The Call of the Wild
The Call of the Wild
by Jack London
|Chapter I. Into the Primitive|
|Chapter II. The Law of Club and Fang|
|Chapter III. The Dominant Primordial Beast|
|Chapter IV. Who Has Won to Mastership|
|Chapter V. The Toil of Trace|
|Chapter VI. For the Love of a Man|
|Chapter VII. The Sounding of the Call|
“Old longings nomadic leap,
Chafing at custom’s chain;
Again from its brumal sleep
Wakens the ferine strain.”
Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was
brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle
and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping
in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and
transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing
into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy
dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them
from the frost.
Buck lived at a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley. Judge
Miller’s place, it was called. It stood back from the road, half hidden
among the trees, through which glimpses could be caught of the wide cool
veranda that ran around its four sides. The house was approached by gravelled
driveways which wound about through wide-spreading lawns and under the
interlacing boughs of tall poplars. At the rear things were on even a more
spacious scale than at the front. There were great stables, where a dozen
grooms and boys held forth, rows of vine-clad servants’ cottages, an
endless and orderly array of outhouses, long grape arbors, green pastures,
orchards, and berry patches. Then there was the pumping plant for the artesian
well, and the big cement tank where Judge Miller’s boys took their
morning plunge and kept cool in the hot afternoon.
And over this great demesne Buck ruled. Here he was born, and here he had lived
the four years of his life. It was true, there were other dogs, There could not
but be other dogs on so vast a place, but they did not count. They came and
went, resided in the populous kennels, or lived obscurely in the recesses of
the house after the fashion of Toots, the Japanese pug, or Ysabel, the Mexican
hairless,—strange creatures that rarely put nose out of doors or set foot
to ground. On the other hand, there were the fox terriers, a score of them at
least, who yelped fearful promises at Toots and Ysabel looking out of the
windows at them and protected by a legion of housemaids armed with brooms and
But Buck was neither house-dog nor kennel-dog. The whole realm was his. He
plunged into the swimming tank or went hunting with the Judge’s sons; he
escorted Mollie and Alice, the Judge’s daughters, on long twilight or
early morning rambles; on wintry nights he lay at the Judge’s feet before
the roaring library fire; he carried the Judge’s grandsons on his back,
or rolled them in the grass, and guarded their footsteps through wild
adventures down to the fountain in the stable yard, and even beyond, where the
paddocks were, and the berry patches. Among the terriers he stalked
imperiously, and Toots and Ysabel he utterly ignored, for he was
king,—king over all creeping, crawling, flying things of Judge
Miller’s place, humans included.
His father, Elmo, a huge St. Bernard, had been the Judge’s inseparable
companion, and Buck bid fair to follow in the way of his father. He was not so
large,—he weighed only one hundred and forty pounds,—for his
mother, Shep, had been a Scotch shepherd dog. Nevertheless, one hundred and
forty pounds, to which was added the dignity that comes of good living and
universal respect, enabled him to carry himself in right royal fashion. During
the four years since his puppyhood he had lived the life of a sated aristocrat;
he had a fine pride in himself, was even a trifle egotistical, as country
gentlemen sometimes become because of their insular situation. But he had saved
himself by not becoming a mere pampered house-dog. Hunting and kindred outdoor
delights had kept down the fat and hardened his muscles; and to him, as to the
cold-tubbing races, the love of water had been a tonic and a health preserver.
And this was the manner of dog Buck was in the fall of 1897, when the Klondike
strike dragged men from all the world into the frozen North. But Buck did not
read the newspapers, and he did not know that Manuel, one of the
gardener’s helpers, was an undesirable acquaintance. Manuel had one
besetting sin. He loved to play Chinese lottery. Also, in his gambling, he had
one besetting weakness—faith in a system; and this made his damnation
certain. For to play a system requires money, while the wages of a
gardener’s helper do not lap over the needs of a wife and numerous
The Judge was at a meeting of the Raisin Growers’ Association, and the
boys were busy organizing an athletic club, on the memorable night of
Manuel’s treachery. No one saw him and Buck go off through the orchard on
what Buck imagined was merely a stroll. And with the exception of a solitary
man, no one saw them arrive at the little flag station known as College Park.
This man talked with Manuel, and money chinked between them.
“You might wrap up the goods before you deliver ’m,” the
stranger said gruffly, and Manuel doubled a piece of stout rope around
Buck’s neck under the collar.
“Twist it, an’ you’ll choke ’m plentee,” said
Manuel, and the stranger grunted a ready affirmative.
Buck had accepted the rope with quiet dignity. To be sure, it was an unwonted
performance: but he had learned to trust in men he knew, and to give them
credit for a wisdom that outreached his own. But when the ends of the rope were
placed in the stranger’s hands, he growled menacingly. He had merely
intimated his displeasure, in his pride believing that to intimate was to
command. But to his surprise the rope tightened around his neck, shutting off
his breath. In quick rage he sprang at the man, who met him halfway, grappled
him close by the throat, and with a deft twist threw him over on his back. Then
the rope tightened mercilessly, while Buck struggled in a fury, his tongue
lolling out of his mouth and his great chest panting futilely. Never in all his
life had he been so vilely treated, and never in all his life had he been so
angry. But his strength ebbed, his eyes glazed, and he knew nothing when the
train was flagged and the two men threw him into the baggage car.
The next he knew, he was dimly aware that his tongue was hurting and that he
was being jolted along in some kind of a conveyance. The hoarse shriek of a
locomotive whistling a crossing told him where he was. He had travelled too
often with the Judge not to know the sensation of riding in a baggage car. He
opened his eyes, and into them came the unbridled anger of a kidnapped king.
The man sprang for his throat, but Buck was too quick for him. His jaws closed
on the hand, nor did they relax till his senses were choked out of him once
“Yep, has fits,” the man said, hiding his mangled hand from the
baggageman, who had been attracted by the sounds of struggle. “I’m
takin’ ’m up for the boss to ’Frisco. A crack dog-doctor
there thinks that he can cure ’m.”
Concerning that night’s ride, the man spoke most eloquently for himself,
in a little shed back of a saloon on the San Francisco water front.
“All I get is fifty for it,” he grumbled; “an’ I
wouldn’t do it over for a thousand, cold cash.”
His hand was wrapped in a bloody handkerchief, and the right trouser leg was
ripped from knee to ankle.
“How much did the other mug get?” the saloon-keeper demanded.
“A hundred,” was the reply. “Wouldn’t take a sou less,
so help me.”
“That makes a hundred and fifty,” the saloon-keeper calculated;
“and he’s worth it, or I’m a squarehead.”
The kidnapper undid the bloody wrappings and looked at his lacerated hand.
“If I don’t get the hydrophoby—”
“It’ll be because you was born to hang,” laughed the
saloon-keeper. “Here, lend me a hand before you pull your freight,”
Dazed, suffering intolerable pain from throat and tongue, with the life half
throttled out of him, Buck attempted to face his tormentors. But he was thrown
down and choked repeatedly, till they succeeded in filing the heavy brass
collar from off his neck. Then the rope was removed, and he was flung into a
There he lay for the remainder of the weary night, nursing his wrath and
wounded pride. He could not understand what it all meant. What did they want
with him, these strange men? Why were they keeping him pent up in this narrow
crate? He did not know why, but he felt oppressed by the vague sense of
impending calamity. Several times during the night he sprang to his feet when
the shed door rattled open, expecting to see the Judge, or the boys at least.
But each time it was the bulging face of the saloon-keeper that peered in at
him by the sickly light of a tallow candle. And each time the joyful bark that
trembled in Buck’s throat was twisted into a savage growl.
But the saloon-keeper let him alone, and in the morning four men entered and
picked up the crate. More tormentors, Buck decided, for they were evil-looking
creatures, ragged and unkempt; and he stormed and raged at them through the
bars. They only laughed and poked sticks at him, which he promptly assailed
with his teeth till he realized that that was what they wanted. Whereupon he
lay down sullenly and allowed the crate to be lifted into a wagon. Then he, and
the crate in which he was imprisoned, began a passage through many hands.
Clerks in the express office took charge of him; he was carted about in another
wagon; a truck carried him, with an assortment of boxes and parcels, upon a
ferry steamer; he was trucked off the steamer into a great railway depot, and
finally he was deposited in an express car.
For two days and nights this express car was dragged along at the tail of
shrieking locomotives; and for two days and nights Buck neither ate nor drank.
In his anger he had met the first advances of the express messengers with
growls, and they had retaliated by teasing him. When he flung himself against
the bars, quivering and frothing, they laughed at him and taunted him. They
growled and barked like detestable dogs, mewed, and flapped their arms and
crowed. It was all very silly, he knew; but therefore the more outrage to his
dignity, and his anger waxed and waxed. He did not mind the hunger so much, but
the lack of water caused him severe suffering and fanned his wrath to
fever-pitch. For that matter, high-strung and finely sensitive, the ill
treatment had flung him into a fever, which was fed by the inflammation of his
parched and swollen throat and tongue.
He was glad for one thing: the rope was off his neck. That had given them an
unfair advantage; but now that it was off, he would show them. They would never
get another rope around his neck. Upon that he was resolved. For two days and
nights he neither ate nor drank, and during those two days and nights of
torment, he accumulated a fund of wrath that boded ill for whoever first fell
foul of him. His eyes turned blood-shot, and he was metamorphosed into a raging
fiend. So changed was he that the Judge himself would not have recognized him;
and the express messengers breathed with relief when they bundled him off the
train at Seattle.
Four men gingerly carried the crate from the wagon into a small, high-walled
back yard. A stout man, with a red sweater that sagged generously at the neck,
came out and signed the book for the driver. That was the man, Buck divined,
the next tormentor, and he hurled himself savagely against the bars. The man
smiled grimly, and brought a hatchet and a club.
“You ain’t going to take him out now?” the driver asked.
“Sure,” the man replied, driving the hatchet into the crate for a
There was an instantaneous scattering of the four men who had carried it in,
and from safe perches on top the wall they prepared to watch the performance.
Buck rushed at the splintering wood, sinking his teeth into it, surging and
wrestling with it. Wherever the hatchet fell on the outside, he was there on
the inside, snarling and growling, as furiously anxious to get out as the man
in the red sweater was calmly intent on getting him out.
“Now, you red-eyed devil,” he said, when he had made an opening
sufficient for the passage of Buck’s body. At the same time he dropped
the hatchet and shifted the club to his right hand.
And Buck was truly a red-eyed devil, as he drew himself together for the
spring, hair bristling, mouth foaming, a mad glitter in his blood-shot eyes.
Straight at the man he launched his one hundred and forty pounds of fury,
surcharged with the pent passion of two days and nights. In mid air, just as
his jaws were about to close on the man, he received a shock that checked his
body and brought his teeth together with an agonizing clip. He whirled over,
fetching the ground on his back and side. He had never been struck by a club in
his life, and did not understand. With a snarl that was part bark and more
scream he was again on his feet and launched into the air. And again the shock
came and he was brought crushingly to the ground. This time he was aware that
it was the club, but his madness knew no caution. A dozen times he charged, and
as often the club broke the charge and smashed him down.
After a particularly fierce blow, he crawled to his feet, too dazed to rush. He
staggered limply about, the blood flowing from nose and mouth and ears, his
beautiful coat sprayed and flecked with bloody slaver. Then the man advanced
and deliberately dealt him a frightful blow on the nose. All the pain he had
endured was as nothing compared with the exquisite agony of this. With a roar
that was almost lionlike in its ferocity, he again hurled himself at the man.
But the man, shifting the club from right to left, coolly caught him by the
under jaw, at the same time wrenching downward and backward. Buck described a
complete circle in the air, and half of another, then crashed to the ground on
his head and chest.
For the last time he rushed. The man struck the shrewd blow he had purposely
withheld for so long, and Buck crumpled up and went down, knocked utterly
“He’s no slouch at dog-breakin’, that’s wot I
say,” one of the men on the wall cried enthusiastically.
“Druther break cayuses any day, and twice on Sundays,” was the
reply of the driver, as he climbed on the wagon and started the horses.
Buck’s senses came back to him, but not his strength. He lay where he had
fallen, and from there he watched the man in the red sweater.
“‘Answers to the name of Buck,’” the man soliloquized,
quoting from the saloon-keeper’s letter which had announced the
consignment of the crate and contents. “Well, Buck, my boy,” he
went on in a genial voice, “we’ve had our little ruction, and the
best thing we can do is to let it go at that. You’ve learned your place,
and I know mine. Be a good dog and all ’ll go well and the goose hang
high. Be a bad dog, and I’ll whale the stuffin’ outa you.
As he spoke he fearlessly patted the head he had so mercilessly pounded, and
though Buck’s hair involuntarily bristled at touch of the hand, he
endured it without protest. When the man brought him water he drank eagerly,
and later bolted a generous meal of raw meat, chunk by chunk, from the
He was beaten (he knew that); but he was not broken. He saw, once for all, that
he stood no chance against a man with a club. He had learned the lesson, and in
all his after life he never forgot it. That club was a revelation. It was his
introduction to the reign of primitive law, and he met the introduction
halfway. The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect; and while he faced that
aspect uncowed, he faced it with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused.
As the days went by, other dogs came, in crates and at the ends of ropes, some
docilely, and some raging and roaring as he had come; and, one and all, he
watched them pass under the dominion of the man in the red sweater. Again and
again, as he looked at each brutal performance, the lesson was driven home to
Buck: a man with a club was a lawgiver, a master to be obeyed, though not
necessarily conciliated. Of this last Buck was never guilty, though he did see
beaten dogs that fawned upon the man, and wagged their tails, and licked his
hand. Also he saw one dog, that would neither conciliate nor obey, finally
killed in the struggle for mastery.
Now and again men came, strangers, who talked excitedly, wheedlingly, and in
all kinds of fashions to the man in the red sweater. And at such times that
money passed between them the strangers took one or more of the dogs away with
them. Buck wondered where they went, for they never came back; but the fear of
the future was strong upon him, and he was glad each time when he was not
Yet his time came, in the end, in the form of a little weazened man who spat
broken English and many strange and uncouth exclamations which Buck could not
“Sacredam!” he cried, when his eyes lit upon Buck. “Dat one
dam bully dog! Eh? How moch?”
“Three hundred, and a present at that,” was the prompt reply of the
man in the red sweater. “And seem’ it’s government money, you
ain’t got no kick coming, eh, Perrault?”
Perrault grinned. Considering that the price of dogs had been boomed skyward by
the unwonted demand, it was not an unfair sum for so fine an animal. The
Canadian Government would be no loser, nor would its despatches travel the
slower. Perrault knew dogs, and when he looked at Buck he knew that he was one
in a thousand—“One in ten t’ousand,” he commented
Buck saw money pass between them, and was not surprised when Curly, a
good-natured Newfoundland, and he were led away by the little weazened man.
That was the last he saw of the man in the red sweater, and as Curly and he
looked at receding Seattle from the deck of the Narwhal, it was the last
he saw of the warm Southland. Curly and he were taken below by Perrault and
turned over to a black-faced giant called François. Perrault was a
French-Canadian, and swarthy; but François was a French-Canadian half-breed,
and twice as swarthy. They were a new kind of men to Buck (of which he was
destined to see many more), and while he developed no affection for them, he
none the less grew honestly to respect them. He speedily learned that Perrault
and François were fair men, calm and impartial in administering justice, and
too wise in the way of dogs to be fooled by dogs.
In the ’tween-decks of the Narwhal, Buck and Curly joined two
other dogs. One of them was a big, snow-white fellow from Spitzbergen who had
been brought away by a whaling captain, and who had later accompanied a
Geological Survey into the Barrens. He was friendly, in a treacherous sort of
way, smiling into one’s face the while he meditated some underhand trick,
as, for instance, when he stole from Buck’s food at the first meal. As
Buck sprang to punish him, the lash of François’s whip sang through the
air, reaching the culprit first; and nothing remained to Buck but to recover
the bone. That was fair of François, he decided, and the half-breed began his
rise in Buck’s estimation.
The other dog made no advances, nor received any; also, he did not attempt to
steal from the newcomers. He was a gloomy, morose fellow, and he showed Curly
plainly that all he desired was to be left alone, and further, that there would
be trouble if he were not left alone. “Dave” he was called, and he
ate and slept, or yawned between times, and took interest in nothing, not even
when the Narwhal crossed Queen Charlotte Sound and rolled and pitched
and bucked like a thing possessed. When Buck and Curly grew excited, half wild
with fear, he raised his head as though annoyed, favored them with an incurious
glance, yawned, and went to sleep again.
Day and night the ship throbbed to the tireless pulse of the propeller, and
though one day was very like another, it was apparent to Buck that the weather
was steadily growing colder. At last, one morning, the propeller was quiet, and
the Narwhal was pervaded with an atmosphere of excitement. He felt it,
as did the other dogs, and knew that a change was at hand. François leashed
them and brought them on deck. At the first step upon the cold surface,
Buck’s feet sank into a white mushy something very like mud. He sprang
back with a snort. More of this white stuff was falling through the air. He
shook himself, but more of it fell upon him. He sniffed it curiously, then
licked some up on his tongue. It bit like fire, and the next instant was gone.
This puzzled him. He tried it again, with the same result. The onlookers
laughed uproariously, and he felt ashamed, he knew not why, for it was his
Buck’s first day on the Dyea beach was like a nightmare. Every hour was
filled with shock and surprise. He had been suddenly jerked from the heart of
civilization and flung into the heart of things primordial. No lazy, sun-kissed
life was this, with nothing to do but loaf and be bored. Here was neither
peace, nor rest, nor a moment’s safety. All was confusion and action, and
every moment life and limb were in peril. There was imperative need to be
constantly alert; for these dogs and men were not town dogs and men. They were
savages, all of them, who knew no law but the law of club and fang.
He had never seen dogs fight as these wolfish creatures fought, and his first
experience taught him an unforgetable lesson. It is true, it was a vicarious
experience, else he would not have lived to profit by it. Curly was the victim.
