For the Love of a Man
When John Thornton froze his feet in the previous December his
partners had made him comfortable and left him to get well, going
on themselves up the river to get out a raft of saw-logs for
Dawson. He was still limping slightly at the time he rescued
Buck, but with the continued warm weather even the slight limp
left him. And here, lying by the river bank through the long
spring days, watching the running water, listening lazily to the
songs of birds and the hum of nature, Buck slowly won back his strength.
A rest comes very good after one has travelled three thousand
miles, and it must be confessed that Buck waxed lazy as his wounds
healed, his muscles swelled out, and the flesh came back to cover
his bones. For that matter, they were all loafing,--Buck, John
Thornton, and Skeet and Nig,--waiting for the raft to come that
was to carry them down to Dawson. Skeet was a little Irish setter
who early made friends with Buck, who, in a dying condition, was
unable to resent her first advances. She had the doctor trait
which some dogs possess; and as a mother cat washes her kittens,
so she washed and cleansed Buck's wounds. Regularly, each morning
after he had finished his breakfast, she performed her self-
appointed task, till he came to look for her ministrations as much
as he did for Thornton's. Nig, equally friendly, though less
demonstrative, was a huge black dog, half bloodhound and half
deerhound, with eyes that laughed and a boundless good nature.
To Buck's surprise these dogs manifested no jealousy toward him.
They seemed to share the kindliness and largeness of John
Thornton. As Buck grew stronger they enticed him into all sorts
of ridiculous games, in which Thornton himself could not forbear
to join; and in this fashion Buck romped through his convalescence
and into a new existence. Love, genuine passionate love, was his
for the first time. This he had never experienced at Judge
Miller's down in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley. With the
Judge's sons, hunting and tramping, it had been a working
partnership; with the Judge's grandsons, a sort of pompous
guardianship; and with the Judge himself, a stately and dignified
friendship. But love that was feverish and burning, that was
adoration, that was madness, it had taken John Thornton to arouse.
This man had saved his life, which was something; but, further, he
was the ideal master. Other men saw to the welfare of their dogs
from a sense of duty and business expediency; he saw to the
welfare of his as if they were his own children, because he could
not help it. And he saw further. He never forgot a kindly
greeting or a cheering word, and to sit down for a long talk with
them ("gas" he called it) was as much his delight as theirs. He
had a way of taking Buck's head roughly between his hands, and
resting his own head upon Buck's, of shaking him back and forth,
the while calling him ill names that to Buck were love names.
Buck knew no greater joy than that rough embrace and the sound of
murmured oaths, and at each jerk back and forth it seemed that his
heart would be shaken out of his body so great was its ecstasy.
And when, released, he sprang to his feet, his mouth laughing, his
eyes eloquent, his throat vibrant with unuttered sound, and in
that fashion remained without movement, John Thornton would
reverently exclaim, "God! you can all but speak!"
Buck had a trick of love expression that was akin to hurt. He
would often seize Thornton's hand in his mouth and close so
fiercely that the flesh bore the impress of his teeth for some
time afterward. And as Buck understood the oaths to be love
words, so the man understood this feigned bite for a caress.
For the most part, however, Buck's love was expressed in
adoration. While he went wild with happiness when Thornton
touched him or spoke to him, he did not seek these tokens. Unlike
Skeet, who was wont to shove her nose under Thornton's hand and
nudge and nudge till petted, or Nig, who would stalk up and rest
his great head on Thornton's knee, Buck was content to adore at a
distance. He would lie by the hour, eager, alert, at Thornton's
feet, looking up into his face, dwelling upon it, studying it,
following with keenest interest each fleeting expression, every
movement or change of feature. Or, as chance might have it, he
would lie farther away, to the side or rear, watching the outlines
of the man and the occasional movements of his body. And often,
such was the communion in which they lived, the strength of Buck's
gaze would draw John Thornton's head around, and he would return
the gaze, without speech, his heart shining out of his eyes as
Buck's heart shone out.
For a long time after his rescue, Buck did not like Thornton to
get out of his sight. From the moment he left the tent to when he
entered it again, Buck would follow at his heels. His transient
masters since he had come into the Northland had bred in him a
fear that no master could be permanent. He was afraid that
Thornton would pass out of his life as Perrault and Francois and
the Scotch half-breed had passed out. Even in the night, in his
dreams, he was haunted by this fear. At such times he would shake
off sleep and creep through the chill to the flap of the tent,
where he would stand and listen to the sound of his master's breathing.
