Harry and the Lewises
by Edward M. Lerner
His time doth take.
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest
The most I’d hoped for out of that day was a bracing morning stroll. It’s a two-mile hike to the office across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. On a clear morning, the walk is pleasant. On the sort of stormy evening in the day’s forecast, it would pretty much have sucked. I planned to walk home anyway. Rent was coming due, and I begrudged even the subway fare.
Good weather or ill, I seldom took that walk. I am—no, make that was, although I’m getting ahead of myself—a superstringer. In the news biz, that’s like a freelancer on steroids. Only news was a stretch; The National Truth was as fact-free as you would imagine.
Freelancer was equally hyperbolic. I was a pieceworker, cranking out articles (called content in the biz) for a scandalous few bucks per. I mostly keyboarded away anywhere but the office, so that the Truth, calling me an independent contractor, could get away with not providing any benefits. Biweekly pitch meetings for candidate stories sufficed to remind me and my ilk who was boss and who were the ungrateful, readily replaced, no-talent hacks.
So. I was in the office that day, arrived early to camp out at one of the too-few desks, seeking inspiration before the meeting. Bermuda Triangle? Rumored celebrity peccadillo? Elvis sighting? Elvis love child? Our readers wouldn’t care he’d be in his eighties. We’re talking about the King. Bigfoot sighting? Bigfoot love child? Elvis love child with Ms. Bigfoot?
An addiction to regular meals had driven me to writing such things, but that sort of drivel never appealed to me. (The topics, that is; the meals appealed all too much.) I started surfing for fresh ideas, using office WiFi instead of burning through my own precious cell gigabytes. The rocketry company SpaceX was still flapping around, seeking an explanation for their latest explosion. “ET Destroys Rocket!” perhaps? Not enough. A classic headline in Truth improbably connected several dots. “ET Destroyed Challenger and Columbia; Takes Aim at SpaceX Rockets?” Workable, if wordy, but I wanted at least one fallback pitch for the meeting. I’d just thought to warp a minor climate-change item, the thawing of an obscure German WWII weather station deep within the Arctic, into “Secret Nazi Base Discovered Near North Pole!” when, outside our bullpen doors, an elevator chimed.
And my life ran off the rails.
* * *
Chatter. Laughter. The clicking of stiletto heels. These weren’t the normal sounds of the office. Then again, neither did Deirdre Olivia Knowlton—bubblehead celeb, and the publisher’s estranged daughter—and her entourage routinely drop by. In Reginald Knowlton’s cluttered inner sanctum, blood pressure would be soaring.
The young women, loudly gossiping, fanned out across the bullpen. None of them could have been older than thirty. Deirdre herself, on impossibly tall heels, in a cloud of perfume, flounced toward me. She was beautiful: oval face with finely chiseled features. Pouting lips. Wavy, honey-blond hair cascading well below her shoulders. Short, black, leather skirt riding up her thigh as she half-perched on an edge of my desk.
But I digress. The point is Deirdre was way out of my league, not to mention that my taste didn’t run to celebrities, much less to the vacuous sort famous for being famous, or to women a decade or more younger than me. Much less to the daughter of my loathsome toad of a boss.
“And what do you do, Mister . . . ?”
“Markson,” I provided automatically.
“Mr. Markson. Are you one of father’s reporters?”
Similar vapid conversations were transpiring all around. What the hell?
“That’s so exciting,” she repeated. “You must meet the most interesting people. I’d love to know more about—”
A familiar voice boomed out. The boss, the big vein pulsing in his forehead, had burst forth from his fortress of solipsism. “That’s enough, Deirdre. You’re disrupting my staff. I suppose you came to see me . . . ?” He pointed to his den of inanity. “And if your friends would wait outside?”
“Oh, pooh, Father. You’re no fun. I was just getting to know Mr. Markson.”
“In or out, Deirdre,” Knowlton said. “The professor has work to do.” The glower directed my way, as unsubtle as the dig, added, “If he knows what’s good for him.”
“The girls and I were in the neighborhood. I wondered”—and she gestured vaguely, to encompass her posse, I inferred—“would you like to join us for lunch? There’s this new Asian fission place.”
“Fusion,” Knowlton said. “I can’t today. Next time, call ahead.” He gestured toward the exit.
“Oh, pooh.” Deirdre stuck out her hand, gold bracelets jingling. “Good to meet you, Mr. Markson.”
She was halfway out the door before it registered that a folded scrap of paper had been slipped into my hand.
* * *
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
—John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962
* * *
The note read, simply: Coffee shop at 2:00. O.
The Starbucks in the building lobby? It was a coffee shop, but who called a Starbucks that? The hole-in-the-wall place around the corner, that looked to have been there forever (though no one understood how), also served coffee. Or so, anyway, I assumed. I’d walked in once, found there wasn’t free WiFi, and walked out. 2:00 was hopefully p.m. And O? My vote was on Olivia, her middle name.
The curious visitation had me distracted throughout the pitch meeting, earning me two absentminded-professor gibes. I did stay on task long enough to bring up spacecraft disasters (revised by the boss into “Did ET Kill JFK to Stop Moon Landing?”); afterward, I hung around to start on the story. Near O’s appointed hour—to the utter disinterest of two fellow stringers who’d also stayed—I announced I was heading home.
The coffee shop was all but empty. Two geezers with suspenders and Yankee caps, both hard of hearing, yelled at each other across a table by the window. A tourist family with a gaggle of kids, crumbs on the floor all around their table, was just finishing. No (in)famous blonde. No entourage. No assault by perfume. The brunette with a pixie cut, brow furrowed over a dead-tree newspaper (the Times from its size), in a conservatively cut charcoal pantsuit and sensible shoes, sipping coffee by herself in a back booth, scarcely registered.
But as long as I was there . . .
The brunette looked up. Without a doubt, the boss’s daughter. Utterly transformed. Utterly adult. She smiled. “Thank you for coming.”
I slid into the booth, opposite her, waiting.
“There’s a story,” she began. “I’d like you to track it down. No, make that: I think you’ll find it worth tracking down.”
“There’s a story, right here, to cover first.”
She nodded. “Fair enough. ‘Deirdre,’ the woman you see on the net, the woman Father’s competitors so enjoy dishing dirt about, is a role. Deirdre is how I sell perfume, is how I make a living. Not who I am.”
“No moss grows on you, Doctor Anderson.”
“Markson,” I corrected. “Carl Markson.”
“No, Theodore Carl Anderson, the youngest child of David Mark Anderson. From which: Carl Markson.”
“Sorry, I don’t know them.” I started to slide from the booth.
“Just sit, Theodore. Your picture is on your Facebook page, if not a thing about your employment.”
The bored-looking waiter ambled over to top off Olivia’s coffee. At my nod, he filled a another mug. I waved off a menu and waited for him to leave. “I need to make a living, too, although I don’t see how that concerns you. But if we’re going to have this conversation, it’s Ted, not Theodore.”
“Does my project concern you? You decide, Ted. Do you plan ever to be an historian again?”
Talk about pulling off a scab. “I studied to be an historian. Years ago. I never had the opportunity to be one.”