They were camped near the log store, where she, in her friendly way, made
advances to a husky dog the size of a full-grown wolf, though not half so large
as she. There was no warning, only a leap in like a flash, a metallic clip of
teeth, a leap out equally swift, and Curly’s face was ripped open from
eye to jaw.
It was the wolf manner of fighting, to strike and leap away; but there was more
to it than this. Thirty or forty huskies ran to the spot and surrounded the
combatants in an intent and silent circle. Buck did not comprehend that silent
intentness, nor the eager way with which they were licking their chops. Curly
rushed her antagonist, who struck again and leaped aside. He met her next rush
with his chest, in a peculiar fashion that tumbled her off her feet. She never
regained them, This was what the onlooking huskies had waited for. They closed
in upon her, snarling and yelping, and she was buried, screaming with agony,
beneath the bristling mass of bodies.
So sudden was it, and so unexpected, that Buck was taken aback. He saw Spitz
run out his scarlet tongue in a way he had of laughing; and he saw François,
swinging an axe, spring into the mess of dogs. Three men with clubs were
helping him to scatter them. It did not take long. Two minutes from the time
Curly went down, the last of her assailants were clubbed off. But she lay there
limp and lifeless in the bloody, trampled snow, almost literally torn to
pieces, the swart half-breed standing over her and cursing horribly. The scene
often came back to Buck to trouble him in his sleep. So that was the way. No
fair play. Once down, that was the end of you. Well, he would see to it that he
never went down. Spitz ran out his tongue and laughed again, and from that
moment Buck hated him with a bitter and deathless hatred.
Before he had recovered from the shock caused by the tragic passing of Curly,
he received another shock. François fastened upon him an arrangement of straps
and buckles. It was a harness, such as he had seen the grooms put on the horses
at home. And as he had seen horses work, so he was set to work, hauling
François on a sled to the forest that fringed the valley, and returning with a
load of firewood. Though his dignity was sorely hurt by thus being made a
draught animal, he was too wise to rebel. He buckled down with a will and did
his best, though it was all new and strange. François was stern, demanding
instant obedience, and by virtue of his whip receiving instant obedience; while
Dave, who was an experienced wheeler, nipped Buck’s hind quarters
whenever he was in error. Spitz was the leader, likewise experienced, and while
he could not always get at Buck, he growled sharp reproof now and again, or
cunningly threw his weight in the traces to jerk Buck into the way he should
go. Buck learned easily, and under the combined tuition of his two mates and
François made remarkable progress. Ere they returned to camp he knew enough to
stop at “ho,” to go ahead at “mush,” to swing wide on
the bends, and to keep clear of the wheeler when the loaded sled shot downhill
at their heels.
“T’ree vair’ good dogs,” François told Perrault.
“Dat Buck, heem pool lak hell. I tich heem queek as
By afternoon, Perrault, who was in a hurry to be on the trail with his
despatches, returned with two more dogs. “Billee” and
“Joe” he called them, two brothers, and true huskies both. Sons of
the one mother though they were, they were as different as day and night.
Billee’s one fault was his excessive good nature, while Joe was the very
opposite, sour and introspective, with a perpetual snarl and a malignant eye.
Buck received them in comradely fashion, Dave ignored them, while Spitz
proceeded to thrash first one and then the other. Billee wagged his tail
appeasingly, turned to run when he saw that appeasement was of no avail, and
cried (still appeasingly) when Spitz’s sharp teeth scored his flank. But
no matter how Spitz circled, Joe whirled around on his heels to face him, mane
bristling, ears laid back, lips writhing and snarling, jaws clipping together
as fast as he could snap, and eyes diabolically gleaming—the incarnation
of belligerent fear. So terrible was his appearance that Spitz was forced to
forego disciplining him; but to cover his own discomfiture he turned upon the
inoffensive and wailing Billee and drove him to the confines of the camp.
By evening Perrault secured another dog, an old husky, long and lean and gaunt,
with a battle-scarred face and a single eye which flashed a warning of prowess
that commanded respect. He was called Sol-leks, which means the Angry One. Like
Dave, he asked nothing, gave nothing, expected nothing; and when he marched
slowly and deliberately into their midst, even Spitz left him alone. He had one
peculiarity which Buck was unlucky enough to discover. He did not like to be
approached on his blind side. Of this offence Buck was unwittingly guilty, and
the first knowledge he had of his indiscretion was when Sol-leks whirled upon
him and slashed his shoulder to the bone for three inches up and down. Forever
after Buck avoided his blind side, and to the last of their comradeship had no
more trouble. His only apparent ambition, like Dave’s, was to be left
alone; though, as Buck was afterward to learn, each of them possessed one other
and even more vital ambition.
That night Buck faced the great problem of sleeping. The tent, illumined by a
candle, glowed warmly in the midst of the white plain; and when he, as a matter
of course, entered it, both Perrault and François bombarded him with curses and
cooking utensils, till he recovered from his consternation and fled
ignominiously into the outer cold. A chill wind was blowing that nipped him
sharply and bit with especial venom into his wounded shoulder. He lay down on
the snow and attempted to sleep, but the frost soon drove him shivering to his
feet. Miserable and disconsolate, he wandered about among the many tents, only
to find that one place was as cold as another. Here and there savage dogs
rushed upon him, but he bristled his neck-hair and snarled (for he was learning
fast), and they let him go his way unmolested.
Finally an idea came to him. He would return and see how his own team-mates
were making out. To his astonishment, they had disappeared. Again he wandered
about through the great camp, looking for them, and again he returned. Were
they in the tent? No, that could not be, else he would not have been driven
out. Then where could they possibly be? With drooping tail and shivering body,
very forlorn indeed, he aimlessly circled the tent. Suddenly the snow gave way
beneath his fore legs and he sank down. Something wriggled under his feet. He
sprang back, bristling and snarling, fearful of the unseen and unknown. But a
friendly little yelp reassured him, and he went back to investigate. A whiff of
warm air ascended to his nostrils, and there, curled up under the snow in a
snug ball, lay Billee. He whined placatingly, squirmed and wriggled to show his
good will and intentions, and even ventured, as a bribe for peace, to lick
Buck’s face with his warm wet tongue.
Another lesson. So that was the way they did it, eh? Buck confidently selected
a spot, and with much fuss and waste effort proceeded to dig a hole for
himself. In a trice the heat from his body filled the confined space and he was
asleep. The day had been long and arduous, and he slept soundly and
comfortably, though he growled and barked and wrestled with bad dreams.
Nor did he open his eyes till roused by the noises of the waking camp. At first
he did not know where he was. It had snowed during the night and he was
completely buried. The snow walls pressed him on every side, and a great surge
of fear swept through him—the fear of the wild thing for the trap. It was
a token that he was harking back through his own life to the lives of his
forebears; for he was a civilized dog, an unduly civilized dog, and of his own
experience knew no trap and so could not of himself fear it. The muscles of his
whole body contracted spasmodically and instinctively, the hair on his neck and
shoulders stood on end, and with a ferocious snarl he bounded straight up into
the blinding day, the snow flying about him in a flashing cloud. Ere he landed
on his feet, he saw the white camp spread out before him and knew where he was
and remembered all that had passed from the time he went for a stroll with
Manuel to the hole he had dug for himself the night before.
A shout from François hailed his appearance. “Wot I say?” the
dog-driver cried to Perrault. “Dat Buck for sure learn queek as
Perrault nodded gravely. As courier for the Canadian Government, bearing
important despatches, he was anxious to secure the best dogs, and he was
particularly gladdened by the possession of Buck.
Three more huskies were added to the team inside an hour, making a total of
nine, and before another quarter of an hour had passed they were in harness and
swinging up the trail toward the Dyea Cañon. Buck was glad to be gone, and
though the work was hard he found he did not particularly despise it. He was
surprised at the eagerness which animated the whole team and which was
communicated to him; but still more surprising was the change wrought in Dave
and Sol-leks. They were new dogs, utterly transformed by the harness. All
passiveness and unconcern had dropped from them. They were alert and active,
anxious that the work should go well, and fiercely irritable with whatever, by
delay or confusion, retarded that work. The toil of the traces seemed the
supreme expression of their being, and all that they lived for and the only
thing in which they took delight.
Dave was wheeler or sled dog, pulling in front of him was Buck, then came
Sol-leks; the rest of the team was strung out ahead, single file, to the
leader, which position was filled by Spitz.
Buck had been purposely placed between Dave and Sol-leks so that he might
receive instruction. Apt scholar that he was, they were equally apt teachers,
never allowing him to linger long in error, and enforcing their teaching with
their sharp teeth. Dave was fair and very wise. He never nipped Buck without
cause, and he never failed to nip him when he stood in need of it. As
François’s whip backed him up, Buck found it to be cheaper to mend his
ways than to retaliate. Once, during a brief halt, when he got tangled in the
traces and delayed the start, both Dave and Sol-leks flew at him and
administered a sound trouncing. The resulting tangle was even worse, but Buck
took good care to keep the traces clear thereafter; and ere the day was done,
so well had he mastered his work, his mates about ceased nagging him.
François’s whip snapped less frequently, and Perrault even honored Buck
by lifting up his feet and carefully examining them.
It was a hard day’s run, up the Cañon, through Sheep Camp, past the
Scales and the timber line, across glaciers and snowdrifts hundreds of feet
deep, and over the great Chilcoot Divide, which stands between the salt water
and the fresh and guards forbiddingly the sad and lonely North. They made good
time down the chain of lakes which fills the craters of extinct volcanoes, and
late that night pulled into the huge camp at the head of Lake Bennett, where
thousands of goldseekers were building boats against the break-up of the ice in
the spring. Buck made his hole in the snow and slept the sleep of the exhausted
just, but all too early was routed out in the cold darkness and harnessed with
his mates to the sled.
That day they made forty miles, the trail being packed; but the next day, and
for many days to follow, they broke their own trail, worked harder, and made
poorer time. As a rule, Perrault travelled ahead of the team, packing the snow
with webbed shoes to make it easier for them. François, guiding the sled at the
gee-pole, sometimes exchanged places with him, but not often. Perrault was in a
hurry, and he prided himself on his knowledge of ice, which knowledge was
indispensable, for the fall ice was very thin, and where there was swift water,
there was no ice at all.
Day after day, for days unending, Buck toiled in the traces. Always, they broke
camp in the dark, and the first gray of dawn found them hitting the trail with
fresh miles reeled off behind them. And always they pitched camp after dark,
eating their bit of fish, and crawling to sleep into the snow. Buck was
ravenous. The pound and a half of sun-dried salmon, which was his ration for
each day, seemed to go nowhere. He never had enough, and suffered from
perpetual hunger pangs. Yet the other dogs, because they weighed less and were
born to the life, received a pound only of the fish and managed to keep in good
He swiftly lost the fastidiousness which had characterized his old life. A
dainty eater, he found that his mates, finishing first, robbed him of his
unfinished ration. There was no defending it. While he was fighting off two or
three, it was disappearing down the throats of the others. To remedy this, he
ate as fast as they; and, so greatly did hunger compel him, he was not above
taking what did not belong to him. He watched and learned. When he saw Pike,
one of the new dogs, a clever malingerer and thief, slyly steal a slice of
bacon when Perrault’s back was turned, he duplicated the performance the
following day, getting away with the whole chunk. A great uproar was raised,
but he was unsuspected; while Dub, an awkward blunderer who was always getting
caught, was punished for Buck’s misdeed.
This first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland
environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to
changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible
death. It marked, further, the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a
vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence. It was all
well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect
private property and personal feelings; but in the Northland, under the law of
club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and in so far as
he observed them he would fail to prosper.
Not that Buck reasoned it out. He was fit, that was all, and unconsciously he
accommodated himself to the new mode of life. All his days, no matter what the
odds, he had never run from a fight. But the club of the man in the red sweater
had beaten into him a more fundamental and primitive code. Civilized, he could
have died for a moral consideration, say the defence of Judge Miller’s
riding-whip; but the completeness of his decivilization was now evidenced by
his ability to flee from the defence of a moral consideration and so save his
hide. He did not steal for joy of it, but because of the clamor of his stomach.
He did not rob openly, but stole secretly and cunningly, out of respect for
club and fang. In short, the things he did were done because it was easier to
do them than not to do them.
His development (or retrogression) was rapid. His muscles became hard as iron,
and he grew callous to all ordinary pain. He achieved an internal as well as
external economy. He could eat anything, no matter how loathsome or
indigestible; and, once eaten, the juices of his stomach extracted the last
least particle of nutriment; and his blood carried it to the farthest reaches
of his body, building it into the toughest and stoutest of tissues. Sight and
scent became remarkably keen, while his hearing developed such acuteness that
in his sleep he heard the faintest sound and knew whether it heralded peace or
peril. He learned to bite the ice out with his teeth when it collected between
his toes; and when he was thirsty and there was a thick scum of ice over the
water hole, he would break it by rearing and striking it with stiff fore legs.
His most conspicuous trait was an ability to scent the wind and forecast it a
night in advance. No matter how breathless the air when he dug his nest by tree
or bank, the wind that later blew inevitably found him to leeward, sheltered
And not only did he learn by experience, but instincts long dead became alive
again. The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered
back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs
through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down. It was
no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap.
In this manner had fought forgotten ancestors. They quickened the old life
within him, and the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the
breed were his tricks. They came to him without effort or discovery, as though
they had been his always. And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his
nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and
dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through
him. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voiced their woe
and what to them was the meaning of the stiffness, and the cold, and dark.
Thus, as token of what a puppet thing life is, the ancient song surged through
him and he came into his own again; and he came because men had found a yellow
metal in the North, and because Manuel was a gardener’s helper whose
wages did not lap over the needs of his wife and divers small copies of
The dominant primordial beast was strong in Buck, and under the fierce
conditions of trail life it grew and grew. Yet it was a secret growth. His
newborn cunning gave him poise and control. He was too busy adjusting himself
to the new life to feel at ease, and not only did he not pick fights, but he
avoided them whenever possible. A certain deliberateness characterized his
attitude. He was not prone to rashness and precipitate action; and in the
bitter hatred between him and Spitz he betrayed no impatience, shunned all
On the other hand, possibly because he divined in Buck a dangerous rival, Spitz
never lost an opportunity of showing his teeth. He even went out of his way to
bully Buck, striving constantly to start the fight which could end only in the
death of one or the other. Early in the trip this might have taken place had it
not been for an unwonted accident. At the end of this day they made a bleak and
miserable camp on the shore of Lake Le Barge. Driving snow, a wind that cut
like a white-hot knife, and darkness had forced them to grope for a camping
place. They could hardly have fared worse. At their backs rose a perpendicular
wall of rock, and Perrault and François were compelled to make their fire and
spread their sleeping robes on the ice of the lake itself. The tent they had
discarded at Dyea in order to travel light. A few sticks of driftwood furnished
them with a fire that thawed down through the ice and left them to eat supper
in the dark.
Close in under the sheltering rock Buck made his nest. So snug and warm was it,
that he was loath to leave it when François distributed the fish which he had
first thawed over the fire. But when Buck finished his ration and returned, he
found his nest occupied. A warning snarl told him that the trespasser was
Spitz. Till now Buck had avoided trouble with his enemy, but this was too much.
The beast in him roared. He sprang upon Spitz with a fury which surprised them
both, and Spitz particularly, for his whole experience with Buck had gone to
teach him that his rival was an unusually timid dog, who managed to hold his
own only because of his great weight and size.
François was surprised, too, when they shot out in a tangle from the disrupted
nest and he divined the cause of the trouble. “A-a-ah!” he cried to
Buck. “Gif it to heem, by Gar! Gif it to heem, the dirty
Spitz was equally willing. He was crying with sheer rage and eagerness as he
circled back and forth for a chance to spring in. Buck was no less eager, and
no less cautious, as he likewise circled back and forth for the advantage. But
it was then that the unexpected happened, the thing which projected their
struggle for supremacy far into the future, past many a weary mile of trail and
An oath from Perrault, the resounding impact of a club upon a bony frame, and a
shrill yelp of pain, heralded the breaking forth of pandemonium. The camp was
suddenly discovered to be alive with skulking furry forms,—starving
huskies, four or five score of them, who had scented the camp from some Indian
village. They had crept in while Buck and Spitz were fighting, and when the two
men sprang among them with stout clubs they showed their teeth and fought back.
They were crazed by the smell of the food. Perrault found one with head buried
in the grub-box. His club landed heavily on the gaunt ribs, and the grub-box
was capsized on the ground. On the instant a score of the famished brutes were
scrambling for the bread and bacon. The clubs fell upon them unheeded. They
yelped and howled under the rain of blows, but struggled none the less madly
till the last crumb had been devoured.
In the meantime the astonished team-dogs had burst out of their nests only to
be set upon by the fierce invaders. Never had Buck seen such dogs. It seemed as
though their bones would burst through their skins. They were mere skeletons,
draped loosely in draggled hides, with blazing eyes and slavered fangs. But the
hunger-madness made them terrifying, irresistible. There was no opposing them.
The team-dogs were swept back against the cliff at the first onset. Buck was
beset by three huskies, and in a trice his head and shoulders were ripped and
slashed. The din was frightful. Billee was crying as usual. Dave and Sol-leks,
dripping blood from a score of wounds, were fighting bravely side by side. Joe
was snapping like a demon. Once, his teeth closed on the fore leg of a husky,
and he crunched down through the bone. Pike, the malingerer, leaped upon the
crippled animal, breaking its neck with a quick flash of teeth and a jerk, Buck
got a frothing adversary by the throat, and was sprayed with blood when his
teeth sank through the jugular. The warm taste of it in his mouth goaded him to
greater fierceness. He flung himself upon another, and at the same time felt
teeth sink into his own throat. It was Spitz, treacherously attacking from the
Perrault and François, having cleaned out their part of the camp, hurried to
save their sled-dogs. The wild wave of famished beasts rolled back before them,
and Buck shook himself free. But it was only for a moment. The two men were
compelled to run back to save the grub, upon which the huskies returned to the
attack on the team. Billee, terrified into bravery, sprang through the savage
circle and fled away over the ice. Pike and Dub followed on his heels, with the
rest of the team behind. As Buck drew himself together to spring after them,
out of the tail of his eye he saw Spitz rush upon him with the evident
intention of overthrowing him. Once off his feet and under that mass of
huskies, there was no hope for him. But he braced himself to the shock of
Spitz’s charge, then joined the flight out on the lake.
