Mountain Man Series, Book I
Big Sky Words, Missoula
Copyright © 2015 by Big Sky Words
Shakespir Edition, 2017
Written in the United States of America
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Mountain Man Series is an ongoing series that started in 1806 and is now up to 1812.
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The eleventh volume in the series will be out in early-2017.
Table of Contents
Part I – A New Journey Begins
Part II – Travelling
Part III – Trapping
Part IV – Hunting
Missouri River Map
Introduction – Upriver
The clouds covering the moon moved ever so slightly, allowing the world to lighten just a little.
“Damn!” Joseph Dixon said from the prow of the small, dugout canoe.
“Just keep ‘er steady and those paddles quiet,” Forest Hancock whispered up from his spot at the stern.
Joe bit his lip to keep from saying what he thought of Forest’s words, and concentrated instead on keeping his paddle dipping into the black waters of the Missouri as quietly as possible, the better to sneak past the Indian village.
They were Arikaras, the two trappers knew, and from the looks they’d received after pushing into this area of the river the day before, they figured it’d be better to sneak past at night than make the attempt by day. Already they’d had a good amount of their earnings stolen by some Sioux down near Floyd’s Bluff, and both men had been firm in the decision that’d not happen again.
The men had known the tribe was coming up somewhere around the Grand River, fellow trappers had told them as much the winter before, when they’d still been close to St. Louis. That seemed like ages ago now, and they were pushing further than most had before, most that is except for the Lewis and Clark Expedition that’d set out from the Gateway to the West back in 1804, just two years before, and only three months before they themselves had set about trapping on the upper-Missouri. Most figured the Corps of Discovery was long dead, killed by Indians further upriver that no one else had encountered yet, or some other unspeakable fate, too worse to think on.
Forest shook the thought from his mind and chanced a glance back over his shoulder. Joe was still there of course, paddling silently away, but what he hadn’t expected to see was the village, now a good half-mile downriver. The look of surprise must have shown clearly on his face, for the moonlight caught a glint of white off Joe’s smile.
“Told you we’d be alright,” he said quietly.
Forest scoffed. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
“No, but we’ll be into ‘em here real quick.” He nodded further upriver, at something Forest’s bad eyes weren’t able to pick out. The trapper squinted and put his hand up to his forehead as if that’d help in the night, but somehow it did, and after another few moments he made out a faint, black outline.
“Copse of trees,” Joe said behind him, “hopefully thick enough to pull the boat up into a bit and get some shuteye before dawn, eh?”
Forest nodded. That sounded like just the thing, especially after the day of rowing upriver, their nerves more taut than usual with the threat of Arikaras nearby and possibly around every bend.
The men paddled on and were soon at the copse of trees, which really wasn’t that large, but was far enough away from the village to obscure them so they wouldn’t be seen. What’s more, it was quiet and with their tired minds and bodies, it wasn’t even a choice – they were going ashore and they were getting some rest.
“Tie ‘er up and I’ll find us a spot to bed down,” Joe said as he got out of the front of the boat. Forest nodded and was soon pulling the boat further up to a sturdy-looking bush while Joe walked ashore. The trees were Cottonwoods and their branches reached low to the ground. What’s more, he now saw, there was a smattering of boulders about, providing even more cover from the village downstream. Joe hefted his pack up on his back and headed toward the largest, then set himself down once he was there. He opened the pack and started to undo his bedroll when a sound stopped him. He sat stone still, listening.
Joe’s brow knitted. What the hell was that? he thought to himself, then heard it again.
His eyes went wide at the realization of what he was hearing, and slowly, he began to stand up, creeping ever closer to the boulder so he could look over it. Sure enough, there was an Indian man and woman, in the throes of passion, right there on a bed of grass and leaves and–
“Got ‘er tied off,” Forest called out behind him.
Joe’s eyes went wide and he spun back to see his partner coming up, then he spun around to see both the Indian man and woman staring up at him.
“Oh, shit!” he said, then spun around again and started running toward Forest and the river and the boat and safety. Before he’d gone more than a few steps, however, Forest’s eyes went wide and he knew the Indian was up. In an instant he saw Forest reach for his belt knife and in the most causal of flicks of the wrist, sent the blade flying through the air.
Joe didn’t see it but he swore he heard it, the knife going into the Indian. What he heard next after that was the night pierced with wailing screams as the woman saw her lover topple down to the ground dead, a knife in his chest.
“C’mon!” Joe shouted, reaching Forest and pulling at him to come to the river, the woman still shrieking behind him. He hadn’t yet seen what happened, but then he didn’t need to.
“What about the woman!” Forest yelled, grabbing hold of Joe’s arm and holding him there.
“What about her?”
“She’ll run back to that village and we’ll have the whole tribe on us in minutes.”
Joe looked up at him. “I ain’t killin’ no woman!”
“If it wasn’t for me and my knife, you’d be dead right now – go look at that tomahawk he was about to hurl at your back!”
Joe swallowed the knot in his throat and for the first time, looked back in the direction he’d just come from. There was only the boulder, and nothing else, except for the terrible wailing still coming from behind it…wailing which might well drift back to the village downstream, if it hadn’t already.
Forest looked into his eyes. “Do it, or we’re both dead.”
Joe let out a sigh, nodded, then headed toward the boulder. A few moments later the wailing stopped.
Part I – A New Journey Begins
1 – Hunting
The crickets were chirping away like there was no tomorrow, but John Colter knew that the slightest snap of a twig would–
Ahead the 6-point buck lifted its head quickly, its ears pointing the mountain man’s way. Colter glanced over at John Potts and George Drouillard, both of whom had stopped their slow pacing forward and were standing as stock-still as he.
George took one hand from his musket and waved a few fingers. Colter nodded – the men had been together for more than two years now, they didn’t need to use sound to communicate.
Colter advanced steadily, around the Cottonwood tree he’d been skirting and then over the row of small boulders. There was a fallen tree he was trying to get up to, one beside a few more Cottonwoods. They were the only things between the buck and Colter, that and a good one hundred yards of grass, scrub brush and the stray Cottonwood tree.
The buck knew someone was there, but it kept chewing, even putting its head back down for another bite. Colter sighed inwardly, then took the last few feet to the fallen tree. He bent down, and not taking his eyes form the dear, loosed his powder horn and began filling his barrel. Glancing over told him that both John and George were holding back, letting him take this one. It was a responsibility he’d been given a lot over the past two years of the expedition, especially when they’d been near starvation. Now, this close to the Mandan Villages and with St. Louis just forty-five days away, caution didn’t seem to be something so necessary.
Colter went through the motions, rammed his ball home, and put stock to shoulder, taking aim. The buck looked up once again, and Colter closed his eye.
The sound was thunderous and scared a flight of birds from a nearby stand of trees. Even with the cloud of white smoke obscuring his vision, however, Colter knew his round had struck home.
“Damn, right in the chest,” George said from behind as he came up, clapping Colter on the back as he started to rise, “didn’t even have a chance to run before you took its legs out from under it.”
Colter nodded. He’d heard it all before, but didn’t mind hearing it again. It’s just that he didn’t want George to have to waste his breath, either – two years together made the men a bit tired of frivolous compliments, of which all were at that point.
George was part-Shawnee, part-French-Canadian and the best scout the thirty-three-member expedition had, even including the captains. His hair was long and black and mostly covered up by the bandanas the man wore. He had four, and for the past several days he’d been sporting yellow, though now it was so caked with dust that it was becoming tan.
“She’ll be hell to drag back to camp,” John said.
Colter nodded to his other companions’ words. John Potts was a good four years younger than he and George, but Colter knew him to be trustworthy and a hard worker. It was likely that work ethic came from the fact that Potts was the only foreigner amongst the men, born in Germany. Wouldn’t tell it by the black hair, but those blue eyes and that fair complexion made it clear. That and the accent.
Colter shouldered his rifle, then started around the fallen tree to move toward the deer.
“Aye, hell to drag,” he said, echoing John’s words. “We’d best get on it then – St. Louis isn’t getting any closer.”
2 – The Mandan Villages
The three men heard the whooping and hollering of the Mandan Indian Villages long before they saw them. It was the sign they’d been waiting for, and they put their shoulders back into it and to make it the last bit with their prize.
“There!” a shout went up from ahead, and George put his arm up to block out the sun’s rays.
“Pierre?” John asked beside him.
George nodded. “Looks like he’s still on watch.”
“Captain’s probably still damn sore about what happened,” Colter said from his spot at the rear of the travois. They’d fashioned the carrier out of two long tree branches and several smaller laid crosswise, lashing them together to haul the buck.
“I’d imagine,” George said, stifling a laugh, “shot in the ass ain’t no easy thing to get over.”
“Or sit on,” Colter said.
“And it ain’t something you can exactly walk off, either,” John said before the three men fell into laugher. Just two days before Captain Lewis and Private Pierre Cruzatte had been out hunting just like the three of them were today. The only problem was that Pierre mistook the captain for a bear and put a bullet right in his backside, literally. The men had been ready to get back to St. Louis, just about 1,500 miles away, but now they were ready to get back there more than ever, Pierre most of all.
“That’s what you get when you go hunting with a man that’s blind in one eye and near-sighted in the other,” George said with a laugh. “He should never have been given a gun!”
“I guess the captain thought he could hunt like he could play that fiddle,” John joked, and the men had another good laugh. It was their laughs more than anything that probably allowed Pierre to focus in on them, and a moment later he saw them and gave a wave.
“Something’s up,” George said, noting right away that something was amiss from the way Pierre was waving his arm. Before he could get another word in, however, Colter took off, running fast ahead. George and John gave each other a look then shrugged and started after him. By the time they covered the hundred yards they were panting, but what they heard Pierre say gave them their wind back mighty quick.
“…came up on a dug-out not more than ten minutes ago,” he was saying to Colter, who was standing there with hands on hips and eyes as wide as saucers.
“Who came up?” John said quickly before inhaling a large breath of air.
“Two trappers,” Colter said to him, “and they’re still unloading from the river now – let’s go!”
All three men started off at the same time, while Pierre just kicked at a clod in the dirt and cursed his bad luck in getting guard duty at the most exciting moment the expedition had seen in months.
3 – Visitors
Joseph Dixon turned around with yet another crate in his arms and nearly had his eyes pop out if his head.
“You, you there…stop that!”
The two Mandan Indian boys that’d been poking at the pile of crates with a stick laughed and scampered off, back toward the village. Joe just stood there fuming, his anger at having their trade goods harassed nearly causing him to drop those still in his hands.
“Take it easy,” his partner Forest Hancock said while coming up behind him, an identical crate in his arms.
“I’ll take it easy when we’re back on the safety of the river,” Joe said as Forest walked off the plank leading from the boat to the shore. Nonetheless, he fell in behind him and in a few moments another two crates were stacked on the bank.
“They won’t cause you no harm, sirs,” George Shannon said a little sheepishly. He was the youngest member of the expedition, not yet twenty, and being out in the wild for these past years hadn’t done much to cure his already noticeable shyness. Why the captains had sent him to help the men, he hadn’t a clue. The two trappers felt about the same.
“It’s not us I’m worried about,” Forest said gruffly, “it’s our goods here – these are our livelihood for the next two years out here.” He gave Shannon a narrow look. “You did say this was near where the Yellowstone starts, didn’t you?”
Shannon gave a firm nod, several times in fact, and nearly stuttered over his words. “Y-y-yes, sir.”
Forest trailed-off as he heard footfalls coming up fast, and turned slightly to see a roughshod-looking man, bearded and muscled and coming at the three of them full-bore, a musket clutched tightly in one hand. If he hadn’t put the crate down a moment before, Forest would have dropped it from shock and surprise.
“Colter!” Shannon gave a shout out when he turned to see what’d spooked the two trappers so.
Colter came up and gave Shannon a friendly clap on the back, though his eyes were locked on the two new arrivals.
“John Colter, these men here are Joseph Dixon and Forest Hancock, two fur trapping men heading upriver.”
“And looking for a guide that can show us the way,” Forest said, giving Colter a good once over while he did so. The mountain man looked to be in his early-30s, though it was hard to tell with the unkempt hair growing long and wild, the full beard with parts already going to grey. He looked like something right out of the wild, or at least an Indian show – a threadbare red shirt faded to a pinkish-white, tan workmen’s pants that didn’t have an inch not resewn, and moccasins that probably weren’t as rough as the feet wearing them. It took Forest only a few seconds to know he was looking on a real mountain man, someone that knew the wilds of this country like the back of his hand. At least that’s what he hoped.
“A guide, huh?” Colter said, all thoughts of St. Louis suddenly gone from his mind as visions of the wilderness began dancing in his memory.
“We mean to talk with your Captains Lewis and Clark–”
“Just as soon as we finish unloading this canoe,” Joe began and Forest finished.
Colter narrowed his eyes just as George and John rushed up, finally catching up with the faster Colter.
“Do the captains know?” Colter asked Shannon before the other two men could get a word in.
Shannon shook his head. “I’m not sure, but Captain Clark was here when these two rowed up, and he told ‘em to get secured while he took care of the rest.”
Colter smiled. “Well, you heard him – let’s get these men secured and then get ‘em to the captains!”
4 – The Captains
Captain Meriwether Lewis scrunched up his face and braced himself before lowering down onto the chair. Despite his efforts, a pain shot up from the bullet wound in his backside, causing him to flinch and grimace further. In the corner, Captain William Clark chuckled under his breath, though not quietly enough.
“Oh, shut up!”
“It damn well could have been you that Pierre shot in the ass just as it was me.”
Clark shrugged. “I suppose that’s possible, though I’d never have put myself into such a compromising position to begin with.”
Lewis frowned and was about to offer a rejoinder, a really good one too, when the tent flap opened and John Colter appeared.
“Oh, beg pardon, captains,” he said, then closed it and shouted out, “Captains, Private John Colter here, permission to enter.”
Lewis looked over at Clark, who only shook his head, so he turned back and called out. “Permission granted, Private Colter.”
John Colter entered the tent this time, a large smile on his face.
“Sirs,” he began, rubbing at his beard and stepping from one foot to the other, “there are two trappers heading upriver.”
“Yes,” Clark said from his spot at the desk, “I met them on the Knife myself, the first of the party to do so. It seems they’re heading up to the headwaters of the Missouri, or at least think they are.”
He scoffed and looked over at Lewis, who only offered a slight smile.
“They’ll have a helluva time of it, captain,” Colter said, his face firm and without humor.
“That they will,” Clark agreed, “but I don’t see what concern it is of ours.”
“The thing of it is, sir,” Colter began with a fair amount of hesitation, for he was always a bit reticent of questioning the two captains, especially after the leniency they’d shown him in Pittsburgh when he’d threatened to shoot Sergeant Ordway. Clark seemed to sense this.
Colter nodded. “The thing of it is, sirs…I’d like to guide those men upriver.”
Lewis and Clark both stared at Colter, neither surprised at what they were hearing.
“I feel that I know both the Upper-Missouri route and the Yellowstone route,” Colter said quickly when he felt his previous words had been hanging in the air too long.
“Oh, and how do you figure that, Private?” Lewis asked with a slight smile.
“Because you had George with you on your team of four,” Colter replied evenly. “Since you got back on the 12th, we’ve been discussing the route.”
“Can’t be discussing much,” Lewis laughed when he thought of the small party he’d led to the Marias River a few weeks before, “we damn-well got run out of there!”
“Nonetheless, sir, George is pretty convincing on the route.”
Lewis leaned back on his stool and crossed his arms, staring at Colter for a moment before looking to Clark. He shrugged, as if to say ‘what do you want me to do?’ Clark took in a breath and let it out slowly, then turned his attention back to Colter.
“This is what you want then, are you sure?”
Colter nodded. “Aye, sir, it is.”
“Very well,” Clark said with a smile before nodding toward the tent flap, “now why not let those other two gentlemen in.”
Colter turned and opened the tent flap, stuck his head out, and saw Joe and Forest over near the fire pit a short distance away. They locked onto him a moment later and were scurrying over even before the mountain man waved to them.
“Well?” Forest said while he was still a good ten paces away. Colter just motioned for them to come once again, and in a moment the three men were inside the tent and staring at the two captains of the Corps of Discovery.
“So you men came up from St. Louis, then?” Clark said in that jovial tone that Colter knew so well, the one he used when he was going to get his way with you, no…already had, but you just didn’t know it yet. Colter did his best to suppress the smile that was trying to edge onto his face.
“Well, sir…” Joe began, a bit apprehensive and looking to Forest for support. The other trapper gamely stared at his feet or pretended something on the other side of the tent had gotten his attention.
“Well, sir…” Joe began again, to the tune of Lewis’s fingers beginning to tap on the desk, “we left St. Louis in August of 1804 and wintered near Floyd’s Bluff. Come spring we headed further on up until we reached the bend in the Missouri by the Niobrara around summer. We spent all that year trapping with Charles Courtin’s group and wintered near the Teton Sioux. This spring we set out alone, eager to get into these upper reaches where we heard the trapping was plum.”
“Any Indian encounters along the way?” Clark asked.
Joe nodded. “We ran into–”
“Nothing,” Forest butted-in real quick, “we ran into nothing, all throughout the early Dakotas.”
“Is that right,” Lewis said more than asked, looking from Joe to Forest and back again.
Joe nodded vigorously. “Aye, that it is, sirs, that it is – we didn’t run into any trouble.”
“On account of the fact that we kept to ourselves and made good time,” Forest added.
“Getting past the Niobrara River and into the Dakotas is easy enough,” Lewis said, “it’s getting up past the Grand River that’s tricky. How did you get past the Arikaras…just the two of you?”
Joe swallowed and looked to Forest, who frowned. “Very carefully,” he said, “and by cover of night.”
Lewis and Forest stared at one another for several moments, their eyes locked for so long that the other three men in the tent began to grow uneasy. Finally Lewis nodded and rose up, his face grimacing a bit from the pain still clearly in his backside.
“Well, all I can say is that you’ll be in the best of hands, whatever you may find out there on the Missouri or the Yellowstone or any of the other, smaller tributaries you may take…or whatever finds you.” Lewis came up and clapped Colter on the shoulder. “I have to admit, I hate the idea of losing my best shot with nearly 1,500 miles still to go to St. Louis and civilization, but if that’s the way you want it, Private, then it’s in my power to give.” Lewis glanced over quickly at the two trappers before giving Colter a hard look in the eye. “You do want this…you’re sure?”
Colter firmed his shoulders and stuck out his chest. “Aye, sir.”
“Then by the power invested in me by the President of the United States of America and as his military representative this far west into the hinterland of the country, I declare that your service to the government of the United States, Private John Colter, is now complete. You’re hereby honorably discharged from the United States Army with the rank of Private, and the promise that your pay will be awaiting you in St. Louis, all…” he glanced back at Clark who was still seated at the table, and the co-captain of the expedition began flipping through a ledger there.
“$179.33^1/3^,” he said after finding the appropriate entry, “you’ll have $179.33^1/3^ waiting for you for your service.”
“And I sincerely hope you don’t spend it all in one place, or on one woman,” Lewis said with a laugh, and even Colter broke out into a smile at that.
“I trust you’ll not leave us until morning, is that right, Private?” Clark said, coming up and around from the table.
“I couldn’t rightly leave without saying goodbye to the men first,” Colter said.
Clark smiled. “No, John, no you couldn’t.”
5 – Friends
Colter left the tent and saw George and John over by a stand of trees on the riverbank. They perked up when they saw him leave the captains’ tent, and he quickly started over to them.
“Well, what’d they say?” John asked as he drew near.
“They said my commission’s up, I’m a free man,” Colter said with a smile.
“Well I’ll be,” George said, taking a straw from his mouth that he’d been chewing on. It would have fallen otherwise, so large was the scout’s smile.
“So when do you ship out?” John asked, the German’s accent clear.
“In the morning,” Colter said. “Those men are eager to get a move on, eager to make their fortune.”
“Ha!” a laugh came from behind the trees, and the men turned to see Sergeant John Ordway approaching. George and John frowned, but Colter just kept that stoic look on his face, the one he’d been wearing ever since he’d been put on trial for mutiny after threatening Ordway back in St. Louis. It’d been more than two years ago now, but everyone always figured there was tension between the two men. There wasn’t, and the two nodded at one another.
“Headin’ out with two trappers, eh, Colter?”
Colter nodded as he sat down on a fallen log. “Can’t keep proppin’ you boys up forever, you know?”
That got a laugh from Ordway, and eased the tension a bit for the others. Ordway was a few years younger than Colter, but he had a lot more discipline. Being in the regular army would do that to a fellow, Colter supposed, something he wouldn’t know since he’d only been on the government’s payroll since signing up for the expedition. For Ordway it just seemed to have firmed up his face and made his way of talking more clipped. He was a good fellow, though, and the men respected his command.
“What do you know about them, Ord?” Colter asked next, eager to hear the man’s opinion of the first whites the group had seen since setting out in 1804.
“The one named Dixon got a slight wound in the leg after getting away from Sioux near Floyd’s Bluff, at least that’s what he reported to Captain Lewis,” Ordway said.
“Joe was his name,” George pointed out, “and he and his partner Forest were low on ammunition by the time they reached us.”
“It’s lucky they reached us when they did, what with the Blackfeet out there,” Ordway said.
Colter nodded to that. He remembered well the encounter with the small band of young braves at the end of July. They’d tried to steal the men’s rifles and two had been killed. It was the worst thing that could have happened, and they’d hurried out of that area real quick. Colter knew that area well now, and he knew that he’d be avoiding it. It was the trapping that he was most interested in at this point. The mountain man had quite a bag of beaver pelts built up, as did most of the men. George took the prize in that department, however, and it was clear he had machinations about taking up the trade once his enlistment was up. Oh how Colter getting out earlier must have rubbed him the wrong way! Once again the mountain man gave a slight smile and thanked his good fortune that the men had grown into such good friends on the expedition. He also thanked his good fortune that the captains were such good men. The three of them would have twenty traps when they went upriver, a sight more than the he’d had to work with while on the expedition. It hadn’t come cheaply, that was for sure. At $5 a month he’d earned $179.33^1/3^ for the thirty-five months and twenty-six days he’d put in, though that paled in comparison to what he’d made in secret, or at least off the army rolls.
The Missouri had been good to the men of the expedition, and they stood to profit handsomely. Colter imagined what it’d be like when this trade really got going. Right now it was just Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Company men primarily, but in a few years there’d be many more. It’d be rough, that’s for sure, and things would be scarce. Colter tried to think back on some of the things he’d bought when last in civilization, and their prices. Coffee was $1.50 a pound and sugar to put in it ran $1.50 a pound as well. If you wanted a smoke to go along with it the tobacco would put you back $3 a pound. But then there were the other items, the ones few thought of except when they needed ‘em. Those were things like scissors at $2 a pair or buttons at $1.50 a dozen. All of those things were secondary to the furs, however. George knew most what the market for furs was like, and he was adamant that the men could get $2 a fur. It was an unheard of sum, considering a good man could bag two to three of the animals a day if he was lucky, and ensured he’d have his month’s earnings in but a few hours. But that supposed each man would have room to stow and carry his many furs, to the coast and back in some cases. The captains made it clear right from the get-go that that would not be the case. Each beaver fur weighed on average 1.64 pounds, and since there were half a dozen men trapping regularly, that’d be an extra 137 pounds on the boats each week. It simply wasn’t doable, so the men improvised. After they’d gotten into the plum trapping area of the Missouri, further on up and past the Mandan villages – and the exact area Colter was going to now – they’d quickly realized they’d have to change their strategy. No longer would the typical 1.64-pound beaver fur be accurate. In actuality they were dealing with a 25- to 50-pound beaver, if you added everything under the fur. That often meant they’d be carting out 3- and 4-pound furs. And it didn’t take too long to realize that they didn’t even really have to try to catch the things. The Rocky Mountain beaver were plentiful and hadn’t been trapped before. By the time the expedition had gotten back to the Mandan Villages from the coast, the men had 400 pounds of fur, 104 pounds belonging to Colter. If George’s rough estimates held true, that’d put the total haul at $800, with Colter’s share being $208 of that.
Of course it took work to get all that money, and quite a bit of it. It was work that couldn’t be done from riverboats that were constantly moving either, not with the traps that had to be set and then checked and rechecked again more often than not. It’s not like you just set the trap down anywhere you wanted, walked away, and came back to find it full. No, it was a lot more work than that. It started with the previous catch, or at least what was left of it. The trap had to be cleaned and any stray fur or hair removed. That went doubly for blood, for there was nothing worse than coming back to find a wolf or coyote had eaten your catch. Of course cleaning was the easy part. After that was done the trap had to be set again, but that meant it had to be either moved or repositioned. Both were a pain, though the first more so. Fur traps were heavy, cumbersome and noisy. They weighed a good five pounds or more and even one or two could quickly weigh a man down. And forget hunting when you were carrying the things – any animal with one working ear would hear you a mile off, at least. It was a helluva life, in other words, and Colter couldn’t believe a man would just let it all go.
“You know damn well that there’s money out there, Ord,” Colter said.
Ordway took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m not sayin’ there ain’t, John, I’m just sayin’ that you’re getting into a tight spot here, one that’s much tighter than you’re in now.”
“I’m doing alright,” Colter said.
“Only because the captains have been so good to us.” Ordway sighed again and came over to sit next to Colter on the log. “They skirted rules, allowing us to take our pick like that. Oh, you might argue they didn’t have a choice, what with us making only $5 a month and all that river currency just floatin’ right on by us, or even built up under dams as we floated past.” He quieted down for a moment. “Hell, why you think George only ever focused on beaver when all that other, easier game was ripe for the pickings? It’s because that other game’s only good for eatin’ and not selling to those dandies in Europe!”
“You ever eat a beaver, Ord?”
“Hell no!” Ordway shot back, and both men laughed, a needed respite after their curt words. They stared out at the Missouri for a few moments, watching it eddy and roll its way south, toward St. Louis and eventually home…whatever that meant.
“You’re so close, John…why do you want to give it up?”
“I could ask you the same thing, about this,” Colter said, gesturing at the land around them.
“It’s been more than two years now since we’ve been back in civilization, or even on the frontiers of it…don’t you miss that?”
“Ain’t much to miss, if you ask me,” Colter said sullenly, and Ordway looked over at him. Here was a hunter, the best in a bunch of hunters, all fraught with anxiety and fear and apprehension, though about the wrong things. He was a mountain man, had been one ever since his earliest days in Virginia and then Kentucky, and the things that scared most mortals were the very things he sought out, found solace in, and excelled at. It was the people part that he wasn’t good at.
“Maybe not,” Ordway said after a moment, “maybe not.”
6 – Last Night
The fire crackled and popped and shot embers soaring into the night sky. Up above were Sagittarius the centaur and Cygnus the swan, two constellations of many that touched the edges of the Milky Way Galaxy looking down. Colter traced them in his mind’s eye and remembered the nights the captains had explained them.
“Haven’t you spent enough time looking up at the stars over the past God knows how many months?” a voice called from behind Colter, one he recognized right away.
“Oh, you’re just sore still that you couldn’t benefit from the captain’s celestial knowledge, Pierre, what will that one blind eye of yours and the other being bum.”
“Hell, I can see enough out of this old orb still to see your ugly mug, Colter, though I wouldn’t need to – any Injun a mile off could smell the beaver stink comin’ off ya!”
