Watchers Page 37

At last Travis got the point. He looked in the right ear and found nothing. But in the left ear, he saw something. He urged the dog to go with him to the window, where the light was better, and he discovered that the mark consisted of two numbers, a dash, and a third number tattooed in purple ink on the pink-brown flesh: 33-9.

Looking over Travis's shoulder, Nora said, “They probably had a lot of pups they were experimenting with, from different litters, and they had to be able to identify them.”

"Jesus. If I'd taken him to a vet, and if the vet had been told to look for a retriever with a tattoo . .

“But he has to have shots.”

“Maybe he's already had them,” Travis said hopefully.

“We don't dare count on that. He was a lab animal in a controlled environment where he might not have needed shots. And maybe the usual inoculations would've interfered with their experiments.”

“We can't risk a vet.”

“If they do find him,” Nora said, “we simply won't give him up.”

“They can make us,” Travis said worriedly.

“Damned if they can.”

“Damned if they can't. More likely than not, the government's financing the research, and they can crush us. We can't risk it. More than anything else, Einstein's afraid of going back to the lab.”

Yes, yes, yes.

“But,” Nora said, “if he contracts rabies or distemper or-”

“We'll get him the shots later,” Travis said. “Later. When the situation cools down. When he's not so hot.”

The retriever whined happily, nuzzling Travis's neck and face in a sloppy display of gratitude.

Frowning, Nora said, “Einstein is about the number-one miracle of the twentieth century. You really think he's ever going to cool down, that they'll ever stop looking for him?”

“They might not stop for years,” Travis admitted, stroking the dog. “But gradually they'll begin to search with less enthusiasm and less hope. And the Vets will start forgetting to look in the ears of every retriever that's brought to them. Until then, he'll have to go without the shots, I guess. It's the best thing we can do. It's the only thing we can do.”

Ruffling Einstein's coat with one hand, Nora said: “I hope you're right.”

“I am.”

“I hope so.”

"I am.''

Travis was badly shaken by how close he had come to risking Einstein's freedom, and for the next few days he brooded about the infamous Cornell Curse. Maybe it was happening all over again. His life had been turned around and made livable because of the love he felt for Nora and for this impossible damn dog. And now maybe fate, which had always dealt with him in a supremely hostile manner, would rip both Nora and the dog away from him.

He knew that fate was only a mythological concept. He did not believe there was actually a pantheon of malevolent gods looking down on him through a celestial keyhole and plotting tragedies for him to endure-yet he could not help looking warily at the sky now and then. Each time he said something even slightly optimistic about the future, he found himself knocking on wood to counter malicious fates. At dinner, when he toppled the salt shaker, he immediately picked up a pinch of the stuff to throw it over his shoulder, then felt foolish and dusted it off his fingers. But his heart began to pound, and he was filled with a ridiculous superstitious dread, and he didn't feel right again until he snatched up more salt and tossed it behind him.

Although Nora was surely aware of Travis's eccentric behavior, she had the good grace to say nothing about his jitters. Instead, she countered his mood by quietly loving him every minute of the day, by speaking with great delight about their trip to Vegas, by being in unrelieved good humor, and by not knocking on wood.

She did not know about his nightmares because he did not tell her about them. It was the same bad dream, in fact, two nights in a row.

In the dream, he was wandering in the wooded canyons of the Santa Ana foothills of Orange County, the same woods in which he had first met Einstein. He had gone there with Einstein again, and with Nora, but now he had lost them. Frightened for them, he plunged down steep slopes, scrambled up hills, struggled through clinging brush, calling frantically for Nora, for the dog. Sometimes he heard Nora answering or Einstein barking, and they sounded as if they were in trouble, so he turned in the direction from which their voices came, but each time he heard them they were farther off and in a different place, and no matter how intently he listened or how fast he made his way through the forest, he was losing them, losing them -until he woke, breathless, heart racing, a silent scream caught in his throat.

Friday, August 6, was such a blessedly busy day that Travis had little time to worry about hostile fate. First thing in the morning, he telephoned a wedding chapel in Las Vegas and, using his American Express number, made arrangements for a ceremony on Wednesday, August 11, at eleven o'clock. Overcome by a romantic fever, he told the chapel manager that he wanted twenty dozen red roses, twenty dozen white carnations, a good organist (no damn taped music) who could play traditional music, so many candles that the altar would be bright without harsh electric light, a bottle of Dom Perignon with which to conclude events, and a first-rate photographer to record the nuptials.