But in spite of this great love he bore John Thornton, which
seemed to bespeak the soft civilizing influence, the strain of the
primitive, which the Northland had aroused in him, remained alive
and active. Faithfulness and devotion, things born of fire and
roof, were his; yet he retained his wildness and wiliness. He was
a thing of the wild, come in from the wild to sit by John
Thornton's fire, rather than a dog of the soft Southland stamped
with the marks of generations of civilization. Because of his
very great love, he could not steal from this man, but from any
other man, in any other camp, he did not hesitate an instant;
while the cunning with which he stole enabled him to escape detection.
His face and body were scored by the teeth of many dogs, and he
fought as fiercely as ever and more shrewdly. Skeet and Nig were
too good-natured for quarrelling,--besides, they belonged to John
Thornton; but the strange dog, no matter what the breed or valor,
swiftly acknowledged Buck's supremacy or found himself struggling
for life with a terrible antagonist. And Buck was merciless. He
had learned well the law of club and fang, and he never forewent
an advantage or drew back from a foe he had started on the way to
Death. He had lessoned from Spitz, and from the chief fighting
dogs of the police and mail, and knew there was no middle course.
He must master or be mastered; while to show mercy was a weakness.
Mercy did not exist in the primordial life. It was misunderstood
for fear, and such misunderstandings made for death. Kill or be
killed, eat or be eaten, was the law; and this mandate, down out
of the depths of Time, he obeyed.
He was older than the days he had seen and the breaths he had
drawn. He linked the past with the present, and the eternity
behind him throbbed through him in a mighty rhythm to which he
swayed as the tides and seasons swayed. He sat by John Thornton's
fire, a broad-breasted dog, white-fanged and long-furred; but
behind him were the shades of all manner of dogs, half-wolves and
wild wolves, urgent and prompting, tasting the savor of the meat
he ate, thirsting for the water he drank, scenting the wind with
him, listening with him and telling him the sounds made by the
wild life in the forest, dictating his moods, directing his
actions, lying down to sleep with him when he lay down, and
dreaming with him and beyond him and becoming themselves the stuff
of his dreams.
So peremptorily did these shades beckon him, that each day mankind
and the claims of mankind slipped farther from him. Deep in the
forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call,
mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his
back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge
into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did
he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the
forest. But as often as he gained the soft unbroken earth and the
green shade, the love for John Thornton drew him back to the fire again.
Thornton alone held him. The rest of mankind was as nothing.
Chance travellers might praise or pet him; but he was cold under
it all, and from a too demonstrative man he would get up and walk
away. When Thornton's partners, Hans and Pete, arrived on the
long-expected raft, Buck refused to notice them till he learned
they were close to Thornton; after that he tolerated them in a
passive sort of way, accepting favors from them as though he
favored them by accepting. They were of the same large type as
Thornton, living close to the earth, thinking simply and seeing
clearly; and ere they swung the raft into the big eddy by the saw-
mill at Dawson, they understood Buck and his ways, and did not
insist upon an intimacy such as obtained with Skeet and Nig.
For Thornton, however, his love seemed to grow and grow. He,
alone among men, could put a pack upon Buck's back in the summer
travelling. Nothing was too great for Buck to do, when Thornton
commanded. One day (they had grub-staked themselves from the
proceeds of the raft and left Dawson for the head-waters of the
Tanana) the men and dogs were sitting on the crest of a cliff
which fell away, straight down, to naked bed-rock three hundred
feet below. John Thornton was sitting near the edge, Buck at his
shoulder. A thoughtless whim seized Thornton, and he drew the
attention of Hans and Pete to the experiment he had in mind.
"Jump, Buck!" he commanded, sweeping his arm out and over the
chasm. The next instant he was grappling with Buck on the extreme
edge, while Hans and Pete were dragging them back into safety.
"It's uncanny," Pete said, after it was over and they had caught
Thornton shook his head. "No, it is splendid, and it is terrible,
too. Do you know, it sometimes makes me afraid."
"I'm not hankering to be the man that lays hands on you while he's
around," Pete announced conclusively, nodding his head toward Buck.
"Py Jingo!" was Hans's contribution. "Not mineself either."
It was at Circle City, ere the year was out, that Pete's
apprehensions were realized. "Black" Burton, a man evil-tempered
and malicious, had been picking a quarrel with a tenderfoot at the
bar, when Thornton stepped good-naturedly between. Buck, as was
his custom, was lying in a corner, head on paws, watching his
master's every action. Burton struck out, without warning,
straight from the shoulder. Thornton was sent spinning, and saved
himself from falling only by clutching the rail of the bar.
