When John Thornton froze his feet in the previous December his partners ha_ade him comfortable and left him to get well, going on themselves up th_iver to get out a raft of saw-logs for Dawson. He was still limping slightl_t the time he rescued Buck, but with the continued warm weather even th_light limp left him. And here, lying by the river bank through the lon_pring days, watching the running water, listening lazily to the songs o_irds and the hum of nature, Buck slowly won back his strength.
A rest comes very good after one has travelled three thousand miles, and i_ust be confessed that Buck waxed lazy as his wounds healed, his muscle_welled out, and the flesh came back to cover his bones. For that matter, the_ere all loafing,—Buck, John Thornton, and Skeet and Nig,—waiting for the raf_o come that was to carry them down to Dawson. Skeet was a little Irish sette_ho early made friends with Buck, who, in a dying condition, was unable t_esent 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'_ounds. Regularly, each morning after he had finished his breakfast, sh_erformed her self- appointed task, till he came to look for her ministration_s much as he did for Thornton's. Nig, equally friendly, though les_emonstrative, was a huge black dog, half bloodhound and half deerhound, wit_yes that laughed and a boundless good nature.
To Buck's surprise these dogs manifested no jealousy toward him. They seeme_o share the kindliness and largeness of John Thornton. As Buck grew stronge_hey enticed him into all sorts of ridiculous games, in which Thornton himsel_ould not forbear to join; and in this fashion Buck romped through hi_onvalescence and into a new existence. Love, genuine passionate love, was hi_or the first time. This he had never experienced at Judge Miller's down i_he sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley. With the Judge's sons, hunting an_ramping, it had been a working partnership; with the Judge's grandsons, _ort of pompous guardianship; and with the Judge himself, a stately an_ignified friendship. But love that was feverish and burning, that wa_doration, that was madness, it had taken John Thornton to arouse.
This man had saved his life, which was something; but, further, he was th_deal master. Other men saw to the welfare of their dogs from a sense of dut_nd business expediency; he saw to the welfare of his as if they were his ow_hildren, because he could not help it. And he saw further. He never forgot _indly 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 takin_uck'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 Buc_ere love names. Buck knew no greater joy than that rough embrace and th_ound of murmured oaths, and at each jerk back and forth it seemed that hi_eart 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, hi_hroat vibrant with unuttered sound, and in that fashion remained withou_ovement, John Thornton would reverently exclaim, "God! you can all bu_peak!"
Buck had a trick of love expression that was akin to hurt. He would ofte_eize Thornton's hand in his mouth and close so fiercely that the flesh bor_he impress of his teeth for some time afterward. And as Buck understood th_aths 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 h_ent wild with happiness when Thornton touched him or spoke to him, he did no_eek these tokens. Unlike Skeet, who was wont to shove her nose unde_hornton's hand and nudge and nudge till petted, or Nig, who would stalk u_nd rest his great head on Thornton's knee, Buck was content to adore at _istance. He would lie by the hour, eager, alert, at Thornton's feet, lookin_p into his face, dwelling upon it, studying it, following with keenes_nterest each fleeting expression, every movement or change of feature. Or, a_hance might have it, he would lie farther away, to the side or rear, watchin_he 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 woul_raw John Thornton's head around, and he would return the gaze, withou_peech, 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 hi_ight. From the moment he left the tent to when he entered it again, Buc_ould follow at his heels. His transient masters since he had come into th_orthland had bred in him a fear that no master could be permanent. He wa_fraid that Thornton would pass out of his life as Perrault and Francois an_he Scotch half-breed had passed out. Even in the night, in his dreams, he wa_aunted by this fear. At such times he would shake off sleep and creep throug_he chill to the flap of the tent, where he would stand and listen to th_ound of his master's breathing.
But in spite of this great love he bore John Thornton, which seemed to bespea_he soft civilizing influence, the strain of the primitive, which th_orthland had aroused in him, remained alive and active. Faithfulness an_evotion, things born of fire and roof, were his; yet he retained his wildnes_nd wiliness. He was a thing of the wild, come in from the wild to sit by Joh_hornton's fire, rather than a dog of the soft Southland stamped with th_arks of generations of civilization. Because of his very great love, he coul_ot steal from this man, but from any other man, in any other camp, he did no_esitate an instant; while the cunning with which he stole enabled him t_scape detection.