Later, the nine team-dogs gathered together and sought shelter in the forest.
Though unpursued, they were in a sorry plight. There was not one who was not
wounded in four or five places, while some were wounded grievously. Dub was
badly injured in a hind leg; Dolly, the last husky added to the team at Dyea,
had a badly torn throat; Joe had lost an eye; while Billee, the good-natured,
with an ear chewed and rent to ribbons, cried and whimpered throughout the
night. At daybreak they limped warily back to camp, to find the marauders gone
and the two men in bad tempers. Fully half their grub supply was gone. The
huskies had chewed through the sled lashings and canvas coverings. In fact,
nothing, no matter how remotely eatable, had escaped them. They had eaten a
pair of Perrault’s moose-hide moccasins, chunks out of the leather
traces, and even two feet of lash from the end of François’s whip. He
broke from a mournful contemplation of it to look over his wounded dogs.
“Ah, my frien’s,” he said softly, “mebbe it mek you mad
dog, dose many bites. Mebbe all mad dog, sacredam! Wot you t’ink, eh,
The courier shook his head dubiously. With four hundred miles of trail still
between him and Dawson, he could ill afford to have madness break out among his
dogs. Two hours of cursing and exertion got the harnesses into shape, and the
wound-stiffened team was under way, struggling painfully over the hardest part
of the trail they had yet encountered, and for that matter, the hardest between
them and Dawson.
The Thirty Mile River was wide open. Its wild water defied the frost, and it
was in the eddies only and in the quiet places that the ice held at all. Six
days of exhausting toil were required to cover those thirty terrible miles. And
terrible they were, for every foot of them was accomplished at the risk of life
to dog and man. A dozen times, Perrault, nosing the way broke through the ice
bridges, being saved by the long pole he carried, which he so held that it fell
each time across the hole made by his body. But a cold snap was on, the
thermometer registering fifty below zero, and each time he broke through he was
compelled for very life to build a fire and dry his garments.
Nothing daunted him. It was because nothing daunted him that he had been chosen
for government courier. He took all manner of risks, resolutely thrusting his
little weazened face into the frost and struggling on from dim dawn to dark. He
skirted the frowning shores on rim ice that bent and crackled under foot and
upon which they dared not halt. Once, the sled broke through, with Dave and
Buck, and they were half-frozen and all but drowned by the time they were
dragged out. The usual fire was necessary to save them. They were coated
solidly with ice, and the two men kept them on the run around the fire,
sweating and thawing, so close that they were singed by the flames.
At another time Spitz went through, dragging the whole team after him up to
Buck, who strained backward with all his strength, his fore paws on the
slippery edge and the ice quivering and snapping all around. But behind him was
Dave, likewise straining backward, and behind the sled was François, pulling
till his tendons cracked.
Again, the rim ice broke away before and behind, and there was no escape except
up the cliff. Perrault scaled it by a miracle, while François prayed for just
that miracle; and with every thong and sled lashing and the last bit of harness
rove into a long rope, the dogs were hoisted, one by one, to the cliff crest.
François came up last, after the sled and load. Then came the search for a
place to descend, which descent was ultimately made by the aid of the rope, and
night found them back on the river with a quarter of a mile to the day’s
By the time they made the Hootalinqua and good ice, Buck was played out. The
rest of the dogs were in like condition; but Perrault, to make up lost time,
pushed them late and early. The first day they covered thirty-five miles to the
Big Salmon; the next day thirty-five more to the Little Salmon; the third day
forty miles, which brought them well up toward the Five Fingers.
Buck’s feet were not so compact and hard as the feet of the huskies. His
had softened during the many generations since the day his last wild ancestor
was tamed by a cave-dweller or river man. All day long he limped in agony, and
camp once made, lay down like a dead dog. Hungry as he was, he would not move
to receive his ration of fish, which François had to bring to him. Also, the
dog-driver rubbed Buck’s feet for half an hour each night after supper,
and sacrificed the tops of his own moccasins to make four moccasins for Buck.
This was a great relief, and Buck caused even the weazened face of Perrault to
twist itself into a grin one morning, when François forgot the moccasins and
Buck lay on his back, his four feet waving appealingly in the air, and refused
to budge without them. Later his feet grew hard to the trail, and the worn-out
foot-gear was thrown away.
At the Pelly one morning, as they were harnessing up, Dolly, who had never been
conspicuous for anything, went suddenly mad. She announced her condition by a
long, heartbreaking wolf howl that sent every dog bristling with fear, then
sprang straight for Buck. He had never seen a dog go mad, nor did he have any
reason to fear madness; yet he knew that here was horror, and fled away from it
in a panic. Straight away he raced, with Dolly, panting and frothing, one leap
behind; nor could she gain on him, so great was his terror, nor could he leave
her, so great was her madness. He plunged through the wooded breast of the
island, flew down to the lower end, crossed a back channel filled with rough
ice to another island, gained a third island, curved back to the main river,
and in desperation started to cross it. And all the time, though he did not
look, he could hear her snarling just one leap behind. François called to him a
quarter of a mile away and he doubled back, still one leap ahead, gasping
painfully for air and putting all his faith in that François would save him.
The dog-driver held the axe poised in his hand, and as Buck shot past him the
axe crashed down upon mad Dolly’s head.
Buck staggered over against the sled, exhausted, sobbing for breath, helpless.
This was Spitz’s opportunity. He sprang upon Buck, and twice his teeth
sank into his unresisting foe and ripped and tore the flesh to the bone. Then
François’s lash descended, and Buck had the satisfaction of watching
Spitz receive the worst whipping as yet administered to any of the teams.
“One devil, dat Spitz,” remarked Perrault. “Some dam day heem
keel dat Buck.”
“Dat Buck two devils,” was François’s rejoinder. “All
de tam I watch dat Buck I know for sure. Lissen: some dam fine day heem get mad
lak hell an’ den heem chew dat Spitz all up an’ spit heem out on de
snow. Sure. I know.”
From then on it was war between them. Spitz, as lead-dog and acknowledged
master of the team, felt his supremacy threatened by this strange Southland
dog. And strange Buck was to him, for of the many Southland dogs he had known,
not one had shown up worthily in camp and on trail. They were all too soft,
dying under the toil, the frost, and starvation. Buck was the exception. He
alone endured and prospered, matching the husky in strength, savagery, and
cunning. Then he was a masterful dog, and what made him dangerous was the fact
that the club of the man in the red sweater had knocked all blind pluck and
rashness out of his desire for mastery. He was preeminently cunning, and could
bide his time with a patience that was nothing less than primitive.
It was inevitable that the clash for leadership should come. Buck wanted it. He
wanted it because it was his nature, because he had been gripped tight by that
nameless, incomprehensible pride of the trail and trace—that pride which
holds dogs in the toil to the last gasp, which lures them to die joyfully in
the harness, and breaks their hearts if they are cut out of the harness. This
was the pride of Dave as wheel-dog, of Sol-leks as he pulled with all his
strength; the pride that laid hold of them at break of camp, transforming them
from sour and sullen brutes into straining, eager, ambitious creatures; the
pride that spurred them on all day and dropped them at pitch of camp at night,
letting them fall back into gloomy unrest and uncontent. This was the pride
that bore up Spitz and made him thrash the sled-dogs who blundered and shirked
in the traces or hid away at harness-up time in the morning. Likewise it was
this pride that made him fear Buck as a possible lead-dog. And this was
Buck’s pride, too.
He openly threatened the other’s leadership. He came between him and the
shirks he should have punished. And he did it deliberately. One night there was
a heavy snowfall, and in the morning Pike, the malingerer, did not appear. He
was securely hidden in his nest under a foot of snow. François called him and
sought him in vain. Spitz was wild with wrath. He raged through the camp,
smelling and digging in every likely place, snarling so frightfully that Pike
heard and shivered in his hiding-place.
But when he was at last unearthed, and Spitz flew at him to punish him, Buck
flew, with equal rage, in between. So unexpected was it, and so shrewdly
managed, that Spitz was hurled backward and off his feet. Pike, who had been
trembling abjectly, took heart at this open mutiny, and sprang upon his
overthrown leader. Buck, to whom fair play was a forgotten code, likewise
sprang upon Spitz. But François, chuckling at the incident while unswerving in
the administration of justice, brought his lash down upon Buck with all his
might. This failed to drive Buck from his prostrate rival, and the butt of the
whip was brought into play. Half-stunned by the blow, Buck was knocked backward
and the lash laid upon him again and again, while Spitz soundly punished the
many times offending Pike.
In the days that followed, as Dawson grew closer and closer, Buck still
continued to interfere between Spitz and the culprits; but he did it craftily,
when François was not around, With the covert mutiny of Buck, a general
insubordination sprang up and increased. Dave and Sol-leks were unaffected, but
the rest of the team went from bad to worse. Things no longer went right. There
was continual bickering and jangling. Trouble was always afoot, and at the
bottom of it was Buck. He kept François busy, for the dog-driver was in
constant apprehension of the life-and-death struggle between the two which he
knew must take place sooner or later; and on more than one night the sounds of
quarrelling and strife among the other dogs turned him out of his sleeping
robe, fearful that Buck and Spitz were at it.
But the opportunity did not present itself, and they pulled into Dawson one
dreary afternoon with the great fight still to come. Here were many men, and
countless dogs, and Buck found them all at work. It seemed the ordained order
of things that dogs should work. All day they swung up and down the main street
in long teams, and in the night their jingling bells still went by. They hauled
cabin logs and firewood, freighted up to the mines, and did all manner of work
that horses did in the Santa Clara Valley. Here and there Buck met Southland
dogs, but in the main they were the wild wolf husky breed. Every night,
regularly, at nine, at twelve, at three, they lifted a nocturnal song, a weird
and eerie chant, in which it was Buck’s delight to join.
With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the
frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow, this song of
the huskies might have been the defiance of life, only it was pitched in minor
key, with long-drawn wailings and half-sobs, and was more the pleading of life,
the articulate travail of existence. It was an old song, old as the breed
itself—one of the first songs of the younger world in a day when songs
were sad. It was invested with the woe of unnumbered generations, this plaint
by which Buck was so strangely stirred. When he moaned and sobbed, it was with
the pain of living that was of old the pain of his wild fathers, and the fear
and mystery of the cold and dark that was to them fear and mystery. And that he
should be stirred by it marked the completeness with which he harked back
through the ages of fire and roof to the raw beginnings of life in the howling
Seven days from the time they pulled into Dawson, they dropped down the steep
bank by the Barracks to the Yukon Trail, and pulled for Dyea and Salt Water.
Perrault was carrying despatches if anything more urgent than those he had
brought in; also, the travel pride had gripped him, and he purposed to make the
record trip of the year. Several things favored him in this. The week’s
rest had recuperated the dogs and put them in thorough trim. The trail they had
broken into the country was packed hard by later journeyers. And further, the
police had arranged in two or three places deposits of grub for dog and man,
and he was travelling light.
They made Sixty Mile, which is a fifty-mile run, on the first day; and the
second day saw them booming up the Yukon well on their way to Pelly. But such
splendid running was achieved not without great trouble and vexation on the
part of François. The insidious revolt led by Buck had destroyed the solidarity
of the team. It no longer was as one dog leaping in the traces. The
encouragement Buck gave the rebels led them into all kinds of petty
misdemeanors. No more was Spitz a leader greatly to be feared. The old awe
departed, and they grew equal to challenging his authority. Pike robbed him of
half a fish one night, and gulped it down under the protection of Buck. Another
night Dub and Joe fought Spitz and made him forego the punishment they
deserved. And even Billee, the good-natured, was less good-natured, and whined
not half so placatingly as in former days. Buck never came near Spitz without
snarling and bristling menacingly. In fact, his conduct approached that of a
bully, and he was given to swaggering up and down before Spitz’s very
The breaking down of discipline likewise affected the dogs in their relations
with one another. They quarrelled and bickered more than ever among themselves,
till at times the camp was a howling bedlam. Dave and Sol-leks alone were
unaltered, though they were made irritable by the unending squabbling. François
swore strange barbarous oaths, and stamped the snow in futile rage, and tore
his hair. His lash was always singing among the dogs, but it was of small
avail. Directly his back was turned they were at it again. He backed up Spitz
with his whip, while Buck backed up the remainder of the team. François knew he
was behind all the trouble, and Buck knew he knew; but Buck was too clever ever
again to be caught red-handed. He worked faithfully in the harness, for the
toil had become a delight to him; yet it was a greater delight slyly to
precipitate a fight amongst his mates and tangle the traces.
At the mouth of the Tahkeena, one night after supper, Dub turned up a snowshoe
rabbit, blundered it, and missed. In a second the whole team was in full cry. A
hundred yards away was a camp of the Northwest Police, with fifty dogs, huskies
all, who joined the chase. The rabbit sped down the river, turned off into a
small creek, up the frozen bed of which it held steadily. It ran lightly on the
surface of the snow, while the dogs ploughed through by main strength. Buck led
the pack, sixty strong, around bend after bend, but he could not gain. He lay
down low to the race, whining eagerly, his splendid body flashing forward, leap
by leap, in the wan white moonlight. And leap by leap, like some pale frost
wraith, the snowshoe rabbit flashed on ahead.
All that stirring of old instincts which at stated periods drives men out from
the sounding cities to forest and plain to kill things by chemically propelled
leaden pellets, the blood lust, the joy to kill—all this was
Buck’s, only it was infinitely more intimate. He was ranging at the head
of the pack, running the wild thing down, the living meat, to kill with his own
teeth and wash his muzzle to the eyes in warm blood.
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot
rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most
alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This
ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out
of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken
field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the
old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly
before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and
of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb
of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being,
the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was
everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself
in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter
that did not move.
But Spitz, cold and calculating even in his supreme moods, left the pack and
cut across a narrow neck of land where the creek made a long bend around. Buck
did not know of this, and as he rounded the bend, the frost wraith of a rabbit
still flitting before him, he saw another and larger frost wraith leap from the
overhanging bank into the immediate path of the rabbit. It was Spitz. The
rabbit could not turn, and as the white teeth broke its back in mid air it
shrieked as loudly as a stricken man may shriek. At sound of this, the cry of
Life plunging down from Life’s apex in the grip of Death, the fall pack
at Buck’s heels raised a hell’s chorus of delight.
Buck did not cry out. He did not check himself, but drove in upon Spitz,
shoulder to shoulder, so hard that he missed the throat. They rolled over and
over in the powdery snow. Spitz gained his feet almost as though he had not
been overthrown, slashing Buck down the shoulder and leaping clear. Twice his
teeth clipped together, like the steel jaws of a trap, as he backed away for
better footing, with lean and lifting lips that writhed and snarled.
In a flash Buck knew it. The time had come. It was to the death. As they
circled about, snarling, ears laid back, keenly watchful for the advantage, the
scene came to Buck with a sense of familiarity. He seemed to remember it
all,—the white woods, and earth, and moonlight, and the thrill of battle.
Over the whiteness and silence brooded a ghostly calm. There was not the
faintest whisper of air—nothing moved, not a leaf quivered, the visible
breaths of the dogs rising slowly and lingering in the frosty air. They had
made short work of the snowshoe rabbit, these dogs that were ill-tamed wolves;
and they were now drawn up in an expectant circle. They, too, were silent,
their eyes only gleaming and their breaths drifting slowly upward. To Buck it
was nothing new or strange, this scene of old time. It was as though it had
always been, the wonted way of things.
Spitz was a practised fighter. From Spitzbergen through the Arctic, and across
Canada and the Barrens, he had held his own with all manner of dogs and
achieved to mastery over them. Bitter rage was his, but never blind rage. In
passion to rend and destroy, he never forgot that his enemy was in like passion
to rend and destroy. He never rushed till he was prepared to receive a rush;
never attacked till he had first defended that attack.
In vain Buck strove to sink his teeth in the neck of the big white dog.
Wherever his fangs struck for the softer flesh, they were countered by the
fangs of Spitz. Fang clashed fang, and lips were cut and bleeding, but Buck
could not penetrate his enemy’s guard. Then he warmed up and enveloped
Spitz in a whirlwind of rushes. Time and time again he tried for the snow-white
throat, where life bubbled near to the surface, and each time and every time
Spitz slashed him and got away. Then Buck took to rushing, as though for the
throat, when, suddenly drawing back his head and curving in from the side, he
would drive his shoulder at the shoulder of Spitz, as a ram by which to
overthrow him. But instead, Buck’s shoulder was slashed down each time as
Spitz leaped lightly away.
Spitz was untouched, while Buck was streaming with blood and panting hard. The
fight was growing desperate. And all the while the silent and wolfish circle
waited to finish off whichever dog went down. As Buck grew winded, Spitz took
to rushing, and he kept him staggering for footing. Once Buck went over, and
the whole circle of sixty dogs started up; but he recovered himself, almost in
mid air, and the circle sank down again and waited.
But Buck possessed a quality that made for greatness—imagination. He
fought by instinct, but he could fight by head as well. He rushed, as though
attempting the old shoulder trick, but at the last instant swept low to the
snow and in. His teeth closed on Spitz’s left fore leg. There was a
crunch of breaking bone, and the white dog faced him on three legs. Thrice he
tried to knock him over, then repeated the trick and broke the right fore leg.
