Dave P. Fisher                        
Author & Western Humorist

Double Diamond Books                      
  
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Monthly Feature
    
     
                    Where No Man Rules - Book 1 - The Poudre Canyon Saga
  
   In this scene Jean and Andre are introduced to "Colter's Hell", and battle Blackfeet along the way.
 
  

 
 

The pack train and escort reached the Yellowstone intact. No war parties were foolish enough to challenge the army of armed trappers. Some men decided that they had had enough of the wilderness life and bitter winters and were accompanying the cargo back to St. Louis.

Others turned their horses at the river and rode off into whichever direction suited their fancy. They were free men and the wind was their guide. Hands were shaken and goodbyes waved as the men that had spent so many months together parted ways. Among independent men, friendships were made along the way and partings brought few regrets. As promised, Ashley paid those who were staying for their furs in either cash or trade goods. Those who returned with him would be paid in St. Louis.

A great many things had changed in the lives of the Pelletier brothers since that day they joined Fitzpatrick on the keelboat. They had long since passed the pilgrim stage and were considered equal to the other men who trapped the west. Andre, in particular, was becoming a man that stories were beginning to be passed along about.

Jean had managed to trade his old British rifle, along with a few dollars, to a trapper for a spare Hawken that he carried. The man said he was tired of fighting Indians and sleeping in the snow. His intentions were to stay in St. Louis and not return to the mountains.

Jeb leaned forward on his horse and looked at his partners, “You boys headin’ back with Fitz and Ashley for the comfort of the city, or do you still want to be mountain men?”

 

Jean partially lifted the new rifle from its resting place in front of him on the saddle. “Well, I sure didn’t buy this rifle to take it back to the city and stand it in a corner.”

Moving his horse in closer to Jeb, Andre shook his head slowly as he stared hard in the old mountain man’s face. “Jean, I think old Jeb here wants to go back to the city where he can sit his old bones in a rocking chair in front of the fire, and he wants us to go back with him so he doesn’t have to feel guilty about it.”

Jeb nodded his head, “Well, if you’re going to take up such a snotty nature, then yep, that does sound mighty invitin’. Don’t know I want to stay out here with such as you anyway.”

“What exactly is ‘such as me’?” Andre asked with an amused grin.

“A youngster pickin’ on a decrepit, poor old man.”

Andre burst out laughing, “Decrepit old man? You’re about as decrepit as I am. You want to be a mountain man or not.”

Jeb laughed, looked at Jean, and pointed at Andre, “Well listen to the White Griz over here. Thinks he wants to be a mountain man.”

Jean shook his head in mock sadness, “Pathetic, just pathetic.”

“He sure is,” Jeb agreed.

“Not, Andre,” Jean remarked. “You.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. Are we going to go west or do you need some more time to feel sorry for your decrepit old self?”

Jeb shook his head, “What did I get myself into with you two?”

The three men sat on their horses grinning at each other as the fur laden horses and accompanying men disappeared into the distance. The ensuing silence enveloped Jeb and the Pelletier brothers. They watched the last horse disappear from sight. Then Andre glanced over at Jeb, “You missed your ride.”

Jeb looked back at Andre, “That’s too bad. I know you wanted to go back. So, since you’re stuck out here, you boys wanna see Colter’s Hell or just sit around here flappin’ your jaws all day? It’s different from anything you’ve ever seen before, and it’s a good place to summer.”

The brothers looked at each other. Jeb laughed at their questioning faces. “I know, you’re askin’ yourselves, what’s this here Colter’s Hell? Well boys, it’s where the earth cracked open and hell just sorter bubbled up out of it.  Smokin’ rivers and hot boilin’ mud. Hot water shoots a mile in the air. Injuns figure it’s haunted by evil spirits and won’t go no where’s near it. Huntin’s good and the livin’ easy.”

Andre gave Jeb a skeptical look, “This I have to see.”

Jeb feigned exasperation, “I swear boy, you keep up that snotty nature and I’m just gonna have to shoot you.”

Jean grinned, “Well, are we going to see this Colter’s Hell or are you two planning on spending the whole day flapping your jaws?”

