«It’s hopeless,» Weedon Scott confessed.
He sat on the step of his cabin and stared at the dog-musher, who responded with a shrug that was equally hopeless.
Together they looked at White Fang at the end of his stretched chain, bristling, snarling, ferocious, straining to get at the sled-dogs. Having received sundry lessons from Matt, said lessons being imparted by means of a club, the sled-dogs had learned to leave White Fang alone; and even then they were lying down at a distance, apparently oblivious of his existence.
«It’s a wolf and there’s no taming it,» Weedon Scott announced.
«Oh, I don’t know about that,» Matt objected. «Might be a lot of dog in ‘m, for all you can tell. But there’s one thing I know sure, an’ that there’s no gettin’ away from.»
The dog-musher paused and nodded his head confidentially at Moosehide Mountain.
«Well, don’t be a miser with what you know,» Scott said sharply, after waiting a suitable length of time. «Spit it out. What is it?»
The dog-musher indicated White Fang with a backward thrust of his thumb.
«Wolf or dog, it’s all the same-he’s ben tamed ‘ready.»
«I tell you yes, an’ broke to harness. Look close there. D’ye see them marks across the chest?»
«You’re right, Matt. He was a sled-dog before Beauty Smith got hold of him.»
«And there’s not much reason against his bein’ a sled-dog again.»
«What d’ye think?» Scott queried eagerly. Then the hope died down as he added, shaking his head, «We’ve had him two weeks now, and if anything he’s wilder than ever at the present moment.»
«Give ‘m a chance,» Matt counselled. «Turn ‘m loose for a spell.»
The other looked at him incredulously.
«Yes,» Matt went on, «I know you’ve tried to, but you didn’t take a club.»
«You try it then.»
The dog-musher secured a club and went over to the chained animal. White Fang watched the club after the manner of a caged lion watching the whip of its trainer.
«See ‘m keep his eye on that club,» Matt said. «That’s a good sign. He’s no fool. Don’t dast tackle me so long as I got that club handy. He’s not clean crazy, sure.»
As the man’s hand approached his neck, White Fang bristled and snarled and crouched down. But while he eyed the approaching hand, he at the same time contrived to keep track of the club in the other hand, suspended threateningly above him. Matt unsnapped the chain from the collar and stepped back.
White Fang could scarcely realise that he was free. Many months had gone by since he passed into the possession of Beauty Smith, and in all that period he had never known a moment of freedom except at the times he had been loosed to fight with other dogs. Immediately after such fights he had always been imprisoned again.
He did not know what to make of it. Perhaps some new devilry of the gods was about to be perpetrated on him. He walked slowly and cautiously, prepared to be assailed at any moment. He did not know what to do, it was all so unprecedented. He took the precaution to sheer off from the two watching gods, and walked carefully to the corner of the cabin. Nothing happened. He was plainly perplexed, and he came back again, pausing a dozen feet away and regarding the two men intently.
«Won’t he run away?» his new owner asked.
Matt shrugged his shoulders. «Got to take a gamble. Only way to find out is to find out.»
«Poor devil,» Scott murmured pityingly. «What he needs is some show of human kindness,» he added, turning and going into the cabin.
He came out with a piece of meat, which he tossed to White Fang. He sprang away from it, and from a distance studied it suspiciously.
«Hi-yu, Major!» Matt shouted warningly, but too late.
Major had made a spring for the meat. At the instant his jaws closed on it, White Fang struck him. He was overthrown. Matt rushed in, but quicker than he was White Fang. Major staggered to his feet, but the blood spouting from his throat reddened the snow in a widening path.
«It’s too bad, but it served him right,» Scott said hastily.
But Matt’s foot had already started on its way to kick White Fang. There was a leap, a flash of teeth, a sharp exclamation. White Fang, snarling fiercely, scrambled backward for several yards, while Matt stooped and investigated his leg.
«He got me all right,» he announced, pointing to the torn trousers and undercloths, and the growing stain of red.
«I told you it was hopeless, Matt,» Scott said in a discouraged voice. «I’ve thought about it off and on, while not wanting to think of it. But we’ve come to it now. It’s the only thing to do.»
As he talked, with reluctant movements he drew his revolver, threw open the cylinder, and assured himself of its contents.
«Look here, Mr. Scott,» Matt objected; «that dog’s ben through hell. You can’t expect ‘m to come out a white an’ shinin’ angel. Give ‘m time.»
