Skiff Miller patted the dog’s head, and slowly and solemnly repeated, “Well, I’ll be damned!”
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said the next moment “I was just s’prised some, that was all.”
“We’re surprised, too,” she answered lightly. “We never saw Wolf make up to a stranger before.”
“Is that what you call him – Wolf?” the man asked.
Madge nodded. “But I can’t understand his friendliness toward you – unless it’s because you’re from the Klondike. He’s a Klondike dog, you know.”
“Yes’m,” Miller said absently. He lifted one of Wolf’s fore legs and examined the foot-pads, pressing them and denting them with his thumb. “Kind of SOFT,” he remarked. “He ain’t been on trail for a long time.”
“I say,” Walt broke in, “it is remarkable the way he lets you handle him.”
Skiff Miller arose, no longer awkward with admiration of Madge, and in a sharp, businesslike manner asked, “How long have you had him?”
But just then the dog, squirming and rubbing against the newcomer’s legs, opened his mouth and barked. It was an explosive bark, brief and joyous, but a bark.
“That’s a new one on me,” Skiff Miller remarked.
Walt and Madge stared at each other. The miracle had happened. Wolf had barked.
“It’s the first time he ever barked,” Madge said.
“First time I ever heard him, too,” Miller volunteered.
Madge smiled at him. The man was evidently a humorist.
“Of course,” she said, “since you have only seen him for five minutes.”
Skiff Miller looked at her sharply, seeking in her face the guile her words had led him to suspect.
“I thought you understood,” he said slowly. “I thought you’d tumbled to it from his makin’ up to me. He’s my dog. His name ain’t Wolf. It’s Brown.”
“Oh, Walt!” was Madge’s instinctive cry to her husband.
Walt was on the defensive at once.
“How do you know he’s your dog?” he demanded.
“Because he is,” was the reply.
“Mere assertion,” Walt said sharply.
In his slow and pondering way, Skiff Miller looked at him, then asked, with a nod of his head toward Madge:
“How d’you know she’s your wife? You just say, ‘Because she is,’ and I’ll say it’s mere assertion. The dog’s mine. I bred ‘m an’ raised ‘m, an’ I guess I ought to know. Look here. I’ll prove it to you.”
Skiff Miller turned to the dog. “Brown!” His voice rang out sharply, and at the sound the dog’s ears flattened down as to a caress. “Gee!” The dog made a swinging turn to the right. “Now mush-on!” And the dog ceased his swing abruptly and started straight ahead, halting obediently at command.
“I can do it with whistles”, Skiff Miller said proudly. “He was my lead dog.”
“But you are not going to take him away with you?” Madge asked tremulously.
The man nodded.
“Back into that awful Klondike world of suffering?”
He nodded and added: “Oh, it ain’t so bad as all that. Look at me. Pretty healthy specimen, ain’t I?”
“But the dogs! The terrible hardship, the heart-breaking toil, the starvation, the frost! Oh, I’ve read about it and I know.”
“I nearly ate him once, over on Little Fish River,” Miller volunteered grimly. “If I hadn’t got a moose that day was all that saved ‘m.”
“I’d have died first!” Madge cried.
“Things is different down here”, Miller explained. “You don’t have to eat dogs. You think different just about the time you’re all in. You’ve never ben all in, so you don’t know anything about it.”
“That’s the very point,” she argued warmly. “Dogs are not eaten in California. Why not leave him here? He is happy. He’ll never want for food – you know that. He’ll never suffer from cold and hardship. Here all is softness and gentleness. Neither the human nor nature is savage. He will never know a whip-lash again. And as for the weather – why, it never snows here.”
“But it’s all-fired hot in summer, beggin’ your pardon,” Skiff Miller laughed.
“But you do not answer,” Madge continued passionately. “What have you to offer him in that northland life?”
“Grub, when I’ve got it, and that’s most of the time,” came the answer.
“And the rest of the time?”
“And the work?”
“Yes, plenty of work,” Miller blurted out impatiently. “Work without end, an’ famine, an’ frost, an all the rest of the miseries – that’s what he’ll get when he comes with me. But he likes it. He is used to it. He knows that life. He was born to it an’ brought up to it. An’ you don’t know anything about it. You don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s where the dog belongs, and that’s where he’ll be happiest.”
“The dog doesn’t go,” Walt announced in a determined voice. “So there is no need of further discussion.”
“What’s that?” Skiff Miller demanded, his brows lowering and an obstinate flush of blood reddening his forehead.
“I said the dog doesn’t go, and that settles it. I don’t believe he’s your dog. You may have seen him sometime. You may even sometime have driven him for his owner. But his obeying the ordinary driving commands of the Alaskan trail is no demonstration that he is yours. Any dog in Alaska would obey you as he obeyed. Besides, he is undoubtedly a valuable dog, as dogs go in Alaska, and that is sufficient explanation of your desire to get possession of him. Anyway, you’ve got to prove property.”
Skiff Miller, cool and collected, the obstinate flush a trifle deeper on his forehead, his huge muscles bulging under the black cloth of his coat, carefully looked the poet up and down as though measuring the strength of his slenderness.
The Klondiker’s face took on a contemptuous expression as he said finally, “I reckon there’s nothin’ in sight to prevent me takin’ the dog right here an’ now.”
Walt’s face reddened, and the striking-muscles of his arms and shoulders seemed to stiffen and grow tense. His wife fluttered apprehensively into the breach.
“Maybe Mr. Miller is right”, she said. “I am afraid that he is. Wolf does seem to know him, and certainly he answers to the name of ‘Brown.’ He made friends with him instantly, and you know that’s something he never did with anybody before. Besides, look at the way he barked. He was just bursting with joy Joy over what? Without doubt at finding Mr. Miller.”
Walt’s striking-muscles relaxed, and his shoulders seemed to droop with hopelessness.