Saturday, February 11, 1905, will be remembered as one of the coldest days ever experienced in Teton County, Mont. The storm had been building up for several days, preparatory to making this day a "topnotcher" for a cold spell. On this particular day the thermometer at Choteau registered at 46 degrees below zero. At this time I was traveling with a horse and buggy for a Chicago house, and had been held up by the storm for several days at Choteau. The town of Choteau is 28 miles north of another town by the name of Augusta. At that time there was but one house between the two towns, and that was about one mile off the road down in the river bottom, and was reached by going through several heavy gates. This farm was said to be fifteen miles long, beginning at this house and reaching that distance down the river to the South Fork of the Sun River where their headquarters ranch was located.
On my trip up to these two towns I had stopped over Sunday with a ranchman living about five miles southwest of Augusta by the name of Ostrom, and who requested that on my return I should stop with him again, and as he was royal good fellow, I decided to get to his place if I could that day.
By 2 P. M. on the 11th, the storm had ceased, the sun came and wind became still.
I made up my mind that I could drive the thirty three miles even if it was cold, and part of the drive would be after night; then I could be with my new found friend over Sunday again, besides, I would gain one day.
I sent word to the liveryman to have my horse hitched up and ready by 3 o'clock P.M., as I would rather drive at once than run the risk of again be delayed by a renewal of the storm.
I was on time and stepped into the buggy much against the advice of several "old timers" around the hotel and livery barn, as it was reported that grey wolves had been driven from the mountains into the foothills by the heavy snows and the extreme cold weather and were prowling over the country in a half-starved condition, hunting in packs from five up, which they always do, as I learned when prey is scarce. And at such times they will attack anything that they think will satisfy their hunger. Not only were the wolves dangerous they claimed, but [the] snow would be drifted, and never having been over the "trail" but once before, I would scarcely be able to keep the trail for in crossing that wide bench of prairie, there is not a tree, house, hill or object of any kind, by which you can be guided or find your way back, once you get off the road: just as far as the eye can see it is one monotonous plain.
But I had made up my mind to go. I had started and driven about one mile; the sun was low but shining bright and clear; two sun dogs were keeping it company.
I was just passing the last ranch house before leaving that settlement when I cast my eye toward a feed lot and saw two deer feeding with the cattle. I made up my mind that they had become hungry and like the wolves had come down where snow was less deep, and food more plentiful. I drove on until the house was between them and myself, got out and went and told the ranchman, who was on his feet in a moment: we went out and crept to the barn, and had a good view. He wanted me to shoot, but I had not shot a gun for several years, and not being used to his gun, thought he had better try it. He took aim and brought down one of them; the other one dodging among the cattle, made its escape.
The deer was about four years old and had a very nice set of horns, which I asked for and was told that I could have, and the entire carcass too; but that was out of question as I had several grips and some grain in the buggy, and with the deep snow and long drive ahead of me, did not want to overload my horse. I told him I would take the hide and head. We set to work at once to take off the hide which was soon done. We took the carcass to the kitchen. His wife had begun their dinner and nothing would do but I should have cup of hot coffee with them, and as they pressed the invitation so urgently I could do nothing else but accept.
I should have refrained and gone on instead of taking up the daylight which, later, I found I needed very much, and which came near costing me my life; but as it was I took the cup of coffee, and while doing so, the hospitable wife had cut off and was frying a choice piece of our recently acquired venison, so of course I stayed for that.
When dinner was over it had long been dark, but I preceded to arrange for carrying the hide and head. I found there was room for the head only in the buggy, so I strapped the hide across the horse's whithers and fastened it to the frames on side. I was then ready to start again on my long, cold journey. They told me to stay, and claimed that the danger of becoming lost was far greater than the danger of the wolves but I was afraid of neither, as I had a good strong 5-year old horse, 16 hands high and weighing about 1200 pounds, long limbs with strong bone and full of life, and under ordinary circumstances I could have driven to my destination in three or four hours, and thought then that possibly only an hour extra or two would be all that I would need. By long standing my horse had gotten cold, and when I got in we made good time for the first couple of miles. The air seemed perfectly still, and although it was intensely cold, I did not feel it much as I was thickly dressed, wore a heavy face shield with goggles, and a pair of fur gloves over a pair of kid gloves.