«Look at Major,» the other rejoined.
The dog-musher surveyed the stricken dog. He had sunk down on the snow in the circle of his blood and was plainly in the last gasp.
«Served ‘m right. You said so yourself, Mr. Scott. He tried to take White Fang’s meat, an’ he’s dead-O. That was to be expected. I wouldn’t give two whoops in hell for a dog that wouldn’t fight for his own meat.»
«But look at yourself, Matt. It’s all right about the dogs, but we must draw the line somewhere.»
«Served me right,» Matt argued stubbornly. «What’d I want to kick ‘m for? You said yourself that he’d done right. Then I had no right to kick ‘m.»
«It would be a mercy to kill him,» Scott insisted. «He’s untamable.»
«Now look here, Mr. Scott, give the poor devil a fightin’ chance. He ain’t had no chance yet. He’s just come through hell, an’ this is the first time he’s ben loose. Give ‘m a fair chance, an’ if he don’t deliver the goods, I’ll kill ‘m myself. There!»
«God knows I don’t want to kill him or have him killed,» Scott answered, putting away the revolver. «We’ll let him run loose and see what kindness can do for him. And here’s a try at it.»
He walked over to White Fang and began talking to him gently and soothingly.
«Better have a club handy,» Matt warned.
Scott shook his head and went on trying to win White Fang’s confidence.
White Fang was suspicious. Something was impending. He had killed this god’s dog, bitten his companion god, and what else was to be expected than some terrible punishment? But in the face of it he was indomitable. He bristled and showed his teeth, his eyes vigilant, his whole body wary and prepared for anything. The god had no club, so he suffered him to approach quite near. The god’s hand had come out and was descending upon his head. White Fang shrank together and grew tense as he crouched under it. Here was danger, some treachery or something. He knew the hands of the gods, their proved mastery, their cunning to hurt. Besides, there was his old antipathy to being touched. He snarled more menacingly, crouched still lower, and still the hand descended. He did not want to bite the hand, and he endured the peril of it until his instinct surged up in him, mastering him with its insatiable yearning for life.
Weedon Scott had believed that he was quick enough to avoid any snap or slash. But he had yet to learn the remarkable quickness of White Fang, who struck with the certainty and swiftness of a coiled snake.
Scott cried out sharply with surprise, catching his torn hand and holding it tightly in his other hand. Matt uttered a great oath and sprang to his side. White Fang crouched down, and backed away, bristling, showing his fangs, his eyes malignant with menace. Now he could expect a beating as fearful as any he had received from Beauty Smith.
«Here! What are you doing?» Scott cried suddenly.
Matt had dashed into the cabin and come out with a rifle.
«Nothin’,» he said slowly, with a careless calmness that was assumed, «only goin’ to keep that promise I made. I reckon it’s up to me to kill ‘m as I said I’d do.»
«No you don’t!»
«Yes I do. Watch me.»
As Matt had pleaded for White Fang when he had been bitten, it was now Weedon Scott’s turn to plead.
«You said to give him a chance. Well, give it to him. We’ve only just started, and we can’t quit at the beginning. It served me right, this time. And-look at him!»
White Fang, near the corner of the cabin and forty feet away, was snarling with blood-curdling viciousness, not at Scott, but at the dog-musher.
«Well, I’ll be everlastingly gosh-swoggled!» was the dog-musher’s expression of astonishment.
«Look at the intelligence of him,» Scott went on hastily. «He knows the meaning of firearms as well as you do. He’s got intelligence and we’ve got to give that intelligence a chance. Put up the gun.»
«All right, I’m willin’,» Matt agreed, leaning the rifle against the woodpile
«But will you look at that!» he exclaimed the next moment.
White Fang had quieted down and ceased snarling. «This is worth investigatin’. Watch.»
Matt, reached for the rifle, and at the same moment White Fang snarled. He stepped away from the rifle, and White Fang’s lifted lips descended, covering his teeth.
«Now, just for fun.»
Matt took the rifle and began slowly to raise it to his shoulder. White Fang’s snarling began with the movement, and increased as the movement approached its culmination. But the moment before the rifle came to a level on him, he leaped sidewise behind the corner of the cabin. Matt stood staring along the sights at the empty space of snow which had been occupied by White Fang.
The dog-musher put the rifle down solemnly, then turned and looked at his employer.
«I agree with you, Mr. Scott. That dog’s too intelligent to kill.»