The Toil of Trace and Trail
Thirty days from the time it left Dawson, the Salt Water Mail,
with Buck and his mates at the fore, arrived at Skaguay. They
were in a wretched state, worn out and worn down. Buck's one
hundred and forty pounds had dwindled to one hundred and fifteen.
The rest of his mates, though lighter dogs, had relatively lost
more weight than he. Pike, the malingerer, who, in his lifetime
of deceit, had often successfully feigned a hurt leg, was now
limping in earnest. Sol-leks was limping, and Dub was suffering
from a wrenched shoulder-blade.
They were all terribly footsore. No spring or rebound was left in
them. Their feet fell heavily on the trail, jarring their bodies
and doubting the fatigue of a day's travel. There was nothing the
matter with them except that they were dead tired. It was not the
dead-tiredness that comes through brief and excessive effort, from
which recovery is a matter of hours; but it was the dead-tiredness
that comes through the slow and prolonged strength drainage of
months of toil. There was no power of recuperation left, no
reserve strength to call upon. It had been all used, the last
least bit of it. Every muscle, every fibre, every cell, was
tired, dead tired. And there was reason for it. In less than
five months they had travelled twenty-five hundred miles, during
the last eighteen hundred of which they had had but five days'
rest. When they arrived at Skaguay they were apparently on their
last legs. They could barely keep the traces taut, and on the
down grades just managed to keep out of the way of the sled.
"Mush on, poor sore feets," the driver encouraged them as they
tottered down the main street of Skaguay. "Dis is de las'. Den we
get one long res'. Eh? For sure. One bully long res'."
The drivers confidently expected a long stopover. Themselves,
they had covered twelve hundred miles with two days' rest, and in
the nature of reason and common justice they deserved an interval
of loafing. But so many were the men who had rushed into the
Klondike, and so many were the sweethearts, wives, and kin that
had not rushed in, that the congested mail was taking on Alpine
proportions; also, there were official orders. Fresh batches of
Hudson Bay dogs were to take the places of those worthless for the
trail. The worthless ones were to be got rid of, and, since dogs
count for little against dollars, they were to be sold.
Three days passed, by which time Buck and his mates found how
really tired and weak they were. Then, on the morning of the
fourth day, two men from the States came along and bought them,
harness and all, for a song. The men addressed each other as
"Hal" and "Charles." Charles was a middle-aged, lightish-colored
man, with weak and watery eyes and a mustache that twisted
fiercely and vigorously up, giving the lie to the limply drooping
lip it concealed. Hal was a youngster of nineteen or twenty, with
a big Colt's revolver and a hunting-knife strapped about him on a
belt that fairly bristled with cartridges. This belt was the most
salient thing about him. It advertised his callowness--a
callowness sheer and unutterable. Both men were manifestly out of
place, and why such as they should adventure the North is part of
the mystery of things that passes understanding.
Buck heard the chaffering, saw the money pass between the man and
the Government agent, and knew that the Scotch half-breed and the
mail-train drivers were passing out of his life on the heels of
Perrault and Francois and the others who had gone before. When
driven with his mates to the new owners' camp, Buck saw a slipshod
and slovenly affair, tent half stretched, dishes unwashed,
everything in disorder; also, he saw a woman. "Mercedes" the men
called her. She was Charles's wife and Hal's sister--a nice family party.
Buck watched them apprehensively as they proceeded to take down
the tent and load the sled. There was a great deal of effort
about their manner, but no businesslike method. The tent was
rolled into an awkward bundle three times as large as it should
have been. The tin dishes were packed away unwashed. Mercedes
continually fluttered in the way of her men and kept up an
unbroken chattering of remonstrance and advice. When they put a
clothes-sack on the front of the sled, she suggested it should go
on the back; and when they had put it on the back, and covered it
over with a couple of other bundles, she discovered overlooked
articles which could abide nowhere else but in that very sack, and
they unloaded again.
Three men from a neighboring tent came out and looked on, grinning
and winking at one another.
"You've got a right smart load as it is," said one of them; "and
it's not me should tell you your business, but I wouldn't tote
that tent along if I was you."
"Undreamed of!" cried Mercedes, throwing up her hands in dainty
dismay. "However in the world could I manage without a tent?"
