Call of the Wild Chapter 5 - The Toil of Trace and Trail
This time it takes Buck's sled team about thirty days to travel from Dawson City to Skaguay, Alaska, bearing yet another load of mail from the miners of the Klondike Gold Rush. The dogs are all exhausted, drained of drive and energy after such a strenuous haul. Pike is now limping from pain, as are Sol-leks and Dub as well. Yet the important thing is that the trip is over, and as they half-heartedly pull their sled down the final stretch through downtown Skaguay, the sled driver promises them all that they will get a long rest now as a means to encourage them all. Hoping for a rest himself, this man and others are met with dismay upon arriving, since there is a message from their employer that they are to sell this sled team, buy a new set of fresh dogs, and return straightaway with a new delivery of mail bound for Dawson City. With this occurrence, Buck is again left alone with his other teammates, as had happened not so long before when Francois and Perrault, too, had left their faithful canines behind. The dogs served a purpose, and when that purpose was ended, they were merely passed along to serve somebody else.
In this case, the Americans Hal, who is only around nineteen years old and a middle aged man named Charles who buy Buck and the other dogs. Unlike Perrault, Francois, or the Scotch half-breed, these men were not from the North and knew little about the way of life up here, yet they are traveling to Dawson City to participate in the Gold Rush there. They even brought along with them a dainty woman named Mercedes, who was Charles' wife and Hal's older sister. When the dogs are brought back to their camp, Buck sees how sloppy these guys really are, packing up the tent very messily and putting the dishes away without even bothering to wash them. This is a new sight compared to the order he has lived under before, when everything seemed to operate so smoothly and with businesslike efficiency. Now things would be a bit different. As they're picking up the camp some men come out of a tent nearby and start flirting with Mercedes, warning her that the tent may make the sled too heavy. Yet the woman insists that she needs the tent to stay warm, even though the winter is over and it's springtime by now. Charles insists that the sled's load is fine, harnessing the dogs and whipping the air with the command to "Mush!"
However, the sled is to heavy to move and the dogs don't go anywhere. One of the men from a nearby tent says again that the load is too heavy and, additionally, the dogs need to rest for awhile. Charles insists that the dogs are just lazy and begins to whip them mercilessly, much to the men's disgust. Mercedes has faith in her husband, believing that he knows what he's doing, and Hal says offhandedly that the dogs don't need a rest. The whippings continue, the dogs pull harder and harder, but still the sled does not move. Mercedes begs Charles to stop whipping the dogs and runs out, hugging Buck's neck and crying for him to pull harder. Charles then continues to whip the dogs again, until one of the experienced men nearby calls out some more advice, that the sled is frozen to the ground and they should break it out of the snow in order to get it to move. This done, the overloaded sled finally begins to moves, as they travel once more down towards the main street in Skaguay the dogs had just arrived at a few days before. Turning the corner at a swift speed, however, the overloaded sled topples over along with the man who was driving it, Hal.
The man cries out for the dogs to stop, but Buck and the other dogs are angry at this cruel treatment, continuing on down Main Street and spilling all of the flipped sled's contents out onto the ground as they move, tripping Hal up in the traces. Knocked to the ground, Hal is then run over by the runaway dogsled. Finally, some people from town catch the sled before it goes too far and help to gather their scattered possessions once again. These people also give wise advice to these newcomers, to carry less cargo on the sled and to buy some more dogs, if they ever want to successfully arrive at Dawson City. The townspeople laughed gleefully when they saw all the heavy canned goods they were planning to take with them, advising these to be thrown away along with the tent, blankets, dishware, and even many of Mercedes womanly clothes. Jokingly, they ask Mercedes, Hal, and Charles if they think that they're traveling on a train, because they are so ill-prepared for the dangerous journey that lies ahead.
