Chapter III. The Dominant Primordial Beast
The dominant primordial beast was strong in Buck, and under the fierceconditions of trail life it grew and grew. Yet it was a secret growth.His newborn cunning gave him poise and control. He was too busyadjusting himself to the new life to feel at ease, and not only didhe not pick fights, but he avoided them whenever possible. A certaindeliberateness characterized his attitude. He was not prone to rashnessand precipitate action; and in the bitter hatred between him and Spitzhe betrayed no impatience, shunned all offensive acts.
On the other hand, possibly because he divined in Buck a dangerousrival, Spitz never lost an opportunity of showing his teeth. He evenwent out of his way to bully Buck, striving constantly to start thefight which could end only in the death of one or the other. Early inthe trip this might have taken place had it not been for an unwontedaccident. At the end of this day they made a bleak and miserable campon the shore of Lake Le Barge. Driving snow, a wind that cut like awhite-hot knife, and darkness had forced them to grope for a campingplace. They could hardly have fared worse. At their backs rose aperpendicular wall of rock, and Perrault and Francois were compelled tomake their fire and spread their sleeping robes on the ice of the lakeitself. The tent they had discarded at Dyea in order to travel light.A few sticks of driftwood furnished them with a fire that thawed downthrough the ice and left them to eat supper in the dark.
Close in under the sheltering rock Buck made his nest. So snug and warmwas it, that he was loath to leave it when Francois distributed thefish which he had first thawed over the fire. But when Buck finished hisration and returned, he found his nest occupied. A warning snarl toldhim that the trespasser was Spitz. Till now Buck had avoided troublewith his enemy, but this was too much. The beast in him roared. Hesprang upon Spitz with a fury which surprised them both, and Spitzparticularly, for his whole experience with Buck had gone to teach himthat his rival was an unusually timid dog, who managed to hold his ownonly because of his great weight and size.
Francois was surprised, too, when they shot out in a tangle from thedisrupted nest and he divined the cause of the trouble. "A-a-ah!"he cried to Buck. "Gif it to heem, by Gar! Gif it to heem, the dirtyt'eef!"
Spitz was equally willing. He was crying with sheer rage and eagernessas he circled back and forth for a chance to spring in. Buck was no lesseager, and no less cautious, as he likewise circled back and forth forthe advantage. But it was then that the unexpected happened, the thingwhich projected their struggle for supremacy far into the future, pastmany a weary mile of trail and toil.
An oath from Perrault, the resounding impact of a club upon a bonyframe, and a shrill yelp of pain, heralded the breaking forth ofpandemonium. The camp was suddenly discovered to be alive with skulkingfurry forms,--starving huskies, four or five score of them, who hadscented the camp from some Indian village. They had crept in while Buckand Spitz were fighting, and when the two men sprang among them withstout clubs they showed their teeth and fought back. They were crazedby the smell of the food. Perrault found one with head buried in thegrub-box. His club landed heavily on the gaunt ribs, and the grub-boxwas capsized on the ground. On the instant a score of the famishedbrutes were scrambling for the bread and bacon. The clubs fell upon themunheeded. They yelped and howled under the rain of blows, but strugglednone the less madly till the last crumb had been devoured.
In the meantime the astonished team-dogs had burst out of their nestsonly to be set upon by the fierce invaders. Never had Buck seen suchdogs. It seemed as though their bones would burst through their skins.They were mere skeletons, draped loosely in draggled hides, with blazingeyes and slavered fangs. But the hunger-madness made them terrifying,irresistible. There was no opposing them. The team-dogs were swept backagainst the cliff at the first onset. Buck was beset by three huskies,and in a trice his head and shoulders were ripped and slashed. The dinwas frightful. Billee was crying as usual. Dave and Sol-leks, drippingblood from a score of wounds, were fighting bravely side by side. Joewas snapping like a demon. Once, his teeth closed on the fore leg ofa husky, and he crunched down through the bone. Pike, the malingerer,leaped upon the crippled animal, breaking its neck with a quick flash ofteeth and a jerk, Buck got a frothing adversary by the throat, and wassprayed with blood when his teeth sank through the jugular. The warmtaste of it in his mouth goaded him to greater fierceness. He flunghimself upon another, and at the same time felt teeth sink into his ownthroat. It was Spitz, treacherously attacking from the side.
