THE CALL OF THE WILD
Buck didnot read the newspapersor he would have known thattroublewas brewingnot alone for himselfbut for every tide-water dogstrong of muscle and with warmlong hairfrom PugetSound toSan Diego. Because mengroping in the Arctic darknesshad founda yellow metaland because steamship and transportationcompanieswere booming the findthousands of men were rushinginto theNorthland. These men wanted dogsand the dogs theywantedwere heavy dogswith strong muscles by which to toilandfurrycoats to protect them from the frost.
Buck livedat a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley. JudgeMiller's placeit was called. It stood back from the roadhalfhidden among the treesthrough which glimpses could becaught ofthe wide cool veranda that ran around its four sides. The housewas approached by gravelled driveways which wound aboutthroughwide-spreading lawns and under the interlacing boughs oftallpoplars. At the rear things were on even a more spaciousscale thanat the front. There were great stableswhere a dozengrooms andboys held forthrows of vine-clad servants' cottagesan endlessand orderly array of outhouseslong grape arborsgreenpasturesorchardsand berry patches. Then there was thepumpingplant for the artesian welland the big cement tank whereJudgeMiller's boys took their morning plunge and kept cool in thehotafternoon.
And overthis great demesne Buck ruled. Here he was bornandhere hehad lived the four years of his life. It was truetherewere otherdogsThere could not but be other dogs on so vast aplacebutthey did not count. They came and wentresided in thepopulouskennelsor lived obscurely in the recesses of the houseafter thefashion of Tootsthe Japanese pugor YsabeltheMexicanhairless--strange creatures that rarely put nose out ofdoors orset foot to ground. On the other handthere were the foxterriersa score of them at leastwho yelped fearful promises atToots andYsabel looking out of the windows at them and protectedby alegion of housemaids armed with brooms and mops.
But Buckwas neither house-dog nor kennel-dog. The whole realmwas his. He plunged into the swimming tank or went hunting withtheJudge's sons; he escorted Mollie and Alicethe Judge'sdaughterson long twilight or early morning rambles; on wintrynights helay at the Judge's feet before the roaring library fire;he carriedthe Judge's grandsons on his backor rolled them inthe grassand guarded their footsteps through wild adventuresdown tothe fountain in the stable yardand even beyondwherethepaddocks wereand the berry patches. Among the terriers hestalkedimperiouslyand Toots and Ysabel he utterly ignoredforhe wasking--king over all creepingcrawlingflying things ofJudgeMiller's placehumans included.
HisfatherElmoa huge St. Bernardhad been the Judge'sinseparablecompanionand Buck bid fair to follow in the way ofhisfather. He was not so large--he weighed only one hundred andfortypounds--for his motherShephad been a Scotch shepherddog. Neverthelessone hundred and forty poundsto which wasadded thedignity that comes of good living and universal respectenabledhim to carry himself in right royal fashion. During thefour yearssince his puppyhood he had lived the life of a satedaristocrat;he had a fine pride in himselfwas even a trifleegotisticalas country gentlemen sometimes become because oftheirinsular situation. But he had saved himself by not becominga merepampered house-dog. Hunting and kindred outdoor delightshad keptdown the fat and hardened his muscles; and to himas tothecold-tubbing racesthe love of water had been a tonic and ahealthpreserver.
And thiswas the manner of dog Buck was in the fall of 1897whentheKlondike strike dragged men from all the world into the frozenNorth. But Buck did not read the newspapersand he did not knowthatManuelone of the gardener's helperswas an undesirableacquaintance. Manuel had one besetting sin. He loved to playChineselottery. Alsoin his gamblinghe had one besettingweakness--faithin a system; and this made his damnation certain. For toplay a system requires moneywhile the wages of agardener'shelper do not lap over the needs of a wife and numerousprogeny.
The Judgewas at a meeting of the Raisin Growers' Associationandthe boyswere busy organizing an athletic clubon the memorablenight ofManuel's treachery. No one saw him and Buck go offthroughthe orchard on what Buck imagined was merely a stroll. And withthe exception of a solitary manno one saw them arriveat thelittle flag station known as College Park. This man talkedwithManueland money chinked between them.
"Youmight wrap up the goods before you deliver 'm" the strangersaidgrufflyand Manuel doubled a piece of stout rope aroundBuck'sneck under the collar.
"Twistitan' you'll choke 'm plentee" said Manueland thestrangergrunted a ready affirmative.
Buck hadaccepted the rope with quiet dignity. To be sureit wasanunwonted performance: but he had learned to trust in men heknewandto give them credit for a wisdom that outreached hisown. But when the ends of the rope were placed in the stranger'shandshegrowled menacingly. He had merely intimated hisdispleasurein his pride believing that to intimate was tocommand. But to his surprise the rope tightened around his neckshuttingoff his breath. In quick rage he sprang at the manwhomet himhalfwaygrappled him close by the throatand with a defttwistthrew him over on his back. Then the rope tightenedmercilesslywhile Buck struggled in a furyhis tongue lollingout of hismouth and his great chest panting futilely. Never inall hislife had he been so vilely treatedand never in all hislife hadhe been so angry. But his strength ebbedhis eyesglazedand he knew nothing when the train was flagged and the twomen threwhim into the baggage car.
The nexthe knewhe was dimly aware that his tongue was hurtingand thathe was being jolted along in some kind of a conveyance. The hoarseshriek of a locomotive whistling a crossing told himwhere hewas. He had travelled too often with the Judge not toknow thesensation of riding in a baggage car. He opened hiseyesandinto them came the unbridled anger of a kidnapped king. The mansprang for his throatbut Buck was too quick for him. His jawsclosed on the handnor did they relax till his senseswerechoked out of him once more.
"Yephas fits" the man saidhiding his mangled hand from thebaggagemanwho had been attracted by the sounds of struggle. "I'mtakin' 'm up for the boss to 'Frisco. A crack dog-doctortherethinks that he can cure 'm."
Concerningthat night's ridethe man spoke most eloquently forhimselfin a little shed back of a saloon on the San Franciscowaterfront.
"AllI get is fifty for it" he grumbled; "an' I wouldn't do itover for athousandcold cash."
His handwas wrapped in a bloody handkerchiefand the righttrouserleg was ripped from knee to ankle.
"Howmuch did the other mug get?" the saloon-keeper demanded.
"Ahundred" was the reply. "Wouldn't take a sou lessso helpme."
"Thatmakes a hundred and fifty" the saloon-keeper calculated;"andhe's worth itor I'm a squarehead."
Thekidnapper undid the bloody wrappings and looked at hislaceratedhand. "If I don't get the hydrophoby--"
"It'llbe because you was born to hang" laughed the saloon-keeper. "Herelend me a hand before you pull your freight" headded.
Dazedsuffering intolerable pain from throat and tonguewith thelife halfthrottled out of himBuck attempted to face histormentors. But he was thrown down and choked repeatedlytilltheysucceeded in filing the heavy brass collar from off his neck. Then therope was removedand he was flung into a cagelike crate.
There helay for the remainder of the weary nightnursing hiswrath andwounded pride. He could not understand what it allmeant. What did they want with himthese strange men? Why weretheykeeping him pent up in this narrow crate? He did not knowwhybuthe felt oppressed by the vague sense of impendingcalamity. Several times during the night he sprang to his feetwhen theshed door rattled openexpecting to see the Judgeorthe boysat least. But each time it was the bulging face of thesaloon-keeperthat peered in at him by the sickly light of atallowcandle. And each time the joyful bark that trembled inBuck'sthroat was twisted into a savage growl.
But thesaloon-keeper let him aloneand in the morning four menenteredand picked up the crate. More tormentorsBuck decidedfor theywere evil-looking creaturesragged and unkempt; and hestormedand raged at them through the bars. They only laughed andpokedsticks at himwhich he promptly assailed with his teethtill herealized that that was what they wanted. Whereupon he laydownsullenly and allowed the crate to be lifted into a wagon. Then heand the crate in which he was imprisonedbegan a passagethroughmany hands. Clerks in the express office took charge ofhim; hewas carted about in another wagon; a truck carried himwith anassortment of boxes and parcelsupon a ferry steamer; hewastrucked off the steamer into a great railway depotandfinally hewas deposited in an express car.
For twodays and nights this express car was dragged along at thetail ofshrieking locomotives; and for two days and nights Buckneitherate nor drank. In his anger he had met the first advancesof theexpress messengers with growlsand they had retaliated byteasinghim. When he flung himself against the barsquiveringandfrothingthey laughed at him and taunted him. They growledand barkedlike detestable dogsmewedand flapped their arms andcrowed. It was all very sillyhe knew; but therefore the moreoutrage tohis dignityand his anger waxed and waxed. He did notmind thehunger so muchbut the lack of water caused him severesufferingand fanned his wrath to fever-pitch. For that matterhigh-strungand finely sensitivethe ill treatment had flung himinto afeverwhich was fed by the inflammation of his parched andswollenthroat and tongue.
He wasglad for one thing: the rope was off his neck. That hadgiven theman unfair advantage; but now that it was offhe wouldshowthem. They would never get another rope around his neck. Upon thathe was resolved. For two days and nights he neither atenor drankand during those two days and nights of tormentheaccumulateda fund of wrath that boded ill for whoever first fellfoul ofhim. His eyes turned blood-shotand he was metamorphosedinto araging fiend. So changed was he that the Judge himselfwould nothave recognized him; and the express messengers breathedwithrelief when they bundled him off the train at Seattle.
Four mengingerly carried the crate from the wagon into a smallhigh-walledback yard. A stout manwith a red sweater thatsaggedgenerously at the neckcame out and signed the book forthedriver. That was the manBuck divinedthe next tormentorand hehurled himself savagely against the bars. The man smiledgrimlyand brought a hatchet and a club.
"Youain't going to take him out now?" the driver asked.
"Sure"the man replieddriving the hatchet into the crate for apry.
There wasan instantaneous scattering of the four men who hadcarried itinand from safe perches on top the wall they preparedto watchthe performance.
Buckrushed at the splintering woodsinking his teeth into itsurgingand wrestling with it. Wherever the hatchet fell on theoutsidehe was there on the insidesnarling and growlingasfuriouslyanxious to get out as the man in the red sweater wascalmlyintent on getting him out.
"Nowyou red-eyed devil" he saidwhen he had made an openingsufficientfor the passage of Buck's body. At the same time hedroppedthe hatchet and shifted the club to his right hand.
And Buckwas truly a red-eyed devilas he drew himself togetherfor thespringhair bristlingmouth foaminga mad glitter inhisblood-shot eyes. Straight at the man he launched his onehundredand forty pounds of furysurcharged with the pent passionof twodays and nights. In mid airjust as his jaws were aboutto closeon the manhe received a shock that checked his body andbroughthis teeth together with an agonizing clip. He whirledoverfetching the ground on his back and side. He had never beenstruck bya club in his lifeand did not understand. With asnarl thatwas part bark and more scream he was again on his feetandlaunched into the air. And again the shock came and he wasbroughtcrushingly to the ground. This time he was aware that itwas theclubbut his madness knew no caution. A dozen times hechargedand as often the club broke the charge and smashed himdown.
After aparticularly fierce blowhe crawled to his feettoodazed torush. He staggered limply aboutthe blood flowing fromnose andmouth and earshis beautiful coat sprayed and fleckedwithbloody slaver. Then the man advanced and deliberately dealthim afrightful blow on the nose. All the pain he had endured wasas nothingcompared with the exquisite agony of this. With a roarthat wasalmost lionlike in its ferocityhe again hurled himselfat theman. But the manshifting the club from right to leftcoollycaught him by the under jawat the same time wrenchingdownwardand backward. Buck described a complete circle in theairandhalf of anotherthen crashed to the ground on his headand chest.
For thelast time he rushed. The man struck the shrewd blow hehadpurposely withheld for so longand Buck crumpled up and wentdownknocked utterly senseless.
"He'sno slouch at dog-breakin'that's wot I say" one of the menon thewall cried enthusiastically.
"Drutherbreak cayuses any dayand twice on Sundays" was thereply ofthe driveras he climbed on the wagon and started thehorses.
Buck'ssenses came back to himbut not his strength. He laywhere hehad fallenand from there he watched the man in the redsweater.
"'Answers to the name of Buck' " the man soliloquizedquotingfrom thesaloon-keeper's letter which had announced theconsignmentof the crate and contents. "WellBuckmy boy" hewent on ina genial voice"we've had our little ructionand thebest thingwe can do is to let it go at that. You've learned yourplaceandI know mine. Be a good dog and all 'll go well and thegoose hanghigh. Be a bad dogand I'll whale the stuffin' outayou. Understand?"
As hespoke he fearlessly patted the head he had so mercilesslypoundedand though Buck's hair involuntarily bristled at touch ofthe handhe endured it without protest. When the man brought himwater hedrank eagerlyand later bolted a generous meal of rawmeatchunk by chunkfrom the man's hand.
He wasbeaten (he knew that); but he was not broken. He sawoncefor allthat he stood no chance against a man with a club. Hehadlearned the lessonand in all his after life he never forgotit. That club was a revelation. It was his introduction to thereign ofprimitive lawand he met the introduction halfway. Thefacts oflife took on a fiercer aspect; and while he faced thataspectuncowedhe faced it with all the latent cunning of hisnaturearoused. As the days went byother dogs camein cratesand at theends of ropessome docilelyand some raging androaring ashe had come; andone and allhe watched them passunder thedominion of the man in the red sweater. Again andagainashe looked at each brutal performancethe lesson wasdrivenhome to Buck: a man with a club was a lawgivera master tobe obeyedthough not necessarily conciliated. Of this last Buckwas neverguiltythough he did see beaten dogs that fawned uponthe manand wagged their tailsand licked his hand. Also he sawone dogthat would neither conciliate nor obeyfinally killed inthestruggle for mastery.
Now andagain men camestrangerswho talked excitedlywheedlinglyand in all kinds of fashions to the man in the redsweater. And at such times that money passed between them thestrangerstook one or more of the dogs away with them. Buckwonderedwhere they wentfor they never came back; but the fearof thefuture was strong upon himand he was glad each time whenhe was notselected.
Yet histime camein the endin the form of a little weazenedman whospat broken English and many strange and uncouthexclamationswhich Buck could not understand.
"Sacredam!"he criedwhen his eyes lit upon Buck. "Dat one dambully dog!Eh? How moch?"
"Threehundredand a present at that" was the prompt reply ofthe man inthe red sweater. "And seem' it's government moneyyouain't gotno kick comingehPerrault?"
Perraultgrinned. Considering that the price of dogs had beenboomedskyward by the unwonted demandit was not an unfair sumfor sofine an animal. The Canadian Government would be no losernor wouldits despatches travel the slower. Perrault knew dogsand whenhe looked at Buck he knew that he was one in a thousand--"Onein ten t'ousand" he commented mentally.
Buck sawmoney pass between themand was not surprised whenCurlyagood-natured Newfoundlandand he were led away by thelittleweazened man. That was the last he saw of the man in theredsweaterand as Curly and he looked at receding Seattle fromthe deckof the Narwhalit was the last he saw of the warmSouthland. Curly and he were taken below by Perrault and turnedover to ablack-faced giant called Francois. Perrault was aFrench-Canadianand swarthy; but Francois was a French-Canadianhalf-breedand twice as swarthy. They were a new kind of men toBuck (ofwhich he was destined to see many more)and while hedevelopedno affection for themhe none the less grew honestly torespectthem. He speedily learned that Perrault and Francois werefair mencalm and impartial in administering justiceand toowise inthe way of dogs to be fooled by dogs.
In the'tween-decks of the NarwhalBuck and Curly joined twootherdogs. One of them was a bigsnow-white fellow fromSpitzbergenwho had been brought away by a whaling captainandwho hadlater accompanied a Geological Survey into the Barrens. He wasfriendlyin a treacherous sort of waysmiling into one'sface thewhile he meditated some underhand trickasforinstancewhen he stole from Buck's food at the first meal. AsBucksprang to punish himthe lash of Francois's whip sangthroughthe airreaching the culprit first; and nothing remainedto Buckbut to recover the bone. That was fair of Francoishedecidedand the half-breed began his rise in Buck's estimation.
The otherdog made no advancesnor received any; alsohe did notattempt tosteal from the newcomers. He was a gloomymorosefellowand he showed Curly plainly that all he desired was to beleftaloneand furtherthat there would be trouble if he werenot leftalone. "Dave" he was calledand he ate and sleptoryawnedbetween timesand took interest in nothingnot even whentheNarwhal crossed Queen Charlotte Sound and rolled and pitchedand buckedlike a thing possessed. When Buck and Curly grewexcitedhalf wild with fearhe raised his head as thoughannoyedfavored them with an incurious glanceyawnedand wentto sleepagain.
Day andnight the ship throbbed to the tireless pulse of thepropellerand though one day was very like anotherit wasapparentto Buck that the weather was steadily growing colder. Atlastonemorningthe propeller was quietand the Narwhal waspervadedwith an atmosphere of excitement. He felt itas did theotherdogsand knew that a change was at hand. Francois leashedthem andbrought them on deck. At the first step upon the coldsurfaceBuck's feet sank into a white mushy something very likemud. He sprang back with a snort. More of this white stuff wasfallingthrough the air. He shook himselfbut more of it fellupon him. He sniffed it curiouslythen licked some up on histongue. It bit like fireand the next instant was gone. Thispuzzledhim. He tried it againwith the same result. Theonlookerslaughed uproariouslyand he felt ashamedhe knew notwhyforit was his first snow.
Buck'sfirst day on the Dyea beach was like a nightmare. Everyhour wasfilled with shock and surprise. He had been suddenlyjerkedfrom the heart of civilization and flung into the heart ofthingsprimordial. No lazysun-kissed life was thiswithnothing todo but loaf and be bored. Here was neither peacenorrestnora moment's safety. All was confusion and actionandeverymoment life and limb were in peril. There was imperativeneed to beconstantly alert; for these dogs and men were not towndogs andmen. They were savagesall of themwho knew no law butthe law ofclub and fang.
He hadnever seen dogs fight as these wolfish creatures foughtand hisfirst experience taught him an unforgetable lesson. It istrueitwas a vicarious experienceelse he would not have livedto profitby it. Curly was the victim. They were camped near thelog storewhere shein her friendly waymade advances to ahusky dogthe size of a full-grown wolfthough not half so largeas she. There was no warningonly a leap in like a flashametallicclip of teetha leap out equally swiftand Curly's facewas rippedopen from eye to jaw.