Private Pierre Cruzatte laughed and clapped Colter on the back as he said that last, and Colter couldn’t help but laugh as well. In a quick moment, however, Pierre was lowering his head and whispering close to Colter’s ear.
“You saw the captain today, John,” he said, that slight Cajun accent of his coming through a bit with his voice low, “was he still mad?”
“If you’re asking if he’s still mad you shot him in the ass, Pierre, then I’d say yes, he probably is.”
Pierre stood back, and a frown came across his face. No doubt he was still thinking of how many weeks yet he had to go before getting to St. Louis, and if Captain Lewis would make his life a living hell during that time.
“He’ll always be sore over that, and in more ways than one,” another voice called out, and both men spun around to see the Fields brothers coming up, Joseph and the older Reubin. It’d been Reubin that’d stabbed that Blackfoot Indian through the heart when Lewis and his small band of three had run into the group of eight young braves just a few weeks before, and the death had resulted in the men rushing over one hundred miles in a single day to put enough ground between themselves and however many Blackfeet would soon be on their tail. Thankfully they’d never heard anything from the aggressive Blackfeet, and Colter could see some of the earlier edge gone from Joseph’s eyes – he was one of the best shots on the expedition, and looking over his shoulder for Indians every day had taken its toll. Thankfully three weeks was enough time to let their guard down.
“And what’s this I hear about you leaving us, John?” Pierre continued as he reached the two men.
Colter shrugged, just as Pierre looked over at him, a look of surprise on his face.
“What on earth are you doing?” he said, that Cajun unmistakable.
“I’m guiding Dixon and Hancock up the river, as far as they want to go until winter sets in.”
“And then you’ll stay with them, trapping?” Pierre said. It was well-known he didn’t think much of trappers, probably because a man didn’t need to be any good with a rifle to lure an animal into a baited hunk of metal with steel jaws. Not to mention the smell. Anyone handling the oily furs or the scent needed to bait the traps didn’t smell that good. Strangely, the trapper himself didn’t seem to notice.
“Might,” Colter said with another shrug, “haven’t thought about it much.”
“Guess you’ll just play it by season, huh?” Reubin said from behind his brother.
“Or at least play it until you can’t stand them two no more,” Joseph laughed. “Hell, John, you wouldn’t have been able to stand all of us if the captains weren’t ordering you to! You’re a damn loner if there ever was one – these mountains’ll accept you again, but just not with company, I’m afraid.”
Colter gave Joseph a long and hard look, but the burly man didn’t back down. And he was right, Colter knew it too, and nodded accordingly.
“I’m gonna miss you, Joseph.”
Joseph clapped him on the shoulder. “I’m gonna miss you too, John. Now let’s get over to that fire pit – I hear your new friends have got some gills of whiskey!”
7 – Around the Fire
“Ha, there he is!”
Colter narrowed his eyes and looked around the fire to try and see who’d shouted, but it was too hard to tell. One thing that wasn’t hard to tell, however, was that alcohol was coursing through the men’s blood again, and for the first time since the previous November. Colter knew Joe and Forest had some, and now that they were back among the Mandans, he knew the traders always had some close by. The men were enjoying it tonight, and that meant the captains must be as well, back in their tent.
“The man of the hour,” another shout came, and Colter saw this one came from Private John Shields, the expedition’s blacksmith, gunsmith and carpenter. Colter gave him a good clap on the back as he came up, and took a liberal drink from the wineskin he was offered. It was whiskey alright, and he let out a satisfied “Ah,” much to the delight of the rest of the men.
“Good to have a drop again, eh?” Private Peter Weiser laughed at him, and Colter nodded at the man.
“It sure gives me back a relief, I’ll say that much.”
Colter nodded and was about to clap Private William Bratton on the back when he remembered not to and stopped himself. Private John Collins didn’t restrain himself, and went ahead and gave William a hard swat, one that elicited a grunt of pain.
“Ain’t nothin’ like a little whisky to lighten your mood, eh Colter?”
“Or get you a hundred lashes again, Collins!” Private George Gibson said with a laugh, and the others joined in quickly, remembering the hundred Collins had received for stealing the expedition’s whiskey from the official supply while he’d supposed to have been guarding it.
“Oh, shut up and give us a tune, will ya!” Collins shouted back.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Gibson said, and picked up his fiddle and started in on a boisterous round of “Old Molly Hare.”
“Ha, that’s more like it!” Private Silas Goodrich chimed in, and he and several of the other men began to dance around the fire, joined in by a few of the young Mandan boys and even a maiden or two when they could pull one near, an older squaw if not. Colter stood back and took it all in. He was with most of the men he’d travelled with for two years, and these men here were some of the best. Private Hugh Hall was dancing away, and Colter laughed as he remembered him drunk as can be the day after helping Collins steal the whisky. Oh how he’d begged for leniency! Then there was Private Thomas Howard, who’d gotten court-martialed for climbing over the wall of Fort Mandan one night after the gate had been closed, showing any Indian watching how it was done. Dancing right along there too was Private George Shannon, who hadn’t looked so happy after being found out in the wild after getting lost for two weeks and damn near dying of starvation. All the men he knew and loved were there, and he’d miss them, that much he knew.
“So how’s it feel not to be a member of the U.S. Army anymore, John?” George Drouillard came up and asked. He had a small, metal cup in his hand and offered it to Colter. Colter put it to his nose and took a whiff, and for the second time that year smelled alcohol.
“Feels good!” he said, and took a gulp, much to the delight of the men dancing around.
“Sure hope it’s gonna feel good for you to be alone in the wilderness with them two!” John Potts shouted, and many joined in with their agreement to that.
“Oh, Colter may be a loner, but he gets along with people well enough!” George shouted.
“So long as you’s got the ‘keeps!’” Potts shouted out.
“The ‘keeps’?” Colter said.
“So long as you keep quite, keep out of the way, and keep yourself working all the time!” George laughed, and the men did too, raising their metal cups high to clink together.
“I don’t work all the time,” Colter said as he finished the last of his cup off. Beside him George saw he was done and grabbed it and sent it off over ferrying hands. Several moments later it’d come back full.
“Only time you ain’t working is when you’re sleeping!” Peter said with a hiccup thrown in at the end, something that caused the men to roar into laughter again, and Colter to take another drink himself. He was already feeling more lightheaded than he had in years.
“And just make sure you steer well clear of those Blackfeet,” Ordway said from the edge of the group.
“And don’t shoot your captain in the ass if you do!” Hugh laughed from where he was still dancing around. That caused another round of laughter, a sigh from Pierre, and the men’s cups to need another filling. The flames leapt higher and it was if the night itself was rejoicing, the wilderness happy to see these foreigners gone…or perhaps just a smaller party enter.
8 – A Powwow
The fire crackled and sent shadows dancing across the tepee’s walls. Chief Shappa sat in his usual spot, his medicine man Anoki across the fire pit from him. On each side were the various wise men and warrior leaders and other critical members of the Arikara tribe. Women, of course, were nowhere to be seen.
“From the time that our people lived on the Elk Horn River we’ve known trouble,” Shappa said, drawing all eyes to him. “It was Neesaau ti naacitakUx, Chief Above, that came and brought our warring villages together in a period before time. It was he that told us of our destiny, of our constant quest to find Mother Corn. After that we knew peace, and expanded to search for our Mother, and reached the mighty Niobrara. It was there more than ninety moons ago that the first Grey Beard came.”
Shappa looked over at Anoki and the medicine man gave that toothy grin of his and threw more of the black powder onto the fire.
“Etienne!” he shouted as the fire flared to life and those gathered around inched backward, most involuntarily. The chief’s face remained a visage of stone, and then he continued once again.
“It was a short time after his departure that we moved further north, to the Grand River near Lake Oahe, and then another ten moons after that before the next Grey Beard came.”
“La Verendrye!” Anoki shouted as he threw another handful of black powder onto the fire.
“That’s when the split came,” Shappa said, staring into the fire and back in time, “that’s when the old one’s talked and talked and then talked some more. Finally it was decided that more would come, and that our way of life was now changed forever, just like those of our long lost brothers living far to the east.” He sighed. “So what did they do? Move us to safety further north, further to the west, to lands that hadn’t been occupied yet by those fleeing the Gray Beards and their perpetual push west? No, instead we moved across the Grand, north and east a few miles to Íŋyaŋwakağapi Wakpá, a once-proud river that’s now been given the name…” he looked to his medicine man again.
“Cannonball!” the man spat. ‘Anoki’ meant ‘actor’ in the Arikara language, and the man certainly earned his moniker.
Shappa looked around at the gathered tribal elders and the younger warriors, those that would lead the bands if war ever did finally come. Shappa knew it would.
“I remember when the Gray Beard Verendrye came, though I was but a boy of five or six moons at the time,” the chief said. “His full name was Pierre de Vamess Gaulteir de La Verendrye, and he was following in the footsteps of his father, another explorer from the land beyond the Great Waters. It was on a day in early spring when he came upon our Little Cherry Band, and it was that day he carved the moon into his metal plate and left it with us.”
Shappa reached into his robes and pulled out a metal plate, square in shape and containing some kind of scratches. He threw it down onto the ground before the fire and a deathly silence fell over all.
“It was two years after they met our small village that Verendrye and the men with him buried their plate, further down the Great River, on what we now call the White. It took me a few more moons before I had the nerve to go and dig it up.”
The men in the tent stared at the plate, and the scratchings on it. Then they looked to their chief, a man who had done much, and lost much.
“Just over ten moons ago now we had our last Gray Beard come, another man from across the Great Waters, this one named Trudeau. He stayed with us for a time, and it’s from him that we know the language they call the French.” He looked over at Anoki and frowned. “But we also now know that this is the language of our friends, not our enemies. Our enemies use a tongue they call…English.”
The Medicine Man nodded gravely, and so did the others in the tent.
“And so it was two years ago that we had the largest group of Gray Beards yet come to us, a party numbering thirty-three, mostly fit, young men…their braves. Outfitted for war, they spoke of exploration, but we’d seen what explorers had looked like before, and it wasn’t these men.”
“But we let them pass,” one of the leading warriors said, Wapi, a challenge and one that was nearly unheard of in the chief’s tent. Instead of punishing the transgression, however, the chief simply nodded.
“But we let them pass,” Wapi said again, emboldened now, “and it cost you your son, and heir-apparent. What’s more, it cost me my wife.”
You could cut the air with a knife, the tension was so high. The other warriors and wise men looked from Chief Shappa to Wapi and back again. They’d been waiting for this moment for days, waiting for one of the two to challenge the other. Already Wapi’s honor had been sullied when his wife was found to have been sleeping with the chief’s son, and behind both of their backs…at least that’s what Shappa had claimed. And who was to challenge him on that? No one but Wapi, and now that challenge had come.
The chief gave Wapi a sharp look, but the warrior didn’t back down. He smelled the blood, saw the age in the chief’s eyes, saw his chance…and took it.
“Why should we go on a wild chase up the river after two men that most likely were only protecting themselves? We all know what Patamon was like when he had fire water in his system. And we know before those men passed that they–”
“Enough!” Shappa shouted out, and silence fell in the tent once again, broken only by the crackling of the fire. It didn’t last long.
“Enough is right,” Wapi said in a loud voice, though without shouting like the chief had done, “enough is what we’ve had – enough of your endless rule, enough of your bad decisions, enough of our tribe dying away while you sit back and do nothing. Enough of–”
Wapi – a name that meant ‘lucky’ – wasn’t able to finish that last. Faster than anyone could believe, the old chief had his tomahawk in hand and pulled back. In a flash the weapon was sailing through the air, feathers over beads, and implanted itself in Wapi’s forehead. The warrior’s eyes went wide before rolling back in his head, and then he slowly fell over onto his side. All eyes went to the chief.
“We move out tomorrow.”
Part II – Travelling
9 – First Morning
Colter stood staring down at his prized Kentucky Rifle, his gun. It had an octagonal-shaped barrel, 33 inches in length, and fired a .54 caliber round. The stock was made out of walnut wood, and featured a well defined comb and a narrow wrist as well as a brass patch box and brass furniture. She was 49 inches in length all told and could drop a good-sized buck at 100 yards. She was a killing machine, and Colter loved her.
They had it all when it came to guns, and his prized Kentucky was just one of a few the three men would be taking with them upriver. There was the trusty 1803 Harper’s Ferry Rifle, which the captains had procured back in St. Louis. It was a ‘halfstock,’ so it was .54 caliber as well, a metal ramrod on the side.
Next there was the Northwest Trade Gun, the typical weapon carried in abundance by the Hudson’s Bay Company personal in that area of the northwest. Besides its value out in the middle of nowhere as a trade good, it could use either ball or shot, making it an easy choice in a fast fight.
They had one other Kentucky Rifle. Colter and most everyone else he knew had always called the gun a Kentucky Long Rifle. Some still called it a Pennsylvania, however, because that’s where they were made, if not used. It had a full stock, unlike the Harper’s Ferry, and a 44-inch barrel, giving it a caliber of .54 as well. Still, Colter preferred the Kentucky, and had become a crack shot with it as a boy, even more so out in the wilds with the captains.
It was the weather that was the worst enemy of the rifle, however, and Colter had suffered many a misfire because of it. Typically a flintlock would fire seven out of ten times in dry weather, so you were already at a disadvantage. Add in the snow and rain that he knew they’d be hit by this winter, and hit hard, and the fire rate would go down closer to three out of ten, if even that. Keeping the flintlock dry was therefore critical, and often came down to how each particular gun was designed and subsequently maintained.
There was the flint itself, stuck into the upper jaw of the cock and held there by the flint screw. The cock screw was holding that to the lock plate, at the end of which was the powder pan and the frizzen and battery spring. The whole area only took up a few inches worth of space on the side of and top of the musket, but it was the most important piece of the puzzle, for if it were out of sorts the gun simply would not fire. Colter still remembered the look of the grizzly that’d been charging him one day in May 1805, and how his rifle had misfired. He was sure the look in the bear’s eye had changed, as if it’d somehow sensed the trouble he was in.
Thankfully he’d had one of the captains’ 1799 McCormick’s on him as well, and a few pistol shots at the beast had been enough to dissuade it of its course. It had turned back and thankfully George had come up, another rifle primed and ready to go, but it’d been close, damn close.
Colter hoped to hell too that none of the Indians they encountered would be armed with anything more than bows and arrows and hand weapons. He had a bad feeling about something, what he couldn’t exactly say, but he was certain it had something to do with the two trappers’ passage upriver. Somewhere along the way they’d fallen into trouble, and something had happened that they weren’t telling. And they wouldn’t tell it, either, not until they had to. By then it may well be too late.
“Ahem,” came a slight cough from behind, and Colter turned around. Immediately a smile came to his face.
“Sacagawea!” he nearly shouted, rushing up to the young Shoshone Indian woman, though even with Jean Baptist – Pomp – fastened to her back, he still mostly thought of her as a girl.
She smiled up at him, those cheeks over hers going slightly red. “I wanted to say goodbye to you, John Colter.”
“Well I’m mighty glad you did, ma’am!” Colter said with a laugh. He began to look about a bit.
“Charboneau is still sleeping,” she said, as if anticipating what he’d ask next, then scrunched up her nose. “Oh…how much did you make him drink last night, John Colter!”
“Whoa, you’ll have to ask George about that one!” the mountain man said with another laugh, his hands up in protest as he backed away.
Sacagawea smiled. “I will miss you.”
Colter smiled back. “I’ll miss you too.”
He turned about, wanting to wave at Joe or Forest to get their attention, to introduce them to the young Indian girl that’d done so much for the men of the expedition, but they were too far down the bank talking with George and John at the moment. Colter turned back and…
“Gone,” he said when his eyes fell on the empty spot where Sacagawea was just standing. There wasn’t much about, some scrub and a few stunted trees, but the girl had done it to him again – just up and disappeared. He shrugged and got back to the canoe.
10 – Outfitting
It was a North canoe, that’s the only way Colter could really describe it. It was smaller than the Montreal canoes used by the voyageurs, the men that transported the furs from the frontier back to the edges of civilization. Those craft stuck mainly to the Great Lakes and the Ottawa River and were 36 feet in length and a good 6 feet wide. They could carry 3 tons, but the North canoes were much smaller, and this thing that Colter was staring at was even smaller still.
Where a North canoe might be 25 feet long, this one wasn’t even 20 by the looks of it, and just barely 4 feet wide. The mountain man would be surprised if they could hold a thousand pounds in her, and with the three of them and the supplies, they’d only have enough room for 400 pounds of furs at the most. Once again Colter frowned and shook his head at the level of unpreparedness the two fur trappers had shown in getting this far, as well as the captains’ bailing them out. While helping them was the honorable thing to do, Colter didn’t really see it any differently as catching a man a fish each day for lunch. It’d be much better to teach the fool to do it for himself, but then the captains had never liked fish anyways. Colter sighed.
The boat certainly wasn’t anything like the Red Pirogue had been, the one Colter had set out from back in Pittsburgh on that last day of August 1803. The mountain man chuckled to himself at the memory – would it really be three years now just next week?
He shook the thought from his head, but not the picture of that boat. It’d been a long craft, carrying twelve men including Captain Lewis. They’d hired a pilot to take them over the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville, something that sent the expedition back $70. The taxpayers, Captain Clark would have been quick to remind Colter if he’d said anything different.
The craft had been more than 40 feet long with a beam of 9 feet, and she could carry nearly 10 tons. Yet she couldn’t withstand the elements. Colter still remembered the captains bickering over whether to leave the boat behind near the Marias River the previous June or not. In the end they’d elected to, and it’d cost them – upon arriving back the next July and checking in on where the pirogue had been stashed, the men found it completely decayed.
There’d be no risk of that this trip, Colter knew as he stared down at the canoe before him. They’d keep the craft close to them always, for it was their one connection back to the world, a tether to civilization, one that could not be cut. Colter bit his lip as he thought on the subject and contrasted the two levels of preparedness. Hearing footsteps fast approaching behind him tore him from those thoughts.
“Captains Lewis and Clark are outfitting us well,” Joe said as he drew near. Colter didn’t bother to turn around as the trapper came up past him and dropped yet another crate of provisions into the boat.
“They can afford to,” the mountain man said, “we were conservative the whole voyage and got more trade with the Indians than we’d expected.”
“These Mandans sure are friendly,” Joe said as he got the crate secure, “more so than that tribe to the south.”
Colter nodded. “The Arikaras are one to steer clear from.” He narrowed his eyes and looked down at Joe. “I still can’t believe you two managed to sneak past them on your own.”
“I told you,” Joe said, his voice up and his eyes as well as he gave Colter a hard look, “we slipped by silently at night, paddling as quietly as a pair of ducks in a pond.”
Colter shrugged. “Didn’t say you didn’t, just said I couldn’t believe it is all.”
“You sure the hell don’t believe Joe and me carried that dugout up onto our backs and over a couple a miles, do you?”
Colter turned around to see Forest coming up, several muskets in his hands, as well as a McCormick pistol. He narrowed his eyes and pointed at it.
“That’s the captain’s gun.”
Forest nodded as he reached him and came to a stop. “And this one here’s Clark’s. Captain Lewis said they’d not be needin’ them now, not with as peaceful as the river’s become in the past two years.”
“Has it?” Colter said, giving Forest a hard look.
The fur trapper looked up and matched him stare for stare. “Aye, that it has.”
The two men’s eyes remained locked for another few moments until Forest scoffed and then shouldered his way past the mountain man.
“Pardon,” he said over his shoulder as Colter staggered back on one foot.
The mountain man frowned, but bit his lip and held his tongue. Already Forest was getting on his nerves, but he’d already gotten his discharge papers and the captains were loading them down. What was he to do – back out now? He swallowed his pride, but not his dignity, and turned around to face Forest, who was now in the boat.
“Listen you son of a bitch, I may be guiding you up the Missouri but I’m not your servant and I sure the hell ain’t your slave. If you want me guiding you two then I expect to be treated with some respect, you got that?”
Colter stood staring straight at Forest, in the boat and with the muskets still in his hands. The trapper laughed, and looked to Joe, who was staring with eyes wide at the mountain man, as if he’d never heard someone speak to Forest like that before.
Forest looked back to Colter and laughed again, but nodded. “You’ll get your respect, don’t you worry about that. For now why don’t you get the rest of our supplies.”
Colter frowned. He wasn’t sure he’d be making it through the winter with these two.
11 – Up the River
The terrain began to change as the men progressed. That first night they camped on the banks, but not a lot of talk was traded back and forth. When asked a question, Colter would answer, but he just didn’t have much to say. He supposed that if any of the men of the expedition had to describe him they’d use just three words: shy, quiet and reserved. He couldn’t blame them, for he’d use the same three words himself. What was there to talk about, after all, besides the same things over and over? When you were out in the wilds there was only so much small talk you could make. The men of the expedition had used theirs up after a few weeks. Colter saw that the three of them had used theirs up in the first hours.
The next morning they’d gotten up early, ready to hit the river and make some ground. They had a long way to go, that was one of the things Colter had made clear to them soon after they’d set out from the Mandan Villages. And he’d been clear to them that they’d have a choice of which river to go down. Neither Joe nor Forest had liked the idea of deciding on river’s they didn’t know, however, so it’d been left to Colter. Colter himself had fretted about which river to take, but in the end it’d been an easy decision. The Blackfeet had been around the upper reaches of the Missouri and down into its three forks, and that meant the Yellowstone was more of an attractive proposition to him. Convincing Joe and Forest of that would take some work…or at least Colter had thought it would. In the end it’d just been the offhand mention of friendlier Indians, primarily the Crow, A’anninen and Hidatsa, that’d done most of the convincing. Not for the first time did Colter wonder if the men weren’t telling him about something, so easy had that decision been.
The more the mountain man thought upon it, he wondered how much these men knew of the river they were on. They sure didn’t seem to know the tribes that called it home, but then most leaving St. Louis didn’t. After leaving the last vestiges of civilization, the Arikara village would be the first that travelers would see on their route northward on the Missouri. It was 1,440 miles from St. Louis, with its palisade built out of cedar logs and its nearby fields, cultivated and ready for harvest. The village was stationary, and something anyone coming northward on the river couldn’t miss. It was also known that the tribe was hostile, especially to small groups. Colter was still curious as to how the two trappers made it past.
After that it was the Mandan village, further upriver about fifty miles or so. The Mandan had a lighter complexion than most plains Indians, and brown hair to boot. Many thought they resembled the Welsh, and some even went so far as to say there were part of some “lost band” of the Welsh. Colter wasn’t convinced.
Past the Mandan village there was a Hidatsa or A’anninen village, perhaps one and the same, though Colter wasn’t sure. Following that, there were known to be roaming bands of Assiniboine, a tribe that shunned villages in favor of mobile travel dominated by the collapsible tepee tents. They ranged to the northwest of the Yellowstone, however, so Colter didn’t expect to run across any.
The days went on as they progressed northward, paddling their way through the currents, passing by the beautiful scenery. Trees clung to the riverbank and animals were plentiful on the river’s shore. Antelope, coyotes, black bear, and moose. Hawks overhead, kestrels and eagles too. Not a single Indian brave yet, however, though Colter couldn’t say he minded. They’d have several days of moving north followed by quite a few moving west. Then the Missouri would branch off to form the Yellowstone River, which would flow southwestward for hundreds of miles, and itself branch off into a quite a few tributaries. It was the ideal trapping area, and Colter fully expected the three of them to make a killing. Along the way travelers would pass through the “heart of the Crow country” though that bothered few as the tribe was as peaceful as could be. The Sioux and Cheyenne were also present, as were the Blackfeet. Besides that, Nez Perce, Shoshone and Bannocks all ranged into the valley from across the Rockies, following the game that flocked their during the winter months.
Forest and Joe seemed to know little of that, but Colter couldn’t much fault them – he’d known less coming through two years earlier. He did know now, however, that the Yellowstone was the river to take. It might not prove more profitable than the larger Missouri, but it would prove safer, Colter knew that. Oh yes, what the Yellowstone lacked in beaver it certainly made up for in hospitality. The Crow had large tepees that could be quite inviting, the most graceful on the plains so said their neighbors, but they also had the terrible propensity to steal any horse they saw, so their neighbors cursed endlessly. None of that concerned Colter too much though, mainly because they had no horses.
The mountain man frowned when he thought upon that, and also at the aching in his shoulders. One of the reasons the Missouri was more attractive than the Yellowstone was the easier current. There was little to do for that, however, but grin and bear it. Colter put his back into it and did just that.
12 – Through the Years
The days passed and the men made their way. Progress was near-continuous, as the badlands they were moving through weren’t the spots for trapping. Eventually the Missouri straightened out, and then split. The men took the passage on their left and soon found themselves moving south. The ground became greener and less white, and trees appeared once again. The current also increased. Moving down the Yellowstone could be dangerous, what with its more rapid pace, faster water-flow and fewer slack-water eddies. Fewer, but not none, and they were coming on a set now.
“Look sharp there,” Colter said as he pointed ahead, off the bow and forward another hundred yards or so. There were some eddies coming into view, the water going from calm to rough and then a swirl that could suck you about, turn you over. An eddy could form on either side of a river or upside, in front of or behind a boulder. They typically flowed in the opposite direction from the rest of the river and could be violent.
“I see ‘em,” Joe said from behind.
“Forest?” Colter asked, glancing over his shoulder slightly.
“Aye,” the second trapper said.
Colter frowned. He’d come to expect little in the way of conversation, at least when it was something he couldn’t boast of or highlight his role in, at least.
Colter shook off the thoughts, and the men behind him put theirs aside as well. They rode out the rough patch in the river, but not the extent of Forest’s stories. The man went on endlessly and had been for the past several days now. Always it was about nothing. Most of his tales revolved around Virginia or Pennsylvania or the wilderness states around them. He never mentioned anything interesting and…
“Boone, eh!” Colter shouted, a big smile on his face as he caught the latest snippet in Forest’s endless conversation with himself. “Hell, I haven’t seen ol’ Daniel Boone since he and ol’ Simon Kenton were leading expeditions up the Ohio.”
“That was before Little Turtle’s War,” Joe pointed out from behind them, “back in the 80s.”
Colter nodded, but didn’t really hear. The mention of Boone had brought up Kenton in his mind, and that made him think back to George.
What the hell is ol’ Drouillard doin’ right about now? Colter thought as he tightened his grip on his oar. They were heading up to a bend in the river and it looked like there more rapids ahead.
“Let’s switch up spots here, Forest,” Colter said, and the trapper nodded. Some scooting and scurrying and soon Colter was in the middle of the boat and Forest up front. The trapper’s stories kept right on coming, now that he knew he had an audience. Colter kept thinking along his own train of thought.
George’s dad, Pierre Drouillard, had saved Kenton at Sandusky after the Shawnee had forced the poor man through the gauntlet for days straight. Colter chuckled to himself. Of course if Kenton had died instead of being adopted into the tribe then he’d never have scouted for George Rogers Clark in ’78, something that allowed the commander to capture Fort Sackville and be forevermore known as the ‘Conqueror of the Northwest.’ William Clark had spoken often during the expedition about his older brother, and how he’d done more than any other to win so much land from the British in that campaign, although it wouldn’t be formalized until the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The Thirteen Colonies were nearly doubled in size by the measure, William Clark had often said around the campfire at night – especially if he’d been in his cups – though it was an assessment that Meriwether Lewis often downplayed, out of hearing of Clark after his companion had sobered up a bit, of course.
