W HEN Lewis and Clark went on their famous expedition across the continent, they had forty-three men with them. Among the number was a man named Colter, who joined in the enterprise more from a spirit of adventure than for any desire to be of service.
The party had reached the very wildest part of the region they were to explore, when Colter left them, saying he was going to set up as a trapper. By this he meant that he was going to catch the wild animals of the region in traps, and sell their skins as fur. The fur-bearing game was abundant, easy to obtain, and fur was valuable in the markets.
Colter built a cabin, set his traps, and began to gather the pelts. He lived on small game and fish, the fruits and nuts of the woods, and traded with the Indians for corn and vegetables. For awhile all went well, until one day the Blackfoot tribe took him prisoner and carried him off to their village.
Colter began to wish he had not left the exploring party, especially as the Blackfoots began to discuss the various ways they could amuse themselves by putting him to death. He knew enough of their language to understand what they were saying. Some were for burning him, others for shooting him with arrows.
At last the Indian Chief approached him, and said, "I have decided to let you race for your life. My men will beat you, unless you are able to keep them from catching you. Can you go fast?"
Colter was really a good runner, but he did not wish the Chief to know it. He replied, "I am a poor runner, and your braves will easily catch and kill me. But I will do the best I can."
They led him out on the prairie, a few hundred yards away, and turned him loose. He was told to run, but he needed no advice. The whole band of Indians set up a yell, and started after him like a pack of wolves. Each Indian had either a spear or a short club or a tomahawk, while Colter was unarmed and barefoot.
Fear gave him wings. He set his face toward the river, six miles away, and went like the wind. At the end of three miles, he glanced around and saw that only a few Indians had kept up with him. In fact, but one was near him; the others were far behind, and were losing ground.
Colter sped on as fast as he could. His life was very much at stake, for, after the next mile, he glanced around and saw the Indian was not more than twenty yards behind him, with his spear ready to throw. Colter stopped suddenly, and turned to one side. The Indian tried to stop, but lost his balance and fell to the ground almost breathless.
Colter, seeing the savage, quickly seized his spear, drove it through his prostrate body, and, leaving him dead, started again for the river.
The other Indians were now coming up. As they saw the dead body of their companion, they stopped to howl a few minutes, according to their custom, and then ran on in pursuit of the fleeing white man.
Faster and faster flew Colter, coming nearer and nearer to the river. At length, he reached a thicket near the bank, into which he plunged; then he turned a little ways to one side, so as to deceive his pursuers. Into the current he went swimming with all his strength to a small island in the river.
The Indians reached the shore a little later and saw Colter. With loud yells they followed, bent upon his destruction, and thinking they had caught him at last.
But Colter was not so easily trapped. He dived under the driftwood near the island, and came to a place between two logs in a pile of brush, where his nose and eyes alone showed above water. Here he held himself still for a long time, breathing whatever air he could, and watching for his foe.
The Indians ran in every direction over the island, and looked in among the driftwood. When they came near his hiding-place, Colter sank under the water, and very quietly came up somewhere else. If they had set fire to the driftwood and brush, they would have smoked him out. He feared that they would do this, but fortunately the Indians were not clever enough to think of it.
At last the savages went away, thinking Colter was drowned. The next day he swam to land, and tramped a long distance across the prairies. He was without shoes, and had but little clothing. Neither had he any gun, nor any other means of securing food. He lived on roots and berries for many days.
At last he came to a trading-post, and told his wonderful story. He said that during his wanderings he had passed springs that were boiling hot, and fountains that would spout water and steam hundreds of feet into the air. Nobody believed him then, but now we know that he was really the first white man to see the wonderful geysers of the Yellowstone Park.