Perrault and Francois, having cleaned out their part of the camp,hurried to save their sled-dogs. The wild wave of famished beasts rolledback before them, and Buck shook himself free. But it was only for amoment. The two men were compelled to run back to save the grub, uponwhich the huskies returned to the attack on the team. Billee, terrifiedinto bravery, sprang through the savage circle and fled away over theice. Pike and Dub followed on his heels, with the rest of the teambehind. As Buck drew himself together to spring after them, out of thetail of his eye he saw Spitz rush upon him with the evident intentionof overthrowing him. Once off his feet and under that mass of huskies,there was no hope for him. But he braced himself to the shock of Spitz'scharge, then joined the flight out on the lake.
Later, the nine team-dogs gathered together and sought shelter in theforest. Though unpursued, they were in a sorry plight. There was notone who was not wounded in four or five places, while some were woundedgrievously. Dub was badly injured in a hind leg; Dolly, the last huskyadded to the team at Dyea, had a badly torn throat; Joe had lost an eye;while Billee, the good-natured, with an ear chewed and rent to ribbons,cried and whimpered throughout the night. At daybreak they limped warilyback to camp, to find the marauders gone and the two men in bad tempers.Fully half their grub supply was gone. The huskies had chewed throughthe sled lashings and canvas coverings. In fact, nothing, no matter howremotely eatable, had escaped them. They had eaten a pair of Perrault'smoose-hide moccasins, chunks out of the leather traces, and even twofeet of lash from the end of Francois's whip. He broke from a mournfulcontemplation of it to look over his wounded dogs.
"Ah, my frien's," he said softly, "mebbe it mek you mad dog, dose manybites. Mebbe all mad dog, sacredam! Wot you t'ink, eh, Perrault?"
The courier shook his head dubiously. With four hundred miles of trailstill between him and Dawson, he could ill afford to have madness breakout among his dogs. Two hours of cursing and exertion got the harnessesinto shape, and the wound-stiffened team was under way, strugglingpainfully over the hardest part of the trail they had yet encountered,and for that matter, the hardest between them and Dawson.
The Thirty Mile River was wide open. Its wild water defied the frost,and it was in the eddies only and in the quiet places that the ice heldat all. Six days of exhausting toil were required to cover those thirtyterrible miles. And terrible they were, for every foot of them wasaccomplished at the risk of life to dog and man. A dozen times,Perrault, nosing the way broke through the ice bridges, being saved bythe long pole he carried, which he so held that it fell each time acrossthe hole made by his body. But a cold snap was on, the thermometerregistering fifty below zero, and each time he broke through he wascompelled for very life to build a fire and dry his garments.
Nothing daunted him. It was because nothing daunted him that he had beenchosen for government courier. He took all manner of risks, resolutelythrusting his little weazened face into the frost and struggling on fromdim dawn to dark. He skirted the frowning shores on rim ice that bentand crackled under foot and upon which they dared not halt. Once, thesled broke through, with Dave and Buck, and they were half-frozen andall but drowned by the time they were dragged out. The usual fire wasnecessary to save them. They were coated solidly with ice, and the twomen kept them on the run around the fire, sweating and thawing, so closethat they were singed by the flames.
At another time Spitz went through, dragging the whole team after him upto Buck, who strained backward with all his strength, his fore paws onthe sl
ippery edge and the ice quivering and snapping all around. Butbehind him was Dave, likewise straining backward, and behind the sledwas Francois, pulling till his tendons cracked.
