Call of the Wild Chapter 6 - For the Love of a Man
As the weeks pass by after this time, Buck begins to slowly recover what was lost during the harsh winter. His muscles were built up again, his wounds healed, and he appeased his starving stomach. A long rest was all that he needed, and this is what he finally gets, thanks to John Thornton. In total Buck has traveled for three thousand miles nearly nonstop, so it is quite a miracle that he has survived such a marathon for this long, clearly revealing that he is a survivor after overcoming so many obstacles ever since the days he grew up in Santa Clara Valley with Judge Miller and was brought to th North. Thornton also has two other dogs named Skeet and Nig, the former of which regularly licks Buck's wounds and nurture him in a motherly sort of way. Nig is also very friendly and playful towards Buck as well, although he keeps more of a distance from him, respecting his space. Life becomes better than it ever has been for Buck, and all of this is caused by Thornton.
Buck begins to experience real emotions now that he has never experienced before in his entire life. In the past, he respected his masters and obeyed them, but now "Love, genuine passionate love, was his for the first time...With the Judge's sons, hunting and tramping, it had been a working partnership; with the Judge's grandsons, a sort of pompous guardianship; and with the Judge himself, a stately and dignified friendship. But love that was feverish and burning, that was adoration, that was madness, it had taken John Thornton to arouse" Chapter 6, pg. 92-93. Not only does John become his caretaker, nursing the dog back to health, but it was this man who saved Buck from the same death that befell Sol-leks, Joe, and the others when the ice broke beneath their sled. John and Buck act playful towards each other, since John's way of showing his affection was to hold Buck's head in both of his hands and placing his head on top, shaking it while swearing aloud at him. In return, Buck often grabs Thornton's hand in his mouth, biting down nearly to the point of breaking his skin, and then releasing him. Buck understood John's affectionate swear words as meaning he loved him, and John interprets Buck's biting of his hand in the same way. Their relationship continues to grow stronger, as dog and master become inseparable creatures, watching over each other, since they are the best of friends.
Buck becomes very watchful as well, sitting sometimes at a distance and staying alert for any assistance John might need from him. The dog is also very afraid that John Thornton will disappear as did all of his other masters such as Perrault or Francois. Additionally, this man means more to him than anyone else he has known in his entire life, so it would be devastating for the poor dog to lose him now, too. Buck respects and loves John only out of every other human or animal in the entire world, but when he deals with other men or animals the dog is just as ruthless and self-serving as he has always been. If a group of men have food near their fire, Buck does not hesitate to steal it for himself; if another dog questions his supremacy or gets in his way, Buck fights violently until they give in to him. Although this is not a problem with Nig or Skeet, there are still other dogs he comes across who wish to intimidate him. No dog wins these battles with Buck, however, for he has learned a lot during this time out in the North by fighting Spitz, wild dogs, other sled dogs, and mail dogs. As he understood it, "Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, was the law," since he has had such a rough time in the past, and this is the way that his primal, internal nature tells him to behave, no longer ignored now.
The energy and the impulse of his wolfish ancestors courses through Buck's blood, and it is this call of the wild that Buck hears so plainly and loudly, ringing out into his ear across time and space. More than a memory or a single feeling, it is as if he has grown up, becoming wholly himself; while at Judge Miller's house he was a child, a puppy, but these rough wilds of Alaska and Canada have taught him about the age old fight to survive. Indeed, "[Buck] sat by John Thornton's fire, a broad-breasted dog, white-fanged and long furred; but behind him were the shades of all manner of dogs, half-wolves and wild wolves, urgent and prompting, tasting the savor of the meat he ate, thirsting for the water he drank...lying down to sleep with him when he lay down, and dreaming with him and beyond him and becoming themselves the stuff of his dreams" Chapter 6, pg. 96-97. Buck's body pulses in tune to something wild and uncivilized, although it is his love for John Thornton that holds him there with this man.
There are many times when these wild impulses push Buck away from the safety of their campfire, and he wanders off into the forest, answering some secret call that screamed out to him, "Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call...he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest...But as often as he gained the soft unbroken earth and the green shade, the love for John Thornton drew him back to the fire again. Thornton alone held him. The rest of mankind was as nothing" Chapter 6, pg. 97. His true love for this man is stronger than the call of the wild, however, and every time he returns to the camp once again, rather than running out further into the forest. Indeed, he owes his life to this man who saved him from Hal's cruelty, defending him from the man's relentless club; only some dramatic event such as Thornton's death can possibly set Buck free from his affections for him, because it is so strong within him.
Eventually, John Thornton's partners Hans and Pete arrive with a raft to transport them the rest of the way down the melted river to Dawson City. They respect Buck's loyalty to Thornton and leave the great dog alone. Thornton's love for Buck grows greater and greater as well, as he realizes how much Buck cares about him. On one occasion while the men are encamped near the edge of a cliff, John spontaneously says to Buck "Jump," at which the dog without giving a second thought bounds to the edge of the cliff, preparing to leap off of it. Thornton grabs hold of him, holding him back with help from Hans and Pete, marveling at the trust and loyalty Buck has given to him. He would leap to his death for this man without any hesitation! John learns to appreciate this loyalty more fully as time goes on. Buck shows his love by becoming very defensive of John Thornton too, such as when they are in Circle City later on during the year, and John tries to stop an argument between two men but gets hit himself. Buck launches himself into a monstrous attack, going immediately for the assailant's throat with a great roar. The struggle goes on for several minutes before a crowd of people finally pries Buck's teeth off of the man's neck. After a short meeting the men declare that Buck acted appropriately and he is not a threat to society, and he is allowed to go free. Buck becomes famous after this incident, as people praise his loyalty for Thornton and also the strength of his muscles.