The snow lay in drifts over the ground and the road was not hard to see, as every where on either side was growing sage brush that projected a few inches above the snow. I was now approaching a large curve in the road that made a half-circle, and as I was late, I thought I would cut off a little distance and time by taking a short cut; but when I had gotten about half way across, my horse all of a sudden went into the snow nearly to his back, and began lunging and finally freed himself by breaking one tug and both snaps attached to the holdback straps. I had driven into an irrigating ditch that had become filled with snow; the horse as soon as free, quieted down. After mending the harness as best I could, I tied the lines to the buggy and to the sound tug and pulled it across the ditch. This took another hour, but it made me more determined than ever to go on.
I was scarcely out of sight where I had started. But I had a fine deer's head, hide, and quite a little chunk of venison for my friend's dinner the next day, and naturally I felt like pushing on, although I began to realize that it would, in all probability be near morning before I would get there, as the snow was getting a little worse than I had expected after I had gotten out of town. For one to properly realize just the situation, who has never lived in this country, I wish to say that in the eight winters I have been here I have never seen a snowfall that was not accompanied with more less wind, and sometimes a pretty strong wind at that, the latter being true when this snow fell.
The atmosphere is so dry that what snow does fall is very light and dry and is easily blown into drifts or into the coulees until the low spots or ravines are filled up to the level of the general surface, but where there is a large level surface extending for a great distance the snow will form into drifts which I will describe a little farther on.
After getting hitched up, I drove on to the road and after that one experience, not only for that day, but ever since, (when snow was on the ground) I have tried to keep in the road, instead of trying to get off of it. Soon after getting into the road again, I came to a long hill that led up on to a high bench that was broken but once between there and the town of Augusta; that was where the Sun river ran through it, and it was on this river where the one house was (mentioned in first of this writing.)
I found this hill very long and tedious, having to stop every hundred feet or so to give the horse his wind; I would have turned back here but I expected to find the road more open after reaching the high bench and where I could make better time.
After finally getting to the summit, about two miles from the foot of the hill, I had a fairly open road for a short distance, but I soon came to where the snow was drifted diagonally across the road; the drifts would be from twenty to twenty-five feet across, then there would be a clear road for something like forty or fifty feet, the drifts beginning at a feather edge would get thicker until they would be fifteen or eighteen inches deep in the center, then running down to a feather edge again on the other side.
By this time it was probably 12 o'clock or after; I drove into one of the drifts and stopped the horse, took out some oats and set it on the snow in a little box I had with me, in front of the horse and let him have his midnight dinner; it was still intensely cold.
When the horse was done, I drove on. Owing to the continual drifts, I could only go in a slow walk, as to go faster would soon wear out the horse, and I did not want to do that, for I had began to realize the danger of the trip.
Thus we plodded along, 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock, and we scarcely seemed to make any headway. I was feeling chilly and was truly wishing I had not started till morning; but on we went. It will not be long till morning, it must be five o'clock and after; the horse does not seem at all tired for he often steps now more briskly than he did a mile back, it can't be many miles to Sun River; then five miles to Augusta. All at once the horse stops, so do the wheels and their noises; what was that? A long deep bay - far away - I had heard it once before some years previous - and knew at once that it was the voice of the grey wolf - for once heard you will never forget it. What is it like? I can't describe it, but it is something like this: a long coarse howl with a quiver or tremor to it, not loud nor strong but reaching far and seems to roll along the ground just behind you, gives you the feeling that you want to look back to see how near it is to you, although you may know it is a mile or more away, then when you hear it again you feel like stepping a little quicker. I could not get the direction from which it came. The horse wanted to go but I held him in, and stood up with my head above the top of the buggy so as to get the direction when the next bay was sounded. I had not long to wait, it came from behind us. I was just as anxious now to let the horse go, as he was to go.