Again, the rim ice broke away before and behind, and there was no escapeexcept up the cliff. Perrault scaled it by a miracle, while Francoisprayed for just that miracle; and with every thong and sled lashing andthe last bit of harness rove into a long rope, the dogs were hoisted,one by one, to the cliff crest. Francois came up last, after the sledand load. Then came the search for a place to descend, which descent wasultimately made by the aid of the rope, and night found them back on theriver with a quarter of a mile to the day's credit.
By the time they made the Hootalinqua and good ice, Buck was played out.The rest of the dogs were in like condition; but Perrault, to makeup lost time, pushed them late and early. The first day they coveredthirty-five miles to the Big Salmon; the next day thirty-five more tothe Little Salmon; the third day forty miles, which brought them well uptoward the Five Fingers.
Buck's feet were not so compact and hard as the feet of the huskies.His had softened during the many generations since the day his lastwild ancestor was tamed by a cave-dweller or river man. All day long helimped in agony, and camp once made, lay down like a dead dog. Hungry ashe was, he would not move to receive his ration of fish, which Francoishad to bring to him. Also, the dog-driver rubbed Buck's feet for halfan hour each night after supper, and sacrificed the tops of his ownmoccasins to make four moccasins for Buck. This was a great relief, andBuck caused even the weazened face of Perrault to twist itself into agrin one morning, when Francois forgot the moccasins and Buck lay on hisback, his four feet waving appealingly in the air, and refused to budgewithout them. Later his feet grew hard to the trail, and the worn-outfoot-gear was thrown away.
At the Pelly one morning, as they were harnessing up, Dolly, who hadnever been conspicuous for anything, went suddenly mad. She announcedher condition by a long, heartbreaking wolf howl that sent every dogbristling with fear, then sprang straight for Buck. He had never seen adog go mad, nor did he have any reason to fear madness; yet he knewthat here was horror, and fled away from it in a panic. Straight away heraced, with Dolly, panting and frothing, one leap behind; nor could shegain on him, so great was his terror, nor could he leave her, so greatwas her madness. He plunged through the wooded breast of the island,flew down to the lower end, crossed a back channel filled with rough iceto another island, gained a third island, curved back to the main river,and in desperation started to cross it. And all the time, though hedid not look, he could hear her snarling just one leap behind. Francoiscalled to him a quarter of a mile away and he doubled back, still oneleap ahead, gasping painfully for air and putting all his faith in thatFrancois would save him. The dog-driver held the axe poised in his hand,and as Buck shot past him the axe crashed down upon mad Dolly's head.
Buck staggered over against the sled, exhausted, sobbing for breath,helpless. This was Spitz's opportunity. He sprang upon Buck, and twicehis teeth sank into his unresisting foe and ripped and tore the flesh tothe bone. Then Francois's lash descended, and Buck had the satisfactionof watching Spitz receive the worst whipping as yet administered to anyof the teams.
"One devil, dat Spitz," remarked Perrault. "Some dam day heem keel datBuck."
"Dat Buck two devils," was Francois's rejoinder. "All de tam I watch datBuck I know for sure. Lissen: some dam fine day heem get mad lak hellan' den heem chew dat Spitz all up an' spit heem out on de snow. Sure. Iknow."
From then on it was war between them. Spitz, as lead-dog andacknowledged master of the team, felt his supremacy threatened by thisstrange Southland dog. And strange Buck was to him, for of the manySouthland dogs he had known, not one had shown up worthily in camp andon trail. They were all too soft, dying under the toil, the frost, andstarvation. Buck was the exception. He alone endured and prospered,matching the husky in strength, savagery, and cunning. Then he was amasterful dog, and what made him dangerous was the fact that the club ofthe man in the red sweater had knocked all blind pluck and rashness outof his desire for mastery. He was preeminently cunning, and could bidehis time with a patience that was nothing less than primitive.