Because in a crappy economy, ancient faculty members clung like barnacles to their tenured posts, and aspiring historians . . . well, I’ve explained what I’d been reduced to. There had been nothing great about the Great Recession, and little opportunity for lecturing on, much less doing original research into, the Crusades. As for swallowing my pride and teaching at the high-school level, well, a PhD in history wouldn’t cut it. First I’d have needed another degree, this time in education, and a state teaching certificate. All for the low, low price of more years of college debt . . .
“Ah, life choices. I get it. Becoming Deirdre wasn’t my wisest decision.”
I took refuge for a while behind my coffee mug, my mind racing. “Setting aside for the moment whatever you want researched, why me? And why the charade upstairs? You found me on Facebook. You could have just messaged me.”
“But would you have responded?” Reaching across the table, she rested a hand on mine. “You don’t need to answer that. Ted, I began by speaking with university historians—those few who would even meet. It turns out established historians want nothing to do with me, with or without the wig. And as if Deirdre were not toxic enough, well, Olivia is still Reggie Knowlton’s daughter.”
“And your ‘story,’ I’m guessing, isn’t some minor nuance of established history.”
“As I said, you’re moss-free. The couple of times I was able to explain my interest, well, that pretty much ended the conversation. After beating my head long enough against ivy-covered brick walls, I changed tactics. I tried to enlist a reporter. I contacted several”—said glancing at her New York Times—“with similar results.”
“And here you are, reduced to buying coffee for hacks.” At least, I hoped she was buying. If not, there was consolation in spending even a few minutes with someone who understood the subjunctive.
“True: I was stymied.” Releasing my hand, Olivia leaned back. “A more embarrassing admission is that I read Father’s rag. Daily. It’s like driving past a traffic accident: it’s wrong to stare, but you can’t look away. The generic you, I mean. You you might have more willpower than that. Anyway, I have noticed, Truth articles by ‘Carl Markson’ have been known to derive from actual fact. And that despite where he works, he exercised an admirable restraint in his use of adverbs.”
“Making me a slightly less putrid apple than is average for a rotten barrel. Thanks?”
She let slide the sarcasm and the adverb. “Carl Markson the tabloid writer is a cipher even to Google. I flagged down a UPS truck a couple weeks ago, paying the driver to snap your picture when he made a delivery. Facebook’s facial recognition did the rest.”
Thus explaining the empty box with which UPS had interrupted the previous pitch meeting. That disruption had ticked off the boss, and I’d figured it as some coworker’s idea of a prank. Given that everyone but Reggie had snickered, I had had ample suspects.
Regardless, had I known myself worthy of such machinations, I’d also have ordered a slice of pie. “You still haven’t explained today’s charade in the office.”
“The charade, as you put it, wasn’t entirely for you.” She emptied her cup, then blotted her lips with a napkin. “Life is not without its random bonuses. That is to say, an opportunity to tweak dear old Dad is not to be missed.
“When you’ve finished your coffee, let’s go somewhere private to discuss my project.”
* * *
Deirdre famously partied in a multistory co-op on Central Park West. Olivia led me to a Village walkup. It doubtless rented for several times the rate of the fourth-floor Brooklyn garret I occupied, but still this was someplace a normal person might live. It did, in fact, look lived in.
Did notoriety alone explain past rejection of her inquiries? I wanted to believe that—but then, I wanted to believe lots of things. Such as that I’d outlive my college debt. That a specialization in the Crusades hadn’t been an act of irrecoverable stupidity. That Olivia hadn’t sought me out because of that specialty. If her project was one more pursuit of the fabulous—as in mythical—lost treasure of the Knights Templar, I’d just puke.
In the studio’s living room slash entryway slash mudroom slash kitchenette, nothing but framed art posters decorated the walls. The few sticks of furniture were colonial and utilitarian. Her bookshelves were full. As we took opposite ends of the short sofa, I spotted on the tiny end table a framed photo of Deirdre and some preppy-looking guy with an arm around her waist. Inwardly, I shrugged. I was beginning to sense Olivia was further out of my league than Deirdre.
“Lewis and Clark,” she began. “What do you know about them?”
A comedy team in the ’50s? “Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon, acquiring a vast expanse west of the Mississippi. Knowing little about what he had so obtained, because no Americans or Europeans did, Jefferson sent an expedition to explore. Lewis and Clark led that expedition. If I recall correctly, for the most part they explored along the Missouri River and returned the same way.”
“Tapped out. American history wasn’t my field.”
“That’ll suffice for now. There’s also a family element to this. You know Father, of course, but this has nothing to do with him. My mother, Nora Cruze, was born in Missouri. Her first husband, John Ball, came from a long line of Virginia property owners, the original land grant made back in the colonial era. Horse country, not far from the Blue Ridge. In those parts, by the way, we refer, in hushed and respectful tones, to Mr. Jefferson. John died in an accident not two years after their wedding, before they could start a family. Reggie Knowlton and my mother met and married several years later, I came along, and my parents divorced soon after. I grew up on the Ball property in Virginia. Any questions so far?”
“Not beyond, might I have a glass of water?”
“Sure.” She got my drink and returned. “I haven’t yet shared anything about myself you wouldn’t find on social media. Here’s something absent from my public profile, because it doesn’t fit Deirdre’s image: I grew up . . . I won’t say poor, but certainly with constraints. Mother would have no part of Father’s money, which was to say money from readers of the Truth, and the Ball dynasty was wealthy only on paper. Oh, the land was valuable, but no Ball would ever sell any—and so, neither would Mother. Neither, when the choice became mine, would I. Till Mother passed away a few years ago, and I sorted her papers; I never understood how tough those times had been. To put me through Yale—with a minor in American history, as it happens—she had mortgaged the family estate to the hilt.”
I nodded, getting her drift: college debt was the great equalizer. “You did better covering your debts than I.”
She shrugged, embarrassed. “Deirdre became necessary, or so, anyway, it seemed, but I’m not proud of her.” As I felt about Carl Markson. “There’s one last aspect of family background to cover. A few generations back, Mother’s family Anglicized their name. It was Cruzatte.” She watched me expectantly.
“Don’t be. I’m aware this was neither your era nor your continent of study. Among Lewis and Clark aficionados, Pierre Cruzatte is known for entertaining the Corps of Discovery and Native Americans alike with his fiddle—and for shooting Meriwether Lewis.” Again, she waited for me to comment. I didn’t. “This was late in the expedition, on their return to St. Louis, going downstream on the Missouri. Both men were ashore hunting. After they separated, Lewis was shot from behind. Also, clean through the behind.”
I had to laugh. “I suspect my high-school lesson omitted that. It’s the sort of detail I’d have remembered.”
“There’s no question about the wound; Lewis spent his next few weeks on his belly on a sort of dugout canoe, healing, and everyone in the Corps of Discovery knew about it. Lewis magnanimously allowed as how Private Cruzatte must have aimed at, but missed, an elk. The odd thing was that Pierre, to his dying day, denied shooting Lewis. Curiously, Lewis shouted out after he was hit, and noted that the private did not come. And further in Pierre’s defense, would you have taken him hunting? He was blind in one eye and myopic in the other.”
“I wouldn’t have given him a rifle.”
“When ashore, everyone carried a rifle. Indians, to use the term of the era, were all around, and the ability to communicate was limited at best. Many tribes weren’t friendly, and every tribe coveted the Corps’s arsenal. Anyone who could take this small Army detachment by surprise would, in an instant, have acquired more firepower than any tribe west of the Mississippi. Besides, for the expedition to eat, often they had to hunt. They each ate up to seven pounds of meat per day. Beyond all that, they were in the wilds. When there weren’t bears around, then there were wolf packs, or wolverines, or other dangerous animals.”