Colter sighed as he thought back on it all. After that George Rogers Clark took more interest in Simon Kenton, which meant he had more work back home in Ohio. That lead to more men, and that’d been how Colter had come to his attention. After all, he was looking for men that knew their way around the wild and around a gun, and everyone agreed the young John Colter was that man. From there he’d travelled in the circles he’d needed to, and come to the attention of those he needed to come to.
“Yep, that damn Daniel Boone,” Forest said.
“Oh, c’mon!” Joe said, and he and Colter both looked forward, hoping the surly trapper would turn about to see their cold looks.
“What!” Forest said. “If I had my daughter kidnapped by Shawnee and I rode in and saved her, I’d be a hero too.”
Joe shook his head. “Don’t be daft, Forest – ain’t no woman stupid enough to have your daughter.”
“Or bed ya,” Colter said, and the two men immediately fell to laughing.
In front of them Forest just stewed.
“Oh, what’s the matter, Forest,” Joe said after a few moments, taking pity on him.
“That damn Boone!” Forest shouted, unable to hold his anger in any longer. “Never should’ve moved us from Kentucky to New Spain in ’99, never! We were doing just fine back along the Little Sandy River, just fine, mind you! But no, for Boone it was never good enough, and the chance to be a judge!”
“And if it was never for Boone and who he knew then we’d never have heard of Lewis and Clark and we’d never be here now,” Joe said, his exasperation plain.
“So you started out in 1803, then?” Colter asked.
Joe shook his head. “1804, wintered north of Council Bluffs, and had a hell of a time of it.”
“Couldn’t find nothin’ to trap, huh?”
“Ha!” Forest laughed from behind them. “We found plenty – it was stolen!”
“Stolen?” John said, his brows scrunching up. He’d heard mention of hit, but never the full account.
Ahead of him, Joe nodded. “We were flat broke and busted and had nothin’. We joined Charles Courtin’s band of trappers that spring and went all through the season with ‘em, finally wintering with the Teton Sioux further up the Missouri.”
“God, what fools we were!” Forest shouted out.
“What happened this time?” Colter said. He felt like laughing, but felt it’d be bad form.
“Sioux robbed us all blind, and we were lucky to make it out alive.”
“Many didn’t,” Forest said, “and Joe there came damn close to being one.”
Colter looked back at the quiet trapper, and Joe nodded before pulling up his shirt.
“Took a damn Indian javelin right in the side,” he said, tracing his finger over a thick, red scar just above his waist.
“Damn!” Colter said, and Joe nodded again.
“Was laid up for most of the spring with that.” He shook his head “Vowed it’d be the last time I got on the wrong side on an Injun.”
“And we were just starting to get back on our feet and into a bit of profit from the summer when you men rolled back down the river,” Forest said from the back.
Colter nodded. August 12 was the day Lewis had said he’d met them, and he’d mentioned how they’d just wanted some powder and lead to replace what they’d lost fighting some Sioux over the winter. Now here they were, and moving back into the wilderness.
“Look alive,” Forest said from the prow of the boat, “we’ve got some rapids coming up here.”
13 – Riding the Rapids
The river waters foamed white and roared their displeasure at being thwarted in their journey by the rocky ground all around.
“Left!” Colter yelled, and the three men switched their paddles over to the left side of the canoe, causing them to move right, out of the way of a jagged boulder piercing the calm of the placid blue water, the last before the maelstrom began.
They were heading up into the rockier section of the Missouri at a dusty section of the flatlands, and Colter knew full-well from heading through once before and then hitting it up the other way, that it could get dicey.
“More, more to the left!” he yelled out.
“Damn boulder comin’ up right on the left side of us!” Forest yelled from his spot at the front of the canoe.
“I know!” Colter yelled back, loud enough to be heard over the increasing roar of the river, as well as for Joe to hear behind as well. That was another thing he’d picked up from his years on the river – every man of the operation had to know what was going on, no matter their pay grade, rank or what they were doing. It only took a second for all hell to rain down, and he’d seen it happen a few times before. Without the clearheaded guidance of the captains he’d have seen it a lot more, and he didn’t mean to give these parts a sight of what bad leadership looked like now that he was in effect the boss.
“What the hell you mean you know!” Forest shouted back.
“I mean there’s no way that boulder’s suckin’ us in, not with how that water’s kickin’ up around here!” Colter yelled back.
“Just do what he says, Forest, you damn fool!” Joe shouted from the back of the boat.
Forest gave a halfhearted look of disgust over his shoulder, but at the same time he started paddling harder to the left. The men got closer to the large boulder that looked sure to take them, but then just as Colter had said, once they got into its large wave they were pushed right away…something that caused them to dodge two smaller rocks sticking out of the water to their right.”
“Well I’ll be!” Colter heard Joe say with a whistle from behind him, and he couldn’t help the small smile that crept onto his face.
The rest of the trip through that funnel of rapids was quick and easy, with Forest not offering a word of dissent any time a decision came up that he didn’t quite think made sense. Colter liked it that way, he realized, and he hoped it happened more often. He wasn’t sure if Forest felt the same way, however.
They continued on and came up and around a bend.
“Well, will you look at that…” Forest started before trailing off.
“Gen de Fasche,” Colter said, drawing the two trappers’ eyes to him, “A’anninen, the White Clay People.”
He nodded before him, and as the bend in the river gave way, more and more of the wide village came into view. It was row upon row of tepees, probably a good five dozen, if the two awestruck men had to guess. They’d been told no such villages existed this far north, but there one was, with people of all ages milling about.
“The A’anninen,” Colter said again. “Means White Clay People, though the French call them Gen de Fasche. That in turn’s been misinterpreted as Gros Ventre, or big bellies.” Colter shook his head, remembering how Charboneau had told him the truth of the tribe’s name, and how it’d been corrupted by French traders, too ignorant to know the intricacies of their own language, let alone that of a native people they most often hardly knew. Colter smiled slightly when he thought of the trapper and his young wife, Sacajawea, and their young baby, Pomp. He wondered where they were now, if they were nearing in on St. Louis, had even reached it possibly. His thoughts were interrupted as some Indian braves appeared ahead of them on the bank.
“Take it easy,” Colter said as he saw Forest tense up in front of him, “these are peaceful Indians, the kind that like to trade before taking.”
“It’s the taking that’s got me worried,” Joe said behind him.
Colter just shook his head at that, and helped steer them toward the bank. As he’d expected, the young braves helped them ashore, and then began talking. Colter looked to the two men.
“Either of you speak any Indian languages…French?”
Joe nodded. “A little French, but just what I’ve picked up on the river.”
“It’s probably more than I’ve picked up,” Colter said.
“Aye, me too,” Forest added.
Colter nodded his head toward the Indians. “Try it on ‘em.”
The three men were sitting in the canoe before the four braves. Each was armed, but they hadn’t made to do anything. Colter knew they wouldn’t, but somehow the men beside him still seemed skittish, like they hadn’t dealt with Indians before. That was silly, though – how’d they get this far up the river! Colter shook the thought away as Joe started to talk.
“Bonjour…les salutations…parlez-vous anglais ou en français?”
The Indian repeated some of the words, then said a few more.
The Indians nodded at that.
“What’d you say?” Forest asked.
“Just that we want to trade, and they’re all for the idea,” Joe said.
“But we don’t really want to trade…do we?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Colter said, clapping Forest on the shoulder, “let’s just get to someone worth talking to.”
14 – A Meeting
Whoops and hollers greeted their approach to the village, and within a few moments the three whites were surrounded by young children, old men, and toothless women. At least that’s what it seemed to the two trappers and the lone mountain man. Forest was rather disgusted, wondering what’d happened to all the young women, while Colter and Joe were more concerned with the braves. There were few about, besides those that were guiding them.
The Indians were friendly enough, and seemed to want a look at the whites more than anything. It was clear to Colter that few trappers had been this way in some time, though he knew some had. He hoped that would make their meeting with the chiefs all the more favorable, both for their health and their pockets.
It didn’t take long to get to a large tent in the center of the village. It was painted with hand-signs and buffalo and had a large opening at the top. Smoke was coming forth from it, and more issued forth when their lead guide pulled open the flap and headed inside. The next went and then the third gestured for the men to go in. Colter did so first.
Inside were large buffalo pelts laid out, as well as a few smaller wolf pelts. They were circled around a large fire that was itself surrounded by rocks. On one side were two horses in a rudimentary pen, most likely the chief’s. Behind the fire sat three old men, each passing a large wooden pipe back and forth. There were a few younger men on either side of them, perhaps their children or village warriors, Colter thought, though he knew the real power lay with those three, and probably just one.
He bowed slightly, and gestured for Forest and Joe to do the same. The three chiefs bowed their own heads at the gesture and proceeded to puff on their pipe once again. After a moment the lead guide that had met them at the river spoke up. He said something in French, gestured at them, then waved down at the furs on the floor.
“He’s telling them we’re trappers,” Joe said.
“Right,” Forest said gruffly, and with a bit of mock laughter. That drew the eyes of the Indians in the tent, and he quickly wished he hadn’t.
“Ask them what they have to trade,” Colter said to lighten the mood again, and Joe did his best to translate. The guide nodded and said something to the chiefs, who said a few more words and gestured toward the door. The men looked back to see the tent flap open, and a few young maidens walk in.
“My, oh my…” Forest said, trailing off as his mouth fell open.
The women were long-haired and thin of body and face. Their eyes were the most sensuous Colter had seen in some time, and he immediately knew they were at a disadvantage in their negotiations.
He turned to Joe. “Tell them we’re interested in goods, not women.”
“Uh….I…we…” Joe was about as flabbergasted at the sight as Forest was.
Colter looked over to see the chiefs chuckling. “Damn it,” he muttered under his breath, then looked back to Forest. Forest kept looking over at the women, and finally Colter nudged him with his toe. The gesture wasn’t lost on the chief, who smiled and pointed over at the women. He muttered a few more words, raised up some pelts, and smiled and waved them toward the women.
“What’d he say?” Forest said, his foot itching and scraping in the tent’s dirt floor, like a bull ready to charge.
Joe rubbed at his head. “Uh…I can’t make it out too much…but…”
“But those women are for sale, hot damn, I knew it!” Forest shouted out, then spun about and grabbed hold of Colter’s coat, pulling the mountain man closer.
“We’ve got to trade with ‘em, John, we’ve got to!”
“Take it easy, man!” Colter said with disgust, pushing the crazed trapper off himself. A round of chuckling could be heard from the Indians seated around, and they happily puffed away at their pipes, content to watch the rare display. They knew the effects their young maidens could have on men it seemed, and they knew how it could drive a hard bargain right on through to a grand conclusion, and quite easily at that.
The chief muttered a few more words and Joe finally shook his head, giving up. “Hell, he’ll trade the women for wives or lovers or just one night for all I can tell!” the trapper said.
“One night’s all a sane man could put up with, if you ask me,” Colter said.
“Just give me five minutes,” Forest said, nearly tearing forward right then and there, except Colter held him back.
“C’mon,” the mountain man said with several shakes of his head, “let’s get out of here.”
Colter took Forest out while Joe tried to assuage the chiefs over his friend’s protestations. The old men just laughed, while in the corner the women cooed.
15 – A New Outlook
“Let’s go back, we can still go back, let’s go back I tell ya…aw, hell!”
Colter had been firm with Joe, that neither of them were to answer or even acknowledge Forest’s words. The words had grown less because of it, and now several hours up the river, they were happening only every ten minutes or so as opposed to every second.
It’d been hell dragging the man back to the canoe, but Colter had done it, while behind him Joe had done his best to shake off the laughing women and children that were trailing behind. Forest was reaching out for every woman he could at that point, and it was clear to Colter that the man would spend every fur he’d trapped on those women in the village this winter, and probably half their guns too! Colter therefore wanted to put as much distance between the village and themselves as they could. If he had to walk a few days in the snow, the mountain man knew, Forest would be much less inclined to take off toward the place. And when the rivers froze over in another couple of months, that’s the only option he’d have.
“We can still go back,” Forest said from the middle of the boat, where Colter had put him. He’d refused to paddle, so having him at his usual spot at the bow wasn’t an option.
The mountain man scoffed and shook his head as they headed further up the Yellowstone River, wondering if the other whites that had come through the area had had similar problems. He couldn’t help but think of the whites that had gone this way before. There were few, he knew that from when he’d first travelled this general route two years before with the expedition, but now after the meeting with the A’anninen he knew there’d been others. The Mandans and A’anninen had both told of a Frenchman by the name of Francois Antoine Larocque who’d come through the area just the previous year, 1805 Colter supposed it was after a quick calculation. He’d been so long without a calendar or regular schedule that even the years were fading into meaninglessness.
The Crow had learned of him first, it’d seemed, after their annual visit to the Hidatsa and A’anninen for trade. It’d been there that a deal was struck to allow Larocque and one other from the Northwest Company to join up with six hundred Absoroka Indians as they moved back to their home area. That’d taken the trapper across the Tongue, and that meant he’d been in the area of the Yellowstone, and had in fact come down the Big Horn River as well. After that he’d done some more trading, hopped back on the Missouri, and was gone.
The captains had learned that there had been others, however. It seemed there was a French trapper named Pardo who came into contact with the Sioux around the late-1790s. It was there that Pardo ran into another European named Charles Le Raye, one that’d been captured by another band of Sioux somewhere around the Osage River in 1802. They’d taken him as a captive up the Missouri, though after a time he’d earned their chief’s trust and was given more freedom, and even a musket to hunt with. When Pardo reached them it was agreed Le Raye could show him about the area, and that’s when they’d headed down the Yellowstone in search of furs. Along the way they’d run into a village of Crow Indians, one that had forty-three huts in it. Colter had remembered the telling well when Drouillard had related it to him, for it was no secret the men were thinking of coming back to the area themselves. Now Colter was suddenly there.
Le Raye had seen quite a few captives during his time. There were Flatheads from across the Continental Divide, and also Shoshone from even further west. Lots of Indians all over, most peaceful, but, Colter reminded himself, some not. No doubt the women in the A’anninen village had been captives as well. Colter knew that captives and castoffs were often shunned, and had to do whatever they could to survive. Shacking up with a fur trapper for the winter increased their likelihood of survival, increased it a lot.
Colter wasn’t sure all that was the life for him, however, fur-trapping long-term…he wasn’t sure he was the right type for it. There were two main types of mountain men, the company man and the free agent. Still, both company men and free agents operated through the company system, one that encouraged them to sell to the company and buy supplies from them as well. So there was always that dependence, never that freedom. And that’s how he’d been hearing about it since before he’d even gotten to St. Louis for the first time all those years ago.
The company man worked for one of the fur companies – most likely operating out of Canada or along the Pacific Coast, and either French or English – and he had to accept whatever price they’d give him for his furs. The company man also found himself taking orders from company representatives and agents more often than not, either by telling him where to go or which specific furs to focus upon. The free agent was beholden to none but the market, and could seek out the best price he could find. That is, if he could fid a price and if he could get his wares back to that market. Even the men around St. Louis and the lower-Missouri had been having troubles with that, and that’d been in 1804. Colter was sure the West had opened up more since then, and with it the amount of competition. It was likely fur prices had dropped close to bottom now as it was, if they were still being sought at all. Every time Colter thought of the animal he never thought of a comfortable garment, that was for sure.
The price of the furs was often set by the company, and at lower-than-market rates, perhaps $1.50 a pound or less. Those mountain men that were able to operate as free agents, however, received up to $2 per pound or even more. George had hinted to him that $5 a pound wasn’t far off, but Colter had laughed that one off real quick. Even at $2 it just wasn’t even a contest, as far as Colter could see. Acting as a free agent was the way to go, and he was getting a taste of it. So far it was a lot of bellyaching from Forest and dithering from Joe. The latter meant well, but he could in no way stand up to the bullying nature of his companion. Colter vowed that he’d get through the winter, getting as much fur for himself as he could, enough so he could start fresh come spring. The city of St. Louis wasn’t far off, and he meant to be there, with or without his current companions.
16 – The Beaver
The men rode down the Yellowstone, backtracking a bit in their quest for beaver. The animals were about, but it was just a question of where. One thing was clear – they weren’t on the main Yellowstone, but the smaller tributaries and branches that stuck off from it. These were too small and didn’t go far enough to be charted or called anything, so they were useless and a waste of time for the explorer. But for the trapper they were gold, a furry kind. That’s where the beaver could be found.
For the past few days the men had been going downriver, stopping here and there so one or two could get out and search those branches and offshoots. Most of the time it was Colter and Joe, the former because he had the most experience in these parts, the latter because Forest wanted it that way. It was becoming all the clearer to Colter that Forest was the boss of Joe, and that Forest didn’t much like work either. He sure liked to complain, though.
“They’re rascally varmints, that’s for sure!” Forest laughed from his spot at the head of the boat. He slapped his hand down on his thigh for good measure, imitating the whack a beaver might give a piece of wood, or a good stretch of water if it was angry enough or working hard enough. FWAP!
“John,” I’ll tell ya,” Joe said, looking up at Colter with an enthusiastic look on his face, like a young boy that had a story he just had to tell, “we was down trappin’ around the Niobrara and one fella had his whole right hand gone.”
“Chewed off by the biggest damn beaver he’d ever seen,” Forest added from the front of the boat. He slapped that hand down on his thigh again for good measure. FWAP!
Joe chuckled at that, and muttered under his breath as the men settled down and cast their eyes to the riverbanks once again. Colter thought he heard him mumble “damn things, worth a lot of trouble for what they’re worth.”
Colter chuckled to himself. He never could understand why the rodents were so prized. Their furs made for top-heavy, ungainly hats, though in posh places like London and Paris they served as the epitome of elegance. The mountain man chuckled again. If only those folks knew the proud creature they flaunted so much.
The beaver of the Upper Missouri and its Rocky Mountain tributaries was truly a sight to behold. Colter never would forget the first few he’d seen when they’d been heading up into the wilds, nor the amazing structures the creatures built up on the sides of rivers, and often over large parts as well. The critters were like a rat, though larger and with different tails. The tails were a tool more than anything, used for paddling, steering like a rudder, and slapping and patting down mud for their dams. It was used to warn as well, and many times the men of the expedition had been thwarted in their attempts to catch the animals because of a well-sounded ‘FWAP!’
The hind legs of the beast were webbed, the better to swim with, while the front paws were clawed and perfect for clutching sticks. Usually the animals would clutch them to their chests while paddling furiously with their back legs to move through the water. Sometimes when the going was tough they’d tuck the bundle under their chins and put all four legs to work.
The creatures were perfect at gnawing on wood, and that was because of their teeth. They only had enamel on the outside, something that allowed the edges to achieve razor sharpness. And the jaws were even more powerful than the traps used to catch them. Thank goodness the animals only cowered in fear when cornered, and didn’t put up any fight – one bite and a hand could well be crushed for good. Or gone, as Joe claimed.
Their dams truly were a marvel of engineering, and one Colter would truly never fully understand. That didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate them, however, and he’d done so, hours at a time it seemed, when the creatures went about their task. The fact that they typically built their dams in the dark, after the sun had gone down and even in the wee hours of the morning, often without any moonlight, was also something to behold…when you could see it. The creatures didn’t take too well to torches, and the slightest hint of a flame would send them underwater mighty quick.
As near enough as he could tell, the beaver built the dams first by erecting a system of poles, each one anchored to the bottom of the river, stuck into the mud as far as possible. That’s what Colter supposed, for he had no way of knowing and certainly wasn’t going to dive down to check. From there he suspected that branches were taken down and anchored to those poles, slowly at first but then in greater number as a latticework of twigs, sticks and river debris was built up. The weave had to be tight, for there could be no seepage of water. Clumps of grass took care of that, and they in turn were covered over with clumps of mud. At that point the little critters had quite the watertight design.
It was clear the things were smart, too, and changed their designs based on conditions. For instance, Colter had seen straight dams built across calm streams, but curved dams across those that had a swifter current or rapids to contend with. Some of the dams had even been hundreds of feet in length, the work of a generation, perhaps a few. And there were even dams more ancient than that, with their bottoms now petrified into almost solid stone by the looks of it, the true work of decades or even centuries. The effect on the surrounding land was clear. Canals sprouted out from the larger dams, with waterways crisscrossing and bisecting a whole range of wetlands, wetlands that wouldn’t exist without the industrious creatures.
By the time winter came the animals were set. The vast canal network branching out from the larger dams filled a section of woods and enabled the beaver to move to and fro easily, gathering the bark they needed to make it through the winter. The precious food would be ferried back to the dam and placed underwater around it, something that made it easily accessible when the rivers froze over. After all, each dam had a hidden passage that led far away from it, and which afforded the protection from the elements the animals needed.
The beaver’s work didn’t end when the freeze set in, however. On the contrary, the dams had to be maintained, the burrows and canals excavated of debris; trees needed to be gnawed to the right size, food stores had to be gathered; areas of damage were to be identified, and extra sticks for repairs had to be collected. It was a lot of work, and Colter had seen hours of it during the expedition. Forest and Joe hadn’t though, and he frequently caught the pair eyeing the larger dams, looks of amazement on their faces.
The two had trapped extensively further down the Missouri, but that stretch was a lot different than this primitive and wild land they were entering. Here it was a land right out of time, a place untouched by man, or at least the kind of man that always had money in his eye.
The beaver saw those dollar signs as well, and viewed them with trepidation and later fear. The creatures slapped their large tails down on the water whenever there was a hint of trouble. Colter often wondered if some mental message was sent as well, to those of its kin further upriver, a warning of sorts on what was to come.
“How ‘bout there?” Forest asked, pointing forward past Colter and knocking him from his reverie. The mountain man looked to where the trapper was pointing, a small offshoot of the river that looked to extend into a series of smaller streamlets further on.
He nodded. “Steer us over – Joe and I will have a look.”
17 – Dams
Colter and Joe split up after leaving Forest in the boat. Joe took the first set of offshoots while Colter travelled further. His path was a large streamlet, one that actually grew smaller as he went on. Everything told him to turn back, that it was a dead run…but something was tugging at him too. He couldn’t tell what it was, but he couldn’t ignore it either. He pressed on.
He figured he’d gone a couple hundred yards before coming to a rise. It rose steadily, though trees appeared in the distance, as if a gap was between them and the mountain man. Colter knew right away that there was a gap, probably from a larger stream or even another smaller tributary of the Yellowstone. He continued up and up, rising higher in elevation, until he was at the top, level with the tree branches twenty or more feet off the ground. And what was before him took his breath away.
It was a beaver dam, but then it couldn’t accurately be called a ‘beaver dam.’ It was more of a beaver area than anything, and the lay of the land proved it. There were several fallen trees, trees that looked to have been healthy. They were cut, Colter knew with one quick glance, cut by the razor sharp teeth of the beaver. They’d done it to dam up the river, and it’d worked, wondrously so. Water had spilled up and around the fallen tree, creating the wetland areas over dry that the animals loved so much. They could paddle around, grass and twigs just below their feet. They took those and built larger mounds, some homes, but most just further river impediments, stoppages and spillways. Oh yes, were there spillways! The water ran down the river, around the trees that’d been felled, and then over rocks and off of drops. Waterfalls were created, not one or two, but dozens. It was a water wonderland where before there’d just been another quiet offshoot stretch of the river passing through a towering stand of trees.
More than that, however, there were acres and acres of fallen and collected wood. Much was driftwood collected by the industrious animals, and it was stacked high in places, as much as ten or fifteen feet, the mountain man guessed. He was reminded of large sawmill areas he’d seen on riverbanks near the cities, with logs collected and castoff wood sitting in piles as far as the eye could see. That’s what these beavers had done, they’d created a huge area that said clearly to all, ‘beavers here, keep out.’
Colter scanned it and marked it well – this was a spot for beaver, and most likely a few families. It was a community, he thought, and one that hadn’t seen the insatiable appetites of all things fur that the Europeans and upper-class Americans so desired. Colter scoffed. And it’ll stay that way, he thought.
He picked up his rifle and secured his traps. He couldn’t say why, exactly – he’d never been romantic about the creatures before. It was just something about that area, the magnitude of it, the sheer accomplishment of it. Looking at what he judged to be the first tree to have fallen, Colter figured it’d been there for a century, at least. So overgrown with moss and covered with debris was it that it now seemed just another featureless-feature on the river’s shores. And featureless it would stay. Oh, he knew he couldn’t stop the inevitable push of the white man, but that push wouldn’t come today, and hopefully not for several days hence.
Colter was thinking those thoughts, the chains on his traps rattling slightly, when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye and froze. Turning his head he saw more movement, a beaver coming out. But this was no ordinary beaver, this was the king of all beaver as far as Colter was concerned. The creature came out on top of one of the mounds, one that Colter hadn’t noticed before but which he now saw was probably the most important, the lynchpin holding the whole thing together. And God, the sheer size of the thing! It had to be two feet tall and nearly as much wide, a good three times the size of an average beaver! A quick mental calculation allowed Colter to come to the conclusion that the critter’s pelt would be worth $8, a full $6 more than the typical $2 paid out.
Except that the pelt would be tinged with gray and silver, for this animal was old. It stared at Colter, chattered its teeth a bit and even beat down its tail. Colter wasn’t certain if the beast was mocking him or thanking him, but if he had to guess, he’d choose the latter. He’d always had a way with animals, at least if he wasn’t killing them, and this one seemed to sense it.
“You’re welcome, chief,” Colter said. He nodded at the thing and then turned his back and moved on.
Down the bank he went, back now toward the larger Yellowstone. It wouldn’t be long and he’d–
Colter stopped and turned, and saw that Joe was up ahead. He raised up his rifle in a half-wave and started forward.
“Anything that a way?” he asked when they’d covered the distance.
Colter shook his head, then looked over his shoulder. He thought of the giant beaver, the ‘Chief’ of the Yellowstone. He thought for a moment before turning back.
“This branch just runs off into nothing,” he said.
Joe nodded. “Lots of ‘em like that around here. C’mon – Forest has the canoe up ahead and figures we can check a few more before the sun gets low.
Colter nodded, and the two men headed back to the river.
18 – Trapping
For the next week the men moved up the Yellowstone, and at a pace a snail could beat. They went little more than a few miles a day, for they had to set their traps. That involved all three men charting off a course and going out, laying traps along streams and offshoots of the Yellowstone, and sometimes even on its banks. They’d been lucky so far, catching a fair amount, but nothing compared to what they expected to take once they reached the winter camp…wherever it lay. Colter was still a bit mum on that, but then he kept on saying that they had to focus on the task at hand.
Trapping was a tough business, and it was only getting tougher as the days got shorter, colder. The animals didn’t make it any easier, of course. The trick was in making sure the beaver didn’t drag the trap away to gnaw their way out of, or worse, get it down into a deep section of water where it and the animal sunk, neither to ever be retrieved again. It’d happened to both he and George on more than one occasion when they’d first started up the river, but they’d quickly found the answer. It lay in getting the animal to spring the trap not with their front legs, but with those powerful back webbed paws of theirs. To do that the trap had to be placed in the water. The best spots were just below a beaver slide, attached to a ring on one end of a chain that was attached to a small pole. Once the animal got its back paws in the trap would be sprung and the animal would kick and fight and cause the trap to fall further into the water, drowning the animal so it wouldn’t have to suffer, and also so it couldn’t escape. After that it was just a matter of going back to the trap and pulling up on the pole chain to retrieve the trap and quarry.
