The Law of Club and Fang
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 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
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 stem, 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,
keep clear of the wheeler when the loaded sled shot downhill at
"T'ree vair' good dogs," Francois told Perrault. "Dat Buck,
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
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, 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 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 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
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 honored
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 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. Francois, 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 condition.
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 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
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 himself.
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Call of the Wild