It was thewolf manner of fightingto strike and leap away; butthere wasmore to it than this. Thirty or forty huskies ran tothe spotand surrounded the combatants in an intent and silentcircle. Buck did not comprehend that silent intentnessnor theeager waywith which they were licking their chops. Curly rushedherantagonistwho struck again and leaped aside. He met hernext rushwith his chestin a peculiar fashion that tumbled heroff herfeet. She never regained themThis was what theonlookinghuskies had waited for. They closed in upon hersnarlingand yelpingand she was buriedscreaming with agonybeneaththe bristling mass of bodies.
So suddenwas itand so unexpectedthat Buck was taken aback. He sawSpitz run out his scarlet tongue in a way he had oflaughing;and he saw Francoisswinging an axespring into themess ofdogs. Three men with clubs were helping him to scatterthem. It did not take long. Two minutes from the time Curly wentdownthelast of her assailants were clubbed off. But she laythere limpand lifeless in the bloodytrampled snowalmostliterallytorn to piecesthe swart half-breed standing over herandcursing horribly. The scene often came back to Buck totroublehim in his sleep. So that was the way. No fair play. Once downthat was the end of you. Wellhe would see to it thathe neverwent down. Spitz ran out his tongue and laughed againand fromthat moment Buck hated him with a bitter and deathlesshatred.
Before hehad recovered from the shock caused by the tragicpassing ofCurlyhe received another shock. Francois fastenedupon himan arrangement of straps and buckles. It was a harnesssuch as hehad seen the grooms put on the horses at home. And ashe hadseen horses workso he was set to workhauling Francoison a sledto the forest that fringed the valleyand returningwith aload of firewood. Though his dignity was sorely hurt bythus beingmade a draught animalhe was too wise to rebel. Hebuckleddown with a will and did his bestthough it was all newandstrange. Francois was stemdemanding instant obedienceandby virtueof his whip receiving instant obedience; while Davewhowas anexperienced wheelernipped Buck's hind quarters wheneverhe was inerror. Spitz was the leaderlikewise experiencedandwhile hecould not always get at Buckhe growled sharp reproofnow andagainor cunningly threw his weight in the traces to jerkBuck intothe way he should go. Buck learned easilyand underthecombined tuition of his two mates and Francois made remarkableprogress. Ere they returned to camp he knew enough to stop at"ho"to go ahead at "mush" to swing wide on the bendsand tokeep clearof the wheeler when the loaded sled shot downhill attheirheels.
"T'reevair' good dogs" Francois told Perrault. "Dat Buckheempool lakhell. I tich heem queek as anyt'ing."
ByafternoonPerraultwho was in a hurry to be on the trail withhisdespatchesreturned with two more dogs. "Billee" and"Joe"he calledthemtwo brothersand true huskies both. Sons of theone motherthough they werethey were as different as day andnight. Billee's one fault was his excessive good naturewhileJoe wasthe very oppositesour and introspectivewith aperpetualsnarl and a malignant eye. Buck received them incomradelyfashionDave ignored themwhile Spitz proceeded tothrashfirst one and then the other. Billee wagged his tailappeasinglyturned to run when he saw that appeasement was of noavailandcried (still appeasingly) when Spitz's sharp teethscored hisflank. But no matter how Spitz circledJoe whirledaround onhis heels to face himmane bristlingears laid backlipswrithing and snarlingjaws clipping together as fast as hecouldsnapand eyes diabolically gleaming--the incarnation ofbelligerentfear. So terrible was his appearance that Spitz wasforced toforego disciplining him; but to cover his owndiscomfiturehe turned upon the inoffensive and wailing Billee anddrove himto the confines of the camp.
By eveningPerrault secured another dogan old huskylong andlean andgauntwith a battle-scarred face and a single eye whichflashed awarning of prowess that commanded respect. He wascalledSol-lekswhich means the Angry One. Like Davehe askednothinggave nothingexpected nothing; and when he marchedslowly anddeliberately into their midsteven Spitz left himalone. He had one peculiarity which Buck was unlucky enough todiscover. He did not like to be approached on his blind side. Ofthisoffence Buck was unwittingly guiltyand the first knowledgehe had ofhis indiscretion was when Sol-leks whirled upon him andslashedhis shoulder to the bone for three inches up and down. Foreverafter Buck avoided his blind sideand to the last oftheircomradeship had no more trouble. His only apparentambitionlike Dave'swas to be left alone; thoughas Buck wasafterwardto learneach of them possessed one other and even morevitalambition.
That nightBuck faced the great problem of sleeping. The tentilluminedby a candleglowed warmly in the midst of the whiteplain; andwhen heas a matter of courseentered itbothPerraultand Francois bombarded him with curses and cookingutensilstill he recovered from his consternation and fledignominiouslyinto the outer cold. A chill wind was blowing thatnipped himsharply and bit with especial venom into his woundedshoulder. He lay down on the snow and attempted to sleepbut thefrost soondrove him shivering to his feet. Miserable anddisconsolatehe wandered about among the many tentsonly to findthat oneplace was as cold as another. Here and there savage dogsrushedupon himbut he bristled his neck-hair and snarled (for hewaslearning fast)and they let him go his way unmolested.
Finally anidea came to him. He would return and see how his ownteam-mateswere making out. To his astonishmentthey haddisappeared. Again he wandered about through the great camplookingfor themand again he returned. Were they in the tent? Nothatcould not beelse he would not have been driven out. Then wherecould they possibly be? With drooping tail andshiveringbodyvery forlorn indeedhe aimlessly circled thetent. Suddenly the snow gave way beneath his fore legs and hesankdown. Something wriggled under his feet. He sprang backbristlingand snarlingfearful of the unseen and unknown. But afriendlylittle yelp reassured himand he went back toinvestigate. A whiff of warm air ascended to his nostrilsandtherecurled up under the snow in a snug balllay Billee. Hewhinedplacatinglysquirmed and wriggled to show his good willandintentionsand even venturedas a bribe for peaceto lickBuck'sface with his warm wet tongue.
Anotherlesson. So that was the way they did iteh? Buckconfidentlyselected a spotand with much fuss and waste effortproceededto dig a hole for himself. In a trice the heat from hisbodyfilled the confined space and he was asleep. The day hadbeen longand arduousand he slept soundly and comfortablythough hegrowled and barked and wrestled with bad dreams.
Nor did heopen his eyes till roused by the noises of the wakingcamp. At first he did not know where he was. It had snowedduring thenight and he was completely buried. The snow wallspressedhim on every sideand a great surge of fear swept throughhim--thefear of the wild thing for the trap. It was a token thathe washarking back through his own life to the lives of hisforebears;for he was a civilized dogan unduly civilized dogand of hisown experience knew no trap and so could not of himselffear it. The muscles of his whole body contracted spasmodicallyandinstinctivelythe hair on his neck and shoulders stood onendandwith a ferocious snarl he bounded straight up into theblindingdaythe snow flying about him in a flashing cloud. Erehe landedon his feethe saw the white camp spread out before himand knewwhere he was and remembered all that had passed from thetime hewent for a stroll with Manuel to the hole he had dug forhimselfthe night before.
A shoutfrom Francois hailed his appearance. "Wot I say?" thedog-drivercried to Perrault. "Dat Buck for sure learn queek asanyt'ing."
Perraultnodded gravely. As courier for the Canadian Governmentbearingimportant despatcheshe was anxious to secure the bestdogsandhe was particularly gladdened by the possession of Buck.
Three morehuskies were added to the team inside an hourmaking atotal ofnineand before another quarter of an hour had passedthey werein harness and swinging up the trail toward the DyeaCanon. Buck was glad to be goneand though the work was hard hefound hedid not particularly despise it. He was surprised at theeagernesswhich animated the whole team and which was communicatedto him;but still more surprising was the change wrought in DaveandSol-leks. They were new dogsutterly transformed by theharness. All passiveness and unconcern had dropped from them.They werealert and activeanxious that the work should go wellandfiercely irritable with whateverby delay or confusionretardedthat work. The toil of the traces seemed the supremeexpressionof their beingand all that they lived for and theonly thingin which they took delight.
Dave waswheeler or sled dogpulling in front of him was Buckthen cameSol-leks; the rest of the team was strung out aheadsinglefileto the leaderwhich position was filled by Spitz.
Buck hadbeen purposely placed between Dave and Sol-leks so thathe mightreceive instruction. Apt scholar that he wasthey wereequallyapt teachersnever allowing him to linger long in errorandenforcing their teaching with their sharp teeth. Dave wasfair andvery wise. He never nipped Buck without causeand heneverfailed to nip him when he stood in need of it. AsFrancois'swhip backed him upBuck found it to be cheaper to mendhis waysthan to retaliateOnceduring a brief haltwhen he gottangled inthe traces and delayed the startboth Dave and Sol-leks flewat him and administered a sound trouncing. Theresultingtangle was even worsebut Buck took good care to keepthe tracesclear thereafter; and ere the day was doneso well hadhemastered his workhis mates about ceased nagging him. Francois'swhip snapped less frequentlyand Perrault even honoredBuck bylifting up his feet and carefully examining them.
It was ahard day's runup the Canonthrough Sheep Camppastthe Scalesand the timber lineacross glaciers and snowdriftshundredsof feet deepand over the great Chilcoot Dividewhichstandsbetween the salt water and the fresh and guardsforbiddinglythe sad and lonely North. They made good time downthe chainof lakes which fills the craters of extinct volcanoesand latethat night pulled into the huge camp at the head of LakeBennettwhere thousands of goldseekers were building boatsagainstthe break-up of the ice in the spring. Buck made his holein thesnow and slept the sleep of the exhausted justbut all tooearly wasrouted out in the cold darkness and harnessed with hismates tothe sled.
That daythey made forty milesthe trail being packed; but thenext dayand for many days to followthey broke their own trailworkedharderand made poorer time. As a rulePerraulttravelledahead of the teampacking the snow with webbed shoes tomake iteasier for them. Francoisguiding the sled at the gee-polesometimes exchanged places with himbut not often. Perraultwas in a hurryand he prided himself on his knowledge oficewhichknowledge was indispensablefor the fall ice was verythinandwhere there was swift waterthere was no ice at all.
Day afterdayfor days unendingBuck toiled in the traces.Alwaysthey broke camp in the darkand the first gray of dawnfound themhitting the trail with fresh miles reeled off behindthem. And always they pitched camp after darkeating their bitof fishand crawling to sleep into the snow. Buck was ravenous. The poundand a half of sun-dried salmonwhich was his ration foreach dayseemed to go nowhere. He never had enoughand sufferedfromperpetual hunger pangs. Yet the other dogsbecause theyweighedless and were born to the lifereceived a pound only ofthe fishand managed to keep in good condition.
He swiftlylost the fastidiousness which had characterized his oldlife. A dainty eaterhe found that his matesfinishing firstrobbed himof his unfinished ration. There was no defending it. While hewas fighting off two or threeit was disappearing downthethroats of the others. To remedy thishe ate as fast asthey; andso greatly did hunger compel himhe was not abovetakingwhat did not belong to him. He watched and learned. Whenhe sawPikeone of the new dogsa clever malingerer and thiefslylysteal a slice of bacon when Perrault's back was turnedheduplicatedthe performance the following daygetting away withthe wholechunk. A great uproar was raisedbut he wasunsuspected;while Duban awkward blunderer who was alwaysgettingcaughtwas punished for Buck's misdeed.
This firsttheft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostileNorthlandenvironment. It marked his adaptabilityhis capacityto adjusthimself to changing conditionsthe lack of which wouldhave meantswift and terrible death. It markedfurtherthedecay orgoing to pieces of his moral naturea vain thing and ahandicapin the ruthless struggle for existence. It was all wellenough inthe Southlandunder the law of love and fellowshiptorespectprivate property and personal feelings; but in theNorthlandunder the law of club and fangwhoso took such thingsintoaccount was a fooland in so far as he observed them hewould failto prosper.
Not thatBuck reasoned it out. He was fitthat was allandunconsciouslyhe accommodated himself to the new mode of life. All hisdaysno matter what the oddshe had never run from afight. But the club of the man in the red sweater had beaten intohim a morefundamental and primitive code. Civilizedhe couldhave diedfor a moral considerationsay the defence of JudgeMiller'sriding-whip; but the completeness of his decivilizationwas nowevidenced by his ability to flee from the defence of amoralconsideration and so save his hide. He did not steal forjoy of itbut because of the clamor of his stomach. He did notrobopenlybut stole secretly and cunninglyout of respect forclub andfang. In shortthe things he did were done because itwas easierto do them than not to do them.
Hisdevelopment (or retrogression) was rapid. His muscles becamehard asironand he grew callous to all ordinary pain. Heachievedan internal as well as external economy. He could eatanythingno matter how loathsome or indigestible; andonceeatenthejuices of his stomach extracted the last least particleofnutriment; and his blood carried it to the farthest reaches ofhis bodybuilding it into the toughest and stoutest of tissues. Sight andscent became remarkably keenwhile his hearingdevelopedsuch acuteness that in his sleep he heard the faintestsound andknew whether it heralded peace or peril. He learned tobite theice out with his teeth when it collected between histoes; andwhen he was thirsty and there was a thick scum of iceover thewater holehe would break it by rearing and striking itwith stifffore legs. His most conspicuous trait was an ability toscent thewind and forecast it a night in advance. No matter howbreathlessthe air when he dug his nest by tree or bankthe windthat laterblew inevitably found him to leewardsheltered andsnug.
And notonly did he learn by experiencebut instincts long deadbecamealive again. The domesticated generations fell from him. In vagueways he remembered back to the youth of the breedto thetime thewild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest andkilledtheir meat as they ran it down. It was no task for him tolearn tofight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap. Inthismanner had fought forgotten ancestors. They quickened theold lifewithin himand the old tricks which they had stampedinto theheredity of the breed were his tricks. They came to himwithouteffort or discoveryas though they had been his always. And whenon the still cold nightshe pointed his nose at a starand howledlong and wolflikeit was his ancestorsdead and dustpointingnose at star and howling down through the centuries andthroughhim. And his cadences were their cadencesthe cadenceswhichvoiced their woe and what to them was the meaning of thestiffnessand the coldand dark.
Thusastoken of what a puppet thing life isthe ancient songsurgedthrough him and he came into his own again; and he camebecausemen had found a yellow metal in the Northand becauseManuel wasa gardener's helper whose wages did not lap over theneeds ofhis wife and divers small copies of himself.
Thedominant primordial beast was strong in Buckand under thefierceconditions of trail life it grew and grew. Yet it was asecretgrowth. His newborn cunning gave him poise and control. He was toobusy adjusting himself to the new life to feel at easeand notonly did he not pick fightsbut he avoided them wheneverpossible. A certain deliberateness characterized his attitude. He was notprone to rashness and precipitate action; and in thebitterhatred between him and Spitz he betrayed no impatienceshunnedall offensive acts.
On theother handpossibly because he divined in Buck a dangerousrivalSpitz never lost an opportunity of showing his teeth. Heeven wentout of his way to bully Buckstriving constantly tostart thefight which could end only in the death of one or theother. Early in the trip this might have taken place had it notbeen foran unwonted accident. At the end of this day they made ableak andmiserable camp on the shore of Lake Le Barge. Drivingsnowawind that cut like a white-hot knifeand darkness hadforcedthem to grope for a camping place. They could hardly havefaredworse. At their backs rose a perpendicular wall of rockandPerrault and Francois were compelled to make their fire andspreadtheir sleeping robes on the ice of the lake itself. Thetent theyhad discarded at Dyea in order to travel light. A fewsticks ofdriftwood furnished them with a fire that thawed downthroughthe ice and left them to eat supper in the dark.
Close inunder the sheltering rock Buck made his nest. So snugand warmwas itthat he was loath to leave it when Francoisdistributedthe fish which he had first thawed over the fire. Butwhen Buckfinished his ration and returnedhe found his nestoccupied. A warning snarl told him that the trespasser was Spitz. Till nowBuck had avoided trouble with his enemybut this was toomuch. The beast in him roared. He sprang upon Spitz with a furywhichsurprised them bothand Spitz particularlyfor his wholeexperiencewith Buck had gone to teach him that his rival was anunusuallytimid dogwho managed to hold his own only because ofhis greatweight and size.
Francoiswas surprisedtoowhen they shot out in a tangle fromthedisrupted nest and he divined the cause of the trouble. "A-a-ah!"he cried to Buck. "Gif it to heemby Gar! Gif it to heemthe dirtyt'eef!"
Spitz wasequally willing. He was crying with sheer rage andeagernessas he circled back and forth for a chance to spring in. Buck wasno less eagerand no less cautiousas he likewisecircledback and forth for the advantage. But it was then thattheunexpected happenedthe thing which projected their struggleforsupremacy far into the futurepast many a weary mile of trailand toil.
An oathfrom Perraultthe resounding impact of a club upon a bonyframeanda shrill yelp of painheralded the breaking forth ofpandemonium. The camp was suddenly discovered to be alive withskulkingfurry forms- starving huskiesfour or five score ofthemwhohad scented the camp from some Indian village. They hadcrept inwhile Buck and Spitz were fightingand when the two mensprangamong them with stout clubs they showed their teeth andfoughtback. They were crazed by the smell of the food. Perraultfound onewith head buried in the grub-box. His club landedheavily onthe gaunt ribsand the grub-box was capsized on theground. On the instant a score of the famished brutes werescramblingfor the bread and bacon. The clubs fell upon themunheeded. They yelped and howled under the rain of blowsbutstrugglednone the less madly till the last crumb had beendevoured.
In themeantime the astonished team-dogs had burst out of theirnests onlyto be set upon by the fierce invaders. Never had Buckseen suchdogs. it seemed as though their bones would burstthroughtheir skins. They were mere skeletonsdraped loosely indraggledhideswith blazing eyes and slavered fangs. But thehunger-madnessmade them terrifyingirresistible. There was noopposingthem. The team-dogs were swept back against the cliff atthe firstonset. Buck was beset by three huskiesand in a tricehis headand shoulders were ripped and slashed. The din wasfrightful. Billee was crying as usual. Dave and Sol-leksdrippingblood from a score of woundswere fighting bravely sideby side. Joe was snapping like a demon. Oncehis teeth closedon thefore leg of a huskyand he crunched down through the bone. Pikethemalingererleaped upon the crippled animalbreakingits neckwith a quick flash of teeth and a jerkBuck got afrothingadversary by the throatand was sprayed with blood whenhis teethsank through the jugular. The warm taste of it in hismouthgoaded him to greater fierceness. He flung himself uponanotherand at the same time felt teeth sink into his own throat. It wasSpitztreacherously attacking from the side.