Those who were looking on heard what was neither bark nor yelp,
but a something which is best described as a roar, and they saw
Buck's body rise up in the air as he left the floor for Burton's
throat. The man saved his life by instinctively throwing out his
arm, but was hurled backward to the floor with Buck on top of him.
Buck loosed his teeth from the flesh of the arm and drove in again
for the throat. This time the man succeeded only in partly
blocking, and his throat was torn open. Then the crowd was upon
Buck, and he was driven off; but while a surgeon checked the
bleeding, he prowled up and down, growling furiously, attempting
to rush in, and being forced back by an array of hostile clubs. A
"miners' meeting," called on the spot, decided that the dog had
sufficient provocation, and Buck was discharged. But his
reputation was made, and from that day his name spread through
every camp in Alaska.
Later on, in the fall of the year, he saved John Thornton's life
in quite another fashion. The three partners were lining a long
and narrow poling-boat down a bad stretch of rapids on the Forty-
Mile Creek. Hans and Pete moved along the bank, snubbing with a
thin Manila rope from tree to tree, while Thornton remained in the
boat, helping its descent by means of a pole, and shouting
directions to the shore. Buck, on the bank, worried and anxious,
kept abreast of the boat, his eyes never off his master.
At a particularly bad spot, where a ledge of barely submerged
rocks jutted out into the river, Hans cast off the rope, and,
while Thornton poled the boat out into the stream, ran down the
bank with the end in his hand to snub the boat when it had cleared
the ledge. This it did, and was flying down-stream in a current
as swift as a mill-race, when Hans checked it with the rope and
checked too suddenly. The boat flirted over and snubbed in to the
bank bottom up, while Thornton, flung sheer out of it, was carried
down-stream toward the worst part of the rapids, a stretch of wild
water in which no swimmer could live.
Buck had sprung in on the instant; and at the end of three hundred
yards, amid a mad swirl of water, he overhauled Thornton. When he
felt him grasp his tail, Buck headed for the bank, swimming with
all his splendid strength. But the progress shoreward was slow;
the progress down-stream amazingly rapid. From below came the
fatal roaring where the wild current went wilder and was rent in
shreds and spray by the rocks which thrust through like the teeth
of an enormous comb. The suck of the water as it took the
beginning of the last steep pitch was frightful, and Thornton knew
that the shore was impossible. He scraped furiously over a rock,
bruised across a second, and struck a third with crushing force.
He clutched its slippery top with both hands, releasing Buck, and
above the roar of the churning water shouted: "Go, Buck! Go!"
Buck could not hold his own, and swept on down-stream, struggling
desperately, but unable to win back. When he heard Thornton's
command repeated, he partly reared out of the water, throwing his
head high, as though for a last look, then turned obediently
toward the bank. He swam powerfully and was dragged ashore by
Pete and Hans at the very point where swimming ceased to be
possible and destruction began.
They knew that the time a man could cling to a slippery rock in
the face of that driving current was a matter of minutes, and they
ran as fast as they could up the bank to a point far above where
Thornton was hanging on. They attached the line with which they
had been snubbing the boat to Buck's neck and shoulders, being
careful that it should neither strangle him nor impede his
swimming, and launched him into the stream. He struck out boldly,
but not straight enough into the stream. He discovered the
mistake too late, when Thornton was abreast of him and a bare
half-dozen strokes away while he was being carried helplessly past.
Hans promptly snubbed with the rope, as though Buck were a boat.
The rope thus tightening on him in the sweep of the current, he
was jerked under the surface, and under the surface he remained
till his body struck against the bank and he was hauled out. He
was half drowned, and Hans and Pete threw themselves upon him,
pounding the breath into him and the water out of him. He
staggered to his feet and fell down. The faint sound of
Thornton's voice came to them, and though they could not make out
the words of it, they knew that he was in his extremity. His
master's voice acted on Buck like an electric shock, He sprang to
his feet and ran up the bank ahead of the men to the point of his
Again the rope was attached and he was launched, and again he
struck out, but this time straight into the stream. He had
miscalculated once, but he would not be guilty of it a second
time. Hans paid out the rope, permitting no slack, while Pete
kept it clear of coils. Buck held on till he was on a line
straight above Thornton; then he turned, and with the speed of an
express train headed down upon him. Thornton saw him coming, and,
as Buck struck him like a battering ram, with the whole force of
the current behind him, he reached up and closed with both arms
around the shaggy neck. Hans snubbed the rope around the tree,
and Buck and Thornton were jerked under the water. Strangling,
suffocating, sometimes one uppermost and sometimes the other,
dragging over the jagged bottom, smashing against rocks and snags,
they veered in to the bank.