“Why bring along a one-eyed man at all?” I asked, “and what was he doing in the Army?”
“He was half French, half Omaha Indian, a fur trader, familiar with the nearer parts of the Missouri River. Lewis hired Pierre as a translator and a boatman, not for anything he might shoot. Taking him into the Army was an honor.”
I deposited my empty glass in the kitchenette sink. “And you’re into all this because of the Cruze family connection?”
“From both families. John Ball’s estate is near the ancestral Lewis acreage and Jefferson’s Monticello.” Perhaps I looked blank, because she added, “Lewis owned a plantation not seven miles from Monticello. The two men had other connections besides. I was into the whole Lewis and Clark thing as a kid, as a matter of community pride. I didn’t know about Pierre’s version of the incident till after Mother died and I went through her papers.”
A hesitant tone had entered Olivia’s voice. She paused. I waited. She sighed. “This is where it gets weird.”
Meaning that the two-century-old whodunit—who shot Meriwether Lewis?—was insufficiently weird? “Okay . . .”
“Yes, Pierre shot at something. He admitted that. But he insisted he was nowhere within rifle range of Lewis at the time. And . . .”
“And what he shot at wasn’t any moose.”
“Then what was it?”
“He wasn’t sure. He was blind in one eye and near-sighted in the other. But no moose. Man-tall. Hairy.”
“So instead of a moose, he missed a bear,” I said. Or a really big prairie dog. Somewhere out west there’s a twelve-foot, six-ton concrete prairie dog. I remembered it from a family driving vacation. “What does it matter?”
“No bear,” she insisted. “He’d seen plenty of bears on that trek and, anyway, they weren’t near bear country at the time. No, it was something else.”
Something else. Man-tall. Hairy. “Jesus H. Christ. Bigfoot?”
* * *
The apple—although some variety of nut then appeared the more appropriate orchard product—seemed not to fall far from the tree.
Olivia laughed, but not unkindly. “You should see your face. No, this isn’t about some supposed ancient Bigfoot sighting. But because generations of Cruzattes and Cruzes believed Pierre, I am curious why Meriwether Lewis didn’t. Not least of all because much about Lewis’s later history is strange. . . .”
“It’s better that you decide.” She offered me a folded paper from her purse. “No doubt you can Google with the best of them, but I understand these to be the classic reference works about the Corps of Discovery and Mr. Jefferson.”
“You’re making a big assumption here.”
“Only that, for five hundred dollars, you’ll give Lewis’s life an honest, professional look and get back to me. On a moonlighting basis, so it won’t impact your day job. In a week, if you’re interested, we can discuss a longer-term relationship.”
Her father paid less for dishonest looks, research optional, but that was no reason to accept unchallenged an opening offer. “A thousand dollars. In advance. And expenses.” To her arched eyebrow, I clarified, “Books.”
“Do I have your word that you—and ‘Carl Markson’—won’t submit anything for publication about the Lewis and Clark expedition without my prior review and approval?”
Why not? “Absolutely.”
“Done,” Olivia said, extending a hand to seal the deal. Her grip was firm. “Because Deirdre won’t miss it. And because, if this pans out, I intend to share in the credit. I’d value some respectability, too.”
* * *
My first stop after Olivia’s apartment was a bookstore. For years, when I could afford to buy any book, I had gone electronic and read it on my cell. That day, I splurged on dead-tree editions. No matter that I’ve developed near-perfect recall (and, as a result, a brain cluttered and clogged with random facts), jotting marginal notes and flagging key passages with Post-Its made me far more efficient. My second stop was for some Ben & Jerry’s. With what Olivia was paying, she got the full, conscientious treatment, and I got a treat.
Doing actual research again felt good. I read well into the night—early on, finishing a pint of ice cream—giving my highlighters a workout, going at it full tilt until I caught myself nodding off for the second time. The next morning, I brewed coffee and dove back in. JFK-stalking aliens could wait. As highlighters ran dry and scribbled notes accumulated, I went online and ordered the complete eight-volume compendium of the expedition’s edited journals with related contemporaneous source material. (As a doctoral candidate in the liberal arts, one learns to read fast. It’s that or change majors.) I decided Olivia had sprung for overnight shipping, too.
On Day Six, after a resented hiatus to knock out ET drivel and email that to the boss, I dialed the cell number that half the paparazzi on the planet would pay big bucks—or maybe kill—to know. “Let’s talk.”
* * *
. . . And to give more entire satisfaction & confidence to those who may be disposed to aid you, I Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States of America, have written this letter of general credit for you with my own hand, and signed it with my name.
—from a letter to Meriwether Lewis /
July 4, 1803
* * *
Lots of individually inexplicable details about Meriwether Lewis took on a whole different aspect when viewed through the filter of a tabloid writer’s mindset. The dots I could not not connect all dealt with Lewis’s death, three years after his return from the West.
Logically, Lewis should have been on top of the world. Lionized as an explorer, in a league with Columbus and Cook. Richly rewarded for his accomplishments by an act of Congress. Elected to the American Philosophical Society, the premier scientific body in the nation, even as scientists the world round eagerly awaited publication of his journals. Protégé of Thomas Jefferson. Promoted from captain to brigadier general. Governor of Upper Louisiana Territory. The most eligible bachelor in America. Basically, a rock star.
Lewis was barely thirty-five years old on the day he—we were to believe—killed himself.
“Suicide makes no sense,” I told Olivia when we reconvened in her Village hideaway. Her legs were folded under her, vaguely catlike, on her sofa. We were making our way through the bottle of Irish Crème she’d set out.
“Depression,” she said, “or hypochondriac affectations, as it was called then. That’s the customary explanation. Mr. Jefferson wrote that the condition ran in the Lewis family, and he would have known.”
Yes, Jefferson would know—and his actions didn’t support the claim. The two men hadn’t merely been Virginia neighbors. President Jefferson’s private secretary for two years was: Meriwether Lewis. Jefferson was by then a widower; his sole companion in the President’s House during those years, apart from slaves and servants, was: Meriwether Lewis. After sealing the Louisiana Purchase, arguably the most consequential action of his presidency, Jefferson entrusted its exploration to: Meriwether Lewis (William Clark was Lewis’s recruit). And so that the expedition might succeed, Jefferson gave an unlimited government letter of credit to: Meriwether Lewis. Were those the responsibilities someone as brilliant as Jefferson would entrust to a dangerous depressive?
“So a politician lied.” That was both the tabloid writer’s facile answer and the historian’s considered opinion of most so-called statesmen. Crusaders did not besiege and sack Orthodox Constantinople because their leaders had forgotten the way to Jerusalem.
Olivia feigned horror. “That’d be considered heresy around where I grew up. Besides, it wasn’t only Mr. Jefferson saying it.”
“Indeed.” I sipped some of her liqueur. “The other person who arguably knew Lewis better than anyone also embraced the suicide explanation.” That man, of course, was William Clark: Lewis’s fellow officer in the Corps of Discovery. For two and a half years and eight thousand miles, the two men had been colleagues, companions, and confidants. “As for Lewis’s mother, she maintained her son must have been murdered. But even she never requested that a doctor examine the body. Because Jefferson, newly out of office and retired to neighboring Monticello, somehow prevailed upon her?”