Despite the pain and helplessness, Spitz struggled madly to keep up. He saw the
silent circle, with gleaming eyes, lolling tongues, and silvery breaths
drifting upward, closing in upon him as he had seen similar circles close in
upon beaten antagonists in the past. Only this time he was the one who was
There was no hope for him. Buck was inexorable. Mercy was a thing reserved for
gentler climes. He manœuvred for the final rush. The circle had tightened till
he could feel the breaths of the huskies on his flanks. He could see them,
beyond Spitz and to either side, half crouching for the spring, their eyes
fixed upon him. A pause seemed to fall. Every animal was motionless as though
turned to stone. Only Spitz quivered and bristled as he staggered back and
forth, snarling with horrible menace, as though to frighten off impending
death. Then Buck sprang in and out; but while he was in, shoulder had at last
squarely met shoulder. The dark circle became a dot on the moon-flooded snow as
Spitz disappeared from view. Buck stood and looked on, the successful champion,
the dominant primordial beast who had made his kill and found it good.
“Eh? Wot I say? I spik true w’en I say dat Buck two devils.”
This was François’s speech next morning when he discovered Spitz missing
and Buck covered with wounds. He drew him to the fire and by its light pointed
“Dat Spitz fight lak hell,” said Perrault, as he surveyed the
gaping rips and cuts.
“An’ dat Buck fight lak two hells,” was François’s
answer. “An’ now we make good time. No more Spitz, no more trouble,
While Perrault packed the camp outfit and loaded the sled, the dog-driver
proceeded to harness the dogs. Buck trotted up to the place Spitz would have
occupied as leader; but François, not noticing him, brought Sol-leks to the
coveted position. In his judgment, Sol-leks was the best lead-dog left. Buck
sprang upon Sol-leks in a fury, driving him back and standing in his place.
“Eh? eh?” François cried, slapping his thighs gleefully.
“Look at dat Buck. Heem keel dat Spitz, heem t’ink to take de
“Go ’way, Chook!” he cried, but Buck refused to budge.
He took Buck by the scruff of the neck, and though the dog growled
threateningly, dragged him to one side and replaced Sol-leks. The old dog did
not like it, and showed plainly that he was afraid of Buck. François was
obdurate, but when he turned his back Buck again displaced Sol-leks, who was
not at all unwilling to go.
François was angry. “Now, by Gar, I feex you!” he cried, coming
back with a heavy club in his hand.
Buck remembered the man in the red sweater, and retreated slowly; nor did he
attempt to charge in when Sol-leks was once more brought forward. But he
circled just beyond the range of the club, snarling with bitterness and rage;
and while he circled he watched the club so as to dodge it if thrown by
François, for he was become wise in the way of clubs. The driver went about his
work, and he called to Buck when he was ready to put him in his old place in
front of Dave. Buck retreated two or three steps. François followed him up,
whereupon he again retreated. After some time of this, François threw down the
club, thinking that Buck feared a thrashing. But Buck was in open revolt. He
wanted, not to escape a clubbing, but to have the leadership. It was his by
right. He had earned it, and he would not be content with less.
Perrault took a hand. Between them they ran him about for the better part of an
hour. They threw clubs at him. He dodged. They cursed him, and his fathers and
mothers before him, and all his seed to come after him down to the remotest
generation, and every hair on his body and drop of blood in his veins; and he
answered curse with snarl and kept out of their reach. He did not try to run
away, but retreated around and around the camp, advertising plainly that when
his desire was met, he would come in and be good.
François sat down and scratched his head. Perrault looked at his watch and
swore. Time was flying, and they should have been on the trail an hour gone.
François scratched his head again. He shook it and grinned sheepishly at the
courier, who shrugged his shoulders in sign that they were beaten. Then
François went up to where Sol-leks stood and called to Buck. Buck laughed, as
dogs laugh, yet kept his distance. François unfastened Sol-leks’s traces
and put him back in his old place. The team stood harnessed to the sled in an
unbroken line, ready for the trail. There was no place for Buck save at the
front. Once more François called, and once more Buck laughed and kept away.
“T’row down de club,” Perrault commanded.
François complied, whereupon Buck trotted in, laughing triumphantly, and swung
around into position at the head of the team. His traces were fastened, the
sled broken out, and with both men running they dashed out on to the river
Highly as the dog-driver had forevalued Buck, with his two devils, he found,
while the day was yet young, that he had undervalued. At a bound Buck took up
the duties of leadership; and where judgment was required, and quick thinking
and quick acting, he showed himself the superior even of Spitz, of whom
François had never seen an equal.
But it was in giving the law and making his mates live up to it, that Buck
excelled. Dave and Sol-leks did not mind the change in leadership. It was none
of their business. Their business was to toil, and toil mightily, in the
traces. So long as that were not interfered with, they did not care what
happened. Billee, the good-natured, could lead for all they cared, so long as
he kept order. The rest of the team, however, had grown unruly during the last
days of Spitz, and their surprise was great now that Buck proceeded to lick
them into shape.
Pike, who pulled at Buck’s heels, and who never put an ounce more of his
weight against the breast-band than he was compelled to do, was swiftly and
repeatedly shaken for loafing; and ere the first day was done he was pulling
more than ever before in his life. The first night in camp, Joe, the sour one,
was punished roundly—a thing that Spitz had never succeeded in doing.
Buck simply smothered him by virtue of superior weight, and cut him up till he
ceased snapping and began to whine for mercy.
The general tone of the team picked up immediately. It recovered its old-time
solidarity, and once more the dogs leaped as one dog in the traces. At the Rink
Rapids two native huskies, Teek and Koona, were added; and the celerity with
which Buck broke them in took away François’s breath.
“Nevaire such a dog as dat Buck!” he cried. “No, nevaire!
Heem worth one t’ousan’ dollair, by Gar! Eh? Wot you say,
And Perrault nodded. He was ahead of the record then, and gaining day by day.
The trail was in excellent condition, well packed and hard, and there was no
new-fallen snow with which to contend. It was not too cold. The temperature
dropped to fifty below zero and remained there the whole trip. The men rode and
ran by turn, and the dogs were kept on the jump, with but infrequent stoppages.
The Thirty Mile River was comparatively coated with ice, and they covered in
one day going out what had taken them ten days coming in. In one run they made
a sixty-mile dash from the foot of Lake Le Barge to the White Horse Rapids.
Across Marsh, Tagish, and Bennett (seventy miles of lakes), they flew so fast
that the man whose turn it was to run towed behind the sled at the end of a
rope. And on the last night of the second week they topped White Pass and
dropped down the sea slope with the lights of Skaguay and of the shipping at
It was a record run. Each day for fourteen days they had averaged forty miles.
For three days Perrault and François threw chests up and down the main street
of Skaguay and were deluged with invitations to drink, while the team was the
constant centre of a worshipful crowd of dog-busters and mushers. Then three or
four western bad men aspired to clean out the town, were riddled like
pepper-boxes for their pains, and public interest turned to other idols. Next
came official orders. François called Buck to him, threw his arms around him,
wept over him. And that was the last of François and Perrault. Like other men,
they passed out of Buck’s life for good.
A Scotch half-breed took charge of him and his mates, and in company with a
dozen other dog-teams he started back over the weary trail to Dawson. It was no
light running now, nor record time, but heavy toil each day, with a heavy load
behind; for this was the mail train, carrying word from the world to the men
who sought gold under the shadow of the Pole.
Buck did not like it, but he bore up well to the work, taking pride in it after
the manner of Dave and Sol-leks, and seeing that his mates, whether they prided
in it or not, did their fair share. It was a monotonous life, operating with
machine-like regularity. One day was very like another. At a certain time each
morning the cooks turned out, fires were built, and breakfast was eaten. Then,
while some broke camp, others harnessed the dogs, and they were under way an
hour or so before the darkness fell which gave warning of dawn. At night, camp
was made. Some pitched the flies, others cut firewood and pine boughs for the
beds, and still others carried water or ice for the cooks. Also, the dogs were
fed. To them, this was the one feature of the day, though it was good to loaf
around, after the fish was eaten, for an hour or so with the other dogs, of
which there were fivescore and odd. There were fierce fighters among them, but
three battles with the fiercest brought Buck to mastery, so that when he
bristled and showed his teeth they got out of his way.
Best of all, perhaps, he loved to lie near the fire, hind legs crouched under
him, fore legs stretched out in front, head raised, and eyes blinking dreamily
at the flames. Sometimes he thought of Judge Miller’s big house in the
sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley, and of the cement swimming-tank, and Ysabel, the
Mexican hairless, and Toots, the Japanese pug; but oftener he remembered the
man in the red sweater, the death of Curly, the great fight with Spitz, and the
good things he had eaten or would like to eat. He was not homesick. The Sunland
was very dim and distant, and such memories had no power over him. Far more
potent were the memories of his heredity that gave things he had never seen
before a seeming familiarity; the instincts (which were but the memories of his
ancestors become habits) which had lapsed in later days, and still later, in
him, quickened and become alive again.
Sometimes as he crouched there, blinking dreamily at the flames, it seemed that
the flames were of another fire, and that as he crouched by this other fire he
saw another and different man from the half-breed cook before him. This other
man was shorter of leg and longer of arm, with muscles that were stringy and
knotty rather than rounded and swelling. The hair of this man was long and
matted, and his head slanted back under it from the eyes. He uttered strange
sounds, and seemed very much afraid of the darkness, into which he peered
continually, clutching in his hand, which hung midway between knee and foot, a
stick with a heavy stone made fast to the end. He was all but naked, a ragged
and fire-scorched skin hanging part way down his back, but on his body there
was much hair. In some places, across the chest and shoulders and down the
outside of the arms and thighs, it was matted into almost a thick fur. He did
not stand erect, but with trunk inclined forward from the hips, on legs that
bent at the knees. About his body there was a peculiar springiness, or
resiliency, almost catlike, and a quick alertness as of one who lived in
perpetual fear of things seen and unseen.
At other times this hairy man squatted by the fire with head between his legs
and slept. On such occasions his elbows were on his knees, his hands clasped
above his head as though to shed rain by the hairy arms. And beyond that fire,
in the circling darkness, Buck could see many gleaming coals, two by two,
always two by two, which he knew to be the eyes of great beasts of prey. And he
could hear the crashing of their bodies through the undergrowth, and the noises
they made in the night. And dreaming there by the Yukon bank, with lazy eyes
blinking at the fire, these sounds and sights of another world would make the
hair to rise along his back and stand on end across his shoulders and up his
neck, till he whimpered low and suppressedly, or growled softly, and the
half-breed cook shouted at him, “Hey, you Buck, wake up!” Whereupon
the other world would vanish and the real world come into his eyes, and he
would get up and yawn and stretch as though he had been asleep.
It was a hard trip, with the mail behind them, and the heavy work wore them
down. They were short of weight and in poor condition when they made Dawson,
and should have had a ten days’ or a week’s rest at least. But in
two days’ time they dropped down the Yukon bank from the Barracks, loaded
with letters for the outside. The dogs were tired, the drivers grumbling, and
to make matters worse, it snowed every day. This meant a soft trail, greater
friction on the runners, and heavier pulling for the dogs; yet the drivers were
fair through it all, and did their best for the animals.
Each night the dogs were attended to first. They ate before the drivers ate,
and no man sought his sleeping-robe till he had seen to the feet of the dogs he
drove. Still, their strength went down. Since the beginning of the winter they
had travelled eighteen hundred miles, dragging sleds the whole weary distance;
and eighteen hundred miles will tell upon life of the toughest. Buck stood it,
keeping his mates up to their work and maintaining discipline, though he, too,
was very tired. Billee cried and whimpered regularly in his sleep each night.
Joe was sourer than ever, and Sol-leks was unapproachable, blind side or other
But it was Dave who suffered most of all. Something had gone wrong with him. He
became more morose and irritable, and when camp was pitched at once made his
nest, where his driver fed him. Once out of the harness and down, he did not
get on his feet again till harness-up time in the morning. Sometimes, in the
traces, when jerked by a sudden stoppage of the sled, or by straining to start
it, he would cry out with pain. The driver examined him, but could find
nothing. All the drivers became interested in his case. They talked it over at
meal-time, and over their last pipes before going to bed, and one night they
held a consultation. He was brought from his nest to the fire and was pressed
and prodded till he cried out many times. Something was wrong inside, but they
could locate no broken bones, could not make it out.
By the time Cassiar Bar was reached, he was so weak that he was falling
repeatedly in the traces. The Scotch half-breed called a halt and took him out
of the team, making the next dog, Sol-leks, fast to the sled. His intention was
to rest Dave, letting him run free behind the sled. Sick as he was, Dave
resented being taken out, grunting and growling while the traces were
unfastened, and whimpering broken-heartedly when he saw Sol-leks in the
position he had held and served so long. For the pride of trace and trail was
his, and, sick unto death, he could not bear that another dog should do his
When the sled started, he floundered in the soft snow alongside the beaten
trail, attacking Sol-leks with his teeth, rushing against him and trying to
thrust him off into the soft snow on the other side, striving to leap inside
his traces and get between him and the sled, and all the while whining and
yelping and crying with grief and pain. The half-breed tried to drive him away
with the whip; but he paid no heed to the stinging lash, and the man had not
the heart to strike harder. Dave refused to run quietly on the trail behind the
sled, where the going was easy, but continued to flounder alongside in the soft
snow, where the going was most difficult, till exhausted. Then he fell, and lay
where he fell, howling lugubriously as the long train of sleds churned by.
With the last remnant of his strength he managed to stagger along behind till
the train made another stop, when he floundered past the sleds to his own,
where he stood alongside Sol-leks. His driver lingered a moment to get a light
for his pipe from the man behind. Then he returned and started his dogs. They
swung out on the trail with remarkable lack of exertion, turned their heads
uneasily, and stopped in surprise. The driver was surprised, too; the sled had
not moved. He called his comrades to witness the sight. Dave had bitten through
both of Sol-leks’s traces, and was standing directly in front of the sled
in his proper place.
He pleaded with his eyes to remain there. The driver was perplexed. His
comrades talked of how a dog could break its heart through being denied the
work that killed it, and recalled instances they had known, where dogs, too old
for the toil, or injured, had died because they were cut out of the traces.
Also, they held it a mercy, since Dave was to die anyway, that he should die in
the traces, heart-easy and content. So he was harnessed in again, and proudly
he pulled as of old, though more than once he cried out involuntarily from the
bite of his inward hurt. Several times he fell down and was dragged in the
traces, and once the sled ran upon him so that he limped thereafter in one of
his hind legs.
But he held out till camp was reached, when his driver made a place for him by
the fire. Morning found him too weak to travel. At harness-up time he tried to
crawl to his driver. By convulsive efforts he got on his feet, staggered, and
fell. Then he wormed his way forward slowly toward where the harnesses were
being put on his mates. He would advance his fore legs and drag up his body
with a sort of hitching movement, when he would advance his fore legs and hitch
ahead again for a few more inches. His strength left him, and the last his
mates saw of him he lay gasping in the snow and yearning toward them. But they
could hear him mournfully howling till they passed out of sight behind a belt
of river timber.
Here the train was halted. The Scotch half-breed slowly retraced his steps to
the camp they had left. The men ceased talking. A revolver-shot rang out. The
man came back hurriedly. The whips snapped, the bells tinkled merrily, the
sleds churned along the trail; but Buck knew, and every dog knew, what had
taken place behind the belt of river trees.
Thirty days from the time it left Dawson, the Salt Water Mail, with Buck and
his mates at the fore, arrived at Skaguay. They were in a wretched state, worn
out and worn down. Buck’s one hundred and forty pounds had dwindled to
one hundred and fifteen. The rest of his mates, though lighter dogs, had
relatively lost more weight than he. Pike, the malingerer, who, in his lifetime
of deceit, had often successfully feigned a hurt leg, was now limping in
earnest. Sol-leks was limping, and Dub was suffering from a wrenched
They were all terribly footsore. No spring or rebound was left in them. Their
feet fell heavily on the trail, jarring their bodies and doubling the fatigue
of a day’s travel. There was nothing the matter with them except that
they were dead tired. It was not the dead-tiredness that comes through brief
and excessive effort, from which recovery is a matter of hours; but it was the
dead-tiredness that comes through the slow and prolonged strength drainage of
months of toil. There was no power of recuperation left, no reserve strength to
call upon. It had been all used, the last least bit of it. Every muscle, every
fibre, every cell, was tired, dead tired. And there was reason for it. In less
than five months they had travelled twenty-five hundred miles, during the last
eighteen hundred of which they had had but five days’ rest. When they
arrived at Skaguay they were apparently on their last legs. They could barely
keep the traces taut, and on the down grades just managed to keep out of the
way of the sled.
“Mush on, poor sore feets,” the driver encouraged them as they
tottered down the main street of Skaguay. “Dis is de las’. Den we
get one long res’. Eh? For sure. One bully long res’.”
The drivers confidently expected a long stopover. Themselves, they had covered
twelve hundred miles with two days’ rest, and in the nature of reason and
common justice they deserved an interval of loafing. But so many were the men
who had rushed into the Klondike, and so many were the sweethearts, wives, and
kin that had not rushed in, that the congested mail was taking on Alpine
proportions; also, there were official orders. Fresh batches of Hudson Bay dogs
were to take the places of those worthless for the trail. The worthless ones
were to be got rid of, and, since dogs count for little against dollars, they
were to be sold.
Three days passed, by which time Buck and his mates found how really tired and
weak they were. Then, on the morning of the fourth day, two men from the States
came along and bought them, harness and all, for a song. The men addressed each
other as “Hal” and “Charles.” Charles was a
middle-aged, lightish-colored man, with weak and watery eyes and a mustache
that twisted fiercely and vigorously up, giving the lie to the limply drooping
lip it concealed. Hal was a youngster of nineteen or twenty, with a big
Colt’s revolver and a hunting-knife strapped about him on a belt that
fairly bristled with cartridges. This belt was the most salient thing about
him. It advertised his callowness—a callowness sheer and unutterable.
Both men were manifestly out of place, and why such as they should adventure
the North is part of the mystery of things that passes understanding.