Of course a metal trap by itself wasn’t too appealing to the beaver, and that’s why it had to be baited. George had been one of the first to figure out that a stick smeared with castor oil was all it took. Simply lay that over the trip-pan and the animals couldn’t resist, especially if the oil had come from another beaver, females being the best. Sometimes that was even better than the water method, just putting a raised stick over a trap. Often the animals would rear up on their hind legs to reach the stick, stepping forward slowly. When they took one step too many there was no fighting or gnawing that was going to save that skin. Often the creatures would still be alive when the trapper came back, however, and that meant a swift bop on the head with the butt of a rifle or a large rock. Then the skinning could begin, the trap would be cleaned, and the process could start again, either in the same spot or somewhere further on. It was trapping – money and a way of life all rolled up into one.
If the men weren’t thinking of beaver they were thinking of food and shelter. The weather was getting colder as the days grew shorter, and game was already making itself scarce. And just like the captains, Colter noticed, both Forest and Joe seemed to hate fish. For some reason they felt going hungry was better than contending with the small bones. But then they probably weren’t used to eating much anyways.
The men’s diets consisted of about the same types of foods that were eaten by the Indians. They subsisted on the game they found and the fish they caught. Most of that game had come from Colter’s Kentucky Rifle so far, and it was easy enough – a good buck would give them a week or more of meat. Roots and berries also supplemented their fare. Then there was always pemmican, which was the lean meat from deer, dried over a fire or left out in the sun until it became hard. At that point it was pounded nearly into dust before being mixed with an equal amount of fat. Berries were sometimes beaten into powder and added, and the resulting mixture was stored in the men’s pouches for later consumption, usually when out checking the traps. The cold weather bit, but so did the hunger pangs. Pemmican might not sound like the most appetizing dish, but when game was scarce and the rivers and streams were all frozen, it came in quite handy.
The rivers would freeze soon, the smaller branches and offshoots. Then the mighty Yellowstone would see ice on her banks, clinging at first but then advancing further and further toward midstream. By the coldest time of the year there’d just be a thin stream showing, the rest of the water moving swiftly below the ice sheet all around.
Winter would be coming soon.
19 – Landfall
Several days later the sun was out, but the air was cold – winter would soon be arriving, and it was just the middle of October. The thought wasn’t sitting well with Joseph Dixon as he dipped his oar into the dark blue waters of the Yellowstone River again, but then nothing was sitting well with him. He shifted this way and that on his rudimentary bench at the front of the canoe, but no matter which way he sat, it did no good. So he shifted again, and again, and…
“Goddamn it, Joe – stop all that hoppin’ around up there!”
Joe frowned and turned to look over his shoulder. “I can’t help it,” he said to Forest, right behind him in the middle of the canoe, “my arse is killing me!”
“Ah…hell!” Forest said, smacking his oar down in the water for emphasis. “That damn ass of yours has been slowin’ us down for two days now!”
“I can’t help it!” Joe said, twirling around this time, his oar coming out of the water and creating a large wave of droplets all the while. He quickly winced in pain, and his next utterance was much more quiet. “I’ve got the piles.”
“Every ripple in this river knows that, the way you’ve been scooting that ass of yours from one side of the boat to the other!”
“Alright, alright!” Colter said from behind Forest in his position at the rear of the boat. “John’s got hemorrhoids, there’s nothing we can do about it.” He remembered well the time Captain Lewis had gotten a bad bout of piles on their way to the coast. Then Sacagawea had prepared a poultice from the Hamamelis virginiana tree, commonly called witch hazel, and he’d been right as rain the next day. Colter didn’t know if there was any witch hazel around these parts, but there was only one way to find out.
“What we can do is put him ashore and let him walk ‘em off, that’s what I say,” Forest said.
“That’s not a bad idea–”
“Hey!” Joe shouted from the front of the boat.
“…putting ashore,” Colter finished, giving a hard look to Joe and then Forest. “I figure we need to start thinking on a spot for the winter, and this seems like it’ll do just as well as any other.”
“Here?” Forest said, his face twisted up in a scowl as he surveyed the banks on each side of them. “There ain’t nothin’ here but shrubs, scrub and rock.”
“We get too much further ahead here on the Yellowstone and we’ll be into Blackfoot lands.”
Both Forest and Joe quieted down at that statement, and Colter figured any further protestations would stop.
“Besides,” he continued, “we’re getting up into the fork, and that signals the end of the road for us. From here on out we’ll make our winter camp and then begin our forays west, toward the three forks of the Missouri.”
“And right into the Blackfoot hunting grounds, isn’t that right?” Forest asked, for once with no scorn in his tone. It was just a straight question, the kind a man needed to ask to determine whether he wanted to keep on living or not.
Colter nodded. “That’s the area where Captain Lewis and his three men ran into ‘em, and killed one too.”
“But that’s where the furs are,” Forest said with a scoff, shaking his head from side to side while thinking.
“We could just stick to the Yellowstone, couldn’t we?” Joe asked, looking back to Colter, who nodded.
“Aye,” the mountain man said, “there’ll be plenty of pickin’s that are just fine, right around here. And don’t forget – we’ve still got to get this all back to St. Louis, and only with this here boat.”
“Oh, we’ve only got to get them within a few hundred miles of the city before we’ll run into traders that’ll take ‘em off our hands, and at just as fine a price we’d find in ‘ol St. Louie,” Forest said, then looked to Joe. “What’dya say? Get back what we lost to the Sioux downriver?”
Joe frowned, thinking back on the disastrous winter they’d had the year before, and how much it’d set them back so far. Colter watched the battle play out on his face, watched him struggle between his safety and his financial security. In the end, the money won.
“How ‘bout we get it back and then some?”
“Ha! That’s the spirit!” Forest laughed, and reached up to slap Joe on the back, which of course caused him to shift and that started up those aching hemorrhoids again.
“Ooh!” he said in pain, and both Forest and Colter began paddling them toward shore, smirks on their faces all the while.
20 – Travelling Pains
“Ee-yah!” Joe said as he lowered himself down onto a rock beside the fire.
“Oh, don’t be such a baby!” Forest said with a laugh as he put a kettle on. They’d chosen a clear spot behind some bushes and gotten a rough camp started. Sunset was closing in, and Colter hadn’t been seen since they’d landed nearly four hours before.
“Just thank your lucky stars you don’t got what I got,” Joe said through clenched teeth. He shifted this way and that and finally found a half-sitting, half-laying position that allowed him to get some warmth from the fire while keeping his backside from flaring up too much.
“Hmph,” Forest snorted to that, and continued to adjust the kettle over the fire, all the while looking up. The sky was darkening quickly already, and it was only the middle of October. It was a sure sign winter would be long and tough, and not for the first time did he wonder if venturing this far into the wild with so few and so little was such a good idea.
Oh well, he thought, there’s nothing to do for it now.
The men fell into a silence, each content to stick with his own thoughts. Joe and Forest had been together for two years now, and with little different each day, there really wasn’t much need for conversation. Colter was a nice addition to their pair, but he was quite solitary in nature and preferred to keep quiet most of the time. When he did talk, it wasn’t anything much more than a few words here and there. Unless he was agitated, of course, and as of late, Forest was agitating him more and more.
“When the hell you suppose he’ll be back?” Forest said just as the kettle was coming to boil.
“I was thinking of waiting for the coffee to get done,” a voice said from behind the bushes, “but I figured you couldn’t wait.”
Forest and Joe spun around to see Colter walk out from the bushes. There was a row of bushes in their spot, one that did a lot to conceal them from the stretch of prairie that came up just before the slight rise they were resting beside. The whole area was flat and open and treeless for the most part, but they were in a small depression that the river had created for itself over thousands of years. That did much to conceal them from the wider world.
“Found some,” Colter said, not waiting for either man to ask how he’d come upon them so quietly.
“Thank the Lord!” Joe cried out, his hands going up in a placating motion toward the sky.
“Witch Hazel?” Forest asked as Colter came up to the fire and took a rock. He opened his satchel and pulled out a few thick pieces of bark, then motioned with his head toward the kettle.
“Pour me a cup, will you?”
Forest obliged, and within moments Colter was stirring the bark into the hot liquid.
“Woo-hee!” Forest shouted, his fingers going up to pinch his noise.
“Can’t smell much worse than what’s already down there,” Colter said. He kept on stirring, though he was mashing more and more with the spoon he was using. He went on like that for several minutes, then nodded over at Forest. “Get me one of them big leaves from the bushes there, will ya?”
Forest frowned, but did as he was told. He came back a few moments later with a large specimen, and Colter scooped up some of the bark-liquid mishmash and smeared it on.
“Now what?” Forest said, screwing up his nose at what he was now holding in his hand.
“Now you can smear that on Joe’s ass.”
“Oh, no,” Forest protested, now holding the leaf and ointment out at arm’s reach.
“Well I’m not doin’ it!” Colter laughed.
“Here, give it to me!” Joe yelled, his voice nearly cracking in pain.
Forest nodded to that, a relieved look on his face, and quickly walked over to hand the leaf to his companion.
“Oh, sweet Jesus!” Joe said as he began to shimmy out of his pants and then drawers. Colter and Forest turned away as fast as they could.
“Aaahhh!” Joe cried out a moment later, and Colter chanced a look back. A quick glance at the trapper with his hand wedged in his ass made him regret it, however, and he was once again staring into the fire, same as Forest.
“Thank God, that feels better!” Joe said next, though neither man looked back again, even when they heard the pants being pulled back on.
“So now what?” Forest asked. “We landed, got the medicine we needed…are we gonna just sit here all winter? There’s no animals!”
“Oh, they’re here alright,” Colter said, lifting his head up to look around a bit at the bluffs, the bushes and the river.
“Not where I’m looking,” Forest said with a snort.
“Then you’ll have to look tomorrow, when I’m gone.”
“Gone?” Joe’s voice called out from behind them, and this time both men did look. The trapper was still lying down on his side, but his expression looked much-less pained.
Colter nodded and stared into the fire again. “It’s best if I scout on ahead, moving past the Yellowstone and overland to the Missouri.”
“How long will that take?” Forest asked, his voice level, filled less with acid and more with concern, for himself no doubt, Colter thought.
“Few days, week at most.”
“A week!” Joe cried out.
“Aye, seven days!” Forest shouted back at him, a hard look on his face. “We’ve done seven days, hell, we’ve done seven months!”
“So long as you stick with this area here, just along this part of the Yellowstone and down a ways on Clark’s Fork, then you’ll be fine.”
“And if we don’t?” Forest asked, a bit of his usual tone back.
“Then you might run into some Blackfoot,” Colter said with a shrug.
“Oh, and you won’t?” Joe said.
“I’m hoping to run into some Crow,” Colter said matter of factly, “or another friendly tribe that can point out the plum trapping areas…Assiniboine, maybe. I’m surprised we haven’t seen any other tribes around, actually.”
“They’re around?” Forest asked.
Colter looked over at him and nodded. “There are quite a few friendly tribes, from what we gathered moving through to the coast. The trick’s in finding them, and not having the other tribes find you.”
“Like the Blackfeet,” Dixon said, and Colter once again gave that silent nod of agreement.
“It’s already getting colder,” Forest said just as Colter stood up, “you think it might snow before you’re back?”
“Might,” Colter said, looking up at the sky, “it just might at that.”
21 – The First Snow
Colter squeezed the barrel of his Kentucky rifle and offered a silent prayer as he sat up in the tent. The first snows of winter were always the most surprising, and these that’d come in the night had taken him by surprise more than most.
He reached his hand forth and moved the crease of the tent aside, and immediately his eyes were blinded by white. He recoiled, the tent flap coming back, and some of that thankful-darkness returned again. But a sliver of light remained upon his face, and with fingers shielding eyes, he reached forth yet again and grabbed hold of the flap, then opened it.
It was snow, snow everywhere – on the trees, the rocks, the bushes and the branches. There was a fine, even white coat of the stuff and not a flake had been disturbed, not a creature’s foot set down. Only the river, moving ever forward swiftly and without mercy and rambling its delight all the while, stood unmolested, a cold testament to the fortitude of nature, and the many guises its elements could take.
Colter scrunched up his nose and bit his lip – he loved the sight, yet hated it all the same. It was the changing of the seasons, which brought life it was true, but also the beginning of the worst part of the year, and in the wilderness, that was the dying time.
Behind him Joe shuffled a bit and Colter turned back just as he sat up.
“Is that…is that what I think it is?”
Colter nodded. “More than you could ever hope for and more than you’d ever want – talking about it yesterday jinxed us.”
“A frosting or the real thing?” Forest said, coming awake quickly beside Joe.
“The real thing,” Colter said, shaking his head, “and it’ll keep on coming too, by the looks of it.”
Colter leaned his head out a bit further, the better to look up at the sky. The clouds were moving quickly overhead, though it was difficult to see, so white and grey and gloomy were they.
“An inversion,” Colter said, nodding up at them.
“A what?” Joe scoffed.
“An inversion,” Colter repeated, “it’s when the cold air we’re breathing gets trapped by a pocket of warmer air above. Since there’s more humidity where those two kinds of air are mixing, we get that fog…making it seem like we’re trapped.”
“Where the hell’d you hear that?” Forest laughed as he started to rise, his surly demeanor on full display today, a bit earlier than usual.
“Captain Clark,” Colter nodded to himself, still looking up at the sky, although now looking back a bit as well, through those months and years the men of the expedition had been together.
“What does it mean?” Joe said, a little more seriously than his friend. He knew the graveness of the situation, even if Forest just wanted to laugh about it.
Colter turned to look back at them. “It means we need to get up, get moving.”
He moved out of the tent and into the fresh snow, making the first footprints in it of the season. The other two men watched him and shook their heads. That damn Colter, they thought.
Let ‘em think it, Colter would’ve thought if he knew what was going through their minds. He’d been with the two men but two months and already they were wearing on him. Maybe it was the newness of them, something he hadn’t had in awhile. But then, there’d been plenty of Indians along the way he’d met and befriended, and of course Charboneau and Sacagawea. But then they weren’t hard-asses. No, check that – they weren’t hard-asses like Forest, who was grating on Colter’s nerves more and more each day, each hour almost. He didn’t know how on earth Joe had managed to stay with the man so long. Joe Colter liked, but in the way you’d like a young boy, one you didn’t have to look after. And with Joe, that’s exactly what it was – looking after. It wasn’t the piles, that could happen to anyone, but more his work ethic, or lack thereof. But there was something else, too, something Colter hadn’t been able to put his finger on at first, but which became more and more evident the further they got up the river. Joe was afraid, afraid of something, and it was as plain as day.
Colter sighed and let the thought die away as he stepped out into the snow, his moccasins crunching softly on the hard layer that’d frozen below the fresh stuff. They crunched more as he went the few steps to the fire, which was completely out, though the blackened wood wasn’t yet covered with snow. Colter frowned at it, for without fire they were as good as dead, at least if they weren’t moving. And if the winds were kicking up, there really was no hope without fire. The winds blew cold and fierce, and were unremitting in their intensity. They swept down from the north and cascaded into the Yellowstone River valley, whispering what was to come for the unwary, blizzards, and lots of ‘em. When that wind started howling you wore anything you could, no matter how it looked. Buckskin, woolen blankets, fur caps, leggings and anything else that might slow the terrible bite were the mountain man and trapper’s preferred attire, and no one who felt that weather ever questioned why.
Colter bent down to the pile of chopped logs and tree branches and wiped away the layer of snow, then started throwing them into the fire pit, which was nothing more than a spot they’d chosen because it held the least grass. He took a tuft of dry grass from beneath the snow and stuck it under a thin layer of branches. Reaching into his satchel he pulled out his iron and flint and after striking a few sparks had the tuft flaming. The twigs caught and then the branches and after a few minutes the half-charred logs from the night before were starting to burn again.
“Are you still going to leave?”
Colter looked over his shoulder to see Joe standing there, a buffalo robe wrapped around him. He nodded.
“Snow’ll slow you down, though.”
Colter nodded again and looked back at the growing fire. Slow him down it would, but it wasn’t something he minded.
“When do you think you’ll be back?”
“It’ll be seven days now, not just a few,” Colter said.
“Don’t act like we can’t make it on our own,” Forest said next, coming out of the tent in his long-johns to stand beside Joe.
“I think you’ll make it just fine,” Colter said as he grabbed the kettle and headed toward the river. Forest watched him go, a frown on his face. He’d be happy to see John Colter go for awhile, but afraid as well. The wilderness was a big place, and he had a nagging suspicion something wasn’t right. It all went back to that night on the river.
22 – A Grim Discovery
Snow Eye stopped, and the sound of his feet crunching sand on the riverbank ceased. He held his head steady, brushed the long black hair from over his ears. He could still hear the constant hum of the rushing waters beside him, but he could hear more, sense more, see…
“Hya!” came the cry, and from the darkness ahead of Snow Eye came a dark figure, brandishing an axe, that much he could see as the moonlight glinted off its head.
Snow Eye ducked down and put his arms up and grabbed hold of the man as he rushed forth – a Blackfoot, he assumed – and thrust him up into the air and over his shoulders. The man went flying with a wail, but Snow Eye’s survivalist instincts were now primed, and he ducked down, waited, smelled, saw…
The arrow struck the gravel bank several feet back from Snow Eye, and would have taken the Indian right in they eye he’d been named after if he hadn’t ducked out of the way just in time. Instead of being thankful for his heightened senses just now, Snow Eye leapt toward the small wall of earth that stretched upward to the larger prairie above, heedless of his safety.
Another arrow came but this one was feet away from him and Snow Eye kept up his charge. A moment later he saw the outline then the shape and then the hands frantically reaching for another arrow. Snow Eye wasn’t going to let that happen, and his hand shot down to the tomahawk at his side. It jumped into his hands and then jumped out just as fast as he let it fly, end over end hurtling toward the other Blackfoot.
“Ugh!” the young brave let out in a sigh as the axe embedded itself into his chest. Snow Eye was atop him a second later and grabbing it free. One swing was all it took to end the foolish brave’s life, and then another to turn around and–
The axe would have cleaved his face to the back of his head, Snow Eye knew that the second he heard its stone head hit the hard-packed wall of earth behind him. He wasn’t worried, however, for he saw the brave that’d thrown it was now unarmed, and looking quite pensive about it.
“Ah!” Snow Eye yelled, and rushed forth with his bloodied tomahawk held high. He was just a few feet from the brave when…
“Snow Eye, stop!”
Snow Eye did just that, stopped dead cold, his axe held above his head.
“How do you know my name!” Snow Eye shouted.
“Snow Eye, it’s me, Running Foot!” the man said, then stepped forward. Snow Eye’s eyes went wide at the site, even the one that was blind. There before him was one of his father’s most trusted friends.
“Running Foot…why…why are you trying to kill me?” Snow Eye edged forward, the axe lowered a bit but still at the ready. Its deer antler head shone in the moonlight and Snow Eye could see the older man was scared.
“It was a mistake, I swear!” His hands were held out before him for mercy as he said the words. “It was Shappa’s idea, oh please believe me that I didn’t want to do it.”
“Do what?” Snow Eye asked. “What was Shappa’s plan?”
“We’re to stop you,” Running Foot said, backing up all the while, closer to the river, and away from Snow Eye, “we were to keep you from coming after him to avenge your father’s death.”
Snow Eye stopped dead for the second time that night. “My father…dead?”
Running Foot nodded, the moon catching him in the dark. “Shappa killed him more than two weeks ago.”
“Why?” Snow Eye nearly yelled, his teeth grating. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He lunged forward and grabbed hold of Running Foot’s bead necklace and held him inches from his face.
“Because…because…” Running Foot began to sob, “…because your mother was sleeping with his son and he found out about it after they were killed and–”
“My father and my mother are…dead?”
The axe nearly fell from Snow Eye’s fingers and all the strength went from his grip on the older man. It was as if the life had been let out of him, the only two members of his family still alive after the last bout of the smallpox plague. Now they were gone. He looked down at Running Foot, anger in his eyes, anger at what’d been taken from him.
“I go out on a vision quest for the turning of a moon and I come back to find my family dead and my fellow villagers plotting against me? Tell me, proud Running Foot, how many others are waiting for me back home?”
“None, none!” Running Foot said, his head shaking quickly, causing his beads to rattle.
“You better not be lying to me,” Snow Eye said as he brought the axe up to Running Foot’s throat, “or I’ll come running all the way to hell to kill you again.”
He ran the axe over the older man’s throat and then let the body fall to the river. He watched as the waters took it away, then he looked up at the moon and made a vow that he’d set things right.
Part III – Trapping
23 – The Yellowstone
The snow had melted along the Yellowstone, though the air still held its crispness. Joe Dixon could feel that crispness first hand, on his nose, ears and the tips of his fingers, and he could see it in the clouds of breath that followed him all around.
It was tough trapping, even without the snow, and he couldn’t imagine how the hell they’d make it through the winter. Already his fingers felt half-frozen most of the time and his body held a permanent ache from the endless chill in the air. It bit to the bone it did, and he was already regretting their decision to come this far north.
His partner Forest Hancock certainly didn’t seem to be, but then he went out later in the morning and came back earlier in the evening. Hell, it wasn’t even evening, Joe thought as he trudged through the snow, looking this way and that for wherever his last trap was, it was more like late-afternoon. Of course Forest said he had to get the fire going, dry the skins, clean the traps, and all manner of other things that required him to be where it was warm, not out here trudging along the banks of a half-frozen river like some fool. Oh, to see Illinois again!
In the winter the trapping process was a bit tougher, but much the same. The trick there was finding beaver that used the riverbank for their lodges more than dams. If the stream was deep enough the animals would simply cut into the banks and burrow. They’d begin in summer, with the entrances below the waterline. During the fall they were just two feet below the waterline and that decreased further as the season wore on. To combat how easy the entrance was to see when the snows came, the beavers created false entrances that sometimes even led to false lodges. But the animals could always be found, even when they tried to throw you off by burrowing under trees. In that case the vent of sticks sitting clear in the snow was a sure giveaway that beavers were laying belowground. More and more, Joe realized, the season was starting to work against them.
If the burrow was in the river when the ice came then it was a simple matter of tapping on it with a chisel or axe until you heard the different tone. If there was a hollow nearby you’d get that metallic twang when the metal hit the ice. Then you knew you were close and it was just a matter of finding that entrance, and avoiding the false one. Usually it’d be a whole family of the creatures hiding inside, and that would by a payday indeed. Sometimes it’d just be an old widower or bachelor beaver though, and then it seemed the effort wasn’t worth the reward. That was one of the reasons George had stopped trapping away from the river early on – only solitary creatures burrowed around the trees.
Joe had only found a few of those solitary widowers today, their pelts so gray and worthless that the whole day was a bust. He was just about to curse his luck and say ‘to hell with it’ for the day, let any damn beaver in his last trap struggle out or gnaw its foot off or just up and die and freeze – he didn’t care anymore! More than likely the trap he was looking for had fallen into the river already, or been dragged there by the damn creature…if it was holding anything at all. The three traps that Forest had checked that morning had all been empty, and that’d been the third time this week. And it’s Tuesday, he thought, Goddamn! He was about to curse and turn back, but then he caught sight of it, there, on the bank, the trap…and in it a plump beaver…gnawing away.
“Oh hell!” Joe roared out into the fast-fading daylight. “Not again!”
He’d already lost three beaver since Colter had left, three that’d thought three legs where there used to be four was better than no life at all. One of the varmints had even hastened his chewing once Joe had arrived, and gotten through the last of the skin and bone just as he’d gotten to him. That last one had been close, with Joe’s rifle butt slamming down into the trap just a second after the creature had fled, but that hadn’t been close enough. Empty traps didn’t pay nothing in St. Louis, and unless their luck improved, they were going to have nothing to show for their hard winter.
But there a beaver was now, and a plump one by the look of it, a $2 one! Joe wasn’t going to let it get away. He rushed toward the bank, where the trap was set, and barreled toward it. He wasn’t thinking about much, nothing besides getting that beaver, and so didn’t notice the thin sheen of ice still coating the bank. His foot hit it and he went sliding, right into the trap.
“Oh hell!” he managed before he, the trap, and the beaver still inside the trap all went sliding off the four-foot bank and into the icy Yellowstone River.
Joe’s breath escaped him as millions of tiny needles of frozen pain shot into every area of his body, those that were exposed twice as much. It was the most painful and shocking thing he’d ever felt and he somehow had the sense to push up when his feet touched bottom, propelling himself to the river’s icy surface.
He gasped, his face touching the surface and making it plain he’d reached air. His lungs filled with the precious stuff, but then he saw he had another problem – he was already several feet downriver, and washing down further still. If he didn’t get out of that water fast, he was a dead man.
There was a shout, and Joe’s eyes shot to the bank.
“Colter!” he yelled, his eyes going wide in amazement at the sight of the mountain man.
Colter nodded at him and then looked on up ahead and pointed his rifle that way. “The rock!” he shouted out. “Make for the rock!”
Joe looked ahead, and saw what Colter was pointing at – a large rock jutting out into the river, one large enough for Colter to stretch out from, and close enough for him to get to. He began treading water, trying to make his way toward it.
The water was moving quickly, and God was it cold, but Joe kept up his paddling and made way. It would be close, but Colter was rushing up ahead now, running that fast way he did, and Joe was glad for it – without the mountain man there he was sure he would die…and still might. And then Colter was there, on the large rock and then laying down upon it. He stretched out his rifle and held the barrel steady. All Joe had to do…was…
“Got it!” Colter shouted as Joe’s hands locked onto the Kentucky Rifle. He immediately pulled back and then had one of Joe’s hands in his. He pulled the gun back further and then was getting Joe up onto the rock.
“Thank…you…” Joe managed through shattering teeth.
“Thank me later,” Colter said, getting him up on his feet quickly, “if we don’t get you by a fire soon, you’ll have nothing to thank me for.”
The fire hissed and crackled, and Joe watched it send up another spark into the twilit sky.
“How you feeling?” Colter asked, bringing him another hot cup of coffee.
“Better,” Joe said.
Colter nodded. His teeth weren’t chattering anymore, it was a start.
“What are you doing back so soon,” Joe said a few moments later, after Colter had gotten settled down by the fire with his own cup.
“I went down quite a few tributaries on the Clark’s Fork, and even went up a bit further than what we know.” He shook his head. “There was beaver, but most are holed up for the winter. The traps I set…half came back empty, the other half chewed out more than not. In the end I got a few dozen pelts.”
“That few?” Joe said, his brow knitted and his face scrunched up. He looked more offended than he had been from the dunk in the river.
“That few,” Colter said, “and I’m worried the take around here won’t be much better.”
“I don’t understand it.”
Colter scoffed. “I do – those damn French trappers coming up through here in the past year or more.”
“How do you know it was them?”
“Oh, I know alright,” Colter said. “Who else was up through here?”
“I guess you’d have to ask the A’anninen,” Joe said, “they’re the last tribe we passed before getting up to our winter camp.”
Colter gave Joe a long look, then nodded. “Aye, the A’anninen. It might be best to pay them a visit now.” He leaned forward and stirred up the fire a bit. “And that winter camp won’t do, neither.”