On another occasion, Buck saves Thornton's life when he is boating in the Forty Mile Creek and falls overboard. With Hans and Pete standing ashore nearby, they are powerless to stop him, and it is Buck who leaps out into the raging water to save this man he loves. Thornton grabs Buck's tail while still trying to stay afloat, and Buck turns back towards the shore, swimming with all of his might although the current merely pushes him further downstream. Thornton grabs a passing rock instead, urging Buck to return to the shore without him because it isn't safe. Buck hesitates and then obeys, turning bac k to shore where Hans and Pete pull him to safety. The rescue attempt continues when the men now tie a rope around Buck's body and, after one failed attempt, Buck swims out to Thornton successfully, and the dives out quickly from the rock, wrapping both hands around Buck's body amidst the raging current. Hans then pulls the rope tightly against a tree, causing the current to push Buck and John further downstream, but the angle of the rope causes them to merely make a semicircle and land ashore a bit downstream, thanks to that rope. A waterlogged John first checks Buck for injuries and, upon discovering that the dog has three broken ribs, he declares that they will camp there until Buck is completely healed, which the men do.
John, Hans, and Pete accompanied by the dogs Skeet, Nig, and Buck return to Dawson City in the wintertime, where Buck proves his unconditional love and loyalty for John once again. John Thornton is in a bar with his partners and Buck, when one man named Mattewson is bragging about how strong his dog is at pulling the sled. John Thornton, invigorated by all of this talk, declares that Buck can pull one thousand pounds for one hundred yards all by himself. Interested, Matthewson becomes serious, betting John one thousand dollars that Buck cannot accomplish this task and adding that he has a sled loaded with half a ton of flour outside of the tavern at that very moment. When he calls John's bluff, John becomes very nervous but hesitantly borrows money from a friend that he can contribute to match Matthewson's wager. The men then rush outside in suspense to where the laden sled is parked along with Buck so that his strength can be put to the test. Matthewson offers another six hundred dollars to the betting pile, to increase the stakes even more. Thornton is extremely nervous, and he wonders if Buck can actually accomplish such a great task as this.
Buck himself is quite confused about what exactly is going on with all of this excitement, although he feels confident that he will do whatever John Thornton asks of him, "He had caught the contagion of the 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 flesh...His furry coat shone with the sheen of silk...Men felt [his] muscles and proclaimed them hard as iron" Chapter 6, pg. 107. Impressed by the dog's healthy body, one man offers to buy Buck from Thornton before the test of strength even occurs, but the man immediately refuses to sell. Everybody backs away while Buck is harnessed to the sled, and Thornton kneels down to talk quietly into the dogs ear, embracing him and finally saying, "As you love me, Buck. As you love me," to give some encouragement. A lot of money is at stake, and it would be a terrible disaster for Thornton to lose this wager. In return, Buck bites Thornton's hand tightly in his teeth, returning this same message of love in his own way.
Thornton steps away then, urging Buck to begin pulling the one thousand pound sled through the snow, screaming aloud "Mush!" The crowd is in suspense, wondering how things will go for the dog. After a few moments of just pulling with no reaction from the sled, and one foot slipping up on the ground, Buck actually begins to move the sled forward very slowly, inch by inch! Once the sled moves forward along the snow, it picks up in speed until Buck finally clears the one hundred yard stretch without any further difficulty. All of the people watching go wild with surprise and pleasure that Buck has done such an impossible feat, "[The] 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. Hats and mittens were flying into the air. Men were shaking hands, it did not matter with whom, and bubbling over in a general incoherent babel" Chapter 6, pg. 110. Thornton embraces Buck once again after this ordeal is over in the midst of the cheering, and Buck once again bites his hand in return, sending messages of intense love back and forth between man and beast.
Although they do not speak in words, they have built up an understanding during these many months that they have been together since John saved the poor dog from certain death at the hands of Hal. For this favor, Buck has come to his aid him many times over by rescuing him from the river after John fell overboard, by attacking the man who hit John back in the spring, and now by preserving Thornton's integrity and financial state. If Buck had failed to pull the sled, John would have been in a lot of debt, but instead Thornton has won this unconditional loyalty from Buck for as long as he is alive. After the sled pull, one man offers to buy Buck for twelve hundred dollars. Once again, Thornton refuses to sell this beloved dog with the words, "You can go to hell." Unlike all of the other men who have walked out of Buck's life, John Thornton is clearly here to stay, giving Buck a consistency that he has not had before since he was sold away so many times in the past. As a result, the love that Buck feels for John has energized him far more than any other force he has known, for it is even stronger than the call of the wild.