Buck heard the chaffering, saw the money pass between the man and the
Government agent, and knew that the Scotch half-breed and the mail-train
drivers were passing out of his life on the heels of Perrault and François and
the others who had gone before. When driven with his mates to the new
owners’ camp, Buck saw a slipshod and slovenly affair, tent half
stretched, dishes unwashed, everything in disorder; also, he saw a woman.
“Mercedes” the men called her. She was Charles’s wife and
Hal’s sister—a nice family party.
Buck watched them apprehensively as they proceeded to take down the tent and
load the sled. There was a great deal of effort about their manner, but no
businesslike method. The tent was rolled into an awkward bundle three times as
large as it should have been. The tin dishes were packed away unwashed.
Mercedes continually fluttered in the way of her men and kept up an unbroken
chattering of remonstrance and advice. When they put a clothes-sack on the
front of the sled, she suggested it should go on the back; and when they had
put it on the back, and covered it over with a couple of other bundles, she
discovered overlooked articles which could abide nowhere else but in that very
sack, and they unloaded again.
Three men from a neighboring tent came out and looked on, grinning and winking
at one another.
“You’ve got a right smart load as it is,” said one of them;
“and it’s not me should tell you your business, but I
wouldn’t tote that tent along if I was you.”
“Undreamed of!” cried Mercedes, throwing up her hands in dainty
dismay. “However in the world could I manage without a tent?”
“It’s springtime, and you won’t get any more cold
weather,” the man replied.
She shook her head decidedly, and Charles and Hal put the last odds and ends on
top the mountainous load.
“Think it’ll ride?” one of the men asked.
“Why shouldn’t it?” Charles demanded rather shortly.
“Oh, that’s all right, that’s all right,” the man
hastened meekly to say. “I was just a-wonderin’, that is all. It
seemed a mite top-heavy.”
Charles turned his back and drew the lashings down as well as he could, which
was not in the least well.
“An’ of course the dogs can hike along all day with that
contraption behind them,” affirmed a second of the men.
“Certainly,” said Hal, with freezing politeness, taking hold of the
gee-pole with one hand and swinging his whip from the other.
“Mush!” he shouted. “Mush on there!”
The dogs sprang against the breast-bands, strained hard for a few moments, then
relaxed. They were unable to move the sled.
“The lazy brutes, I’ll show them,” he cried, preparing to
lash out at them with the whip.
But Mercedes interfered, crying, “Oh, Hal, you mustn’t,” as
she caught hold of the whip and wrenched it from him. “The poor dears!
Now you must promise you won’t be harsh with them for the rest of the
trip, or I won’t go a step.”
“Precious lot you know about dogs,” her brother sneered; “and
I wish you’d leave me alone. They’re lazy, I tell you, and
you’ve got to whip them to get anything out of them. That’s their
way. You ask any one. Ask one of those men.”
Mercedes looked at them imploringly, untold repugnance at sight of pain written
in her pretty face.
“They’re weak as water, if you want to know,” came the reply
from one of the men. “Plum tuckered out, that’s what’s the
matter. They need a rest.”
“Rest be blanked,” said Hal, with his beardless lips; and Mercedes
said, “Oh!” in pain and sorrow at the oath.
But she was a clannish creature, and rushed at once to the defence of her
brother. “Never mind that man,” she said pointedly.
“You’re driving our dogs, and you do what you think best with
Again Hal’s whip fell upon the dogs. They threw themselves against the
breast-bands, dug their feet into the packed snow, got down low to it, and put
forth all their strength. The sled held as though it were an anchor. After two
efforts, they stood still, panting. The whip was whistling savagely, when once
more Mercedes interfered. She dropped on her knees before Buck, with tears in
her eyes, and put her arms around his neck.
“You poor, poor dears,” she cried sympathetically, “why
don’t you pull hard?—then you wouldn’t be whipped.”
Buck did not like her, but he was feeling too miserable to resist her, taking
it as part of the day’s miserable work.
One of the onlookers, who had been clenching his teeth to suppress hot speech,
now spoke up:—
“It’s not that I care a whoop what becomes of you, but for the
dogs’ sakes I just want to tell you, you can help them a mighty lot by
breaking out that sled. The runners are froze fast. Throw your weight against
the gee-pole, right and left, and break it out.”
A third time the attempt was made, but this time, following the advice, Hal
broke out the runners which had been frozen to the snow. The overloaded and
unwieldy sled forged ahead, Buck and his mates struggling frantically under the
rain of blows. A hundred yards ahead the path turned and sloped steeply into
the main street. It would have required an experienced man to keep the
top-heavy sled upright, and Hal was not such a man. As they swung on the turn
the sled went over, spilling half its load through the loose lashings. The dogs
never stopped. The lightened sled bounded on its side behind them. They were
angry because of the ill treatment they had received and the unjust load. Buck
was raging. He broke into a run, the team following his lead. Hal cried
“Whoa! whoa!” but they gave no heed. He tripped and was pulled off
his feet. The capsized sled ground over him, and the dogs dashed on up the
street, adding to the gayety of Skaguay as they scattered the remainder of the
outfit along its chief thoroughfare.
Kind-hearted citizens caught the dogs and gathered up the scattered belongings.
Also, they gave advice. Half the load and twice the dogs, if they ever expected
to reach Dawson, was what was said. Hal and his sister and brother-in-law
listened unwillingly, pitched tent, and overhauled the outfit. Canned goods
were turned out that made men laugh, for canned goods on the Long Trail is a
thing to dream about. “Blankets for a hotel” quoth one of the men
who laughed and helped. “Half as many is too much; get rid of them. Throw
away that tent, and all those dishes,—who’s going to wash them,
anyway? Good Lord, do you think you’re travelling on a Pullman?”
And so it went, the inexorable elimination of the superfluous. Mercedes cried
when her clothes-bags were dumped on the ground and article after article was
thrown out. She cried in general, and she cried in particular over each
discarded thing. She clasped hands about knees, rocking back and forth
broken-heartedly. She averred she would not go an inch, not for a dozen
Charleses. She appealed to everybody and to everything, finally wiping her eyes
and proceeding to cast out even articles of apparel that were imperative
necessaries. And in her zeal, when she had finished with her own, she attacked
the belongings of her men and went through them like a tornado.
This accomplished, the outfit, though cut in half, was still a formidable bulk.
Charles and Hal went out in the evening and bought six Outside dogs. These,
added to the six of the original team, and Teek and Koona, the huskies obtained
at the Rink Rapids on the record trip, brought the team up to fourteen. But the
Outside dogs, though practically broken in since their landing, did not amount
to much. Three were short-haired pointers, one was a Newfoundland, and the
other two were mongrels of indeterminate breed. They did not seem to know
anything, these newcomers. Buck and his comrades looked upon them with disgust,
and though he speedily taught them their places and what not to do, he could
not teach them what to do. They did not take kindly to trace and trail. With
the exception of the two mongrels, they were bewildered and spirit-broken by
the strange savage environment in which they found themselves and by the ill
treatment they had received. The two mongrels were without spirit at all; bones
were the only things breakable about them.
With the newcomers hopeless and forlorn, and the old team worn out by
twenty-five hundred miles of continuous trail, the outlook was anything but
bright. The two men, however, were quite cheerful. And they were proud, too.
They were doing the thing in style, with fourteen dogs. They had seen other
sleds depart over the Pass for Dawson, or come in from Dawson, but never had
they seen a sled with so many as fourteen dogs. In the nature of Arctic travel
there was a reason why fourteen dogs should not drag one sled, and that was
that one sled could not carry the food for fourteen dogs. But Charles and Hal
did not know this. They had worked the trip out with a pencil, so much to a
dog, so many dogs, so many days, Q.E.D. Mercedes looked over their shoulders
and nodded comprehensively, it was all so very simple.
Late next morning Buck led the long team up the street. There was nothing
lively about it, no snap or go in him and his fellows. They were starting dead
weary. Four times he had covered the distance between Salt Water and Dawson,
and the knowledge that, jaded and tired, he was facing the same trail once
more, made him bitter. His heart was not in the work, nor was the heart of any
dog. The Outsides were timid and frightened, the Insides without confidence in
Buck felt vaguely that there was no depending upon these two men and the woman.
They did not know how to do anything, and as the days went by it became
apparent that they could not learn. They were slack in all things, without
order or discipline. It took them half the night to pitch a slovenly camp, and
half the morning to break that camp and get the sled loaded in fashion so
slovenly that for the rest of the day they were occupied in stopping and
rearranging the load. Some days they did not make ten miles. On other days they
were unable to get started at all. And on no day did they succeed in making
more than half the distance used by the men as a basis in their dog-food
It was inevitable that they should go short on dog-food. But they hastened it
by overfeeding, bringing the day nearer when underfeeding would commence. The
Outside dogs, whose digestions had not been trained by chronic famine to make
the most of little, had voracious appetites. And when, in addition to this, the
worn-out huskies pulled weakly, Hal decided that the orthodox ration was too
small. He doubled it. And to cap it all, when Mercedes, with tears in her
pretty eyes and a quaver in her throat, could not cajole him into giving the
dogs still more, she stole from the fish-sacks and fed them slyly. But it was
not food that Buck and the huskies needed, but rest. And though they were
making poor time, the heavy load they dragged sapped their strength severely.
Then came the underfeeding. Hal awoke one day to the fact that his dog-food was
half gone and the distance only quarter covered; further, that for love or
money no additional dog-food was to be obtained. So he cut down even the
orthodox ration and tried to increase the day’s travel. His sister and
brother-in-law seconded him; but they were frustrated by their heavy outfit and
their own incompetence. It was a simple matter to give the dogs less food; but
it was impossible to make the dogs travel faster, while their own inability to
get under way earlier in the morning prevented them from travelling longer
hours. Not only did they not know how to work dogs, but they did not know how
to work themselves.
The first to go was Dub. Poor blundering thief that he was, always getting
caught and punished, he had none the less been a faithful worker. His wrenched
shoulder-blade, untreated and unrested, went from bad to worse, till finally
Hal shot him with the big Colt’s revolver. It is a saying of the country
that an Outside dog starves to death on the ration of the husky, so the six
Outside dogs under Buck could do no less than die on half the ration of the
husky. The Newfoundland went first, followed by the three short-haired
pointers, the two mongrels hanging more grittily on to life, but going in the
By this time all the amenities and gentlenesses of the Southland had fallen
away from the three people. Shorn of its glamour and romance, Arctic travel
became to them a reality too harsh for their manhood and womanhood. Mercedes
ceased weeping over the dogs, being too occupied with weeping over herself and
with quarrelling with her husband and brother. To quarrel was the one thing
they were never too weary to do. Their irritability arose out of their misery,
increased with it, doubled upon it, outdistanced it. The wonderful patience of
the trail which comes to men who toil hard and suffer sore, and remain sweet of
speech and kindly, did not come to these two men and the woman. They had no
inkling of such a patience. They were stiff and in pain; their muscles ached,
their bones ached, their very hearts ached; and because of this they became
sharp of speech, and hard words were first on their lips in the morning and
last at night.
Charles and Hal wrangled whenever Mercedes gave them a chance. It was the
cherished belief of each that he did more than his share of the work, and
neither forbore to speak this belief at every opportunity. Sometimes Mercedes
sided with her husband, sometimes with her brother. The result was a beautiful
and unending family quarrel. Starting from a dispute as to which should chop a
few sticks for the fire (a dispute which concerned only Charles and Hal),
presently would be lugged in the rest of the family, fathers, mothers, uncles,
cousins, people thousands of miles away, and some of them dead. That
Hal’s views on art, or the sort of society plays his mother’s
brother wrote, should have anything to do with the chopping of a few sticks of
firewood, passes comprehension; nevertheless the quarrel was as likely to tend
in that direction as in the direction of Charles’s political prejudices.
And that Charles’s sister’s tale-bearing tongue should be relevant
to the building of a Yukon fire, was apparent only to Mercedes, who disburdened
herself of copious opinions upon that topic, and incidentally upon a few other
traits unpleasantly peculiar to her husband’s family. In the meantime the
fire remained unbuilt, the camp half pitched, and the dogs unfed.
Mercedes nursed a special grievance—the grievance of sex. She was pretty
and soft, and had been chivalrously treated all her days. But the present
treatment by her husband and brother was everything save chivalrous. It was her
custom to be helpless. They complained. Upon which impeachment of what to her
was her most essential sex-prerogative, she made their lives unendurable. She
no longer considered the dogs, and because she was sore and tired, she
persisted in riding on the sled. She was pretty and soft, but she weighed one
hundred and twenty pounds—a lusty last straw to the load dragged by the
weak and starving animals. She rode for days, till they fell in the traces and
the sled stood still. Charles and Hal begged her to get off and walk, pleaded
with her, entreated, the while she wept and importuned Heaven with a recital of
On one occasion they took her off the sled by main strength. They never did it
again. She let her legs go limp like a spoiled child, and sat down on the
trail. They went on their way, but she did not move. After they had travelled
three miles they unloaded the sled, came back for her, and by main strength put
her on the sled again.
In the excess of their own misery they were callous to the suffering of their
animals. Hal’s theory, which he practised on others, was that one must
get hardened. He had started out preaching it to his sister and brother-in-law.
Failing there, he hammered it into the dogs with a club. At the Five Fingers
the dog-food gave out, and a toothless old squaw offered to trade them a few
pounds of frozen horse-hide for the Colt’s revolver that kept the big
hunting-knife company at Hal’s hip. A poor substitute for food was this
hide, just as it had been stripped from the starved horses of the cattlemen six
months back. In its frozen state it was more like strips of galvanized iron,
and when a dog wrestled it into his stomach it thawed into thin and
innutritious leathery strings and into a mass of short hair, irritating and
And through it all Buck staggered along at the head of the team as in a
nightmare. He pulled when he could; when he could no longer pull, he fell down
and remained down till blows from whip or club drove him to his feet again. All
the stiffness and gloss had gone out of his beautiful furry coat. The hair hung
down, limp and draggled, or matted with dried blood where Hal’s club had
bruised him. His muscles had wasted away to knotty strings, and the flesh pads
had disappeared, so that each rib and every bone in his frame were outlined
cleanly through the loose hide that was wrinkled in folds of emptiness. It was
heartbreaking, only Buck’s heart was unbreakable. The man in the red
sweater had proved that.
As it was with Buck, so was it with his mates. They were perambulating
skeletons. There were seven all together, including him. In their very great
misery they had become insensible to the bite of the lash or the bruise of the
club. The pain of the beating was dull and distant, just as the things their
eyes saw and their ears heard seemed dull and distant. They were not half
living, or quarter living. They were simply so many bags of bones in which
sparks of life fluttered faintly. When a halt was made, they dropped down in
the traces like dead dogs, and the spark dimmed and paled and seemed to go out.
And when the club or whip fell upon them, the spark fluttered feebly up, and
they tottered to their feet and staggered on.
There came a day when Billee, the good-natured, fell and could not rise. Hal
had traded off his revolver, so he took the axe and knocked Billee on the head
as he lay in the traces, then cut the carcass out of the harness and dragged it
to one side. Buck saw, and his mates saw, and they knew that this thing was
very close to them. On the next day Koona went, and but five of them remained:
Joe, too far gone to be malignant; Pike, crippled and limping, only half
conscious and not conscious enough longer to malinger; Sol-leks, the one-eyed,
still faithful to the toil of trace and trail, and mournful in that he had so
little strength with which to pull; Teek, who had not travelled so far that
winter and who was now beaten more than the others because he was fresher; and
Buck, still at the head of the team, but no longer enforcing discipline or
striving to enforce it, blind with weakness half the time and keeping the trail
by the loom of it and by the dim feel of his feet.
It was beautiful spring weather, but neither dogs nor humans were aware of it.
Each day the sun rose earlier and set later. It was dawn by three in the
morning, and twilight lingered till nine at night. The whole long day was a
blaze of sunshine. The ghostly winter silence had given way to the great spring
murmur of awakening life. This murmur arose from all the land, fraught with the
joy of living. It came from the things that lived and moved again, things which
had been as dead and which had not moved during the long months of frost. The
sap was rising in the pines. The willows and aspens were bursting out in young
buds. Shrubs and vines were putting on fresh garbs of green. Crickets sang in
the nights, and in the days all manner of creeping, crawling things rustled
forth into the sun. Partridges and woodpeckers were booming and knocking in the
forest. Squirrels were chattering, birds singing, and overhead honked the
wild-fowl driving up from the south in cunning wedges that split the air.
From every hill slope came the trickle of running water, the music of unseen
fountains. All things were thawing, bending, snapping. The Yukon was straining
to break loose the ice that bound it down. It ate away from beneath; the sun
ate from above. Air-holes formed, fissures sprang and spread apart, while thin
sections of ice fell through bodily into the river. And amid all this bursting,
rending, throbbing of awakening life, under the blazing sun and through the
soft-sighing breezes, like wayfarers to death, staggered the two men, the
woman, and the huskies.
With the dogs falling, Mercedes weeping and riding, Hal swearing innocuously,
and Charles’s eyes wistfully watering, they staggered into John
Thornton’s camp at the mouth of White River. When they halted, the dogs
dropped down as though they had all been struck dead. Mercedes dried her eyes
and looked at John Thornton. Charles sat down on a log to rest. He sat down
very slowly and painstakingly what of his great stiffness. Hal did the talking.
John Thornton was whittling the last touches on an axe-handle he had made from
a stick of birch. He whittled and listened, gave monosyllabic replies, and,
when it was asked, terse advice. He knew the breed, and he gave his advice in
the certainty that it would not be followed.
“They told us up above that the bottom was dropping out of the trail and
that the best thing for us to do was to lay over,” Hal said in response
to Thornton’s warning to take no more chances on the rotten ice.
“They told us we couldn’t make White River, and here we are.”
This last with a sneering ring of triumph in it.
“And they told you true,” John Thornton answered. “The
bottom’s likely to drop out at any moment. Only fools, with the blind
luck of fools, could have made it. I tell you straight, I wouldn’t risk
my carcass on that ice for all the gold in Alaska.”
