Chapter II. The Law of Club and Fang
Buck's first day on the Dyea beach was like a nightmare. Every hour wasfilled with shock and surprise. He had been suddenly jerked from theheart of civilization and flung into the heart of things primordial.No lazy, sun-kissed life was this, with nothing to do but loaf and bebored. Here was neither peace, nor rest, nor a moment's safety. Allwas confusion and action, and every moment life and limb were in peril.There was imperative need to be constantly alert; for these dogs and menwere not town dogs and men. They were savages, all of them, who knew nolaw but the law of club and fang.
He had never seen dogs fight as these wolfish creatures fought, and hisfirst experience taught him an unforgetable lesson. It is true, it wasa vicarious experience, else he would not have lived to profit by it.Curly was the victim. They were camped near the log store, where she, inher friendly way, made advances to a husky dog the size of a full-grownwolf, though not half so large as she. There was no warning, only a leapin like a flash, a metallic clip of teeth, a leap out equally swift, andCurly's face was ripped open from eye to jaw.
It was the wolf manner of fighting, to strike and leap away; but therewas more to it than this. Thirty or forty huskies ran to the spot andsurrounded the combatants in an intent and silent circle. Buck did notcomprehend that silent intentness, nor the eager way with which theywere licking their chops. Curly rushed her antagonist, who struck againand leaped aside. He met her next rush with his chest, in a peculiarfashion that tumbled her off her feet. She never regained them, Thiswas what the onlooking huskies had waited for. They closed in upon her,snarling and yelping, and she was buried, screaming with agony, beneaththe bristling mass of bodies.
So sudden was it, and so unexpected, that Buck was taken aback. He sawSpitz run out his scarlet tongue in a way he had of laughing; and he sawFrancois, swinging an axe, spring into the mess of dogs. Three menwith clubs were helping him to scatter them. It did not take long. Twominutes from the time Curly went down, the last of her assailants wereclubbed off. But she lay there limp and lifeless in the bloody, trampledsnow, almost literally torn to pieces, the swart half-breed standingover her and cursing horribly. The scene often came back to Buck totrouble him in his sleep. So that was the way. No fair play. Once down,that was the end of you. Well, he would see to it that he never wentdown. Spitz ran out his tongue and laughed again, and from that momentBuck hated him with a bitter and deathless hatred.
Before he had recovered from the shock caused by the tragic passingof Curly, he received another shock. Francois fastened upon him anarrangement of straps and buckles. It was a harness, such as he had seenthe grooms put on the horses at home. And as he had seen horses work,so he was set to work, hauling Francois on a sled to the forest thatfringed the valley, and returning with a load of firewood. Though hisdignity was sorely hurt by thus being made a draught animal, he was toowise to rebel. He buckled down with a will and did his best, thoughit was all new and strange. Francois was stern, demanding instantobedience, and by virtue of his whip receiving instant obedience;while Dave, who was an experienced wheeler, nipped Buck's hind quarterswhenever he was in error. Spitz was the leader, likewise experienced,and while he could not always get at Buck, he growled sharp reproof nowand again, or cunningly threw his weight in the traces to jerk Buckinto the way he should go. Buck learned easily, and under the combinedtuition of his two mates and Francois made remarkable progress. Ere theyreturned to camp he knew enough to stop at "ho," to go ahead at "mush,"to swing wide on the bends, and to keep clear of the wheeler when theloaded sled shot downhill at their heels.
"T'ree vair' good dogs," Francois told Perrault. "Dat Buck, heem poollak hell. I tich heem queek as anyt'ing."
By afternoon, Perrault, who was in a hurry to be on the trail with hisdespatches, returned with two more dogs. "Billee" and "Joe" he calledthem, two brothers, and true huskies both. Sons of the one mother thoughthey were, they were as different as day and night. Billee's one faultwas his excessive good nature, while Joe was the very opposite, sour andintrospective, with a perpetual snarl and a malignant eye. Buck receivedthem in comradely fashion, Dave ignored them, while Spitz proceeded tothrash first one and then the other. Billee wagged his tail appeasingly,turned to run when he saw that appeasement was of no avail, and cried(still appeasingly) when Spitz's sharp teeth scored his flank. But nomatter how Spitz circled, Joe whirled around on his heels to facehim, mane bristling, ears laid back, lips writhing and snarling, jawsclipping together as fast as he could snap, and eyes diabolicallygleaming--the incarnation of belligerent fear. So terrible was hisappearance that Spitz was forced to forego disciplining him; but tocover his own discomfiture he turned upon the inoffensive and wailingBillee and drove him to the confines of the camp.
