Who Has Won to Mastership
"Eh? Wot I say? I spik true w'en I say dat Buck two devils."
This was Francois'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 them out.
"Dat Spitz fight lak hell," said Perrault, as he surveyed the
gaping rips and cuts.
"An' dat Buck fight lak two hells," was Francois's answer. "An'
now we make good time. No more Spitz, no more trouble, sure."
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 Francois, 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?" Francois cried, slapping his thighs gleefully. "Look
dat Buck. Heem keel dat Spitz, heem t'ink to take de job."
"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. Francois was obdurate, but when he turned his back Buck
again displaced Sol-leks, who was not at all unwilling to go.
Francois 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 Francois, 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.
Francois followed him up, whereupon he again retreated. After
some time of this, Francois 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.
Francois 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. Francois scratched his head again. He
shook it and grinned sheepishly at the courier, who shrugged his
shoulders in sign that they were beaten. Then Francois went up to
where Sol-leks stood and called to Buck. Buck laughed, as dogs
laugh, yet kept his distance. Francois 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 Francois
called, and once more Buck laughed and kept away.
"T'row down de club," Perrault commanded.
Francois 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 trail.
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 Francois 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 Francois's breath.
"Nevaire such a dog as dat Buck!" he cried. "No, nevaire!
worth one t'ousan' dollair, by Gar! Eh? Wot you say, Perrault?"
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 their feet.
It was a record run. Each day for fourteen days they had averaged
forty miles. For three days Perrault and Francois 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. Francois called Buck to him,
threw his arms around him, wept over him. And that was the last
of Francois 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 side.
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 work.
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 A 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
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.
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Call of the Wild