Perraultand Francoishaving cleaned out their part of the camphurried tosave their sled-dogs. The wild wave of famished beastsrolledback before themand Buck shook himself free. But it wasonly for amoment. The two men were compelled to run back to savethe grubupon which the huskies returned to the attack on theteam. Billeeterrified into braverysprang through the savagecircle andfled away over the ice. Pike and Dub followed on hisheelswith the rest of the team behind. As Buck drew himselftogetherto spring after themout of the tail of his eye he sawSpitz rushupon him with the evident intention of overthrowinghim. Once off his feet and under that mass of huskiesthere wasno hopefor him. But he braced himself to the shock of Spitz'schargethen joined the flight out on the lake.
Laterthenine team-dogs gathered together and sought shelter intheforest. Though unpursuedthey were in a sorry plight. Therewas notone who was not wounded in four or five placeswhile somewerewounded grievously. Dub was badly injured in a hind leg;Dollythelast husky added to the team at Dyeahad a badly tornthroat;Joe had lost an eye; while Billeethe good-naturedwithan earchewed and rent to ribbonscried and whimpered throughoutthenight. At daybreak they limped warily back to campto findthemarauders gone and the two men in bad tempers. Fully halftheir grubsupply was gone. The huskies had chewed through thesledlashings and canvas coverings. In factnothingno matterhowremotely eatablehad escaped them. They had eaten a pair ofPerrault'smoose-hide moccasinschunks out of the leather tracesand eventwo feet of lash from the end of Francois's whip. Hebroke froma mournful contemplation of it to look over his woundeddogs.
"Ahmy frien's" he said softly"mebbe it mek you mad dogdosemanybites. Mebbe all mad dogsacredam! Wot you t'inkehPerrault?"
Thecourier shook his head dubiously. With four hundred miles oftrailstill between him and Dawsonhe could ill afford to havemadnessbreak out among his dogs. Two hours of cursing andexertiongot the harnesses into shapeand the wound-stiffenedteam wasunder waystruggling painfully over the hardest part ofthe trailthey had yet encounteredand for that matterthehardestbetween them and Dawson.
The ThirtyMile River was wide open. Its wild water defied thefrostandit was in the eddies only and in the quiet places thatthe iceheld at all. Six days of exhausting toil were required tocoverthose thirty terrible miles. And terrible they wereforevery footof them was accomplished at the risk of life to dog andman. A dozen timesPerraultnosing the way broke through theicebridgesbeing saved by the long pole he carriedwhich he soheld thatit fell each time across the hole made by his body. Buta coldsnap was onthe thermometer registering fifty below zeroand eachtime he broke through he was compelled for very life tobuild afire and dry his garments.
Nothingdaunted him. It was because nothing daunted him that hehad beenchosen for government courier. He took all manner ofrisksresolutely thrusting his little weazened face into thefrost andstruggling on from dim dawn to dark. He skirted thefrowningshores on rim ice that bent and crackled under foot andupon whichthey dared not halt. Oncethe sled broke throughwith Daveand Buckand they were half-frozen and all but drownedby thetime they were dragged out. The usual fire was necessaryto savethem. They were coated solidly with iceand the two menkept themon the run around the firesweating and thawingsoclose thatthey were singed by the flames.
At anothertime Spitz went throughdragging the whole team afterhim up toBuckwho strained backward with all his strengthhisfore pawson the slippery edge and the ice quivering and snappingallaround. But behind him was Davelikewise straining backwardand behindthe sled was Francoispulling till his tendonscracked.
Againtherim ice broke away before and behindand there was noescapeexcept up the cliff. Perrault scaled it by a miraclewhileFrancois prayed for just that miracle; and with every thongand sledlashing and the last bit of harness rove into a longropethedogs were hoistedone by oneto the cliff crest. Francoiscame up lastafter the sled and load. Then came thesearch fora place to descendwhich descent was ultimately madeby the aidof the ropeand night found them back on the riverwith aquarter of a mile to the day's credit.
By thetime they made the Hootalinqua and good iceBuck wasplayedout. The rest of the dogs were in like condition; butPerraultto make up lost timepushed them late and early. Thefirst daythey covered thirty-five miles to the Big Salmon; thenext daythirty-five more to the Little Salmon; the third dayfortymileswhich brought them well up toward the Five Fingers.
Buck'sfeet were not so compact and hard as the feet of thehuskies. His had softened during the many generations since theday hislast wild ancestor was tamed by a cave-dweller or riverman. AU day long he limped in agonyand camp once madelay downlike adead dog. Hungry as he washe would not move to receivehis rationof fishwhich Francois had to bring to him. Alsothedog-driverrubbed Buck's feet for half an hour each night aftersupperand sacrificed the tops of his own moccasins to make fourmoccasinsfor Buck. This was a great reliefand Buck caused eventheweazened face of Perrault to twist itself into a grin onemorningwhen Francois forgot the moccasins and Buck lay on hisbackhisfour feet waving appealingly in the airand refused tobudgewithout them. Later his feet grew hard to the trailandtheworn-out foot-gear was thrown away.
At thePelly one morningas they were harnessing upDollywhohad neverbeen conspicuous for anythingwent suddenly mad. Sheannouncedher condition by a longheartbreaking wolf howl thatsent everydog bristling with fearthen sprang straight for Buck. He hadnever seen a dog go madnor did he have any reason to fearmadness;yet he knew that here was horrorand fled away from itin apanic. Straight away he racedwith Dollypanting andfrothingone leap behind; nor could she gain on himso great washisterrornor could he leave herso great was her madness. Heplungedthrough the wooded breast of the islandflew down to thelower endcrossed a back channel filled with rough ice to anotherislandgained a third islandcurved back to the main riverandindesperation started to cross it. And all the timethough hedid nottookhe could hear her snarling just one leap behind. Francoiscalled to him a quarter of a mile away and he doubledbackstill one leap aheadgasping painfully for air and puttingall hisfaith in that Francois would save him. The dog-driverheld theaxe poised in his handand as Buck shot past him the axecrasheddown upon mad Dolly's head.
Buckstaggered over against the sledexhaustedsobbing forbreathhelpless. This was Spitz's opportunity. He sprang uponBuckandtwice his teeth sank into his unresisting foe and rippedand torethe flesh to the bone. Then Francois's lash descendedand Buckhad the satisfaction of watching Spitz receive the worstwhippingas yet administered to any of the teams.
"Onedevildat Spitz" remarked Perrault. "Some dam dayheemkeel datBuck."
"DatBuck two devils" was Francois's rejoinder. "All detam Iwatch datBuck I know for sure. Lissen: some dam fine day heemget madlak hell an' den heem chew dat Spitz all up an) spit heemout on desnow. Sure. I know."
From thenon it was war between them. Spitzas lead-dog andacknowledgedmaster of the teamfelt his supremacy threatened bythisstrange Southland dog. And strange Buck was to himfor ofthe manySouthland dogs he had knownnot one had shown upworthilyin camp and on trail. They were all too softdyingunder thetoilthe frostand starvation. Buck was theexception. He alone endured and prosperedmatching the husky instrengthsavageryand cunning. Then he was a masterful dogandwhat madehim dangerous was the fact that the club of the man inthe redsweater had knocked all blind pluck and rashness out ofhis desirefor mastery. He was preeminently cunningand couldbide histime with a patience that was nothing less thanprimitive.
It wasinevitable that the clash for leadership should come. Buckwantedit. He wanted it because it was his naturebecause he hadbeengripped tight by that namelessincomprehensible pride of thetrail andtrace--that pride which holds dogs in the toil to thelast gaspwhich lures them to die joyfully in the harnessandbreakstheir hearts if they are cut out of the harness. This wasthe prideof Dave as wheel-dogof Sol-leks as he pulled with allhisstrength; the pride that laid hold of them at break of camptransformingthem from sour and sullen brutes into strainingeagerambitious creatures; the pride that spurred them on all dayanddropped them at pitch of camp at nightletting them fall backintogloomy unrest and uncontent. This was the pride that bore upSpitz andmade him thrash the sled-dogs who blundered and shirkedin thetraces or hid away at harness-up time in the morning. Likewiseit was this pride that made him fear Buck as a possiblelead-dog. And this was Buck's pridetoo.
He openlythreatened the other's leadership. He came between himand theshirks he should have punished. And he did itdeliberately. One night there was a heavy snowfalland in themorningPikethe malingererdid not appear. He was securelyhidden inhis nest under a foot of snow. Francois called him andsought himin vain. Spitz was wild with wrath. He raged throughthe campsmelling and digging in every likely placesnarling sofrightfullythat Pike heard and shivered in his hiding-place.
But whenhe was at last unearthedand Spitz flew at him to punishhimBuckflewwith equal ragein between. So unexpected wasitand soshrewdly managedthat Spitz was hurled backward andoff hisfeet. Pikewho had been trembling abjectlytook heartat thisopen mutinyand sprang upon his overthrown leader. Buckto whomfair play was a forgotten codelikewise sprang uponSpitz. But Francoischuckling at the incident while unswervingin theadministration of justicebrought his lash down upon Buckwith allhis might. This failed to drive Buck from his prostraterivalandthe butt of the whip was brought into play. Half-stunned bythe blowBuck was knocked backward and the lash laidupon himagain and againwhile Spitz soundly punished the manytimesoffending Pike.
In thedays that followedas Dawson grew closer and closerBuckstillcontinued to interfere between Spitz and the culprits; buthe did itcraftilywhen Francois was not aroundWith the covertmutiny ofBucka general insubordination sprang up and increased. Dave andSol-leks were unaffectedbut the rest of the team wentfrom badto worse. Things no longer went right. There wascontinualbickering and jangling. Trouble was always afootandat thebottom of it was Buck. He kept Francois busyfor the dog-driver wasin constant apprehension of the life-and-death strugglebetweenthe two which he knew must take place sooner or later; andon morethan one night the sounds of quarrelling and strife amongthe otherdogs turned him out of his sleeping robefearful thatBuck andSpitz were at it.
But theopportunity did not present itselfand they pulled intoDawson onedreary afternoon with the great fight still to come. Here weremany menand countless dogsand Buck found them all atwork. It seemed the ordained order of things that dogs shouldwork. All day they swung up and down the main street in longteamsandin the night their jingling bells still went by. Theyhauledcabin logs and firewoodfreighted up to the minesand didall mannerof work that horses did in the Santa Clara Valley. Here andthere Buck met Southland dogsbut in the main they werethe wildwolf husky breed. Every nightregularlyat nineattwelveatthreethey lifted a nocturnal songa weird and eeriechantinwhich it was Buck's delight to join.
With theaurora borealis flaming coldly overheador the starsleaping inthe frost danceand the land numb and frozen under itspall ofsnowthis song of the huskies might have been thedefianceof lifeonly it was pitched in minor keywith long-drawnwailings and half-sobsand was more the pleading of lifethearticulate travail of existence. It was an old songold asthe breeditself--one of the first songs of the younger world in aday whensongs were sad. It was invested with the woe ofunnumberedgenerationsthis plaint by which Buck was so strangelystirred. When he moaned and sobbedit was with the pain oflivingthat was of old the pain of his wild fathersand the fearandmystery of the cold and dark that was to them fear andmystery. And that he should be stirred by it marked thecompletenesswith which he harked back through the ages of fireand roofto the raw beginnings of life in the howling ages.
Seven daysfrom the time they pulled into Dawsonthey droppeddown thesteep bank by the Barracks to the Yukon Trailand pulledfor Dyeaand Salt Water. Perrault was carrying despatches ifanythingmore urgent than those he had brought in; alsothetravelpride had gripped himand he purposed to make the recordtrip ofthe year. Several things favored him in this. The week'srest hadrecuperated the dogs and put them in thorough trim. Thetrail theyhad broken into the country was packed hard by laterjourneyers. And furtherthe police had arranged in two or threeplacesdeposits of grub for dog and manand he was travellinglight.
They madeSixty Milewhich is a fifty-mile runon the first day;and thesecond day saw them booming up the Yukon well on their wayto Pelly. But such splendid running was achieved not withoutgreattrouble and vexation on the part of Francois. The insidiousrevolt ledby Buck had destroyed the solidarity of the team. Itno longerwas as one dog leaping in the traces. The encouragementBuck gavethe rebels led them into all kinds of pettymisdemeanors. No more was Spitz a leader greatly to be feared. The oldawe departedand they grew equal to challenging hisauthority. Pike robbed him of half a fish one nightand gulpedit downunder the protection of Buck. Another night Dub and JoefoughtSpitz and made him forego the punishment they deserved. And evenBilleethe good-naturedwas less good-naturedandwhined nothalf so placatingly as in former days. Buck never camenear Spitzwithout snarling and bristling menacingly. In facthisconduct approached that of a bullyand he was given toswaggeringup and down before Spitz's very nose.
Thebreaking down of discipline likewise affected the dogs intheirrelations with one another. They quarrelled and bickeredmore thanever among themselvestill at times the camp was ahowlingbedlam. Dave and Sol-leks alone were unalteredthoughthey weremade irritable by the unending squabbling. Francoissworestrange barbarous oathsand stamped the snow in futilerageandtore his hair. His lash was always singing among thedogsbutit was of small avail. Directly his back was turned theywere at itagain. He backed up Spitz with his whipwhile Buckbacked upthe remainder of the team. Francois knew he was behindall thetroubleand Buck knew he knew; but Buck was too cleverever againto be caught red-handed. He worked faithfully in theharnessfor the toil had become a delight to him; yet it was agreaterdelight slyly to precipitate a fight amongst his mates andtangle thetraces.
At themouth of the Tahkeenaone night after supperDub turnedup asnowshoe rabbitblundered itand missed. In a second thewhole teamwas in full cry. A hundred yards away was a camp oftheNorthwest Policewith fifty dogshuskies allwho joined thechase. The rabbit sped down the riverturned off into a smallcreekupthe frozen bed of which it held steadily. It ranlightly onthe surface of the snowwhile the dogs ploughedthrough bymain strength. Buck led the packsixty strongaroundbend afterbendbut he could not gain. He lay down low to theracewhining eagerlyhis splendid body flashing forwardleap byleapinthe wan white moonlight. And leap by leaplike somepale frostwraiththe snowshoe rabbit flashed on ahead.
All thatstirring of old instincts which at stated periods drivesmen outfrom the sounding cities to forest and plain to killthings bychemically propelled leaden pelletsthe blood lustthejoy tokill--all this was Buck'sonly it was infinitely moreintimate. He was ranging at the head of the packrunning thewild thingdownthe living meatto kill with his own teeth andwash hismuzzle to the eyes in warm blood.
There isan ecstasy that marks the summit of lifeand beyondwhich lifecannot rise. And such is the paradox of livingthisecstasycomes when one is most aliveand it comes as a completeforgetfulnessthat one is alive. This ecstasythis forgetfulnessof livingcomes to the artistcaught up and out of himself in asheet offlame; it comes to the soldierwar-mad on a strickenfield andrefusing quarter; and it came to Buckleading the packsoundingthe old wolf-crystraining after the food that was aliveand thatfled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He wassoundingthe deeps of his natureand of the parts of his naturethat weredeeper than hegoing back into the womb of Time. Hewasmastered by the sheer surging of lifethe tidal wave ofbeingtheperfect joy of each separate musclejointand sinewin that itwas everything that was not deaththat it was aglowandrampantexpressing itself in movementflying exultantlyunder thestars and over the face of dead matter that did notmove.
But Spitzcold and calculating even in his supreme moodsleftthe packand cut across a narrow neck of land where the creek madea longbend around. Buck did not know of thisand as he roundedthe bendthe frost wraith of a rabbit still flitting before himhe sawanother and larger frost wraith leap from the overhangingbank intothe immediate path of the rabbit. It was Spitz. Therabbitcould not turnand as the white teeth broke its back inmid air itshrieked as loudly as a stricken man may shriek. Atsound ofthisthe cry of Life plunging down from Life's apex inthe gripof Deaththe fall pack at Buck's heels raised a hell'schorus ofdelight.
Buck didnot cry out. He did not check himselfbut drove in uponSpitzshoulder to shoulderso hard that he missed the throat. Theyrolled over and over in the powdery snow. Spitz gained hisfeetalmost as though he had not been overthrownslashing Buckdown theshoulder and leaping clear. Twice his teeth clippedtogetherlike the steel jaws of a trapas he backed away forbetterfootingwith lean and lifting lips that writhed andsnarled.
In a flashBuck knew it. The time had come. It was to the death. As theycircled aboutsnarlingears laid backkeenly watchfulfor theadvantagethe scene came to Buck with a sense offamiliarity. He seemed to remember it all--the white woodsandearthandmoonlightand the thrill of battle. Over thewhitenessand silence brooded a ghostly calm. There was not thefaintestwhisper of air--nothing movednot a leaf quiveredthevisiblebreaths of the dogs rising slowly and lingering in thefrostyair. They had made short work of the snowshoe rabbitthese dogsthat were ill-tamed wolves; and they were now drawn upin anexpectant circle. Theytoowere silenttheir eyes onlygleamingand their breaths drifting slowly upward. To Buck it wasnothingnew or strangethis scene of old time. It was as thoughit hadalways beenthe wonted way of things.
Spitz wasa practised fighter. From Spitzbergen through theArcticand across Canada and the Barrenshe had held his ownwith allmanner of dogs and achieved to mastery over them. Bitterrage washisbut never blind rage. In passion to rend anddestroyhe never forgot that his enemy was in like passion torend anddestroy. He never rushed till he was prepared to receivea rush;never attacked till he had first defended that attack.
In vainBuck strove to sink his teeth in the neck of the big whitedog. Wherever his fangs struck for the softer fleshthey werecounteredby the fangs of Spitz. Fang clashed fangand lips werecut andbleedingbut Buck could not penetrate his enemy's guard. Then hewarmed up and enveloped Spitz in a whirlwind of rushes. Time andtime again he tried for the snow-white throatwhere lifebubblednear to the surfaceand each time and every time Spitzslashedhim and got away. Then Buck took to rushingas though forthethroatwhensuddenly drawing back his head and curving infrom thesidehe would drive his shoulder at the shoulder ofSpitzasa ram by which to overthrow him. But insteadBuck'sshoulderwas slashed down each time as Spitz leaped lightly away.
Spitz wasuntouchedwhile Buck was streaming with blood andpantinghard. The fight was growing desperate. And all the whilethe silentand wolfish circle waited to finish off whichever dogwentdown. As Buck grew windedSpitz took to rushingand hekept himstaggering for footing. Once Buck went overand thewholecircle of sixty dogs started up; but he recovered himselfalmost inmid airand the circle sank down again and waited.