“What do you mean it won’t do?”
“Wolves!” Joe said, or squeaked more like it. His eyes darted about and he clutched the blanket to himself more tightly, as if that could fend of the creatures’ fangs.
“Saw a good-sized pack of ‘em in the trees the other night, prowling,” Colter said after a few moments. “I’m sure there are others around as well.”
“What do we do?”
“Move, to a cave I found on the Clark’s Fork.”
Colter rose up and started to gather their things. “C’mon,” he said, “you’re about dry as you’ll get – let’s get Forest and see what I’m talking about.”
24 – Making Camp
“This?” Forest said as he looked at the cave. “You want us to stay in this?”
Colter nodded and walked up to the cave entrance. “It’s what we’ll need come the coldest part of winter.”
The two trappers looked from one another to him and back again, not sure what to make of that, or the cave they were looking at. It was dark and dank and not spacious at all. You certainly couldn’t cook in it, and it didn’t look like you could stand either. And how in the world three people were supposed to fit, well…neither Forest nor Joe wanted to much think upon that.
Joe and Colter had headed back to the makeshift winter camp, the one the two had been staying in for the past week. Colter had had them gather up their things and get them in the canoe, and after a short trip downriver they’d landed and walked into the thick trees a ways, towards the crest of a slight butte. There Colter had pointed out the cave, which neither of the two would have seen otherwise.
“I suppose the spot’s a sight better than the riverbank there,” Forest said after a few moments, and as he looked around the location. “More trees at least, more cover.”
“It’s what we need,” Colter said, “but not all.”
“Oh?” Joe said, his interest piqued at that.
“The trapping’s not good here.”
Joe’s brow furrowed at the mountain man’s words. “What do you mean it ain’t good here – we just caught half a dozen yesterday!”
Colter frowned and shook his head, then walked over to the remnants of the fire he’d started that morning. He grabbed a stick and knelt down to push at the coals, coaxing them back to life. “We placed those traps a week ago – a third weren’t even full, while the others had beaver so scrawny that I didn’t much consider them worth the effort.”
“Bah! I’ve seen the beaver that they–”
“I’ve seen the Beaver they got down in St. Louis too,” Forest yelled, cutting off’s Joe’s words, “and I see clearly that what Colter’s saying is true.”
“Don’t give me that guff, Forest – you just want a woman.”
Forest took a step back, and took on a hurt and offended look. Colter hadn’t seen such acting since he was a boy watching the traveling minstrel show.
“Joe, listen to yourself,” Forest said, his tone wounded, but his pride on full display, “just listen to yourself, will ya? Here I am, trying to ensure that we have the wealth from these mountains that we need in order for those Illinois farming dreams of yours to come true. And this is the thanks I get…you saying I’m only interested in a woman?”
Now it was Joe’s turn to look wounded. “Ah hell, Forest – I didn’t mean it like that, it’s just that…well…you won’t be coming back, I just know it, you won’t be coming back!”
Forest turned around this time and looked at his friend. “Joe, where the hell are we gonna go, huh?”
“You’ll go to the Indian maidens, sure enough, and you won’t be coming back,” Joe said, his speech fast and his eyes darting about nervously, like he’d be closed in on as soon as his two companions were out of site. “Oh, you say you’ll be back, but you won’t, something will happen, sure as the sun comes up in the morning, something will happen.”
“What could happen, Joe?” Colter asked. He was carrying another bundle of furs, the same as Forest, getting them stored up in the canoe. They’d already drug it ashore and would tip it over when full. The added protection over the furs would keep the worst of the winter weather out, and ensure they had a profitable time of it come spring and St. Louis.
“What could…” Joe trailed off, flabbergasted and amazed that someone like Colter – a man that’d gone from one end of the continent to the other – couldn’t recognize what could happen. “Why…you could get hurt, killed, the canoe could tip over, an Indian brave could get you, a husband could come after you, the ice could break, a bear could attack, a forest fire, a–”
“A forest fire, Joe?” Forest said, cocking his head slightly. “C’mon.”
“And we’re not even taking the canoe, Joe…that’s why we’re packing her,” Colter added.
“I…I…aw, hell!” Joe finally saw the futility of it all and threw up his hands. He’d be spending the next few weeks alone, that was a certainty.
“We’ll be back before you know it, Joe,” Forest said, trying to assuage some of his friend’s hopelessness.
“Aye,” was all Joe said as he moped back to the cave entrance and set himself down on one of the big rocks out front, “Aye.”
“Listen, Joe,” Forest said, planting his rifle firmly down on the ground butt-first, “we’ve got to go.” He leaned over the barrel of the gun and stared at his friend, his partner of all those years. They hadn’t been separate for more than a day at a time over the past two years, but now that was about to change, Joe saw it clearly in his friend’s expression.
“Aye,” the sullen-eyed trapper said, then picked his stick back up and proceed to poke about the fire the same as Colter had. Forest pushed himself back and whirled the rifle back up into his hands. He turned to Colter, and with a triumphant look said, “let’s get packed.”
25 – Farther Afield
“Stop! Don’t come any closer!”
Snow Eye did as the young Mandan brave instructed, and stopped his slow walk forward. He was at the edge of the Mandan Village, and at night. He’d expected the young braves on sentry duty to be wary, and he’d expected them to be nervous when they spotted him. He just hoped they didn’t kill him…not yet.
“Arikara!” another voice called out, and Snow Eye whipped his head to the right to get a better look with his one good eye. Sure enough, another few braves were coming from that side.
“Arikara!” the voice called out again. “Arikara, what are you doing here!”
“I seek counsel,” Snow Eye said, and slowly began to raise his arms up to his side, showing that he was unarmed…or at least had nothing in his hands.
“Counsel?” the young brave said, coming closer, but not too close.
“Your chief,” Snow Eye said, “let me talk to your chief.”
Before the young brave could respond, one of his companions came up, whispered in his ear. It wasn’t quiet enough.
“I do have shadows around me,” Snow Eye said, echoing the man’s words, “I have shadows of the dead, my family, killed in cold blood and looking for vengeance. I am that vengeance.”
The braves didn’t know what to say to that, so after taking the stranger’s weapons they escorted him to the center of the village.
Snow Eye’s eye settled on a weathered-looking man, but one who had the look of pride about him. The man wore a plain robe but had penetrating eyes. Snow Eye knew immediately that he was the one he sought.
“You’re Wicasa,” he said, gesturing toward the man, “chief here along the Missouri since most boys’ grandfather’s were boys and then again.”
“And who might you be, proud Arikara warrior?” the chief asked.
“I’m a warrior, that is right, and I’m looking for a man,” Snow Eye said in answer to the question. “Tell me wise chief of the mighty Mandan, have some of my kinsmen come this way?”
The chief stared deeply into Snow Eye, stared with the gift that all along the river knew him for. He didn’t like what he saw, but then he’d known that would be the case.
“Along your path lies darkness.”
“So you can see into the mists of time,” Snow Eye replied without a hint of emotion in his voice.
“I can see that your time will be short, should you persist on this path.”
“And what path am I to take?”
“The path south, back to a people that need you, need your strength and wisdom and determination.”
“And let the spirit of my father, the spirit of my brother, just fade away to nothing like that, un-avenged and unappreciated?”
“How do you know what the spirits of your family want,” the chief said, “have you asked them?”
Snow Eye frowned at that. “I have no time for your games.”
“You have time for nothing,” the chief said.
“Did they go this way?”
“Nearly a full moon ago now, skirting to the west of the village from across the river,” the chief said. “We knew they were there, and that they were sneaking past. It was clear they didn’t want trouble, so we gave them none…or so we thought. In the end, they did have a meeting with us, a meeting with one of our young braves, out on a vision quest.”
Snow Eye grimaced, thinking of his own vision quest, the one that’d taken him from his parents when they’d needed him most.
“What happened,” the one-eyed warrior said more than asked.
“Dead,” the Mandan chief answered, “throat slit from ear to ear, or near enough.” The old Indian shook his head. “It’s likely they talked to him first, or more rightly, beat the talk out of him.” When Snow Eye’s brow furrowed in confusion the chief went on. “The boy’s face was beaten badly, nearly to a pulp. Why beat him before killing him…unless you wanted to hear what he had to say?”
“And what did he have to say?” Snow Eye asked.
The chief looked long and hard at Snow Eye, and several moments passed in silence.
“You’ve brought trouble here,” the chief said at last.
“I’ve given you no trouble.”
“You’ve brought the spirits of evil with you.”
Snow Eye tensed up, and so did the young Mandan braves standing behind him. “You speak ill of my father and brother?”
The chief shook his head. “They’re on this earth no more, in flesh or in spirit. Your current way is not theirs, and they can have no part in it.” The chief shook his head, with a finality and sadness that made him feel his years. “No, young Arikara warrior, the spirits that travel with you are the spirits of darkness, and they point you out for all who are walking in the light to see…and for those travelling in darkness as well.”
“Was that young boy travelling with the spirits of darkness as well?”
“There’s much darkness along the river these days, and there will be plenty more before it’s all said and done. The whites are coming, and that’s likely what the band of five Arikara warriors that came before you wanted to know from the boy – not so much who had passed by here, but when.”
There was a long silence in the tent as the words hung in the air. Neither the chief nor Snow Eye said anything, just stared at one another. The Arikara warrior had pressed northward from his village the very night he’d been attacked. That had been several nights ago now, and he didn’t know if he’d ever go back there, ever could go back there. He wasn’t sure he cared, and that sent a chill down him. Perhaps the Mandan chief was right, and perhaps he wouldn’t be coming back if he pressed onward with this course. But press on he would.
Finally Snow Eye nodded and broke the silence. “Nearly a full moon ago now,” he said, echoing the chief’s earlier words. “That’s all I needed to know.”
The chief nodded, and within moments Snow Eye was gone from the tent. Within minutes he was moving further north, up the river, after his prey.
26 – Following Fast
Shappa stopped, then put up his arm. The other Arikara warriors behind him came to an immediate halt.
They were on a bluff, quite a ways north of the river, and now a village had come into view. A’anninen, by the look of it, Shappa thought as he stared down at the cook fires coming up through the tepee holes. There were about two dozen of the tents, a small tribe, but one larger still than the five of men in their small band. And they were out of their territory too, way out.
They’d moved past the Mandans at night, more than ten days ago now. It’d been easy, but Shappa still felt that they’d ventured too close. He knew of the chief there, and he was wary of his supernatural powers. Shappa would never go so far as to call them gifts. He didn’t call them anything, didn’t want to think upon them at all…not after what they’d done. He tried to put that from his mind too, the look on the young brave’s face, the muffled cries as Honon and Lapu had held him down. Shappa always did the deed, and that Mandan boy’s blood had been redder than most he’d seen.
After that it had been onward, north until the lakes and then westward, through the last of the badlands and into the more lush greenery that characterized the river tribes’ land. It was a nice place, but one fought over incessantly. Just over the past few generations, half a dozen tribes had come in and another half dozen had been pushed out. It was the pattern now that the whites were nipping at their heels, driving tribes they’d never heard of ever more into their territory. Already many couldn’t believe the tales elders told of a more peaceful and abundant time.
The Arikara warred with all those tribes, or at least had. It really depended on the time of year, the locations, and the resources. Most tribal wars started over resources, usually a lack which created starvation conditions. It was a lot better to die in battle than on the ground, too weak to move. It was a way of life, tribal warfare, and Shappa knew it would go on, should go on, but perhaps couldn’t. Already the whites were coming more and more, and Shappa couldn’t help but think they should combine their might, put away old enmities, and protect what they still had left. Didn’t the encroaching eastern tribes point to what lay ahead? Shappa let out a sigh. All in good time, he thought, all in good time. Once the whites that had killed his son were found, Shappa could go back and begin the process of creating that grand alliance. The whites would quake at his power, his might, his–
“Shappa,” a voice came up from behind, and the chief turned to see his closest companion, the medicine man Anoki.
“A’anninen,’ Anoki said, pointing downward. “We’ll go around – no point in wasting time with the big bellies.”
He said that last loud enough for the other braves to hear, and the young men had a good laugh. Shappa, however, only frowned. It was clear to him that there could never be a grand alliance of the tribes, that it was only ever a dream. But that didn’t mean the whites couldn’t die. Shappa smiled at that, and pushed his men onward, through the night.
27 – Arguments
Colter and Forest stood outside the A’anninen chief’s tent, arguing.
“I told you,” Colter said for what seemed the tenth time, “it’s too much.”
“We’re not talking about one night here, John, we’re talking about a few weeks, a month even!”
Colter stared at the fur trapper, crossed his arms, and frowned. “Forest, if we even wanted to get that many furs, we’d have to head back overland to the cave and get them from the cache we have in the canoe.”
“Totally worth it, you ask me,” Forest said, then reached over and slapped Colter on the back. “C’mon – live a little!”
“I’d love to – just not at 100 pounds of fur!”
“The chief won’t go in if we don’t go the full amount – there’s no splitting or halves on this!”
Colter sighed and turned around. He never knew a man to be so sex-deprived, but Forest was and it was driving him crazy! The two men had fully expected to trade with the Indians, and that’s why they’d taken thirty pounds of fur with them, tucked in their packs, as well as a Northwest Trade Gun. It’d made for a longer and more arduous journey overland, but Colter had expected it to be enough, more than enough. Now the A’anninen chief was asking for an unheard of amount, and Colter knew in his heart of hearts that if it wasn’t for the earlier zeal shown by Forest, the price would be a quarter of that, even less! The whole situation had him shaking his head, and at the same time he was looking nervously to the sky. Night was fast approaching, and they were quickly running out of options. The mountain man doubted that the chief would allow them to sleep in one of the warm tents, not while he was waiting on a deal that would enrich him and his people for months to come. Colter knew the man would drive a hard bargain, but there was no way in hell he was parting with 100 pounds of hard-caught furs for a few minutes of rolling in the hay with some Indian maidens. Forest was, however, and that was the problem.
“C’mon, John,” the trapper persisted, tapping at the mountain man’s back, “we’re already here, it’s getting late…let’s just make a deal, huh?”
The hell with that, Colter thought, and started walking.
“Hey,” Forest yelled after him, “where are you going!”
“Back to camp – if we start walking now we’ll make it before morning.”
There was a shocked silence to that, and then after a few moments an ‘aw, hell’ and the sound of footsteps running to catch up.
28 – On the Trail
The moon was bright and illuminated near the whole of the Mandan Villages. Its light reflected off the Missouri, clearly showing the tides and eddies that the river held. No travelers trawled its waters this night, however, but they did tread its banks.
They were a small band of Arikara, heading upriver from their village below. They had no grief with the Mandans, not at this time at least, and made their passage plain. It wasn’t long before a sentry party spotted them, and after asking their business, ushered them toward the chief’s tent.
The three leading men headed inside and were met by Wicasa, the chief of the Mandan. He sat tall and proud, with weathered skin but eyes that penetrated and saw all. He wore a plain robe, for it was nighttime and very late.
“You’re looking for him, aren’t you?” the chief asked after the men had introduced themselves. Their eyes took on a quizzical look, one that told him he’d been right. He shook his head. “You won’t find him, nor am I sure you’d want to.”
“You speak of Snow Eye,” the leading Arikara said.
The chief looked to him, and nodded. “Aye, if that’s what you want to call him. He didn’t give me a name, but that’s an apt one for a man with one eye blind.”
“He killed several of our braves,” the leader said.
The Mandan chief nodded. “I expected as much.”
From his tone it was clear that he wasn’t much bothered by this. The leader of the Arikara didn’t like that.
“He killed several of our men is likely to kill more. You’d let him go? Have you no pride?”
“Plenty…too much I’m told by my wives,” the chief replied, and gained some small satisfaction when one of the Arikara leaders snickered a bit. The ill look the man received from his superior gave the Mandan chief the moment he needed to collect himself, and he laid out his case before the Arikara leader could get another word in.
“He walks with the spirits of vengeance, that one, and he will find what he seeks. Whether the outcome will be as he desires, it matters not – his path is set and there will be blood.”
The Arikara from below the river had never been friends to the Mandan, and they fought constantly, interrupted only by brief periods of trade to warm up for the next round of fighting. But all the Arikara leaders knew of the spiritual powers of the Mandan chief, and how they’d allowed him to live for much longer than a typical man could. Some claimed he’d seen more than 150 winters already, while others said it was far more. None disputed that he had a connection of some sort to the otherworldly, and could use that connection to see. It was that connection the Arikara leader was hoping to exploit at just that moment.
“There’s a group that he’s following…what of them?”
The Mandan chief shook his head. “When I look at them, I see only blackness.”
“Did they come through here?”
“They did…but they won’t be coming back.”
The Arikara leader frowned, but said nothing. The note of finality in the chief’s voice was all he needed to hear. He nodded his head in thanks, then together with the other two gave a bow. They left the tent and they and their men continued on their journey, south this time, back toward their village.
29 – Rushing At Night
Colter stepped gingerly over the big rock, hoping the large drift of snow ahead of him wasn’t going to send him up to his waste. He put the foot down, and gave a silent sigh when it just went up to his knee.
“How much further?” Forest asked behind him. It was growing later and later, and already Colter was regretting his decision to set out from the Indian village so late in the night.
Colter looked around. They were just in the tree line on the edge of a forest, one that was coming to an end before them. Ahead of them was a vast plain, one they’d been walking across all day on their trek from the cave and now back to it. The moon was nearly full, making it easy to see, especially with white blanketing everything, reflecting that light back up into the sky. The night was clear…but also ominous. The sky looked larger than ever, and Colter had a bad feeling about something he couldn’t quite put his thumb on.
“Another mile and we’ll be there,” Colter said, “so long as that moon doesn’t go behind any clouds and–”
An owl rushed out from the trees, a good fifty yards from them, and deep within the forest.
“Sshh!” Colter whistled softly, and held up his hand for Forest not to make a sound. After a moment he motioned for the both of them to get down, and they did so.
The mountain man glanced over at Forest and saw that he was scared. Colter was too, though he’d not admit it to anyone. Owls just didn’t come flying out of the forest like that, not unless they’d been spooked. Colter kept his hand up for silence, and narrowed his eyes, peering ahead into the darkness of the forest, the moonbeams penetrating it hardly at all.
Then he saw it, a figure coming, walking toward their general area. It was an Indian, an Arikara by the look of it. A moment later Colter saw another figure coming up behind him, another Arikara. He looked back at Forest.
“What will we do?” the trapper said, his voice quavering with fear.
“Get up real slow and get out on the plain,” Colter said.
“But…but…I thought you said it wasn’t safe!”
“It’s not safe here,” Colter whispered, then got up into a crouching position, backed up a few paces, turned around and stood up and started moving. Forest was fast on his heels.
Within moments the two men were twenty feet away, the snow crunching under their boots.
“C’mon!” Colter said, then started to run, hoping they might get to the other side of the vast plain before the Indians got within arrow range.
They ran for all they were worth.
30 – A Sighting
Lapu pointed ahead eagerly, through the trees and toward the stretch of footprints he saw in the snow. He rushed forward, startling an owl from its perch. The bird gave out a loud ‘who’ while behind the brave the Arikara medicine man, Anoki, hurried to catch up.
It’d been Honon that had spotted the tracks earlier in the day, footsteps leading toward the A’anninen village. They’d come from further south, and after alerting Shappa the chief had split the five-member band into two groups. Shappa, Honon, and Tadi had went south, looking for what the tracks were leading to, or perhaps where they’d come from. Tadi and Anoki had been tasked with heading north, toward the A’anninen. There was a good chance that a few braves on patrol or old women out collecting roots and berries had made the footprints in the snow, but with two trappers in the area, the Arikara chief wasn’t going to take that chance. The result was that the brave and medicine man had spent the better part of the day in a copse of trees on the edge of the vast plain, without fire, cold and waiting. Now Lapu claimed he’d seen something, and the waiting was at its end.
Anoki watched as ahead of him the young brave reached the tree line and slowed down to a walk. He continued on, moving a few dozen yards out, and then came to a stop. He stood for several moments, as if looking, then his arm shot out and he eagerly pointed at something. He looked back over his shoulder to Anoki and began waving with his other arm and the medicine man saw the brave mouth what could only be one word: hurry!
Anoki ignored the tired ache in his bones and started forward as fast as he could. He began to mouth thanks to the Gods, chants to the spirits, and prayers that help would be given to them. The medicine man reached the tree line and stopped. His eyes went wide – two men running across the field! A smile came to his face and he was about to cry out in joy when a bright light darted across the sky.
Colter spun around and looked up at the sky, toward where Forest was pointing.
“God…what is it?” Forest said.
Colter stared, wide-eyed at a ball of light, a star…something. It was there, and then it was shooting across the sky, far north, faster than anything he’d ever seen.
“My God, what was that?” Forest said behind him.
Colter spun around, his eyes nearly rimming with tears from the fright he felt. Then his eyes went wide again.
“Forest, down!” he shouted, and lunged forward, his arms outstretched to push the trapper down. For there in the tree line not more than twenty feet away, was an Indian, bow raised and arrow nocked.
Colter swore he felt the arrow brush past his hair as he fell to the ground with Forest in his arms.
“My gun!” he shouted.
“Here!” Forest called back, and threw the Kentucky Rifle Colter’s way. The mountain man caught it midair, checked the pan, cocked it, and took aim. The young Indian brave saw him and bolted back toward the tree line, where another was standing and pointing at the sky.
Colter lowered the gun and looked at Forest.
“Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Which way?” Forest asked, his eyes batting from left to right.
“Across the field,” Colter said without hesitation, “away from those Indians.”
“C’mon, we can reach them!” Lapu yelled.
Anoki shook his head, his eyes still wide, tears streaming down his face. He shook his head again and again, even as Lapu came up and began tugging on his robes.
“They’re right there!” the brave shouted at the medicine man, pointing behind him across the vast plain. The two whites were rushing across it.
“No…we cannot!” Anoki said, his eyes wide. “That…light.”
“A falling star!” Lapu shouted at him. “Let’s go, Shappa would want us to hunt them down!”
“We cannot….we cannot….we cannot…” the medicine man said over and over, and finally Lapu turned about in frustration. He watched as the whites – he was sure they were white – rushed across the plain. They would eventually reach the opposite tree line far in the distance, he now saw, the same the light had darted over. Lapu knew he could run and reach them, but he would not. When Shappa asked him later why that was, he would blame Anoki and the medicine man’s hesitation. Never would he say his true reason, fear.
31 – Distracted Thinking
“What was that back there?”
“No,” Forest said as they walked across the long, empty field, snow crunching under their boots, the open night sky above looking down on them oppressively. Both men glanced up at it concernedly. It was more than ten minutes since they’d spotted the two Arikara, but the Indians were gone now, back into the trees from which they’d come.
“I don’t know what it was, a shooting star maybe,” Colter said, his irritation up. He didn’t want to talk about lights in the sky.
“That wasn’t no shooting star I ever saw.”
Colter spun around on him. “What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to say everything’s gonna be alright, and that we’re gonna get out of here,” Forest said, close to tears.
Colter stared at him, then slowly let out a sigh, his shoulders slumping.
“We’re gonna be alright,” he said at last, and clapped Forest on the shoulder before turning around to press on.
Forest swallowed the knot in his throat and fell in behind the mountain man. He didn’t like what he’d seen one bit, not one bit at all. It wasn’t a shooting star, that was for sure, so it could only be one thing – the Indians and their damn medicine man playing tricks on them. What else could it be?
Forest tried to let the thoughts stray from his mind, and as the crunching of the snow under their boots continued, they did just that. After a time it was just them and the vast whiteness covering the land, a stark contrast to the sea of blackness above, tiny pinpricks of light their constant companions.
“Captain Clark used to always tell us that it took the light from one of those stars years to reach us,” Colter said suddenly, throwing Forest from his thoughts. “He said there was a good chance a few of those stars we’re seeing actually burned out years ago, perhaps even before we were born. But their light hasn’t stopped moving from the millions and millions of miles that separates us, and might not until after we’re gone.” Colter stopped and turned around to face Forest. “Could be that what we saw was the last dying light of some distant star.”
Forest had kept his eyes on his feet ever since Colter had spun around, but now that the mountain man had stopped talking he looked up. But he didn’t see Colter, for a slight trace of movement caught his eye, something over Colter’s left shoulder. The explorer must have seen his brows furrow, for he spun around to get a look himself.
“Damn!” he said in a half-whisper, half-shout.
“Arikara?” Forest asked.
“No, Blackfeet, and a war party by the looks of it,” Colter said, “quick get down!”
Both men fell to the snow and then immediately looked up, as if the crunching weight of their bodies had given them away. It hadn’t.
“There,” Colter said, and pointed to a small cluster of boulders with a couple trees sprouting up beside them. “It’s the only spot we’ve got on this damn plain.”
Forest said nothing, and in a moment both men were scurrying on their bellies over the snow and ice. It took them a few minutes, but they reached the boulders and got behind them. Only then did they get back into a crouching positions and peer ahead once again.
There were eight of them, all on horseback, painted ponies with handprints and streaks, yellow, red and white. The braves were nestled in buffalo furs, and seemed to be making a slow pace, not rushing at all.
“Could be they’re worried about ice,” Forest said, as if reading Colter’s mind.
Colter shook his head. “Those men know this area like the back of their hand. This is the Blackfoot hunting ground around here, near this stretch of the Yellowstone. We’re in their area, and if they find us they’ll kill us.”
Forest gulped, something he was getting quite good at on this particular night. He remembered well the story several of the expedition men had told him about the small party of Captain Lewis running into the young Blackfeet, and killing one before running off. No doubt the tribe was still looking for those men, though any whites would do.
“C’mon,” Colter said once the Indians had gone several hundred yards past them, all the while giving no sign that they’d spotted the two whites, “we’ve got to get out of here.”
“And head where?” Forest said in frustration.
It was clear the strange light, all the walking, and now the lack of sleep were getting to him. They were getting to Colter too, he had to admit. He let out a sigh and nodded back toward the tree line, the same the Arikara had been at.
“We’re closer to the A’anninen than the cave,” he said, looking at Forest. “With those braves out I’m worried about Joe. It’s well past time we got back to that cave, but we can’t head that way if there’s a bunch of Blackfeet blocking our path.”
“We’ll go back to the chief, make a deal.”
“We’ll go back to the chief,” Colter agreed, “but I’m not sure we’ll be making any deal.”
“We can at least get a place to sleep though.”
“Aye,” Colter said with a chuckle, then got a little more serious, “but we’ll have to be careful. If we skirt way around those trees we’ll make the village just before dawn.”
And maybe a maiden’s warm bed, Forest thought but didn’t say. He simply nodded at the mountain man’s words, and within moments they again crawling through the snow, northward this time, and hoping the next Indian they saw was a friendly one.
32 – Snowed In
Pure blackness, that’s all Joe Dixon could see, and that’s all he’d been seeing for the past two days, ever since Colter and Forest had left.
“Oh hell, I can’t see anything!” Joe had cried out. There had been no one to hear him, however, or his sobs.
The snow had taken his sight, he was blind. It was snow blindness, he’d heard of it but always gave it more of a laugh than any serious thought. But now there he was, blind as a bat. It’d started with him seeing all white, after a particularly bad night that saw nothing but flakes the size of rocks. He’d cursed the white the next morning when the sun was bright and reflecting off of it. It’d done little good, and eventually that white had faded to blackness. It’d been slow and gradual, and he’d barely noticed. His eyes were shut tight or teared-up most of the time, and then one moment he opened them and couldn’t see a thing.