Then they buy six new sled dogs, although these dogs are quite broken and unwilling to pull their weight, much to the disgust of Buck and his veteran sled team. The total amount of dogs is then brought to fourteen, causing Charles and Hal to swell with pride because they have so many. Yet this is another mistake because nobody has so many dogs since there is not enough room on a sled for that much food as would be needed to feed fourteen dogs. They learn this lesson the hard way, however. Buck leads the sled team now for the fifth journey from the Alaskan coast across the snowy wild lands to Dawson City, aggravated by the fact that he is walking on the same trail again. This monotony really annoys him, but he has no other choice but to comply. Their inexperience continues to curse the trail, taking long periods of time to pick up the camp in the morning and to pitch camp in the evening hours. Hal then begins to overfeed the dogs, thinking that this would give them more strength when all they needed was a good rest from such a tedious schedule. On top of this, Mercedes, pitying the dogs, would steal even more food secretly and feed this to them as well.
They only go on for so long at this rate and, when Hal realizes one day that the dog food is half gone already and they are only one quarter of the way to Dawson City, he reduces everyone's ration and increases the amount of time that the dogs pull each day, in an attempt to arrive at their destination even faster. Hal pushes the dogs to their very limits with this last move, and their health declines terribly from exhaustion and malnutrition. Dub is the next dog to die, shot by Hal after his limping shoulder became too much of a burden and too much of a liability for the rest of the sled team, making him worthless to these gold-hungry Americans. Next the six newest dogs to join the team starve to death one by one, until they are all dead, leaving only Buck along with four from his original team, and the two huskies, Teek and Koona, that Francois and Perrault bought before their departure months before.
Much of their increasing frustration was vented out by complaining and arguing with each other, as Hal, Charles, and Mercedes would often battle it out about silly things, "The wonderful patience of the trail which comes to men who toil hard and suffer sore, and remain sweet of speech and kindly, did not come to these two men and the woman. They had no inkling of such a patience. They were stiff and in pain; their muscles ached, their bones ached, their very hearts ached; and because of this they became sharp of speech" Chapter 5, pg. 80. The arguments often occurred about silly things, as Mercedes took sides either with her husband or her brother, wasting precious time that could be spent breaking down or pitching the camp. The dogs would sit restlessly hearing all of this noise, unused to such a motley crew of sled drivers. Mercedes also loses her compassion for the dogs, because she is so busy worrying about herself now, and she goes so far as to insist on riding in the sled, pulled by the dogs, since her feet are so tired of walking. This is to the objection of both men, but she remains stubborn and the woman wins out in the end.
When they arrive at the Five Finger Lakes, the dog food runs out entirely, but fortunately Hal finds an old Indian to trade his gun for some old animal hide, which the dogs devour hungrily. Although it isn't the most nutritious meal they've eaten, the dogs are grateful to put something into their empty stomach; the stringy hide gives them stomach aches, sapping their energy even further however. Buck begins to lose his strength now, too, for "His muscles had wasted away to knotty strings, and the flesh pads had disappeared, so that each rib and every bone in his frame were outlined cleanly through the loose hide that was wrinkled in folds of emptiness. It was heartbreaking, only Buck's heart was unbreakable. The man in the red sweater had proved that" Chapter 5, pg. 83. Physically Buck becomes drained and sickly, even though his mind remains intact and calm. These people are simply expecting far too much from him and the other dogs, because they are so inexperienced and so prideful about themselves. Rather than making the dogs' work easier, Mercedes insists still on riding in the sled, and the men allow her to do this, knowing how much of a strain that it is adding to the dogs' work.
The other dogs are wasting away into bones and skin as well, staggering and limping along the trail. Hal merely whips or clubs the dogs into moving again, refusing to give them any time to rest at all. He only cares about himself and the gold that may away them in Dawson City. Soon after this, kind-hearted Billee falls to the ground from exhaustion, and Hal calmly smashes his skull with an axe because his gun was traded away to the Indian for the animal hide. As Billee's corpse is cut out of his harness, the other dogs know that this death is approaching them all as well, if things continue as they have been. There is no way they will be able to make it to Dawson City this time. On the following day the same fate meets the husky named Koona, and this dog too is cut out of the harness and tossed away like a piece of garbage. Now only five dogs remain, including Buck himself, even though they had originally started out with fourteen.
