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The Call of the Wild

5. The Toil of Trace and Trail
Thirty days from the time it left Dawson, the Salt Water Mail, with Buck and his
mates at the fore, arrived at Skaguay. They were in a wretched state, worn out
and worn down. Buck's one hundred and forty pounds had dwindled to one
hundred and fifteen. The rest of his mates, though lighter dogs, had relatively lost
more weight than he. Pike, the malingerer, who, in his lifetime of deceit, had
often successfully feigned a hurt leg, was now limping in earnest. Sol-leks was
limping, and Dub was suffering from a wrenched shoulder-blade.
They were all terribly footsore. No spring or rebound was left in them. Their feet
fell heavily on the trail, jarring their bodies and doubting the fatigue of a day's
travel. There was nothing the matter with them except that they were dead tired.
It was not the dead-tiredness that comes through brief and excessive effort, from
which recovery is a matter of hours; but it was the dead-tiredness that comes
through the slow and prolonged strength drainage of months of toil. There was
no power of recuperation left, no reserve strength to call upon. It had been all
used, the last least bit of it. Every muscle, every fibre, every cell, was tired, dead
tired. And there was reason for it. In less than five months they had travelled
twenty-five hundred miles, during the last eighteen hundred of which they had
had but five days' rest. When they arrived at Skaguay they were apparently on
their last legs. They could barely keep the traces taut, and on the down grades
just managed to keep out of the way of the sled.
"Mush on, poor sore feets," the driver encouraged them as they tottered down
the main street of Skaguay. "Dis is de las'. Den we get one long res'. Eh? For
sure. One bully long res'."
The drivers confidently expected a long stopover. Themselves, they had covered
twelve hundred miles with two days' rest, and in the nature of reason and
common justice they deserved an interval of loafing. But so many were the men
who had rushed into the Klondike, and so many were the sweethearts, wives,
and kin that had not rushed in, that the congested mail was taking on Alpine
proportions; also, there were official orders. Fresh batches of Hudson Bay dogs
were to take the places of those worthless for the trail. The worthless ones were
to be got rid of, and, since dogs count for little against dollars, they were to be
sold.
Three days passed, by which time Buck and his mates found how really tired and
weak they were. Then, on the morning of the fourth day, two men from the States
came along and bought them, harness and all, for a song. The men addressed
each other as "Hal" and "Charles." Charles was a middle-aged, lightish-colored
man, with weak and watery eyes and a mustache that twisted fiercely and
vigorously up, giving the lie to the limply drooping lip it concealed. Hal was a
youngster of nineteen or twenty, with a big Colt's revolver and a hunting-knife
strapped about him on a belt that fairly bristled with cartridges. This belt was the
most salient thing about him. It advertised his callowness--a callowness sheer
and unutterable. Both men were manifestly out of place, and why such as they
 
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