“I guess you’re right, Madge,” he said. “Wolf isn’t Wolf, but Brown, and he must belong to Mr. Miller.”
“Perhaps Mr. Miller will sell him,” she suggested. “We can buy him.”
Skiff Miller shook his head, no longer belligerent, but kindly, quick to be generous in response to generousness.
“I had five dogs,” he said, casting about for the easiest way to temper his refusal. “He was the leader. They was the crack team of Alaska. Nothin’ could touch ’em. In 1898 I refused five thousand dollars for the bunch. Dogs was high, then, anyway; but that wasn’t what made the fancy price. It was the team itself. Brown was the best in the team. That winter I refused twelve hundred for ‘m. I didn’t sell ‘m then, an’ I ain’t a-sellin’ ‘m now. Besides, I think a mighty lot of that dog. I’ve ben lookin’ for ‘m for three years. It made me fair sick when I found he’d ben stole – not the value of him, but the – well, I liked ‘m like hell, that’s all, beggin’ your pardon. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I seen ‘m just now. I thought I was dreamin’. It was too good to be true. Why, I was his wet-nurse. I put ‘m to bed, snug every night. His mother died, and I brought ‘m up on condensed milk at two dollars a can when I couldn’t afford it in my own coffee. He never knew any mother but me. He used to suck my finger regular, the darn little cuss – that finger right there!”
And Skiff Miller, too overwrought for speech, held up a fore finger for them to see.
“That very finger,” he managed to articulate, as though it somehow clinched the proof of ownership and the bond of affection.
He was still gazing at his extended finger when Madge began to speak.
“But the dog,” she said. “You haven’t considered the dog.”
Skiff Miller looked puzzled.
“Have you thought about him?” she asked.
“Don’t know what you’re drivin’ at,” was the response.
“Maybe the dog has some choice in the matter,” Madge went on. “Maybe he has his likes and desires. You have not considered him. You give him no choice. It has never entered your mind that possibly he might prefer California to Alaska. You consider only what you like. You do with him as you would with a sack of potatoes or a bale of hay.”
This was a new way of looking at it, and Miller was visibly impressed as he debated it in his mind. Madge took advantage of his indecision.
“If you really love him, what would be happiness to him would be your happiness also,” she urged.
Skiff Miller continued to debate with himself, and Madge stole a glance of exultation to her husband, who looked back warm approval.
“What do you think?” the Klondiker suddenly demanded.
It was her turn to be puzzled. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“D’ye think he’d sooner stay in California?”
She nodded her head with positiveness. “I am sure of it.”
Skiff Miller again debated with himself, though this time aloud, at the same time running his gaze in a judicial way over the mooted animal.
“He was a good worker. He’s done a heap of work for me. He never loafed on me, an’ he was a joe-dandy at hammerin’ a raw team into shape. He’s got a head on him. He can do everything but talk. He knows what you say to him. Look at ‘m now. He knows we’re talkin’ about him.”
The dog was lying at Skiff Miller’s feet, head close down on paws, ears erect and listening, and eyes that were quick and eager to follow the sound of speech as it fell from the lips of first one and then the other.
“An’ there’s a lot of work in ‘m yet. He’s good for years to come. An’ I do like him. I like him like hell.”
Once or twice after that Skiff Miller opened his mouth and closed it again without speaking. Finally he said:
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Your remarks, ma’am, has some weight in them. The dog’s worked hard, and maybe he’s earned a soft berth an’ has got a right to choose. Anyway, we’ll leave it up to him. Whatever he says, goes. You people stay right here settin’ down. I’ll say good-by and walk off casual-like. If he wants to stay, he can stay. If he wants to come with me, let ‘m come. I won’t call ‘m to come an’ don’t you call ‘m to come back.”
He looked with sudden suspicion at Madge, and added, “Only you must play fair. No persuadin’ after my back is turned.”
“We’ll play fair,” Madge began, but Skiff Miller broke in on her assurances.
“I know the ways of women,” he announced. “Their hearts is soft. When their hearts is touched they’re likely to stack the cards, look at the bottom of the deck, an’ lie like the devil – beggin’ your pardon, ma’am. I’m only discoursin’ about women in general.”
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Madge quavered.
“I don’t see as you’ve got any call to thank me,” he replied. “Brown ain’t decided yet. Now you won’t mind if I go away slow? It’s no more’n fair, seein’ I’ll be out of sight inside a hundred yards.” – Madge agreed, and added, “And I promise you faithfully that we won’t do anything to influence him.”
