CHAPTER I — THE LONG TRAIL
It was in the air. White Fang sensed the coming calamity, even before there was tangible evidence of it. In vague ways it was borne in upon him that a change was impending. He knew not how nor why, yet he got his feel of the oncoming event from the gods themselves. In ways subtler than they knew, they betrayed their intentions to the wolf-dog that haunted the cabin-stoop, and that, though he never came inside the cabin, knew what went on inside their brains.
"Listen to that, will you!" the dug-musher exclaimed at supper one night.
Weedon Scott listened. Through the door came a low, anxious whine, like a sobbing under the breath that had just grown audible. Then came the long sniff, as White Fang reassured himself that his god was still inside and had not yet taken himself off in mysterious and solitary flight.
"I do believe that wolf's on to you," the dog-musher said.
Weedon Scott looked across at his companion with eyes that almost pleaded, though this was given the lie by his words.
"What the devil can I do with a wolf in California?" he demanded.
"That's what I say," Matt answered. "What the devil can you do with a wolf in California?"
But this did not satisfy Weedon Scott. The other seemed to be judging him in a non-committal sort of way.
"White man's dogs would have no show against him," Scott went on. "He'd kill them on sight. If he didn't bankrupt me with damaged suits, the authorities would take him away from me and electrocute him."
"He's a downright murderer, I know," was the dog-musher's comment.
Weedon Scott looked at him suspiciously.
"It would never do," he said decisively.
"It would never do!" Matt concurred. "Why you'd have to hire a man 'specially to take care of 'm."
The other suspicion was allayed. He nodded cheerfully. In the silence that followed, the low, half-sobbing whine was heard at the door and then the long, questing sniff.
"There's no denyin' he thinks a hell of a lot of you," Matt said.
The other glared at him in sudden wrath. "Damn it all, man! I know my own mind and what's best!"
"I'm agreein' with you, only . . . "
"Only what?" Scott snapped out.
"Only . . . " the dog-musher began softly, then changed his mind and betrayed a rising anger of his own. "Well, you needn't get so all-fired het up about it. Judgin' by your actions one'd think you didn't know your own mind."
Weedon Scott debated with himself for a while, and then said more gently: "You are right, Matt. I don't know my own mind, and that's what's the trouble."
"Why, it would be rank ridiculousness for me to take that dog along," he broke out after another pause.
"I'm agreein' with you," was Matt's answer, and again his employer was not quite satisfied with him.
"But how in the name of the great Sardanapolis he knows you're goin' is what gets me," the dog-musher continued innocently.
"It's beyond me, Matt," Scott answered, with a mournful shake of the head.
Then came the day when, through the open cabin door, White Fang saw the fatal grip on the floor and the love-master packing things into it. Also, there were comings and goings, and the erstwhile placid atmosphere of the cabin was vexed with strange perturbations and unrest. Here was indubitable evidence. White Fang had already scented it. He now reasoned it. His god was preparing for another flight. And since he had not taken him with him before, so, now, he could look to be left behind.
That night he lifted the long wolf-howl. As he had howled, in his puppy days, when he fled back from the Wild to the village to find it vanished and naught but a rubbish-heap to mark the site of Grey Beaver's tepee, so now he pointed his muzzle to the cold stars and told to them his woe.
Inside the cabin the two men had just gone to bed.
"He's gone off his food again," Matt remarked from his bunk.
There was a grunt from Weedon Scott's bunk, and a stir of blankets.
"From the way he cut up the other time you went away, I wouldn't wonder this time but what he died."
The blankets in the other bunk stirred irritably.
"Oh, shut up!" Scott cried out through the darkness. "You nag worse than a woman."
"I'm agreein' with you," the dog-musher answered, and Weedon Scott was not quite sure whether or not the other had snickered.
The next day White Fang's anxiety and restlessness were even more pronounced. He dogged his master's heels whenever he left the cabin, and haunted the front stoop when he remained inside. Through the open door he could catch glimpses of the luggage on the floor. The grip had been joined by two large canvas bags and a box. Matt was rolling the master's blankets and fur robe inside a small tarpaulin. White Fang whined as he watched the operation.