Olivia shook her head. “Or because mothers think the best of their children and prefer not to be proven wrong. Anything else bother you?”
Where to begin? That rather than kill himself in St. Louis, where he was serving as governor, or in Washington City, where he was headed, Lewis supposedly chose to do himself in at an obscure wilderness tavern between? That neither the innkeeper nor Lewis’s servant, self-proclaimed witnesses to Lewis’s death, admitted to having entered the room where supposedly Lewis was alone and raving—even after hearing gunshots—till the following morning? That at various times the innkeeper had given three separate accounts for that fateful night? That Lewis, famous woodsman and crack rifleman, was said to have shot himself twice, then taken a knife to himself, and even then only slowly bled out?
I went with, “A few years ago, some distant relatives”—descendants of his sister Jane, as Meriwether himself never had children—“wanted the body exhumed for examination. But the National Park Service administers the land where he’s buried. The family’s request was denied.”
“You’ve done your homework,” she said. “I respect that. But, if you’ll allow me to play devil’s advocate, aren’t you cherry-picking your facts? We also know Lewis was feuding with his lieutenant governor. Lewis’s patron in Washington, Thomas Jefferson, had left office, and the new Madison administration had disallowed certain bank drafts written and guaranteed by Lewis. If he couldn’t get that reversed, if he were forced to make good personally on those payments, he’d have been ruined. That’s why he set out for Washington City: to get those payments reauthorized. And we know he had been drinking heavily and using opium. Isn’t it possible he simply despaired?”
“I can’t say no, but is suicide plausible? It leaves unexplained every point I’ve raised.”
“Devil’s advocate again: If you don’t believe Lewis acted rationally, well, depression is biochemical, not rational. It’s at least some kind of answer. Why would anyone kill him? And who’d dare to try? And to repurpose one of your objections, why kill him there, of all unlikely places?”
“Murder or suicide.” Or . . . was this the musing of the historian or of the tabloid hack? Either way, the dots would connect. I took a deep breath. “What if that’s a false choice?”
* * *
. . . The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river & such principal stream of it as by it’s course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado, or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce.
—from Thomas Jefferson’s instructions to
Meriwether Lewis / June 20, 1803
* * *
You think the U.S. is large? Damn right, it is. Growing up, when the family visited my grandparents in the Midwest, the part of the drive across Pennsylvania was interminable. And then there’s my favorite doggerel: The sun has riz, the sun has set, and here we is in Texas, yet.
Now imagine hiking, or paddling and poling—upstream most of the way—across most of the continent. Through untamed and uncharted wilderness: no roads or facilities of any kind. Toting: an arsenal, emergency rations, scientific instruments, trade goods and trinkets for every new tribe you encountered, and an ever-expanding collection of botanical and zoological specimens. Oh, and climbing over the Rockies. I couldn’t imagine such a trek, so instead, on Olivia’s nickel, I set out to get a feel for it.
The expedition’s route was, in large part, well documented. The Lewis and Clark “Trail” is a set of highways that pretty much parallels the expedition’s path from St. Louis to the Pacific. The Lewis and Clark Historical Trail, while not continuous, preserved, often in their natural state, many segments of the actual route. And so, with my much-annotated copy of the expedition journals at hand, I took a rented car to place after place about which Lewis’s or Clark’s notes had impressed or intrigued me. Frequent opportunities throughout Missouri for barbecue were merely a bonus, as was the short detour to the Truman Presidential Library just outside Kansas City.
Time and again I’d hike, marveling at the sometimes arduous, often spectacular, always beautiful terrain, and on the spot reread the corresponding journal entries. I tried to put myself into Lewis’s mind. It didn’t help that his journal on several occasions went months without an entry. Lewis—who sometimes spent pages describing a newly discovered plant or bird—apparently often delegated to Clark to record lesser sorts of event. And Clark, in a word, was terse. In two words, very terse.
I had hiked and even done some climbing during my college days. Getting paid to do it again? That prospect had been delightful. Between striding around New York and the occasional climbing-wall excursion (as the guest of a less penurious friend, of course. Do you know what city gyms charge for memberships?), I’d prided myself on having kept in shape. And so, across many stops, spanning the first five hundred or so miles of Lewis and Clark’s outbound journey, I did discover one thing: how flabby I had become. Slowly, that would change.
I remained confident the approach was valid, that I would get inside Lewis’s head. And so, atop windswept Floyd’s Bluff, I stood admiring the hundred-foot obelisk that now marked the burial site of the lone Corps member to die during the expedition, replacement for the simple cedar post described in Clark’s journal entry. Turning, I gazed out across the Missouri and Floyd Rivers, tuning out the din of Sioux City, Iowa, grown up around this spot, lost in my thoughts. . . .
* * *
“My belief,” I’d told Olivia, “is that something Lewis experienced along the way made him do it.” It: the staging of his suicide, in the middle of nowhere, remote from most everyone who knew him. To thereupon disappear, to do . . . what? “But what could he have seen?”
This had all begun as her quest—her question, anyway—but still she had been dubious. “Lewis wasn’t alone. He was traveling with an Army officer, and each of them with a servant. You imagine they were all in on it?”
“The short answer? Yes. I believe Captain Neelly was involved, and their servants, too. I won’t guess whether this was from personal loyalty to Lewis or for money. Either way, I think Neelly ID’ed the body as Lewis’s, told everyone about Lewis having been depressed, and then had the body buried ASAP without medical examination.”
By some accounts, Lewis’s servant at the end, a man named John Pernia or Pernier, afterward insisted he was due back pay. Pernier tried to collect from, among others, Jefferson, Clark, and James Madison. Not long after, also supposedly despondent, Pernier, too, committed suicide. Coincidence? Guilt? Or paying the price for having crossed powerful people, for meddling in affairs he did not understand . . . ?
“And Clark and Mr. Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis’s two best friends in the world, simply accepted the death as suicide.”
Lewis had been putting on a show of despair, ostentatiously threatening suicide, since before he had set out from St. Louis. “I just can’t buy a quarrel with auditors pushing him over the brink. Look at everything Lewis had accomplished. No one could consider him a quitter, and ultimately, the government did pay the contested expenses. I don’t see Lewis giving up without even trying to make his case first in Washington.
“In fact, I just don’t accept that money worries weighed very heavily on him. He was sitting on a gold mine: his journals, eagerly awaited worldwide. If money were his concern, prepping his field notes for publication would have been a far more productive use of his time than, say, founding—and serving as the first Master of—a Masonic Lodge in St. Louis.”
(Lewis dithered until his death over those journals. Upon returning from the West, he brought them to Washington. Confirmed as territorial governor, he returned with them to St. Louis. They were among his personal effects on that final, abortive trip traveling again to Washington. The journals passed to Clark, who eventually hired an editor to see the project through. Lewis’s journals saw their first publication, in abridged form, in 1814—five years after Lewis’s death. More complete versions, like the one upon which I relied, appeared after.)
“Here’s what I do believe. Lewis advised both his good friends, by letter, perhaps, what he intended to do. He had to. If the ex-president or Lewis’s fellow conquering hero were to question Lewis’s death, there surely would have been an investigation—and that, Lewis couldn’t have risked. What were the chances the body, exhumed any time near to his supposed death, could have been passed off as his?”