I was not certain that the wolf was on our trail but I touched the house with the lines and off he went in a trot. Up and down, up and down, we went, over drift after drift, and drift lay so that the right wheel would go up first and about the time the right fore wheel started down the left fore wheel would start up, not only making the vehicle in a continual twist, but made it very hard on the horse, especially when going faster than a walk, as the speed caused the wheels to cut considerable distance into the snow at the deeper points. Although the snow in this country is light yet it is very fine and by continually blowing along the dry ground it becomes slightly mixed with dust and packs quite firmly when drifted, not enough to bear up the weight of a man, but would bear up about half that much, making it very fatiguing for a horse to keep continually breaking through and having the buggy do the same.
I was not very uneasy but thought it best to get to the lone ranch house as soon as possible which I thought could be but a few miles - possibly six or eight, at farthest. We were going at a clip that would make a mile at least six or eight minutes and I thought my horse could easily hold out that distance at present gait; and as to Mr. Wolf, if he was on our trail he would have to work up a little "Rooseveltian strenousity" to get dangerously near us - then I had a little 22 rifle along with me that the liveryman in Choteau had borrowed from a Doctor in Augusta and which I was to return to the owner - then too if I was too greatly pressed I could toss out the deer's head and that would satisfy the wolf.
We jogged along a mile or so, then stopped to listen, the sound was much closer - giving the horse a free rein he instantly dashed forward without farther urging, and I believe he realized more fully than I did, the danger we were in, for he was quite nervous and anxious to go.
I had been bundled up with my lap robe (a hide tanned with the hair left on), my overcoat, fur gloves and so far had been content but now I saw I was up against something else besides the cold - something too that was much more aggressive - so as I drove along I arranged my lap robe so it would not entangle my feet, pulled off my goggles and hat and put on a heavy cap, took out the little gun. I drew out the magazine and counted the shells. I had six, replacing them I put the gun back into its scabbard and swung it over my back to prevent it from being thrown out by the swaying of the buggy and to have it handy, then I took out my note book, tore out a page and scratched down the date as best I could, signed my name and said I was chased by wolves, then tied it to the handle of one of my grips - for it was my intention then to lighten the horse's load by tossing out everything heavy in case we became closely pressed. Now as I look back over that night, I see how little I knew about what I should have done at the very first warning and which I was finally compelled to do before the race was over to save both myself and the horse.
After arranging the note I picked up the partially filled sack of grain and threw it out, and again stopped the horse to listen - the keen yelps that I heard told me too plainly that they were after us and not over a quarter of a mile back. Then I learned that there was more than one, for I could detect at least three different voices, and those voices were no longer a bay of warning - but the keen yelp of pursuit. I listened but a moment and I noticed that my horse was breathing heavily and was pretty tired, but still anxious to go; standing still would do us no good, so I started him on again and would think out some definite plan as we kept going, they were coming at a gait that would overtake us within the next quarter of half mile. I saw it was useless to pit the horse's speed and endurance against them and him attached to the buggy - something else must be done at once.
My first thought was to wait till they came up then pick them off with the gun when they would venture close enough; for with the snow on the ground and stars shining I could see quite plainly; but I soon abandon that for the reason, that the horse might become unmanageable either from the wolves or from the firing of the gun and might upset the buggy, throw me out and the wolves would be on me before I could use the gun or defend myself in any way.
My next thought (and the one I put into action) as to get the horse free from the buggy and get on him - but how was I to do it? The savage yelping packing was now right behind us not over one or two hundred yards, I could plainly hear them above the sound of the vehicle and running of the horse (for he had quit his trotting some distance back and was going in a run.) It took me but a moment to decide what to do. I took out my pocket knife and cut the piece of venison I had, into four pieces, then I cut the lap robe in the same number of pieces then wrapped one piece of meat in each piece of robe, so it would require them some time to get at the meat, and thus give me a little extra time.
I tossed each piece out in rapid succession, then last of all threw out the deer's head. I put my knife in my pocket for I sure did not want to lose it just then. The ends of the lines were buckled together. These I doubled forward in such a manner that they formed a loop, this loop I placed over my left wrist and drew it tight. It thus served two purposes. The lines could not get away from me; neither could the horse get away. I knew there was some risk to it, but just then it was all risk anyway, and I thought the chances of being dragged to death by the horse was less certain and probably no more painful than to be devoured by the wolves. The horse was my only means of escape and I did not intend to let him get away. To let him escape was probably sure death, this way it was only a half chance one way or the other.