In the midst of such great suffering, sickness, and death, all around the sled team nature was coming to life again with the onset of spring. The weather grows warmer, the animals awaken from a long winter of hibernation, and the snow begins to melt, "The sap was rising in the pines. The willows and aspens were bursting out in young buds. Shrubs and vines were putting on fresh garbs of green. Crickets sang in the nights, and in the days all manners of creeping, crawling things rustled forth in the sun. Partridges and woodpeckers were booming and knocking in the forest. Squirrels were chattering, birds singing" Chapter 5, pg. 85. Unfortunately, these three humans could not enjoy the beauty around them because of their selfishness and their own poor planning and inexperience. At the same time, the snow begins to melt, causing the trail to become dangerously unstable, especially in areas where it crosses lakes or rivers. Paying little regard to the threat of this, the trio mushes the sled team one day into the camp where John Thornton is resting. There Charles, Hal, and Mercedes sit for awhile and recuperate from their journey, talking with him.
As the melting snow around them should clearly indicate, John Thornton utters the warning aloud that it is not safe for them to continue on the trail because the snow is not stable. Hal is defiant, insisting that he has led the team successfully that far and they would continue to Dawson City as planned, without any interruption. As if to prove the point, Hal rushes up quickly upon stating this, gathering together Charles and Mercedes again, and urges Buck to mush. Yet he remains sprawled out on the ground, weary and drained of all energy. Angry, Hal proceeds to whip Buck, but still he remains laying down. The other dogs obey, however, rising up reluctantly in fear of being harmed, including Sol-leks, Joe, Pike, and Teek. Hal then picks up a club and begins to beat Buck for his lack of motivation. Remembering the other dogs who had given up from sickness, Buck feels now that he will join Dave, Billee, and Dub because of the impending doom that Hal's whip brings.
Again and again his body is lashed, but still he refuses to rise up again, "He felt strangely numb. As though from a great distance, he was aware that he was being beaten. The last sensations of pain left him. He no longer felt anything, though very faintly he could hear the impact of the club upon his body. But it was no longer his body, it seemed so far away" Chapter 5, pg. 88. Buck is dying, something that had never happened before, and he feels his body slowly begin to fade away around him. However, John Thornton suddenly rushes in to save the day, throwing Hal down to the ground, wrestling with him. Mercedes screams aloud, while Charles stares on nonchalantly because he is so tired. Hal rises again, insisting that Buck is his dog only and he can do anything he wants with it, even as John warns against this. Hal whips out his hunting knife, but John smashes it away from him with an axe and cuts Buck out of the harness. Dragging the poor dog to safety, Hal gives up the fight and leaves Buck for dead. Placing Pike in Buck's leadership spot, Hal drives the sled forward, with Mercedes still sitting in the sled and Charles following behind.
Unconcerned about them, Thornton inspects Buck's beaten body carefully, pleased to find that he has no broken bones at all. Glancing up, he watches the sled continue ahead along the trail until suddenly the sled with dogs and all disappears into the ground, accompanied by Mercedes' screaming voice. Charles tries to turn around before he, too, falls beneath the ice, leaving only a wide watery hole behind. Exactly as Thornton had warned, this spring weather has left the trail unsafe with melting snow. Hal's pride has ended up drowning him, Charles, and the remaining sled dogs. Only Buck remains as the sole survivor, saved by John Thornton, who now looks into Buck's eyes lovingly. Gratefully for what this man has done, Buck licks his hand gently. For now it looks as if Buck is going to be safe from harm or suffering, and he is surely going to get a well-deserved rest after pulling a sled for the entire winter without any real break at all. All of his canine companions are gone, and Buck alone remains as their champion, for he has outlived them all.