Thornton came to, belly downward and being violently propelled
back and forth across a drift log by Hans and Pete. His first
glance was for Buck, over whose limp and apparently lifeless body
Nig was setting up a howl, while Skeet was licking the wet face
and closed eyes. Thornton was himself bruised and battered, and
he went carefully over Buck's body, when he had been brought
around, finding three broken ribs.
"That settles it," he announced. "We camp right here."
they did, till Buck's ribs knitted and he was able to travel.
That winter, at Dawson, Buck performed another exploit, not so
heroic, perhaps, but one that put his name many notches higher on
the totem-pole of Alaskan fame. This exploit was particularly
gratifying to the three men; for they stood in need of the outfit
which it furnished, and were enabled to make a long-desired trip
into the virgin East, where miners had not yet appeared. It was
brought about by a conversation in the Eldorado Saloon, in which
men waxed boastful of their favorite dogs. Buck, because of his
record, was the target for these men, and Thornton was driven
stoutly to defend him. At the end of half an hour one man stated
that his dog could start a sled with five hundred pounds and walk
off with it; a second bragged six hundred for his dog; and a
third, seven hundred.
"Pooh! pooh!" said John Thornton; "Buck can start a thousand
"And break it out? and walk off with it for a hundred yards?"
demanded Matthewson, a Bonanza King, he of the seven hundred vaunt.
"And break it out, and walk off with it for a hundred yards,"
Thornton said coolly.
"Well," Matthewson said, slowly and deliberately, so that all
could hear, "I've got a thousand dollars that says he can't. And
there it is." So saying, he slammed a sack of gold dust of the
size of a bologna sausage down upon the bar.
Nobody spoke. Thornton's bluff, if bluff it was, had been called.
He could feel a flush of warm blood creeping up his face. His
tongue had tricked him. He did not know whether Buck could start
a thousand pounds. Half a ton! The enormousness of it appalled
him. He had great faith in Buck's strength and had often thought
him capable of starting such a load; but never, as now, had he
faced the possibility of it, the eyes of a dozen men fixed upon
him, silent and waiting. Further, he had no thousand dollars; nor
had Hans or Pete.
"I've got a sled standing outside now, with twenty fiftypound
sacks of flour on it," Matthewson went on with brutal directness;
"so don't let that hinder you."
Thornton did not reply. He did not know what to say. He glanced
from face to face in the absent way of a man who has lost the
power of thought and is seeking somewhere to find the thing that
will start it going again. The face of Jim O'Brien, a Mastodon
King and old-time comrade, caught his eyes. It was as a cue to
him, seeming to rouse him to do what he would never have dreamed
"Can you lend me a thousand?" he asked, almost in a whisper.
"Sure," answered O'Brien, thumping down a plethoric sack by the
side of Matthewson's. "Though it's little faith I'm having, John,
that the beast can do the trick."
The Eldorado emptied its occupants into the street to see the
test. The tables were deserted, and the dealers and gamekeepers
came forth to see the outcome of the wager and to lay odds.
Several hundred men, furred and mittened, banked around the sled
within easy distance. Matthewson's sled, loaded with a thousand
pounds of flour, had been standing for a couple of hours, and in
the intense cold (it was sixty below zero) the runners had frozen
fast to the hard-packed snow. Men offered odds of two to one that
Buck could not budge the sled. A quibble arose concerning the
phrase "break out." O'Brien contended it was Thornton's privilege
to knock the runners loose, leaving Buck to "break it out" from
dead standstill. Matthewson insisted that the phrase included
breaking the runners from the frozen grip of the snow. A majority
of the men who had witnessed the making of the bet decided in his
favor, whereat the odds went up to three to one against Buck.
There were no takers. Not a man believed him capable of the feat.
Thornton had been hurried into the wager, heavy with doubt; and
now that he looked at the sled itself, the concrete fact, with the
regular team of ten dogs curled up in the snow before it, the more
impossible the task appeared. Matthewson waxed jubilant.
"Three to one!" he proclaimed. "I'll lay you another thousand
that figure, Thornton. What d'ye say?"
Thornton's doubt was strong in his face, but his fighting spirit
was aroused--the fighting spirit that soars above odds, fails to
recognize the impossible, and is deaf to all save the clamor for
battle. He called Hans and Pete to him. Their sacks were slim,
and with his own the three partners could rake together only two
hundred dollars. In the ebb of their fortunes, this sum was their
total capital; yet they laid it unhesitatingly against
Matthewson's six hundred.