He’d panicked, and fumbled all about the small camp he’d made outside the cave entrance. He thought it could be temporary, that his vision would come back in an hour, then a few hours, then a day. Now it was two days, and all he could see was blackness. Joe expected the world around him was black now as well, that it was night. All the sounds told him as such. If his eyes could shed tears of fear they would, but they were about dried up. He was going to die there outside that cave, he knew it.
Joe suddenly stopped feeling sorry for himself. The hackles on the back of his neck rose, and he knew something wasn’t right. Something was there, not there in the camp near the cave or even around the forest. But something was there alright, he didn’t need his eyes to know that. He didn’t need them when something told him to turn around, look up. It wasn’t a voice, more a feeling, and it came from inside. Joe wasn’t thinking any of those things at that time, however, for he was struck by the feeling, and the need to turn around. Eyes wide as they had been for days, he looked up toward where he expected the sky to be, and then saw it. His eyes were already wide so couldn’t get much wider, but they would if they could. It was a light, bright as the sun, and moving…fast.
“Oh, sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” he said, and immediately crossed himself. Right as he finished the light shot off, northward and over the snowy mountains. Joe stood stock still, amazed at what he’d seen. Then it dawned on him.
“I can see!” he said loudly, then shouted, “I can see!”
His hands went up to his face and then his eyes, as if he should rub them away, like seeing was bad.
“It’s a miracle,” he said suddenly, stopping his pawing of the face, the realization of what had happened dawning on him. “It’s a miracle, thank God, it’s a miracle.”
And then the next realization dawned on him, the realization of what he had to do. That was leave, leave the mountains, head downriver, get out of the wilderness…and fast. He didn’t waste time, and started packing his things right then and there. Before fifteen minutes had passed he was in the canoe and heading down the Yellowstone, his only thought being how long it’d take to get to St. Louis this time of year.
33 – Back to Work
Forest tore off the large buffalo pelt and looked up in anger. His visage softened a bit when he was it was Colter staring down at him, but just barely.
“What’s the matter!” he said, his voice full of anger. Beside him the dark hair of an Indian maiden appeared, and then two eyes. When they locked onto the mountain man the head quickly disappeared back below the pelt, followed by a “hee-hee” laugh.
“The matter’s that we’ve got to get going,” Colter said, “we’ve got to get back to Joe.”
“Joe’s fine,” Forest said, and started to duck back under the buffalo pelt.
“I’m not sure he is,” Colter said, kicking the pelt so that Forest was visible once again.
The trapper stared up at him with an anger in his eyes. “We just got here and–”
“We’ve been here four days!” Colter nearly shouted, throwing his arms up. “Four days!”
“Because of the snow,” Forest said matter-of-factly. “You said yourself that we shouldn’t move overland in all that snow, in those conditions, and with Blackfeet out there.”
Colter frowned. He did say those things, and it’d been a helluva lot easier to say them after they’d struck a deal with the A’anninen chief. The fact that they’d been forced to strike it after dragging themselves into the village at dawn, bleary-eyed and not thinking straight didn’t seem to factor into it. They’d been given two Indian maidens, their own tepee, and two packs that weighed 30 pounds less in furs…with the additional promise that another 30 pounds was to be delivered shortly. On top of it they’d traded on of their Northwest Trade Guns. That made it 30 pounds and not 70 it seemed, and also because the chief was in such a good mood knowing that he’d had a good night’s sleep while the whites hadn’t. They’d sure slept good after being escorted to the tent by the maidens, however, two that Colter later learned were named Malia and Maralah – ‘Sea of Bitterness’ and ‘Born During an Earthquake.’ The mountain man had learned mighty quick how the two had come about their names, and his life had been a living hell ever since. Forest, however, was in heaven and in no rush to leave.
“I’ve talked to the chief,” Colter said to the trapper, before the man had had a chance to dive under the buffalo robe once again, “and he says he’ll loan us a dugout canoe to get back to camp…the better to get him his furs.”
“Well that’s a sight better than traipsing across that damn plain again!”
“Aye,” Colter said, “now let’s get our things packed and get out of here.”
Forest frowned, but nodded. “Alright…but give me five minutes first.”
Colter frowned to that, but headed toward the tent flap, the ‘hee-hee’s’ getting louder behind him.
34 – Overturned
Colter and Forest were making good time moving up the Yellowstone. The waters were a lot less than they had been just a few weeks before, and that made for easier going. Colter knew his shoulder sure appreciated it – he didn’t want to admit it, but if they hadn’t stopped for winter camp when they did, he wasn’t sure if he’d have been able to keep paddling against those currents each day. But now here it was, the middle of winter by the look of it, though Colter knew the worst of it was still several months off. Thankfully they had the warmth of the cave to see them through the hard times. It’d been nearly a week since they’d left Joe there, and if they managed to keep up their speed they’d be back to him by that evening.
“What’dya think of her?” Forest asked from the head of the canoe. He slapped the side of the boat, emphasizing what he was talking about.
Colter nodded, though Forest wasn’t looking back at him. “Aye,” he called up, “she’s fast.”
“She’s a lot easier to push through this shallower river, too,” the trapper said back to him, “lot easier than the boat we came up on.”
Colter nodded again. Getting the canoe from the A’anninen chief had been good fortune, even if it had cost them a few furs in the end, as Colter fully expected it would. But then they had so many furs now…Colter dreaded the thought of getting them out. He knew they’d have to dig out at least two trees to make the dugouts necessary to get their take down to St. Louis, maybe three. And dugout canoes weren’t the easiest thing to make, either, though the mountain man supposed the time involved was what made the task so unappealing. A quick scan of the scenery told him that winter was there, however, and when winter was there in this part of the world, there wasn’t much you could do but kill time. Couldn’t much trap beaver – the thicker winter coats were too oily for the refined tastes in Grand Paris. Digging out some canoes would be a good way to kill time, therefore, especially if he could get Forest to do some work. Joe wouldn’t be a problem, so long as he didn’t stay too mad too long. Leaving him alone in the cave as long as they had wasn’t the best idea, but there was nothing to do for it now but say they were sorry and wait on Joe hand and foot for a few days until he cooled off. Forest, however, well…that was a different story.
Colter made to clear his throat to start up that conversation when a trace of movement on the far bank caught his eye. Was that…yes!
“Forest!” Colter shouted, but it was too late. The Indian he’d seen on the bank got his shot off. Before the word was even out of the mountain man’s mouth, an arrow was sticking from Forest’s chest. Colter could see clearly the stone arrowhead sticking from his companion’s back. The trapper’s head lolled down to look at it, and then he started to turn his head back to look at Colter.
“John…Injuns,” he managed, then another arrow slammed into his chest, cutting off whatever words he still had. A mouthful of blood shot forth all over the dugout’s bow.
A split second later another arrow slammed home, but this time into the canoe and just inches from Colter’s legs. The mountain man didn’t hesitate – dropping his paddle and grabbing both sides of the canoe, he quickly threw all of his weight to one side. At the last second he reached down for his Kentucky Rifle and then the boat was overturning on top of him.
Part IV – Hunting
35 – The Cold
Ice shot through Colter’s arms and legs and into his brain. The temptation to throw his mouth open and scream against the biting cold was overwhelming, but he kept it firmly closed. He was fully submerged now, in water that was 40 degrees at least. Throwing his eyes open, they were filled with water and then white as he spotted the submerged ice that dotted the Yellowstone’s banks. The water was pushing him fast and one hand was still on the canoe’s side; the other was firmly gripping his rifle. The gun was under the water and the powder was likely ruined, but with it he stood a chance in the wild. Without it his chances were nothing. Colter moved one of his hands forward and grabbed hold of the canoe’s inside bottom. There was air, and he threw his head up into it.
The first breath of fresh air was heaven, but it quickly set his teeth to chattering. If he didn’t get out of this water in–
An arrowhead slammed through the bottom of the canoe and was quickly followed by another, their points just inches from Colter’s head. Any thoughts of the cold were quickly replaced by thoughts of the Indians that were upon him, how many they were, and how far downriver he’d have to float to be away from them. If it was too far, then the river would take his life before their arrows.
Colter heard another arrow hit the canoe, this time behind his head, then another, though that one didn’t poke through. Then there were no more, and it was just the swiftness of the river and the coldness in his bones. He began to count out loud.
His teeth were chattering uncontrollably now, and it was almost like some parts of his body were becoming warm. It wouldn’t be long now.
He began to kick his feet, both to keep the blood moving in them and to feel for bottom. It had to be there…somewhere.
His grip on the canoe began to falter. His hands didn’t seem to have the strength they used to.
The lids of his eyes grew heavy, and the thought of letting go and going off to sleep appealed to him more and more.
Colter threw his head under the water and pushed himself to his right, then kicked up with his feet. His head exploded out from the water and he took a breath, then looked around. There were no Indians in sight, just the white of the ice from where the edges of the river had frozen over. He was moving by so swiftly that there was no way to get hold of one, either, and no way to climb up onto one if he could. He was dead anyways, even though he’d made it past the Indians, and…wait…there! A break in the ice, like some animals had come down and broken through in an attempt to get across. The ice was broken into large chunks, many several feet thick, but they were broken and in pieces and…
Colter reached out and grabbed hold of one of the chunks of ice. His hand held! He didn’t think it would be able to, as cold as he was, but it did. Now he just had to…pull…and…
He made it forward, the river rushing against him. He made it forward enough to get his hand further up on the block of ice, and then his hand with the rifle up as well. The gun’s butt slammed down on the ice and he used it to pull himself up further. He got his chest up on it and then another push and pull brought him forward a bit more, so his whole body except for his legs was out of the water. He felt colder than ever as the air and the wind hit him.
The day was bright, and the sun was high, but the wind was blowing hard. What might have been close to zero degrees was probably closer to thirty below because of it, and if Colter didn’t get out of his clothes quick, he was a dead man.
36 – Fire
The canoe and everything in it was gone. Colter had the clothes on his back and what was in his pouches and pockets – nothing more. He also had minutes to live. Instead of crying over what had occurred, he started off, toward a distant set of trees not far from the river. How far he’d gone downstream from the Indians that’d attacked them he had no idea, but he knew he couldn’t look for a safe spot – if he didn’t get a fire going now, he would freeze. Hypothermia was no laughing matter, he’d seen that first hand growing up in Kentucky. So he started taking off his clothes.
First he set the rifle down against a rock, then he reached up for his wet cloths. Off came the furs lining his coat and shirt. They were sopping and hit the icy ground with a smack. Next it was the gloves followed by the coat, then the shirt. They were clinging to him stubbornly, but he got the things off and into a pile with the furs. Then the furs lining the lower legs. They were easy enough, but his moccasins weren’t. They clung almost as bad as the pants, but in the end Colter got them too. The pants were next and then the smallclothes. The mountain man was completely naked and he couldn’t have cared less – he was alive, and that was all that mattered…for now. He gathered up the bundle of wet clothing and his gun and then started running toward the trees. He was convinced the Indians that had attacked were after him, why he couldn’t have said, but he just had a feeling.
He reached the tree line and saw that it was a rather large copse, several acres in fact. He went in several dozen yards before dropping the bundle and rifle and falling down on all fours. He was still freezing cold, but at least the wind had been stopped by the trees. Reaching down, Colter began gathering up all the small twigs and sticks and branches that he could. He got them gathered into a pile in an area with little snow, then collected all the stray leaves he could find. When he had a sizeable pile he went back to the bundle of clothes and started digging around inside. Within moments he’d found what he was looking for – a steel and flint from his inside coat pocket. He’d been taught from a very young age not to be without those, and not for the first time did he thank the lesson’s he’d learned form Daniel Boone growing up.
Striking the flint on the steel showed that it wouldn’t be easy – they were wet and resistant to striking. But he kept at it, and within a bit he was striking sparks. After that one of the leaves caught and started to smoke and that was all it took – Colter had his fire, and his life.
Tadi came running back and stopped in front of them, winded. The group of five was overlooking the Yellowstone from a cliff fifty feet up. The wind was picking up and their breath misted in the air.
“Gone,” he panted, more than the others had seen him do in some time, “gone down the river.”
“How,” Honon nearly shouted, “that canoe was tipped, the water’s freezing!”
Tadi shook his head, panted, and did his best to answer. “The water’s too swift…just took him…I kept up as long as I could…before losing sight of him.”
“You did well,” Shappa said after there’d been a pause. The sound of Tadi catching his breath and the river roaring were the only things to hear. The Arikara chief paused for a moment, letting the others know he wasn’t disappointed. “We got one of the whites, and his body lies down in the river below.”
“Then let us go home, and end this vengeance quest,” Lapu said.
Shappa cocked his head, unsure of what he’d just heard. “Go? We’ve just sent one into the icy waters. If he’s not dying he’s starting a fire – we’ll find him fast.”
“And we might not,” Lapu said. “We’ve got one, let us be happy with that.”
“We’ll have two soon enough,” Anoki said, a twisted smile on his face.
Shappa nodded at the medicine man, then looked to the sky. The sun would be going down soon, and they’d need a fire themselves. He gazed at the others, a firm look of resolve on his face.
“Let the other white try his best tonight,” he said, “tomorrow will be his last.”
37 – Pursuit
Colter looked up through the trees and frowned – the sky was growing dark already, and it looked like snow on top of it. He shook his head, realizing he’d be in his makeshift camp for the night. He began to tick off the things in his mind.
The first thing had been getting dry, getting the clothes dry. He looked over and saw them on rocks by the fire, steaming something fierce.
After that it was the gun. Colter inspected the powder horn and saw the plug was still tight. He didn’t want to chance it and set it aside. The rifle, however, had to be completely taken apart, the pieces put out to dry. He hoped a night of it would be enough, and that he was up and moving earlier than his pursuers…if they indeed were pursuers.
Thoughts on whether they were or not and what he’d do regardless took him through the rest of the night. He kept the fire going, knowing that he’d freeze without it, and that if the Indians chasing him wanted to find him, they would. He wondered who they were, and if they might have been the same he and Forest had seen several days earlier, when originally going back to the cave. It could be, but then it could be Blackfeet too. They were likely still on the lookout for whites, still fuming over what’d happened last fall.
The thoughts took Colter to sleep, and he awoke to a frigid morning just before dawn, the fire down to embers. He stoked it back to life and then checked the gun. It was dry, and after putting it back together, everything seemed to be in order. The clothes were dry, he had what he needed. The sun wasn’t up, and he could move…but where?
To the cave, and Joe…have to warn Joe.
It was clear, and Colter nodded at the thought. By the time the first rays were peeking over the eastern fringe of mountains, the mountain man had travelled several miles westward.
“There he goes,” Anoki said, pointing out at the lone figure moving out from the small copse of trees. “Well before first light, just as I said he would be.”
“You tell it true, as always,” Shappa said, clapping his medicine man on the shoulder. He looked to the three braves around him. “Now, which of you are ready to prove your manhood, prove your place in the tribe.”
Each of the warriors’ chests puffed out with pride at the challenge. There was Honon, a bear of a man, and a testament to the creature he was named after. Next came Lapu smart and cunning yet as durable and tough as the cedar bark from which he got his name. Finally there was Tadi, named for the wind that had blown the night he’d been born, and which he often outpaced when he felt like running his fastest. All three stood there, ready and waiting, hoping their chief would call on them to make him proud. It was a tough choice, but for this task what he needed was clear – speed and surprise. That meant Lapu and Tadi, and he nodded at the two.
“Go forth, and bring me back his scalp,” the chief said. The braves smiled, and were gone.
Twigs snapped, and Colter stood stock still. Something wasn’t right, he didn’t know what, but something wasn’t right. Without another second of hesitation, he darted into a run. The sound of more twigs snapping behind him told him his hunch had been right.
The mountain man ran for all he was worth. The Indian brave coming up behind him was fast – he could tell that from the branches breaking, the twigs cracking, and the sound of the forest being disturbed. Colter himself was tearing through the underbrush, scampering through bushes, and dodging large rocks. It was a race for survival, and he was at a huge disadvantage. He didn’t know what the brave was armed with, but suspected it was a good-sized tomahawk, maybe a spear. A bow and arrow could be a possibility, one he didn’t want to think upon. Either way, he was at a disadvantage. The mountain man had but a small belt knife, and his rifle wasn’t loaded. It was a situation he’d normally not allow himself to be in, but he wasn’t going to risk loading a rifle with what could have been wet powder. After that dunk in the river he’d been afraid to open the horn, hoping against hope that if he just left it the powder would be dry. Now that faith would be tested…if he could get enough distance between him and his pursuer to load the gun.
The forest was thick here, and visibility was just a dozen yards or so, if even that. There were dips in the earth, and he’d already dropped a good ten feet in elevation he’d say, especially after a few small mounds he’d slid down. That all worked in his favor, and after more than a minute of running he wasn’t hearing too much crashing through branches or twigs snapping, besides those under his feet of course. Another dozen yards or so and he might just be able to…
Colter came to a fast stop, throwing the butt of the Kentucky Rifle into the ground to slow his momentum. The action also allowed him a fast pivot and he spun around, coming to a rest on one knee. Before he was fully stopped he’d begun reaching for the powder horn on his belt. He hoped the topmost was dry, for that’s all he had time to reach for. His hand shot down and flipped the cap on the horn, and without taking his eyes from the pathway he’d just blazed through the trees, he poured enough powder into the metal cup that worked as his charger. In one fast motion he’d put the cap back on the powder horn and tipped the powder from the cup down the rifle barrel’s muzzle. He reached around to his side pouch, where he had a ball and patch ready to go. Placing the patch down over the top of the barrel’s muzzle, then the ball on top, he took out his quick starter. The quick starter was nothing more than a short rod with a large metal ball on top. Colter whacked that ball down onto his ball and patch, sending them down into the top of the barrel, out of sight. They weren’t far down enough, however, so he grabbed the rifle’s ramrod, conveniently located on the underside of the barrel, and slammed it down after the ball and patch. The first part of loading done, Colter spun the rifle forward, so the butt was no longer on the ground and the firing pan was now right over his knee. Still looking forward, the mountain man threw down the ramrod with one hand and reached back to his pouch with another.
The sound of rustling in the brush could be heard.
Colter grabbed a flint and stuck it over the firing pan then took up the powder horn once again, sprung the top, and sprinkled a little over the pan. The rifle was loaded and he jerked it up to his face and immediately took aim at the path he was still looking at.
An Indian brave rushed forth from the bushes.
Colter pulled the trigger, causing the hammer to strike down on the flint and frizzen. Sparks were struck and the priming powder in the pan was ignited. Flame shot from the pan up into the barrel through the touch hole and right toward the main powder charge that’d first been rammed down the gun. This created an explosion that shot the ball up the grooved barrel, causing it to spin and shoot out. That grooved barrel gave it the accuracy necessary to reach targets one hundred yards away, yet the Indian brave that had rushed forth was but five yards away.
The force of the bullet hitting him square in the chest sent him flying backward and he landed with a ‘thud’ on the ground. The whole loading and firing sequence had taken twenty seconds.
Colter paused for a moment, shocked that he’d gotten the shot off, then reached down for his ramrod and took off running.
Lapu heard the sound of thunder and knew immediately that it was the white man’s gun. It was close, and he went toward the sound, not caring how much noise he made tearing through the brush. He had to know if the shot was a miss or if it had–
The brave came to a stop, his eyes wide at what he saw. There lay Tadi…dead! Lapu stood over the lifeless body, which still had eyes wide and staring sightless at the big sky above. He vowed that he’d kill that white, kill him if it was the last thing he ever did.
Colter was heading back toward the river, and was just getting to some of the offshoots when he heard more tearing through the forest. The noise was coming from behind him, and he knew immediately that another Indian was on his tail, this one likely incensed over the death of his friend. Colter tightened his grip on his rifle and ran as fast as he could. He was now up and along the banks of a small stream, one that was a dozen feet across in some spots, more in others, less in some. A quick glance told him the ice was good in some spots, bad in others, meaning it might hold him if he jumped down on it…but then again, it might not. Colter frowned – that didn’t do him much good now, with few options and an angry Arikara fast approaching. Knowing he had nowhere else to go, and no time to load another shot, Colter jumped off the bluff and onto the frozen offshoot of the river.
The ice groaned under his weight and gave out an immense ‘popping’ sound, but it held. It held, but with dozens of cracks now radiating out from it in all directions, some thick and some narrow, but all leading to one large impact point…right under his feet. Colter moved off quickly and the ice cracked more, but then another step brought him to a spot that didn’t create more cracks or groans. The next step was even better, and soon he was moving across the icy–
Colter looked back and saw the Indian brave, this one landing down just slightly before the cracks in the ice that he’d just created. The Indian’s impact looked to have been harder, perhaps because his pace was quicker, and the ice gave way more…but not all the way. It held, ever so precariously, and Colter knew what he had to do. As the brave began to step forward, he threw the butt of his rifle down on the unbroken ice around him, creating more and more cracks.
Lapu’s heart was racing, and not only from the fast pace he’d had to take to keep up with the white. The ice around him was cracking more than he thought it would, most likely because it’d been disturbed already by the white’s fall. He knew he had to get moving, and fast – the river here was small and not moving, so it was frozen over, but it wasn’t frozen solid. Beneath him was frigid water that would chill him to the bone in minutes.
Placing his hands before him, Lapu pushed himself up off the ice and got to his feet. The white was just a few dozen yards ahead of him, and…
“No!” Lapu called out, but in the Arikara tongue. There was no way the white could understand it even if he’d wanted to. Lapu’s heart began to race faster as he realized what was about to happen, and his eyes darted for any escape. There, he saw, on the opposite bank of this small stream. It was only a dozen feet away, but if he…
Lapu looked up and saw the white banging down with the end of his gun, hitting the ice and causing more cracks in it. All of those cracks were radiating toward him. He started forward, one step then another and then–
Lapu had no idea what happened. One second he was stepping on the ice and the next he felt pinpricks of agony, thousands of icy arrows stabbing into his body. He kicked out with his legs, then flailed with his arms. Up, up…he had to go up! He did…and smacked right into the ice. He put his head up and looked, and saw the sky above, the trees, even snow upon them…but he couldn’t reach them. He began to panic, began to pound on the ice with the bottoms of his fists. Soon they were tearing open and a faint trail of blood could be seen. Still he pounded, hoping to get through the ice, hoping to break through, hoping for air, hoping to…breath,…hoping…to…
Shappa’s head jerked to the left and he saw Honon waving his arm. He and Anoki bounded over, and his eyes went wide at the sight he saw.
“Tadi,” he said, shocked that the young brave was dead. Honon stood next to the bank, looking down on the small offshoot of the river.
Shappa gingerly approached the area of the bluff, the spot this particular pursuit had ended at. Below him he saw Lapu’s body, floating right there under the ice, just a few feet from the hole he’d most likely broken through. He’d panicked, started banging on the ice, and that was that. The Arikara chief sighed and shook his head. It was a shame, two of his most promising braves gone in a matter of minutes…and both at the hands of a white that didn’t belong here.
“He’s fast,” Anoki said, coming up beside Shappa, “the white man is fast if he can outrun Tadi.”
Shappa looked over at his medicine man and frowned. ‘Tadi’ meant ‘wind’ in the Arikara language, and the young brave had earned it in his youth, besting people twice his age in footraces. Now it seemed that he was the one bested.
“Let’s go,” Shappa said.
“Go?” Honon said, catching the words from where he was standing down on the ice. “What do you mean, ‘go’? We haven’t said the rights, honored Tadi’s spirit. We haven’t taken Lapu from the water.”
“There’s no time for that,” Shappa said, his impatience growing by the second. “We have this white, he’s running and scared and just up ahead!”
Honon looked from Shappa to Anoki, but the medicine man just shook his head.
“Listen to your chief,” he said, and then started walking in the direction the white must have gone. Shappa was right behind him. Honon frowned, looked at Lapu there beneath the ice for another moment. The brave’s eyes were wide open, staring upward in fright and horror, but also a kind of unknowing nothingness. Honon looked down at those eyes and shuddered, and couldn’t help but think that if he followed his chief, his eyes would look like that in a short time.
He stared down for a few moments more, then followed his chief.
38 – The Cave
It was midday by the time Colter made it back to the cave. Right away he knew something was wrong, for the canoe was gone. A quick inspection showed him that it’d been dragged back into the water, and likely some time ago – its track was completely covered by snow. The whole outside of the cave was covered in a thick, powdery snow, and the mountain man knew at a glance that no one was about. That didn’t stop him from calling out.
“Joe!” he shouted, loud but not too loud. The last thing he wanted was for the remaining Indians to descend upon him. But he shouted nonetheless. “Joe…Joe, where are you…it’s John.”
It was useless and Colter knew it, had known it since he’d first walked up. With a sigh he kept up that walking, right through the undisturbed snow and up to the mouth of the cave. The fire pit was right at the entrance, and it was covered with snow as well. Colter kicked at it and could tell from the logs that it’d been dormant for at least the past few days, if not a week. Could Joe have taken off right after we’d left him? Colter thought. No, he wouldn’t do that…would he?
The mountain man dismissed the thoughts and headed further into the cave. It wasn’t much of a cave, more just an opening in the side of the mountain. It went back about seven or eight feet and then the wall and ceiling met. There was nothing around and no sign of Joe so Colter…
What was that? Colter narrowed his eyes and stared at the floor near the back of the cave. There was a…skin, a solitary marmot skin. The men sometimes caught the smaller animals in their beaver traps, but always kept the skins. They didn’t bring much, but they brought something, and that’d add up after awhile. Why one was sitting at the back of the cave, Colter had no idea, but he walked up and grabbed hold of it. Flipping it over he saw that there was writing on the other side, etched there with a sooty stick from the fire by the looks of it. Colter read:
Dear Forest and John,
By now you know I’m gone. Sorry. I had to go. After you left a miracle happened, and I knew I couldn’t stay in the wilderness anymore. I left the furs, under the big tree and covered. Sorry about taking the canoe. And Forest, please tell him about that night and what happened.
Your friend always,
Colter stared at the letter after he’d read it and then read it again. “Tell him about that night,” he said out loud, echoing the letter’s words. Well, there’d be none of that now – Forest was dead, his body likely washed down the river…if it wasn’t scalped first and then washed down.
“So something happened on the way up the Missouri, eh?” the mountain man said to himself. “Aye, I suspected as much…suspected something like that.”
The men must have run into trouble while trying to pass the Arikara village. That would explain why their braves were now hunting him. He’d taken a good look at the brave under the ice, and the fact that he was Arikara had been clear. For all Colter knew, Joe was dead already, killed by the same band that had ambushed he and Forest. It could have happened several days ago, while the two of them had still been at the A’anninen village.
Colter sighed. There was no way to know, and nothing to do for it now. He looked around the cave for a minute longer, thinking of what may have been. Could he have made it through the winter with those two? With Joe maybe…yes. But Forest? Probably not. But this? Colter thought to himself…this wasn’t how things were supposed to turn out. And then a spark inside of him ignited. This wasn’t how things were going to turn out. Forest was dead and Joe might as well be, but he wasn’t. What’s more, he’d taken two of the Arikara down already. John Colter wasn’t one to give up, and the wheels in his head started to turn.