"It's springtime, and you won't get any more cold weather," the
She shook her head decidedly, and Charles and Hal put the last
odds and ends on top the mountainous load.
"Think it'll ride?" one of the men asked.
"Why shouldn't it?" Charles demanded rather shortly.
"Oh, that's all right, that's all right," the man hastened meekly
to say. "I was just a-wonderin', that is all. It seemed a mite
Charles turned his back and drew the lashings down as well as he
could, which was not in the least well.
"An' of course the dogs can hike along all day with that
contraption behind them," affirmed a second of the men.
"Certainly," said Hal, with freezing politeness, taking hold of
the gee-pole with one hand and swinging his whip from the other.
"Mush!" he shouted. "Mush on there!"
The dogs sprang against the breast-bands, strained hard for a few
moments, then relaxed. They were unable to move the sled.
"The lazy brutes, I'll show them," he cried, preparing to lash
at them with the whip.
But Mercedes interfered, crying, "Oh, Hal, you mustn't," as she
caught hold of the whip and wrenched it from him. "The poor dears!
Now you must promise you won't be harsh with them for the rest of
the trip, or I won't go a step."
"Precious lot you know about dogs," her brother sneered; "and
wish you'd leave me alone. They're lazy, I tell you, and you've
got to whip them to get anything out of them. That's their way.
You ask any one. Ask one of those men."
Mercedes looked at them imploringly, untold repugnance at sight of
pain written in her pretty face.
"They're weak as water, if you want to know," came the reply from
one of the men. "Plum tuckered out, that's what's the matter.
They need a rest."
"Rest be blanked," said Hal, with his beardless lips; and Mercedes
said, "Oh!" in pain and sorrow at the oath.
But she was a clannish creature, and rushed at once to the defence
of her brother. "Never mind that man," she said pointedly.
"You're driving our dogs, and you do what you think best with them."
Again Hal's whip fell upon the dogs. They threw themselves
against the breast-bands, dug their feet into the packed snow, got
down low to it, and put forth all their strength. The sled held as
though it were an anchor. After two efforts, they stood still,
panting. The whip was whistling savagely, when once more Mercedes
interfered. She dropped on her knees before Buck, with tears in
her eyes, and put her arms around his neck.
"You poor, poor dears," she cried sympathetically, "why don't
pull hard?--then you wouldn't be whipped." Buck did not like her,
but he was feeling too miserable to resist her, taking it as part
of the day's miserable work.
One of the onlookers, who had been clenching his teeth to suppress
hot speech, now spoke up:--
"It's not that I care a whoop what becomes of you, but for the
dogs' sakes I just want to tell you, you can help them a mighty
lot by breaking out that sled. The runners are froze fast. Throw
your weight against the gee-pole, right and left, and break it out."
A third time the attempt was made, but this time, following the
advice, Hal broke out the runners which had been frozen to the
snow. The overloaded and unwieldy sled forged ahead, Buck and his
mates struggling frantically under the rain of blows. A hundred
yards ahead the path turned and sloped steeply into the main
street. It would have required an experienced man to keep the
top-heavy sled upright, and Hal was not such a man. As they swung
on the turn the sled went over, spilling half its load through the
loose lashings. The dogs never stopped. The lightened sled
bounded on its side behind them. They were angry because of the
ill treatment they had received and the unjust load. Buck was
raging. He broke into a run, the team following his lead. Hal
cried "Whoa! whoa!" but they gave no heed. He tripped and was
pulled off his feet. The capsized sled ground over him, and the
dogs dashed on up the street, adding to the gayety of Skaguay as
they scattered the remainder of the outfit along its chief thoroughfare.
Kind-hearted citizens caught the dogs and gathered up the
scattered belongings. Also, they gave advice. Half the load and
twice the dogs, if they ever expected to reach Dawson, was what
was said. Hal and his sister and brother-in-law listened
unwillingly, pitched tent, and overhauled the outfit. Canned goods
were turned out that made men laugh, for canned goods on the Long
Trail is a thing to dream about. "Blankets for a hotel" quoth
of the men who laughed and helped. "Half as many is too much; get
rid of them. Throw away that tent, and all those dishes,--who's
going to wash them, anyway? Good Lord, do you think you're
travelling on a Pullman?"