“That’s because you’re not a fool, I suppose,” said
Hal. “All the same, we’ll go on to Dawson.” He uncoiled his
whip. “Get up there, Buck! Hi! Get up there! Mush on!”
Thornton went on whittling. It was idle, he knew, to get between a fool and his
folly; while two or three fools more or less would not alter the scheme of
But the team did not get up at the command. It had long since passed into the
stage where blows were required to rouse it. The whip flashed out, here and
there, on its merciless errands. John Thornton compressed his lips. Sol-leks
was the first to crawl to his feet. Teek followed. Joe came next, yelping with
pain. Pike made painful efforts. Twice he fell over, when half up, and on the
third attempt managed to rise. Buck made no effort. He lay quietly where he had
fallen. The lash bit into him again and again, but he neither whined nor
struggled. Several times Thornton started, as though to speak, but changed his
mind. A moisture came into his eyes, and, as the whipping continued, he arose
and walked irresolutely up and down.
This was the first time Buck had failed, in itself a sufficient reason to drive
Hal into a rage. He exchanged the whip for the customary club. Buck refused to
move under the rain of heavier blows which now fell upon him. Like his mates,
he was barely able to get up, but, unlike them, he had made up his mind not to
get up. He had a vague feeling of impending doom. This had been strong upon him
when he pulled in to the bank, and it had not departed from him. What of the
thin and rotten ice he had felt under his feet all day, it seemed that he
sensed disaster close at hand, out there ahead on the ice where his master was
trying to drive him. He refused to stir. So greatly had he suffered, and so far
gone was he, that the blows did not hurt much. And as they continued to fall
upon him, the spark of life within flickered and went down. It was nearly out.
He felt strangely numb. As though from a great distance, he was aware that he
was being beaten. The last sensations of pain left him. He no longer felt
anything, though very faintly he could hear the impact of the club upon his
body. But it was no longer his body, it seemed so far away.
And then, suddenly, without warning, uttering a cry that was inarticulate and
more like the cry of an animal, John Thornton sprang upon the man who wielded
the club. Hal was hurled backward, as though struck by a falling tree. Mercedes
screamed. Charles looked on wistfully, wiped his watery eyes, but did not get
up because of his stiffness.
John Thornton stood over Buck, struggling to control himself, too convulsed
with rage to speak.
“If you strike that dog again, I’ll kill you,” he at last
managed to say in a choking voice.
“It’s my dog,” Hal replied, wiping the blood from his mouth
as he came back. “Get out of my way, or I’ll fix you. I’m
going to Dawson.”
Thornton stood between him and Buck, and evinced no intention of getting out of
the way. Hal drew his long hunting-knife. Mercedes screamed, cried, laughed,
and manifested the chaotic abandonment of hysteria. Thornton rapped Hal’s
knuckles with the axe-handle, knocking the knife to the ground. He rapped his
knuckles again as he tried to pick it up. Then he stooped, picked it up
himself, and with two strokes cut Buck’s traces.
Hal had no fight left in him. Besides, his hands were full with his sister, or
his arms, rather; while Buck was too near dead to be of further use in hauling
the sled. A few minutes later they pulled out from the bank and down the river.
Buck heard them go and raised his head to see, Pike was leading, Sol-leks was
at the wheel, and between were Joe and Teek. They were limping and staggering.
Mercedes was riding the loaded sled. Hal guided at the gee-pole, and Charles
stumbled along in the rear.
As Buck watched them, Thornton knelt beside him and with rough, kindly hands
searched for broken bones. By the time his search had disclosed nothing more
than many bruises and a state of terrible starvation, the sled was a quarter of
a mile away. Dog and man watched it crawling along over the ice. Suddenly, they
saw its back end drop down, as into a rut, and the gee-pole, with Hal clinging
to it, jerk into the air. Mercedes’s scream came to their ears. They saw
Charles turn and make one step to run back, and then a whole section of ice
give way and dogs and humans disappear. A yawning hole was all that was to be
seen. The bottom had dropped out of the trail.
John Thornton and Buck looked at each other.
“You poor devil,” said John Thornton, and Buck licked his hand.
When John Thornton froze his feet in the previous December his partners had
made him comfortable and left him to get well, going on themselves up the river
to get out a raft of saw-logs for Dawson. He was still limping slightly at the
time he rescued Buck, but with the continued warm weather even the slight limp
left him. And here, lying by the river bank through the long spring days,
watching the running water, listening lazily to the songs of birds and the hum
of nature, Buck slowly won back his strength.
A rest comes very good after one has travelled three thousand miles, and it
must be confessed that Buck waxed lazy as his wounds healed, his muscles
swelled out, and the flesh came back to cover his bones. For that matter, they
were all loafing,—Buck, John Thornton, and Skeet and Nig,—waiting
for the raft to come that was to carry them down to Dawson. Skeet was a little
Irish setter who early made friends with Buck, who, in a dying condition, was
unable to resent her first advances. She had the doctor trait which some dogs
possess; and as a mother cat washes her kittens, so she washed and cleansed
Buck’s wounds. Regularly, each morning after he had finished his
breakfast, she performed her self-appointed task, till he came to look for her
ministrations as much as he did for Thornton’s. Nig, equally friendly,
though less demonstrative, was a huge black dog, half bloodhound and half
deerhound, with eyes that laughed and a boundless good nature.
To Buck’s surprise these dogs manifested no jealousy toward him. They
seemed to share the kindliness and largeness of John Thornton. As Buck grew
stronger they enticed him into all sorts of ridiculous games, in which Thornton
himself could not forbear to join; and in this fashion Buck romped through his
convalescence and into a new existence. Love, genuine passionate love, was his
for the first time. This he had never experienced at Judge Miller’s down
in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley. With the Judge’s sons, hunting and
tramping, it had been a working partnership; with the Judge’s grandsons,
a sort of pompous guardianship; and with the Judge himself, a stately and
dignified friendship. But love that was feverish and burning, that was
adoration, that was madness, it had taken John Thornton to arouse.
This man had saved his life, which was something; but, further, he was the
ideal master. Other men saw to the welfare of their dogs from a sense of duty
and business expediency; he saw to the welfare of his as if they were his own
children, because he could not help it. And he saw further. He never forgot a
kindly greeting or a cheering word, and to sit down for a long talk with them
(“gas” he called it) was as much his delight as theirs. He had a
way of taking Buck’s head roughly between his hands, and resting his own
head upon Buck’s, of shaking him back and forth, the while calling him
ill names that to Buck were love names. Buck knew no greater joy than that
rough embrace and the sound of murmured oaths, and at each jerk back and forth
it seemed that his heart would be shaken out of his body so great was its
ecstasy. And when, released, he sprang to his feet, his mouth laughing, his
eyes eloquent, his throat vibrant with unuttered sound, and in that fashion
remained without movement, John Thornton would reverently exclaim, “God!
you can all but speak!”
Buck had a trick of love expression that was akin to hurt. He would often seize
Thornton’s hand in his mouth and close so fiercely that the flesh bore
the impress of his teeth for some time afterward. And as Buck understood the
oaths to be love words, so the man understood this feigned bite for a caress.
For the most part, however, Buck’s love was expressed in adoration. While
he went wild with happiness when Thornton touched him or spoke to him, he did
not seek these tokens. Unlike Skeet, who was wont to shove her nose under
Thornton’s hand and nudge and nudge till petted, or Nig, who would stalk
up and rest his great head on Thornton’s knee, Buck was content to adore
at a distance. He would lie by the hour, eager, alert, at Thornton’s
feet, looking up into his face, dwelling upon it, studying it, following with
keenest interest each fleeting expression, every movement or change of feature.
Or, as chance might have it, he would lie farther away, to the side or rear,
watching the outlines of the man and the occasional movements of his body. And
often, such was the communion in which they lived, the strength of Buck’s
gaze would draw John Thornton’s head around, and he would return the
gaze, without speech, his heart shining out of his eyes as Buck’s heart
For a long time after his rescue, Buck did not like Thornton to get out of his
sight. From the moment he left the tent to when he entered it again, Buck would
follow at his heels. His transient masters since he had come into the Northland
had bred in him a fear that no master could be permanent. He was afraid that
Thornton would pass out of his life as Perrault and François and the Scotch
half-breed had passed out. Even in the night, in his dreams, he was haunted by
this fear. At such times he would shake off sleep and creep through the chill
to the flap of the tent, where he would stand and listen to the sound of his
But in spite of this great love he bore John Thornton, which seemed to bespeak
the soft civilizing influence, the strain of the primitive, which the Northland
had aroused in him, remained alive and active. Faithfulness and devotion,
things born of fire and roof, were his; yet he retained his wildness and
wiliness. He was a thing of the wild, come in from the wild to sit by John
Thornton’s fire, rather than a dog of the soft Southland stamped with the
marks of generations of civilization. Because of his very great love, he could
not steal from this man, but from any other man, in any other camp, he did not
hesitate an instant; while the cunning with which he stole enabled him to
His face and body were scored by the teeth of many dogs, and he fought as
fiercely as ever and more shrewdly. Skeet and Nig were too good-natured for
quarrelling,—besides, they belonged to John Thornton; but the strange
dog, no matter what the breed or valor, swiftly acknowledged Buck’s
supremacy or found himself struggling for life with a terrible antagonist. And
Buck was merciless. He had learned well the law of club and fang, and he never
forewent an advantage or drew back from a foe he had started on the way to
Death. He had lessoned from Spitz, and from the chief fighting dogs of the
police and mail, and knew there was no middle course. He must master or be
mastered; while to show mercy was a weakness. Mercy did not exist in the
primordial life. It was misunderstood for fear, and such misunderstandings made
for death. Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, was the law; and this mandate,
down out of the depths of Time, he obeyed.
He was older than the days he had seen and the breaths he had drawn. He linked
the past with the present, and the eternity behind him throbbed through him in
a mighty rhythm to which he swayed as the tides and seasons swayed. He sat by
John Thornton’s fire, a broad-breasted dog, white-fanged and long-furred;
but behind him were the shades of all manner of dogs, half-wolves and wild
wolves, urgent and prompting, tasting the savor of the meat he ate, thirsting
for the water he drank, scenting the wind with him, listening with him and
telling him the sounds made by the wild life in the forest, dictating his
moods, directing his actions, lying down to sleep with him when he lay down,
and dreaming with him and beyond him and becoming themselves the stuff of his
So peremptorily did these shades beckon him, that each day mankind and the
claims of mankind slipped farther from him. Deep in the forest a call was
sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and
luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth
around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or
why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the
forest. But as often as he gained the soft unbroken earth and the green shade,
the love for John Thornton drew him back to the fire again.
Thornton alone held him. The rest of mankind was as nothing. Chance travellers
might praise or pet him; but he was cold under it all, and from a too
demonstrative man he would get up and walk away. When Thornton’s
partners, Hans and Pete, arrived on the long-expected raft, Buck refused to
notice them till he learned they were close to Thornton; after that he
tolerated them in a passive sort of way, accepting favors from them as though
he favored them by accepting. They were of the same large type as Thornton,
living close to the earth, thinking simply and seeing clearly; and ere they
swung the raft into the big eddy by the saw-mill at Dawson, they understood
Buck and his ways, and did not insist upon an intimacy such as obtained with
Skeet and Nig.
For Thornton, however, his love seemed to grow and grow. He, alone among men,
could put a pack upon Buck’s back in the summer travelling. Nothing was
too great for Buck to do, when Thornton commanded. One day (they had
grub-staked themselves from the proceeds of the raft and left Dawson for the
head-waters of the Tanana) the men and dogs were sitting on the crest of a
cliff which fell away, straight down, to naked bed-rock three hundred feet
below. John Thornton was sitting near the edge, Buck at his shoulder. A
thoughtless whim seized Thornton, and he drew the attention of Hans and Pete to
the experiment he had in mind. “Jump, Buck!” he commanded, sweeping
his arm out and over the chasm. The next instant he was grappling with Buck on
the extreme edge, while Hans and Pete were dragging them back into safety.
“It’s uncanny,” Pete said, after it was over and they had
caught their speech.
Thornton shook his head. “No, it is splendid, and it is terrible, too. Do
you know, it sometimes makes me afraid.”
“I’m not hankering to be the man that lays hands on you while
he’s around,” Pete announced conclusively, nodding his head toward
“Py Jingo!” was Hans’s contribution. “Not mineself
It was at Circle City, ere the year was out, that Pete’s apprehensions
were realized. “Black” Burton, a man evil-tempered and malicious,
had been picking a quarrel with a tenderfoot at the bar, when Thornton stepped
good-naturedly between. Buck, as was his custom, was lying in a corner, head on
paws, watching his master’s every action. Burton struck out, without
warning, straight from the shoulder. Thornton was sent spinning, and saved
himself from falling only by clutching the rail of the bar.
Those who were looking on heard what was neither bark nor yelp, but a something
which is best described as a roar, and they saw Buck’s body rise up in
the air as he left the floor for Burton’s throat. The man saved his life
by instinctively throwing out his arm, but was hurled backward to the floor
with Buck on top of him. Buck loosed his teeth from the flesh of the arm and
drove in again for the throat. This time the man succeeded only in partly
blocking, and his throat was torn open. Then the crowd was upon Buck, and he
was driven off; but while a surgeon checked the bleeding, he prowled up and
down, growling furiously, attempting to rush in, and being forced back by an
array of hostile clubs. A “miners’ meeting,” called on the
spot, decided that the dog had sufficient provocation, and Buck was discharged.
But his reputation was made, and from that day his name spread through every
camp in Alaska.
Later on, in the fall of the year, he saved John Thornton’s life in quite
another fashion. The three partners were lining a long and narrow poling-boat
down a bad stretch of rapids on the Forty-Mile Creek. Hans and Pete moved along
the bank, snubbing with a thin Manila rope from tree to tree, while Thornton
remained in the boat, helping its descent by means of a pole, and shouting
directions to the shore. Buck, on the bank, worried and anxious, kept abreast
of the boat, his eyes never off his master.
At a particularly bad spot, where a ledge of barely submerged rocks jutted out
into the river, Hans cast off the rope, and, while Thornton poled the boat out
into the stream, ran down the bank with the end in his hand to snub the boat
when it had cleared the ledge. This it did, and was flying down-stream in a
current as swift as a mill-race, when Hans checked it with the rope and checked
too suddenly. The boat flirted over and snubbed in to the bank bottom up, while
Thornton, flung sheer out of it, was carried down-stream toward the worst part
of the rapids, a stretch of wild water in which no swimmer could live.
Buck had sprung in on the instant; and at the end of three hundred yards, amid
a mad swirl of water, he overhauled Thornton. When he felt him grasp his tail,
Buck headed for the bank, swimming with all his splendid strength. But the
progress shoreward was slow; the progress down-stream amazingly rapid. From
below came the fatal roaring where the wild current went wilder and was rent in
shreds and spray by the rocks which thrust through like the teeth of an
enormous comb. The suck of the water as it took the beginning of the last steep
pitch was frightful, and Thornton knew that the shore was impossible. He
scraped furiously over a rock, bruised across a second, and struck a third with
crushing force. He clutched its slippery top with both hands, releasing Buck,
and above the roar of the churning water shouted: “Go, Buck! Go!”
Buck could not hold his own, and swept on down-stream, struggling desperately,
but unable to win back. When he heard Thornton’s command repeated, he
partly reared out of the water, throwing his head high, as though for a last
look, then turned obediently toward the bank. He swam powerfully and was
dragged ashore by Pete and Hans at the very point where swimming ceased to be
possible and destruction began.
They knew that the time a man could cling to a slippery rock in the face of
that driving current was a matter of minutes, and they ran as fast as they
could up the bank to a point far above where Thornton was hanging on. They
attached the line with which they had been snubbing the boat to Buck’s
neck and shoulders, being careful that it should neither strangle him nor
impede his swimming, and launched him into the stream. He struck out boldly,
but not straight enough into the stream. He discovered the mistake too late,
when Thornton was abreast of him and a bare half-dozen strokes away while he
was being carried helplessly past.
Hans promptly snubbed with the rope, as though Buck were a boat. The rope thus
tightening on him in the sweep of the current, he was jerked under the surface,
and under the surface he remained till his body struck against the bank and he
was hauled out. He was half drowned, and Hans and Pete threw themselves upon
him, pounding the breath into him and the water out of him. He staggered to his
feet and fell down. The faint sound of Thornton’s voice came to them, and
though they could not make out the words of it, they knew that he was in his
extremity. His master’s voice acted on Buck like an electric shock, He
sprang to his feet and ran up the bank ahead of the men to the point of his
Again the rope was attached and he was launched, and again he struck out, but
this time straight into the stream. He had miscalculated once, but he would not
be guilty of it a second time. Hans paid out the rope, permitting no slack,
while Pete kept it clear of coils. Buck held on till he was on a line straight
above Thornton; then he turned, and with the speed of an express train headed
down upon him. Thornton saw him coming, and, as Buck struck him like a
battering ram, with the whole force of the current behind him, he reached up
and closed with both arms around the shaggy neck. Hans snubbed the rope around
the tree, and Buck and Thornton were jerked under the water. Strangling,
suffocating, sometimes one uppermost and sometimes the other, dragging over the
jagged bottom, smashing against rocks and snags, they veered in to the bank.
Thornton came to, belly downward and being violently propelled back and forth
across a drift log by Hans and Pete. His first glance was for Buck, over whose
limp and apparently lifeless body Nig was setting up a howl, while Skeet was
licking the wet face and closed eyes. Thornton was himself bruised and
battered, and he went carefully over Buck’s body, when he had been
brought around, finding three broken ribs.
“That settles it,” he announced. “We camp right here.”
And camp they did, till Buck’s ribs knitted and he was able to travel.
