Usually John preferred the wide open spaces and the freedom of following a stream through the mountains just to see where it would go. He was as gifted a roamer as ever left home. A canopy of stars under which to sleep, and fresh killed meat over an open fire were all he needed to make a happy life.
Every now and then, though, he thought about the life he left back east in Virginia, dancing to the fiddle with some pretty slip of a girl after the harvest was brought in. The hankering for civilization could sneak up on a body as suddenly as a Blackfeet war party. Right now he was in the middle of one of those hankering moments, and the war party all around him had a lot to do with that.
He and John Potts were checking beaver traps on the Jefferson River when both banks suddenly came alive with Blackfeet. One summoned them onto the shore. Not seeing a way to fight or escape they decided they might as well obey.
“I seen a couple of these devils afore,” he warned Potts as they started climbing out of the canoe. “I fought them when I was with the Crow and they jumped us.” His leg still ached from the ball he took in it during that battle a few months past. He’d had to sit by a tree and keep shooting until they’d run off.
As they were stepping onto shore one of the warriors snatched Potts’s rifle. Instinctively John grabbed it back and handed it to Potts who jumped back into the dugout and pushed out into the river. An arrow whistled past John and struck Potts in the arm.
“Don’t!” John yelled, but too late.
“We’re dead meat anyhow,” Potts hollered. “But I aim to spoil their deviltry.” He lifted the rifle and shot one Blackfeet dead. Instantly he went down under a fusillade of arrows.
Angry at being cheated out of torturing one of the trappers, the warriors eyed John with calculating malevolence as they marched him inland. Desperate now, as rough hands grabbed him and began tearing his clothes and equipment away, John continued thinking. He saw the recognition in one warrior’s eyes, and he felt the fury that twisted the man’s face.What did that other one call him? Wolf Runner? “Slow Dog, hunter of swift turtles!” he spat in his face. His enemy’s eyes first narrowed, then brightened, his fierce scowl replaced with a malevolent smile.
Pointing at a dead tree a quarter mile up, they shoved him forward. Naked, his feet already bruising on stones and his leg remembering with stiffness the earlier battle, John began to run. He had never lost a footrace in his life. He wouldn’t lose one now with his life hanging on it. He passed the fatal tree and heard the shrieks as they took up the pursuit. Dodging and twisting, he felt knifelike cactus spines tearing at his feet, but on he ran. Blood began gushing from his nose as he strained toward the bend in the river ahead. The shouts behind him grew distant, only one runner was close. John spun around and threw out his arms, like a grizzly rearing up. Wolf Runner, astonished by John’s action, tried to stop in midstride and instead tripped, falling headlong at John’s bleeding feet. The lance he was carrying broke on impact and John was able to grab the business end and plunge it through Wolf Runner’s throat, pinning the gurgling man to the earth to bleed out his life.
The shouts of the others were gaining again, and John turned, stumbling and falling forward into the river. He dived under a pile of driftwood and managed to pull himself under it just before the screeching horde reached the riverbank. For hours John shivered in the water, as the warriors crossed over the driftwood pile several times, howling in frustration.
After darkness finally wrapped the world in quiet, John slipped out from beneath the pile and swam downriver. Emerging from the cold water he paused for a moment, gnawed on some tree bark, and began the long walk to Lisa Manuel’s Fort.
Author’s note: John Colter arrived at Manuel Lisa’s Fort on the Yellowstone River, covering the 300 miles in 7 days. Although there were no friendly witnesses to corroborate his story, his condition on arrival and his many other exploits support its truthfulness.
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