And so it went, the inexorable elimination of the superfluous.
Mercedes cried when her clothes-bags were dumped on the ground and
article after article was thrown out. She cried in general, and
she cried in particular over each discarded thing. She clasped
hands about knees, rocking back and forth broken-heartedly. She
averred she would not go an inch, not for a dozen Charleses. She
appealed to everybody and to everything, finally wiping her eyes
and proceeding to cast out even articles of apparel that were
imperative necessaries. And in her zeal, when she had finished
with her own, she attacked the belongings of her men and went
through them like a tornado.
This accomplished, the outfit, though cut in half, was still a
formidable bulk. Charles and Hal went out in the evening and
bought six Outside dogs. These, added to the six of the original
team, and Teek and Koona, the huskies obtained at the Rink Rapids
on the record trip, brought the team up to fourteen. But the
Outside dogs, though practically broken in since their landing,
did not amount to much. Three were short-haired pointers, one was
a Newfoundland, and the other two were mongrels of indeterminate
breed. They did not seem to know anything, these newcomers. Buck
and his comrades looked upon them with disgust, and though he
speedily taught them their places and what not to do, he could not
teach them what to do. They did not take kindly to trace and
trail. With the exception of the two mongrels, they were
bewildered and spirit-broken by the strange savage environment in
which they found themselves and by the ill treatment they had
received. The two mongrels were without spirit at all; bones were
the only things breakable about them.
With the newcomers hopeless and forlorn, and the old team worn out
by twenty-five hundred miles of continuous trail, the outlook was
anything but bright. The two men, however, were quite cheerful.
And they were proud, too. They were doing the thing in style, with
fourteen dogs. They had seen other sleds depart over the Pass for
Dawson, or come in from Dawson, but never had they seen a sled
with so many as fourteen dogs. In the nature of Arctic travel
there was a reason why fourteen dogs should not drag one sled, and
that was that one sled could not carry the food for fourteen dogs.
But Charles and Hal did not know this. They had worked the trip
out with a pencil, so much to a dog, so many dogs, so many days,
Q.E.D. Mercedes looked over their shoulders and nodded
comprehensively, it was all so very simple.
Late next morning Buck led the long team up the street. There was
nothing lively about it, no snap or go in him and his fellows.
They were starting dead weary. Four times he had covered the
distance between Salt Water and Dawson, and the knowledge that,
jaded and tired, he was facing the same trail once more, made him
bitter. His heart was not in the work, nor was the heart of any
dog. The Outsides were timid and frightened, the Insides without
confidence in their masters.
Buck felt vaguely that there was no depending upon these two men
and the woman. They did not know how to do anything, and as the
days went by it became apparent that they could not learn. They
were slack in all things, without order or discipline. It took
them half the night to pitch a slovenly camp, and half the morning
to break that camp and get the sled loaded in fashion so slovenly
that for the rest of the day they were occupied in stopping and
rearranging the load. Some days they did not make ten miles. On
other days they were unable to get started at all. And on no day
did they succeed in making more than half the distance used by the
men as a basis in their dog-food computation.
It was inevitable that they should go short on dog-food. But they
hastened it by overfeeding, bringing the day nearer when
underfeeding would commence. The Outside dogs, whose digestions
had not been trained by chronic famine to make the most of little,
had voracious appetites. And when, in addition to this, the worn-
out huskies pulled weakly, Hal decided that the orthodox ration
was too small. He doubled it. And to cap it all, when Mercedes,
with tears in her pretty eyes and a quaver in her throat, could
not cajole him into giving the dogs still more, she stole from the
fish-sacks and fed them slyly. But it was not food that Buck and
the huskies needed, but rest. And though they were making poor
time, the heavy load they dragged sapped their strength severely.
Then came the underfeeding. Hal awoke one day to the fact that
his dog-food was half gone and the distance only quarter covered;
further, that for love or money no additional dog-food was to be
obtained. So he cut down even the orthodox ration and tried to
increase the day's travel. His sister and brother-in-law seconded
him; but they were frustrated by their heavy outfit and their own
incompetence. It was a simple matter to give the dogs less food;
but it was impossible to make the dogs travel faster, while their
own inability to get under way earlier in the morning prevented
them from travelling longer hours. Not only did they not know how
to work dogs, but they did not know how to work themselves.