But Buckpossessed a quality that made for greatness--imagination. He fought by instinctbut he could fight by head aswell. He rushedas though attempting the old shoulder trickbutat thelast instant swept low to the snow and in. His teethclosed onSpitz's left fore leg. There was a crunch of breakingboneandthe white dog faced him on three legs. Thrice he triedto knockhim overthen repeated the trick and broke the rightfore leg. Despite the pain and helplessnessSpitz struggledmadly tokeep up. He saw the silent circlewith gleaming eyeslollingtonguesand silvery breaths drifting upwardclosing inupon himas he had seen similar circles close in upon beatenantagonistsin the past. Only this time he was the one who wasbeaten.
There wasno hope for him. Buck was inexorable. Mercy was athingreserved for gender climes. He manoeuvred for the finalrush. The circle had tightened till he could feel the breaths ofthehuskies on his flanks. He could see thembeyond Spitz and toeithersidehalf crouching for the springtheir eyes fixed uponhim. A pause seemed to fall. Every animal was motionless asthoughturned to stone. Only Spitz quivered and bristled as hestaggeredback and forthsnarling with horrible menaceas thoughtofrighten off impending death. Then Buck sprang in and out; butwhile hewas inshoulder had at last squarely met shoulder. Thedarkcircle became a dot on the moon-flooded snow as Spitzdisappearedfrom view. Buck stood and looked onthe successfulchampionthe dominant primordial beast who had made his kill andfound itgood.
"Eh? Wot I say? I spik true w'en I say dat Buck two devils."This wasFrancois's speech next morning when he discovered Spitzmissingand Buck covered with wounds. He drew him to the fire andby itslight pointed them out.
"DatSpitz fight lak hell" said Perraultas he surveyed thegapingrips and cuts.
"An'dat Buck fight lak two hells" was Francois's answer. "An'now wemake good time. No more Spitzno more troublesure."
WhilePerrault packed the camp outfit and loaded the sledthedog-driverproceeded to harness the dogs. Buck trotted up to theplaceSpitz would have occupied as leader; but Francoisnotnoticinghimbrought Sol-leks to the coveted position. In hisjudgmentSol-leks was the best lead-dog left. Buck sprang uponSol-leksin a furydriving him back and standing in his place.
"Eh?eh?" Francois criedslapping his thighs gleefully. "Lookatdat Buck. Heem keel dat Spitzheem t'ink to take de job."
"Go'wayChook!" he criedbut Buck refused to budge.
He tookBuck by the scruff of the neckand though the dog growledthreateninglydragged him to one side and replaced Sol-leks. Theold dogdid not like itand showed plainly that he was afraid ofBuck. Francois was obduratebut when he turned his back Buckagaindisplaced Sol-lekswho was not at all unwilling to go.
Francoiswas angry. "Nowby GarI feex you!" he criedcomingback witha heavy club in his hand.
Buckremembered the man in the red sweaterand retreated slowly;nor did heattempt to charge in when Sol-leks was once morebroughtforward. But he circled just beyond the range of theclubsnarling with bitterness and rage; and while he circled hewatchedthe club so as to dodge it if thrown by Francoisfor hewas becomewise in the way of clubs. The driver went about hisworkandhe called to Buck when he was ready to put him in hisold placein front of Dave. Buck retreated two or three steps. Francoisfollowed him upwhereupon he again retreated. Aftersome timeof thisFrancois threw down the clubthinking thatBuckfeared a thrashing. But Buck was in open revolt. Hewantednot toescape a clubbingbut to have the leadership. It was hisby right. He had earned itand he would not be content withless.
Perraulttook a hand. Between them they ran him about for thebetterpart of an hour. They threw clubs at him. He dodged. Theycursed himand his fathers and mothers before himand allhis seedto come after him down to the remotest generationandevery hairon his body and drop of blood in his veins; and heansweredcurse with snarl and kept out of their reach. He did nottry to runawaybut retreated around and around the campadvertisingplainly that when his desire was methe would come inand begood.
Francoissat down and scratched his head. Perrault looked at hiswatch andswore. Time was flyingand they should have been onthe trailan hour gone. Francois scratched his head again. Heshook itand grinned sheepishly at the courierwho shrugged hisshouldersin sign that they were beaten. Then Francois went up towhereSol-leks stood and called to Buck. Buck laughedas dogslaughyetkept his distance. Francois unfastened Sol-leks'straces andput him back in his old place. The team stoodharnessedto the sled in an unbroken lineready for the trail. There wasno place for Buck save at the front. Once more Francoiscalledand once more Buck laughed and kept away.
"T'rowdown de club" Perrault commanded.
Francoiscompliedwhereupon Buck trotted inlaughingtriumphantlyand swung around into position at the head of theteam. His traces were fastenedthe sled broken outand withboth menrunning they dashed out on to the river trail.
Highly asthe dog-driver had forevalued Buckwith his two devilshe foundwhile the day was yet youngthat he had undervalued. At a boundBuck took up the duties of leadership; and wherejudgmentwas requiredand quick thinking and quick actingheshowedhimself the superior even of Spitzof whom Francois hadnever seenan equal.
But it wasin giving the law and making his mates live up to itthat Buckexcelled. Dave and Sol-leks did not mind the change inleadership. It was none of their business. Their business was totoilandtoil mightilyin the traces. So long as that were notinterferedwiththey did not care what happened. Billeethegood-naturedcould lead for all they caredso long as he keptorder. The rest of the teamhoweverhad grown unruly during thelast daysof Spitzand their surprise was great now that Buckproceededto lick them into shape.
Pikewhopulled at Buck's heelsand who never put an ounce moreof hisweight against the breast-band than he was compelled to dowasswiftly and repeatedly shaken for loafing; and ere the firstday wasdone he was pulling more than ever before in his life. The firstnight in campJoethe sour onewas punished roundly--a thingthat Spitz had never succeeded in doing. Buck simplysmotheredhim by virtue of superior weightand cut him up till heceasedsnapping and began to whine for mercy.
Thegeneral tone of the team picked up immediately. It recovereditsold-time solidarityand once more the dogs leaped as one dogin thetraces. At the Rink Rapids two native huskiesTeek andKoonawere added; and the celerity with which Buck broke them intook awayFrancois's breath.
"Nevairesuch a dog as dat Buck!" he cried. "Nonevaire! Heemworth onet'ousan' dollairby Gar! Eh? Wot you sayPerrault?"
AndPerrault nodded. He was ahead of the record thenand gainingday byday. The trail was in excellent conditionwell packed andhardandthere was no new-fallen snow with which to contend. Itwas nottoo cold. The temperature dropped to fifty below zero andremainedthere the whole trip. The men rode and ran by turnandthe dogswere kept on the jumpwith but infrequent stoppages.
The ThirtyMile River was comparatively coated with iceand theycovered inone day going out what had taken them ten days comingin. In one run they made a sixty-mile dash from the foot of LakeLe Bargeto the White Horse Rapids. Across MarshTagishandBennett(seventy miles of lakes)they flew so fast that the manwhose turnit was to run towed behind the sled at the end of arope. And on the last night of the second week they topped WhitePass anddropped down the sea slope with the lights of Skaguay andof theshipping at their feet.
It was arecord run. Each day for fourteen days they had averagedfortymiles. For three days Perrault and Francois threw chests upand downthe main street of Skaguay and were deluged withinvitationsto drinkwhile the team was the constant centre of aworshipfulcrowd of dog-busters and mushers. Then three or fourwesternbad men aspired to clean out the townwere riddled likepepper-boxesfor their painsand public interest turned to otheridols. Next came official orders. Francois called Buck to himthrew hisarms around himwept over him. And that was the lastofFrancois and Perrault. Like other menthey passed out ofBuck'slife for good.
A Scotchhalf-breed took charge of him and his matesand incompanywith a dozen other dog-teams he started back over thewearytrail to Dawson. It was no light running nownor recordtimebutheavy toil each daywith a heavy load behind; for thiswas themail traincarrying word from the world to the men whosoughtgold under the shadow of the Pole.
Buck didnot like itbut he bore up well to the worktakingpride init after the manner of Dave and Sol-leksand seeing thathis mateswhether they prided in it or notdid their fair share. It was amonotonous lifeoperating with machine-like regularity. One daywas very like another. At a certain time each morning thecooksturned outfires were builtand breakfast was eaten. Thenwhile some broke campothers harnessed the dogsand theywere underway an hour or so before the darkness fell which gavewarning ofdawn. At nightcamp was made. Some pitched thefliesothers cut firewood and pine boughs for the bedsand stillotherscarried water or ice for the cooks. Alsothe dogs werefed. To themthis was the one feature of the daythough it wasgood toloaf aroundafter the fish was eatenfor an hour or sowith theother dogsof which there were fivescore and odd. Therewerefierce fighters among thembut three battles with thefiercestbrought Buck to masteryso that when he bristled andshowed histeeth they got out of his way.
Best ofallperhapshe loved to lie near the firehind legscrouchedunder himfore legs stretched out in fronthead raisedand eyesblinking dreamily at the flames. Sometimes he thought ofJudgeMiller's big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valleyandof thecement swimming-tankand Ysabelthe Mexican hairlessandTootstheJapanese pug; but oftener he remembered the man in theredsweaterthe death of Curlythe great fight with Spitzandthe goodthings he had eaten or would like to eat. He was nothomesick. The Sunland was very dim and distantand such memorieshad nopower over him. Far more potent were the memories of hishereditythat gave things he had never seen before a seemingfamiliarity;the instincts (which were but the memories of hisancestorsbecome habits) which had lapsed in later daysand stilllaterinhimquickened and become alive again.
Sometimesas he crouched thereblinking dreamily at the flamesit seemedthat the flames were of another fireand that as hecrouchedby this other fire he saw another and different man fromthehalf-breed cook before him. This other man was shorter of legand longerof armwith muscles that were stringy and knottyratherthan rounded and swelling. The hair of this man was longandmattedand his head slanted back under it from the eyes. Heutteredstrange soundsand seemed very much afraid of thedarknessinto which he peered continuallyclutching in his handwhich hungmidway between knee and foota stick with a heavystone madefast to the end. He was all but nakeda ragged andfire-scorchedskin hanging part way down his backbut on his bodythere wasmuch hair. In some placesacross the chest andshouldersand down the outside of the arms and thighsit wasmattedinto almost a thick fur. He did not stand erectbut withtrunkinclined forward from the hipson legs that bent at theknees. About his body there was a peculiar springinessorresiliencyalmost catlikeand a quick alertness as of one wholived inperpetual fear of things seen and unseen.
At othertimes this hairy man squatted by the fire with headbetweenhis legs and slept. On such occasions his elbows were onhis kneeshis hands clasped above his head as though to shed rainby thehairy arms. And beyond that firein the circlingdarknessBuck could see many gleaming coalstwo by twoalwaystwo bytwowhich he knew to be the eyes of great beasts of prey. And hecould hear the crashing of their bodies through theundergrowthand the noises they made in the night. And dreamingthere bythe Yukon bankwith lazy eyes blinking at the firethesesounds and sights of another world would make the hair torise alonghis back and stand on end across his shoulders and uphis necktill he whimpered low and suppressedlyor growledsoftlyand the half-breed cook shouted at him"Heyyou Buckwake up!"Whereupon the other world would vanish and the realworld comeinto his eyesand he would get up and yawn and stretchas thoughhe had been asleep.
It was ahard tripwith the mail behind themand the heavy workwore themdown. They were short of weight and in poor conditionwhen theymade Dawsonand should have had a ten days' or a week'srest atleast. But in two days' time they dropped down the Yukonbank fromthe Barracksloaded with letters for the outside. Thedogs weretiredthe drivers grumblingand to make matters worseit snowedevery day. This meant a soft trailgreater friction ontherunnersand heavier pulling for the dogs; yet the driverswere fairthrough it alland did their best for the animals.
Each nightthe dogs were attended to first. They ate before thedriversateand no man sought his sleeping-robe till he had seento thefeet of the dogs he drove. Stilltheir strength wentdown. Since the beginning of the winter they had travelledeighteenhundred milesdragging sleds the whole weary distance;andeighteen hundred miles will tell upon life of the toughest. Buck stooditkeeping his mates up to their work and maintainingdisciplinethough hetoowas very tired. Billee cried andwhimperedregularly in his sleep each night. Joe was sourer thaneverandSol-leks was unapproachableblind side or other side.
But it wasDave who suffered most of all. Something had gonewrong withhim. He became more morose and irritableand whencamp waspitched at once made his nestwhere his driver fed him. Once outof the harness and downhe did not get on his feet againtillharness-up time in the morning. Sometimesin the traceswhenjerked by a sudden stoppage of the sledor by straining tostart ithe would cry out with pain. The driver examined himbut couldfind nothing. All the drivers became interested in hiscase. They talked it over at meal-timeand over their last pipesbeforegoing to bedand one night they held a consultation. Hewasbrought from his nest to the fire and was pressed and proddedtill hecried out many times. Something was wrong insidebutthey couldlocate no broken bonescould not make it out.
By thetime Cassiar Bar was reachedhe was so weak that he wasfallingrepeatedly in the traces. The Scotch half-breed called ahalt andtook him out of the teammaking the next dogSol-leksfast tothe sled. His intention was to rest Daveletting him runfreebehind the sled. Sick as he wasDave resented being takenoutgrunting and growling while the traces were unfastenedandwhimperingbroken-heartedly when he saw Sol-leks in the positionhe hadheld and served so long. For the pride of trace and trailwas hisandsick unto deathhe could not bear that another dogshould dohis work.
When thesled startedhe floundered in the soft snow alongsidethe beatentrailattacking Sol-leks with his teethrushingagainsthim and trying to thrust him off into the soft snow on theothersidestriving to leap inside his traces and get between himand thesledand A the while whining and yelping and crying withgrief andpain. The half-breed tried to drive him away with thewhip; buthe paid no heed to the stinging lashand the man hadnot theheart to strike harder. Dave refused to run quietly on thetrailbehind the sledwhere the going was easybut continued toflounderalongside in the soft snowwhere the going was mostdifficulttill exhausted. Then he felland lay where he fellhowlinglugubriously as the long train of sleds churned by.
With thelast remnant of his strength he managed to stagger alongbehindtill the train made another stopwhen he floundered pastthe sledsto his ownwhere he stood alongside Sol-leks. Hisdriverlingered a moment to get a light for his pipe from the manbehind. Then he returned and started his dogs. They swung out onthe trailwith remarkable lack of exertionturned their headsuneasilyand stopped in surprise. The driver was surprisedtoo;the sledhad not moved. He called his comrades to witness thesight. Dave had bitten through both of Sol-leks's tracesand wasstandingdirectly in front of the sled in his proper place.
He pleadedwith his eyes to remain there. The driver wasperplexed. His comrades talked of how a dog could break its heartthroughbeing denied the work that killed itand recalledinstancesthey had knownwhere dogstoo old for the toilorinjuredhad died because they were cut out of the traces. Alsothey heldit a mercysince Dave was to die anywaythat he shoulddie in thetracesheart-easy and content. So he was harnessed inagainandproudly he pulled as of oldthough more than once hecried outinvoluntarily from the bite of his inward hurt. Severaltimes hefell down and was dragged in the tracesand once thesled ranupon him so that he limped thereafter in one of his hindlegs.
But heheld out till camp was reachedwhen his driver made aplace forhim by the fire. Morning found him too weak to travel. Atharness-up time he tried to crawl to his driver. By convulsiveefforts hegot on his feetstaggeredand fell. Then he wormedhis wayforward slowly toward where the harnesses were being puton hismates. He would advance his fore legs and drag up his bodywith asort of hitching movementwhen he would advance his forelegs andhitch ahead again for a few more inches. His strengthleft himand the last his mates saw of him he lay gasping in thesnow andyearning toward them. But they could hear him mournfullyhowlingtill they passed out of sight behind a belt of rivertimber.
Here thetrain was halted. The Scotch half-breed slowly retracedhis stepsto the camp they had left. The men ceased talking. Arevolver-shotrang out. The man came back hurriedly. The whipssnappedthe bells tinkled merrilythe sleds churned along thetrail; butBuck knewand every dog knewwhat had taken placebehind thebelt of river trees.
Thirtydays from the time it left Dawsonthe Salt Water Mailwith Buckand his mates at the forearrived at Skaguay. Theywere in awretched stateworn out and worn down. Buck's onehundredand forty pounds had dwindled to one hundred and fifteen. The restof his matesthough lighter dogshad relatively lostmoreweight than he. Pikethe malingererwhoin his lifetimeof deceithad often successfully feigned a hurt legwas nowlimping inearnest. Sol-leks was limpingand Dub was sufferingfrom awrenched shoulder-blade.
They wereall terribly footsore. No spring or rebound was left inthem. Their feet fell heavily on the trailjarring their bodiesanddoubting the fatigue of a day's travel. There was nothing thematterwith them except that they were dead tired. It was not thedead-tirednessthat comes through brief and excessive effortfromwhichrecovery is a matter of hours; but it was the dead-tirednessthat comesthrough the slow and prolonged strength drainage ofmonths oftoil. There was no power of recuperation leftnoreservestrength to call upon. It had been all usedthe lastleast bitof it. Every muscleevery fibreevery cellwastireddead tired. And there was reason for it. In less thanfivemonths they had travelled twenty-five hundred milesduringthe lasteighteen hundred of which they had had but five days'rest. When they arrived at Skaguay they were apparently on theirlastlegs. They could barely keep the traces tautand on thedowngrades just managed to keep out of the way of the sled.
"Mushonpoor sore feets" the driver encouraged them as theytottereddown the main street of Skaguay. "Dis is de las'. Den weget onelong res'. Eh? For sure. One bully long res'."
Thedrivers confidently expected a long stopover. Themselvesthey hadcovered twelve hundred miles with two days' restand inthe natureof reason and common justice they deserved an intervalofloafing. But so many were the men who had rushed into theKlondikeand so many were the sweetheartswivesand kin thathad notrushed inthat the congested mail was taking on Alpineproportions;alsothere were official orders. Fresh batches ofHudson Baydogs were to take the places of those worthless for thetrail. The worthless ones were to be got rid ofandsince dogscount forlittle against dollarsthey were to be sold.
