“A Race By Motorcycle Against Timber Wolves.“
By Hal Ross
During my career as a motorcyclist I have been through many interesting experiences, some of them amusing, some rather startling—owing to a rather daring streak in my makeup. But all of them fade into comparative insignificance when I think of one trip I made through a sparsely settled district in Montana early in 1912. That journey stands out as the great adventure of my life. Even now when I think of it my hair has a habit of standing up straight, and cool little chills turkey-trot up and down my spine. To begin at the beginning and make a long story as short as possible, it is probably sufficient to say that my home is in New Jersey, which is a pretty definite location when one is speaking of the United States. During the summer of 1911, my friend and companion on many a motorcycle trip, Charlie Morton, removed to a lumbering camp about fifty or sixty miles from Livingston, Montana, being somewhere in the general neighborhood of Gulch City. Before leaving he made me promise that I would visit him as soon as it could conveniently be arranged and that I should make the trip on a motorcycle. He had disposed of his machine and said that he would look eagerly forward to my visit. During the latter part of January, 1912, I had occasion to journey to Chicago and decided to continue West and fulfill my promise as soon as my business there had been transacted.
After a lot of pretty rough going—owing to the miserable condition of the roads—I reached Livingston one morning nearly worn out but with a high opinion of the stability and general adaptability of my mount. Nothing but an exceptionally fine piece of mechanism could have withstood the terrible strain of that cross-country trip from Chicago. My friend, Morton, had made arrangements to meet me in Livingston. He rushed up with his usual smile, but after we had exchanged greetings he lost no time in telling me that he was anxious to get back to the camp. He had come to Livingston in a wagon the day before and had sent the wagon back to camp with the driver. I was somewhat puzzled as to how he expected to make the homeward trip until he offered to purchase a sidecar to be used with my motorcycle. I agreed, of course, although I had misgivings over the probable roughness of the roads ahead of us, and without more ado Morton looked up a dealer and slapped down the price of a third-wheeler.
The sidecar was attached at a local garage and loaded with “yours truly," a sack of flour, some bacon, coffee and beans, a blanket or two, several sticks of dynamite, or “giant powder” as it is known in that section, a couple of picks and shovels, and other odds and ends. In all we had quite a load. The first forty miles of the road led entirely over hills, zigzagging up one side of a mountain only to zigzag down the other—with a dense growth of pine and tamarack and cedar on both sides wreathed here and there in mist. After an uneventful run we were finally clear of the foothills and riding over comparatively level ground. The tall forest trees gave place to a wilderness of thick underbrush, by now lying black in the evening air. There had been little snow there that winter, so that even in the gulches and on the bottoms the exposed ground was barely covered; while, on the slopes, the snow had almost entirely disappeared, leaving only rugged patches of white under overhanging boughs and thick brush, and a thin coating of ice in the inequalities of the hard, frost-bound trail, making very treacherous traveling. As we reached a point about twenty miles from camp, and just as I suggested lighting the lamp, Morton suddenly exclaimed, “Look who’s here!” At the same moment my heart nearly stopped and then pounded rapidly with excitement. There had been no warning; it was as if they had deliberately lain in ambush for us at a turn in the trail; they seemed suddenly and silently to rise on all sides of the machine at once.
It is not often that the gray timber wolves, or “black wolves,” as the mountaineers call them, are seen hunting in packs, though the animal is plentiful enough among the foothills of the Rockies. As a general rule they are met with singly or in pairs. At the end of a long and severe winter, however, they sometimes come together in bands of fifteen or twenty: and every old mountaineer has a tale to tell —perhaps of his own narrow escape from one of their fierce packs, perhaps of some friend of his who started one day in winter to travel alone from camp, and whose clean picked bones were found beside the trail long afterward. Out of the earth and the shadow of the bushes, the grim, dark forms seemed to rise on all sides of us. There was not a sound—— not a snap nor a snarl; but in the gathering twilight of the February evening, we saw them moving noiselessly over the thin coat of snow which covered the ground. In the uncertain light, and moving as rapidly as we did, it was impossible to guess how many there were. An animal which was one moment in plain sight. would, the next moment, be lost in the shadow of the bushes, while two or more dark, silent forms would edge up to take its place. So, on both sides of us, they kept appearing and disappearing. In the rear, a half dozen jostled one another to push up near to the flying motorcycle—a black mass that filled the whole width of the trail. Behind these again, others, less clearly visible, crossed and recrossed the roadway from side to side. There might be twenty in all—or thirty—or forty. It was impossible to tell.