That winter, at Dawson, Buck performed another exploit, not so heroic, perhaps,
but one that put his name many notches higher on the totem-pole of Alaskan
fame. This exploit was particularly gratifying to the three men; for they stood
in need of the outfit which it furnished, and were enabled to make a
long-desired trip into the virgin East, where miners had not yet appeared. It
was brought about by a conversation in the Eldorado Saloon, in which men waxed
boastful of their favorite dogs. Buck, because of his record, was the target
for these men, and Thornton was driven stoutly to defend him. At the end of
half an hour one man stated that his dog could start a sled with five hundred
pounds and walk off with it; a second bragged six hundred for his dog; and a
third, seven hundred.
“Pooh! pooh!” said John Thornton; “Buck can start a thousand
“And break it out? and walk off with it for a hundred yards?”
demanded Matthewson, a Bonanza King, he of the seven hundred vaunt.
“And break it out, and walk off with it for a hundred yards,” John
Thornton said coolly.
“Well,” Matthewson said, slowly and deliberately, so that all could
hear, “I’ve got a thousand dollars that says he can’t. And
there it is.” So saying, he slammed a sack of gold dust of the size of a
bologna sausage down upon the bar.
Nobody spoke. Thornton’s bluff, if bluff it was, had been called. He
could feel a flush of warm blood creeping up his face. His tongue had tricked
him. He did not know whether Buck could start a thousand pounds. Half a ton!
The enormousness of it appalled him. He had great faith in Buck’s
strength and had often thought him capable of starting such a load; but never,
as now, had he faced the possibility of it, the eyes of a dozen men fixed upon
him, silent and waiting. Further, he had no thousand dollars; nor had Hans or
“I’ve got a sled standing outside now, with twenty fiftypound sacks
of flour on it,” Matthewson went on with brutal directness; “so
don’t let that hinder you.”
Thornton did not reply. He did not know what to say. He glanced from face to
face in the absent way of a man who has lost the power of thought and is
seeking somewhere to find the thing that will start it going again. The face of
Jim O’Brien, a Mastodon King and old-time comrade, caught his eyes. It
was as a cue to him, seeming to rouse him to do what he would never have
dreamed of doing.
“Can you lend me a thousand?” he asked, almost in a whisper.
“Sure,” answered O’Brien, thumping down a plethoric sack by
the side of Matthewson’s. “Though it’s little faith I’m
having, John, that the beast can do the trick.”
The Eldorado emptied its occupants into the street to see the test. The tables
were deserted, and the dealers and gamekeepers came forth to see the outcome of
the wager and to lay odds. Several hundred men, furred and mittened, banked
around the sled within easy distance. Matthewson’s sled, loaded with a
thousand pounds of flour, had been standing for a couple of hours, and in the
intense cold (it was sixty below zero) the runners had frozen fast to the
hard-packed snow. Men offered odds of two to one that Buck could not budge the
sled. A quibble arose concerning the phrase “break out.”
O’Brien contended it was Thornton’s privilege to knock the runners
loose, leaving Buck to “break it out” from a dead standstill.
Matthewson insisted that the phrase included breaking the runners from the
frozen grip of the snow. A majority of the men who had witnessed the making of
the bet decided in his favor, whereat the odds went up to three to one against
There were no takers. Not a man believed him capable of the feat. Thornton had
been hurried into the wager, heavy with doubt; and now that he looked at the
sled itself, the concrete fact, with the regular team of ten dogs curled up in
the snow before it, the more impossible the task appeared. Matthewson waxed
“Three to one!” he proclaimed. “I’ll lay you another
thousand at that figure, Thornton. What d’ye say?”
Thornton’s doubt was strong in his face, but his fighting spirit was
aroused—the fighting spirit that soars above odds, fails to recognize the
impossible, and is deaf to all save the clamor for battle. He called Hans and
Pete to him. Their sacks were slim, and with his own the three partners could
rake together only two hundred dollars. In the ebb of their fortunes, this sum
was their total capital; yet they laid it unhesitatingly against
Matthewson’s six hundred.
The team of ten dogs was unhitched, and Buck, with his own harness, was put
into the sled. He had caught the contagion of the excitement, and he felt that
in some way he must do a great thing for John Thornton. Murmurs of admiration
at his splendid appearance went up. He was in perfect condition, without an
ounce of superfluous flesh, and the one hundred and fifty pounds that he
weighed were so many pounds of grit and virility. His furry coat shone with the
sheen of silk. Down the neck and across the shoulders, his mane, in repose as
it was, half bristled and seemed to lift with every movement, as though excess
of vigor made each particular hair alive and active. The great breast and heavy
fore legs were no more than in proportion with the rest of the body, where the
muscles showed in tight rolls underneath the skin. Men felt these muscles and
proclaimed them hard as iron, and the odds went down to two to one.
“Gad, sir! Gad, sir!” stuttered a member of the latest dynasty, a
king of the Skookum Benches. “I offer you eight hundred for him, sir,
before the test, sir; eight hundred just as he stands.”
Thornton shook his head and stepped to Buck’s side.
“You must stand off from him,” Matthewson protested. “Free
play and plenty of room.”
The crowd fell silent; only could be heard the voices of the gamblers vainly
offering two to one. Everybody acknowledged Buck a magnificent animal, but
twenty fifty-pound sacks of flour bulked too large in their eyes for them to
loosen their pouch-strings.
Thornton knelt down by Buck’s side. He took his head in his two hands and
rested cheek on cheek. He did not playfully shake him, as was his wont, or
murmur soft love curses; but he whispered in his ear. “As you love me,
Buck. As you love me,” was what he whispered. Buck whined with suppressed
The crowd was watching curiously. The affair was growing mysterious. It seemed
like a conjuration. As Thornton got to his feet, Buck seized his mittened hand
between his jaws, pressing in with his teeth and releasing slowly,
half-reluctantly. It was the answer, in terms, not of speech, but of love.
Thornton stepped well back.
“Now, Buck,” he said.
Buck tightened the traces, then slacked them for a matter of several inches. It
was the way he had learned.
“Gee!” Thornton’s voice rang out, sharp in the tense silence.
Buck swung to the right, ending the movement in a plunge that took up the slack
and with a sudden jerk arrested his one hundred and fifty pounds. The load
quivered, and from under the runners arose a crisp crackling.
“Haw!” Thornton commanded.
Buck duplicated the manœuvre, this time to the left. The crackling turned into
a snapping, the sled pivoting and the runners slipping and grating several
inches to the side. The sled was broken out. Men were holding their breaths,
intensely unconscious of the fact.
Thornton’s command cracked out like a pistol-shot. Buck threw himself
forward, tightening the traces with a jarring lunge. His whole body was
gathered compactly together in the tremendous effort, the muscles writhing and
knotting like live things under the silky fur. His great chest was low to the
ground, his head forward and down, while his feet were flying like mad, the
claws scarring the hard-packed snow in parallel grooves. The sled swayed and
trembled, half-started forward. One of his feet slipped, and one man groaned
aloud. Then the sled lurched ahead in what appeared a rapid succession of
jerks, though it never really came to a dead stop again...half an inch...an
inch... two inches... The jerks perceptibly diminished; as the sled gained
momentum, he caught them up, till it was moving steadily along.
Men gasped and began to breathe again, unaware that for a moment they had
ceased to breathe. Thornton was running behind, encouraging Buck with short,
cheery words. The distance had been measured off, and as he neared the pile of
firewood which marked the end of the hundred yards, a cheer began to grow and
grow, which burst into a roar as he passed the firewood and halted at command.
Every man was tearing himself loose, even Matthewson. Hats and mittens were
flying in the air. Men were shaking hands, it did not matter with whom, and
bubbling over in a general incoherent babel.
But Thornton fell on his knees beside Buck. Head was against head, and he was
shaking him back and forth. Those who hurried up heard him cursing Buck, and he
cursed him long and fervently, and softly and lovingly.
“Gad, sir! Gad, sir!” spluttered the Skookum Bench king.
“I’ll give you a thousand for him, sir, a thousand,
sir—twelve hundred, sir.”
Thornton rose to his feet. His eyes were wet. The tears were streaming frankly
down his cheeks. “Sir,” he said to the Skookum Bench king,
“no, sir. You can go to hell, sir. It’s the best I can do for you,
Buck seized Thornton’s hand in his teeth. Thornton shook him back and
forth. As though animated by a common impulse, the onlookers drew back to a
respectful distance; nor were they again indiscreet enough to interrupt.
When Buck earned sixteen hundred dollars in five minutes for John Thornton, he
made it possible for his master to pay off certain debts and to journey with
his partners into the East after a fabled lost mine, the history of which was
as old as the history of the country. Many men had sought it; few had found it;
and more than a few there were who had never returned from the quest. This lost
mine was steeped in tragedy and shrouded in mystery. No one knew of the first
man. The oldest tradition stopped before it got back to him. From the beginning
there had been an ancient and ramshackle cabin. Dying men had sworn to it, and
to the mine the site of which it marked, clinching their testimony with nuggets
that were unlike any known grade of gold in the Northland.
But no living man had looted this treasure house, and the dead were dead;
wherefore John Thornton and Pete and Hans, with Buck and half a dozen other
dogs, faced into the East on an unknown trail to achieve where men and dogs as
good as themselves had failed. They sledded seventy miles up the Yukon, swung
to the left into the Stewart River, passed the Mayo and the McQuestion, and
held on until the Stewart itself became a streamlet, threading the upstanding
peaks which marked the backbone of the continent.
John Thornton asked little of man or nature. He was unafraid of the wild. With
a handful of salt and a rifle he could plunge into the wilderness and fare
wherever he pleased and as long as he pleased. Being in no haste, Indian
fashion, he hunted his dinner in the course of the day’s travel; and if
he failed to find it, like the Indian, he kept on travelling, secure in the
knowledge that sooner or later he would come to it. So, on this great journey
into the East, straight meat was the bill of fare, ammunition and tools
principally made up the load on the sled, and the time-card was drawn upon the
To Buck it was boundless delight, this hunting, fishing, and indefinite
wandering through strange places. For weeks at a time they would hold on
steadily, day after day; and for weeks upon end they would camp, here and
there, the dogs loafing and the men burning holes through frozen muck and
gravel and washing countless pans of dirt by the heat of the fire. Sometimes
they went hungry, sometimes they feasted riotously, all according to the
abundance of game and the fortune of hunting. Summer arrived, and dogs and men
packed on their backs, rafted across blue mountain lakes, and descended or
ascended unknown rivers in slender boats whipsawed from the standing forest.
The months came and went, and back and forth they twisted through the uncharted
vastness, where no men were and yet where men had been if the Lost Cabin were
true. They went across divides in summer blizzards, shivered under the midnight
sun on naked mountains between the timber line and the eternal snows, dropped
into summer valleys amid swarming gnats and flies, and in the shadows of
glaciers picked strawberries and flowers as ripe and fair as any the Southland
could boast. In the fall of the year they penetrated a weird lake country, sad
and silent, where wildfowl had been, but where then there was no life nor sign
of life—only the blowing of chill winds, the forming of ice in sheltered
places, and the melancholy rippling of waves on lonely beaches.
And through another winter they wandered on the obliterated trails of men who
had gone before. Once, they came upon a path blazed through the forest, an
ancient path, and the Lost Cabin seemed very near. But the path began nowhere
and ended nowhere, and it remained mystery, as the man who made it and the
reason he made it remained mystery. Another time they chanced upon the
time-graven wreckage of a hunting lodge, and amid the shreds of rotted blankets
John Thornton found a long-barrelled flint-lock. He knew it for a Hudson Bay
Company gun of the young days in the Northwest, when such a gun was worth its
height in beaver skins packed flat, And that was all—no hint as to the
man who in an early day had reared the lodge and left the gun among the
Spring came on once more, and at the end of all their wandering they found, not
the Lost Cabin, but a shallow placer in a broad valley where the gold showed
like yellow butter across the bottom of the washing-pan. They sought no
farther. Each day they worked earned them thousands of dollars in clean dust
and nuggets, and they worked every day. The gold was sacked in moose-hide bags,
fifty pounds to the bag, and piled like so much firewood outside the
spruce-bough lodge. Like giants they toiled, days flashing on the heels of days
like dreams as they heaped the treasure up.
There was nothing for the dogs to do, save the hauling in of meat now and again
that Thornton killed, and Buck spent long hours musing by the fire. The vision
of the short-legged hairy man came to him more frequently, now that there was
little work to be done; and often, blinking by the fire, Buck wandered with him
in that other world which he remembered.
The salient thing of this other world seemed fear. When he watched the hairy
man sleeping by the fire, head between his knees and hands clasped above, Buck
saw that he slept restlessly, with many starts and awakenings, at which times
he would peer fearfully into the darkness and fling more wood upon the fire.
Did they walk by the beach of a sea, where the hairy man gathered shellfish and
ate them as he gathered, it was with eyes that roved everywhere for hidden
danger and with legs prepared to run like the wind at its first appearance.
Through the forest they crept noiselessly, Buck at the hairy man’s heels;
and they were alert and vigilant, the pair of them, ears twitching and moving
and nostrils quivering, for the man heard and smelled as keenly as Buck. The
hairy man could spring up into the trees and travel ahead as fast as on the
ground, swinging by the arms from limb to limb, sometimes a dozen feet apart,
letting go and catching, never falling, never missing his grip. In fact, he
seemed as much at home among the trees as on the ground; and Buck had memories
of nights of vigil spent beneath trees wherein the hairy man roosted, holding
on tightly as he slept.
And closely akin to the visions of the hairy man was the call still sounding in
the depths of the forest. It filled him with a great unrest and strange
desires. It caused him to feel a vague, sweet gladness, and he was aware of
wild yearnings and stirrings for he knew not what. Sometimes he pursued the
call into the forest, looking for it as though it were a tangible thing,
barking softly or defiantly, as the mood might dictate. He would thrust his
nose into the cool wood moss, or into the black soil where long grasses grew,
and snort with joy at the fat earth smells; or he would crouch for hours, as if
in concealment, behind fungus-covered trunks of fallen trees, wide-eyed and
wide-eared to all that moved and sounded about him. It might be, lying thus,
that he hoped to surprise this call he could not understand. But he did not
know why he did these various things. He was impelled to do them, and did not
reason about them at all.
Irresistible impulses seized him. He would be lying in camp, dozing lazily in
the heat of the day, when suddenly his head would lift and his ears cock up,
intent and listening, and he would spring to his feet and dash away, and on and
on, for hours, through the forest aisles and across the open spaces where the
niggerheads bunched. He loved to run down dry watercourses, and to creep and
spy upon the bird life in the woods. For a day at a time he would lie in the
underbrush where he could watch the partridges drumming and strutting up and
down. But especially he loved to run in the dim twilight of the summer
midnights, listening to the subdued and sleepy murmurs of the forest, reading
signs and sounds as man may read a book, and seeking for the mysterious
something that called—called, waking or sleeping, at all times, for him
One night he sprang from sleep with a start, eager-eyed, nostrils quivering and
scenting, his mane bristling in recurrent waves. From the forest came the call
(or one note of it, for the call was many noted), distinct and definite as
never before,—a long-drawn howl, like, yet unlike, any noise made by
husky dog. And he knew it, in the old familiar way, as a sound heard before. He
sprang through the sleeping camp and in swift silence dashed through the woods.
As he drew closer to the cry he went more slowly, with caution in every
movement, till he came to an open place among the trees, and looking out saw,
erect on haunches, with nose pointed to the sky, a long, lean, timber wolf.
He had made no noise, yet it ceased from its howling and tried to sense his
presence. Buck stalked into the open, half crouching, body gathered compactly
together, tail straight and stiff, feet falling with unwonted care. Every
movement advertised commingled threatening and overture of friendliness. It was
the menacing truce that marks the meeting of wild beasts that prey. But the
wolf fled at sight of him. He followed, with wild leapings, in a frenzy to
overtake. He ran him into a blind channel, in the bed of the creek where a
timber jam barred the way. The wolf whirled about, pivoting on his hind legs
after the fashion of Joe and of all cornered husky dogs, snarling and
bristling, clipping his teeth together in a continuous and rapid succession of
Buck did not attack, but circled him about and hedged him in with friendly
advances. The wolf was suspicious and afraid; for Buck made three of him in
weight, while his head barely reached Buck’s shoulder. Watching his
chance, he darted away, and the chase was resumed. Time and again he was
cornered, and the thing repeated, though he was in poor condition, or Buck
could not so easily have overtaken him. He would run till Buck’s head was
even with his flank, when he would whirl around at bay, only to dash away again
at the first opportunity.
But in the end Buck’s pertinacity was rewarded; for the wolf, finding
that no harm was intended, finally sniffed noses with him. Then they became
friendly, and played about in the nervous, half-coy way with which fierce
beasts belie their fierceness. After some time of this the wolf started off at
an easy lope in a manner that plainly showed he was going somewhere. He made it
clear to Buck that he was to come, and they ran side by side through the sombre
twilight, straight up the creek bed, into the gorge from which it issued, and
across the bleak divide where it took its rise.
On the opposite slope of the watershed they came down into a level country
where were great stretches of forest and many streams, and through these great
stretches they ran steadily, hour after hour, the sun rising higher and the day
growing warmer. Buck was wildly glad. He knew he was at last answering the
call, running by the side of his wood brother toward the place from where the
call surely came. Old memories were coming upon him fast, and he was stirring
to them as of old he stirred to the realities of which they were the shadows.
He had done this thing before, somewhere in that other and dimly remembered
world, and he was doing it again, now, running free in the open, the unpacked
earth underfoot, the wide sky overhead.
They stopped by a running stream to drink, and, stopping, Buck remembered John
Thornton. He sat down. The wolf started on toward the place from where the call
surely came, then returned to him, sniffing noses and making actions as though
to encourage him. But Buck turned about and started slowly on the back track.
For the better part of an hour the wild brother ran by his side, whining
softly. Then he sat down, pointed his nose upward, and howled. It was a
mournful howl, and as Buck held steadily on his way he heard it grow faint and
fainter until it was lost in the distance.
