I knew myself to be the most luminous man on earth. The sun was at its zenith, and so was I, but like the setting sun, my light would lessen soon. At this moment, surely, I shone more brightly than Napoleon or Wellesley or the king of England, and maybe even my friend Thomas Jefferson.
Was I immodest? I allowed myself to be this fateful Tuesday, September 23, 1806. Will Clark and I took the corps all the way to the western sea—I tasted its brine with my own tongue and then stared at China—and back safely, a journey of eight thousand miles across an unknown land. And without loss, save for poor Floyd. Forgive me my exultation; I have done the impossible.
Those people rushing to the St. Louis levee would never know, could not even imagine, how it was. They would hear my words but not fathom the dangers, the heat and cold, the starvation, the exhaustion, the glory.
My men paddled steadily toward the gathering crowd, their hewn paddles drawing us through the glittering Father of Waters in our dugout canoes and the remaining pirogue toward that slippery black bank that carried the effluent of St. Louis into the river. We would return to civilization in a noisome place.
I shall not forget the moment. The air as clear as my mind; the hosannas of that crowd swelling across the lapping and thumping waters as we rounded toward that golden strand. They were cheering us. The rude city jostled itself along the levee, a chaos of rain-stained squared timber structures, white-washed plank mercantiles, fieldstone warehouses, all hemmed by a low bluff, upon which stood the mossy stone mansions of the French traders and prominent men, islands of elegance in a barbarous outpost. No doubt Clark and I would stay in one of those.
The men paddling the pirogue paused, marveling at our reception, which struck them like a double gill of spirits. Word of our imminent landing had arrived ahead of us, perhaps by horse from General Wilkinson’s Cantonment Bellefontaine on the Missouri, where we had spent our final night. I saw Sergeant Ordway settle his dripping paddle at his feet, and lift his Harper’s Ferry rifle. The others did likewise. There would be a salute.
He checked the priming and aimed his piece skyward to shoot at God; the men did likewise, and at Ordway’s shout, they fired a salute, the scattered reports sharp and joyous, the popping of triumph. Men in the canoes fired as well, a ragged volley that announced our triumph to the whole world, and startled crows to flight.
Our salute occasioned a new round of cheers from the flocking crowd. I scanned the seething mass of people not for dignitaries, or people I knew, but for women. How we starved for women. How much we needed the sight of nankeen skirts and ivory lace, and cotton-covered bosoms, and porcelain faces, and glossy hair in ringlets or curls, women’s hair in blue bonnets. How the sight of them there, gathered on the black and muddy bank, swelled our hearts and loins. There was no mistaking what was racing through the minds of my men. I knew them all. I could recite their private thoughts to them though they had not shared a word. They wanted women, and if need be they would spend their entire back pay to have one or a dozen.
I feared an incident.
“Sergeant Ordway, look after the men and equipment. Take them to the government house, the old Spanish stronghouse where we ran up the Stars and Stripes on the parade ground that day. That will be the armory for our rifles and gear. Give the men leave when all is secure. Tell them I’ll try to get some cash for them. Be patient.”
Ordway nodded. There could be no better sergeant.
“And Sergeant; look after the papers, diaries, specimens, bones—the whole collection. Especially those. The president’s collection.”
“In the government’s house, sir?”
“General Wilkinson’s, yes. It’s empty now, they tell me.”
I needed to say no more. My good sergeants would see to my good men, and in due course they would be paroled. It would be a merry night for them, though I doubted they would remember any of it by dawn.
I turned to the men in the pirogue with me. “I’ll look after you; you can count on it. The nation owes you more than it can pay.”
They paddled again, steering the small fleet toward the clamorous bank. I saw friends now; several dark-haired Chouteaus, who had been so helpful during the outfitting.
We pushed for shore as eager boys steadied our barks and caught our elkskin ropes. They swarmed us now, excited, crazed even, and I remember only one refrain: we thought you were long dead. We thought you had met your Fate. We had given up hope…
I clambered out, the wound in my buttocks paining me viciously, and skidded as I set foot on that vile muck. Other craft lined Leclede’s landing just north; flatboats headed for New Orleans, keelboats destined for Pittsburgh.
“Ah, messieurs,” Auguste Chouteau proclaimed, a vast and Gallic sweep of the arms drawing Clark and me up to dry ground. “It is a blessed miracle. You, alive! Mon Dieu! We starve for the news.”