And I saw a second, subtler hint of pre-coordination. Without Jefferson signaling to his successor a certain unhappiness with Lewis’s free-spending ways, and a willingness to cut loose his longtime friend and protégé, would the Madison administration have dared to make a fuss about the national hero? Lewis needed an excuse to leave St. Louis. Jefferson, behind the scenes, made possible that travel.
“Because the DNA wouldn’t match?” Olivia asked dryly.
Today, that would be a problem. Plenty of labs could compare DNA from the body to DNA samples from his sister’s descendants. Not even my tabloid-supercharged imagination could—as yet—fathom some conspiracy underlying the denial of the family’s exhumation request. Bureaucratic aversion to making a decision would more than suffice. Alternatively, as my father had liked to caution: never attribute to malice what can as easily be attributed to stupidity.
I said, “Because, in Washington City, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, to name a few places, Lewis was well known. Because Charles Willson Peale”—one of that era’s most prominent artists—“had painted Lewis’s portrait. Because his body would have had the scars from that famous hole shot through his ass.”
“So you do remember what I asked you to research. But what can that accident and Lewis’s disappearance years after possibly have to do with each other?”
“I don’t know . . . yet. But if the two events are linked, if there is something underlying both strange behaviors, then by understanding either we may understand both.”
As she silently pondered that claim, I sensed my new job going pfft. She asked, “Then who is in Lewis’s supposed grave?”
Would Lewis have killed someone to cover his escape to . . . whatever? The more I learned about the man, the less I could believe that. “Someone who’d recently died somewhere along their route, the corpse then stolen. Or some brigand with the monumentally poor judgment to have set upon one of the greatest woodsmen of the age. Or possibly no one at all. The proprietress, as likely as not, was paid off. She simply wasn’t as good a liar as Neelly, and got rattled under questioning.”
“A conspiracy among Thomas Jefferson, for God’s sake, William Clark, and Meriwether Lewis. Feigned suicide, bribery, and perhaps a bit of grave robbing. You want to sort that out, on the premise it will, somehow, also explain Lewis disbelieving Pierre Cruzatte about the shooting. Have I got everything straight?”
Cruzatte and Lewis agreed that no one else was around. The spent ball Lewis wrote he’d taken from his leather pants, after it went through his butt, was a .54-caliber round for the latest model Army rifle. Plains Indians had guns, obsolete muskets, mostly, but nothing to have fired that modern round. Under oath, my considered opinion would have been Cruzatte lied out of embarrassment. Happily, I wasn’t under oath—or hooked to a polygraph. As for the rest, well, Olivia had my analysis spot on. “That’s the theory,” I said.
Lewis must have told Clark and Jefferson something truly amazing for them to agree to keep his secret. I had to know what. . . .
* * *
If Reginald Knowlton ever possessed a drop of the milk of human kindness, it had long since dehydrated.
I was scarcely a week into my leave of absence, staying with a desperately ill, widowed mother. Telling that whopper was in no way tempting fate: my parents had died years earlier in a car crash.
But Olivia’s father? Scant days into my leave, Knowlton began harassing me by email to send in an article or three. And so, tuning out the roar of falling water, I set aside Lewis’s journal to knock out something on my iPad. My first idea, doubtless a synaptic misfire from my current activities, was to throw together something about the Jefferson-Hemmings controversy (“Sex Slave in the White House?”). I as quickly discarded that approach as needlessly hurtful for real, live people: Sally Hemmings’s descendants of whatever lineage. Then I toyed with a loosely fact-based piece on radio-frequency ID chips in apparel labels (“Are Your Sneakers Ratting You Out?”). I settled on a wendigo sighting in Wisconsin (“Monster Prowls the North Woods”). It didn’t matter whether the boss liked the piece (although how could he not like a cannibalistic spirit, looking freshly disinterred), only that he believed I had tried. Nothing thus far on my odyssey offered any hope I’d be quitting the old job.
With three hundred words of fact-free purple prose plus a wendigo sketch I’d found online for the Truth to infringe upon, I hoped I’d earned myself a few days respite. While I was at it, I wrote a short email to Olivia. Great Falls of the Missouri both impressive and disappointing. Dams and power lines have ruined the view.
But what a spectacle this must have been in Lewis’s time! Five separate waterfalls in the space of ten miles. Between the first cascade and the last, the river dropped more than six hundred feet, the main cascade alone towering eighty-seven feet. A print of a famous nineteenth-century photograph was in one of the books I toted in my backpack, and I riffled pages till I found the image. Then I reread Lewis’s journal entry for the day he discovered the first falls; for almost seven hundred words, he had rhapsodized about the sight. I hiked upriver to an overlook for Crooked Falls—resting, winded, twice along the way—the lone cascade Montana Power Company had yet to despoil.
The mere idea of portaging around such obstacles, of lugging canoes and cargo up that six hundred feet, had me awestruck. What men these had been! To the growl of Crooked Falls, I lost myself for awhile in Lewis’s journal entries of June 1805—
And was jolted back to the present. Something didn’t add up. . . .
* * *
Many rivers and streams empty into the Missouri. The farther upstream the Corps traveled, the less clear it sometimes became, where watercourses met, which was the main channel. Sometimes the Corps would split, each group scouting a separate possibility.
On June 13, Lewis was leading a small party up a branch he and Clark felt sure was the Missouri—and almost everyone else in the Corps believed was not. As the men fanned out to hunt, Lewis, scouting alone, came upon a mighty waterfall. More than two months earlier, in the Mandan Villages in what is now central North Dakota, visiting Hidatsa had reported that such a waterfall was on the main channel.
Lewis hiking alone wasn’t unusual. He was the expedition’s chief naturalist, and while others paddled and poled mightily against the onrushing current of the Missouri, he had often walked along the shore, the better to observe and collect local flora and fauna.
But on the day after his discovery of the falls, his solo excursion was exceptional. He sent one man with a letter to update Clark, struggling upstream in the boats with others of the Corps. He set the rest of his small group to drying meat. And then, alone again, Lewis went off.
That’s the point at which my Spidey sense began to tingle.
Hiking upstream of the falls, per Lewis’s lengthy entry for June 14, 1805, he came upon five uninterrupted miles of rapids. Then a second waterfall. Lewis continued on to discover a third falls, a fourth, and a fifth, and yet more rapids upstream of those. Nor did he reverse course when, after twelve miles of whitewater, he had finally reached a navigable stretch of river. Instead, he shot a buffalo, planning to leave the animal to scavenge for his dinner upon return from a yet farther excursion—whereupon a quite extraordinary adventure began.
As he stood on a great, empty plain, watching his dinner expire, he neglected to reload his rifle. Meanwhile, a “large white, or rather brown bear,” crept up on Lewis, unnoticed until a mere twenty steps separated them. (And yet, Lewis also records there being “not a bush within miles, nor a tree within three hundred yards.” This was one crafty chameleon of a bear.) With the animal in pursuit, Lewis ran into the river, where the bear might have been at some disadvantage. Waist-deep in the water, Lewis prepared to defend himself with his pike, and the bear, reconsidering, left. Lewis waded ashore, reloaded, and watched the bear hastily retreat for three miles.