With a hearty laugh Jeb bellowed out, “Okay boys, follow me! By God, we are mountain men!”

As they rode along, Jeb began to explain about the place they were headed. “The Yellowstone River heads out of a big lake smack in the middle of Colter’s Hell. It’s a couple of days ride following the river here and then we’ll be right in there.” He huffed at Andre, “Then you can eat your words and wipe that distrustin’ look off your face. You’ll see I ain’t yarnin’ a bit.

“Now, when Lewis and Clark come through here they followed the Yellowstone, just like we’re doin’ now. They was headed for the Pacific Ocean, but we ain’t goin’ that far. They found this country pretty much the way it looks now, miles of rolling hills, and meadows full of buffalo. The Crow, and them murderin’ Blackfeet, have hunted this country longer than anyone can figure, and they weren’t none too happy about them newcomers, I’ll tell you.

“The lower portion of the Yellowstone runs through Crow country, the upper part’s Blackfoot. The Blackfoot, being the warring tribe that they are, laid claim to the lower part as well and fought the Crow for ownership. The Snakes hold a corner of the Upper Yellowstone too, and of course the Blackfoot laid claim to that part too, and fought the Snakes for it.

“Now, into all this foo-fur-rah comes ol’ John Colter, he was a hunter for Lewis and Clark. On the trip back to St. Louis, after having reached the Pacific Ocean, he wanted to stay on the Yellowstone. He asked, and was given permission to leave the company. During his wanderings, he was set upon by a war party of Blackfeet. While trying to escape and save his scalp, he accidental-like come into the headwaters of the Yellowstone. To his amazement, the Injuns wouldn’t follow him into the area. Well, the place was so interestin’ that he just stayed in there and explored.

“After a time he left there with a whole passel of wild tales. He told of rivers that smoked, hot bubbling mud, and hot water that exploded into the sky from little-bitty holes in the ground. He also told of a giant lake and rivers over-run with beaver. Millions of buffalo grazin’ in the long grass and giant bears with six inch claws that stood eight feet tall. The best part was that the Injuns refused to go in it. Well, as you can expect, ol’ Colter was branded a liar ‘cause eastern folks have no idea what’s out here but they think they know it all. Everyone just started callin’ it Colter’s Hell, ‘cause it’s what you’d expect hell to look like.

“Well, when other trappers started comin’ into the country, they found that Colter had spoke the truth, and he wasn’t yarnin’ on a bit. Them stupid easterners called these fellers a bunch of liars, too. The stories were considered yarns told by wild men that no self-respectin’ easterner could believe or would ever stoop so low as to speak to. So, ever since then, we’ve all just called it Colter’s Hell. We don’t care for what them eastern folks think, we’ve seen it, and it’s a fierce place to behold, but the livin’ is easy.”

With that, Jeb stopped talking. He wasn’t one to talk much unless he had something worthwhile to say, as it was with most who called themselves mountain men. Conversation was for city folks at tea parties, out here talking was for communication, education, or yarnin’ around a fire with a jug. Jeb had finished his lesson for the time being and felt that nothing more needed to be said. They all rode along in silence. 

 The men followed the river west, keeping a careful watch on the country around them. The river made a southerly bend and continued on. Jeb stopped his horse and sniffed the air, “Smell that boys?”

Andre sniffed the air as Jeb had done, “Smells hot.”

Jeb nodded, “That’s right, its dust and heat blowing in front of a storm. They get some real killers up here and that’s how it starts.” 

A low rumble rolled off the land, its source yet unseen. A minute more and the rumble came again, only closer. Then Jeb pointed at the western horizon, “Here she comes, and she’s a-movin’ fast.”

A minute before, the western sky had been a brilliant blue, now from north to south the horizon was a line of rolling black clouds. The smell on the wind changed from a hot moving force to the scent of rain. The long grass began to lie down as the wind picked up force and blew it flat to the ground. Flickers of lightning began to flash through the growing black horizon and the low rumble of thunder was moving with it.