Three dayspassedby which time Buck and his mates found howreallytired and weak they were. Thenon the morning of thefourthdaytwo men from the States came along and bought themharnessand allfor a song. The men addressed each other as"Hal"and "Charles." Charles was a middle-agedlightish-coloredmanwithweak and watery eyes and a mustache that twistedfiercelyand vigorously upgiving the lie to the limply droopinglip itconcealed. Hal was a youngster of nineteen or twentywitha bigColt's revolver and a hunting-knife strapped about him on abelt thatfairly bristled with cartridges. This belt was the mostsalientthing about him. It advertised his callowness--acallownesssheer and unutterable. Both men were manifestly out ofplaceandwhy such as they should adventure the North is part ofthemystery of things that passes understanding.
Buck heardthe chafferingsaw the money pass between the man andtheGovernment agentand knew that the Scotch half-breed and themail-traindrivers were passing out of his life on the heels ofPerraultand Francois and the others who had gone before. Whendrivenwith his mates to the new owners' campBuck saw a slipshodandslovenly affairtent half stretcheddishes unwashedeverythingin disorder; alsohe saw a woman. "Mercedes" the mencalledher. She was Charles's wife and Hal's sister--a nicefamilyparty.
Buckwatched them apprehensively as they proceeded to take downthe tentand load the sled. There was a great deal of effortabouttheir mannerbut no businesslike method. The tent wasrolledinto an awkward bundle three times as large as it shouldhavebeen. The tin dishes were packed away unwashed. Mercedescontinuallyfluttered in the way of her men and kept up anunbrokenchattering of remonstrance and advice. When they put aclothes-sackon the front of the sledshe suggested it should goon theback; and when they had put it on the backand covered itover witha couple of other bundlesshe discovered overlookedarticleswhich could abide nowhere else but in that very sackandtheyunloaded again.
Three menfrom a neighboring tent came out and looked ongrinningandwinking at one another.
"You'vegot a right smart load as it is" said one of them; "andit's notme should tell you your businessbut I wouldn't totethat tentalong if I was you."
"Undreamedof!" cried Mercedesthrowing up her hands in daintydismay. "However in the world could I manage without a tent?"
"It'sspringtimeand you won't get any more cold weather" themanreplied.
She shookher head decidedlyand Charles and Hal put the lastodds andends on top the mountainous load.
"Thinkit'll ride?" one of the men asked.
"Whyshouldn't it?" Charles demanded rather shortly.
"Ohthat's all rightthat's all right" the man hastened meeklyto say. "I was just a-wonderin'that is all. It seemed a mitetop-heavy."
Charlesturned his back and drew the lashings down as well as hecouldwhich was not in the least well.
"An'of course the dogs can hike along all day with thatcontraptionbehind them" affirmed a second of the men.
"Certainly"said Halwith freezing politenesstaking hold ofthegee-pole with one hand and swinging his whip from the other. "Mush!"he shouted. "Mush on there!"
The dogssprang against the breast-bandsstrained hard for a fewmomentsthen relaxed. They were unable to move the sled.
"Thelazy brutesI'll show them" he criedpreparing to lash outat themwith the whip.
ButMercedes interferedcrying"OhHalyou mustn't" as shecaughthold of the whip and wrenched it from him. "The poor dears!Now youmust promise you won't be harsh with them for the rest ofthe tripor I won't go a step."
"Preciouslot you know about dogs" her brother sneered; "and Iwish you'dleave me alone. They're lazyI tell youand you'vegot towhip them to get anything out of them. That's their way. You askany one. Ask one of those men."
Mercedeslooked at them imploringlyuntold repugnance at sight ofpainwritten in her pretty face.
"They'reweak as waterif you want to know" came the reply fromone of themen. "Plum tuckered outthat's what's the matter. They needa rest."
"Restbe blanked" said Halwith his beardless lips; and Mercedessaid"Oh!" in pain and sorrow at the oath.
But shewas a clannish creatureand rushed at once to the defenceof herbrother. "Never mind that man" she said pointedly. "You'redriving our dogsand you do what you think best withthem."
AgainHal's whip fell upon the dogs. They threw themselvesagainstthe breast-bandsdug their feet into the packed snowgotdown lowto itand put forth all their strength. The sled held asthough itwere an anchor. After two effortsthey stood stillpanting. The whip was whistling savagelywhen once more Mercedesinterfered. She dropped on her knees before Buckwith tears inher eyesand put her arms around his neck.
"Youpoorpoor dears" she cried sympathetically"why don'tyoupullhard?--then you wouldn't be whipped." Buck did not like herbut he wasfeeling too miserable to resist hertaking it as partof theday's miserable work.
One of theonlookerswho had been clenching his teeth to suppresshotspeechnow spoke up:--
"It'snot that I care a whoop what becomes of youbut for thedogs'sakes I just want to tell youyou can help them a mightylot bybreaking out that sled. The runners are froze fast. Throwyourweight against the gee-poleright and leftand break itout."
A thirdtime the attempt was madebut this timefollowing theadviceHal broke out the runners which had been frozen to thesnow. The overloaded and unwieldy sled forged aheadBuck and hismatesstruggling frantically under the rain of blows. A hundredyardsahead the path turned and sloped steeply into the mainstreet. It would have required an experienced man to keep thetop-heavysled uprightand Hal was not such a man. As they swungon theturn the sled went overspilling half its load through thelooselashings. The dogs never stopped. The lightened sledbounded onits side behind them. They were angry because of theilltreatment they had received and the unjust load. Buck wasraging. He broke into a runthe team following his lead. Halcried"Whoa! whoa!" but they gave no heed. He tripped andwaspulled offhis feet. The capsized sled ground over himand thedogsdashed on up the streetadding to the gayety of Skaguay astheyscattered the remainder of the outfit along its chiefthoroughfare.
Kind-heartedcitizens caught the dogs and gathered up thescatteredbelongings. Alsothey gave advice. Half the load andtwice thedogsif they ever expected to reach Dawsonwas whatwas said. Hal and his sister and brother-in-law listenedunwillinglypitched tentand overhauled the outfit. Canned goodswereturned out that made men laughfor canned goods on the LongTrail is athing to dream about. "Blankets for a hotel" quoth oneof the menwho laughed and helped. "Half as many is too much; getrid ofthem. Throw away that tentand all those dishes--who'sgoing towash themanyway? Good Lorddo you think you'retravellingon a Pullman?"
And so itwentthe inexorable elimination of the superfluous. Mercedescried when her clothes-bags were dumped on the ground andarticleafter article was thrown out. She cried in generalandshe criedin particular over each discarded thing. She claspedhandsabout kneesrocking back and forth broken-heartedly. Sheaverredshe would not go an inchnot for a dozen Charleses. Sheappealedto everybody and to everythingfinally wiping her eyesandproceeding to cast out even articles of apparel that wereimperativenecessaries. And in her zealwhen she had finishedwith herownshe attacked the belongings of her men and wentthroughthem like a tornado.
Thisaccomplishedthe outfitthough cut in halfwas still aformidablebulk. Charles and Hal went out in the evening andbought sixOutside dogs. Theseadded to the six of the originalteamandTeek and Koonathe huskies obtained at the Rink Rapidson therecord tripbrought the team up to fourteen. But theOutsidedogsthough practically broken in since their landingdid notamount to much. Three were short-haired pointersone wasaNewfoundlandand the other two were mongrels of indeterminatebreed. They did not seem to know anythingthese newcomers. Buckand hiscomrades looked upon them with disgustand though hespeedilytaught them their places and what not to dohe could notteach themwhat to do. They did not take kindly to trace andtrail. With the exception of the two mongrelsthey werebewilderedand spirit-broken by the strange savage environment inwhich theyfound themselves and by the ill treatment they hadreceived. The two mongrels were without spirit at all; bones werethe onlythings breakable about them.
With thenewcomers hopeless and forlornand the old team worn outbytwenty-five hundred miles of continuous trailthe outlook wasanythingbut bright. The two menhoweverwere quite cheerful. And theywere proudtoo. They were doing the thing in stylewithfourteendogs. They had seen other sleds depart over the Pass forDawsonorcome in from Dawsonbut never had they seen a sledwith somany as fourteen dogs. In the nature of Arctic travelthere wasa reason why fourteen dogs should not drag one sledandthat wasthat one sled could not carry the food for fourteen dogs. ButCharles and Hal did not know this. They had worked the tripout with apencilso much to a dogso many dogsso many daysQ.E.D. Mercedes looked over their shoulders and noddedcomprehensivelyit was all so very simple.
Late nextmorning Buck led the long team up the street. There wasnothinglively about itno snap or go in him and his fellows. They werestarting dead weary. Four times he had covered thedistancebetween Salt Water and Dawsonand the knowledge thatjaded andtiredhe was facing the same trail once moremade himbitter. His heart was not in the worknor was the heart of anydog. The Outsides were timid and frightenedthe Insides withoutconfidencein their masters.
Buck feltvaguely that there was no depending upon these two menand thewoman. They did not know how to do anythingand as thedays wentby it became apparent that they could not learn. Theywere slackin all thingswithout order or discipline. It tookthem halfthe night to pitch a slovenly campand half the morningto breakthat camp and get the sled loaded in fashion so slovenlythat forthe rest of the day they were occupied in stopping andrearrangingthe load. Some days they did not make ten miles. Onother daysthey were unable to get started at all. And on no daydid theysucceed in making more than half the distance used by themen as abasis in their dog-food computation.
It wasinevitable that they should go short on dog-food. But theyhastenedit by overfeedingbringing the day nearer whenunderfeedingwould commence. The Outside dogswhose digestionshad notbeen trained by chronic famine to make the most of littlehadvoracious appetites. And whenin addition to thisthe worn-outhuskies pulled weaklyHal decided that the orthodox rationwas toosmall. He doubled it. And to cap it allwhen Mercedeswith tearsin her pretty eyes and a quaver in her throatcouldnot cajolehim into giving the dogs still moreshe stole from thefish-sacksand fed them slyly. But it was not food that Buck andthehuskies neededbut rest. And though they were making poortimetheheavy load they dragged sapped their strength severely.
Then camethe underfeeding. Hal awoke one day to the fact thathisdog-food was half gone and the distance only quarter covered;furtherthat for love or money no additional dog-food was to beobtained. So he cut down even the orthodox ration and tried toincreasethe day's travel. His sister and brother-in-law secondedhim; butthey were frustrated by their heavy outfit and their ownincompetence. It was a simple matter to give the dogs less food;but it wasimpossible to make the dogs travel fasterwhile theirowninability to get under way earlier in the morning preventedthem fromtravelling longer hours. Not only did they not know howto workdogsbut they did not know how to work themselves.
The firstto go was Dub. Poor blundering thief that he wasalwaysgetting caught and punishedhe had none the less been afaithfulworker. His wrenched shoulder-bladeuntreated andunrestedwent from bad to worsetill finally Hal shot him withthe bigColt's revolver. It is a saying of the country that anOutsidedog starves to death on the ration of the huskyso thesixOutside dogs under Buck could do no less than die on half theration ofthe husky. The Newfoundland went firstfollowed by thethreeshort-haired pointersthe two mongrels hanging moregrittilyon to lifebut going in the end.
By thistime all the amenities and gentlenesses of the Southlandhad fallenaway from the three people. Shorn of its glamour andromanceArctic travel became to them a reality too harsh fortheirmanhood and womanhood. Mercedes ceased weeping over thedogsbeing too occupied with weeping over herself and withquarrellingwith her husband and brother. To quarrel was the onething theywere never too weary to do. Their irritability aroseout oftheir miseryincreased with itdoubled upon itoutdistancedit. The wonderful patience of the trail which comesto men whotoil hard and suffer soreand remain sweet of speechandkindlydid not come to these two men and the woman. They hadno inklingof such a patience. They were stiff and in pain; theirmusclesachedtheir bones achedtheir very hearts ached; andbecause ofthis they became sharp of speechand hard words werefirst ontheir lips in the morning and last at night.
Charlesand Hal wrangled whenever Mercedes gave them a chance. Itwas thecherished belief of each that he did more than his shareof theworkand neither forbore to speak this belief at everyopportunity. Sometimes Mercedes sided with her husbandsometimeswith herbrother. The result was a beautiful and unending familyquarrel. Starting from a dispute as to which should chop a fewsticks forthe fire (a dispute which concerned only Charles andHal)presently would be lugged in the rest of the familyfathersmothersunclescousinspeople thousands of miles awayand someof them dead. That Hal's views on artor the sort ofsocietyplays his mother's brother wroteshould have anything todo withthe chopping of a few sticks of firewoodpassescomprehension;nevertheless the quarrel was as likely to tend inthatdirection as in the direction of Charles's politicalprejudices.And that Charles's sister's tale-bearing tongue shouldberelevant to the building of a Yukon firewas apparent only toMercedeswho disburdened herself of copious opinions upon thattopicandincidentally upon a few other traits unpleasantlypeculiarto her husband's family. In the meantime the fireremainedunbuiltthe camp half pitchedand the dogs unfed.
Mercedesnursed a special grievance--the grievance of sex. She waspretty andsoftand had been chivalrously treated all her days. But thepresent treatment by her husband and brother waseverythingsave chivalrous. It was her custom to be helpless. Theycomplained. Upon which impeachment of what to her was hermostessential sex-prerogativeshe made their lives unendurable. She nolonger considered the dogsand because she was sore andtiredshepersisted in riding on the sled. She was pretty andsoftbutshe weighed one hundred and twenty pounds--a lusty laststraw tothe load dragged by the weak and starving animals. Sherode fordaystill they fell in the traces and the sled stoodstill. Charles and Hal begged her to get off and walkpleadedwith herentreatedthe while she wept and importuned Heaven witha recitalof their brutality.
On oneoccasion they took her off the sled by main strength. Theynever didit again. She let her legs go limp like a spoiledchildandsat down on the trail. They went on their waybut shedid notmove. After they had travelled three miles they unloadedthe sledcame back for herand by main strength put her on thesledagain.
In theexcess of their own misery they were callous to thesufferingof their animals. Hal's theorywhich he practised onotherswas that one must get hardened. He had started outpreachingit to his sister and brother-in-law. Failing therehehammeredit into the dogs with a club. At the Five Fingers thedog-foodgave outand a toothless old squaw offered to trade thema fewpounds of frozen horse-hide for the Colt's revolver thatkept thebig hunting-knife company at Hal's hip. A poor substitutefor foodwas this hidejust as it had been stripped from thestarvedhorses of the cattlemen six months back. In its frozenstate itwas more like strips of galvanized ironand when a dogwrestledit into his stomach it thawed into thin and innutritiousleatherystrings and into a mass of short hairirritating andindigestible.
Andthrough it all Buck staggered along at the head of the team asin anightmare. He pulled when he could; when he could no longerpullhefell down and remained down till blows from whip or clubdrove himto his feet again. All the stiffness and gloss had goneout of hisbeautiful furry coat. The hair hung downlimp anddraggledor matted with dried blood where Hal's club had bruisedhim. His muscles had wasted away to knotty stringsand the fleshpads haddisappearedso that each rib and every bone in his framewereoutlined cleanly through the loose hide that was wrinkled infolds ofemptiness. It was heartbreakingonly Buck's heart wasunbreakable. The man in the red sweater had proved that.
As it waswith Buckso was it with his mates. They wereperambulatingskeletons. There were seven all togetherincludinghim. In their very great misery they had become insensible to thebite ofthe lash or the bruise of the club. The pain of thebeatingwas dull and distantjust as the things their eyes sawand theirears heard seemed dull and distant. They were not halflivingorquarter living. They were simply so many bags of bonesin whichsparks of life fluttered faintly. When a halt was madetheydropped down in the traces like dead dogsand the sparkdimmed andpaled and seemed to go out. And when the club or whipfell uponthemthe spark fluttered feebly upand they totteredto theirfeet and staggered on.
There camea day when Billeethe good-naturedfell and could notrise. Hal had traded off his revolverso he took the axe andknockedBillee on the head as he lay in the tracesthen cut thecarcassout of the harness and dragged it to one side. Buck sawand hismates sawand they knew that this thing was very close tothem. On the next day Koona wentand but five of them remained:Joetoofar gone to be malignant; Pikecrippled and limpingonly halfconscious and not conscious enough longer to malinger;Sol-leksthe one-eyedstill faithful to the toil of trace andtrailandmournful in that he had so little strength with whichto pull;Teekwho had not travelled so far that winter and whowas nowbeaten more than the others because he was fresher; andBuckstill at the head of the teambut no longer enforcingdisciplineor striving to enforce itblind with weakness half thetime andkeeping the trail by the loom of it and by the dim feelof hisfeet.
It wasbeautiful spring weatherbut neither dogs nor humans wereaware ofit. Each day the sun rose earlier and set later. It wasdawn bythree in the morningand twilight lingered till nine atnight. The whole long day was a blaze of sunshine. The ghostlywintersilence had given way to the great spring murmur ofawakeninglife. This murmur arose from all the landfraught withthe joy ofliving. It came from the things that lived and movedagainthings which had been as dead and which had not movedduring thelong months of frost. The sap was rising in the pines. Thewillows and aspens were bursting out in young buds. Shrubsand vineswere putting on fresh garbs of green. Crickets sang inthenightsand in the days all manner of creepingcrawlingthingsrustled forth into the sun. Partridges and woodpeckerswerebooming and knocking in the forest. Squirrels werechatteringbirds singingand overhead honked the wild-fowldriving upfrom the south in cunning wedges that split the air.
From everyhill slope came the trickle of running waterthe musicof unseenfountains. AU things were thawingbendingsnapping. The Yukonwas straining to break loose the ice that bound it down. It ateaway from beneath; the sun ate from above. Air-holesformedfissures sprang and spread apartwhile thin sections ofice fellthrough bodily into the river. And amid all thisburstingrendingthrobbing of awakening lifeunder the blazingsun andthrough the soft-sighing breezeslike wayfarers to deathstaggeredthe two menthe womanand the huskies.
With thedogs fallingMercedes weeping and ridingHal swearinginnocuouslyand Charles's eyes wistfully wateringthey staggeredinto JohnThornton's camp at the mouth of White River. When theyhaltedthe dogs dropped down as though they had all been struckdead. Mercedes dried her eyes and looked at John Thornton. Charlessat down on a log to rest. He sat down very slowly andpainstakinglywhat of his great stiffness. Hal did the talking. JohnThornton was whittling the last touches on an axe-handle hehad madefrom a stick of birch. He whittled and listenedgavemonosyllabic repliesandwhen it was askedterse advice. He knewthe breedand he gave his advice in the certainty that itwould notbe followed.
"Theytold us up above that the bottom was dropping out of thetrail andthat the best thing for us to do was to lay over" Halsaid inresponse to Thornton's warning to take no more chances onthe rottenice. "They told us we couldn't make White Riverandhere weare." This last with a sneering ring of triumph in it.
