The bottom’s likely to drop out at any moment. Only fools, with the blind luck of fools, could have made it. I tell you straight, I wouldn’t risk my carcass on that ice for all the gold in Alaska.
John warns Hal and his family that they shouldn’t attempt to cross the ice, since the ice is melting and they’ll likely fall through. John, an experienced gold hunter, offers this sound advice, which Hal, to his fatal detriment, promptly ignores. John, like Francois or Perrault, exemplifies a seasoned outdoorsman in the novella.
“If you strike that dog again, I’ll kill you,” he at last managed to say in a choking voice.
John stops Hal as he brutally beats Buck to tell him that he will kill Hal if he continues to strike the dog. John can see that Buck has become too tired to go on, and as such, Buck is at the utter mercy of Hal. John’s intervention serves as a turning point for Buck and a sign of John’s good nature and character.
“You poor devil,” said John Thornton, and Buck licked his hand.
As John and Buck watch Hal, Mercedes, Charles, and the family’s remaining dogs plunge into the icy water, John turns to Buck and affectionately calls him a “poor devil.” Buck returns the affection by licking John’s hand. This exchange initiates a beautiful friendship between man and dog as well as a crucial turning point in Buck’s life.
And often, such was the communion in which they lived, the strength of Buck’s gaze would draw John Thornton’s head around, and he would return the gaze, without speech, his heart shining out of his eyes as Buck’s heart shone out.
The way London describes John’s and Buck’s relationship gives a mystical tone: Their bond is so strong that John can sense when Buck is looking at him, a detail that also emphasizes the strength of Buck’s gaze. At the height of John’s and Buck’s relationship, they share an easy rapport—a testament to the purity of John’s love for Buck and his respect for animals in general.
John Thornton asked little of man or nature. He was unafraid of the wild. With a handful of salt and a rifle he could plunge into the wilderness and fare wherever he pleased and as long as he pleased.
After Buck “saves” John by winning enough money for John to pay off his debts, John becomes free of financial obligations and decides to pursue a fabled mine that supposedly contains a stash of gold that will make him incredibly rich. London’s description of John shows a man completely at ease with nature. John’s fearless adaptation to the wilderness makes him a master similar to Buck.
Thornton shook his head. “No, it is splendid, and it is terrible, too. Do you know, it sometimes makes me afraid.”
John tests Buck by commanding him to jump off a cliff, which Buck obeys before John stops him at the last minute. Buck luxuriates in his primitive, almost mystical connection with John, while John seems more confused and possibly scared of the implications of Buck’s devotion. In this way, John appears to have a less developed character than Buck, which seems surprising since Buck is a dog.
“That settles it,” he announced. “We camp right here.” And camp they did, till Buck’s ribs knitted and he was able to travel.
John puts Buck’s needs ahead of his team’s and makes the humane decision to camp and let Buck heal. Buck has just saved John from drowning in dangerous rapids and is battered and exhausted from the experience. Unlike Mercedes, whose sympathy lies only skin-deep, John possesses a deep and abiding respect for dogs.
“Pooh! pooh!” said John Thornton; “Buck can start a thousand pounds.”
John makes a spontaneous bet that Buck can get a thousand-pound sled moving without any help. As John technically possesses ownership of Buck, he can make this kind of wager. On a higher level, though, the wager also reflects John’s trust in Buck since John knows of Buck’s devotion and that Buck will feel proud to complete this feat for his master.
“As you love me, Buck. As you love me,” was what he whispered.
John kneels down to whisper these words to Buck as Buck attempts to start a thousand-pound sled to win a bet for John. John’s words are sophisticated and in no way patronize Buck as, for example, saying “good boy” or petting Buck would. Rather, John’s words exemplify the highly developed, noble, and almost sacred relationship between them.
“Sir,” he said to the Skookum Bench king, “no, sir. You can go to hell, sir. It’s the best I can do for you, sir.”
John tells the man who offers him a thousand dollars for Buck to “go to hell.” John feels overwhelmed not only by the fact that Buck completed an incredible feat but by the joy he feels from Buck’s devotion. John’s and Buck’s relationship is sealed with this act, and both have achieved a near-perfect relationship between animal and man.