We pumped hands and clapped backs, and bathed ourselves in the excitement and tasted nectar. Questions flew, and we could not answer.
The mad crowd swarmed around the men and canoes, and I saw that Ordway would not succeed in executing my plans, at least not for a while.
“Has the post left?” I cried.
“This morning, for Cahokia.”
“When does the post rider leave from there?”
“Après-midi,” Chouteau said.
“Send a messenger to hold the post. A letter to the president of the United States must go with it,” I cried in a voice that brooked no quarrel.
Chouteau was no man to dither. He wheeled toward one of his servants, instructed him in short volleys of French, and I saw the man race to a bankside canoe, board it, and paddle furiously toward Cahokia, two or three miles away on the far shore of the Mississippi, in the Illinois country.
“I must write,” I insisted. “I have urgent news to send my president.”
I wished I hadn’t used that expression. Jefferson was the president of all these people in this vast territory of Louisiana, newly purchased from Bonaparte. But I had been his secretary; he was certainly my very own president in a way that set me above the hoi polloi.
“I ache for your news, Monsieur Chouteau, but that must wait. I abjure you, sir, show me to a quiet corner where I may draft my message.”
“Bien, monsieur, my warehouse will answer.”
But it was not to be; not just yet. There were sweaty hands to shake, fulsome greetings to absorb, compliments to blot up lasciviously, honor to be paid, and I would have to hold off with the quill for a time. The town’s great men had pressed around. Will Clark had his own circle to deal with, though after a few minutes I saw him slip free and attempt to put things in order with a wave of his hand and a laconic command or two: the Harper’s Ferry rifles and black cookpots and powder to the Government House, my leather-clad men breaking free of the crowd, the sweet pouty girls, and gimlet-eyed matrons hoping to discover breaches of decorum to condemn, the twitchy boys trying to be important, the silent sloe-eyed Indians, to settle our meager stores in safety.
I saw Will help Big White, She-He-Ke, the Mandan chief we had brought downriver to treat with the president, and his wife and son, out of the pirogue, and guard them. The savages stared. They had never seen a white man’s city.
Leave it to Will Clark to put things right. Without him, I would not have succeeded. He deserved a reward exactly equal to my own: a captain’s rank, though he was but a lieutenant; pay, bonuses, land warrants identical to what would come to me. I would see to it, fight for it.
I needed to write, not only to the president, but to my mother and family. I needed a suit of clothes. For two years, I imagine, my body had been clad in animal skins, which formed our moccasins, our pantaloons, our hunting shirts, our capotes, our gloves. They had some advantages over cloth, being proof against wind, but they captured our salts and sweats and oils in them until they rotted off our backs.
I knew I smelled as vile as the slime of the levee, and hoped soon to have fresh smallclothes and a broadcloth suit of clothes made up by a tailor. But all in good time. We all looked like scarecrows, stank, needed to tend to our hair and bodies, and needed our wounds, and boils, and rashes attended. We looked like brigands instead of a corps of the United States Army.
I discovered myself still clutching my rifle, the instrument of my salvation; we had learned never to be without our well-cleaned, loaded piece, and our caution had saved our lives more times than I could remember.
“Will, take this,” I said to Clark. “Won’t need it.”
Clark handed my oiled, primed, well-tended rifle to Sergeant Gass. I felt naked without it.
“Mes amis, what did you find? What of the beaver?” asked Jean-Pierre Chouteau.
“Beaver aplenty, a fortune in beaver.”
“Ah, beaver! And Indian trouble?”
I paused. “Later, my friend,” I said.
“A few, but no mountain of salt.” President Jefferson had asked me to look for one.
A winsome flirty-eyed girl with brown ringlets was pressing a jug of wine upon two of my men, the Field brothers.
“Ordway,” I yelled.
My sergeant broke it up. If my men imbibed spirits just then, there would be no stopping a debauch, and all the matrons of St. Louis would be nodding their heads. I did not know whether St. Louis would dose my men with the clap, or whether my men would dose St. Louis.
I headed in a determined fashion for Chouteau’s grimy warehouse, determined to announce our triumph to the world.
“Gentlemen,” I said, “bear with me for but an hour: 1 must impart my news to the president of the United States.”
They opened a path. Chouteau settled me at his own desk, fetched a quill and paper and inkpot, and I began the letter that would transform the world, secure me the gratitude of the nation, and offer indelible proof of my contributions to botany and zoology. It was high noon.
Copyright © 2002 by Richard S. Wheeler