"Andthey told you true" John Thornton answered. "Thebottom'slikely todrop out at any moment. Only foolswith the blind luckof foolscould have made it. I tell you straightI wouldn'trisk mycarcass on that ice for all the gold in Alaska."
"That'sbecause you're not a foolI suppose" said Hal. "All thesamewe'll go on to Dawson." He uncoiled his whip. "Get upthereBuck! Hi!Get up there! Mush on!"
Thorntonwent on whittling. It was idlehe knewto get betweena fool andhis folly; while two or three fools more or less wouldnot alterthe scheme of things.
But theteam did not get up at the command. It had long sincepassedinto the stage where blows were required to rouse it. Thewhipflashed outhere and thereon its merciless errands. JohnThorntoncompressed his lips. Sol-leks was the first to crawl tohis feet. Teek followed. Joe came nextyelping with pain. Pikemadepainful efforts. Twice he fell overwhen half upand onthe thirdattempt managed to rise. Buck made no effort. He layquietlywhere he had fallen. The lash bit into him again andagainbuthe neither whined nor struggled. Several timesThorntonstartedas though to speakbut changed his mind. Amoisturecame into his eyesandas the whipping continuedhearose andwalked irresolutely up and down.
This wasthe first time Buck had failedin itself a sufficientreason todrive Hal into a rage. He exchanged the whip for thecustomaryclub. Buck refused to move under the rain of heavierblowswhich now fell upon him. Like his mateshe barely able toget upbutunlike themhe had made up his mind not to get up. He had avague feeling of impending doom. This had been strongupon himwhen he pulled in to the bankand it had not departedfrom him. What of the thin and rotten ice he had felt under hisfeet alldayit seemed that he sensed disaster close at handoutthereahead on the ice where his master was trying to drive him. He refusedto stir. So greatly had he sufferedand so far gonewas hethat the blows did not hurt much. And as they continuedto fallupon himthe spark of life within flickered and wentdown. It was nearly out. He felt strangely numb. As though froma greatdistancehe was aware that he was being beaten. The lastsensationsof pain left him. He no longer felt anythingthoughveryfaintly he could hear the impact of the club upon his body. But it wasno longer his bodyit seemed so far away.
And thensuddenlywithout warninguttering a cry that wasinarticulateand more like the cry of an animalJohn Thorntonsprangupon the man who wielded the club. Hal was hurledbackwardas though struck by a failing tree. Mercedes screamed. Charleslooked on wistfullywiped his watery eyesbut did notget upbecause of his stiffness.
JohnThornton stood over Buckstruggling to control himselftooconvulsedwith rage to speak.
"Ifyou strike that dog againI'll kill you" he at last managedto say ina choking voice.
"It'smy dog" Hal repliedwiping the blood from his mouth as hecameback. "Get out of my wayor I'll fix you. I'm going toDawson."
Thorntonstood between him and Buckand evinced no intention ofgettingout of the way. Hal drew his long hunting-knife. Mercedesscreamed. criedlaughedand manifested the chaoticabandonmentof hysteria. Thornton rapped Hal's knuckles with theaxe-handleknocking the knife to the ground. He rapped hisknucklesagain as he tried to pick it up. Then he stoopedpickedit uphimselfand with two strokes cut Buck's traces.
Hal had nofight left in him. Besideshis hands were full withhissisteror his armsrather; while Buck was too near dead tobe offurther use in hauling the sled. A few minutes later theypulled outfrom the bank and down the river. Buck heard them goand raisedhis head to seePike was leadingSol-leks was at thewheelandbetween were Joe and Teek. They were limping andstaggering. Mercedes was riding the loaded sled. Hal guided atthegee-poleand Charles stumbled along in the rear.
As Buckwatched themThornton knelt beside him and with roughkindlyhands searched for broken bones. By the time his searchhaddisclosed nothing more than many bruises and a state ofterriblestarvationthe sled was a quarter of a mile away. Dogand manwatched it crawling along over the ice. Suddenlytheysaw itsback end drop downas into a rutand the gee-polewithHalclinging to itjerk into the air. Mercedes's scream came totheirears. They saw Charles turn and make one step to run backand then awhole section of ice give way and dogs and humansdisappear. A yawning hole was all that was to be seen. Thebottom haddropped out of the trail.
JohnThornton and Buck looked at each other.
"Youpoor devil" said John Thorntonand Buck licked his hand.
When JohnThornton froze his feet in the previous December hispartnershad made him comfortable and left him to get wellgoingonthemselves up the river to get out a raft of saw-logs forDawson. He was still limping slightly at the time he rescuedBuckbutwith the continued warm weather even the slight limpleft him. And herelying by the river bank through the longspringdayswatching the running waterlistening lazily to thesongs ofbirds and the hum of natureBuck slowly won back hisstrength.
A restcomes very good after one has travelled three thousandmilesandit must be confessed that Buck waxed lazy as his woundshealedhis muscles swelled outand the flesh came back to coverhisbones. For that matterthey were all loafing--BuckJohnThorntonand Skeet and Nig--waiting for the raft to come thatwas tocarry them down to Dawson. Skeet was a little Irish setterwho earlymade friends with Buckwhoin a dying conditionwasunable toresent her first advances. She had the doctor traitwhich somedogs possess; and as a mother cat washes her kittensso shewashed and cleansed Buck's wounds. Regularlyeach morningafter hehad finished his breakfastshe performed her self-appointedtasktill he came to look for her ministrations as muchas he didfor Thornton's. Nigequally friendlythough lessdemonstrativewas a huge black doghalf bloodhound and halfdeerhoundwith eyes that laughed and a boundless good nature.
To Buck'ssurprise these dogs manifested no jealousy toward him. Theyseemed to share the kindliness and largeness of JohnThornton. As Buck grew stronger they enticed him into all sortsofridiculous gamesin which Thornton himself could not forbearto join;and in this fashion Buck romped through his convalescenceand into anew existence. Lovegenuine passionate lovewas hisfor thefirst time. This he had never experienced at JudgeMiller'sdown in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley. With theJudge'ssonshunting and trampingit had been a workingpartnership;with the Judge's grandsonsa sort of pompousguardianship;and with the Judge himselfa stately and dignifiedfriendship. But love that was feverish and burningthat wasadorationthat was madnessit had taken John Thornton to arouse.
This manhad saved his lifewhich was something; butfurtherhewas theideal master. Other men saw to the welfare of their dogsfrom asense of duty and business expediency; he saw to thewelfare ofhis as if they were his own childrenbecause he couldnot helpit. And he saw further. He never forgot a kindlygreetingor a cheering wordand to sit down for a long talk withthem("gas" he called it) was as much his delight as theirs. Hehad a wayof taking Buck's head roughly between his handsandrestinghis own head upon Buck'sof shaking him back and forththe whilecalling him ill names that to Buck were love names. Buck knewno greater joy than that rough embrace and the sound ofmurmuredoathsand at each jerk back and forth it seemed that hisheartwould be shaken out of his body so great was its ecstasy. And whenreleasedhe sprang to his feethis mouth laughinghiseyeseloquenthis throat vibrant with unuttered soundand inthatfashion remained without movementJohn Thornton wouldreverentlyexclaim"God! you can all but speak!"
Buck had atrick of love expression that was akin to hurt. Hewouldoften seize Thornton's hand in his mouth and close sofiercelythat the flesh bore the impress of his teeth for sometimeafterward. And as Buck understood the oaths to be lovewordssothe man understood this feigned bite for a caress.
For themost parthoweverBuck's love was expressed inadoration. While he went wild with happiness when Thorntontouchedhim or spoke to himhe did not seek these tokens. UnlikeSkeetwhowas wont to shove her nose under Thornton's hand andnudge andnudge till pettedor Nigwho would stalk up and resthis greathead on Thornton's kneeBuck was content to adore at adistance. He would lie by the houreageralertat Thornton'sfeetlooking up into his facedwelling upon itstudying itfollowingwith keenest interest each fleeting expressioneverymovementor change of feature. Oras chance might have ithewould liefarther awayto the side or rearwatching the outlinesof the manand the occasional movements of his body. And oftensuch wasthe communion in which they livedthe strength of Buck'sgaze woulddraw John Thornton's head aroundand he would returnthe gazewithout speechhis heart shining out of his eyes asBuck'sheart shone out.
For a longtime after his rescueBuck did not like Thornton toget out ofhis sight. From the moment he left the tent to when heentered itagainBuck would follow at his heels. His transientmasterssince he had come into the Northland had bred in him afear thatno master could be permanent. He was afraid thatThorntonwould pass out of his life as Perrault and Francois andthe Scotchhalf-breed had passed out. Even in the nightin hisdreamshewas haunted by this fear. At such times he would shakeoff sleepand creep through the chill to the flap of the tentwhere hewould stand and listen to the sound of his master'sbreathing.
But inspite of this great love he bore John Thorntonwhichseemed tobespeak the soft civilizing influencethe strain of theprimitivewhich the Northland had aroused in himremained aliveandactive. Faithfulness and devotionthings born of fire androofwerehis; yet he retained his wildness and wiliness. He wasa thing ofthe wildcome in from the wild to sit by JohnThornton'sfirerather than a dog of the soft Southland stampedwith themarks of generations of civilization. Because of hisvery greatlovehe could not steal from this manbut from anyother manin any other camphe did not hesitate an instant;while thecunning with which he stole enabled him to escapedetection.
His faceand body were scored by the teeth of many dogsand hefought asfiercely as ever and more shrewdly. Skeet and Nig weretoogood-natured for quarrelling--besidesthey belonged to JohnThornton;but the strange dogno matter what the breed or valorswiftlyacknowledged Buck's supremacy or found himself strugglingfor lifewith a terrible antagonist. And Buck was merciless. Hehadlearned well the law of club and fangand he never forewentanadvantage or drew back from a foe he had started on the way toDeath. He had lessoned from Spitzand from the chief fightingdogs ofthe police and mailand knew there was no middle course.He mustmaster or be mastered; while to show mercy was a weakness. Mercy didnot exist in the primordial life. It was misunderstoodfor fearand such misunderstandings made for death. Kill or bekilledeat or be eatenwas the law; and this mandatedown outof thedepths of Timehe obeyed.
He wasolder than the days he had seen and the breaths he haddrawn. He linked the past with the presentand the eternitybehind himthrobbed through him in a mighty rhythm to which heswayed asthe tides and seasons swayed. He sat by John Thornton'sfireabroad-breasted dogwhite-fanged and long-furred; butbehind himwere the shades of all manner of dogshalf-wolves andwildwolvesurgent and promptingtasting the savor of the meathe atethirsting for the water he drankscenting the wind withhimlistening with him and telling him the sounds made by thewild lifein the forestdictating his moodsdirecting hisactionslying down to sleep with him when he lay downanddreamingwith him and beyond him and becoming themselves the stuffof hisdreams.
Soperemptorily did these shades beckon himthat each day mankindand theclaims of mankind slipped farther from him. Deep in theforest acall was soundingand as often as he heard this callmysteriouslythrilling and luringhe felt compelled to turn hisback uponthe fire and the beaten earth around itand to plungeinto theforestand on and onhe knew not where or why; nor didhe wonderwhere or whythe call sounding imperiouslydeep in theforest. But as often as he gained the soft unbroken earth and thegreenshadethe love for John Thornton drew him back to the fireagain.
Thorntonalone held him. The rest of mankind was as nothing. Chancetravellers might praise or pet him; but he was cold underit alland from a too demonstrative man he would get up and walkaway. When Thornton's partnersHans and Petearrived on thelong-expectedraftBuck refused to notice them till he learnedthey wereclose to Thornton; after that he tolerated them in apassivesort of wayaccepting favors from them as though hefavoredthem by accepting. They were of the same large type asThorntonliving close to the earththinking simply and seeingclearly;and ere they swung the raft into the big eddy by the saw-mill atDawsonthey understood Buck and his waysand did notinsistupon an intimacy such as obtained with Skeet and Nig.
ForThorntonhoweverhis love seemed to grow and grow. Healoneamong mencould put a pack upon Buck's back in the summertravelling. Nothing was too great for Buck to dowhen Thorntoncommanded. One day (they had grub-staked themselves from theproceedsof the raft and left Dawson for the head-waters of theTanana)the men and dogs were sitting on the crest of a cliffwhich fellawaystraight downto naked bed-rock three hundredfeetbelow. John Thornton was sitting near the edgeBuck at hisshoulder. A thoughtless whim seized Thorntonand he drew theattentionof Hans and Pete to the experiment he had in mind. "JumpBuck!" he commandedsweeping his arm out and over thechasm. The next instant he was grappling with Buck on the extremeedgewhile Hans and Pete were dragging them back into safety.
"It'suncanny" Pete saidafter it was over and they had caughttheirspeech.
Thorntonshook his head. "Noit is splendidand it is terribletoo. Do you knowit sometimes makes me afraid."
"I'mnot hankering to be the man that lays hands on you while he'saround"Pete announced conclusivelynodding his head towardBuck.
"PyJingo!" was Hans's contribution. "Not mineselfeither."
It was atCircle Cityere the year was outthat Pete'sapprehensionswere realized. "Black" Burtona man evil-temperedandmalicioushad been picking a quarrel with a tenderfoot at thebarwhenThornton stepped good-naturedly between. Buckas washiscustomwas lying in a cornerhead on pawswatching hismaster'severy action. Burton struck outwithout warningstraightfrom the shoulder. Thornton was sent spinningand savedhimselffrom falling only by clutching the rail of the bar.
Those whowere looking on heard what was neither bark nor yelpbut asomething which is best described as a roarand they sawBuck'sbody rise up in the air as he left the floor for Burton'sthroat. The man saved his life by instinctively throwing out hisarmbutwas hurled backward to the floor with Buck on top of him. Buckloosed his teeth from the flesh of the arm and drove in againfor thethroat. This time the man succeeded only in partlyblockingand his throat was torn open. Then the crowd was uponBuckandhe was driven off; but while a surgeon checked thebleedinghe prowled up and downgrowling furiouslyattemptingto rushinand being forced back by an array of hostile clubs. A"miners'meeting" called on the spotdecided that the dog hadsufficientprovocationand Buck was discharged. But hisreputationwas madeand from that day his name spread throughevery campin Alaska.
Later onin the fall of the yearhe saved John Thornton's lifein quiteanother fashion. The three partners were lining a longand narrowpoling-boat down a bad stretch of rapids on the Forty-MileCreek. Hans and Pete moved along the banksnubbing with athinManila rope from tree to treewhile Thornton remained in theboathelping its descent by means of a poleand shoutingdirectionsto the shore. Buckon the bankworried and anxiouskeptabreast of the boathis eyes never off his master.
At aparticularly bad spotwhere a ledge of barely submergedrocksjutted out into the riverHans cast off the ropeandwhileThornton poled the boat out into the streamran down thebank withthe end in his hand to snub the boat when it had clearedtheledge. This it didand was flying down-stream in a currentas swiftas a mill-racewhen Hans checked it with the rope andcheckedtoo suddenly. The boat flirted over and snubbed in to thebankbottom upwhile Thorntonflung sheer out of itwas carrieddown-streamtoward the worst part of the rapidsa stretch of wildwater inwhich no swimmer could live.
Buck hadsprung in on the instant; and at the end of three hundredyardsamid a mad swirl of waterhe overhauled Thornton. When hefelt himgrasp his tailBuck headed for the bankswimming withall hissplendid strength. But the progress shoreward was slow;theprogress down-stream amazingly rapid. From below came thefatalroaring where the wild current went wilder and was rent inshreds andspray by the rocks which thrust through like the teethof anenormous comb. The suck of the water as it took thebeginningof the last steep pitch was frightfuland Thornton knewthat theshore was impossible. He scraped furiously over a rockbruisedacross a secondand struck a third with crushing force. Heclutched its slippery top with both handsreleasing Buckandabove theroar of the churning water shouted: "GoBuck! Go!"
Buck couldnot hold his ownand swept on down-streamstrugglingdesperatelybut unable to win back. When he heard Thornton'scommandrepeatedhe partly reared out of the waterthrowing hishead highas though for a last lookthen turned obedientlytoward thebank. He swam powerfully and was dragged ashore byPete andHans at the very point where swimming ceased to bepossibleand destruction began.
They knewthat the time a man could cling to a slippery rock inthe faceof that driving current was a matter of minutesand theyran asfast as they could up the bank to a point far above whereThorntonwas hanging on. They attached the line with which theyhad beensnubbing the boat to Buck's neck and shouldersbeingcarefulthat it should neither strangle him nor impede hisswimmingand launched him into the stream. He struck out boldlybut notstraight enough into the stream. He discovered themistaketoo latewhen Thornton was abreast of him and a barehalf-dozenstrokes away while he was being carried helplesslypast.
Hanspromptly snubbed with the ropeas though Buck were a boat. The ropethus tightening on him in the sweep of the currenthewas jerkedunder the surfaceand under the surface he remainedtill hisbody struck against the bank and he was hauled out. Hewas halfdrownedand Hans and Pete threw themselves upon himpoundingthe breath into him and the water out of him. Hestaggeredto his feet and fell down. The faint sound ofThornton'svoice came to themand though they could not make outthe wordsof itthey knew that he was in his extremity. Hismaster'svoice acted on Buck like an electric shockHe sprang tohis feetand ran up the bank ahead of the men to the point of hispreviousdeparture.
Again therope was attached and he was launchedand again hestruckoutbut this time straight into the stream. He hadmiscalculatedoncebut he would not be guilty of it a secondtime. Hans paid out the ropepermitting no slackwhile Petekept itclear of coils. Buck held on till he was on a linestraightabove Thornton; then he turnedand with the speed of anexpresstrain headed down upon him. Thornton saw him comingandas Buckstruck him like a battering ramwith the whole force ofthecurrent behind himhe reached up and closed with both armsaround theshaggy neck. Hans snubbed the rope around the treeand Buckand Thornton were jerked under the water. Stranglingsuffocatingsometimes one uppermost and sometimes the otherdraggingover the jagged bottomsmashing against rocks and snagstheyveered in to the bank.
Thorntoncame tobelly downward and being violently propelledback andforth across a drift log by Hans and Pete. His firstglance wasfor Buckover whose limp and apparently lifeless bodyNig wassetting up a howlwhile Skeet was licking the wet faceand closedeyes. Thornton was himself bruised and batteredandhe wentcarefully over Buck's bodywhen he had been broughtaroundfinding three broken ribs.