I heard them stop when they came to the meat, it was now my chance to get as far from them as possible. I thought they would not tarry long. The single tree was of the kind made with a flattened end with a hole in it. The tug slipped over the end, then a small strip of leather passed through this hold the outside of the tug to keep it from slipping off. I reached over the dashboard and pulled out the strips of leather, then stepping with one foot on the crossbar and single tree, the other foot in the buggy. I spoke several times to the horse to pacify him and at the same I put my hand gently on his hips, this I stood until we passed over several drifts and when we reached a clear spot while the buggy was not in such violent motion, I made a spring and was securely on his back in a moment. He paid no attention to this proceeding as he was as thoroughly broken to ride as was to work.
Taking out my knife I cut the holdback straps then reached back with my foot and pushed one of the tugs off the single tree, the other one coming off as soon as that was done.
We were now free from the buggy and the wolves must be a good half mile behind; but I could hear them coming again. One thing still bothered the horse - the loose tugs. The backband was in my way of sitting, so I reached down and cut the girth just below the tug, then I cut each tug just in front of the girth. This let the backband and tugs both fall off. All this time I had not slackened speed; but now, should I put the horse to his top speed and try to outrun them, or should I keep him at his long steady leaps and try to reach that house? It was not far away now for we were already at the brow of the long downhill slope toward the river - about two miles away. Going down the hill - would it be to the advantage of the horse or the wolves? Which would gain or lose? Dogs have long fore legs and can run very rapidly down hill and I judges wolves were about the same - while a horse cannot run quite so well down hill, so I made up my mind that the wolves would gain on us anyway and that it would not be best to strain the horse by crowding him, so I slackened his speed slightly, expecting to make it up when we reached the level bottom - so down we went at a little slower gait and had gotten not over half way down until I heard them come over the turn of the hill, yelping more fiercely than ever, and before we reached the level land they were almost to the horse's heals.
They came down the hill with terrific speed and noise. It seemed that each one was trying to out do the other. I looked back and could plainly see them coming single file and there appeared to be six or seven instead of about three as I had been figuring. So here was a new situation, but a much graver one than I had been calculating. The more wolves you get in a gang, the more savage and daring they are. The gate I was to turn in at was not over a quarter of a mile away. If it was open I could get through, but the wolves were too close to me now to attempt to dismount or even slacken up if I had to stop to open it. I had gone through it as I went up and knew it was made of galvanized barbed wire and was at least six feet high, and knew it was out of the question to attempt to run the horse through such a gate as that. If it was open I would turn in - if not - what then?
I was at least five miles yet to Augusta. There was a bridge across Sun river a little farther on, less than a half mile. It was built high above the river. Would the wolves cross it? The gate might be open. I could see the gate posts standing high above the fence posts, and as we neared it I pulled the horse a little to the right (the gate was on the left) so as to circle in if it was open. No, it was closed. We dashed by it. The bridge was the next hinging point. How would it turn out? A new idea struck me at this point. The scheme was not new, as I had read it many years ago.
If a strap was trailed along the ground the wolves would not go closer than they end of it. So reaching forward I unsnapped the lines from either side of the bridle bits, then I held them in readiness for the opportune moment to throw one end back while I held the other. I thought that just as I was ready to go into the bridge would be a good time as the bridge would strike them with a little awe anyway and the strap would add still more to their terror and probably stop them there. They had been running along for some time about, one hundred feet behind us and it seemed that they were making no special effort to get closer. Just what they were up to I could not understand, as they had ceased their yelping. When I went to undo the lines I made a very important discovery - something that I had overlooked, or rather had forgotten. It was the deer's hide yet fastened to the harness.
As we neared the river, the wolves evidently saw the bridge and probably thought it a shelter for us in which they could not get us, for all of a sudden they made a forward dash as for the last attempt and when they were almost at the horse's heels and just before we reached the approach of the bridge, I threw the line and it began trailing, the end bouncing and flapping here and there. They stopped as suddenly as if a gun had been fired in their faces. On across the bridge we went and I felt profound satisfaction that they had been baffled.
