Buck's Trial of Strength, by Jack London
from The Call of the Wild
John Thornton, owner of the dog, Buck, had said that Buck could draw a
sled loaded with one thousand pounds of flour. Another miner bet sixteen
hundred dollars that he couldn't, and Thornton, though fearing it would
be too much for Buck, was ashamed to refuse; so he let Buck try to draw
a load that Matthewson's team of ten dogs had been hauling.
The team of ten dogs was unhitched, and Buck, with his own harness, was
put into the sled. He had felt the general 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 [Footnote: Superfluous:
unnecessary.] 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 forelegs 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 two to one.
"Sir, sir," stuttered a member of the latest dynasty, [Footnote:
Dynasty: race or succession of kings.] a 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 play 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 into his two hands
and rested cheek on cheek. He did not playfully shake him, as he was
wont, or murmur soft love curses; but he whispered in his ear. "As you
love me, Buck. As you love me," [Footnote: As you love me, Buck. Compare
this incident with the words whispered to his horse by the rider in
Browning's "Ghent to Aix."] was what he whispered. Buck whined with
The crowd was watching curiously. The affair was growing mysterious. It
seemed like a conjuration. [Footnote: Conjuration: an invoking of
supernatural aid.] 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 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
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
"Haw!" Thornton commanded.
Buck duplicated the maneuver, [Footnote: Maneuver: dexterous movement.]
this time to the left. The crackling turned into a snapping, the sled
pivoting and the runners slipping and grating several inches to the
The sled was broken out. Men were holding their breaths, intensely
unconscious of the fact. "Now, Mush!"
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 tightly together in a 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 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 really never came to a dead stop
again—half an inch—an inch—two inches. The jerks became less as the
sled gained momentum, he caught them up, till it was moving steadily
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, who had lost his wager. Hats and mittens were flying in
the air. Men were shaking hands, it did not matter with whom, and
bubbling over in a general incoherent babel. But Thornton fell on his
knees beside Buck. Head was against head, and he was shaking him back
"I'll give you a thousand for him, sir, a thousand," sputtered the
Skookum Bench king, "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 hold your tongue, sir. It's the best I can do for you,
Buck seized Thornton's hand in his teeth. Thornton shook him back and
forth. As though moved by a common feeling, the onlookers drew back to a
respectful distance; nor did they again interrupt.
[Footnote: Notice the simple direct style of writing. Why does the
writer dwell on the physical fitness of Buck? Does the understanding
between Buck and his master seem unusual? What glimpses of the character
of the miners does the story give you? Show how the element of suspense
adds to the dramatic force of the story. What is the most interesting
point in the narrative?]
Louise de la Ramee