"Thatsettles it" he announced. "We camp right here."And campthey didtill Buck's ribs knitted and he was able to travel.
Thatwinterat DawsonBuck performed another exploitnot soheroicperhapsbut one that put his name many notches higher onthetotem-pole of Alaskan fame. This exploit was particularlygratifyingto the three men; for they stood in need of the outfitwhich itfurnishedand were enabled to make a long-desired tripinto thevirgin Eastwhere miners had not yet appeared. It wasbroughtabout by a conversation in the Eldorado Saloonin whichmen waxedboastful of their favorite dogs. Buckbecause of hisrecordwas the target for these menand Thornton was drivenstoutly todefend him. At the end of half an hour one man statedthat hisdog could start a sled with five hundred pounds and walkoff withit; a second bragged six hundred for his dog; and athirdseven hundred.
"Pooh!pooh!" said John Thornton; "Buck can start a thousand pounds."
"Andbreak it out? and walk off with it for a hundred yards?"demandedMatthewsona Bonanza Kinghe of the seven hundredvaunt.
"Andbreak it outand walk off with it for a hundred yards" JohnThorntonsaid coolly.
"Well"Matthewson saidslowly and deliberatelyso that allcouldhear"I've got a thousand dollars that says he can't. Andthere itis." So sayinghe slammed a sack of gold dust of thesize of abologna sausage down upon the bar.
Nobodyspoke. Thornton's bluffif bluff it washad been called. He couldfeel a flush of warm blood creeping up his face. Histongue hadtricked him. He did not know whether Buck could starta thousandpounds. Half a ton! The enormousness of it appalledhim. He had great faith in Buck's strength and had often thoughthimcapable of starting such a load; but neveras nowhad hefaced thepossibility of itthe eyes of a dozen men fixed uponhimsilent and waiting. Furtherhe had no thousand dollars; norhad Hansor Pete.
"I'vegot a sled standing outside nowwith twenty fiftypoundsacks offlour on it" Matthewson went on with brutal directness;"sodon't let that hinder you."
Thorntondid not reply. He did not know what to say. He glancedfrom faceto face in the absent way of a man who has lost thepower ofthought and is seeking somewhere to find the thing thatwill startit going again. The face of Jim O'Briena MastodonKing andold-time comradecaught his eyes. It was as a cue tohimseeming to rouse him to do what he would never have dreamedof doing.
"Canyou lend me a thousand?" he askedalmost in a whisper.
"Sure"answered O'Brienthumping down a plethoric sack by theside ofMatthewson's. "Though it's little faith I'm havingJohnthat thebeast can do the trick."
TheEldorado emptied its occupants into the street to see thetest. The tables were desertedand the dealers and gamekeeperscame forthto see the outcome of the wager and to lay odds. Severalhundred menfurred and mittenedbanked around the sledwithineasy distance. Matthewson's sledloaded with a thousandpounds offlourhad been standing for a couple of hoursand intheintense cold (it was sixty below zero) the runners had frozenfast tothe hard-packed snow. Men offered odds of two to one thatBuck couldnot budge the sled. A quibble arose concerning thephrase"break out." O'Brien contended it was Thornton's privilegeto knockthe runners looseleaving Buck to "break it out" from adeadstandstill. Matthewson insisted that the phrase includedbreakingthe runners from the frozen grip of the snow. A majorityof the menwho had witnessed the making of the bet decided in hisfavorwhereat the odds went up to three to one against Buck.
There wereno takers. Not a man believed him capable of the feat. Thorntonhad been hurried into the wagerheavy with doubt; andnow thathe looked at the sled itselfthe concrete factwith theregularteam of ten dogs curled up in the snow before itthe moreimpossiblethe task appeared. Matthewson waxed jubilant.
"Threeto one!" he proclaimed. "I'll lay you anotherthousand atthatfigureThornton. What d'ye say?"
Thornton'sdoubt was strong in his facebut his fighting spiritwasaroused--the fighting spirit that soars above oddsfails torecognizethe impossibleand is deaf to all save the clamor forbattle. He called Hans and Pete to him. Their sacks were slimand withhis own the three partners could rake together only twohundreddollars. In the ebb of their fortunesthis sum was theirtotalcapital; yet they laid it unhesitatingly againstMatthewson'ssix hundred.
The teamof ten dogs was unhitchedand Buckwith his ownharnesswas put into the sled. He had caught the contagion oftheexcitementand he felt that in some way he must do a greatthing forJohn Thornton. Murmurs of admiration at his splendidappearancewent up. He was in perfect conditionwithout an ounceofsuperfluous fleshand the one hundred and fifty pounds that heweighedwere so many pounds of grit and virility. His furry coatshone withthe sheen of silk. Down the neck and across theshouldershis manein repose as it washalf bristled and seemedto liftwith every movementas though excess of vigor made eachparticularhair alive and active. The great breast and heavy forelegs wereno more than in proportion with the rest of the bodywhere themuscles showed in tight rolls underneath the skin. Menfelt thesemuscles and proclaimed them hard as ironand the oddswent downto two to one.
"Gadsir! Gadsir!" stuttered a member of the latest dynastyaking ofthe Skookum Benches. "I offer you eight hundred for himsirbefore the testsir; eight hundred just as he stands."
Thorntonshook his head and stepped to Buck's side.
"Youmust stand off from him" Matthewson protested. "Free playand plentyof room."
The crowdfell silent; only could be heard the voices of thegamblersvainly offering two to one. Everybody acknowledged Buckamagnificent animalbut twenty fifty-pound sacks of flour bulkedtoo largein their eyes for them to loosen their pouch-strings.
Thorntonknelt down by Buck's side. He took his head in his twohands andrested cheek on cheek. He did not playfully shake himas was hiswontor murmur soft love curses; but he whispered inhis ear. "As you love meBuck. As you love me" was what hewhispered. Buck whined with suppressed eagerness.
The crowdwas watching curiously. The affair was growingmysterious. It seemed like a conjuration. As Thornton got to hisfeetBuckseized his mittened hand between his jawspressing inwith histeeth and releasing slowlyhalf-reluctantly. It was theanswerintermsnot of speechbut of love. Thornton steppedwell back.
"NowBuck" he said.
Bucktightened the tracesthen slacked them for a matter ofseveralinches. It was the way he had learned.
"Gee!"Thornton's voice rang outsharp in the tense silence.
Buck swungto the rightending the movement in a plunge that tookup theslack and with a sudden jerk arrested his one hundred andfiftypounds. The load quiveredand from under the runners arosea crispcrackling.
Buckduplicated the manoeuvrethis time to the left. Thecracklingturned into a snappingthe sled pivoting and therunnersslipping and grating several inches to the side. The sledwas brokenout. Men were holding their breathsintenselyunconsciousof the fact.
Thornton'scommand cracked out like a pistol-shot. Buck threwhimselfforwardtightening the traces with a jarring lunge. Hiswhole bodywas gathered compactly together in the tremendouseffortthe muscles writhing and knotting like live things underthe silkyfur. His great chest was low to the groundhis headforwardand downwhile his feet were flying like madthe clawsscarringthe hard-packed snow in parallel grooves. The sledswayed andtrembledhalf-started forward. One of his feetslippedand one man groaned aloud. Then the sled lurched ahead inwhatappeared a rapid succession of jerksthough it never reallycame to adead stop again ...half an inch...an inch . . . twoinches. .. The jerks perceptibly diminished; as the sled gainedmomentumhe caught them uptill it was moving steadily along.
Men gaspedand began to breathe againunaware that for a momentthey hadceased to breathe. Thornton was running behindencouragingBuck with shortcheery words. The distance had beenmeasuredoffand as he neared the pile of firewood which markedthe end ofthe hundred yardsa cheer began to grow and growwhichburst into a roar as he passed the firewood and halted atcommand. Every man was tearing himself looseeven Matthewson. Hats andmittens were flying in the air. Men were shaking handsit did notmatter with whomand bubbling over in a generalincoherentbabel.
ButThornton fell on his knees beside Buck. Head was againstheadandhe was shaking him back and forth. Those who hurried upheard himcursing Buckand he cursed him long and ferventlyandsoftly andlovingly.
"Gadsir! Gadsir!" spluttered the Skookum Bench king. "I'llgive you athousand for himsira thousandsir--twelve hundredsir."
Thorntonrose to his feet. His eyes were wet. The tears werestreamingfrankly down his cheeks. "Sir" he said to theSkookumBenchking"nosir. You can go to hellsir. It's thebest Ican do foryousir."
Buckseized Thornton's hand in his teeth. Thornton shook him backandforth. As though animated by a common impulsethe onlookersdrew backto a respectful distance; nor were they again indiscreetenough tointerrupt.
When Buckearned sixteen hundred dollars in five minutes for JohnThorntonhe made it possible for his master to pay off certaindebts andto journey with his partners into the East after afabledlost minethe history of which was as old as the historyof thecountry. Many men had sought it; few had found it; andmore thana few there were who had never returned from the quest. This lostmine was steeped in tragedy and shrouded in mystery. Noone knewof the first man. The oldest tradition stopped before itgot backto him. From the beginning there had been an ancient andramshacklecabin. Dying men had sworn to itand to the mine thesite ofwhich it markedclinching their testimony with nuggetsthat wereunlike any known grade of gold in the Northland.
But noliving man had looted this treasure houseand the deadwere dead;wherefore John Thornton and Pete and Hanswith Buckand half adozen other dogsfaced into the East on an unknowntrail toachieve where men and dogs as good as themselves hadfailed. They sledded seventy miles up the Yukonswung to theleft intothe Stewart Riverpassed the Mayo and the McQuestionand heldon until the Stewart itself became a streamletthreadingtheupstanding peaks which marked the backbone of the continent.
JohnThornton asked little of man or nature. He was unafraid ofthe wild. With a handful of salt and a rifle he could plunge intothewilderness and fare wherever he pleased and as long as hepleased. Being in no hasteIndian fashionhe hunted his dinnerin thecourse of the day's travel; and if he failed to find itlike theIndianhe kept on travellingsecure in the knowledgethatsooner or later he would come to it. Soon this greatjourneyinto the Eaststraight meat was the bill of fareammunitionand tools principally made up the load on the sledandthetime-card was drawn upon the limitless future.
To Buck itwas boundless delightthis huntingfishingandindefinitewandering through strange places. For weeks at a timethey wouldhold on steadilyday after day; and for weeks upon endthey wouldcamphere and therethe dogs loafing and the menburningholes through frozen muck and gravel and washing countlesspans ofdirt by the heat of the fire. Sometimes they went hungrysometimesthey feasted riotouslyall according to the abundanceof gameand the fortune of hunting. Summer arrivedand dogs andmen packedon their backsrafted across blue mountain lakesanddescendedor ascended unknown rivers in slender boats whipsawedfrom thestanding forest.
The monthscame and wentand back and forth they twisted throughtheuncharted vastnesswhere no men were and yet where men hadbeen ifthe Lost Cabin were true. They went across divides insummerblizzardsshivered under the midnight sun on nakedmountainsbetween the timber line and the eternal snowsdroppedintosummer valleys amid swarming gnats and fliesand in theshadows ofglaciers picked strawberries and flowers as ripe andfair asany the Southland could boast. In the fall of the yeartheypenetrated a weird lake countrysad and silentwhere wild-fowl hadbeenbut where then there was no life nor sign of life--only theblowing of chill windsthe forming of ice in shelteredplacesand the melancholy rippling of waves on lonely beaches.
Andthrough another winter they wandered on the obliterated trailsof men whohad gone before. Oncethey came upon a path blazedthroughthe forestan ancient pathand the Lost Cabin seemedverynear. But the path began nowhere and ended nowhereand itremainedmysteryas the man who made it and the reason he made itremainedmystery. Another time they chanced upon the time-gravenwreckageof a hunting lodgeand amid the shreds of rottedblanketsJohn Thornton found a long-barrelled flint-lock. He knewit for aHudson Bay Company gun of the young days in theNorthwestwhen such a gun was worth its height in beaver skinspackedflatAnd that was all--no hint as to the man who in anearly dayhad reared the lodge and left the gun among theblankets.
Springcame on once moreand at the end of all their wanderingtheyfoundnot the Lost Cabinbut a shallow placer in a broadvalleywhere the gold showed like yellow butter across the bottomof thewashing-pan. They sought no farther. Each day they workedearnedthem thousands of dollars in clean dust and nuggetsandtheyworked every day. The gold was sacked in moose-hide bagsfiftypounds to the bagand piled like so much firewood outsidethespruce-bough lodge. Like giants they toileddays flashing onthe heelsof days like dreams as they heaped the treasure up.
There wasnothing for the dogs to dosave the hauling in of meatnow andagain that Thornton killedand Buck spent long hoursmusing bythe fire. The vision of the short-legged hairy man cameto himmore frequentlynow that there was little work to be done;and oftenblinking by the fireBuck wandered with him in thatotherworld which he remembered.
Thesalient thing of this other world seemed fear. When hewatchedthe hairy man sleeping by the firehead between his kneesand handsclasped aboveBuck saw that he slept restlesslywithmanystarts and awakeningsat which times he would peer fearfullyinto thedarkness and fling more wood upon the fire. Did theywalk bythe beach of a seawhere the hairy man gathered shell-fish andate them as he gatheredit was with eyes that rovedeverywherefor hidden danger and with legs prepared to run likethe windat its first appearance. Through the forest they creptnoiselesslyBuck at the hairy man's heels; and they were alertandvigilantthe pair of themears twitching and moving andnostrilsquiveringfor the man heard and smelled as keenly asBuck. The hairy man could spring up into the trees and travelahead asfast as on the groundswinging by the arms from limb tolimbsometimes a dozen feet apartletting go and catchingneverfallingnever missing his grip. In facthe seemed as much athome amongthe trees as on the ground; and Buck had memories ofnights ofvigil spent beneath trees wherein the hairy man roostedholding ontightly as he slept.
Andclosely akin to the visions of the hairy man was the callstillsounding in the depths of the forest. It filled him with agreatunrest and strange desires. It caused him to feel a vaguesweetgladnessand he was aware of wild yearnings and stirringsfor heknew not what. Sometimes he pursued the call into theforestlooking for it as though it were a tangible thingbarkingsoftly ordefiantlyas the mood might dictate. He would thrusthis noseinto the cool wood mossor into the black soil wherelonggrasses grewand snort with joy at the fat earth smells; orhe wouldcrouch for hoursas if in concealmentbehind fungus-coveredtrunks of fallen treeswide-eyed and wide-eared to allthat movedand sounded about him. It might belying thusthathe hopedto surprise this call he could not understand. But hedid notknow why he did these various things. He was impelled todo themand did not reason about them at all.
Irresistibleimpulses seized him. He would be lying in campdozinglazily in the heat of the daywhen suddenly his head wouldlift andhis ears cock upintent and listeningand he wouldspring tohis feet and dash awayand on and onfor hoursthroughthe forest aisles and across the open spaces where theniggerheadsbunched. He loved to run down dry watercoursesandto creepand spy upon the bird life in the woods. For a day at atime hewould lie in the underbrush where he could watch thepartridgesdrumming and strutting up and down. But especially heloved torun in the dim twilight of the summer midnightslisteningto the subdued and sleepy murmurs of the forestreadingsigns andsounds as man may read a bookand seeking for themysterioussomething that called--calledwaking or sleepingatall timesfor him to come.
One nighthe sprang from sleep with a starteager-eyednostrilsquiveringand scentinghis mane bristling in recurrent waves. From theforest came the call (or one note of itfor the call wasmanynoted)distinct and definite as never before--a long-drawnhowllikeyet unlikeany noise made by husky dog. And he knewitin theold familiar wayas a sound heard before. He sprangthroughthe sleeping camp and in swift silence dashed through thewoods. As he drew closer to the cry he went more slowlywithcaution inevery movementtill he came to an open place among thetreesandlooking out sawerect on hauncheswith nose pointedto theskya longleantimber wolf.
He hadmade no noiseyet it ceased from its howling and tried tosense hispresence. Buck stalked into the openhalf crouchingbodygathered compactly togethertail straight and stifffeetfallingwith unwonted care. Every movement advertised commingledthreateningand overture of friendliness. It was the menacingtruce thatmarks the meeting of wild beasts that prey. But thewolf fledat sight of him. He followedwith wild leapingsin afrenzy toovertake. He ran him into a blind channelin the bedof thecreek where a timber jam barred the way. The wolf whirledaboutpivoting on his hind legs after the fashion of Joe and ofallcornered husky dogssnarling and bristlingclipping histeethtogether in a continuous and rapid succession of snaps.
Buck didnot attackbut circled him about and hedged him in withfriendlyadvances. The wolf was suspicious and afraid; for Buckmade threeof him in weightwhile his head barely reached Buck'sshoulder. Watching his chancehe darted awayand the chase wasresumed. Time and again he was corneredand the thing repeatedthough hewas in poor conditionor Buck could not so easily haveovertakenhim. He would run till Buck's head was even with hisflankwhen he would whirl around at bayonly to dash away againat thefirst opportunity.
But in theend Buck's pertinacity was rewarded; for the wolffindingthat no harm was intendedfinally sniffed noses with him. Then theybecame friendlyand played about in the nervoushalf-coy waywith which fierce beasts belie their fierceness. Aftersome timeof this the wolf started off at an easy lope in a mannerthatplainly showed he was going somewhere. He made it clear toBuck thathe was to comeand they ran side by side through thesombretwilightstraight up the creek bedinto the gorge fromwhich itissuedand across the bleak divide where it took itsrise.
On theopposite slope of the watershed they came down into a levelcountrywhere were great stretches of forest and many streamsandthroughthese great stretches they ran steadilyhour after hourthe sunrising higher and the day growing warmer. Buck was wildlyglad. He knew he was at last answering the callrunning by theside ofhis wood brother toward the place from where the callsurelycame. Old memories were coming upon him fastand he wasstirringto them as of old he stirred to the realities of whichthey werethe shadows. He had done this thing beforesomewherein thatother and dimly remembered worldand he was doing itagainnowrunning free in the openthe unpacked earthunderfootthe wide sky overhead.
Theystopped by a running stream to drinkandstoppingBuckrememberedJohn Thornton. He sat down. The wolf started ontoward theplace from where the call surely camethen returned tohimsniffing noses and making actions as though to encourage him. But Buckturned about and started slowly on the back track. Forthe betterpart of an hour the wild brother ran by his sidewhiningsoftly. Then he sat downpointed his nose upwardandhowled. It was a mournful howland as Buck held steadily on hisway heheard it grow faint and fainter until it was lost in thedistance.
