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Lewis and Clark: Murder on the Natchez Trace


April 4, 1810 Montana territory

The glint of the sharp metal tip reflected in the sunlight. The Blackfoot warrior took the arrow shaft from his leather case and silently notched it into the bowstring. His bare chest was lean and well muscled, his hair dark as the night and falling halfway down his back. Leather pants protected his legs, and comfortable shoes made from soft buffalo skin kept his footfalls quiet. His only decoration on this outing was some black paint which he had carefully adorned his forehead and cheekbones. He focused on the spot where he was told his quarry would come into view and waited with practiced patience. Running River looked up at the sky, judging the time from the last reported sighting and configuring his own internal clock. He was right on schedule. Overlooking the water below, he knelt on a small bluff, prepared to unleash a clean shot. He permitted himself a slight smile. This was going to be fun.

The canoe was silent as the two men made their way down the small creek. Their wooden paddles made a slight swirling dip in the water, perfectly in sync with each other. The weather was warm for this time of year and the animals were starting to come out of their winter habitats. John Colter and John Potts, both recently released from the tour of duty with the Lewis and Clark expedition a few years earlier, examined their beaver traps they had left beside the stream earlier in the week. Beaver hides were their stock and trade now. A fur pelt could be sold for a good deal depending on the size of the animal and the condition it was in. Adequate care was important and Colter was one of the best traders in the business.

'Did you hear something?', Potts asked quietly. 'Sounds like buffalo.' Scattered trees stood like sentries on each side of the creek but the majority of the land was dry and arid. Cactus plants doted the landscape and the sun beat down hot upon the two men. The creek stretched about 20 feet on each side towards a small muddy shoreline, but its depth was deceptively deep. The direction of the current ahead turned almost seventy degrees, its headway blocked by low level hills.

Colter had indeed noticed the change in noise, but to him it wasn't the sound of heavy buffalo. This was more muted, more like... 'I think it's indians, John. Perhaps we should go back.' Reflexively he reached down for his rifle he carried alongside him in the bottom of the canoe.

But Potts pressed on. 'Nah, I'm sure its buffalo. We've hunted enough of them to know. Besides we'll be done with these traps in a few hours. Don't want to turn back...'

As their canoe rounded the next bend, Potts stopped talking and simply stared at the scene before him. On either side of the small creek were more than six hundred Indians and more arriving fast. Potts, who was in the front of the canoe, looked back with an anxious expression at his friend. Colter's face was impassive, but his eyes betrayed his fear.

Blackfeet Indians, one of the most aggressive and hostile tribes in the western plains, looked ready to pounce. The warriors were armed with spears and arrows, and as Colter looked around him, he saw a few Blackfoot warriors on elevated terrain, their arrows notched and ready. This was clearly setup up as an ambush - not just an innocent encounter along the waterway. There would be no easy escape. Colter understood these warriors, probably more than most white men who lived in the western plains.

Lewis and Clark