John Thornton was eating dinner when Buck dashed into camp and sprang upon him
in a frenzy of affection, overturning him, scrambling upon him, licking his
face, biting his hand—“playing the general tom-fool,” as John
Thornton characterized it, the while he shook Buck back and forth and cursed
For two days and nights Buck never left camp, never let Thornton out of his
sight. He followed him about at his work, watched him while he ate, saw him
into his blankets at night and out of them in the morning. But after two days
the call in the forest began to sound more imperiously than ever. Buck’s
restlessness came back on him, and he was haunted by recollections of the wild
brother, and of the smiling land beyond the divide and the run side by side
through the wide forest stretches. Once again he took to wandering in the
woods, but the wild brother came no more; and though he listened through long
vigils, the mournful howl was never raised.
He began to sleep out at night, staying away from camp for days at a time; and
once he crossed the divide at the head of the creek and went down into the land
of timber and streams. There he wandered for a week, seeking vainly for fresh
sign of the wild brother, killing his meat as he travelled and travelling with
the long, easy lope that seems never to tire. He fished for salmon in a broad
stream that emptied somewhere into the sea, and by this stream he killed a
large black bear, blinded by the mosquitoes while likewise fishing, and raging
through the forest helpless and terrible. Even so, it was a hard fight, and it
aroused the last latent remnants of Buck’s ferocity. And two days later,
when he returned to his kill and found a dozen wolverenes quarrelling over the
spoil, he scattered them like chaff; and those that fled left two behind who
would quarrel no more.
The blood-longing became stronger than ever before. He was a killer, a thing
that preyed, living on the things that lived, unaided, alone, by virtue of his
own strength and prowess, surviving triumphantly in a hostile environment where
only the strong survived. Because of all this he became possessed of a great
pride in himself, which communicated itself like a contagion to his physical
being. It advertised itself in all his movements, was apparent in the play of
every muscle, spoke plainly as speech in the way he carried himself, and made
his glorious furry coat if anything more glorious. But for the stray brown on
his muzzle and above his eyes, and for the splash of white hair that ran
midmost down his chest, he might well have been mistaken for a gigantic wolf,
larger than the largest of the breed. From his St. Bernard father he had
inherited size and weight, but it was his shepherd mother who had given shape
to that size and weight. His muzzle was the long wolf muzzle, save that it was
larger than the muzzle of any wolf; and his head, somewhat broader, was the
wolf head on a massive scale.
His cunning was wolf cunning, and wild cunning; his intelligence, shepherd
intelligence and St. Bernard intelligence; and all this, plus an experience
gained in the fiercest of schools, made him as formidable a creature as any
that roamed the wild. A carnivorous animal living on a straight meat diet, he
was in full flower, at the high tide of his life, overspilling with vigor and
virility. When Thornton passed a caressing hand along his back, a snapping and
crackling followed the hand, each hair discharging its pent magnetism at the
contact. Every part, brain and body, nerve tissue and fibre, was keyed to the
most exquisite pitch; and between all the parts there was a perfect equilibrium
or adjustment. To sights and sounds and events which required action, he
responded with lightning-like rapidity. Quickly as a husky dog could leap to
defend from attack or to attack, he could leap twice as quickly. He saw the
movement, or heard sound, and responded in less time than another dog required
to compass the mere seeing or hearing. He perceived and determined and
responded in the same instant. In point of fact the three actions of
perceiving, determining, and responding were sequential; but so infinitesimal
were the intervals of time between them that they appeared simultaneous. His
muscles were surcharged with vitality, and snapped into play sharply, like
steel springs. Life streamed through him in splendid flood, glad and rampant,
until it seemed that it would burst him asunder in sheer ecstasy and pour forth
generously over the world.
“Never was there such a dog,” said John Thornton one day, as the
partners watched Buck marching out of camp.
“When he was made, the mould was broke,” said Pete.
“Py jingo! I t’ink so mineself,” Hans affirmed.
They saw him marching out of camp, but they did not see the instant and
terrible transformation which took place as soon as he was within the secrecy
of the forest. He no longer marched. At once he became a thing of the wild,
stealing along softly, cat-footed, a passing shadow that appeared and
disappeared among the shadows. He knew how to take advantage of every cover, to
crawl on his belly like a snake, and like a snake to leap and strike. He could
take a ptarmigan from its nest, kill a rabbit as it slept, and snap in mid air
the little chipmunks fleeing a second too late for the trees. Fish, in open
pools, were not too quick for him; nor were beaver, mending their dams, too
wary. He killed to eat, not from wantonness; but he preferred to eat what he
killed himself. So a lurking humor ran through his deeds, and it was his
delight to steal upon the squirrels, and, when he all but had them, to let them
go, chattering in mortal fear to the treetops.
As the fall of the year came on, the moose appeared in greater abundance,
moving slowly down to meet the winter in the lower and less rigorous valleys.
Buck had already dragged down a stray part-grown calf; but he wished strongly
for larger and more formidable quarry, and he came upon it one day on the
divide at the head of the creek. A band of twenty moose had crossed over from
the land of streams and timber, and chief among them was a great bull. He was
in a savage temper, and, standing over six feet from the ground, was as
formidable an antagonist as even Buck could desire. Back and forth the bull
tossed his great palmated antlers, branching to fourteen points and embracing
seven feet within the tips. His small eyes burned with a vicious and bitter
light, while he roared with fury at sight of Buck.
From the bull’s side, just forward of the flank, protruded a feathered
arrow-end, which accounted for his savageness. Guided by that instinct which
came from the old hunting days of the primordial world, Buck proceeded to cut
the bull out from the herd. It was no slight task. He would bark and dance
about in front of the bull, just out of reach of the great antlers and of the
terrible splay hoofs which could have stamped his life out with a single blow.
Unable to turn his back on the fanged danger and go on, the bull would be
driven into paroxysms of rage. At such moments he charged Buck, who retreated
craftily, luring him on by a simulated inability to escape. But when he was
thus separated from his fellows, two or three of the younger bulls would charge
back upon Buck and enable the wounded bull to rejoin the herd.
There is a patience of the wild—dogged, tireless, persistent as life
itself—that holds motionless for endless hours the spider in its web, the
snake in its coils, the panther in its ambuscade; this patience belongs
peculiarly to life when it hunts its living food; and it belonged to Buck as he
clung to the flank of the herd, retarding its march, irritating the young
bulls, worrying the cows with their half-grown calves, and driving the wounded
bull mad with helpless rage. For half a day this continued. Buck multiplied
himself, attacking from all sides, enveloping the herd in a whirlwind of
menace, cutting out his victim as fast as it could rejoin its mates, wearing
out the patience of creatures preyed upon, which is a lesser patience than that
of creatures preying.
As the day wore along and the sun dropped to its bed in the northwest (the
darkness had come back and the fall nights were six hours long), the young
bulls retraced their steps more and more reluctantly to the aid of their beset
leader. The down-coming winter was harrying them on to the lower levels, and it
seemed they could never shake off this tireless creature that held them back.
Besides, it was not the life of the herd, or of the young bulls, that was
threatened. The life of only one member was demanded, which was a remoter
interest than their lives, and in the end they were content to pay the toll.
As twilight fell the old bull stood with lowered head, watching his
mates—the cows he had known, the calves he had fathered, the bulls he had
mastered—as they shambled on at a rapid pace through the fading light. He
could not follow, for before his nose leaped the merciless fanged terror that
would not let him go. Three hundredweight more than half a ton he weighed; he
had lived a long, strong life, full of fight and struggle, and at the end he
faced death at the teeth of a creature whose head did not reach beyond his
great knuckled knees.
From then on, night and day, Buck never left his prey, never gave it a
moment’s rest, never permitted it to browse the leaves of trees or the
shoots of young birch and willow. Nor did he give the wounded bull opportunity
to slake his burning thirst in the slender trickling streams they crossed.
Often, in desperation, he burst into long stretches of flight. At such times
Buck did not attempt to stay him, but loped easily at his heels, satisfied with
the way the game was played, lying down when the moose stood still, attacking
him fiercely when he strove to eat or drink.
The great head drooped more and more under its tree of horns, and the shambling
trot grew weak and weaker. He took to standing for long periods, with nose to
the ground and dejected ears dropped limply; and Buck found more time in which
to get water for himself and in which to rest. At such moments, panting with
red lolling tongue and with eyes fixed upon the big bull, it appeared to Buck
that a change was coming over the face of things. He could feel a new stir in
the land. As the moose were coming into the land, other kinds of life were
coming in. Forest and stream and air seemed palpitant with their presence. The
news of it was borne in upon him, not by sight, or sound, or smell, but by some
other and subtler sense. He heard nothing, saw nothing, yet knew that the land
was somehow different; that through it strange things were afoot and ranging;
and he resolved to investigate after he had finished the business in hand.
At last, at the end of the fourth day, he pulled the great moose down. For a
day and a night he remained by the kill, eating and sleeping, turn and turn
about. Then, rested, refreshed and strong, he turned his face toward camp and
John Thornton. He broke into the long easy lope, and went on, hour after hour,
never at loss for the tangled way, heading straight home through strange
country with a certitude of direction that put man and his magnetic needle to
As he held on he became more and more conscious of the new stir in the land.
There was life abroad in it different from the life which had been there
throughout the summer. No longer was this fact borne in upon him in some
subtle, mysterious way. The birds talked of it, the squirrels chattered about
it, the very breeze whispered of it. Several times he stopped and drew in the
fresh morning air in great sniffs, reading a message which made him leap on
with greater speed. He was oppressed with a sense of calamity happening, if it
were not calamity already happened; and as he crossed the last watershed and
dropped down into the valley toward camp, he proceeded with greater caution.
Three miles away he came upon a fresh trail that sent his neck hair rippling
and bristling, It led straight toward camp and John Thornton. Buck hurried on,
swiftly and stealthily, every nerve straining and tense, alert to the
multitudinous details which told a story—all but the end. His nose gave
him a varying description of the passage of the life on the heels of which he
was travelling. He remarked the pregnant silence of the forest. The bird life
had flitted. The squirrels were in hiding. One only he saw,—a sleek gray
fellow, flattened against a gray dead limb so that he seemed a part of it, a
woody excrescence upon the wood itself.
As Buck slid along with the obscureness of a gliding shadow, his nose was
jerked suddenly to the side as though a positive force had gripped and pulled
it. He followed the new scent into a thicket and found Nig. He was lying on his
side, dead where he had dragged himself, an arrow protruding, head and
feathers, from either side of his body.
A hundred yards farther on, Buck came upon one of the sled-dogs Thornton had
bought in Dawson. This dog was thrashing about in a death-struggle, directly on
the trail, and Buck passed around him without stopping. From the camp came the
faint sound of many voices, rising and falling in a sing-song chant. Bellying
forward to the edge of the clearing, he found Hans, lying on his face,
feathered with arrows like a porcupine. At the same instant Buck peered out
where the spruce-bough lodge had been and saw what made his hair leap straight
up on his neck and shoulders. A gust of overpowering rage swept over him. He
did not know that he growled, but he growled aloud with a terrible ferocity.
For the last time in his life he allowed passion to usurp cunning and reason,
and it was because of his great love for John Thornton that he lost his head.
The Yeehats were dancing about the wreckage of the spruce-bough lodge when they
heard a fearful roaring and saw rushing upon them an animal the like of which
they had never seen before. It was Buck, a live hurricane of fury, hurling
himself upon them in a frenzy to destroy. He sprang at the foremost man (it was
the chief of the Yeehats), ripping the throat wide open till the rent jugular
spouted a fountain of blood. He did not pause to worry the victim, but ripped
in passing, with the next bound tearing wide the throat of a second man. There
was no withstanding him. He plunged about in their very midst, tearing,
rending, destroying, in constant and terrific motion which defied the arrows
they discharged at him. In fact, so inconceivably rapid were his movements, and
so closely were the Indians tangled together, that they shot one another with
the arrows; and one young hunter, hurling a spear at Buck in mid air, drove it
through the chest of another hunter with such force that the point broke
through the skin of the back and stood out beyond. Then a panic seized the
Yeehats, and they fled in terror to the woods, proclaiming as they fled the
advent of the Evil Spirit.
And truly Buck was the Fiend incarnate, raging at their heels and dragging them
down like deer as they raced through the trees. It was a fateful day for the
Yeehats. They scattered far and wide over the country, and it was not till a
week later that the last of the survivors gathered together in a lower valley
and counted their losses. As for Buck, wearying of the pursuit, he returned to
the desolated camp. He found Pete where he had been killed in his blankets in
the first moment of surprise. Thornton’s desperate struggle was
fresh-written on the earth, and Buck scented every detail of it down to the
edge of a deep pool. By the edge, head and fore feet in the water, lay Skeet,
faithful to the last. The pool itself, muddy and discolored from the sluice
boxes, effectually hid what it contained, and it contained John Thornton; for
Buck followed his trace into the water, from which no trace led away.
All day Buck brooded by the pool or roamed restlessly about the camp. Death, as
a cessation of movement, as a passing out and away from the lives of the
living, he knew, and he knew John Thornton was dead. It left a great void in
him, somewhat akin to hunger, but a void which ached and ached, and which food
could not fill, At times, when he paused to contemplate the carcasses of the
Yeehats, he forgot the pain of it; and at such times he was aware of a great
pride in himself,—a pride greater than any he had yet experienced. He had
killed man, the noblest game of all, and he had killed in the face of the law
of club and fang. He sniffed the bodies curiously. They had died so easily. It
was harder to kill a husky dog than them. They were no match at all, were it
not for their arrows and spears and clubs. Thenceforward he would be unafraid
of them except when they bore in their hands their arrows, spears, and clubs.
Night came on, and a full moon rose high over the trees into the sky, lighting
the land till it lay bathed in ghostly day. And with the coming of the night,
brooding and mourning by the pool, Buck became alive to a stirring of the new
life in the forest other than that which the Yeehats had made, He stood up,
listening and scenting. From far away drifted a faint, sharp yelp, followed by
a chorus of similar sharp yelps. As the moments passed the yelps grew closer
and louder. Again Buck knew them as things heard in that other world which
persisted in his memory. He walked to the centre of the open space and
listened. It was the call, the many-noted call, sounding more luringly and
compellingly than ever before. And as never before, he was ready to obey. John
Thornton was dead. The last tie was broken. Man and the claims of man no longer
Hunting their living meat, as the Yeehats were hunting it, on the flanks of the
migrating moose, the wolf pack had at last crossed over from the land of
streams and timber and invaded Buck’s valley. Into the clearing where the
moonlight streamed, they poured in a silvery flood; and in the centre of the
clearing stood Buck, motionless as a statue, waiting their coming. They were
awed, so still and large he stood, and a moment’s pause fell, till the
boldest one leaped straight for him. Like a flash Buck struck, breaking the
neck. Then he stood, without movement, as before, the stricken wolf rolling in
agony behind him. Three others tried it in sharp succession; and one after the
other they drew back, streaming blood from slashed throats or shoulders.
This was sufficient to fling the whole pack forward, pell-mell, crowded
together, blocked and confused by its eagerness to pull down the prey.
Buck’s marvellous quickness and agility stood him in good stead. Pivoting
on his hind legs, and snapping and gashing, he was everywhere at once,
presenting a front which was apparently unbroken so swiftly did he whirl and
guard from side to side. But to prevent them from getting behind him, he was
forced back, down past the pool and into the creek bed, till he brought up
against a high gravel bank. He worked along to a right angle in the bank which
the men had made in the course of mining, and in this angle he came to bay,
protected on three sides and with nothing to do but face the front.
And so well did he face it, that at the end of half an hour the wolves drew
back discomfited. The tongues of all were out and lolling, the white fangs
showing cruelly white in the moonlight. Some were lying down with heads raised
and ears pricked forward; others stood on their feet, watching him; and still
others were lapping water from the pool. One wolf, long and lean and gray,
advanced cautiously, in a friendly manner, and Buck recognized the wild brother
with whom he had run for a night and a day. He was whining softly, and, as Buck
whined, they touched noses.
Then an old wolf, gaunt and battle-scarred, came forward. Buck writhed his lips
into the preliminary of a snarl, but sniffed noses with him, Whereupon the old
wolf sat down, pointed nose at the moon, and broke out the long wolf howl. The
others sat down and howled. And now the call came to Buck in unmistakable
accents. He, too, sat down and howled. This over, he came out of his angle and
the pack crowded around him, sniffing in half-friendly, half-savage manner. The
leaders lifted the yelp of the pack and sprang away into the woods. The wolves
swung in behind, yelping in chorus. And Buck ran with them, side by side with
the wild brother, yelping as he ran.
And here may well end the story of Buck. The years were not many when the
Yeehats noted a change in the breed of timber wolves; for some were seen with
splashes of brown on head and muzzle, and with a rift of white centring down
the chest. But more remarkable than this, the Yeehats tell of a Ghost Dog that
runs at the head of the pack. They are afraid of this Ghost Dog, for it has
cunning greater than they, stealing from their camps in fierce winters, robbing
their traps, slaying their dogs, and defying their bravest hunters.
Nay, the tale grows worse. Hunters there are who fail to return to the camp,
and hunters there have been whom their tribesmen found with throats slashed
cruelly open and with wolf prints about them in the snow greater than the
prints of any wolf. Each fall, when the Yeehats follow the movement of the
moose, there is a certain valley which they never enter. And women there are
who become sad when the word goes over the fire of how the Evil Spirit came to
select that valley for an abiding-place.
In the summers there is one visitor, however, to that valley, of which the
Yeehats do not know. It is a great, gloriously coated wolf, like, and yet
unlike, all other wolves. He crosses alone from the smiling timber land and
comes down into an open space among the trees. Here a yellow stream flows from
rotted moose-hide sacks and sinks into the ground, with long grasses growing
through it and vegetable mould overrunning it and hiding its yellow from the
sun; and here he muses for a time, howling once, long and mournfully, ere he
But he is not always alone. When the long winter nights come on and the wolves
follow their meat into the lower valleys, he may be seen running at the head of
the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic
above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger
world, which is the song of the pack.
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