His face and body were scored by the teeth of many dogs, and he fought a_iercely as ever and more shrewdly. Skeet and Nig were too good-natured fo_uarrelling,—besides, they belonged to John Thornton; but the strange dog, n_atter what the breed or valor, swiftly acknowledged Buck's supremacy or foun_imself struggling for life with a terrible antagonist. And Buck wa_erciless. He had learned well the law of club and fang, and he never forewen_n advantage or drew back from a foe he had started on the way to Death. H_ad lessoned from Spitz, and from the chief fighting dogs of the police an_ail, 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 primordia_ife. It was misunderstood for fear, and such misunderstandings made fo_eath. Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, was the law; and this mandate, dow_ut of the depths of Time, he obeyed.
He was older than the days he had seen and the breaths he had drawn. He linke_he past with the present, and the eternity behind him throbbed through him i_ mighty rhythm to which he swayed as the tides and seasons swayed. He sat b_ohn Thornton's fire, a broad-breasted dog, white-fanged and long-furred; bu_ehind 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 th_ater he drank, scenting the wind with him, listening with him and telling hi_he sounds made by the wild life in the forest, dictating his moods, directin_is actions, lying down to sleep with him when he lay down, and dreaming wit_im and beyond him and becoming themselves the stuff of his dreams.
So peremptorily did these shades beckon him, that each day mankind and th_laims of mankind slipped farther from him. Deep in the forest a call wa_ounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling an_uring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten eart_round it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where o_hy; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep i_he forest. But as often as he gained the soft unbroken earth and the gree_hade, the love for John Thornton drew him back to the fire again.
Thornton alone held him. The rest of mankind was as nothing. Chance traveller_ight praise or pet him; but he was cold under it all, and from a to_emonstrative 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 the_ill he learned they were close to Thornton; after that he tolerated them in _assive sort of way, accepting favors from them as though he favored them b_ccepting. They were of the same large type as Thornton, living close to th_arth, thinking simply and seeing clearly; and ere they swung the raft int_he 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 to_reat for Buck to do, when Thornton commanded. One day (they had grub-stake_hemselves from the proceeds of the raft and left Dawson for the head-water_f the Tanana) the men and dogs were sitting on the crest of a cliff whic_ell away, straight down, to naked bed-rock three hundred feet below. Joh_hornton was sitting near the edge, Buck at his shoulder. A thoughtless whi_eized Thornton, and he drew the attention of Hans and Pete to the experimen_e had in mind. "Jump, Buck!" he commanded, sweeping his arm out and over th_hasm. The next instant he was grappling with Buck on the extreme edge, whil_ans and Pete were dragging them back into safety.
"It's uncanny," Pete said, after it was over and they had caught their speech.
Thornton shook his head. "No, it is splendid, and it is terrible, too. Do yo_now, 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 wer_ealized. "Black" Burton, a man evil-tempered and malicious, had been pickin_ quarrel with a tenderfoot at the bar, when Thornton stepped good-naturedl_etween. 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 fro_alling only by clutching the rail of the bar.
Those who were looking on heard what was neither bark nor yelp, but _omething which is best described as a roar, and they saw Buck's body rise u_n the air as he left the floor for Burton's throat. The man saved his life b_nstinctively throwing out his arm, but was hurled backward to the floor wit_uck on top of him. Buck loosed his teeth from the flesh of the arm and drov_n 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 drive_ff; but while a surgeon checked the bleeding, he prowled up and down, growling furiously, attempting to rush in, and being forced back by an arra_f hostile clubs. A "miners' meeting," called on the spot, decided that th_og had sufficient provocation, and Buck was discharged. But his reputatio_as 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 quit_nother fashion. The three partners were lining a long and narrow poling-boa_own a bad stretch of rapids on the Forty- Mile Creek. Hans and Pete move_long the bank, snubbing with a thin Manila rope from tree to tree, whil_hornton remained in the boat, helping its descent by means of a pole, an_houting directions to the shore. Buck, on the bank, worried and anxious, kep_breast of the boat, his eyes never off his master.
At a particularly bad spot, where a ledge of barely submerged rocks jutted ou_nto the river, Hans cast off the rope, and, while Thornton poled the boat ou_nto the stream, ran down the bank with the end in his hand to snub the boa_hen it had cleared the ledge. This it did, and was flying down-stream in _urrent as swift as a mill-race, when Hans checked it with the rope an_hecked too suddenly. The boat flirted over and snubbed in to the bank botto_p, while Thornton, flung sheer out of it, was carried down-stream toward th_orst part of the rapids, a stretch of wild water in which no swimmer coul_ive.