The first to go was Dub. Poor blundering thief that he was,
always getting caught and punished, he had none the less been a
faithful worker. His wrenched shoulder-blade, untreated and
unrested, went from bad to worse, till finally Hal shot him with
the big Colt's revolver. It is a saying of the country that an
Outside dog starves to death on the ration of the husky, so the
six Outside dogs under Buck could do no less than die on half the
ration of the husky. The Newfoundland went first, followed by the
three short-haired pointers, the two mongrels hanging more
grittily on to life, but going in the end.
By this time all the amenities and gentlenesses of the Southland
had fallen away from the three people. Shorn of its glamour and
romance, Arctic travel became to them a reality too harsh for
their manhood and womanhood. Mercedes ceased weeping over the
dogs, being too occupied with weeping over herself and with
quarrelling with her husband and brother. To quarrel was the one
thing they were never too weary to do. Their irritability arose
out of their misery, increased with it, doubled upon it,
outdistanced it. The wonderful patience of the trail which comes
to men who toil hard and suffer sore, and remain sweet of speech
and kindly, did not come to these two men and the woman. They had
no inkling of such a patience. They were stiff and in pain; their
muscles ached, their bones ached, their very hearts ached; and
because of this they became sharp of speech, and hard words were
first on their lips in the morning and last at night.
Charles and Hal wrangled whenever Mercedes gave them a chance. It
was the cherished belief of each that he did more than his share
of the work, and neither forbore to speak this belief at every
opportunity. Sometimes Mercedes sided with her husband, sometimes
with her brother. The result was a beautiful and unending family
quarrel. Starting from a dispute as to which should chop a few
sticks for the fire (a dispute which concerned only Charles and
Hal), presently would be lugged in the rest of the family,
fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins, people thousands of miles away,
and some of them dead. That Hal's views on art, or the sort of
society plays his mother's brother wrote, should have anything to
do with the chopping of a few sticks of firewood, passes
comprehension; nevertheless the quarrel was as likely to tend in
that direction as in the direction of Charles's political
prejudices. And that Charles's sister's tale-bearing tongue should
be relevant to the building of a Yukon fire, was apparent only to
Mercedes, who disburdened herself of copious opinions upon that
topic, and incidentally upon a few other traits unpleasantly
peculiar to her husband's family. In the meantime the fire
remained unbuilt, the camp half pitched, and the dogs unfed.
Mercedes nursed a special grievance--the grievance of sex. She was
pretty and soft, and had been chivalrously treated all her days.
But the present treatment by her husband and brother was
everything save chivalrous. It was her custom to be helpless.
They complained. Upon which impeachment of what to her was her
most essential sex-prerogative, she made their lives unendurable.
She no longer considered the dogs, and because she was sore and
tired, she persisted in riding on the sled. She was pretty and
soft, but she weighed one hundred and twenty pounds--a lusty last
straw to the load dragged by the weak and starving animals. She
rode for days, till they fell in the traces and the sled stood
still. Charles and Hal begged her to get off and walk, pleaded
with her, entreated, the while she wept and importuned Heaven with
a recital of their brutality.
On one occasion they took her off the sled by main strength. They
never did it again. She let her legs go limp like a spoiled
child, and sat down on the trail. They went on their way, but she
did not move. After they had travelled three miles they unloaded
the sled, came back for her, and by main strength put her on the
In the excess of their own misery they were callous to the
suffering of their animals. Hal's theory, which he practised on
others, was that one must get hardened. He had started out
preaching it to his sister and brother-in-law. Failing there, he
hammered it into the dogs with a club. At the Five Fingers the
dog-food gave out, and a toothless old squaw offered to trade them
a few pounds of frozen horse-hide for the Colt's revolver that
kept the big hunting-knife company at Hal's hip. A poor substitute
for food was this hide, just as it had been stripped from the
starved horses of the cattlemen six months back. In its frozen
state it was more like strips of galvanized iron, and when a dog
wrestled it into his stomach it thawed into thin and innutritious
leathery strings and into a mass of short hair, irritating and indigestible.