It was inevitable that the clash for leadership should come. Buck wantedit. He wanted it because it was his nature, because he had beengripped tight by that nameless, incomprehensible pride of the trail andtrace--that pride which holds dogs in the toil to the last gasp, whichlures them to die joyfully in the harness, and breaks their heartsif they are cut out of the harness. This was the pride of Dave aswheel-dog, of Sol-leks as he pulled with all his strength; the pridethat laid hold of them at break of camp, transforming them from sour andsullen brutes into straining, eager, ambitious creatures; the pridethat spurred them on all day and dropped them at pitch of camp at night,letting them fall back into gloomy unrest and uncontent. This was thepride that bore up Spitz and made him thrash the sled-dogs who blunderedand shirked in the traces or hid away at harness-up time in the morning.Likewise it was this pride that made him fear Buck as a possiblelead-dog. And this was Buck's pride, too.
He openly threatened the other's leadership. He came between him and theshirks he should have punished. And he did it deliberately. One nightthere was a heavy snowfall, and in the morning Pike, the malingerer,did not appear. He was securely hidden in his nest under a foot of snow.Francois called him and sought him in vain. Spitz was wild with wrath.He raged through the camp, smelling and digging in every likelyplace, snarling so frightfully that Pike heard and shivered in hishiding-place.
But when he was at last unearthed, and Spitz flew at him to punish him,Buck flew, with equal rage, in between. So unexpected was it, and soshrewdly managed, that Spitz was hurled backward and off his feet. Pike,who had been trembling abjectly, took heart at this open mutiny,and sprang upon his overthrown leader. Buck, to whom fair play was aforgotten code, likewise sprang upon Spitz. But Francois, chuckling atthe incident while unswerving in the administration of justice, broughthis lash down upon Buck with all his might. This failed to drive Buckfrom his prostrate rival, and the butt of the whip was brought intoplay. Half-stunned by the blow, Buck was knocked backward and the lashlaid upon him again and again, while Spitz soundly punished the manytimes offending Pike.
In the days that followed, as Dawson grew closer and closer, Buck stillcontinued to interfere between Spitz and the culprits; but he did itcraftily, when Francois was not around, With the covert mutiny of Buck,a general insubordination sprang up and increased. Dave and Sol-lekswere unaffected, but the rest of the team went from bad to worse.Things no longer went right. There was continual bickering and jangling.Trouble was always afoot, and at the bottom of it was Buck. He keptFrancois busy, for the dog-driver was in constant apprehension of thelife-and-death struggle between the two which he knew must take placesooner or later; and on more than one night the sounds of quarrellingand strife among the other dogs turned him out of his sleeping robe,fearful that Buck and Spitz were at it.
But the opportunity did not present itself, and they pulled into Dawsonone dreary afternoon with the great fight still to come. Here were manymen, and countless dogs, and Buck found them all at work. It seemed theordained order of things that dogs should work. All day they swung upand down the main street in long teams, and in the night their jinglingbells still went by. They hauled cabin logs and firewood, freighted upto the mines, and did all manner of work that horses did in the SantaClara Valley. Here and there Buck met Southland dogs, but in the mainthey were the wild wolf husky breed. Every night, regularly, at nine, attwelve, at three, they lifted a nocturnal song, a weird and eerie chant,in which it was Buck's delight to join.
With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leapingin the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow,this song of the huskies might have been the defiance of life, only itwas pitched in minor key, with long-drawn wailings and half-sobs, andwas more the pleading of life, the articulate travail of existence. Itwas
an old song, old as the breed itself--one of the first songs of theyounger world in a day when songs were sad. It was invested with the woeof unnumbered generations, this plaint by which Buck was so strangelystirred. When he moaned and sobbed, it was with the pain of living thatwas of old the pain of his wild fathers, and the fear and mystery of thecold and dark that was to them fear and mystery. And that he should bestirred by it marked the completeness with which he harked back throughthe ages of fire and roof to the raw beginnings of life in the howlingages.
