He is a little deaf, occasionally forgetful.
His age and infirmities have changed the pattern of both our lives. There will be no hard bushwhacking for a while; it would be cruel to ask him. Now it is a matter of courtesy and respect to tell him a little beforehand that you are going someplace so that he does not have to get up or move quickly to follow. To chat, you sit down with him so that he will not feel obliged to leap up, put his paws on your shoulder or, worse, try and not be able to do so.
As he lies against the woodpile taking the sun, he occasionally groans as he shifts position. Some of the aches are the ordinary ones that come to any big dog with age. But because of how he has used himself and been used, the years have been especially hard on Dain.
When he was two we walked 2,000 miles through the eastern mountains from Georgia to Maine. More accurately, I walked 2,000 miles and Dain perhaps 4,000 miles. He explored side trails, ran ahead, returned, lagged behind to investigate curiosities. Since then he has traveled perhaps another 5,000 miles in woods, mountains and deserts, across rock and ice and through snow. His legs are arthritic now, scarred by limestone and ice shards, by barbed wire, by agave, wait-a-bit and greenbrier thorns.
I remember setting off on a hot June morning to cross 15 miles of high, empty Sonora desert. We carried no water because in my pride I thought I could find water anyplace in that country when I needed it. I was wrong. He padded along, heaving, his tongue lolling. He followed, very nearly to his death, began staggering under the sun and finally collapsed in a coma. He was dragged and packed the last five miles until we came to a stock tank into which I stumbled and sat, holding his head above water until he revived.
One night we slept by a small lake in Maine. Three trout, cleaned and wrapped in leaves, were cached in the fork of a tree for breakfast. The fish drew a midnight bear. Dain rose and went out into the night, and after some back-and-forth ran the bear off through the spruce thickets, but he paid with broken ribs.
We cornered a coati mundi in a canyon on the Mexico-Arizona border. On request Dain went in to roust out and hold the animal. He did so even though the fangs of the coati left a jagged scar running from the corner of his mouth almost to his right ear. He has been kicked by a horse, raked by the talons of an imperfectly manned goshawk, bitten by a copperhead. He has fallen in a mine shaft, had his left leg smashed by a truck.