Whereupon Lewis encountered what at first seemed to him a wolf, but upon closer examination was a cat “of the tiger kind,” crouched as though to attack. Soon after he fired his rifle, chasing off the cat (and not certain he’d hit it), three bull buffaloes separated from a nearby herd to charge at him. After closing to within a hundred yards, the bulls, like the bear, lost interest. Only after this third encounter did Lewis elect to rejoin his men were they had camped. He arrived after dark.
* * *
Lewis’s account for that day was ludicrous. How had I not noticed it before? How had no one noticed it before?
Not only would it have become abundantly clear early in his hike that the portage would be awful, but the Hidatsa had said nothing about a second cascade. Lewis must have at least considered the possibility this was, in fact, not the correct waterway. And yet he did not turn back, did not send a second courier hurrying after the first to keep Clark and his party from continuing to struggle, perhaps needlessly, up what might after all be the wrong tributary.
From there, the narrative only became less credible. The experienced woodsman and famous marksman—as a boy of nine, Lewis had shot and killed a charging bull—became careless. The great naturalist couldn’t say whether a bear was white or brown. He saw a tiger (in Montana!) and its “burrow.” This from someone who had studied with the leading savants in Philadelphia, who carried a copy of Linnaeus’s taxonomy in his traveling library, and who discovered and described in detail many new species of plants and animals. And every animal participating in this sequence of events behaved oddly.
The day’s entry had to be a work of utter fiction. With punchier prose, it would have been at home in the Truth. Without a doubt, Lewis had encountered something truly extraordinary—and he had chosen not to mention that something in his journal.
Leaving me utterly without clue what the great explorer had seen. . . .
* * *
Increasingly puzzled, I continued for a week, with recourse as necessary to car and highway, following more or less in Lewis’s footsteps and canoe wake. (The less said, the better, about other hours wasted in fabricating a follow-up wendigo sighting. The first piece had garnered slews of Facebook shares, with attendant ad views and click-throughs. Knowlton demanded the follow-up, my sick mother notwithstanding.) All the while, I studied the expedition journals with a newly jaundiced eye.
Lewis’s entry for July 4, 1805, amid the month-long epic portage around the falls, mentioned distant noises, “. . . precisely like the discharge of a piece of ordinance of six pounds at the distance of three miles.” On earlier readings, I had attributed that passage to Lewis’s exhaustion and then to Independence Day whimsy. In my newly bewildered mood, the same passage brought something else to mind. But sonic booms seemed no more plausible in 1805 than tigers in Montana, and I chalked up that anachronistic association to my own exhaustion.
Beyond the great portage, finally completed on July 14th, the Corps’s route continued upstream to Three Forks: the source of the Missouri. Led by a Shoshone guide, they trekked on foot across range upon range of snow-capped mountains, the likes of which none of them had ever seen, over the Continental Divide—and so, out of the United States. They built canoes for the final outbound leg: down swift-flowing rivers (ignoring Indian advice about dangerous rapids) to the Columbia River itself and, at long last, to the Pacific. Apart from returning home to report, Lewis had achieved his every goal. Neither success nor the sight of the ocean moved him to write in his journal.
After the bear/tiger/buffalo day, each decision Lewis made somehow came across as rasher than the last. After wintering on the Pacific coast, the return trip was yet more precipitous. By then running low on trade goods, Lewis, who had thus far scrupulously followed Jefferson’s orders to treat Indians fairly, stole canoes from the Clatsops for the return up the Columbia. With the Nez Percé reporting snowpack in the Rockies too deep to cross, and their guides late to arrive, Lewis led his men into the mountains without guides. (The Nez Percé were correct; Lewis was forced to turn back.) Once finally back east of the mountains, the Corps briefly split into five groups, each group dispatched to explore a separate region. Lewis took three enlisted men up the Marias River, deep into Blackfoot country—and into the expedition’s first battle with Indians. Leaving behind two Indian dead, after a hundred-mile flight on horseback lasting through most of the night, the explorers made camp—and Lewis set no sentinel. Fortunately, they remained undisturbed, and soon reunited with another Corps detachment.
A few days later, with the Corps still somewhat scattered, Olivia’s forbear and Lewis went out hunting. . . .
* * *
In Astoria, Oregon, close by Lewis and Clark’s 1805–06 winter camp, I retreated to a comfy hotel room. (Astoria, it turned out, was founded in 1811 as a part of John Jacob Astor’s sprawling fur-trading enterprise. [JJA the First, that is. It was JJA the Fourth who famously went down with the Titanic.] A local indie bookstore dedicated an entire shelf in its history section to that ill-fated, and ultimately disastrous, expedition. I bought both Washington Irving’s 1836 account and a more modern volume.) I had a decision to make. Would retracing Lewis’s return to St. Louis, the specifics of which I had meticulously studied, reveal anything more? Or would continuing along the expeditionary route only obscure an enlightenment that tantalized from just beyond my mental grasp?
If ever justification existed for a forest-for-the-trees metaphor, the puzzle of Meriwether Lewis’s story was it.
Olivia settled the matter. In her impatience, she showed herself to be more her father’s child than she might have wished to believe. I turned in my rental car and flew to Minot. Her flight to North Dakota was delayed and, killing time at the airport, I started into the Astoria history. Interestingly, Astor had consulted on the expedition plan with Thomas Jefferson.
When Olivia’s flight did arrive, she was as fetching in hiking garb (that gave evidence of heavy use, I was relieved to see) as in any other outfit. We drove a new rental to the region, near the junction of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, where, scarcely a month from a triumphant return to St. Louis, Lewis had been shot. I’d pored repeatedly over that entry from his journal. Meandering back and forth, because the exact location of the mishap was unrecorded, I reread that text an additional few times. We both did. Olivia was strangely subdued.
Enlightenment continued to elude me.
After hours of this, Olivia said, “Back to St. Louis, then? From here, it was a quick canoe ride downstream, and all familiar territory. Right?”
“Yes and no.” I didn’t want to ask if she was channeling my doubts or cutting her losses. “From here, Lewis was about six weeks out from St. Louis. Yes, it was retracing their steps. But I suggest one more stop, at the Mandan Villages.”
Her forehead crinkled. That must not have been a part of the journals she had studied.
I explained, “Outbound, in the winter of 1804–05, the Corps wintered with a friendly tribe, the Mandans. Homebound, they stopped back. The Missouri long ago washed away the camp the Corps built, what they called Fort Mandan, but there’s a reconstruction you might find interesting.”
She looked dubious.
I said, “It’s on the road to Bismarck. We can fly from there to St. Louis.” And I wanted one last chance to commune, had one last oddity to consider. Lewis, soon after his hunting accident, and not yet reunited with Clark, encountered two American fur trappers who had set off on their own up the Missouri. The two tagged along with Lewis (who, soon after, met up with Clark and the remainder of the Corps), and went back down the Missouri to the Mandan Villages. The traders solicited Private John Colter to join their venture as a guide. At the Mandan Villages, Lewis gave his permission, mustering Colter out of the Army despite the two months remaining on his enlistment.
Olivia considered, agreed, and we made the short detour. She explored the fort, which I’d done on my outbound leg, while I . . . again came up empty. Colter’s early departure seemed to be yet another never-to-be-understood quirk of the expedition.
That evening, we landed in St. Louis.
* * *
Olivia got us rooms at a downtown Hilton, and we went out to dinner. Barbecue, of course. Our table offered an unobstructed view of the Gateway Arch. She found the sight breathtaking, but neither the vista nor the excellent meal distracted her. Was the project done, she wanted to know, and what had I concluded?
