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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
CHAPTER 6: For the Love of a Man
In this important chapter, Buck discovers what it means to be loved by both a man and a dog. John Thornton is a kind and loving master. He has set up camp in the Yukon because his feet had frozen during the previous December, and his partners left him behind. Because he is one of the "fit," he survived the harsh winter, recovering to some degree; with the warmer spring weather, he feels even better. Buck, too, will soon recuperate from his weakened state.
Before rescuing Buck, John Thornton had two dogs, Skeet and Nig; both of them easily accept the newcomer. In fact, Skeet, the little Irish Setter, washes Buck's wounds and mothers him. Nig, though he does not openly show his affection, is also very friendly. With the constant attention he receives, Buck slowly recuperates, regaining his former strength.
John Thornton is an "ideal master," who obviously loves his pets. He looks after his dogs as if they were his own children. He always has a kindly greeting for them and takes time to pay them attention. For the first time in his life, Buck feels "love, genuine passionate love," and openly displays his adoration of Thornton. With Judge Miller and his sons, the partnership had been a working one, based upon give and take. With Thornton, Skeet, and Nig, they expect nothing in return for the kindnesses they show.
In spite of his great love for Thornton, Buck is still drawn towards his natural instincts and his primitive past; it creates a conflict in him. Although he is faithful and devoted to Thornton, he desires to retain his "wildness," for he has learned the lessons of the Yukon at a high price; his scars are testimony to the hardships he has endured and the lessons that he has learned. He has to constantly keep himself in check in order not to "steal" from Thornton or fight with the dogs. Buck knows that creatures have to choose between being master or being mastered, between being a killer or being killed. He refuses to ever be cruelly mastered again. He has learned the law of the club and the fang and will never again be ruled by either.
Practically every day the wild seems to beckon to Buck. Often he would feel like turning his back on the fire and following the call. It is only his love for Thornton, the man who saved his life, that prevents him from returning to an existence in the wild. Buck, however, knows that Thornton loves and needs him. Thornton's partners, Hans and Pete, finally return with a raft to take Thornton and his dogs up river to Dawson. At first, Buck refuses to acknowledge either of these men, for he is loyal only to one master. To prove Buck's loyalty to his friends, Thornton tells Buck to jump into a chasm, and the dog quickly obeys, without a thought or ounce of fear.
Buck also does not hesitate to save Thornton's life on two different occasions. Once Black Burton, an evil tempered and malicious man, quarrels with Thornton, strikes him, and knocks him down. Buck, who is watching, springs on him, and eventually grabs Burton's throat. The man has to be rescued from Buck's hold by onlookers. Another time, a strong current overturns the boat in which Thornton is riding. Buck jumps into the water, and with all the strength at his command, he manages to swim to Thornton, but is helpless to pull his master and also swim the powerful rapids.
Thornton orders the dog back to shore, and Buck obeys. Then Hans and Pete tie a rope to Buck, and he swims out to Thornton again, rescuing him from sure death. Back on shore, Skeeter licks Buck's wounds and Thornton cares for his broken ribs. Thornton also refuses to break camp until the dog is healed.
Buck proves his loyalty to his master another time. Thornton bets a thousand dollars with a man named Matthewson that Buck can pull a sled packed with a thousand pounds for a hundred yards, even if the sled is frozen in snow. Soon the whole town is in on the bet. Before Buck begins, Thornton reminds the dog how much he loves him; Buck answers by taking his master's hand between his teeth, as if trying to tell him he will do his best. With the crowd watching, Buck pulls with all his might, and the sled inches forward. He then slips and falls in the snow; the crowd is certain he will lose the bet; but Buck is determined. He stands up again and begins to pull. Slowly but surely he moves the sled inch by inch until he completes the feat, not wanting to let Thornton down. The onlookers cannot believe their eyes and cheer for Buck's victory; they have never seen such strength and determination in a dog. When one of the bystanders offers to pay a thousand dollars for Buck, Thornton refuses the offer.
In this chapter, Buck learns another lesson -- the lesson of love given and love received freely and without obligation. When Thornton rescues Buck, he spends lots of time and patience caring for him and nursing him back to health. It is the first time Buck has ever felt so loved; in return, he has a feverish admiration for Thornton, who is the ideal dog owner. On two different occasions, he risks his own life to save Thornton; Buck feels it is the least he can do for the man who has saved him from sure death. He also saves Thornton's reputation when he pulls a sled loaded with a thousand pounds so that his master can win a thousand dollar bet.
In spite of all the love he feels for Thornton, Buck cannot forget the lessons he has learned about the wild. In nature, one must eat or be eaten, kill or be killed, master or be mastered. He never again wants to become soft or lose his primitive identity. At night he often hears the call of the wild, and it is only his love for Thornton that holds him back.