JohnThornton was eating dinner when Buck dashed into camp andsprangupon him in a frenzy of affectionoverturning himscramblingupon himlicking his facebiting his hand--"playingthegeneral tom-fool" as John Thornton characterized itthewhile heshook Buck back and forth and cursed him lovingly.
For twodays and nights Buck never left campnever let Thorntonout of hissight. He followed him about at his workwatched himwhile heatesaw him into his blankets at night and out of themin themorning. But after two days the call in the forest beganto soundmore imperiously than ever. Buck's restlessness came backon himand he was haunted by recollections of the wild brotherand of thesmiling land beyond the divide and the run side by sidethroughthe wide forest stretches. Once again he took towanderingin the woodsbut the wild brother came no more; andthough helistened through long vigilsthe mournful howl wasneverraised.
He beganto sleep out at nightstaying away from camp for days ata time;and once he crossed the divide at the head of the creekand wentdown into the land of timber and streams. There hewanderedfor a weekseeking vainly for fresh sign of the wildbrotherkilling his meat as he travelled and travelling with thelongeasylope that seems never to tire. He fished for salmon ina broadstream that emptied somewhere into the seaand by thisstream hekilled a large black bearblinded by the mosquitoeswhilelikewise fishingand raging through the forest helpless andterrible. Even soit was a hard fightand it aroused the lastlatentremnants of Buck's ferocity. And two days laterwhen hereturnedto his kill and found a dozen wolverenes quarrelling overthe spoilhe scattered them like chaff; and those that fled lefttwo behindwho would quarrel no more.
Theblood-longing became stronger than ever before. He was akillerathing that preyedliving on the things that livedunaidedaloneby virtue of his own strength and prowesssurvivingtriumphantly in a hostile environment where only thestrongsurvived. Because of all this he became possessed of agreatpride in himselfwhich communicated itself like a contagionto hisphysical being. It advertised itself in all his movementswasapparent in the play of every musclespoke plainly as speechin the wayhe carried himselfand made his glorious furry coat ifanythingmore glorious. But for the stray brown on his muzzle andabove hiseyesand for the splash of white hair that ran midmostdown hischesthe might well have been mistaken for a giganticwolflarger than the largest of the breed. From his St. Bernardfather hehad inherited size and weightbut it was his shepherdmother whohad given shape to that size and weight. His muzzlewas thelong wolf muzzlesave that was larger than the muzzle ofany wolf;and his headsomewhat broaderwas the wolf head on amassivescale.
Hiscunning was wolf cunningand wild cunning; his intelligenceshepherdintelligence and St. Bernard intelligence; and all thisplus anexperience gained in the fiercest of schoolsmade him asformidablea creature as any that intelligence roamed the wild. Acarnivorousanimal living on a straight meat diethe was in fullfloweratthe high tide of his lifeoverspilling with vigor andvirility. When Thornton passed a caressing hand along his backasnappingand crackling followed the handeach hair discharing itspentmagnetism at the contact. Every partbrain and bodynervetissue andfibrewas keyed to the most exquisite pitch; andbetweenall the parts there was a perfect equilibrium oradjustment. To sights and sounds and events which requiredactionheresponded with lightning-like rapidity. Quickly as ahusky dogcould leap to defend from attack or to attackhe couldleap twiceas quickly. He saw the movementor heard soundandrespondedin less time than another dog required to compass themereseeing or hearing. He perceived and determined and respondedin thesame instant. In point of fact the three actions ofperceivingdeterminingand responding were sequential; but soinfinitesimalwere the intervals of time between them that theyappearedsimultaneous. His muscles were surcharged with vitalityandsnapped into play sharplylike steel springs. Life streamedthroughhim in splendid floodglad and rampantuntil it seemedthat itwould burst him asunder in sheer ecstasy and pour forthgenerouslyover the world.
"Neverwas there such a dog" said John Thornton one dayas thepartnerswatched Buck marching out of camp.
"Whenhe was madethe mould was broke" said Pete.
"Pyjingo! I t'ink so mineself" Hans affirmed.
They sawhim marching out of campbut they did not see theinstantand terrible transformation which took place as soon as hewas withinthe secrecy of the forest. He no longer marched. Atonce hebecame a thing of the wildstealing along softlycat-footedapassing shadow that appeared and disappeared among theshadows. He knew how to take advantage of every coverto crawlon hisbelly like a snakeand like a snake to leap and strike. He couldtake a ptarmigan from its nestkill a rabbit as itsleptandsnap in mid air the little chipmunks fleeing a secondtoo latefor the trees. Fishin open poolswere not too quickfor him;nor were beavermending their damstoo wary. He killedto eatnot from wantonness; but he preferred to eat what hekilledhimself. So a lurking humor ran through his deedsand itwas hisdelight to steal upon the squirrelsandwhen he all buthad themto let them gochattering in mortal fear to thetreetops.
As thefall of the year came onthe moose appeared in greaterabundancemoving slowly down to meet the winter in the lower andlessrigorous valleys. Buck had already dragged down a straypart-growncalf; but he wished strongly for larger and moreformidablequarryand he came upon it one day on the divide atthe headof the creek. A band of twenty moose had crossed overfrom theland of streams and timberand chief among them was agreatbull. He was in a savage temperandstanding over sixfeet fromthe groundwas as formidable an antagonist as even Buckcoulddesire. Back and forth the bull tossed his great palmatedantlersbranching to fourteen points and embracing seven feetwithin thetips. His small eyes burned with a vicious and bitterlightwhile he roared with fury at sight of Buck.
From thebull's sidejust forward of the flankprotruded afeatheredarrow-endwhich accounted for his savageness. Guided bythatinstinct which came from the old hunting days of theprimordialworldBuck proceeded to cut the bull out from theherd. It was no slight task. He would bark and dance about infront ofthe bulljust out of reach of the great antlers and oftheterrible splay hoofs which could have stamped his life outwith asingle blow. Unable to turn his back on the fanged dangerand go onthe bull would be driven into paroxysms of rage. Atsuchmoments he charged Buckwho retreated craftilyluring himon by asimulated inability to escape. But when he was thusseparatedfrom his fellowstwo or three of the younger bullswouldcharge back upon Buck and enable the wounded bull to rejointhe herd.
There is apatience of the wild--doggedtirelesspersistent aslifeitself--that holds motionless for endless hours the spider inits webthe snake in its coilsthe panther in its ambuscade;thispatience belongs peculiarly to life when it hunts its livingfood; andit belonged to Buck as he clung to the flank of theherdretarding its marchirritating the young bullsworryingthe cowswith their half-grown calvesand driving the woundedbull madwith helpless rage. For half a day this continued. Buckmultipliedhimselfattacking from all sidesenveloping the herdin awhirlwind of menacecutting out his victim as fast as itcouldrejoin its mateswearing out the patience of creaturespreyeduponwhich is a lesser patience than that of creaturespreying.
As the daywore along and the sun dropped to its bed in thenorthwest(the darkness had come back and the fall nights were sixhourslong)the young bulls retraced their steps more and morereluctantlyto the aid of their beset leader. The down-comingwinter washarrying them on to the lower levelsand it seemedthey couldnever shake off this tireless creature that held themback. Besidesit was not the life of the herdor of the youngbullsthat was threatened. The life of only one member wasdemandedwhich was a remoter interest than their livesand inthe endthey were content to pay the toll.
Astwilight fell the old bull stood with lowered headwatchinghismates--the cows he had knownthe calves he had fatheredthebulls hehad mastered--as they shambled on at a rapid pace throughthe fadinglight. He could not followfor before his nose leapedthemerciless fanged terror that would not let him go. Threehundredweightmore than half a ton he weighed; he had lived alongstrong lifefull of fight and struggleand at the end hefaceddeath at the teeth of a creature whose head did not reachbeyond hisgreat knuckled knees.
From thenonnight and dayBuck never left his preynever gaveit amoment's restnever permitted it to browse the leaves oftrees orthe shoots of young birch and willow. Nor did he give thewoundedbull opportunity to slake his burning thirst in theslendertrickling streams they crossed. Oftenin desperationheburst intolong stretches of flight. At such times Buck did notattempt tostay himbut loped easily at his heelssatisfied withthe waythe game was playedlying down when the moose stoodstillattacking him fiercely when he strove to eat or drink.
The greathead drooped more and more under its tree of hornsandtheshambling trot grew weak and weaker. He took to standing forlongperiodswith nose to the ground and dejected ears droppedlimply;and Buck found more time in which to get water for himselfand inwhich to rest. At such momentspanting with red lollingtongue andwith eyes fixed upon the big bullit appeared to Buckthat achange was coming over the face of things. He could feel anew stirin the land. As the moose were coming into the landotherkinds of life were coming in. Forest and stream and airseemedpalpitant with their presence. The news of it was borne inupon himnot by sightor soundor smellbut by some other andsubtlersense. He heard nothingsaw nothingyet knew that theland wassomehow different; that through it strange things wereafoot andranging; and he resolved to investigate after he hadfinishedthe business in hand.
At lastat the end of the fourth dayhe pulled the great moosedown. For a day and a night he remained by the killeating andsleepingturn and turn about. Thenrestedrefreshed andstrongheturned his face toward camp and John Thornton. Hebroke intothe long easy lopeand went onhour after hourneverat lossfor the tangled wayheading straight home through strangecountrywith a certitude of direction that put man and hismagneticneedle to shame.
As he heldon he became more and more conscious of the new stir inthe land. There was life abroad in it different from the lifewhich hadbeen there throughout the summer. No longer was thisfact bornein upon him in some subtlemysterious way. The birdstalked ofitthe squirrels chattered about itthe very breezewhisperedof it. Several times he stopped and drew in the freshmorningair in great sniffsreading a message which made him leapon withgreater speed. He was oppressed with a sense of calamityhappeningif it were not calamity already happened; and as hecrossedthe last watershed and dropped down into the valley towardcampheproceeded with greater caution.
Threemiles away he came upon a fresh trail that sent his neckhairrippling and bristlingIt led straight toward camp and JohnThornton. Buck hurried onswiftly and stealthilyevery nervestrainingand tensealert to the multitudinous details which toldastory--all but the end. His nose gave him a varying descriptionof thepassage of the life on the heels of which he wastravelling. He remarked die pregnant silence of the forest. Thebird lifehad flitted. The squirrels were in hiding. One only hesaw--asleek gray fellowflattened against a gray dead limb sothat heseemed a part of ita woody excrescence upon the wooditself.
As Buckslid along with the obscureness of a gliding shadowhisnose wasjerked suddenly to the side as though a positive forcehadgripped and pulled it. He followed the new scent into athicketand found Nig. He was lying on his sidedead where hehaddragged himselfan arrow protrudinghead and feathersfromeitherside of his body.
A hundredyards farther onBuck came upon one of the sled-dogsThorntonhad bought in Dawson. This dog was thrashing about in adeath-struggledirectly on the trailand Buck passed around himwithoutstopping. From the camp came the faint sound of manyvoicesrising and falling in a sing-song chant. Bellying forwardto theedge of the clearinghe found Hanslying on his facefeatheredwith arrows like a porcupine. At the same instant Buckpeered outwhere the spruce-bough lodge had been and saw what madehis hairleap straight up on his neck and shoulders. A gust ofoverpoweringrage swept over him. He did not know that hegrowledbut he growled aloud with a terrible ferocity. For thelast timein his life he allowed passion to usurp cunning andreasonand it was because of his great love for John Thorntonthat helost his head.
TheYeehats were dancing about the wreckage of the spruce-boughlodge whenthey heard a fearful roaring and saw rushing upon theman animalthe like of which they had never seen before. It wasBuckalive hurricane of furyhurling himself upon them in afrenzy todestroy. He sprang at the foremost man (it was thechief ofthe Yeehats)ripping the throat wide open till the rentjugularspouted a fountain of blood. He did not pause to worrythevictimbut ripped in passingwith the next bound tearingwide thethroat of a second man. There was no withstanding him. He plungedabout in their very midsttearingrendingdestroyingin constant and terrific motion which defied thearrowsthey discharged at him. In factso inconceivably rapidwere hismovementsand so closely were the Indians tangledtogetherthat they shot one another with the arrows; and oneyounghunterhurling a spear at Buck in mid airdrove it throughthe chestof another hunter with such force that the point brokethroughthe skin of the back and stood out beyond. Then a panicseized theYeehatsand they fled in terror to the woodsproclaimingas they fled the advent of the Evil Spirit.
And trulyBuck was the Fiend incarnateraging at their heels anddraggingthem down like deer as they raced through the trees. Itwas afateful day for the Yeehats. They scattered far and wideover thecountryand it was not till a week later that the lastof thesurvivors gathered together in a lower valley and countedtheirlosses. As for Buckwearying of the pursuithe returnedto thedesolated camp. He found Pete where he had been killed inhisblankets in the first moment of surprise. Thornton'sdesperatestruggle was fresh-written on the earthand Buckscentedevery detail of it down to the edge of a deep pool. Bythe edgehead and fore feet in the waterlay Skeetfaithful tothe last. The pool itselfmuddy and discolored from the sluiceboxeseffectually hid what it containedand it contained JohnThornton;for Buck followed his trace into the waterfrom whichno traceled away.
All dayBuck brooded by the pool or roamed restlessly about thecamp. Deathas a cessation of movementas a passing out andaway fromthe lives of the livinghe knewand he knew JohnThorntonwas dead. It left a great void in himsomewhat akin tohungerbut a void which ached and achedand which food could notfillAttimeswhen he paused to contemplate the carcasses of theYeehatshe forgot the pain of it; and at such times he was awareof a greatpride in himself--a pride greater than any he had yetexperienced. He had killed manthe noblest game of alland hehad killedin the face of the law of club and fang. He sniffedthe bodiescuriously. They had died so easily. It was harder tokill ahusky dog than them. They were no match at allwere itnot fortheir arrows and spears and clubs. Thenceforward he wouldbeunafraid of them except when they bore in their hands theirarrowsspearsand clubs.
Night cameonand a full moon rose high over the trees into theskylighting the land till it lay bathed in ghostly day. And withthe comingof the nightbrooding and mourning by the poolBuckbecamealive to a stirring of the new life in the forest otherthan thatwhich the Yeehats had madeHe stood uplistening andscenting. From far away drifted a faintsharp yelpfollowed bya chorusof similar sharp yelps. As the moments passed the yelpsgrewcloser and louder. Again Buck knew them as things heard inthat otherworld which persisted in his memory. He walked to thecentre ofthe open space and listened. It was the callthe many-notedcallsounding more luringly and compellingly than everbefore. And as never beforehe was ready to obey. John Thorntonwas dead. The last tie was broken. Man and the claims of man nolongerbound him.
Huntingtheir living meatas the Yeehats were hunting iton theflanks ofthe migrating moosethe wolf pack had at last crossedover fromthe land of streams and timber and invaded Buck'svalley. Into the clearing where the moonlight streamedtheypoured ina silvery flood; and in the centre of the clearing stoodBuckmotionless as a statuewaiting their coming. They wereawedsostill and large he stoodand a moment's pause felltilltheboldest one leaped straight for him. Like a flash Buckstruckbreaking the neck. Then he stoodwithout movementasbeforethe stricken wolf rolling in agony behind him. Threeotherstried it in sharp succession; and one after the other theydrew backstreaming blood from slashed throats or shoulders.
This wassufficient to fling the whole pack forwardpell-mellcrowdedtogetherblocked and confused by its eagerness to pulldown theprey. Buck's marvellous quickness and agility stood himin goodstead. Pivoting on his hind legsand snapping andgashinghe was everywhere at oncepresenting a front which wasapparentlyunbroken so swiftly did he whirl and guard from side toside. But to prevent them from getting behind himhe was forcedbackdownpast the pool and into the creek bedtill he broughtup againsta high gravel bank. He worked along to a right anglein thebank which the men had made in the course of miningand inthis anglehe came to bayprotected on three sides and withnothing todo but face the front.
And sowell did he face itthat at the end of half an hour thewolvesdrew back discomfited. The tongues of all were out andlollingthe white fangs showing cruelly white in the moonlight. Some werelying down with heads raised and ears pricked forward;othersstood on their feetwatching him; and still others werelappingwater from the pool. One wolflong and lean and grayadvancedcautiouslyin a friendly mannerand Buck recognized thewildbrother with whom he had run for a night and a day. He waswhiningsoftlyandas Buck whinedthey touched noses.
Then anold wolfgaunt and battle-scarredcame forward. Buckwrithedhis lips into the preliminary of a snarlbut sniffednoses withhimWhereupon the old wolf sat downpointed nose atthe moonand broke out the long wolf howl. The others sat downandhowled. And now the call came to Buck in unmistakableaccents. Hetoosat down and howled. This overhe came out ofhis angleand the pack crowded around himsniffing in half-friendlyhalf-savage manner. The leaders lifted the yelp of thepack andsprang away into the woods. The wolves swung in behindyelping inchorus. And Buck ran with themside by side with thewildbrotheryelping as he ran.
* * *
And heremay well end the story of Buck. The years were not manywhen theYeehats noted a change in the breed of timber wolves; forsome wereseen with splashes of brown on head and muzzleand witha rift ofwhite centring down the chest. But more remarkable thanthistheYeehats tell of a Ghost Dog that runs at the head of thepack. They are afraid of this Ghost Dogfor it has cunninggreaterthan theystealing from their camps in fierce wintersrobbingtheir trapsslaying their dogsand defying their bravesthunters.
Naythetale grows worse. Hunters there are who fail to returnto thecampand hunters there have been whom their tribesmenfound withthroats slashed cruelly open and with wolf prints aboutthem inthe snow greater than the prints of any wolf. Each fallwhen theYeehats follow the movement of the moosethere is acertainvalley which they never enter. And women there are whobecome sadwhen the word goes over the fire of how the Evil Spiritcame toselect that valley for an abiding-place.
In thesummers there is one visitorhoweverto that valleyofwhich theYeehats do not know. It is a greatgloriously coatedwolflikeand yet unlikeall other wolves. He crosses alonefrom thesmiling timber land and comes down into an open spaceamong thetrees. Here a yellow stream flows from rotted moose-hide sacksand sinks into the groundwith long grasses growingthrough itand vegetable mould overrunning it and hiding itsyellowfrom the sun; and here he muses for a timehowling oncelong andmournfullyere he departs.
But he isnot always alone. When the long winter nights come onand thewolves follow their meat into the lower valleyshe may beseenrunning at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight orglimmeringborealisleaping gigantic above his fellowshis greatthroata-bellow as he sings a song of the younger worldwhich isthe songof the pack.