The storm was moving with incredible speed, the western sky a wall of moving black. As it raced toward them, brilliant yellow streaks of lightning stabbed into the ground. Following on its heels, thunder shook the world around them sounding like the drums of a great marching army.

 A sheer black curtain of heavy rain hung from the clouds to the earth, looking for all the world like a moving waterfall. Herds of deer and elk could be seen fleeing across the open country heading for the safety of the timber above them. Anything in the storm’s path would be pounded into the ground.

The wind and thunder were becoming deafening and voices were lost in its force. Jeb tried to yell at his partners, but his words blew away before reaching their ears. He reached out and slapped Andre on the shoulder, pointed at the animals running for the trees uphill from them, and then pointed up the hill. Andre nodded his understanding and passed the unspoken message on to his brother.

As one, the riders reined their horses around and kicked them into a full gallop. A half mile of open ground and a steep upgrade lay between them and the trees. The wind laid the tall grass down flat before them as they raced across the giant black face of the advancing storm. The horses needed no coaxing, they wanted away from the storm as much as the men riding them. The crashing thunder and explosions of lighting shook the earth as the solid black wall rushed toward them faster than the horses could run.

With the horses heaving for air, they made their last leap into the trees just as a flash of lightning slammed into a huge Ponderosa pine with an explosion of sparks and fire. Immediately on top of it, a clap of deafening thunder shook the world around them. Then they were swallowed into the black wall of pounding rain and hail. Branches, needles, and cones bounced off the ground as they were violently ripped from their places in the pines.

Quickly dismounting, the men led their frightened horses deeper into the timber. Finding a group of small trees with their boughs hanging low to the ground, they moved in under them and hunkered down as low as possible while still holding the reins of their horses. The shelter offered some protection from the bludgeoning hail stones, but the rain continued to pour through. The horses hung their soaked heads, their noses touching the ground.

Then, as fast as it had come, the storm was gone. The black wall continued its relentless march down the river, destroying everything in its path, the rumble of thunder heralding its approach. The three men remained hunkered under the boughs, their clothes thoroughly soaked through. Holding the reins of their frightened horses, they listened to the thunder as it rolled away. Each looked at the other and commented on the severity of the storm. 

The sun once again filled the wide blue sky and warmed the shocked earth. Steam rose off the grass as it struggled to stand back up. The pine boughs dripped water and the giant lightning-struck tree smoldered a thin trail of smoke.

As the steam rose off the boughs, grass, and the horses’ backs, the three made their way out from the tree shelter, with water dripping off their clothes and hats. Jean and Andre slipped their shirts off over their heads and shook as much water as possible out of them. The warming sun would have them dry in short order.

Slinging the reins back over the horses’ necks, they mounted and began riding out of the trees with Jeb in the lead. Suddenly, he pulled back on the reins so hard his horse’s front feet came up off the ground and then quickly moved backwards several steps. Jeb put his forefinger over his lips in a signal for silence and pointed down the hill.

Jean and Andre pulled up their horses and looked in the direction Jeb had pointed. They instantly spotted the reason for Jeb’s sudden stop. A short way down the hill several mounted Indians rode slowly out of the cover of the pines. The Pelletiers and Jeb had already ridden clear of the trees and were in plain sight. If the Indians looked up they would be seen, their best and only hope was to remain perfectly still.

  Jeb cursed, then whispered, “Blackfeet!”

Their hope of not being seen was short lived when one of the Blackfeet looked up the hill and saw them. He quickly spoke to the others in the group, who in turn looked up at the white trappers. Spinning their horses on their heels, the Blackfeet let out a barrage of war cries and charged up the hill. Jeb pulled his rifle, Jean and Andre followed suit. Taking a quick aim, the three Hawkens roared almost simultaneously and created as many riderless Blackfeet horses. Turning their horses, they raced away back through the trees.

The effort to put distance and trees between them and the Indians was proving futile. The Blackfeet were not easily discouraged when scalps, horses, and the spoils of victory were so close at hand. Riding wildly, the pursuers were quickly closing the gap. They came on weaving through the trees like they were riding on open prairie. Reloading as they rode, Jeb and the brothers prepared to make a fight of it.