Buck had sprung in on the instant; and at the end of three hundred yards, ami_ 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 th_rogress shoreward was slow; the progress down-stream amazingly rapid. Fro_elow came the fatal roaring where the wild current went wilder and was ren_n shreds and spray by the rocks which thrust through like the teeth of a_normous comb. The suck of the water as it took the beginning of the las_teep pitch was frightful, and Thornton knew that the shore was impossible. H_craped furiously over a rock, bruised across a second, and struck a thir_ith crushing force. He clutched its slippery top with both hands, releasin_uck, 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 partl_eared 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 dragge_shore by Pete and Hans at the very point where swimming ceased to be possibl_nd destruction began.
They knew that the time a man could cling to a slippery rock in the face o_hat driving current was a matter of minutes, and they ran as fast as the_ould up the bank to a point far above where Thornton was hanging on. The_ttached the line with which they had been snubbing the boat to Buck's nec_nd shoulders, being careful that it should neither strangle him nor imped_is swimming, and launched him into the stream. He struck out boldly, but no_traight enough into the stream. He discovered the mistake too late, whe_hornton was abreast of him and a bare half-dozen strokes away while he wa_eing carried helplessly past.
Hans promptly snubbed with the rope, as though Buck were a boat. The rope thu_ightening on him in the sweep of the current, he was jerked under th_urface, and under the surface he remained till his body struck against th_ank and he was hauled out. He was half drowned, and Hans and Pete thre_hemselves upon him, pounding the breath into him and the water out of him. H_taggered to his feet and fell down. The faint sound of Thornton's voice cam_o them, and though they could not make out the words of it, they knew that h_as 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 hi_revious departure.
Again the rope was attached and he was launched, and again he struck out, bu_his time straight into the stream. He had miscalculated once, but he woul_ot be guilty of it a second time. Hans paid out the rope, permitting n_lack, while Pete kept it clear of coils. Buck held on till he was on a lin_traight above Thornton; then he turned, and with the speed of an expres_rain headed down upon him. Thornton saw him coming, and, as Buck struck hi_ike a battering ram, with the whole force of the current behind him, h_eached up and closed with both arms around the shaggy neck. Hans snubbed th_ope 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 veere_n to the bank.
Thornton came to, belly downward and being violently propelled back and fort_cross a drift log by Hans and Pete. His first glance was for Buck, over whos_imp and apparently lifeless body Nig was setting up a howl, while Skeet wa_icking the wet face and closed eyes. Thornton was himself bruised an_attered, and he went carefully over Buck's body, when he had been brough_round, finding three broken ribs.
"That settles it," he announced. "We camp right here." And camp they did, til_uck'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 o_laskan fame. This exploit was particularly gratifying to the three men; fo_hey stood in need of the outfit which it furnished, and were enabled to mak_ 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 me_axed boastful of their favorite dogs. Buck, because of his record, was th_arget for these men, and Thornton was driven stoutly to defend him. At th_nd of half an hour one man stated that his dog could start a sled with fiv_undred 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 pounds."
"And break it out? and walk off with it for a hundred yards?" demande_atthewson, a Bonanza King, he of the seven hundred vaunt.
"And break it out, and walk off with it for a hundred yards," John Thornto_aid 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 th_ar.
Nobody spoke. Thornton's bluff, if bluff it was, had been called. He coul_eel 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! Th_normousness of it appalled him. He had great faith in Buck's strength and ha_ften thought him capable of starting such a load; but never, as now, had h_aced the possibility of it, the eyes of a dozen men fixed upon him, silen_nd 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 flou_n it," Matthewson went on with brutal directness; "so don't let that hinde_ou."
Thornton did not reply. He did not know what to say. He glanced from face t_ace in the absent way of a man who has lost the power of thought and i_eeking somewhere to find the thing that will start it going again. The fac_f Jim O'Brien, a Mastodon King and old-time comrade, caught his eyes. It wa_s a cue to him, seeming to rouse him to do what he would never have dreame_f doing.
"Can you lend me a thousand?" he asked, almost in a whisper.
"Sure," answered O'Brien, thumping down a plethoric sack by the side o_atthewson's. "Though it's little faith I'm having, John, that the beast ca_o the trick."
The Eldorado emptied its occupants into the street to see the test. The table_ere deserted, and the dealers and gamekeepers came forth to see the outcom_f the wager and to lay odds. Several hundred men, furred and mittened, banke_round the sled within easy distance. Matthewson's sled, loaded with _housand pounds of flour, had been standing for a couple of hours, and in th_ntense cold (it was sixty below zero) the runners had frozen fast to th_ard-packed snow. Men offered odds of two to one that Buck could not budge th_led. A quibble arose concerning the phrase "break out." O'Brien contended i_as Thornton's privilege to knock the runners loose, leaving Buck to "break i_ut" from a dead standstill. Matthewson insisted that the phrase include_reaking the runners from the frozen grip of the snow. A majority of the me_ho had witnessed the making of the bet decided in his favor, whereat the odd_ent up to three to one against Buck.
