Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
A Russian Wolf-Hunt
By Thomas Wallace Knox (18351896)
[Born in Pembroke, N. H., 1835. Died in New York, N. Y., 1896. Overland through Asia. 1870.]
THE BEST parts of Russia for wolf-hunting are in the western governments, where there is less game and more population than in Siberia. It is in these regions that travellers are sometimes pursued by wolves, but such incidents are not frequent. It is only in the severest winters, when driven to desperation by hunger, that the wolves dare to attack men. The horses are the real objects of their pursuit, but when once a party is overtaken the wolves make no nice distinctions, and horses and men are alike devoured. Apropos of hunting I heard a story of a thrilling character.
It had been (said the gentleman who narrated the incident) a severe winter in Vitebsk and Vilna. I had spent several weeks at the country residence of a friend in Vitebsk, and we heard, during the latter part of my stay, rumors of the unusual ferocity of the wolves.
We prepared a sledge, one of the common kind, made of stout withes, woven like basket-work, and firmly fastened to the frame and runners. It was wide enough for both of us and the same height all around, so that we could shoot in any direction except straight forward. We took a few furs to keep us warm, and each had a short gun of large bore, capable of carrying a heavy load of buckshot. Rifles are not desirable weapons where one cannot take accurate aim. As a precaution we stowed two extra guns in the bottom of the sledge.
The driver, Ivan, on learning the business before him, was evidently reluctant to go, but as a Russian servant has no choice beyond obeying his master, the man offered no objection. Three spirited horses were attached, and I heard Kanchin order that every part of the harness should be in the best condition.
We kept the pig in furs at the bottom of the sledge, and drove silently into the forest. The last order given by Kanchin was to open the gates of the courtyard and hang a bright lantern in front. I asked the reason of this, and he replied with a smile:
As by mutual consent, neither uttered a word as we drove along. We carried no bells, and there was no creaking of any part of the sledge. Ivan did not speak, but held his reins taut and allowed the horses to take their own pace. In his secure and warm covering the pig was evidently asleep. The moon and stars were perfectly unclouded, and there was no motion of anything in the forest. The road was excellent, but we did not meet or pass a single traveller. I do not believe I ever felt silence more forcibly than then.
The forest in that region is not dense, and on either side of the road there is a space of a hundred yards or more entirely open. The snow lay crisp and sparkling, and as the country was but slightly undulating we could frequently see long distances. The apparent movement of the trees as we drove past them caused me to fancy the woods filled with animate forms to whom the breeze gave voices that mocked us.
About eight versts from the house we reached a cross-road that led deeper into the forest. Na prava, in a low voice from my companion, turned us to the right into the road. Eight or ten versts further Kanchin, in the same low tone, commanded Stoi. Without a word Ivan drew harder upon his reins, and we came to a halt. At a gesture from my friend the team was turned about.
Kanchin stepped carefully from the sledge and asked me to hand him the rope attached to the cage. He tied this to the rear cross-bar, and removing his cloak told me to do the same. Getting our guns, ammunition, and ourselves in readiness, and taking our seats with our backs toward the driver, we threw out the pig and his cage and ordered Ivan to proceed.
The first cry from the pig awoke an answering howl in a dozen directions. The horses sprang as if struck with a heavy hand, and I felt my blood chill at the dismal sound. The driver with great difficulty kept his team from breaking into a gallop.
The wolf was distinctly visible on the clean snow, and I allowed him to approach within twenty yards. I fired, and he fell. As I turned to reload Kanchin raised his gun to shoot a wolf approaching the right of the sledge. His shot was successful, the wolf falling dead upon the snow.
I reloaded very quickly, and when I looked up there were three wolves running toward me, while as many more were visible on Kanchins side. My companion raised his eyes when his gun was ready and gave a start that thrilled me with horror. Ivan was immovable in his place, and holding with all his might upon the reins.
The driver did not need Kanchins shout of poshol! and the horses exerted every nerve without being urged. But with all our speed we could not outstrip the wolves that grew every moment more numerous. If we could only keep up our pace we might escape, but should a horse stumble, the harness give way, or the sledge overturn, we were hopelessly lost. We threw away our furs and cloaks, keeping only our arms and ammunition. The wolves hardly paused over these things, but steadily adhered to the pursuit.
Suddenly I thought of a new danger that menaced us. I grasped Kanchins arm and asked how we could turn the corner into the main road. Should we attempt it at full speed the sledge would be overturned. If we slackened our pace the wolves would be upon us.
When I say the word, he replied, giving me his hunting-knife, lean over and cut the rope of the decoy. That will detain them a short time. Soon as you have done so, lie down on the left side of the sledge and cling to the cords across the bottom.
Then turning to Ivan he ordered him to slacken speed a little, but only a little, at the corner, and keep the horses from running to either side as he turned. This done, Kanchin clung to the left side of the sledge prepared to step upon its fender and counteract, if possible, our centrifugal force.
I whipped off the rope in an instant and we left our decoy behind us. The wolves stopped, gathered densely about the prize, and began quarrelling over it. Only a few remained to tear the cage asunder. The rest, after a brief halt, continued the pursuit, but the little time they lost was of precious value to us.
We approached the dreaded turning. Kanchin placed his feet upon the fender and fastened his hands into the network of the sledge. I lay down in the place assigned me, and never did drowning man cling to a rope more firmly than I clung to the bottom of our vehicle. As we swept around the corner the sledge was whirled in air, turned upon its side, and only saved from complete oversetting by the positions of Kanchin and myself.
Just as the sledge righted, and ran upon both runners, I heard a piercing cry. Ivan, occupied with his horses, was not able to cling like ourselves; he fell from his seat, and hardly struck the snow before the wolves were upon him. That one shriek that filled my ears was all he could utter.
The reins were trailing, but fortunately where they were not likely to be entangled. The horses needed no driver; all the whips in the world could not increase their speed. Two of our guns were lost as we turned from the by-road, but the two that lay under me in the sledge were providentially saved. We fired as fast as possible into the dark mass that filled the road not twenty yards behind us. Every shot told, but the pursuit did not lag. To-day I shudder as I think of that surging mass of gray forms with eyes glistening like fireballs, and the serrated jaws that opened as if certain of a feast.
As we approached home our horses gave signs of lagging, and the pursuing wolves came nearer. One huge beast sprang at the sledge and actually fastened his fore paws upon it. I struck him over the head with my gun and he released his hold.
A moment later I heard the barking of our dogs at the house, and as the gleam of the lantern caught my eye I fell unconscious to the bottom of the sledge. I woke an hour later and saw Kanchin pacing the floor in silence. Repeatedly I spoke to him, but he answered only in monosyllables.
The next day, a party of peasants went to look for the remains of poor Ivan. A few shreds of clothing, and the cross he wore about his neck, were all the vestiges that could be found. For three weeks I lay ill with a fever and returned to St. Petersburg immediately on my recovery. Kanchin has lived in seclusion ever since, and both of us were gray-haired within six months.