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You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to know that a guy's hands provide good clues to what he has been up to. For example, black grime in the cracks and creases is a tip-off that he's doing motor work. A reddish-yellow blush may mean that he has been doctoring an animal with iodine solution. A bunch of splinters may tattle that he has been tearing down an old shed.

Scrub as I might, my hands continue to remind me of last week's labors around the homestead. Around the fingernails are traces of house paint in shades of gray and white; on my palm there is a smudge of tar.

We've been working on scraping and painting this old house all summer, and our return to our September routines found it mostly done, except for some high parts. The chill of Saturday afternoon made it clear that it was time to finish it while we could.

I pushed the extension ladder to its limit and wrestled it into position under the top of the north gable. I scaled it as carefully as one can with one hand toting a gallon of paint, a brush and a scraper. Reaching as high as I could, I was just able to dab paint into the peak overhead.

It was cool but a good day to paint. In the heat of midsummer, paint cakes up quickly in the heel of the brush. Today it didn't. The paint flowed nicely, the gray going smoothly over the white and covering it with one coat.

I wasn't the only creature the cool day had thinking about shelter. A mess of box elder beetles had collected by a gap in the siding where they were planning to bed down for the winter. I brushed the bright-colored bugs aside with a rag. They would be back.

Fall speaks to all creatures about finding a snug spot. We got a note from our mail carrier, Julie, informing us that our mail would be held in town until we evicted the mouse from our mailbox. Sure enough, the box was full of shredded papers. We remedied the situation and posted a note informing Julie. If I could have persuaded the rodent to limit its chewing to bills and junk mail, I would have considered keeping the creature on as a tenant. But that's expecting a lot.

The short days of September often find me on a roof in a last-chance bid to make it waterproof before the cold weather. That's the origin of the tar smudge on my left hand. I finished a small section on the house, working every day for an hour or so before sundown.

I am pleased with the shingles that Kathleen had selected for the job. They are formed in the new "architectural" pattern that simulates the look of old-fashioned wood shakes. They are thicker than conventional shingles and easier to install, because you don't have to worry about getting the tab gaps aligned straight up and down the roof. That's always difficult on the irregular surface of old roofs like this.

The job was also made easier because the roof was low enough that I could lift the bundles up there with the loader tractor. It sure beat trudging up a ladder, off balance with a bundle on my shoulder. Been there, done that, too many times.

Each day I roofed until dark, stowed my tools in the shed and went into a late supper. Finally, I slathered on a good layer of tar, laid the last course against the flashing and trimmed the final shingle at the edge of the roof. Standing on the driveway in the dusk, we decided that the section looked good, and we got an idea of how the rest of the roof will look next year. The following day it rained, and we had the simple pleasure of hearing it patter on a tight roof, something I probably won't have to fix again until I'm 80 years old.

The roof got a further test during Monday night's long rain. After the summerlong drought, the steady drumming overhead was welcome music. For months we have been hauling a water tank every day as we watched the wells and pond decline. The rain gauge held 3 1/4 inches this morning, and the skies held the promise of more. Now the earth was soft underfoot, as it should be at the end of September.

"In Autumn," wrote Henry David Thoreau, "the thoughtful days begin." There is a certain mood as we measure ourselves against the coming cold, and the word "home" has a special meaning, whether you are a bug, a mouse or a guy on a ladder.

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