By evening Perrault secured another dog, an old husky, long and leanand gaunt, with a battle-scarred face and a single eye which flashed awarning of prowess that commanded respect. He was called Sol-leks, whichmeans the Angry One. Like Dave, he asked nothing, gave nothing, expectednothing; and when he marched slowly and deliberately into their midst,even Spitz left him alone. He had one peculiarity which Buck was unluckyenough to discover. He did not like to be approached on his blind side.Of this offence Buck was unwittingly guilty, and the first knowledge hehad of his indiscretion was when Sol-leks whirled upon him and slashedhis shoulder to the bone for three inches up and down. Forever afterBuck avoided his blind side, and to the last of their comradeship hadno more trouble. His only apparent ambition, like Dave's, was to be leftalone; though, as Buck was afterward to learn, each of them possessedone other and even more vital ambition.
That night Buck faced the great problem of sleeping. The tent, illuminedby a candle, glowed warmly in the midst of the white plain; and when he,as a matter of course, entered it, both Perrault and Francois bombardedhim with curses and cooking utensils, till he recovered from hisconsternation and fled ignominiously into the outer cold. A chill windwas blowing that nipped him sharply and bit with especial venom into hiswounded shoulder. He lay down on the snow and attempted to sleep,but the frost soon drove him shivering to his feet. Miserable anddisconsolate, he wandered about among the many tents, only to find thatone place was as cold as another. Here and there savage dogs rushedupon him, but he bristled his neck-hair and snarled (for he was learningfast), and they let him go his way unmolested.
Finally an idea came to him. He would return and see how his ownteam-mates were making out. To his astonishment, they had disappeared.Again he wandered about through the great camp, looking for them, andagain he returned. Were they in the tent? No, that could not be, else hewould not have been driven out. Then where could they possibly be? Withdrooping tail and shivering body, very forlorn indeed, he aimlesslycircled the tent. Suddenly the snow gave way beneath his fore legsand he sank down. Something wriggled under his feet. He sprang back,bristling and snarling, fearful of the unseen and unknown. But afriendly little yelp reassured him, and he went back to investigate. Awhiff of warm air ascended to his nostrils, and there, curled up underthe snow in a snug ball, lay Billee. He whined placatingly, squirmed andwriggled to show his good will and intentions, and even ventured, as abribe for peace, to lick Buck's face with his warm wet tongue.
Another lesson. So that was the way they did it, eh? Buck confidentlyselected a spot, and with much fuss and waste effort proceeded to dig ahole for himself. In a trice the heat from his body filled the confinedspace and he was asleep. The day had been long and arduous, and he sleptsoundly and comfortably, though he growled and barked and wrestled withbad dreams.
Nor did he open his eyes till roused by the noises of the waking camp.At first he did not know where he was. It had snowed during the nightand he was completely buried. The snow walls pressed him on every side,and a great surge of fear swept through him--the fear of the wild thingfor the trap. It was a token that he was harking back through his ownlife to the lives of his forebears; for he was a civilized dog, anunduly civilized dog, and of his own experience knew no trap a
nd socould not of himself fear it. The muscles of his whole body contractedspasmodically and instinctively, the hair on his neck and shouldersstood on end, and with a ferocious snarl he bounded straight up intothe blinding day, the snow flying about him in a flashing cloud. Ere helanded on his feet, he saw the white camp spread out before him and knewwhere he was and remembered all that had passed from the time he wentfor a stroll with Manuel to the hole he had dug for himself the nightbefore.
A shout from Francois hailed his appearance. "Wot I say?" the dog-drivercried to Perrault. "Dat Buck for sure learn queek as anyt'ing."
Perrault nodded gravely. As courier for the Canadian Government, bearingimportant despatches, he was anxious to secure the best dogs, and he wasparticularly gladdened by the possession of Buck.
Three more huskies were added to the team inside an hour, making a totalof nine, and before another quarter of an hour had passed they were inharness and swinging up the trail toward the Dyea Canon. Buck wasglad to be gone, and though the work was hard he found he did notparticularly despise it. He was surprised at the eagerness whichanimated the whole team and which was communicated to him; but stillmore surprising was the change wrought in Dave and Sol-leks. Theywere new dogs, utterly transformed by the harness. All passiveness andunconcern had dropped from them. They were alert and active, anxiousthat the work should go well, and fiercely irritable with whatever, bydelay or confusion, retarded that work. The toil of the traces seemedthe supreme expression of their being, and all that they lived for andthe only thing in which they took delight.
Dave was wheeler or sled dog, pulling in front of him was Buck, thencame Sol-leks; the rest of the team was strung out ahead, single file,to the leader, which position was filled by Spitz.
Buck had been purposely placed between Dave and Sol-leks so that hemight receive instruction. Apt scholar that he was, they were equallyapt teachers, never allowing him to linger long in error, and enforcingtheir teaching with their sharp teeth. Dave was fair and very wise. Henever nipped Buck without cause, and he never failed to nip him when hestood in need of it. As Francois's whip backed him up, Buck found itto be cheaper to mend his ways than to retaliate. Once, during a briefhalt, when he got tangled in the traces and delayed the start, bothDave and Solleks flew at him and administered a sound trouncing. Theresulting tangle was even worse, but Buck took good care to keep thetraces clear thereafter; and ere the day was done, so well had hemastered his work, his mates about ceased nagging him. Francois's whipsnapped less frequently, and Perrault even honored Buck by lifting uphis feet and carefully examining them.