Going up the slope after crossing the bridge I let the horse walk for I knew he must be pretty tired. I looked back and could see them still there but circling around. Presently I heard a yelp, then another. I had not outwitted them after all for they had gone down the bank and had crossed on the ice, and were in hot pursuit of us again, but I had gained about a quarter of mile and given my horse a good breathing spell.
I was almost to my wit's end to know what to do for I had no idea that the horse could carry me and either out run or out wind them. No one would be traveling that time of day especially on Sunday morning when it was that cold. I made up my mind that I would push the horse to a speed only that he could endure till we reached town. To go faster than that would cause him to drop in his tracks, then all the scheming in the world would not save us from death. But as long as I was on him he could keep getting us nearer where help was and I might fool them one way or the other until something turned up. We were now on the level again and I let him go only at his long swing run and he got over the ground very rapidly. I had pulled up the trailing line and folded it over my left arm.
Then I cut a strip off the deer hide (for the heat of the horse had kept it from freezing) about a foot wide and full length and fastened by pieces back on the harness. By this time the wolves were as near us as before crossing the bridge. Again I threw down the line and let it trail, this had the effect of making them drop back a short distance, but not for long, for in a little while they worked a new tactic on me. They divided into three groups. One on each side sprang to the front of the others and came almost alongside the horse but about thirty or forty feet out away from him. I divined in a moment that my strap was not such a success after all. I wished that I had stopped on the bridge, for I very much doubt if they would have gone on to it. But that was now out of the question and something else had to be done. I counted them, there were eight. I saw by the last movement that it was their intention to surround the horse. There are three vulnerable spots that wolves or coyotes always attack in cattle and horses. They either cut their throats or ham strings, or attack the body in the flank. A wolf need only make a few leaps and cuts with their sharp fangs in the flank of a horse or cow until they disembowel them, after which the animal soon drops and is easy prey.
I drew up the strap and tied the strip of deer's hide to it and then let it drop again. They all dropped back a little. Those on either side joining those in the rear but as before, they soon divided and two came up alongside. All this time since they caught up with us after crossing the river they made but little noise and they gauged their gait to that of the horse. They were evidently trying to figure out what it meant by me riding on the horse, for when those two came up beside us, they paid no attention to the horse, but seemed to look altogether at me.
During this time I was cutting the deer hide into strips and chunks leaving it fastened together only by very small strips. I was preparing to throw them a piece at a time as a last resort, but just then we were getting toward safety at a pretty fair gait and I was quite well satisfied to let it remain that way as long as possible. Presently one of them from the rear came bounding past and considerable to one side passed clear around the horse and dropped back to the rear. From the ease with which he caught up with and passed the horse it was very plain that the horse could not have gotten away from them by down running. In a few moments this fellow repeated his circling of the horse but came slightly closer and remained in front of the horse. He was evidently figuring out an attacking point. I drew up the line with the strips still attached as they seemed no longer to notice it. The situation was quite critical. I was not sufficiently versed in aiming a gun while on horseback or I might have tried to shoot. And too, I did not have as many shells as there were wolves.
I could see the gray dawn of the coming day dimly shooting up in the east. In thirty minutes more it would be daylight.
I was considerably disconcerted that they were not more afraid of my trailing strap, and I could not make up my mind what to do next. I was racking my brain and nerve what to do when all of a sudden half the pack from the rear came bounding up to our side, half on one side and half on the other. The two that had been at the side passed up even with the horse's head. They were now snarling and snapping and working each other into fury. I expected every moment for them to act in concert and tackle the horse, and I think he expected the same for as they came up he redoubled his efforts. I did not like for him to do this although I would not myself have known what to do had I been on the ground with them as he was. We were not over two miles from town, but in that distance they could easily tackle and kill the horse. They were all gradually closing in on us. Even the one in front was slowing slacking his speed so that he was a little nearer the horse's fore feet. He kept his head turned looking back all the time so as to keep out of reach of the horse's feet.