When those details had been agreed upon, he telephoned the Circus Circus Hotel in Las Vegas, which was a family-oriented enterprise that boasted a recreational-vehicle campgrounds behind the hotel itself; he arranged for camp space beginning the night of Sunday, August 8. With another call to an RV campgrounds in Barstow, he also secured reservations for Saturday night, when they would pull off the road halfway to Vegas. Next, he went to a jewelry store, looked at their entire stock, and finally bought an engagement ring with a big, flawless three-carat diamond and a wedding band with twelve quarter-carat stones. With the rings hidden under the seat of the truck, Travis and Einstein went to Nora's house, picked her up, and took her to an appointment with her attorney, Garrison Dilworth.

“Getting married? That's wonderful!” Garrison said, pumping Travis's hand. He kissed Nora on the cheek. He seemed genuinely delighted. “I've asked around about you, Travis.”

Surprised, Travis said, “You have?”

“For Nora's sake.”

The attorney's statement made Nora blush and protest, but Travis was pleased that Garrison had been concerned about her welfare.

Fixing Travis with a measured stare, the silver-haired attorney said, “I gather you did quite well in real estate before you sold your business.”

“I did all right,” Travis confirmed modestly, feeling as if he were speaking with Nora's father, trying to make the right impression.

'Very well,“ Garrison said. ”And I also hear you've invested the profits rather well."

“I'm not broke,” Travis admitted.

Smiling, Garrison said, “I also hear you're a good, reliable man with more than your share of kindness.”

It was Travis's turn to blush. He shrugged.

To Nora, Garrison said, “Dear, I'm delighted for you, happier than I can say.”

“Thank you.” Nora favored Travis with a loving, radiant look that made him want to knock on wood for the first time all day.

Because they intended to take a honeymoon of at least a week or ten days following the wedding, Nora did not want to have to rush back to Santa Barbara in the event her real-estate agent found a taker for Violet Devon's house. She asked Garrison Dilworth to draw up a power of attorney, giving him authority to handle all aspects of such a sale in her name during her absence. This was done in less than half an hour, signed and witnessed. After another round of congratulations and best wishes, they were on their way to buy a travel trailer.

They intended to take Einstein with them not only to the wedding in Vegas but on the honeymoon. Finding good, clean motels that would accept a dog might not always be easy where they were going, so it was prudent to take a motel-on-wheels with them. Furthermore, neither Travis nor Nora could have made love with the retriever in the same room. “It'd be like having another person there,” Nora said, blushing as bright as a well-polished apple. Staying in motels, they would have to rent two rooms-one for them and one for Einstein-which seemed too awkward.

By four o'clock, they found what they were looking for: a middle-size, silvery, Quonset-shaped Airstream with a kitchenette, a dining nook, a living room, one bedroom, and one bath. When they retired for the night, they could leave Einstein in the front of the trailer and close the bedroom door after themselves. Because Travis's pickup was already equipped with a good trailer hitch, they were able to hook the Airstream to the rear bumper and haul it with them as soon as the sale was concluded.

Einstein, riding in the pickup between Travis and Nora, kept craning his head around to look out the back window at the gleaming, semicylindrical trailer as if amazed at the ingenuity of humankind.

They shopped for trailer curtains, plastic dishes and drinking glasses, food with which to stock the kitchenette cabinets, and a host of other items they needed before they hit the road. By the time they returned to Nora's house and cooked omelets for a late dinner, they were dragging. For once there was nothing smartass about Einstein's yawns; he was just tired.

That night, at home in his own bed, Travis slept the deep, deep sleep of ancient petrified trees and dinosaur fossils. The dreams of the previous two nights were not repeated.

Saturday morning, they set Out on their journey to Vegas and to matrimony. Seeking to travel mostly on wide divided highways on which they would be comfortable with the trailer, they took Route 101 south and then east until it became Route 134, which they followed until it became Interstate 210, with the city of Los Angeles and its suburbs to the south of them and the great Angeles National Forest to the north. Later, on the vast Mojave Desert, Nora was thrilled by the barren yet hauntingly beautiful panoramas of sand, stone, tumbleweed, mesquite, Joshua trees, and other cacti. The world, she said, suddenly seemed much bigger than she had ever realized, and Travis took pleasure in her bedazzlement.