It was a hard day's run, up the Canon, through Sheep Camp, past theScales and the timber line, across glaciers and snowdrifts hundreds offeet deep, and over the great Chilcoot Divide, which stands betweenthe salt water and the fresh and guards forbiddingly the sad and lonelyNorth. They made good time down the chain of lakes which fills thecraters of extinct volcanoes, and late that night pulled into the hugecamp at the head of Lake Bennett, where thousands of goldseekers werebuilding boats against the break-up of the ice in the spring. Buck madehis hole in the snow and slept the sleep of the exhausted just, but alltoo early was routed out in the cold darkness and harnessed with hismates to the sled.
That day they made forty miles, the trail being packed; but the nextday, and for many days to follow, they broke their own trail, workedharder, and made poorer time. As a rule, Perrault travelled ahead ofthe team, packing the snow with webbed shoes to make it easier for them.Francois, guiding the sled at the gee-pole, sometimes exchanged placeswith him, but not often. Perrault was in a hurry, and he prided himselfon his knowledge of ice, which knowledge was indispensable, for the fallice was very thin, and where there was swift water, there was no ice atall.
Day after day, for days unending, Buck toiled in the traces. Always,they broke camp in the dark, and the first gray of dawn found themhitting the trail with fresh miles reeled off behind them. And alwaysthey pitched camp after dark, eating their bit of fish, and crawlingto sleep into the snow. Buck was ravenous. The pound and a half ofsun-dried salmon, which was his ration for each day, seemed to gonowhere. He never had enough, and suffered from perpetual hunger pangs.Yet the other dogs, because they weighed less and were born to the life,received a pound only of the fish and managed to keep in good condition.
He swiftly lost the fastidiousness which had characterized his old life.A dainty eater, he found that his mates, finishing first, robbed him ofhis unfinished ration. There was no defending it. While he was fightingoff two or three, it was disappearing down the throats of the others. Toremedy this, he ate as fast as they; and, so greatly did hunger compelhim, he was not above taking what did not belong to him. He watched andlearned. When he saw Pike, one of the new dogs, a clever malingerer andthief, slyly steal a slice of bacon when Perrault's back was turned,he duplicated the performance the following day, getting away with thewhole chunk. A great uproar was raised, but he was unsuspected; whileDub, an awkward blunderer who was always getting caught, was punishedfor Buck's misdeed.
Not that Buck reasoned it out. He was fit, that was all, andunconsciously he accommodated himself to the new mode of life. All hisdays, no matter what the odds, he had never run from a fight. Butthe club of the man in the red sweater had beaten into him a morefundamental and primitive code. Civilized, he could have died for amoral consideration, say the defence of Judge Miller's riding-whip; butthe completeness of his decivilization was now evidenced by his abilityto flee from the defence of a moral consideration and so save hishide. He did not steal for joy of it, but because of the clamor of hisstomach. He did not rob openly, but stole secretly and cunningly, out ofrespect for club and fang. In short, the things he did were done becauseit was easier to do them than not to do them.
His development (or retrogression) was rapid. His muscles became hard asiron, and he grew callous to all ordinary pain. He achieved an internalas well as external economy. He could eat anything, no matter howloathsome or indigestible; and, once eaten, the juices of his stomachextracted the last least particle of nutriment; and his blood carried itto the farthest reaches of his body, building it into the toughest andstoutest of tissues. Sight and scent became remarkably keen, while hishearing developed such acuteness that in his sleep he heard the faintestsound and knew whether it heralded peace or peril. He learned to bitethe ice out with his teeth when it collected between his toes; and whenhe was thirsty and there was a thick scum of ice over the water hole, hewould break it by rearing and striking it with stiff fore legs. His mostconspicuous trait was an ability to scent the wind and forecast it anight in advance. No matter how breathless the air when he dug hisnest by tree or bank, the wind that later blew inevitably found him toleeward, sheltered and snug.
And not only did he learn by experience, but instincts long dead becamealive again. The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague wayshe remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogsranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat asthey ran it down. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cutand slash and the quick wolf snap. In this manner had fought forgottenancestors. They quickened the old life within him, and the old trickswhich they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks.They came to him without effort or discovery, as though they had beenhis always. And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at astar and howled long and wolflike, it w
as his ancestors, dead and dust,pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and throughhim. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voicedtheir woe and what to them was the meaning of the stiffness, and thecold, and dark.
Thus, as token of what a puppet thing life is, the ancient song surgedthrough him and he came into his own again; and he came because men hadfound a yellow metal in the North, and because Manuel was a gardener'shelper whose wages did not lap over the needs of his wife and diverssmall copies of himself.