And through it all Buck staggered along at the head of the team as
in a nightmare. He pulled when he could; when he could no longer
pull, he fell down and remained down till blows from whip or club
drove him to his feet again. All the stiffness and gloss had gone
out of his beautiful furry coat. The hair hung down, limp and
draggled, or matted with dried blood where Hal's club had bruised
him. His muscles had wasted away to knotty strings, and the flesh
pads had disappeared, so that each rib and every bone in his frame
were outlined cleanly through the loose hide that was wrinkled in
folds of emptiness. It was heartbreaking, only Buck's heart was
unbreakable. The man in the red sweater had proved that.
As it was with Buck, so was it with his mates. They were
perambulating skeletons. There were seven all together, including
him. In their very great misery they had become insensible to the
bite of the lash or the bruise of the club. The pain of the
beating was dull and distant, just as the things their eyes saw
and their ears heard seemed dull and distant. They were not half
living, or quarter living. They were simply so many bags of bones
in which sparks of life fluttered faintly. When a halt was made,
they dropped down in the traces like dead dogs, and the spark
dimmed and paled and seemed to go out. And when the club or whip
fell upon them, the spark fluttered feebly up, and they tottered
to their feet and staggered on.
There came a day when Billee, the good-natured, fell and could not
rise. Hal had traded off his revolver, so he took the axe and
knocked Billee on the head as he lay in the traces, then cut the
carcass out of the harness and dragged it to one side. Buck saw,
and his mates saw, and they knew that this thing was very close to
them. On the next day Koona went, and but five of them remained:
Joe, too far gone to be malignant; Pike, crippled and limping,
only half conscious and not conscious enough longer to malinger;
Sol-leks, the one-eyed, still faithful to the toil of trace and
trail, and mournful in that he had so little strength with which
to pull; Teek, who had not travelled so far that winter and who
was now beaten more than the others because he was fresher; and
Buck, still at the head of the team, but no longer enforcing
discipline or striving to enforce it, blind with weakness half the
time and keeping the trail by the loom of it and by the dim feel
of his feet.
It was beautiful spring weather, but neither dogs nor humans were
aware of it. Each day the sun rose earlier and set later. It was
dawn by three in the morning, and twilight lingered till nine at
night. The whole long day was a blaze of sunshine. The ghostly
winter silence had given way to the great spring murmur of
awakening life. This murmur arose from all the land, fraught with
the joy of living. It came from the things that lived and moved
again, things which had been as dead and which had not moved
during the long months of frost. The sap was rising in the pines.
The willows and aspens were bursting out in young buds. Shrubs
and vines were putting on fresh garbs of green. Crickets sang in
the nights, and in the days all manner of creeping, crawling
things rustled forth into the sun. Partridges and woodpeckers
were booming and knocking in the forest. Squirrels were
chattering, birds singing, and overhead honked the wild-fowl
driving up from the south in cunning wedges that split the air.
From every hill slope came the trickle of running water, the music
of unseen fountains. AU things were thawing, bending, snapping.
The Yukon was straining to break loose the ice that bound it down.
It ate away from beneath; the sun ate from above. Air-holes
formed, fissures sprang and spread apart, while thin sections of
ice fell through bodily into the river. And amid all this
bursting, rending, throbbing of awakening life, under the blazing
sun and through the soft-sighing breezes, like wayfarers to death,
staggered the two men, the woman, and the huskies.
With the dogs falling, Mercedes weeping and riding, Hal swearing
innocuously, and Charles's eyes wistfully watering, they staggered
into John Thornton's camp at the mouth of White River. When they
halted, the dogs dropped down as though they had all been struck
dead. Mercedes dried her eyes and looked at John Thornton.
Charles sat down on a log to rest. He sat down very slowly and
painstakingly what of his great stiffness. Hal did the talking.
John Thornton was whittling the last touches on an axe-handle he
had made from a stick of birch. He whittled and listened, gave
monosyllabic replies, and, when it was asked, terse advice.
He knew the breed, and he gave his advice in the certainty that it
would not be followed.
"They told us up above that the bottom was dropping out of the
trail and that the best thing for us to do was to lay over," Hal
said in response to Thornton's warning to take no more chances on
the rotten ice. "They told us we couldn't make White River, and
here we are." This last with a sneering ring of triumph in it.