“Concluded? That I disbelieve some of the journals. That other parts, while likely true, aren’t the whole story.”
She’d been nibbling daintily on a sparerib; now she dabbed her lips with a napkin. “And Pierre Cruzatte? Did he shoot Lewis? And did Lewis later kill himself?”
“Let’s start with the former. It’s still one man’s word against another’s. But—” and I fortified myself with a long swallow of beer “—matters leading up to that shooting are, well, strange.”
I counted off the anomalies on my (greasy) fingers. “One. Lewis’s entry after he explored the Great Falls of the Missouri? Complete nonsense. He must have found, or seen, something important to justify fabricating an entry in his journal. Two. Whatever that was, it made Lewis hasty, even careless. My best guess was that he was in a hurry to report back to Jefferson.”
“If it were so important,” Olivia countered, “why not turn around? He’d have gotten back a year earlier.”
Over and over, I’d asked myself that. “I suspect we’ll never know. My bet would be Lewis couldn’t bring himself to violate his orders.” More than president and personal mentor, Jefferson, thirty-one year’s Lewis’s senior, was a father figure. Lewis’s own father had died when he was five, his stepfather when he was seventeen. “I suspect Lewis made his way to the Pacific as quickly as he could, maybe expecting to hitch a ride back East on some passing ship. If so, that was a bad gamble, because the Corps went that entire winter without spotting any ships.”
She nodded, looking unconvinced.
I resumed my count. “Three. On the way home, hastier than ever, he split the Corps into five parts. Hostiles could easily have overwhelmed any of the small groups. It’s as if he were desperately looking for something—or as if he wanted most of the others elsewhere while he looked for something.” And either way, splitting up had almost gotten him killed.
“Looking for what? The thing he’d seen outbound, your first item?”
“Maybe. And in support of that, there’s number four. When Lewis met trappers headed upriver, why did he permit John Colter to join them? Why did Colter then lead the trappers up the Yellowstone River, and not continue along the well-explored route? Maybe because Lewis didn’t want to risk anyone else seeing what he’d seen, what had affected him so deeply.” Just as, while governor, charged with opening up the new, western lands, the great man of action found endless ways to impede the settlement process.
“And number five? Does it support the notion of a faked suicide?”
“No number five,” I said, “and no new ideas about the curious circumstances of Lewis’s death.”
“I hate to say this. . . .” Olivia trailed off, staring into the distance at the arch gleaming under many spotlights. “You once joked about Bigfoot. Suppose that is what Lewis saw, and Pierre Cruzatte, too.”
Her father’s child, I thought. “I can’t disprove that possibility”—apart from the detail that there is no such thing—“but I don’t see why a Bigfoot sighting would have scared Lewis into recklessness, or trying to keep his countrymen from moving west—or to kill himself.”
“Fair enough,” she said, “I don’t see why, either. I get that he and his men hunted grizzlies. But assume he knew something about Bigfoot we don’t. My sense is Meriwether Lewis was an honorable man. If he did lie about something he’d seen, perhaps the shame of it got to him. Maybe that’s why he killed himself.”
Why do it in the wilds of Tennessee? “Maybe,” I said and turned my attention to flagging down our waitress for another beer.
* * *
The next morning, Olivia and I rode the tram six hundred feet up the Gateway Arch: monument to western expansion. Tourists jammed the observation deck. We picked a side and looked down. At our feet, a kitschy riverboat paddled slowly down the Mississippi. Beyond the river and a strip of parkland, sprawled East St. Louis. When the crowd thinned a bit, we found windows on the deck’s west-facing side and admired St. Louis proper. To the south, Busch Stadium was empty. The old courthouse, now an historical museum, was straight ahead. A few miles out, in glistening white limestone, stood the Masonic Temple. Everywhere: skyscrapers.
Nothing remained, of course, from Meriwether Lewis’s time. I couldn’t help but wonder what he would have thought of the metropolis into which the little frontier town he’d known had developed, or about the great Arch commemorating his opening of the West.
Abruptly, Olivia said, “I guess it’s over.”
The project, she meant. With it would go any prospects for making an historically significant discovery, of turning respectable, of leaving behind my job as a hack.
“You’re the boss,” I said.
Wistfully, “Maybe there never was anything to be found.”
“Maybe.” The concession, against my wishes, came out petulant.
Right there in the observation deck, she took out her checkbook and started writing. “This will cover you through week’s end, plus airfare back to New York.”
As though I wanted to be back in New York. Committing actual research had felt good. “How about, instead of airfare, you spring for extending the car rental and a couple nights in motels? Maybe another five hundred? I’d like to swing through Tennessee on my way back.”
“Tennessee. Grinder’s Stand?”
I nodded. “You want to come along?”
“I do, but I can’t. Deirdre has a par-tay tonight at which she simply must be seen.” Olivia rolled her eyes. “Tomorrow is something with Derrick.” (Recalling the preppy guy from the photo in her Village flat, I felt an inane twinge of jealousy.) “And then I’m off with the entire posse to Beverly Hills.”
“But you’re okay with me going to the Stand?”
“What the hell,” Olivia said, reopening her checkbook. “Go for it.”
* * *
Like Fort Mandan, Grinder’s Stand was a reconstruction. I stood outside the modest log structure, hands jammed in my pockets, wondering how I’d imagined I’d learn anything here. This restoration didn’t begin to resemble its historical descriptions. I doubted the interior would be any more authentic or instructive, but I’d never know: door and windows were bricked up. At least this cabin had been built close by where the original inn once stood, a few steps off the pioneer trail called the Natchez Trace.
My final stop, a short walk from the reconstruction along a preserved section of the Trace, was to a simple broken column—emblematic of a life cut short—atop a tiered base. Almost thirty years after Lewis’s death, the State of Tennessee had erected this memorial over his resting place. It was later declared a national monument, and the National Park Service administered the site.
For what seemed an eternity, I stood there in silence. What a great man Lewis had been. What a shame no one would ever know what had happened nearby at Grinder’s Stand. At long last, I turned to leave—and a sun glint caught my eye.
Something gleamed high in a nearby tree. I ambled closer. Peering up through leaves I couldn’t be sure, but I sensed the glint came off a curved piece of glass. Making a slow circuit around the monument, I caught more such glints in other trees. On several of those trees, the bark struck me as . . . disturbed. As if . . . as if . . . as if the bark had once been slit to run something beneath, and the bark had since grown back.
The penny dropped.
Tiny security cameras guarded this remote site. Tiny and disguised security cameras. The obvious way to power cameras at this remote site would have been with solar panels—but the native trees were deciduous. Fall, winter, early spring: when these trees were bare of leaves, solar panels would have been obvious. I inferred that buried electrical cables (originating I knew not where) ran up beneath the bark.
I remembered how the Lewis family had not been allowed to exhume the body. I remembered the burial plots for Harry and Bess Truman, in the courtyard at the Truman Presidential Library. Unless I was greatly mistaken, those graves were not so closely monitored.
Still strolling about, I hoped casually, I spotted aerial motion from the corner of my eye: a quadcopter drone. No one within my sight was operating it. Either the drone was illegal, or a licensed pilot flew it.
It appeared I was not yet done researching Meriwether Lewis.