Seven days from the time they pulled into Dawson, they dropped down thesteep bank by the Barracks to the Yukon Trail, and pulled for Dyea andSalt Water. Perrault was carrying despatches if anything more urgentthan those he had brought in; also, the travel pride had gripped him,and he purposed to make the record trip of the year. Several thingsfavored him in this. The week's rest had recuperated the dogs and putthem in thorough trim. The trail they had broken into the country waspacked hard by later journeyers. And further, the police had arrangedin two or three places deposits of grub for dog and man, and he wastravelling light.
They made Sixty Mile, which is a fifty-mile run, on the first day; andthe second day saw them booming up the Yukon well on their way to Pelly.But such splendid running was achieved not without great trouble andvexation on the part of Francois. The insidious revolt led by Buckhad destroyed the solidarity of the team. It no longer was as one dogleaping in the traces. The encouragement Buck gave the rebels led theminto all kinds of petty misdemeanors. No more was Spitz a leader greatlyto be feared. The old awe departed, and they grew equal to challenginghis authority. Pike robbed him of half a fish one night, and gulpedit down under the protection of Buck. Another night Dub and Joe foughtSpitz and made him forego the punishment they deserved. And evenBillee, the good-natured, was less good-natured, and whined not halfso placatingly as in former days. Buck never came near Spitz withoutsnarling and bristling menacingly. In fact, his conduct approached thatof a bully, and he was given to swaggering up and down before Spitz'svery nose.
The breaking down of discipline likewise affected the dogs in theirrelations with one another. They quarrelled and bickered more than everamong themselves, till at times the camp was a howling bedlam. Dave andSol-leks alone were unaltered, though they were made irritable by theunending squabbling. Francois swore strange barbarous oaths, and stampedthe snow in futile rage, and tore his hair. His lash was always singingamong the dogs, but it was of small avail. Directly his back was turnedthey were at it again. He backed up Spitz with his whip, while Buckbacked up the remainder of the team. Francois knew he was behind all thetrouble, and Buck knew he knew; but Buck was too clever ever again to becaught red-handed. He worked faithfully in the harness, for the toilhad become a delight to him; yet it was a greater delight slyly toprecipitate a fight amongst his mates and tangle the traces.
At the mouth of the Tahkeena, one night after supper, Dub turned up asnowshoe rabbit, blundered it, and missed. In a second the whole teamwas in full cry. A hundred yards away was a camp of the NorthwestPolice, with fifty dogs, huskies all, who joined the chase. The rabbitsped down the river, turned off into a small creek, up the frozen bed ofwhich it held steadily. It ran lightly on the surface of the snow, whilethe dogs ploughed through by main strength. Buck led the pack, sixtystrong, around bend after bend, but he could not gain. He lay down lowto the race, whining eagerly, his splendid body flashing forward, leapby leap, in the wan white moonlight. And leap by leap, like some palefrost wraith, the snowshoe rabbit flashed on ahead.
All that stirring of old instincts which at stated periods drives menout from the sounding cities to forest and plain to kill thingsby chemically propelled leaden pellets, the blood lust, the joy tokill--all this was Buck's, only it was infinitely more intimate. He wasranging at the head of the pack, running the wild thing down, the livingmeat, to kill with his own teeth and wash his muzzle to the eyes in warmblood.
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which lifecannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes whenone is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one isalive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist,caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to thesoldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it cameto Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining afterthe food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through themoonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts ofhis nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time.He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being,the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it waseverything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressingitself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the faceof dead matter that did not move.
But Spitz, cold and calculating even in his supreme moods, left the packand cut across a narrow neck of land where the creek made a long bendaround. Buck did not know of this, and as he rounded the bend, the frostwraith of a rabbit still flitting before him, he saw another and largerfrost wraith leap from the overhanging bank into the immediate path ofthe rabbit. It was Spitz. The rabbit could not turn, and as the whiteteeth broke its back in mid air it shrieked as loudly as a stricken manmay shriek. At sound of this, the cry of Life plunging down from Life'sapex in the grip of Death, the fall pack at Buck's heels raised a hell'schorus of delight.