"And they told you true," John Thornton answered. "The bottom's
likely to drop out at any moment. Only fools, with the blind luck
of fools, could have made it. I tell you straight, I wouldn't
risk my carcass on that ice for all the gold in Alaska."
"That's because you're not a fool, I suppose," said Hal. "All
same, we'll go on to Dawson." He uncoiled his whip. "Get up there,
Buck! Hi! Get up there! Mush on!"
Thornton went on whittling. It was idle, he knew, to get between
a fool and his folly; while two or three fools more or less would
not alter the scheme of things.
But the team did not get up at the command. It had long since
passed into the stage where blows were required to rouse it. The
whip flashed out, here and there, on its merciless errands. John
Thornton compressed his lips. Sol-leks was the first to crawl to
his feet. Teek followed. Joe came next, yelping with pain. Pike
made painful efforts. Twice he fell over, when half up, and on
the third attempt managed to rise. Buck made no effort. He lay
quietly where he had fallen. The lash bit into him again and
again, but he neither whined nor struggled. Several times
Thornton started, as though to speak, but changed his mind. A
moisture came into his eyes, and, as the whipping continued, he
arose and walked irresolutely up and down.
This was the first time Buck had failed, in itself a sufficient
reason to drive Hal into a rage. He exchanged the whip for the
customary club. Buck refused to move under the rain of heavier
blows which now fell upon him. Like his mates, he barely able to
get up, but, unlike them, he had made up his mind not to get up.
He had a vague feeling of impending doom. This had been strong
upon him when he pulled in to the bank, and it had not departed
from him. What of the thin and rotten ice he had felt under his
feet all day, it seemed that he sensed disaster close at hand, out
there ahead on the ice where his master was trying to drive him.
He refused to stir. So greatly had he suffered, and so far gone
was he, that the blows did not hurt much. And as they continued
to fall upon him, the spark of life within flickered and went
down. It was nearly out. He felt strangely numb. As though from
a great distance, he was aware that he was being beaten. The last
sensations of pain left him. He no longer felt anything, though
very faintly he could hear the impact of the club upon his body.
But it was no longer his body, it seemed so far away.
And then, suddenly, without warning, uttering a cry that was
inarticulate and more like the cry of an animal, John Thornton
sprang upon the man who wielded the club. Hal was hurled
backward, as though struck by a failing tree. Mercedes screamed.
Charles looked on wistfully, wiped his watery eyes, but did not
get up because of his stiffness.
John Thornton stood over Buck, struggling to control himself, too
convulsed with rage to speak.
"If you strike that dog again, I'll kill you," he at last managed
to say in a choking voice.
"It's my dog," Hal replied, wiping the blood from his mouth as
came back. "Get out of my way, or I'll fix you. I'm going to Dawson."
Thornton stood between him and Buck, and evinced no intention of
getting out of the way. Hal drew his long hunting-knife.
Mercedes screamed. cried, laughed, and manifested the chaotic
abandonment of hysteria. Thornton rapped Hal's knuckles with the
axe-handle, knocking the knife to the ground. He rapped his
knuckles again as he tried to pick it up. Then he stooped, picked
it up himself, and with two strokes cut Buck's traces.
Hal had no fight left in him. Besides, his hands were full with
his sister, or his arms, rather; while Buck was too near dead to
be of further use in hauling the sled. A few minutes later they
pulled out from the bank and down the river. Buck heard them go
and raised his head to see, Pike was leading, Sol-leks was at the
wheel, and between were Joe and Teek. They were limping and
staggering. Mercedes was riding the loaded sled. Hal guided at
the gee-pole, and Charles stumbled along in the rear.
As Buck watched them, Thornton knelt beside him and with rough,
kindly hands searched for broken bones. By the time his search
had disclosed nothing more than many bruises and a state of
terrible starvation, the sled was a quarter of a mile away. Dog
and man watched it crawling along over the ice. Suddenly, they
saw its back end drop down, as into a rut, and the gee-pole, with
Hal clinging to it, jerk into the air. Mercedes's scream came to
their ears. They saw Charles turn and make one step to run back,
and then a whole section of ice give way and dogs and humans
disappear. A yawning hole was all that was to be seen. The
bottom had dropped out of the trail.
John Thornton and Buck looked at each other.
"You poor devil," said John Thornton, and Buck licked his hand.
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