Rufus

     I got Rufus when he was a 10-week-old puppy Akita, with a fat, curled tail and perky ears and paws that looked like pie pans. It was clear Rufus was going to be a big dog.
     On the way home, riding shotgun in the pickup, Rufus looked perplexed. He had never been out of his home or his back yard. After about 10 minutes, he lifted one giant forepaw and put it on my shoulder and left it there.
     “Don’t worry,” the gesture said. “I’ll take care of you.” And for the next 10 years that’s what Rufus did.
     We took long walks in the Santa Ana Mountains, and Rufus always went first. At each bend in the trail he’d look back, and if he got two bends ahead, he’d wait for me at the second bend. I never trained Rufus to do anything. He learned everything himself.
     One time on a hike I played a trick and hid. Rufus looked this way and that. He headed to the biggest boulder he could find and climbed onto it and looked for me everywhere. It made me feel bad for tricking him.
     There are stunning views from that mountain. I never knew a dog that liked looking at scenery, except from the window of a car, but Rufus liked to find boulders overlooking a precipice, and he’d climb up and sit down and look at the view. Even when I started down he’d sit there, watching the scenery, until I disappeared around the first bend.
     Rufus had a sense of humor too. The top of that mountain is 6 miles from nowhere, and nowhere is where I’d park my truck. The mountaintop is on Marine Base Camp Pendleton, and we weren’t supposed to be there, but no one else was using it. The last quarter mile is nothing but rocks – boulders of all sizes, trickier on the way down. One time as I picked my way down the boulders I had a sudden thought: “You’d better not fall and twist your ankle, Kahn, or you are in big trouble.”
     The moment I thought that, Rufus looked back. A glint came into his eye and he bounded up the rocks, jumped onto his hind legs and whacked me in the chest with both forepaws. Then he ran away, looking back with a grin. He never did anything like that before or after.
     He had another trick on our walks in the neighborhood. If Rufus wanted to get a better look at something, he’d hyste himself up on his hind legs and stand there, like a human. He was damn near as tall as I am when he did that. He could stand that way for a long time.
     It’s foggy in the mornings where we lived, at the base of the Santa Ana Mountains. We’d take our first walk every day at 6 a.m., whether the sun was up or not. One dark foggy morning the leash ran out and I looked back: looming up in the fog was a large man with a pointy face. It scared the bejeebers out of me until I realized it was Rufus.
     Rufus sat by me as I wrote the first two novels I had published, from 4 to 6 a.m. every morning. Then we’d take a walk.
     We did a lot of traveling together. We drove up to Seattle to meet my old college girlfriend, and Rufus got out through the gate and was lost for a day, but we found him in the pound and got him back.
     Rufus and I drove all the way across the country to come visit Jane in Vermont, and we drove all the way back. Rufus heard thunder for the first time on that trip. We were in a hotel room in Virginia. Rufus didn’t like it. He got up and went and lay down by the door, so if it wanted to get me, it would have to go through him.
     When I came back to Vermont to visit, I left Rufus with my neighbor Edna for a week, but I came back. Then we moved here, and when I drove to California last year to fix up my house, I was away for more than a month, but I came back. Every time I had to leave Rufus at the vet or go away for a few days I always came back.
     But this week I took Rufus to the vet and Rufus didn’t come back. Rufus was old for an Akita – 10½. He had arthritis so bad he couldn’t take walks anymore. He could barely walk. He stopped eating. He wouldn’t even eat his favorite food, chicken, when I cooked it for him. He wasted away. I had to help him stand up. And so on.
     So we took Rufus to the vet and I held him and told him good-bye, and told him the greatest compliment a human being can say to an animal of another species on this planet: Good dog, Rufus. Rufus, good dog.

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