In 1830, Boone Caudill sets out alone for St. Louis and the West after a fight with his father. Taking his father’s rifle with him, he heads for Louisville to get out of the state before his father can catch him. On the road, he meets Jim Deakins, an easygoing redhead, and the two decide to go west together. At Louisville, where the sheriff and Boone’s father are waiting for the runaway, he and Jim are separated. Boone escapes by swimming the Ohio River to the Indiana shore.
When Boone is falsely accused of attempted theft and jailed, Jim, who followed him after their separation, steals the sheriff’s keys and releases him. Together the boys continue west.
In St. Louis, they sign on as part of the crew of the keelboat Mandan. Most of the crew are French, as is the leader, Jourdonnais. The boat is headed for the country of the Blackfeet with a store of whiskey and other goods to trade for furs. Teal Eye, the young daughter of a Blackfoot chief, is also on board the ship. She was separated from her tribe for some time; Jourdonnais hopes to gain the friendship of the Indians by returning the young woman to them.
The keelboat moves slowly upstream by means of poles, a tow rope, and oars. Boone and Jim find a friend in Dick Summers, the hunter for the Mandan, whose job is to scout for Indians and keep the crew supplied with meat. He makes Boone and Jim his assistants. Jourdonnais is worried about getting to Blackfoot country before winter, and he works the crew hard. At last, they pass into the upper river beyond the mouth of the Platte River. All the greenhorns, including Boone and Jim, are initiated by being dunked in the river and having their heads shaved.
At last they are in buffalo country. Summers takes Boone with him to get some fresh meat. Attacked by a hunting party of Sioux, the white men escape unharmed, but Summers expects trouble from the hostile Indians farther along the line. A few days later, the Mandan is ambushed by a large Indian war party. Only the swivel gun on the deck of the boat saves the men from death.
Shortly before the Mandan arrives at Fort Union, two men try to sabotage the cargo. At Fort Union, Jourdonnais accuses the American Fur Company trader McKenzie of trying to stop him. McKenzie denies the charge, but he tries to argue Jourdonnais out of continuing upriver and offers to pay double value for the Mandan’s cargo. Jourdonnais refuses. At Fort Union, Boone meets his Uncle Zeb, an old-time mountain man. He predicts that the days of hunting and trapping in open country are nearly gone. Boone and Jim, however, do not believe him.
When the Mandan arrives in Blackfoot country, Teal Eye escapes. The crew begins to build a fort and trading post. One day, Indians attack and kill all but the three hunters: Boone, Jim, and Summers. For seven years these three hunt together, and Summers makes real mountain men out of the other two....
(The entire section is 1218 words.)