“Well, then, I might as well be gettin’ along,” Skiff Miller said in the ordinary tones of one departing.
At this change in his voice, Wolf lifted his head quickly, and still more quickly got to his feet when the man and woman shook hands. He sprang up on his hind legs, resting his fore paws on her hip and at the same time licking Skiff Miller’s hand. When the latter shook hands with Walt, Wolf repeated his act, resting his weight on Walt and licking both men’s hands.
“It ain’t no picnic, I can tell you that,” were the Klondiker’s last words, as he turned and went slowly up the trail.
For the distance of twenty feet Wolf watched him go, himself all eagerness and expectancy, as though waiting for the man to turn and retrace his steps. Then, with a quick low whine, Wolf sprang after him, overtook him, caught his hand between his teeth with reluctant tenderness, and strove gently to make him pause.
Failing in this, Wolf raced back to where Walt Irvine sat, catching his coat-sleeve in his teeth and trying vainly to drag him after the retreating man.
Wolf’s perturbation began to wax. He desired ubiquity. He wanted to be in two places at the same time, with the old master and the new, and steadily the distance between them was increasing. He sprang about excitedly, making short nervous leaps and twists, now toward one, now toward the other, in painful indecision, not knowing his own mind, desiring both and unable to choose, uttering quick sharp whines and beginning to pant.
He sat down abruptly on his haunches, thrusting his nose upward, the mouth opening and closing with jerking movements, each time opening wider. These jerking movements were in unison with the recurrent spasms that attacked the throat, each spasm severer and more intense than the preceding one. And in accord with jerks and spasms the larynx began to vibrate, at first silently, accompanied by the rush of air expelled from the lungs, then sounding a low, deep note, the lowest in the register of the human ear. All this was the nervous and muscular preliminary to howling.
But just as the howl was on the verge of bursting from the full throat, the wide-opened mouth was closed, the paroxysms ceased, and he looked long and steadily at the retreating man. Suddenly Wolf turned his head, and over his shoulder just as steadily regarded Walt. The appeal was unanswered. Not a word nor a sign did the dog receive, no suggestion and no clew as to what his conduct should be.
A glance ahead to where the old master was nearing the curve of the trail excited him again. He sprang to his feet with a whine, and then, struck by a new idea, turned his attention to Madge. Hitherto he had ignored her, but now, both masters failing him, she alone was left. He went over to her and snuggled his head in her lap, nudging her arm with his nose – an old trick of his when begging for favors. He backed away from her and began writhing and twisting playfully, curvetting and prancing, half rearing and striking his fore paws to the earth, struggling with all his body, from the wheedling eyes and flattening ears to the wagging tail, to express the thought that was in him and that was denied him utterance.
This, too, he soon abandoned. He was depressed by the coldness of these humans who had never been cold before. No response could he draw from them, no help could he get. They did not consider him. They were as dead.
He turned and silently gazed after the old master. Skiff Miller was rounding the curve. In a moment he would be gone from view. Yet he never turned his head, plodding straight onward, slowly and methodically, as though possessed of no interest in what was occurring behind his back.
And in this fashion he went out of view. Wolf waited for him to reappear. He waited a long minute, silently, quietly, without movement, as though turned to stone – withal stone quick with eagerness and desire. He barked once, and waited. Then he turned and trotted back to Walt Irvine. He sniffed his hand and dropped down heavily at his feet, watching the trail where it curved emptily from view.
The tiny stream slipping down the mossy-lipped stone seemed suddenly to increase the volume of its gurgling noise. Save for the meadow-larks, there was no other sound. The great yellow butterflies drifted silently through the sunshine and lost themselves in the drowsy shadows. Madge gazed triumphantly at her husband.
A few minutes later Wolf got upon his feet. Decision and deliberation marked his movements. He did not glance at the man and woman. His eyes were fixed up the trail. He had made up his mind. They knew it. And they knew, so far as they were concerned, that the ordeal had just begun.
He broke into a trot, and Madge’s lips pursed, forming an avenue for the caressing sound that it was the will of her to send forth. But the caressing sound was not made. She was impelled to look at her husband, and she saw the sternness with which he watched her. The pursed lips relaxed, and she sighed inaudibly.
Wolf’s trot broke into a run. Wider and wider were the leaps he made. Not once did he turn his head, his wolf’s brush standing out straight behind him. He cut sharply across the curve of the trail and was gone.