* * *
Everything had begun with the Cruze/Cruzatte family oral history. Another family might have preserved its own stories, might even have stayed in the area. Long shot that it must surely be, I began sifting through the public records for Lewis County. The name felt auspicious.
Slowly, I made my way through the records to modern-day Griner descendants. (The old Stand to the contrary, the family name was Griner, not Grinder, but the inn had been so misnamed even in Lewis’s day.) Most of the family had dispersed, but Google did show me one nearby relative. The daughter of a Griner daughter, her last name was Smith.
I found her house, a modest bungalow, on the outskirts of Hohenfeld. A dusty old Chevy pickup sat parked in front, lights shone inside, and I could hear, faintly, a twangy C&W ballad. The doorbell didn’t do anything, so I knocked.
“Don’t want any,” a woman yelled from inside. She also had a twang.
“I’m not selling anything,” I called back.
“I’m not giving anything, either.”
“I’m from the university.” Years ago, but I was from one. “I’m an historian. Could we speak for just a few minutes about the Griner family?”
The steel-guitar noise stopped. I heard footsteps, and the door opened. The woman who answered was short and curly haired, with a dour face. She wore an apron over khaki slacks and navy shirt.
“Mrs. Delia Smith? I’m Doctor Anderson, from New York City. May I come in?”
She eyed me skeptically, considering whether I might be a serial killer. “For a couple of minutes.”
“Thanks.” In her parlor, we each took one of the battered recliners. “My specialty”—of late, certainly—“is the Lewis and Clark expedition.”
“And Meriwether Lewis died at Grinder’s Stand.” She sounded impatient. “Yeah, I know. Most everyone around here knows.”
“I wondered if there’s any family lore, tradition, about that event.”
She shrugged. “Everyone says he killed himself.”
“Historians, too . . . mostly. But is there any family tradition?”
In another room, a timer beeped. “Excuse me. I’ve got something in the microwave to flip over.”
While she was gone, I looked around the parlor. A TV and, in front of her recliner, a mound of TV Guide issues. Past her recliner, a floor lamp with its shade askew. On the chair’s closer side, an end table with a vase of plastic flowers and a candy dish full of M&Ms. And on the faded plaid loveseat across the room, leering from the front page of a tabloid (I’d almost forgotten the Truth still had a print edition), a corpselike face. The wendigo glowered at me, and I smiled back.
She returned. “Five minutes till my dinner’s done. I can spare that long. What did you want to ask about?”
“Is there any family tradition about that tragedy?”
“You mean like someone murdering Meriwether Lewis?” She snorted. “I suppose you favor the version where Priscilla Griner was having a quickie with her famous lodger, and her husband came home earlier than expected. The family has never been too taken with that.”
“I don’t favor any version, other than what happened. Still, you may know that Mrs. Griner related different, um, details, over the years. I thought she may have shared some things just with her family.”
“Different details? Yeah, from what I heard, that’s a polite way of putting it. So?”
“What have you heard?”
“Like you say, it was for family.”
I had an unexpected ace up my sleeve, and I played it. I grabbed the Truth from her loveseat and tapped the cover-story byline. “See this wendigo article? I’m a good friend of Carl Markson. I can assure you, he’s also interested. Very interested.”
Correcting the historical record did nothing for her, but the chance to be mentioned in the Truth opened the floodgates. What a world we live in!
She leaned forward, confidentially. “Well, there is a family legend. . . .”
“On her deathbed, Priscilla, they say, was delirious, raving. It could mean nothing. . . .”
Or it could be everything. “Please, what did she say?”
“No one could make it all out.” I nodded encouragement, waiting. “Maybe no one died.”
“Maybe? What did Priscilla say?”
“I can only tell you what the family at her bedside made of her ramblings, not whether that’s what Priscilla meant, or if it was all in her imagination.”
“Here’s what’s been passed down. She’d been told, and paid well, to report that Lewis killed himself. The morning on which she was to say he’d died, four men dug a grave, lowered in a casket, and filled the hole. For long years after, the site was unmarked.”
The four would have been Neelly, Lewis, and their servants.
“There’s another odd thing . . . the casket they buried that day was already dirty.”
Odd, indeed! To me that suggested a body robbed from some nearby graveyard. I recalled that Captain Neelly had been the last among Lewis’s traveling band to reach Grinder’s Stand, arriving, it was said, after Lewis died. Neelly later explained he had been retrieving a horse that had strayed the day before. Had Neelly gone, instead, to acquire a body?
The supposed self-inflicted wounds, two gunshots and a variety of cuts, had from the first struck me as implausible—for Meriwether Lewis. But the suicide of some man unskilled with gun and knife? Some victim of a murderer or highwaymen? Either such might have died so messily, and a tale of “Lewis’s” death concocted to match that body.
As it happened, there was no record of anyone examining “Lewis’s” body till thirty-some years after. When a country doctor had a look, he deemed the death suspicious—without further explanation. By then the narrative of Lewis’s suicide was well established, the great explorer’s memory tainted by the manner of his reported passing. The doctor’s conclusion was widely ignored and generally forgotten.
I asked, “What happened next?”
She hesitated. “Remember, Priscilla was raving. Besides, this story was passed on many times before I heard it. But the way I was told, after the burial, she snuck into the woods near the inn, following the men. They opened baggage that Lewis had come with, and one of the men filled his knapsack with papers.”
My heart pounded. Might those papers be long-lost journal entries? “Which man? And what did he do with those documents?”
“I have no idea. But the way the story came to me, anyway, the end of it was that three men rode east up the Natchez Trace. One walked the other way.”
“Who was that one? Lewis?”
Eastbound: likely Neelly, Neelly’s servant, and Pernier. They’d have brought with them the parts of Lewis’s journal that ended up with Clark, that were published years after. But headed west? Delia Smith didn’t know, and so neither could I, and yet I was sure that had been Lewis.
“Went where?” I asked.
She shrugged. “West.”
As I sat in contemplative silence, her microwave beeped.
She stood. “And you’ll tell Carl Markson? Have him call me for the details?”
“I promise, Carl will know everything you told me.”
* * *
If Lewis did walk away from Grinder’s Stand, where would he have gone? If he kept, rather than destroyed, the retrieved papers, where might they have ended up?
I had thoughts—incomplete, admittedly—about both. Before I acted on them, I owed Olivia an update.
Happily, she answered her cell. Unhappily, I could barely hear her for the blaring music. “How was the inn? And where are you calling from?”
“Nashville. Are you free to talk?”
“Hold on.” The phone muted for a few seconds, and then, the music reduced to a dull background throb, she returned. “Nashville. You don’t strike me as the Grand Ole Opry type.”
Fair enough. “Listen, I might have a lead on some long-lost papers of Lewis’s.”
“In St. Louis.” I was taking a somewhat circuitous route. Memphis was my next stop. “It’s complicated.”
“If you can wait a week, I can fly back out.”
If I were right, it would be a huge deal. But if my “lead” turned out to be only the babbling of a dying woman? If Delia Smith had been having a bit of fun with the gullible city slicker? I’d look quite the fool—or worse. “Let me just say these aren’t public records. It might be best, till I know more, for you to stay clear of it.”
“Okay,” Olivia said. “Consider yourself back on the payroll.”
Copyright © 2018. Harry and the Lewises by Edward M. Lerner