Jeb shouted at Jean and Andre. “We can’t outrun ‘em and we’ll kill these horses if we try.  Gotta make a fight of it. When we reach that bunch of rocks turn and shoot . . . and for God’s sake, don’t miss.”

Reaching the rocks, the three jerked their horses to a sudden stop, turned and fired. The Indians were coming on fast and reckless, the sudden turn of events took them by surprise. Three more Blackfeet fell with surprised looks still on their faces.

The remaining three of the Blackfeet party lost their interest at that and decided these trapper’s scalps were getting too expensive. They spun their horses around and abandoned the chase. Jeb, through long practice, could reload in seconds and he did it now. Aiming at the fleeing Blackfeet he lined up on the last one, it was a long shot, but he took it anyway. The rifle jumped at the roar. The Indian stiffened, leaned forward over the horse’s neck for a second and then fell to the ground.

“That’ll do yuh,” Jeb remarked smugly. Then he reared back his head and let out a loud war cry. “By thunder, that was something wasn’t it?”

Jean and Andre shook their heads and chuckled. “You old bear,” Jean grinned, “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you didn’t plan that out, just because you were getting bored.”

“Nah, I couldn’t have planned it that good. Where else can you have a scrap like that one, except in the Rocky Mountains? Is this the place to be or ain’t it?” With that he let out another war whoop.

Andre pushed Jeb’s shoulder, “Well, now that you’ve had your fun, can we get on to Colter’s Hell?”

“Shoot, we’re almost there, hang on to your britches, son.”

Riding out of the trees, they moved back down to the river and continued on. Jeb declared them to be in Colter’s country before they reached the giant lake. “We stay on the river here and we’ll come to the biggest waterfall you’ve ever seen, there’s two of ‘em in fact.”

They rode on until the sound of rushing water could be heard before it was seen. Jeb held up his hand, “Hear that? That’s the falls. We’ll take a look at it from up on top.”

In the distance they could see the river disappear like it was falling off the earth. When they reached the top of the falls they dismounted and cautiously made their way to the edge and looked down. The water seemed to fall forever and crashed into a tiny pool far below.

“Kind of dizzyin’, ain’t it?” Jeb laughed.

Andre whistled long and low, “I’d sure hate to fall down that, but it is a sight.”

Remounting, they made their way down through the canyon until they were once again on flat ground following the river. The Yellowstone continued to flow on slow and wide giving no indication that it had just been squeezed and shot out of a canyon after a fall of hundreds of feet. The reflection of the giant lake glinted in the distance.

When they finally reached the lake it was everything they had heard. “Did I tell you this was some country?” Jeb looked smug.

Jean stood up in his stirrups and scanned the land all around, “You did say it Jeb, and you were right. Looks more like heaven than hell though. Where’s the hell part?”

“Yes,” Andre gave Jeb a glib look, “where’s all these boiling rivers and shooting mud? Sure hope you weren’t yarnin’ about that. I rode all this way to see shooting mud.”

Jeb slowly turned his head and gave Andre a glare, “That’s boiling mud and shooting water, you little pup, and you know darn well what I said. You keep it up and you’ll find yourself cooked in a pot of boiling mud.”

Jeb reined his horse around and began riding around the lake. “We’ll get around the lake here and head west. I’ll show you smoke and mud, you pup.”

For two days they rode west with Jeb showing them areas of bubbling mud, smoke coming off the rivers, and a hole in the ground that rumbled the earth just before it blasted a geyser of hot water straight into the air. Jean and Andre were amazed at every turn, never had they dreamed that such a place ever existed.

It was easy to see why those only hearing the tales would think Colter and the others were lying, it all had to be seen to be believed. After all, how could a river produce smoke, and why did water shoot out of the ground in a massive geyser? Such things could never exist – except the men of the Rocky Mountains knew they did.

 The hunting was good, and the living was indeed carefree and easy, just as Jeb had said. Come winter, they would decide whether to stay or go, but for now it was a good place to summer.

 

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