Buck did not cry out. He did not check himself, but drove in upon Spitz,shoulder to shoulder, so hard that he missed the throat. They rolledover and over in the powdery snow. Spitz gained his feet almost asthough he had not been overthrown, slashing Buck down the shoulder andleaping clear. Twice his teeth clipped together, like the steel jaws ofa trap, as he backed away for better footing, with lean and lifting lipsthat writhed and snarled.
In a flash Buck knew it. The time had come. It was to the death. Asthey circled about, snarling, ears laid back, keenly watchful for theadvantage, the scene came to Buck with a sense of familiarity. He seemedto remember it all,--the white woods, and earth, and moonlight, and thethrill of battle. Over the whiteness and silence brooded a ghostly calm.There was not the faintest whisper of air--nothing moved, not a leafquivered, the visible breaths of the dogs rising slowly and lingering inthe frosty air. They had made short work of the snowshoe rabbit, thesedogs that were ill-tamed wolves; and they were now drawn up in anexpectant circle. They, too, were silent, their eyes only gleaming andtheir breaths drifting slowly upward. To Buck it was nothing new orstrange, this scene of old time. It was as though it had always been,the wonted way of things.
Spitz was a practised fighter. From Spitzbergen through the Arctic, andacross Canada and the Barrens, he had held his own with all manner ofdogs and achieved to mastery over them. Bitter rage was his, but neverblind rage. In passion to rend and destroy, he never forgot that hisenemy was in like passion to rend and destroy. He never rushed tillhe was prepared to receive a rush; never attacked till he had firstdefended that attack.
In vain Buck strove to sink his teeth in the neck of the big white dog.Wherever his fangs struck for the softer flesh, they were countered bythe fangs of Spitz. Fang clashed fang, and lips were cut and bleeding,but Buck could not penetrate his enemy's guard. Then he warmed up andenveloped Spitz in a whirlwind of rushes. Time and time again he triedfor the snow-white throat, where life bubbled near to the surface, andeach time and every time Spitz slashed him and got away. Then Buck tookto rushing, as though for the throat, when, suddenly drawing back hishead and curving in from the side, he would drive his shoulder at theshoulder of Spitz, as a ram by which to overthrow him. But instead,Buck's shoulder was slashed down each time as Spitz leaped lightly away.
Spitz was untouched, while Buck was streaming with blood and pantinghard. The fight was growing desperate. And all the while the silent andwolfish circle waited to finish off whichever dog went down. As Buckgrew winded, Spitz took to rushing, and he kept him staggering forfooti
ng. Once Buck went over, and the whole circle of sixty dogs startedup; but he recovered himself, almost in mid air, and the circle sankdown again and waited.
But Buck possessed a quality that made for greatness--imagination. Hefought by instinct, but he could fight by head as well. He rushed, asthough attempting the old shoulder trick, but at the last instant sweptlow to the snow and in. His teeth closed on Spitz's left fore leg. Therewas a crunch of breaking bone, and the white dog faced him on threelegs. Thrice he tried to knock him over, then repeated the trick andbroke the right fore leg. Despite the pain and helplessness, Spitzstruggled madly to keep up. He saw the silent circle, with gleamingeyes, lolling tongues, and silvery breaths drifting upward, closing inupon him as he had seen similar circles close in upon beaten antagonistsin the past. Only this time he was the one who was beaten.
There was no hope for him. Buck was inexorable. Mercy was a thingreserved for gentler climes. He manoeuvred for the final rush. Thecircle had tightened till he could feel the breaths of the huskies onhis flanks. He could see them, beyond Spitz and to either side, halfcrouching for the spring, their eyes fixed upon him. A pause seemed tofall. Every animal was motionless as though turned to stone. Only Spitzquivered and bristled as he staggered back and forth, snarling withhorrible menace, as though to frighten off impending death. Then Bucksprang in and out; but while he was in, shoulder had at last squarelymet shoulder. The dark circle became a dot on the moon-flooded snow asSpitz disappeared from view. Buck stood and looked on, the successfulchampion, the dominant primordial beast who had made his kill and foundit good.