Barstow, California, was a sprawling pit stop in that enormous wasteland, and they arrived at the big RV campgrounds by three that afternoon. Frank and Mae Jordan, the middle-aged couple in the next camper space, were from Salt Lake City and were traveling with their pet, a black Labrador named Jack.

To Travis's and Nora's surprise, Einstein had a terrific time playing with Jack. They chased each other around the trailers, took playful nips at each other, tangled and tumbled and sprang up and went chasing again. Frank Jordan tossed a red rubber ball for them, and they sprinted after it, vying to be the champion retriever. The dogs also made a game of trying to get the ball away from each other and then holding on to it as long as possible. Travis was exhausted just watching them.

Einstein was undoubtedly the smartest dog in the world, the smartest dog of all time, a phenomenon, a miracle, as perceptive as any man-but he was also a dog. Sometimes, Travis forgot this fact, but he was charmed every time Einstein did something to remind him.

Later, after sharing charcoal-grilled hamburgers and corn on the cob with the Jordans, and after downing a couple of beers in the clear desert night, they said goodbye to the Salt Lakers, and Einstein seemed to say goodbye to Jack. Inside the Airstream, Travis patted Einstein on the head and told him, “That was very nice of you.”

The dog cocked his head, staring at Travis as if to ask what the devil he meant.

Travis said, “You know what I'm talking about, fur face.”

“I know, too,” Nora said. She hugged the dog. “When you were playing games with Jack, you could have made a fool of him if you'd wanted to, but you let him win his share, didn't you?”

Einstein panted and grinned happily.

After one last nightcap, Nora took the bedroom, and Travis slept on the fold-out sofa bed in the living room. Travis had thought about sleeping with her, and perhaps she had considered allowing him into her bed. After all, the wedding was less than four days away. God knew, Travis wanted her. And although she surely suffered slightly with a virgin's fear, she wanted him, too; he had no doubt of that. Each day, they were touching each other and kissing more often-and more intimately-and the air between them crackled with erotic energy. But why not do things right and proper since they were so close to the day? Why not go to their marriage bed as virgins-she as a virgin to everyone, he to her?

That night, Travis dreamed that Nora and Einstein were lost in the desolate reaches of the Mojave. In the dream, he was for some reason legless, forced to search for them at an agonizingly slow crawl, which was bad because he knew that, wherever they were, they were under attack by . . . something.

Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday in Las Vegas, they prepared for the wedding, watched Einstein playing enthusiastically with other campers' dogs, and took side trips to Charleston Peak and Lake Mead. In the evenings, Nora and Travis left Einstein with his books while they went to stage shows. Travis felt guilty about leaving the retriever alone, but by various means Einstein indicated that he did not want them to stay at the trailer merely because the Strip hotels were so prejudiced and shortsighted as to refuse to allow well-behaved genius dogs into the casinos and showrooms.

Wednesday morning, Travis dressed in a tuxedo, and Nora wore a simple calf-length white dress with spare lace trim at the cuffs and neckline. With

Einstein between them, they drove to their wedding in the pickup, leaving the unhitched Airstream at the campgrounds.

The nondenominational, commercial chapel was the funniest place Travis had ever seen, for the design was earnestly romantic, solemn, and tacky all at the same time. Nora thought it was hilarious, too, and upon entering they had trouble suppressing their laughter. The chapel was tucked in among neondripping, glitzy, high-rise hotels on Las Vegas Boulevard South. It was only the size of a one-story house, pale-pink stucco with white doors. Engraved in brass above the doors was the legend YE SHALL GO TWO BY TWO . . . Instead of depicting religious images, the stained-glass windows were aglow with garishly rendered scenes from famous love stories including Romeo and Juliet, Abelard and Heloise, Aucassin and Nicolette, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca-and, unbelievably, I Love Lucy and Ozzie & Harriet.

Curiously, the tackiness did not deflate their buoyant mood. Nothing could diminish this day. Even the outrageous chapel was to be prized, remembered in every gaudy detail to be vividly recalled over the years, and always to be recalled fondly because it was their chapel on their day and therefore special in its own strange way.

Dogs were not ordinarily admitted. But Travis had generously tipped the entire staff in advance to insure that Einstein would not only be allowed inside but would be made to feel as welcome as anyone.

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