Colter stayed back, got into a comfortable position, and watched. The day passed that way, with him sitting, observing, and noting down the movement of the Indians. The mountain man had hiked out from the cave, eager to get a look at who the Indians chasing him really were. He was careful to keep his distance, however, for he was unarmed. He’d been lucky to get one dry shot from his powder horn – the rest was wet and would take days still to dry. Worse, however, was that that was his only gun. Forest’s had fallen in the river while Joe had taken his. They’d traded one Northwest Trade Gun and Joe must have taken the other downriver with him. That had left the McCormick pistol, but without powder, it too was useless. So Colter had to come up with a new plan, though he’d keep his Kentucky Rifle on him still…the better to dissuade arrow fire with.
There he sat, watching, waiting. It became clear to him right away that they were waiting too, staying stationary for the most part, right there beside the Yellowstone. They knew he had to go down it eventually, for moving overland this far south just wasn’t an option…at least that he knew of. If he was ever back in this area he might find out, but for now that was the least of his concerns. In all likelihood he wouldn’t be back, wouldn’t even live through this. Despite what he’d found at the cave, he was seriously low on supplies. Making it through the winter wasn’t likely at this point, and since the overland route was too questionable, his only choice was downriver. The Arikara knew that, and there they sat, waiting. Morning turned to afternoon and then into evening, but still Colter sat and waited. There were only three of them at this point, after the one Colter had shot and the other he’d gotten trapped under the ice. It was a hell of a way to go, the mountain man thought to himself, but he was glad it was the Indian and not himself. He still had three to contend with, and the men had been going out in pairs, to the west mostly, with one in camp always watching the river. Colter’s mind began to work, and he realized that this worked in his favor. The large beaver dams were to the west of that section of the Yellowstone, just a little further up and toward the offshoots. The Arikara had rightly avoided that section of the river for their staging area, knowing that its rapids could cause the surrounding banks to flood at any moment without warning, even in these wintery conditions. A plan began to form in his mind, one that involved the cache.
39 – The Cache
“’You’ve been gone a sight long.’”
Colter said the words aloud again, just the way Forest had when he’d seen the mountain man come back. Colter said them because he was staring at the reason for that long trip – the cache.
It was the cache that Lewis had left, the remnants of the Red Pirogue the expedition had stashed in June 1805. Returning to it the next July they’d found it decayed beyond belief, and without use. Colter scoffed at the memory. George had been with Captain Lewis on that trek, and he’d later told the mountain man how they and the two Field brothers had come upon the remains of the wooden boat. Lewis chalked it up to a loss, but George had been adamant in his talks with Colter that it hadn’t been.
“The whole metal frame’s still there, usable and worth something,” he’d said.
Colter remembered him mentioning the same during their last night together around the fire. It’d therefore been an easy decision once Forest had begun to get on his nerves. A solo trek for beavers and scouting was the reason given to go, but in reality he’d been intent on gathering the pieces that’d allow him to construct a boat that’d carry more beaver. The canoe the men had could only carry 400 pounds of fur, and Colter wasn’t going to be satisfied with a mere $800 split three ways. The wilderness had made him an entrepreneur, and by God, he’d get his share.
Now there he stood, looking at the iron frame, or at least as much of it as he’d been able to reasonably cart back down the nearly 300 miles from the Marias River to the Yellowstone. It’d been quite the walk, but Colter figured there wasn’t much else to do. After all, what was the point of trapping more than 400 pounds of fur if you couldn’t get them back to St. Louis?
Colter glanced over at the big tree outside the cave. There under it, well hidden and covered with branches and leaves, was the men’s earnings for their few months of work. A quick glance was all Colter needed in order to know that he had nearly 500 pounds of fur…and all of it to himself. He hadn’t wanted it that way, but now here he was, alone and in the wild, no one but himself to get him out.
There’d be no fashioning a boat now – Colter was in a dash for his life at this point, not in a quest for profits. Besides, he didn’t have enough bars to make the boat, at least the way it should be. He’d make something, though. A dugout canoe would get him down to St. Louis, but these metal bars would help him survive long enough to do that. With a sigh at his lost opportunities, he hefted some up and set about with his task.
Later that day the mountain man was moving about the offshoots of the Yellowstone, right around the area he’d seen the large beaver dams and other logjams gumming up that area of the river. It might have been the river at one point, he figured as he walked overland, careful to leave as few tracks as possible, and always watching over his shoulder and far up ahead. He was carrying a large beaver trap, and the chain was jingling despite his efforts. He knew that the area ahead was a maze of lefts and rights and ups and downs, made all the worse by the pointy sticks and misplaces branches. Speed was reduced, making it the ideal staging area for an ambush. The Arikara might have theirs along the river, but Colter would place his on the river’s offshoots. That’s where he hoped the action would take place, so long as he could lure the Indians out.
The mountain man reached the dams and started across them. The wood was packed high, more than ten feet in some places, and higher still where it was bunching up against the banks. This area had been washed out before, and the earth was high in some spots and low in others. He walked through it, trying to remember where he’d seen the ‘Chief,’ the large beaver that was the likely king of the area. Colter wanted to steer clear of that creature, that he was sure. A beast that size…there’s no telling what it could do.
Colter moved on and jumped down a rise. He looked at the area and nodded his head. It seemed like the ideal place to stage his ambush. After coming off the high rise he’d jump down to the small flat section, one next to a deep pool. It was currently covered over with a coat of ice, but that’d be easy to break up. There was another large bunch of twigs and logs and branches nestled up on one side, creating a kind of alcove, though one large enough to run through if need be. Colter frowned, but moved forward. The metal chains of the trap jingled as he started up the tight-packed side, digging into the branches, looking for just that…there! Colter pulled out a large specimen, a branch thick enough to support the trap’s weight, yet light enough to sail through the air. He looked around at the area again and nodded. This just might work.
40 – Springing the Trap
It was just after first light, and Colter was moving down the Yellowstone. He was travelling quickly, moving in the dugout canoe. The boat moved swiftly, and he was proud of the work he’d done with the beaten-up hatchet he’d found in the cache. What was really propelling him, however, was the metal-framed boat behind him. He’d managed to rig enough of the bars together with branches, deerskin, and what rope he had. It wasn’t the sturdiest of crafts, but it could hold weight. It was holding about 500 pounds of fur at the moment, and Colter sure hoped it held together.
His plan was to come in sight of the Arikara, then…there!
Shappa and Honon jerked their heads up to look at what the medicine man was pointing at. Sure enough, there was something coming down the river…two somethings!
“What is it!” Honon said first, bounding to his feet and coving the distance from the fire to the shore in seconds.
“It’s him!” Anoki cried out, then looked back at Shappa. The chief was still standing by the fire, a perplexed look on his face.
“He’s got another boat behind him, but he’s in a canoe!” Honon called out next.
“The white’s greed for furs will be his undoing,” Shappa said, understanding now. The mountain man was risking the river run because he couldn’t part from his precious furs. The chief laughed, and reached for his tomahawk. “This will be easier than I–”
“Wait!” Honon shouted, and his arm jerked up to point toward the white. “He’s letting the larger boat loose…he’s paddling away!”
“No!” Shappa shouted. Within moments the Arikara were rushing up the riverbank, chasing after the white in the dugout canoe.
Colter saw the Indians rushing up the bank and smiled. Everything was working according to plan. He’d worried that one of them might try to go after the metal-framed boat, perhaps upending all his furs. They wanted blood, however, and were now coming after him. Good, he thought, good.
The mountain man drove the dugout right up and onto the shore, then jumped out, not bothering to drag it forward. If it washed away, so be it – he’d be happy to live to make another. He dashed forward, over the loose stones of the bank and then up onto the rough dirt and then hard-packed snow. He didn’t have to go too far before the offshoots appeared, and then he was within sight of the logjams. He was also within earshot of his pursuers – the unmistakable sound of someone rushing through the brush was coming up on him fast. Within moments it seemed the brave was right on Colter’s heels, but they were both now rushing up and onto the wooden logjams. Their moccasins pounded across the wood, and each step took Colter closer to where he needed to be. Still, at any second he expected to feel the bite of an axe in his back. If he could just make it a…little…further…
Colter jumped over the set of wood and logs that he’d marked with the feather and hoped it would work. Behind him the brave kept up his pursuit, confident that in another few steps he’d be in striking distance and–
“Aaahhh!” the brave shouted out as the steel jaws of the beaver trap snapped shut over his right foot. The pain was excruciating, but he kept the sense of mind to look up, knowing the white was–
Colter slammed the butt-end of the log into the brave’s face, sending him flying back onto the narrow ledge of wood. He landed on his back, just inches from the edge and the five-foot drop down to the pool of water below. The wind was knocked from the brave, something that cut off his cries of pain, and Colter was thankful he didn’t have to listen to them, or have them draw more attention to his location. Acting quickly, he moved forward and kicked at the logs fastened to the trap. They rolled over the ledge and then took the heavy rocks fastened to them. At the last moment the brave sensed what was happening, and made to cry out. His breath was still stolen from him, however, and all that came out were some croaks. The weight of the logs and rocks caught the trap and pulled it over the edge. It plunged into the pool of water and a moment later the Indian brave followed it in. Colter stood and looked over the ledge. The pool was a good ten feet deep, he’d stuck a long stick down into it himself. Now he just hoped the thing was heavy enough to stop the brave from swimming up. The amount of bubbles coming up from below seemed to prove it was, and that was enough for Colter. The mountain man rose up and dashed off, further down the long stretch of piled up river logs and debris, closer to his ultimate goal.
Shappa and Anoki tore through the debris and river wash, jumping over fallen trees, lodged logs and more broken sticks then they thought could ever be washed up on a bank. They weren’t even running on the bank anymore, they realized, but on piles and piles of debris, most of it likely stacked by industrious beaver. The wood was loose in spots and tight in others, and it made for slow going. How Honon had been able to barrel through it was beyond the chief, but then he knew that ‘the bear’ could do just about anything he set his mind to.
Shappa was set to move around another rise in their path when from behind him Anoki reached out and grabbed hold of his arm. The chief immediately spun around, expecting to have the white’s dead body pointed out to him. Instead his gaze fell on the medicine man’s face, and he didn’t like what he saw.
“What is it?” he said, doubt creeping into his voice.
Anoki just frowned, then lowered his eyes to look at something on the ‘ground’ beneath their feet. It was a tomahawk…Honon’s tomahawk.
“What…where…” Shappa began, at a loss for words. Honon was the strongest brave he’d ever seen, ever, in all his years!
Anoki slowly began to move toward the edge of the huge logjam they were running on. Below was a small pool, but one that looked to be deep. The medicine man looked over the ledge and down into it, then immediately recoiled with a shudder and started to say some of those esoteric words of his.
Shappa rushed up and past the man, looking down into the pool. There was Honon, his sightless eyes staring up at him, his mouth open in a desperate cry for air.
The Arikara chief turned back. How the white had done this he had no idea, but the man would pay. Oh yes, he would pay.
41 – The Chief
Colter moved forward over the massive and seemingly-endless logjam. He knew what he sought, he just didn’t know how close the other Indians were on his tail. He’d killed three of them so far, and he knew that there were at least two more. He suspected those last two would be the most dangerous, and he wasn’t sure he’d make it out of this alive. He would try though.
Shappa pulled Anoki aside.
“Listen,” the chief said, his eyes nearly bloodshot from the anger he was feeling, “this white is mine. Do not interfere with this…his death is mine!”
The medicine man nodded and said nothing. He had a bad feeling about this, a bad feeling for Shappa. For himself he only felt good things.
“We both saw him run that way, right onto the logjam,” Shappa said after a moment. The two looked that way, looked at the massiveness of the beaver dam area in front of them. “We both saw him, but we don’t know which way.”
“My heart is telling me left,” Anoki said.
“Then I will go right,” Shappa said.
“Remember,” Shappa said, grinning this time, “his death is mine, so if you spot him first, give the call and I’ll be right there.”
Anoki nodded, and silently vowed that he’d take his time moving forward.
Colter was moving ahead, but slowly. He’d seen the two Arikaras, and he knew they were following. But now that he was this close, he had to make sure they were following him the right way.
With a deep breath he stopped completely and began climbing up some of the higher sections. If he could just get–
Colter heard the shout and his head shot over for a look. There were both Indians, right at the area where the logjam split in two. The chief was moving ahead first, and as the medicine man shouted out, he’d gotten sight of Colter. Colter saw this and dropped down. The race was on.
He dashed forward, moving through the ups and downs of the river-created but beaver-formed logjam. He knew exactly where he needed to get, but it was still a ways off yet. He had to move quickly, but not so quickly that he’d throw off his pursuers. He kept on, moving around this bend and sidling around that. It was up a cascade of fallen branches and then down a sheer drop of logs. Onward he ran, and if he could just get a…little…further…
One last jump and Colter was at the spot, the center spot in the large logjam-dam area. It was near the spot he’d first seen the ‘Chief’ at, and also the last staging area of his trap. With nowhere left to run, Colter slowly turned around, waiting for the other chief to show up. He wasn’t disappointed.
Right upon turning around, the Indian appeared. For his part, Shappa was surprised the white had stopped running. He still had his rifle, and still looked in good health. Then why did he stop? Shappa shook off the thought and jumped down the last few feet to get at the white’s level.
“Your race is up, white man,” Shappa said, knowing the white couldn’t understand his words, but not caring in spite of that.
Colter nodded at the man, nodded at his smile. He was gloating, toying with his kill. To him it seemed the jig was up, the noose was set and all he had to do was move in for the kill. Colter hoped he would move in, and he shifted about, getting to where he needed to be.
“You killed three of my best men,” Shappa continued, closing in on Colter, “three of my best, and for that you will suffer.”
“C’mon, just keep comin’,” Colter said.
“Because of you my son Patamon is dead. He would have followed me as chief one day.” From behind him, Shappa could detect movement. A quick glance told him Anoki had arrived. He smiled, knowing it was finished.
“Keep talking,” Colter said, moving ever so slightly to where he needed to be. He too saw the medicine man arrive, but he couldn’t worry about that just yet. The Arikara chief was moving forward, just about in the spot he needed to be…now!
Colter tugged on the wooden branch, the one he’d rigged the last of his trap to. Nothing happened.
Ahead of him, the Indian chief cocked his head, then began to smile. He realized what had just happened, and turned around to laugh and say something to his companion, who also started to laugh. By the time the chief turned back, Colter knew he was dead. He’d given it his all, but it hadn’t been enough. He was too busy feeling sorry for himself that he didn’t detect some movement from the large hold hidden under an overhang to his left. All he could do was back off a bit, hoping he’d find a way out.
Shappa frowned, and narrowed his eyes. “Stop moving, white man, and accept your fate,” he said, moving closer to the area that Colter had just been, “accept that you’ll always be a stranger in these lands, that you’ll never–”
Shappa’s words were cutoff as the largest beaver he’d ever seen lunged out and latched onto his arm.
“Aaahhh!” the chief screamed.
Colter stood watching in amazement as the large beaver, the ‘Chief,’ loosened his bite on the Arikara chief’s arm and then swiveled its head ever so slightly to the right. It then bit down, right on the Indian’s wrist. Shappa screamed even louder as his right hand fell to the hard-packed wood at his feet, the fingers still clutching his feathered-tomahawk tightly.
“Aaahhh….aaahhhh….aaahhh!” he screamed again and again as the blood shot forth in torrents from the stub at the end of his arm. The screaming must have displeased the ‘Chief’, for the large beaver redirected itself and tore up the Indian’s body. Shappa’s scream’s continued as the animal’s claws ripped into his stomach and then chest and then with one leap the beaver was on his face, and gnawing.
Colter looked away as a spray of blood shot out from the Indian chief’s face. Shappa threw his arms to his face to try and stop the animal that was digging its razor sharp fangs into his face, but there was little he could do. With a few shudders, he fell backward. The ‘Chief’ leapt from the falling Indian’s face and Colter was forced to jump out of their way. He fell to the ground at the same moment the Indian hit the wooden logjam, hard. The Arikara chief shuddered a few more times, and then was still.
Colter lay there, staring up. He was prone, but ready to move. The Indian ahead of him, however – a medicine man by the look of him – was poised and ready, his tomahawk ready to swing, swipe or sail.
Anoki smiled. He had the white man right where he wanted, the last of them too. The medicine man had seen the other, late one night several days past, heading downriver in a well-built canoe. He’d summoned his stones and cast them out under the evening stars, and what they’d told him had been clear – do not follow. And so he hadn’t…not that one at least. He’d continued to follow the other, the one that Shappa had had his sights on, and who was now in front of him. That hadn’t ended well for the Arikara chief at all. Now Anoki was set to become the chief, what with Shappa’s son Patamon dead. In a week of good travel he’d be back at the village, hailed as a hero, the white man’s scalp for all to see, as well as Shappa’s beads and bracelets and tomahawk, testament to the wise chief’s demise. Anoki would proclaim a special day for Shappa, a star in the heavens even, and his people would rejoice.
The medicine man thought all those things and he thought them quick, for the white mountain man before him was darting his eyes about, looking wily and dangerous. Best to do him in quick, and that’s what Anoki moved forward to do.
Colter saw the Indian start forward and he tensed up. He’d been expecting this, and he only had…now!
Colter sprung forward, pushing himself up off his back with his arms behind him, enough so that he was in a sort of standing-crouch.
Anoki was taken off guard by the move, but not surprised by it. He lowered his tomahawk and adjusted his aim accordingly.
Colter saw the Indian lower the tomahawk, just as he’d expected. He dove back down and grabbed hold of the stick holding the trap line. He pulled with all his might…and again nothing happened. The look of surprise on his face must have been plain, for the Indian above him stopped his forward momentum and began to chuckle.
Anoki couldn’t help it. The white had been trying for something, some kind of trap or some weapon that wasn’t there. The medicine man almost pitied him, but quickly shoved those thoughts aside. He raised the tomahawk and moved forward.
Colter knew he was dead. The Indian was just a couple feet from him and the axe was poised. In seconds he’d join Forest and most likely Joe, dead and–
Faster than Colter could think, a figure leapt from the packed wood at his back. He’d kicked out, and his foot met solidly with the medicine man’s face, sending him staggering backward. Colter’s eyes went wide when he saw another Indian brave now standing before him…and Arikara no less…but fighting his own kinsmen!
Anoki’s eyes were wide as he drew his hand across his mouth, right where the foot had connected. He looked down and saw a bright red streak of blood. Ahead of him the Indian’s face remained impassive, emotionless, and the medicine man felt a twinge of fear.
“Snow Eye,” he said, raising his hand up as if to both offer something or fend something off, whichever need should arise, “Snow Eye…what are you doing here?”
“You mean, why am I not dead?”
Anoki chuckled despite himself. “Yes, why aren’t you dead?”
Because your plan failed, Anoki…or should I say, Shappa’s plan failed?” Snow Eye stared hard with his one good eye, stared right into the Arikara medicine man. Anoki backed up a step, and Snow Eye took a step forward, bringing his tomahawk up as well. He held it, poised above his shoulder, ready to swing or throw.
“The plan was Shappa’s,” Anoki said, “in order that you might–”
The medicine man’s words were cutoff as Snow Eye took another step forward, this time stepping on a loose twig. It was just enough to topple a balancing log, which triggered the trap Colter had been trying to trip. A cascade of logs resulted and that sent the beaver trap sailing down on its branch. It connected solidly with Snow Eye’s right side. That triggered the beaver trap, which slammed shut on the Indian’s arm, clamping it firmly to his side. The force of the moving branch knocked the logs holding it off-kilter, and they cascaded down toward both Snow Eye and Anoki. The shifting weight was too much for that side of the giant logjam, and it simply gave way. Colter watched wide-eyed as the two men fell down to the deep pools of collected river water below, then heard the loud splash a moment later. He scurried to the edge of the water and looked down. There were bubbles and foam and everything was disturbed, but the depth was such that the mountain man could see down to what was happening…and he couldn’t believe his eyes. The Indian that’d had the trap locked to his side was on top of the other Indian, the one that’d been about to kill Colter.
Down in that pool Anoki struggled, struggled mightily for all he was worth. One leg was pinned by some logs and sent pangs of agony up him. The rest of him was pinned by Snow Eye. That milky white eye stared down at him, while the other was gone, smashed inward by a log or the fall or something at the bottom of the pool. All the medicine man knew was that the brave that’d been hunting them all that time was dead, and so was he. The weight of the Indian and the branch and trap pinned to him was too much. The medicine man’s last thoughts were of the tribe he should have rightly led, and then the air escaped his chest and he too stared off into nothingness.
Colter watched as the last air bubbles came up from the pool, and then watched a minute more. Finally he rolled over onto his back, let out a deep sigh, and hoped to God that it was only six Arikara following him and no more.
Conclusion – Downriver
Colter looked over his shoulder, saw nothing, then fell back into the bed of the canoe. He’d go straight down to St. Louis like that if he had to, but then he knew the terror was over. The chief was dead, whoever he’d been and whatever his real name had been. So were Joe and Forest for all he knew, though something told him that wasn’t the case. If asked why, he couldn’t say – it was just a feeling.
He’d spent the rest of the winter in the cave, biding his time until spring. The metal-framed boat was easy enough to fetch, for it’d only washed down river a few miles before lodging itself on the bank. With what he’d scrounged together over the rest of the months, Colter figured he had a good $1,200 or more in furs…if the price in St. Louis was still $2 a fur.
Those were the thoughts the mountain man held in his head as he came down the Missouri the next May. He was just around the Niobrara River when it happened.
Colter’s eyes went wide and he sprang up from the canoe bed, stopping himself just before going over the lip of the dugout. Could it be a trick? He thought to himself that it was unlikely, but still…
“Ho, there – in the canoe!”
The shout came again and Colter somehow knew it wasn’t a trick of the Indians, that it was in fact more trappers coming upstream. He stuck his head out and saw a pirogue coming upstream, and there, at the prow was…
From the prow, George Drouillard put his hand up to his eyes to block out the sun and then slapped his knee with a laugh.
“Colter, is that you?” he said loudly, and quite a few murmurs came from the other men on the boat.
“Damn right it’s me, George, and what the hell are you doing going upriver – you should be in St. Louis!”
“Was!” George laughed, and now other men in the boat were starting to come around, to get a sight of Colter, a man many had heard about.
“Was?” Colter said.
“Was,” George said again with a nod, “was that is, until Manuel Lisa got it into his head to get backing for a trapping expedition.” He slapped his chest and gave another laugh. “Will you look at me, John – I’m a goddamn fur trapper now!”
He gave another laugh and just as the second boat, this a larger keelboat with more men, reached them. A moment later there was Manuel Lisa himself, and Colter was staring at not just one, but two of his former expedition companions.
“Well I’ll be!” Manuel said. “I thought you’d be dead by now!”
“Came close,” Colter said.
“Aye,” George said next, “where are those two men you headed off with last fall?”
“Oh, that’s quite the story,” Colter said with a scoff and a shake of the head.
“Done up and left you, huh?” Manuel asked.
“You could say that,” Colter said with a hard look.
George and Manuel gave each other a look, then after a moment Manuel turned back to Colter.
“Looks like you’ve got quite the supply of furs there.” He motioned with his head toward the metal-framed boat the mountain man was towing behind the dugout canoe.
Colter nodded. “About $1,200 worth, if the going price’s still $2 a fur.”
$1,200…” George said before trailing off. “Hell, John…furs are going for $3 now.”
Colter couldn’t help having his eyes go wide at that. In the span of a few seconds he’d just become $600 richer.
“Wouldn’t want to let one of my boys run that back down to St. Louis for you, would you?” Manuel asked, then quickly held up his hand before Colter could get a word in edgewise. “The reason I’m asking is because we could use another man.”
“Lost one to typhoid a week out of St. Louis,” George piped-in, “just about the same area we lost Floyd back in ’04.”
Colter looked from the two men to the river and the route he’d been taking to St. Louis, the second time he’d been taking it.
“Course…we can understand if you want to get back to the real world,” Manuel said, “…and the money you still have waiting for you – it’s in the Bank of St. Louis, right there on Merchant Street.”
“Earning good interest, I hope,” Colter laughed.
Manuel shrugged. “2.8%, if you call that good.”
“I ain’t never earned no interest before so don’t know what to call it,” Colter said.
He looked downriver again, and the others looked at him. After a few moments Manuel nodded to George and the other men on the boats began to move back into their places, picking up oars and getting ready to move.
“We can give you a gun, John,” Manuel said, “it’s the least we can do. And in another two days or so you’ll run into a small fur trapping encampment. From there you can get the supplies you need to get the rest of the way to–”
“Where are you going, Manuel?” Colter said, cutting the Spaniard off.
“We’re heading up to the Bighorn, just off the Yellowstone. We’re going to try and set up a new fort, make a go of it trapping through the winter before taking the haul back downriver come spring.”
“Then I’m going too,” Colter said.
Manuel nodded. “I thought you might,” then, “George – Colter’s coming!”
George walked back and together the two men hoisted Colter up out of the dugout log-canoe.
“Sentimental value?” George said with a smile as he held the dugout there beside their pirogue.
Colter laughed. “More like junk,” he said, and kicked the log off. The men watched it float downriver for a ways before turning their attention back the other way. There were furs and money upstream, and another winter of adventure.
Thank you for reading this novel. I’d like to say that again – thanks for reading this novel. It is indeed a novel, and not a true historical account. No one really knows what John Colter did over that solitary winter of his in 1806-7, but we do know quite a lot.
Forest Hancock and Joe Dixon were real men that met Lewis and Clark. Colter was released from his contract, though the three men left the Mandan Villages before Lewis and Clark. From there they likely headed to the Yellowstone River and engaged in trapping, for how long we aren’t sure. What is known is that at some point Colter had a falling out with the two men and left them. When that was or why, we don’t know. One feature of the account is that Joe Dixon was left alone in a cave for much of the winter while Colter and Hancock went cavorting with some nearby Indian maidens. Dixon was blinded by the snow and did experience a “miracle” of some sort, one that allowed him to see again.
Besides that, much of what you just read was my own creation. Both trappers lived, to old age in fact. I took the liberty of having Forest killed off, and I’ll leave the fate of Dixon hidden for the moment. What is known is that the Arikara tribe was hostile to whites, including Colter when he and George Drouillard and others ventured back up the Missouri in 1807-8. But that’s a story for another day.
The best resource to look at for John Colter’s life is Burton Harris’s John Colter: His Years in the Rockies. It goes into the full extent of the mountain man’s life, as well as fur trapping in general. Most of the long passages describing life in the 1800s came about after reading Harris. For biographical information on Forest Hancock and Joseph Dixon, google their names and check out the Illinois State Museum link – you’ll learn a lot.
Shappa and his band of Indian braves are my creation, as are the other Indian characters in this book. The A’anninen are more easily identified as the Gros Ventre tribe, though I was told the latter name is considered derogatory by them, so decided not to use it.
I hope you enjoyed this book. If there’s enough interest in it I’d look forward to writing a second volume. That would be called Colter’s Hell and would explore Colter’s time charting the Yellowstone region over the winter of 1807-8. Thanks again!
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About the Author
Greg Strandberg was born and raised in Helena, Montana, and graduated from the University of Montana in 2008 with a BA in History. He lived and worked in China following the collapse of the American economy. After five years he moved back to Montana where he now lives with his wife and young son. He’s written more than 50 books.