How much longer the horse could hold out, I did not know, but it seemed to me that another quarter of a mile would be his limit if indeed he could hold out that long. I have not the remotest idea but the wolves knew just as well as I did how near exhausted he was, and in all probability the wolf in front of him was there for the very purpose of listening to his breathing and may have had some mode of signaling, for they seemed to understand each other. Those in the rear did not follow after the horse in a direct line but were moving in a circle from left to right just a few feet back of his heels. What that was for I do not know, unless it was to urge the next one a little closer so that finally by gradually working closer and seeing there was no danger they would attempt to cut his ham strings. At the same time those on the side would "flank" him and those in front attack his throat.
They had a way of lowering their heads and jerking them right and left as they snarled and snapped, that gave them a hideous appearance. Their noise under such circumstances was enough to take the nerve out of any living thing that cared at all for their lives. Their tongues were hanging out, their mouths open and froth was flying from their snapping jaws. Their breath had frozen on their shoulders till they were white. A man had no more chance with them than if he had fallen into a red hot seething volcano. On we went for another quarter of a mile, the horse going at his utmost speed. I could feel him quaking and swaying as he ran. His leaps were getting shorter and his occasional stumble and uncertain motion told me that his muscles were exhausted and that the end was near.
I took the strip of deer hide that was fastened to the line and got it ready but did not throw it. I still had the gun on my back in the scabbard. Quickly drawing it, I fired in rapid succession without taking aim, first on the right side in front then the left, then both sides opposite the horse's hips, giving a keen yell after each shot. This had the effect of stampeding the whole pack as I had anticipated it would, but I knew also that it would be only momentary. Grabbing the hide that I had partially cut up, I turned the flesh side out and dropped it; then I slung back the strip that was attached to the lines and let it trail.
Then taking the gun in my left hand, with my right hand hold of the horse's mane and the gun resting on the horse's back behind me, I drew myself up so I was sitting in a squatting position on my feet and watching for a good opportunity to jump into a snow drift. I thought it would be safer than to remain on the horse, and if I could make a clear leap of eight or ten feet I would be all right. I could then hear the wolves tearing and snarling at the hide. If they attempted to follow the horse their recent eating and tearing the hide would deaden their sense of smell for a few moments, and if they could still have their acute smell the trailing strip attached to the harness would be more noticeable than I would, for as soon as I would light I would be buried in the snow.
My chance soon came, and I lit in snow about eighteen inches deep and quickly arranging myself as near invisible as possible, laid perfectly quiet. Scarcely ten seconds of time had elapsed till I heard them passing. I was too deep in the snow to see. They were making no noise except their breathing and noise of their feet in the snow. I lay for a few seconds after the blood-thirsty pack had passed. At no time in all the long chase did I feel the strain I felt while lying there.
It was getting much lighter. I peeped up very cautiously and seeing the coast was clear I stood for a moment before stepping to the road. I could scarcely realize that I was safe and was just thinking what would be the fate of the horse when I heard several shots fired. I was right at a turn in the road where it ran around a knoll.
When I reached this turn I saw two men on horseback coming my way from toward town, their horses on a dead run and wolves just ahead of them; but the tables were turned and wolves were in full retreat. They were coming right up the road. I had an idea that the fight was all out of them and that if I stood my ground they would turn out to one side, but I was not certain about it, and then the fight was about all out of myself too for I was not yet over my recent experience. I jumped to one side and knelt down as much as I could behind a snowdrift and held my gun in readiness. I let the first three of four go by and seeing they did not observe me I let go the two remaining shells I had which did no damage as I could see. The wolves scattered and too across the country toward the mountains. The men came up and one of them took me on behind him.
The man living in the lone ranch house near the bridge on Sun river had heard the wolves and went out of doors to listen. He heard the horse cross the bridge and was so certain that it was some person that was being chased so he telephoned down to their headquarters ranch by a little town name Rhoner [?] and they telephoned up to Augusta and told them what he thought was up. So these two men came out to meet us. One of them was liveryman, the other a saloon keeper. The former took charge of my horse and so well did he know how to treat him that after two or three days he seemed as good as ever and as for myself - the saloonman showed his heart was in the right place by taking me into the hotel and ordering the best meal they could get up (and would not let me pay for it, either) and that afternoon they drove me up to my friend's where I stayed a couple days to get my nerves properly settled. The end.