Later on two Indians arrived. He watched them closely as they shouldered the luggage and were led off down the hill by Matt, who carried the bedding and the grip. But White Fang did not follow them. The master was still in the cabin. After a time, Matt returned. The master came to the door and called White Fang inside.
"You poor devil," he said gently, rubbing White Fang's ears and tapping his spine. "I'm hitting the long trail, old man, where you cannot follow. Now give me a growl — the last, good, good-bye growl."
But White Fang refused to growl. Instead, and after a wistful, searching look, he snuggled in, burrowing his head out of sight between the master's arm and body.
"There she blows!" Matt cried. From the Yukon arose the hoarse bellowing of a river steamboat. "You've got to cut it short. Be sure and lock the front door. I'll go out the back. Get a move on!"
The two doors slammed at the same moment, and Weedon Scott waited for Matt to come around to the front. From inside the door came a low whining and sobbing. Then there were long, deep-drawn sniffs.
"You must take good care of him, Matt," Scott said, as they started down the hill. "Write and let me know how he gets along."
"Sure," the dog-musher answered. "But listen to that, will you!"
Both men stopped. White Fang was howling as dogs howl when their masters lie dead. He was voicing an utter woe, his cry bursting upward in great heart-breaking rushes, dying down into quavering misery, and bursting upward again with a rush upon rush of grief.
The Aurora was the first steamboat of the year for the Outside, and her decks were jammed with prosperous adventurers and broken gold seekers, all equally as mad to get to the Outside as they had been originally to get to the Inside. Near the gang-plank, Scott was shaking hands with Matt, who was preparing to go ashore. But Matt's hand went limp in the other's grasp as his gaze shot past and remained fixed on something behind him. Scott turned to see. Sitting on the deck several feet away and watching wistfully was White Fang.
The dog-musher swore softly, in awe-stricken accents. Scott could only look in wonder.
"Did you lock the front door?" Matt demanded. The other nodded, and asked, "How about the back?"
"You just bet I did," was the fervent reply.
White Fang flattened his ears ingratiatingly, but remained where he was, making no attempt to approach.
"I'll have to take 'm ashore with me."
Matt made a couple of steps toward White Fang, but the latter slid away from him. The dog-musher made a rush of it, and White Fang dodged between the legs of a group of men. Ducking, turning, doubling, he slid about the deck, eluding the other's efforts to capture him.
But when the love-master spoke, White Fang came to him with prompt obedience.
"Won't come to the hand that's fed 'm all these months," the dog-musher muttered resentfully. "And you — you ain't never fed 'm after them first days of gettin' acquainted. I'm blamed if I can see how he works it out that you're the boss."
Scott, who had been patting White Fang, suddenly bent closer and pointed out fresh-made cuts on his muzzle, and a gash between the eyes.
Matt bent over and passed his hand along White Fang's belly.
"We plump forgot the window. He's all cut an' gouged underneath. Must 'a' butted clean through it, b'gosh!"
But Weedon Scott was not listening. He was thinking rapidly. The Aurora's whistle hooted a final announcement of departure. Men were scurrying down the gang-plank to the shore. Matt loosened the bandana from his own neck and started to put it around White Fang's. Scott grasped the dog-musher's hand.
"Good-bye, Matt, old man. About the wolf — you needn't write. You see, I've . . . !"
"What!" the dog-musher exploded. "You don't mean to say . . .?"
"The very thing I mean. Here's your bandana. I'll write to you about him."
Matt paused halfway down the gang-plank.
"He'll never stand the climate!" he shouted back. "Unless you clip 'm in warm weather!"
The gang-plank was hauled in, and the Aurora swung out from the bank. Weedon Scott waved a last good-bye. Then he turned and bent over White Fang, standing by his side.
"Now growl, damn you, growl," he said, as he patted the responsive head and rubbed the flattening ears.