toby and noah were great pals, right from the start. they had been puppies together, in a manner of speaking: pam was pregnant with noah when i first got toby.
pam and i were great pals right from the start, too. we met in our early 20s when we were copy editors together on the night desk of the duluth news tribune. we shared all kinds of secrets and commiserated over a multitude of inappropriate boyfriends, and a couple of times we went backpacking together on isle royale, where we always saw a moose.
one autumn afternoon when noah was small, we loaded toby and noah into the car and headed up the north shore. it was a gorgeous day, with that intense october-blue sky and a crisp edge to the air. at a secluded rocky beach somewhere north of Two Harbors, we got out to give the boys a little exercise. the rocks sloped down toward the lake, where there was a dropoff of about three or four feet. the water there was deep. toby was never much of a swimmer--he could manage in shallow, calm water, and i often took him to twin ponds over by enger tower to cool off on hot summer evenings.
but he had short legs for his size, and thick, heavy hair, and he never looked very confident in the water. so pam and i tossed the tennis ball away from lake superior, toward the woods that blocked the beach from the highway, and he took off after it at a dead sprint.
this delighted noah. (everything delighted noah. he was a curious, intelligent boy with a mop of curls just like mine. pam always claimed he must really be my son.) he clapped his hands and clamored to play.
i handed him the ball. "don't throw toward the water," i said. "toby can't swim very well."
noah grabbed the soggy tennis ball and threw. he put his whole body into it, the way small children do, and in the process of heaving the ball he spun halfway around and the ball sailed off toward the lake. SPLASH!
toby was gone like a shot. SPLASH!
i ran to the cliff. toby was bobbing in the water, the tennis ball in his mouth. he swam awkwardly back toward us, but the dropoff was too high and sheer, and he couldn't get back to land. the water was too deep for him to reach bottom. he treaded water and looked imploringly at us. he held onto the tennis ball, and dog-paddled in place. i could tell he was aleady starting to tire.
i ran farther down the beach, where the lakeshore flattened out. "Here, toby! Here!" i called. "come this way!"
but in toby's mind, the only way back was the way he had come. so he gave a little jump. it was a feeble jump, because he had nothing to push off against. but he managed to find a fissure in the rocky side of the cliff, which he clung to with his front claws. and there he hung, dripping, shaking, afraid to move. how long could he hang on by his nails? i pictured him sliding off the rock and into the water, the waves closing over his head.
an old guy in indiana had once told me, "'pretty hard to drown a dog," but i knew if any dog could manage it, it would be my sweet awkward toby, who always swam upright, keeping his head out of the water as much as possible and splashing wildly with his front paws.
pam lay down flat on the rocks at water's edge. she is tall, and her arms are long, and she keeps a cool head in an emergency. she reached down and grabbed toby by the scruff of his neck, and with some amazing effort of adrenaline and strength, hauled him up the side of the cliff and landed him on the rocks like a fish.
i threw my arms around the soggy dog. he was breathing hard, but he still had the tennis ball in his mouth.
noah thought this was great fun and wanted another toss, but pam and i figured it was time to go. we hooked the leash on toby, took noah by the hand, and walked back to the car. toby slept all the way back to duluth.
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