Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1244
Brekhunov has a passion to acquire a grove of oak trees in the nearby village of Gorachkin. He fears that unless he gets there as soon as possible, someone else will buy it before he can. The enterprising Brekhunov intends to have the trees cut down to make into sledge-runners; the leftovers will be sold for firewood. From this deal, he hopes to realize a tidy profit. He figures that the grove of trees is worth more than twenty thousand rubles. The owner is asking only ten thousand but will probably take seven thousand, with three thousand on account. Brekhunov will use seven hundred rubles of his own money for the down payment and make up the rest with some church money that he has in his safekeeping. Brekhunov is a church elder.
It is winter and the ground is covered with snow. It is now past two o’clock in the afternoon, and the day is “windy, dull, and cold,” and twenty degrees below zero. Nevertheless, Brekhunov orders his horse and sledge made ready for the trip. His motto in business is, “Lose an hour and you can’t catch it up in a year.” His wife is apprehensive about his leaving, especially alone, and gets him to take his willing servant, Nikita, with him just in case.
The two men set off together. The going is fairly easy at first, despite the snow-covered roads. However, soon the wind becomes much stronger than either has anticipated, and the blowing snow diminishes visibility. The sledge comes to a fork in the road. Although both turnings go toward their destination, one road, the longer of the two, is better traveled and marked with a double row of high stakes. Brekhunov asks Nikita which fork they should choose, but the question is rhetorical, as he has already made up his mind to take the straighter, not-so-well-marked route. Brekhunov wants to get to Gorachkin as soon as possible, despite the risk.
After they have been jogging along for about ten minutes, however, it becomes obvious that the sledge has strayed off the road. They halt, and Nikita gets off to look around. The snow is still not too deep, except in certain places, but the wind is as fierce as before. It has now begun to snow, and the horse is becoming exhausted. After a prolonged search, the horse manages to stumble back on a road, but on a road that leads to another village, one off to the left of their original direction. They enter the town, and Brekhunov asks directions. However, no sooner is the sledge headed toward Gorachkin than they become lost again. Nikita again makes an effort to set things right, but the road is not easy to find, being completely covered with a snow that even hides the marker stakes. It is now getting dark, and the wind is blowing in their faces. They let the horse try to find the way. Some time passes, but the animal does manage to come onto a roadway again. This leads to Grishkino, the same village that they have recently left. They have been traveling in circles.
Brekhunov stops to get his bearings in front of a large, brick-fronted house, and the owner invites him to stay the night. Brekhunov insists that he must go on. “It’s business and can’t be helped,” he explains. He agrees to come inside to warm up, and he and Nikita are served food and tea and vodka. Nikita, a onetime heavy drinker, refuses the vodka. Brekhunov tells his host how they have twice lost their way but says that he is confident that things will now go well, if he can have someone see them as far as the turning.
They get started again, but by now the weather is worse than before: “The wind was so strong that when it blew from the side and the travelers steered against it, it tilted the sledges and turned the horses to one side.” They are taken to the intersection leading to Grishkino and bid their host farewell. It becomes more and more difficult to keep to the road, and they are soon lost for a third time. As they plough through the drifts, trying to find the right direction, the horse plunges down an incline into the bottom of a hollow. They manage to get the sledge moving along the ravine, but the exhausted horse soon can go no farther. Nikita realizes that they are stuck there, and he makes preparations to spend the night. He takes off the horse’s harness. Next, he ties the shafts of the sledge together with a strap and sets them in front so they can project out of the snow; he puts a handkerchief around the strap to act as a flag. He covers the horse with a small blanket and then digs out a hole in the snow to shelter himself.
Brekhunov is still thinking of the money he will make from the forest grove, now regretting that he will lose one day. He thinks that it would have been better to have spent the night in Grishkino. Soon his thoughts change to fear, a fear that is increased by the howl of a wolf. Brekhunov becomes restless and asks himself what is the use of remaining here and waiting for death. He decides to try to escape on the horse, leaving Nikita to his fate. He reasons that for his servant, “It’s all the same to him whether he lives or dies. What’s his life worth? He won’t grudge his life, but I have something to live for, thank God.”
Brekhunov unties the horse, manages to climb on its back, and rides through the powdery snow in the direction of what he believes is a village. The dark patch in the distance, however, is only a stand of wormwood. He continues to ride but soon discovers that he is again traveling in circles. The horse stumbles and falls, tossing Brekhunov free, and struggles on alone. Brekhunov follows, trying to catch up. The horse leads him back to Nikita.
The half-frozen servant has crawled into the sledge to keep warm. Nikita tells his master that he feels that he is dying. Brekhunov stands silent and motionless for half a minute, then suddenly begins to brush the snow off Nikita and push it out of the sledge. He then opens his fur coat and lies down on top of Nikita, covering Nikita’s body with the warmth of his own. He no longer feels any terror. He lies that way, protecting his servant for the rest of the night, until death comes to him just before dawn. Nikita awakes to find his dead master lying on top of him.
It is not until noon that some peasants find the sledge, discovering it from the improvised flag hanging above. They dig out its occupants. Both the master and the horse are frozen stiff, but Nikita survives. He spends the next two months in a hospital, losing only a few of his toes. He lives for another twenty years and dies at home in bed, “sincerely glad that he was relieving his son and daughter-in-law of the burden of having to feed him.”
Nikita is convinced that he is entering a better life. However, whether, after death, he finds what he expected, the author comments, “we shall all soon learn.”