The team of ten dogs was unhitched, and Buck, with his own
harness, was put into the sled. He had caught the contagion of
the excitement, and he felt that in some way he must do a great
thing for John Thornton. Murmurs of admiration at his splendid
appearance went up. He was in perfect condition, without an ounce
of superfluous flesh, and the one hundred and fifty pounds that he
weighed were so many pounds of grit and virility. His furry coat
shone with the sheen of silk. Down the neck and across the
shoulders, his mane, in repose as it was, half bristled and seemed
to lift with every movement, as though excess of vigor made each
particular hair alive and active. The great breast and heavy fore
legs were no more than in proportion with the rest of the body,
where the muscles showed in tight rolls underneath the skin. Men
felt these muscles and proclaimed them hard as iron, and the odds
went down to two to one.
"Gad, sir! Gad, sir!" stuttered a member of the latest dynasty,
king of the Skookum Benches. "I offer you eight hundred for him,
sir, before the test, sir; eight hundred just as he stands."
Thornton shook his head and stepped to Buck's side.
"You must stand off from him," Matthewson protested. "Free
and plenty of room."
The crowd fell silent; only could be heard the voices of the
gamblers vainly offering two to one. Everybody acknowledged Buck
a magnificent animal, but twenty fifty-pound sacks of flour bulked
too large in their eyes for them to loosen their pouch-strings.
Thornton knelt down by Buck's side. He took his head in his two
hands and rested cheek on cheek. He did not playfully shake him,
as was his wont, or murmur soft love curses; but he whispered in
his ear. "As you love me, Buck. As you love me," was what he
whispered. Buck whined with suppressed eagerness.
The crowd was watching curiously. The affair was growing
mysterious. It seemed like a conjuration. As Thornton got to his
feet, Buck seized his mittened hand between his jaws, pressing in
with his teeth and releasing slowly, half-reluctantly. It was the
answer, in terms, not of speech, but of love. Thornton stepped
"Now, Buck," he said.
Buck tightened the traces, then slacked them for a matter of
several inches. It was the way he had learned.
"Gee!" Thornton's voice rang out, sharp in the tense silence.
Buck swung to the right, ending the movement in a plunge that took
up the slack and with a sudden jerk arrested his one hundred and
fifty pounds. The load quivered, and from under the runners arose
a crisp crackling.
"Haw!" Thornton commanded.
Buck duplicated the manoeuvre, this time to the left. The
crackling turned into a snapping, the sled pivoting and the
runners slipping and grating several inches to the side. The sled
was broken out. Men were holding their breaths, intensely
unconscious of the fact.
Thornton's command cracked out like a pistol-shot. Buck threw
himself forward, tightening the traces with a jarring lunge. His
whole body was gathered compactly together in the tremendous
effort, the muscles writhing and knotting like live things under
the silky fur. His great chest was low to the ground, his head
forward and down, while his feet were flying like mad, the claws
scarring the hard-packed snow in parallel grooves. The sled
swayed and trembled, half-started forward. One of his feet
slipped, and one man groaned aloud. Then the sled lurched ahead in
what appeared a rapid succession of jerks, though it never really
came to a dead stop again ...half an inch...an inch . . . two
inches. . . The jerks perceptibly diminished; as the sled gained
momentum, he caught them up, till it was moving steadily along.
Men gasped and began to breathe again, unaware that for a moment
they had ceased to breathe. Thornton was running behind,
encouraging Buck with short, cheery words. The distance had been
measured off, and as he neared the pile of firewood which marked
the end of the hundred yards, a cheer began to grow and grow,
which burst into a roar as he passed the firewood and halted at
command. Every man was tearing himself loose, even Matthewson.
Hats and mittens were flying in the air. Men were shaking hands,
it did not matter with whom, and bubbling over in a general
But Thornton fell on his knees beside Buck. Head was against
head, and he was shaking him back and forth. Those who hurried up
heard him cursing Buck, and he cursed him long and fervently, and
softly and lovingly.
"Gad, sir! Gad, sir!" spluttered the Skookum Bench king. "I'll
give you a thousand for him, sir, a thousand, sir--twelve hundred, sir."
Thornton rose to his feet. His eyes were wet. The tears were
streaming frankly down his cheeks. "Sir," he said to the Skookum
Bench king, "no, sir. You can go to hell, sir. It's the best I
can do for you, sir."
Buck seized Thornton's hand in his teeth. Thornton shook him back
and forth. As though animated by a common impulse, the onlookers
drew back to a respectful distance; nor were they again indiscreet
enough to interrupt.
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