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THE CALL OF THE WILD

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

widespreading 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 out-houses, long grape arbours, 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 mops.

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

the 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 did 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 ever 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 progeny.

The Judge was at a meeting of the Raisin Growers' Association, and

the boys were busy organising 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 clinked 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 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

more.

'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' 'im up for the boss to 'Frisco. A crack dog-doctor there thinks

that he can cure 'im.'

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 were born to hang,' laughed the saloon-keeper.

'Here, lend me a hand before you pull your freight,' he added.

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 cage-like crate.

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 realised

that that was what they wanted. Whereupon he lay down sullenly and

allowed the crate to be lifted into a waggon. 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 waggon; 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

bloodshot, and he was metamorphosed into a raging fiend. So changed

was he that the Judge himself would not have recognised 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 waggon into a small,

high-walled backyard. 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

pry.

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

bloodshot 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 agonising 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 senseless.

'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 waggon 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 soliloquised, 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. Understand?'

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 water he

drank eagerly, and later bolted a generous meal of raw meat, chunk

by chunk, from the man's hand.

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 afterlife 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 selected.

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 understand.

'Sacredam!' he cried, when his eyes lit upon Buck. 'Dat one dam

bully dog! Eh? How much?'

'Three hundred, and a present at that,' was the prompt reply of

the man in the red sweater. 'And seein' 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 mentally.

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 Francois. Perrault was a French-Canadian, and

swarthy; but Francois 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 Francois were fair men, calm and impartial in

administering justice, and too wise in the way of dogs to be ever

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 Francois whip sang through the air, reaching

the culprit first; and nothing remained to Buck but to recover the

bone. That was fair of Francois, he decided, and the half-breed

began to rise in Buck's estimation.

The other dog made no advance, 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, favoured 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. Francois 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 first snow.

 

CHAPTER_TWO

CHAPTER TWO.

The Law of Club and Fang.

-

BUCK'S FIRST DAY ON THE Dyea bach was like a nightmare. Every hour

was filled with shock and surprise. He had been suddenly jerked from

the heart of civilisation 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 unforgettable 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 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 Francois, 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. Francois 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 Francois 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. Francois 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 Francois 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,' Francois told Perrault. 'Dat Buck, heem

pool lak hell, I tich heem queek as anyt'ing.'

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 Francois 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,

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

forelegs 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

intention, 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 civilised dog, an unduly civilised 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 Francois hailed his appearance. 'Wot I say?' the

dog-driver cried to Perrault. 'Dat Buck for sure learn queek as

anyt'ing.'

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 Canon.

Buck was glad to be gone, and thought 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 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 Francois'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. Francois's whip snapped less frequently, and

Perrault even honoured Buck by lifting up his feet and carefully

examining them.

It was a hard day's run, up the Canon, through Sheep Camp, past

the Scales and 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

gold-seekers 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. Francois, guiding the sled at the geepole, 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 grey 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 condition.

He swiftly lost the fastidiousness which had characterised 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. Civilised, he could have died for a

moral consideration, say the defence of Judge Miller's riding-whip;

but the completeness of his decivilisation was not 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

clamour 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 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 at 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 snug.

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 stillness, 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 himself.

 

CHAPTER_THREE

CHAPTER THREE.

The Dominant Primordial Beast.

-

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 new-born 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 characterised 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 offensive

acts.

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 Francois

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 Francois 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 his 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 because of his great weight and size.

Francois 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

t'eef!'

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 the unexpected

happened, the thing which projected their struggle for supremacy far

into the future, past many a weary mile of trail and toil.

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 in his own throat. It was

Spitz, treacherously attacking from the side.

Perrault and Francois, 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 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 covering. 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

Francois'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, Perrault?'

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 harness 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 Francois, 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

Francois 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. Francois 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 credit.

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 Francois had to bring to him. Also, the dog-driver rubbed Buck's

feet for half an hour each night after supper, and sacrificed the tips

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 Francois 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, heart-breaking 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. Francois 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 Francois 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 Francois'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 Francois'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 pre-eminently

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. Francois 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 Francois,

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 Francois 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 Francois 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 night, 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.

Date: 2015-04-19; view: 1110


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