For a minute I did not think of the danger. The individual wolf is the most skulking and cowardly of animals, and only by some such experience as we had that night does one learn that wolves can be dangerous. But soon stories of the old mountaineers came crowding into my mind, as Morton sent the motorcycle slipping, sliding. plunging wildly along the narrow trail, while the ghostlike forms glided patiently alongside—appearing, disappearing and reappearing. The silent persistency with which, apparently without effort, they kept pace beside the flying motorcycle was horrible. Even a bowl or a yelp or a growl would have been a relief. But not so much as the sound of their footfalls on the snow was to be heard. At the first sight of the wolves I had drawn my revolver, which always snuggles close to my hip when I am traveling through strange territory. Morton had opened wide the muffler, which had caused the wolves to vanish for a few seconds, and was entirely occupied with getting the motorcycle as speedily as possible over the rough and narrow trail. “Have you a gun?" I shouted in his ear. A negative shake of the head was all the answer. So we must trust to the six cartridges in my revolver. "How many wolves are there, do you suppose" again I called. Again he shook his head as if to say he could not guess. So the minutes passed and we swept on, slipping and sliding, rising and falling and swaying with the inequalities of the trail. The dark forms, growing more indistinct each minute, were hanging doggedly to the machine.
Suddenly I became aware that a wolf was almost at my elbow; its head was on a level with my waist as I sat in the low sidecar. In the darkness I could plainly see the white teeth, and the dim circle of the eyes. I hardly had to lean over at all to place the muzzle of the revolver within a foot of the great round head before I fired. I saw the black form roll over and over in the snow as we went by. Simultaneously, two other shadowy shapes that had been running in advance of the animal that was shot, dropped back; and looking over my shoulder I could see them throw for themselves upon their wounded fellow. the first time we heard them snapping and snarling at one another, as they tore their comrade to pieces. Morton leaned forward and opened the throttle wide. Recklessly around short corners and over stumps and inequalities of the ground we roared—slipping, bouncing, barely escaping destruction every few seconds. It was sickening. But we were putting a wide space between the machine and the yelping pack behind. How long would the respite be? Seconds passed until half a minute had gone. Then a minute. Could it be that they had left us— that the horrible race was over? But even as the hope was forming itself in my mind, I became aware of a dim, gray thing moving beside me. A moment later another appeared, close by the front of the motorcycle, and behind us the trail was again full of the jostling pack. It was terrible beyond expression, the utter noiselessness with which they resumed their places—apparently tireless; keeping pace with the speeding machine without a sign of effort; patient as fate itself.
But soon their tactics changed. Either they had grown bolder or the wolf they had eaten among them had put a keener edge upon their appetites. There were now four or five of the ghostlike forms moving on my side of the machine alone. On the other side more were visible. They were now closing in upon us with determination. Suddenly I saw one make a spring at the front wheel, but, missing his aim, he fell back. At this Morton opened the throttle full and swore because it would go no farther. The speed with which we tore over that dark, uneven trail was fearful. What if a tire should burst—what if we should hit one of the numerous stumps in the roadway? Perish the thought—we were gaining some ground. But the pack again closed in. Once more they were all about us. Leaning forward, and steadying my aim as well as I could in the rocking, bouncing sidecar, I fired full at the whole dark mass in front. Apparently the bullet passed harmless through them, but in an instant all had vanished behind and into the bushes as a swarm of flies vanish at the wave of a handkerchief. Only for a second, however, and one after another they were back again. A second shot, fired at random into the mass, was more successful; and once more we saw them drop back and crowd together in the trail behind us while the snapping and snarling grew fainter as the motorcycle sped on. “About ten more miles to go." shouted Morton. It was the first he had spoken.
The excitement of the race was indescribable; the narrow lane of the trail lying white ahead of us and behind us between the dark borders of the brush, seen but dimly through the gathering darkness. The respite this time was shorter than before. Once more our relentless foes gathered round us, silently, one by one, the wolves seeming to know as well as we, that the time was growing short and that escape lay not so far away; for hardly had the pack settled in their places round us before I saw one animal throw himself recklessly at the front wheel. There was a sudden jar and our machine went careening madly to one side—through the low bushes for a few feet we crashed but Morton soon brought her back to the trail. The motorcycle had scarcely passed before the pack leaped upon the struggling form we had hit. In my excitement I did a foolish thing. Leaning over, and thrusting my revolver almost against the skins of the fierce brutes, I fired two shots in quick succession. They had their effect, I know, for I saw one of the dark figures throw itself convulsively out the mass into the brush, where the others sprang upon it, and a death cry went up in the night air. But we could ill spare the ammunition. This idea evidently occurred to Morton. Leaning suddenly toward me, but with his eyes fixed on the trail ahead, he called: “How many have you left?” “Only one.” “Not even one apiece for us?" And I knew that he was in earnest. I knew also that he was right; that it would be better to die so, than to be torn to pieces by that snarling, hungry crew. But it was too late now. Five shots of the six were spent, and twenty minutes yet must pass before we could reach the camp. And even while these few words were being said the pack was close upon us again. Fiercer now, and more determined than ever to make an end of it, they crowded around. One even flung himself at the low side of the side car to snap at me, and his teeth caught for a moment in the sleeve of my coat as I struck him on the head with the clenched hand holding the revolver. On both sides, too, they jostled each other, in an endeavor to reach us, and I knew that in a few seconds more I must sacrifice the last cartridge.