Connect with Greg Strandberg
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Other eBooks by Greg Strandberg
The Jongurian Mission
Trouble in Jonguria
The Jongurian Resolution
The Warring States
The State of Chu
The State of Qin
Tarot Card Killer
Wake Up, Detroit
Nine Amusing Tales
G.I. JOE: The Dreadnoks
G.I. JOE: JOE Team-13
G.I. JOE: After Infinity
G.I. JOE: To Its Knees
Bring Back Our Girls
Tribes and Trappers: A History of Montana, Volume One
Write Now! 20 Simple Strategies for Successful Writing
English Rocks! 101 ESL Games, Activities, and Lesson Plans
Tarot: The Mystery and the Mystique
Write to the Top: A How To For Website Content Writing and Increasing Website Traffic
English Last: True Accounts of Teaching in China
Ten Minute Tarot
Priests and Prospectors: A History of Montana, Volume Two
Sell Your Book: 75 eBook Promotion Sites That Increase Amazon Sales
Design Your Book: 75 eBook Cover Design Sites That Increase Amazon Sales
Visit My Site, Bitch! Unconventional SEO Tactics for 2014
Please Say Something! 25 Proven Ways to Get Through an Hour of ESL Teaching
Tour Your Book: 50 eBook Promotion Sites That Increase Amazon Sales
Teaching Abroad: Making the Move To and From ESL Teaching
Teaching English: 25 ESL PowerPoint Ideas That Get Students Talking
Teaching English: 10 Proven Ways to Make Shy Students Talk Now
Bilingual Teaching: Making Your Students Ready for America Fast
SEO & 80s Movies: An Old School Approach to SEO and Content Marketing
Bilingual English: 25 More ESL PowerPoint Ideas That Get Students Talking
Braves and Businessmen: A History of Montana, Volume Three
Fun English: 10 Fast and Easy ESL Games
From Heaven to Earth: Ancient Chinese History, 8500 – 1046 BC
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Hustlers and Homesteaders: A History of Montana, Volume Four
Stand Out: Your 2015 SEO, Social Media and Content Marketing Guidebook
Preview of Colter’s Hell
Introduction – A Shot
The sun was bright, the sky was big, and it didn’t seem like they’d find a better place in all of God’s Creation.
Captain Meriwether Lewis put the butt of his rifle down on the ground and his arm up. “This will do,” he said, and the three men behind him came to a stop. Two of them let out sighs.
“Haven’t even gone ten miles yet,” George Drouillard scoffed at the two. He adjusted his yellow head-cloth, which was soaked with sweat.
“My feet say otherwise,” Joseph Field said with a frown.
“They don’t say anything, but they sure do stink up a storm,” Joseph’s older brother Reubin said, and both he and George broke out laughing.
“Alright, alright,” Lewis said ahead of them, picking up his rifle once again, “let’s get to making camp.”
The men nodded and started doing just that, happy to get a break from the hot July sun overhead. They were still following the small creek that’d branched off from the Marias River, one they were calling Birch Creek on account of the trees growing up on its banks. The spot they were at now had the trees on just one side, the north, while the south was open grassland for a quarter of a mile before the ground rose up into a rocky ridge of hills a hundred feet high.
“Sure this is a good spot, Captain?” George said as they started to unfurl the tarps and break out the cooking supplies.
“Why wouldn’t it be, George?” Lewis already had one of his journals out and didn’t bother to look up.
“Just seems a bit open is all, sir,” the half-Shawnee half-French-Canadian scout said. The Field brothers stopped their unpacking for a moment to look the captain’s way. Sensing the tension in the air, Lewis looked up, looked around, and then shook his head.
“This will do,” he said a moment later, his pen beginning to move across the journal’s pages once again. George shrugged and started unpacking again.
Wolf Calf came to an abrupt stop, his long black hair swishing about as he did so. He kept his hair unbound and flowing long, for he thought it made him look more savage.
The seven other young Blackfeet Indian braves behind him came to a stop so as well. They were more boys than braves, really – Wolf Calf had just turned 13-years old, and though there were a few as old as him, none were older. They were armed as well, with sturdy bow and arrows. Wolf Calf even had a rifle, a good one too, or so Calf Looking thought. He was also 13-years old, and while he didn’t have the courage or as powerful a father like Wolf Calf did, he was fast and smart and the boys looked up to him.
Calf Looking and the others were looking up to Wolf Calf now, for he’d begun creeping toward the edge of the ridge, the better to look over. The others held back, knowing that whatever their leader had seen below could just as easily spot them above if they moved forward. They also held back because of Wolf Calf’s temper. One look at the swollen black eye of Sidehill Calf could tell you that, and that’d only come about because the 11-year old had suggested they go back that morning. Wolf Calf hadn’t agreed to that, and now Sidehill Calf was sulking in the back of the band, wanting to go home more than ever.
Calf Looking knew they couldn’t go back, not yet at least. He was with the Skunk Band of the Pikuni Tribe of the Piegan Blackfeet Nation, and coming back into camp with nothing to show for their three days of hunting would lower their worth in the eyes of the other bands. Calf Looking knew full well that Buffalo Child’s Otter Band was waiting for such an opportunity to move up in the eyes of the tribe. Buffalo Child was one of the tribe’s three Wise Ones, back at camp and no doubt scheming how he could become full chief. If he could use the young braves’ poor showing to make Stone Bear’s Skunk Band look bad, then he certainly would. Stone Bear was Wolf Calf’s father, and also a Wise One, though one that didn’t have as much ambition, or at least didn’t let it show as much, as Buffalo Child did.
Calf Looking sighed. He knew he shouldn’t be out with an opposing band of braves, but his father forbade him to go out. Silver Heart was the third Wise One of the tribe and he treated Calf Looking too much like his older brother had been treated. Dog Hair may have been obedient, but he wasn’t brave. Calf Looking was, and that’s why he was with the Skunk Band, braves who craved adventure and didn’t hide from it. Still, Calf Looking knew that his father didn’t get to his high position by being a coward. Silver Heart was indeed a powerful Wise One, and one that could take over when Chief He Who Shouts finally died. Wolf Calf knew that, and it was probably why he’d been pushing them so hard over the past day. Wolf Calf’s own father had been adamant that they go out for three days only. Today was that third day, and there was no way they could make it back to the tribe by morning…unless they had some horses.
Wolf Calf reached the edge of the ridge and peered down. Sure enough, there was a small band of fur trappers, four of them it looked like, and they had quite a few supplies. They had even more guns, four the young Piegan boy thought to himself, but that’s not what he was really interested in. The true prize were the horses, twenty-one of them, all milling about in the grass a short distance from the men’s camp. They had Nez Perce markings on them too, and must have been traded by the western tribe.
Wolf Calf shook his head. The Blackfeet had cowed the Nez Perce, and they’d done so with the same guns the whites were carrying now, long-barreled rifles that sent shots far. Those shots came sudden and unexpectedly from horseback. The horses below had their legs hobbled, and Wolf Calf smiled – it’d be easy to cut the small ropes put in place so the horses wouldn’t move too far, and then all they’d have to do was ride on out of there, back to the village, and the admiration of the tribe. His father would be proud of him and Wolf Calf would gain much honor. That honor would be increased, the young brave knew, if he could bring the weapons back as well. Then his own father might have a chance at becoming chief, not just Looking Calf’s, or worse, Little Mouse’s. The thought made the young Blackfoot brave smile. Wolf Calf slowly began pushing himself backward, and after a minute he was back with the other seven boys.
“Horses,” he said as soon as he reached them, “twenty-one horses and just four men, whites.”
“Trappers?” Sidehill Calf asked, and Wolf Calf nodded.
“Looks like it, and it also looks like they’re armed pretty good.”
“So we’ll rush in after dark and take off with the horses before they know what hit ‘em,” Sidehill Calf said with a laugh, clapping Looking Calf on the back beside him. Several of the other braves smiled and mumbled their enthusiasm as well, even if Sidehill Calf was likely putting on a show, the better to get them home faster.
Although he was happy to see some of the youngest of the braves’ enthusiasm return, Wolf Calf shook his head. “They’ll be watching, the sentries I mean. I doubt these men will sleep without posting someone to watch.”
“Then what do you suggest?” Calf Looking asked.
“That we go down there and talk with them,” Wolf Calf said. That was met with silence, as well as a lot of shuffling feet and downward looks. “Ah, c’mon – don’t tell me you’re afraid,” Wolf Calf continued. “Those men have a lot of stuff down there – they want to trade. Let’s go and see what they’re doing, try to win their confidence, and see if we can bed down near them. When we know most are asleep and the sentry is dozing off, we’ll make our move and take the horses.” The 13-year old stared at the other boys, most younger than him. Only Calf Looking met his gaze, and Wolf Calf held it for several moments. Finally Calf Looking nodded, drawing the other boys’ attention.
“Alright,” he said, “but let’s be careful – those trappers have enough guns for twelve men, and we don’t want to get hurt.”
Wolf Calf smiled. “Of course!”
After that they began to move down toward the creek.
“Captain,” George said as quietly as he could, and then a little louder when he saw that Captain Lewis hadn’t heard him. Lewis looked over, and then toward what George was nodding at. There were Indians coming, a small band of them.
“Men,” Lewis said loud enough to get the attention of the Field brothers a short distance away. The two were organizing the packs to fit Lewis’s latest samples, and they looked over and then quickly got up at the sight of the Indians. “Take it easy,” Lewis said after a moment as he started forward, “let’s see what they want.” He began moving forward, said “George,” and the scout was quickly at his side.
“Blackfeet…or maybe A’anninen,” he said, “I’m not really sure. Sure are young though, I’d say 10-years to 13-years old for the lot of ‘em.”
“Old enough to fight,” Lewis said quietly as they drew near.
Wolf Calf came to a stop about twenty feet from the two whites, one of whom looked like he had a bit of Indian blood in him. He raised his hand up. Though still kept his bow in his other hand, it didn’t have an arrow nocked to it.
Across the distance, Lewis also put his hand up in greeting, and said “hello.” Beside him George said a few Indian greetings in various tribal tongues, and after the fourth the young boy nodded and spoke up. He spoke for a few moments and then George nodded.
“They’re Piegan Blackfeet,” George said, “from around this area. They’re young, and likely out on a small scouting or hunting trip for a day or two.”
Lewis nodded, and then turned around and called out to the Field brothers. “Bring up some of the trade gifts.” The two brothers nodded and were soon rushing up with one of the packs. They started to hand it to Lewis but he shook his head. “Find them three items for gifts,” he said.
Within moments Joseph had a medal, a small American flag, and a handkerchief out.
“Those will do,” Lewis said with a nod when Joseph looked to him, and the young man got up and walked the items over to the boys.
Wolf Calf took the items even though he didn’t really want them. He wanted horses and guns, and maybe some whiskey for his father, but he knew the whites weren’t likely to part with those. Still, he took the trinkets offered him and passed them back for the others to look at.
“We’ve been out for three days and need to return to our village tomorrow,” Wolf Calf said once Joseph was back near his brother. “May we camp here for the night?”
George translated and Lewis nodded immediately. “Yes, by all means, yes! Tell them that we’re eager to trade with them, just as we’ve been trading with their counterparts, the Nez Perce, Shoshone, and Kootenai.”
“Sir, I’m not sure you want to say all that,” George said, “the Blackfeet –”
“Oh, nonsense!” Lewis said with a laugh. “Tell them, will you.”
George frowned, but did as he was asked. He’d known from the reactions upon hearing the tribal names from Lewis, however, that the news wouldn’t be received well. And it wasn’t. There were mutterings from the other braves and Wolf Calf had to turn around and silence them. When he turned back, it was with a business-like smile.
“We appreciate the hospitality and also the gifts,” he said, “but what we’d really like to trade for are horses and maybe even a few of your guns.” Behind him, Calf Looking couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He never would have had the gall to ask the whites for those things, but then he supposed that’s why Wolf Calf was the leader of the Skunk Band in all but name and he wasn’t even much of a follower of his own band.
George translated the boy’s words and Lewis looked on for several moments before answering. Finally he spoke. “We’re just four men in a much larger party,” he said, “and we don’t have enough of either horses or guns to trade at this time. If you meet us closer to the Mandan Villages, however, we could probably come to an arrangement.”
The Mandan Villages, Wolf Calf thought after George translated the words, the dogs! Instead of saying that he smiled and said what the whites wanted to hear. “We’ll tell that good news to the elders and chiefs of our tribe.”
“Wonderful!” Lewis said after George translated, and the two groups settled in to making camp for the night.
The last dying embers of the whites’ campfire crackled and popped, and Wolf Calf knew it was time. For hours now there’d been silence from the three sleeping men while the sentry hadn’t move in a good hour. It was time, and Wolf Calf got up to tell the others.
It was clear from the conversations they’d had while gambling that the whites were trouble. The fact that they were trading with whatever tribes they came across showed that they knew nothing of the politics of the land. The Shoshone were weak, and always had been, so why would the whites want to give them guns? And the Kootenai? Wolf Calf had to suppress a laugh when he thought of that tribe handling a gun. Most likely the first brave would point the barrel at his head and pull the trigger. He smiled in spite of himself – maybe giving the Kootenai guns wasn’t such a bad idea.
Within moments Wolf Calf had all the members of the band up and ready. All knew the plan, for they’d discussed it before bedding down. Even Calf Looking had been silenced, mainly because of how the gambling had gone. Everyone knew that you couldn’t beat a Blackfoot at a game of dice, though it seemed the whites didn’t. And then to have the audacity to only pay out in beads and fishhooks and buttons? Wolf Calf still wondered how he’d been able to stay his dagger from biting into one of the whites’ throats over that insult. Alas, the whites would pay, and they’d do that as they should have all along, with their horses. Wolf Calf meant to take those horses, but he wasn’t greedy and would only take his fair share. The whites would still have five to get back to the Mandan dogs with, while his father would have sixteen more to his name. With that kind of collateral, there was no way anyone would be able to challenge him for the title of chief, once He Who Shouts finally did them all a favor and wandered off into the wilderness to die.
Wolf Calf looked over at the others. He’d given Looking Calf his gun, for he’d never been that good of a shot with it at night. They and two others would go for the majority of the horses while Sidehill Calf and the rest of the braves would go after the rifles, and cause a diversion with them if need be. Wolf Calf knew that if the whites heard a few gunshots go off in the night, they’d likely jump down into the nearest hole they could find, and that meant they wouldn’t be going after the horses. The other braves would slowly slip away into the night, providing cover fire if need be until the last was finally gone. The whites wouldn’t know what hit ‘em.
Joseph Field was dreaming of St. Louis, and the brothels the city held. He was well-known in them, and loved. Few, after all, could match his deep pockets, pockets that bulged with the proceeds of his vast fur trading empire. As usual, the choicest women were falling all over themselves before he’d even gotten fully into the door. One, the most beautiful and voluptuous brunette that Joseph had ever seen, came up to him, and started to reach out for his rifle. Joseph’s eyes narrowed. This isn’t right…
…Joseph awoke from his dream of St. Louis and the wonders it held, and at just the right moment – there beside him was a young Blackfoot Indian, his hand but inches from Joseph’s rifle.
Joseph didn’t think – he didn’t have to. His right hand shot out to grab the rifle, just as the Indian boy’s hand had reached it as well. Joseph pushed down, keeping the loaded rifle down on the ground while at the same time reaching over with his left hand to the large knife that was fastened there. With a quick flip of the thumb he had its latch undone and the blade up and out. One swift motion brought it over his body and toward the Indian’s. Whether the Blackfoot saw the approaching knife or not, Joseph didn’t know, but it was soon entering into the Indian’s side.
Sidehill Calf had indeed seen the knife coming his way, but he’d been too slow to react. The blade bit into his side, deeply, and the young brave was suddenly feeling faint and like he might just blow over should a breeze start up. He tried to get up, but the white whose gun he’d been trying to steal did so first, and was quickly bounding away. Sidehill Calf tried to rise and do the same, but for some reason, his legs wouldn’t listen. His eyes were growing heavy as well, and he figured if he just laid down for a few moments…everything would be alright. He did so, and the blackness took him.
George awoke from the blackness of sleep with a start – something wasn’t right. It took but a moment for him to know what, too. He bounced up off his bedroll, for the horses were whinnying and stomping and that could only mean one thing – the Blackfeet were stealing them.
He bounded out of the tent and was happy to see Joseph and Reuben doing the same nearby. A moment later the captain appeared from his, his McCormick pistol in his hand. His arm shot out into the black night, and George looked over.
“There!” the Captain shouted, and George could see the faint forms of the boys in the moonlight. Sure enough, they were already riding off with some of the animals. He started off at a run, just as Captain Lewis did the same, the Field brothers too.
Lewis sped after two of the Indian boys that were astride some of their horses, and leading quite a few of the others behind them. “Stop!” he shouted, both in English and Mandan and even a few other tribal languages he’d picked up along the way. Nothing seemed to work.
Ahead of Lewis, Wolf Calf turned around. It was he and Calf Looking that’d gone to the horses, hoping the other braves would cause the diversion needed for them to get away. So far three of the whites seemed to have taken the bait, but the last one hadn’t. Worse, the young Blackfoot saw, the man had a small gun in his hand and was waving it above his head. He motioned for Calf Looking to take a look. The other mounted Blackfoot looked back, and as he did so, he brought up his musket. It was an old thing, a relic of the tribe really, but it worked…sort of, and if you were lucky. It worked best at dissuading others from attacking or even thinking of attacking, and Calf Looking was sure it’d do that now too.
Captain Lewis saw the young Indian turn about and look at him, then motion to the boy at his side. That Blackfoot was armed, and though it was one of the oldest and most decrepit British flintlock muskets he’d seen in some time, he wasn’t going to take the chance to see if the thing still fired or not. As the young boy turned about, Lewis brought up his pistol, took aim, and fired.
“Ugh!” Calf Looking grunted, then slumped slightly on the back of his horse. Wolf Calf looked over and his eyes went wide – his companion was clasping his hand over his stomach, blood running through his fingers.
Calf Looking looked up at Wolf Calf, his eyes wide and full of shock. “Wolf Calf…” he said, then began to slump over.
Wolf Calf kicked his horse and was right there beside Calf Looking, pulling him over onto his own mount. He kicked and shooed the other horses away, for this round of horse thieving had suddenly gone terribly wrong. The animals broke off their run and started to stand still, blocking the route the whites were taking behind them, and allowing the young brave to ride off with his wounded companion seated behind him. Seeing what had occurred, the other members of the Skunk Band also fled off into the night.
Lewis chased them another dozen yards, then let off as it became clear the Indians were going to get away. He started back toward the horses, and George who was rounding them up.
“I shot one, George,” Lewis said as soon as he reached the half-Shawnee scout, “I shot one right in the stomach.”
George gave his captain a hard look, then nodded. “What else could you do?”
Lewis shook his head. “It’s not what I wanted to do, George, not what I wanted to do at all.”
George nodded, was about to offer some words of consolation, when the Field brothers appeared.
“Got one,” Joseph said as he approached, “got one in the stomach with my knife, just when his hands were inches from my gun.”
“Did he get away?” Lewis said, hoping he had, like the one he’d shot had. Their diplomatic mission had just turned into a debacle, Lewis knew. By wounding at least one Indian, and now two, Lewis had virtually guaranteed that the already hostile Blackfoot wouldn’t likely deal with Americans in the future, at least not peacefully. In the space of just one night, years of work had gone down the drain…or had it? When Joseph shook his head, however, signaling that the Indian he’d stabbed was indeed dead, Lewis knew that it had.
The men looked to their captain, waiting for word on what to do. They were in a tight spot, just the four of them, and out in the middle of Blackfeet lands. Sergeants Ordway and Gass were still out there, too, though miles and miles to the east. Because of this incident, however, they could be in danger, especially if the Blackfeet decided to go on the warpath. No, Lewis knew, the only thing left to them now was to get on their horses and ride the hell out of there.
He looked over at George and the Field brothers. “Gather the horses and get packed up – we’re riding out of here and we’re not stopping until we reach the others at the Marias River.”
The men nodded, and set about gathering the horses and their things. Lewis wandered over to the dead Indian while they were doing so. He shook his head when he reached him. Just a boy, he thought, just a boy with his whole life ahead of him. A thought came to the captain, and he reached into his jacket. There was still a small medal there, a trade trinket, but one that he remembered the Indians had been interested in. Lewis took it own and bent down, placing it on the body. It was just a small gesture, but perhaps the other Blackfeet would take it for what it was, an apology.
Within ten minutes they were riding away.
Wolf Calf waited until the whites were well away before he rode back to the campsite. There he saw Sidehill Calf’s body and he dismounted. He shook his head when he saw his friend, then narrowed his eyes. Was that…yes, it was…one of the shiny medals the whites had had. Wolf Calf bent down and picked it up, then frowned. The whites thought they could dishonor Sidehill Calf in death, putting their religious symbols on him. It was an insult, a high insult, just as though they’d scalped him.
Wolf Calf took the medal and flung it into the nearby river. Then he set to work. It was hard work for the 13-year old, but the young Blackfoot got the young brave’s body up on the horse. It’d be a long walk back to the Skunk Band’s encampment along the main river, but they’d walk it and get back in a day, maybe two. It all depended on how much Calf Looking could walk on his own. At least they still had one horse, and if nothing else, a travois could be fashioned for Sidehill Calf’s body. Usually Wolf Calf wouldn’t care too much about his dead, but in this case the rest of the tribe would need to see the body.
He made it back to the bottom of the ridge, where the others were gathered. As soon as he reached them, however, he knew that something was wrong.
“How is he?” Wolf Calf said right away, but his words were only met by shaken heads. A few more steps brought the brave close enough to see Calf Looking, the brave’s eyes wide and unseeing and staring straight up to where the Sky People lived. He was with them now, Wolf Calf knew, with them and happy.
Some who wouldn’t be happy were the whites, Wolf Calf vowed. He’d remember them, remember what they looked like, remember what they were wearing. The yellow head-cloth the half-Shawnee had been wearing stood out in his mind most of all.
Part I – Into the Wilderness
1 – The Outfit
John Colter stared out at the late-spring landscape and smiled. He was heading back upriver, into the wilderness…where he belonged. To think, just a couple weeks before he’d been heading to St. Louis, ready to join civilization. That was all behind him now and for at least one more season he’d be where few white men had gone before.
For Colter, it’d be the third such season in a row. The first had been at Fort Mandan on the Missouri in 1804-5; next had been Fort Clatsop on the Pacific over the winter of 1805-6; and after that it’d been trudging through the snow for a time with Forest and Joe before he went out on his own. That’d been 1806-7 and now here it was, June 1807. That meant he’d be up at the three forks of the Missouri for the winter of 1807-8, unless Manuel got something else into his mind. Colter looked over at the Spaniard, who was nibbling on a quill pen while staring into an account book with those black, beady eyes, and he suspected that would probably be the case. Will the winter of 1808-9 be any different? Colter thought to himself, a full five years after Captain Lewis had first offered him the rank of private at $5 a month?
“That looks like a man that’s thinking he’s made a mistake,” Colter heard a voice say from behind him. He didn’t need to look over his shoulder to know it was George Drouillard, the half-Shawnee, half-French-Canadian scout that’d accompanied him for three years on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
“Mistake? No,” Colter said. “It’s just…”
“Just that you’re wondering what you could be missing, there in St. Louis.”
“Or at the Bank of St. Louis on Merchant Street, where my $299.87^1/2^ from the expedition is.”
“Ha!” George laughed. “You’ve got it calculated out and all, even with the interest, don’t you?” He laughed again. “You wouldn’t know what to do with that much money if you had it, John!”
Colter frowned. George was probably right – he hadn’t used money since that last thing he’d bought in St. Louis in May 1803, a new comb. He wondered if that shop was still there. The way the men had made it sound over the past couple weeks, the city had grown so much he wouldn’t recognize it. In another year, he promised himself, in another year I’ll see it again.
George walked off after that, along the gunwale of the boat. There were three boats in all, two of the same length and one that was longer and wider and full of most of their goods. The first boat was more than fifty feet long and eight feet across. Behind it came the long keelboat, seventy-five feet long in fact, and eighteen feet wide. Behind it was the third boat, the same proportions as the first. The keel boats were long and wide and difficult to get up the river. The Missouri was flowing toward the Mississippi, which itself flowed toward the Gulf of Mexico down near New Orleans, and that meant the men had a hard time getting the boats upriver to the Upper Missouri where the best fur trapping was. They managed it, at quite the slow pace against the four mile an hour current, and did so in three main ways.
First was cordelling, which involved ten or twenty men walking alongside the boat on the shore, pulling it with ropes. Next was warping, which had a few men row up in a small rowboat so that a rope could be tied to a tree, attached to the keelboat, and then the men would pull it forward through the current. Then there was poling, which had the men stand on the boats with long poles, pushing off the bottom of the river so the boat moved forward. After that there was rowing, which was the most hated method, and involved the men paddling against the current, making little headway most of the time it seemed. Finally there was sailing, which was the rarest of all keelboat travel, but came up every once in awhile when the wind was right and the boats could move along with it. Colter had done them all with the Captains, and each had their drawbacks. With cordelling you had to walk through the thick brush along shore, and sometimes in the muck and over rocks, always looking over your shoulder, wondering if an Indian might attack. Warping often left your arms feeling like they’d come out of their sockets, so much pulling on the boat was there. Poling did the shoulders in while rowing just created resentment at the one who’d ordered it. Even sailing had its drawbacks, such as when the boat suddenly veered off into an eddy or a shoal or even the bank. It was hard work, and that’s why Manuel had so many men with him, just to transport the goods they’d need to make it a winter in the wilderness.
They had the goods, but little of it was food. That’s one of the reasons the men had been happy to run into Colter, for they all knew from the tales George had told how good of a hunter the mountain man was. The men needed a good hunter, for they were terribly low on food by that point. They’d travelled light from St. Louis, figuring the hunting would be enough to see them through the long river voyage. Unfortunately it wasn’t, with game so thin before the Platte River. Colter ran into them in late-spring and even he had a hard time finding game so that by July they were down to a quarter pound of meat per man a day. George gave them the reason for their quandary soon enough – they were travelling through Sioux Indian country, and the Indians would have already taken the plum picks. All the picks from what they saw.
It was with quite a bit of relief, therefore, that they made it upriver that month, reaching the Niobrara where game became plentiful. Colter’s gun became quite handy by that point, and the men were quite thankful for his presence as the August days wore on.
2 – The Arikara
Those August days changed to September days and the men were still moving up the river, making a slow go of it. A large part of it was the hunting they had to undertake, largely to replenish the food stores. Another was the river, and the endless current that worked against them day in and day out, and during the nighttime too. Lastly it was Indians. The men had come into the territory of the “Rees,” as they called the Arikara Indians, and that meant they had to keep their guard up. The Arikara village would be the first that travelers would see on their route northward on the Missouri. It was 1,440 miles from St. Louis, and Colter knew that the distance was up when he saw the village’s palisade of cedar logs poking up above the riverbanks further ahead, as well as cultivated fields beginning to show nearby.
Continue this exciting series. Get , , [+ Colter’s Friend+], [+ Colter’s Revenge+] and [+ Colter’s Escape+] today!
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