There were no takers. Not a man believed him capable of the feat. Thornton ha_een hurried into the wager, heavy with doubt; and now that he looked at th_led itself, the concrete fact, with the regular team of ten dogs curled up i_he snow before it, the more impossible the task appeared. Matthewson waxe_ubilant.
"Three to one!" he proclaimed. "I'll lay you another thousand at that figure, Thornton. What d'ye say?"
Thornton's doubt was strong in his face, but his fighting spirit wa_roused—the fighting spirit that soars above odds, fails to recognize th_mpossible, and is deaf to all save the clamor for battle. He called Hans an_ete to him. Their sacks were slim, and with his own the three partners coul_ake together only two hundred dollars. In the ebb of their fortunes, this su_as their total capital; yet they laid it unhesitatingly against Matthewson'_ix hundred.
The team of ten dogs was unhitched, and Buck, with his own harness, was pu_nto the sled. He had caught the contagion of the excitement, and he felt tha_n some way he must do a great thing for John Thornton. Murmurs of admiratio_t his splendid appearance went up. He was in perfect condition, without a_unce of superfluous flesh, and the one hundred and fifty pounds that h_eighed were so many pounds of grit and virility. His furry coat shone wit_he sheen of silk. Down the neck and across the shoulders, his mane, in repos_s it was, half bristled and seemed to lift with every movement, as thoug_xcess of vigor made each particular hair alive and active. The great breas_nd 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 thes_uscles and proclaimed them hard as iron, and the odds went down to two t_ne.
"Gad, sir! Gad, sir!" stuttered a member of the latest dynasty, a king of th_kookum 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 play and plenty o_oom."
The crowd fell silent; only could be heard the voices of the gamblers vainl_ffering two to one. Everybody acknowledged Buck a magnificent animal, bu_wenty fifty-pound sacks of flour bulked too large in their eyes for them t_oosen their pouch-strings.
Thornton knelt down by Buck's side. He took his head in his two hands an_ested cheek on cheek. He did not playfully shake him, as was his wont, o_urmur 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 seeme_ike a conjuration. As Thornton got to his feet, Buck seized his mittened han_etween his jaws, pressing in with his teeth and releasing slowly, half- reluctantly. It was the answer, in terms, not of speech, but of love. Thornto_tepped well back.
"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 th_lack and with a sudden jerk arrested his one hundred and fifty pounds. Th_oad quivered, and from under the runners arose a crisp crackling.
"Haw!" Thornton commanded.
Buck duplicated the manoeuvre, this time to the left. The crackling turne_nto a snapping, the sled pivoting and the runners slipping and gratin_everal inches to the side. The sled was broken out. Men were holding thei_reaths, 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 gathere_ompactly together in the tremendous effort, the muscles writhing and knottin_ike 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 claw_carring the hard-packed snow in parallel grooves. The sled swayed an_rembled, half-started forward. One of his feet slipped, and one man groane_loud. Then the sled lurched ahead in what appeared a rapid succession o_erks, though it never really came to a dead stop again … half an inch… a_nch … two inches… The jerks perceptibly diminished; as the sled gaine_omentum, he caught them up, till it was moving steadily along.
Men gasped and began to breathe again, unaware that for a moment they ha_eased to breathe. Thornton was running behind, encouraging Buck with short, cheery words. The distance had been measured off, and as he neared the pile o_irewood which marked the end of the hundred yards, a cheer began to grow an_row, 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 wer_lying in the air. Men were shaking hands, it did not matter with whom, an_ubbling over in a general incoherent babel.
But Thornton fell on his knees beside Buck. Head was against head, and he wa_haking him back and forth. Those who hurried up heard him cursing Buck, an_e cursed him long and fervently, and softly and lovingly.
"Gad, sir! Gad, sir!" spluttered the Skookum Bench king. "I'll give you _housand for him, sir, a thousand, sir—twelve hundred, sir."
Thornton rose to his feet. His eyes were wet. The tears were streaming frankl_own his cheeks. "Sir," he said to the Skookum Bench king, "no, sir. You ca_o 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 _espectful distance; nor were they again indiscreet enough to interrupt.