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 suppressed eagerness.

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 crackling.

"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 side.

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 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, 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 and forth.

"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, sir."

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.

—JACK LONDON.

[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