As a forlorn hope I threw the sack of flour to them. But they hardly stopped to tear it to pieces. The blankets, and then some of the groceries, had but the same effect. There was more satisfying food on the motorcycle. And they closed round the speeding machine again. For the first time Morton turned to look at me. "Hal!" he called excitedly, “the giant powder!” For a moment I did not grasp his meaning. Seeing my indecision, he shouted again: “The giant powder, Hal!" Then it came to me. Thrusting the revolver into my coat pocket, I fumbled among the various supplies to find the old sack in which the sticks of dynamite were wrapped, and with them the small package of caps and fuse. Taking three of the sticks, I tied them tightly together with my handkerchief and, quickly fitting the end of an inch of fuse for, in this case, the shorter the piece the better into a cap, I thrust the latter into the center of the three sticks. I was still at work, when a sudden lurch of the machine and a cry from Morton warned me that something was the matter. In taking a comer at too great speed, the motorcycle had shot over a small embankment, through the brush and toward a small called excitedly, “the giant clump of trees.” To avert a disastrous collision Morton was compelled to bring the machine to an abrupt stop. Something had to be done, and with some vague hope, I fired the last shot from the revolver into the dark mass surrounding us. The shot had its effect, for one of the brutes leaped into the air with a yelp and fell“ backwards into the bushes. In an instant the others flung themselves upon the wounded animal. In the few seconds breathing space, the motorcycle climbed slowly on second speed back to the trail, along which we were soon speeding again, our enemies snarling and quarreling behind us. The last shot was spent!
Turning my attention again to the giant powder, I fixed the cap and fuse more firmly in their place, and taking off my belt wound that tightly round the whole. Round that again I wrapped one of the old sacks, and tearing off my coat made an extra covering of that, knotting the sleeves tightly on the outside, that the ravenous teeth might be delayed in tearing the bundle apart. Crouching down in the sidecar, I lighted a match, and, as I did so, I saw that the wolves were upon us again, apparently as numerous and tireless as ever. The match went out; and a second. Crouching still lower, I made a barricade against the wind with my coat, and at last a dull red spark caught the end of the fuse. The pack was already crowding around the motorcycle. And how slowly the fuse burned! Nursing it carefully with my hands, I blew upon the spark and kept it glowing as it ate its way slowly into the cotton. Why had I not made it shorter? Every moment I expected to feel the sudden jolt which told that the wolves had caught hold of the front wheel or had pulled Morton from the machine. At last the dull red glow had almost reached the end of the cap. A few seconds more and it would explode. Thrusting the bundle hastily into another sack, forgetting the wolves in my terror lest it should explode in my hands, I stood up and threw it with all my force into the midst of the moving forms ahead. The beasts flung themselves upon it, and as we swept by, the whole pack was again collected into a struggling, snarling heap beside the trail. ’We were sweeping round a curve in the trail, and before the machine had gone ten yards, the brush shut out the path behind us and the wolves. A moment later and the air and the earth shook around us. I was still half standing, clutching the low side of the sidecar, and the concussion threw me forward and nearly out upon the ground. The report was not the crash of a cannon nor the sharp noise of gunpowder, but a dull, heavy roar like an instantaneous clap of distant thunder. The stillness that followed was intense, broken only by the throbbing of the motor, but I thought that I heard, from the direction where the wolves had been, one broken, muffled howl.
What had been the effect of it? Both Morton and myself leaned eagerly forward as we rushed with almost express-train speed over the perilous trail. When would those grim, gray, ruthless forms reappear? The seconds passed; minute followed minute, the machine jumped and bounced down the trail like a fury. the engine singing steadily. With every yard traveled, hope grew stronger, till leaning over again I said to Morton: “I don’t believe they‘re coming, Charlie.” But his only reply was the taking of a sharp corner at full speed. Then suddenly there came a twinkle of light in the distance. The brush fell away from the trail and the white expanse of the clearing of Morton’s camp was before us. For a distance of more than fifty yards the old trail had to be abandoned, for it would have been more labor to repair it than to clear a new path through the brush. I received a letter from my friend Morton a few weeks ago in which he said that our fearful ride is one of the chief topics of conversation about Livingston, and that men will turn out of their way to look at the hole caused by the explosion and to kick up out of the weeds and brush that have grown around it the skull or part of the skeleton of, a wolf.