Sunday, October 11, is the 200th anniversary of the mysterious death of Meriwether Lewis on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee. Was it suicide or murder? Lewis’s death and the mystery surrounding it are the subject of our historical novel To the Ends of the Earth: The Last Journey of Lewis & Clark. We are commemorating Lewis all week here on “American Heroes,” including posting excerpts from the book.
Twenty Mile Creek, Mississippi Territory
October 4, 1809
They were strung out single-file along the road. At Lewis’s insistence, they’d gotten up very early that morning. He estimated they’d already been on the Trace for four or five hours and had gone maybe twenty-five miles.
Neelly seemed exceedingly jumpy this morning. He hadn’t said a word at breakfast and seemed barely able to keep down his biscuit. Hung over, Lewis supposed. For all he knew Neelly had spent all night drinking with the Reverend. For once, he wasn’t suffering from an excess of drink himself. He felt exhausted, and he looked like hell in his tattered green coat, but at least his mind was sound. Things always seemed better when he was on the move.
Neelly was riding about fifty yards in front of him, to better scout out the terrain ahead; Pernia was lagging about fifty yards behind. Seaman trotted in the tall grass alongside him. Lewis expected they would stop at Twenty Mile Creek to have a bite of dried beef or bacon before attempting to cross. And they’d brew some coffee. Neelly would feel better with some coffee in him—
Up ahead, he noticed something. Neelly had stopped.
From his posture, Lewis sensed something was wrong. Instead of his usual slump, Neelly was sitting fully upright in the saddle. Lewis could see the tension in his body. He was as still as a statue.
Lewis felt puzzled. Was there a wild animal in the road? He checked his pistols: both primed and ready. His rifle, resting in a sling on his saddle, was charged and ready to fire.
Seaman started to bark.
Lewis’s pulse ticked up a notch. Something was happening. His horse twitched its ears and whickered. He sensed a slight vibration in the ground.
Neelly looked off to his right, towards the woods. Somebody was coming. Neelly must not be able to see them, or else he’d be pointing and shouting. Lewis twisted around in the saddle.
“Pernia!” he yelled. Pernia looked up from his sullen reverie. Lewis held up his hand, palm out, motioning Pernia to stop.
He could hear it now: the pounding of hooves. Horsemen. More than one. Riding fast. He quickly checked his ammunition pouch. Balls, powder, flints. Then he remembered something and cursed under his breath. He was packing the goddamn journals with him. If he had to run, he couldn’t take them, and he couldn’t risk them being lost. He stood up in the stirrups, unfastened his saddlebags, and heaved them off into the tall grass.
“Governor,” Pernia called out, annoyed. “What the hell are you doing?”
Seaman was barking madly. He could see them now. Big sonsofbitches, two of them, riding out of the woods, straight for him. They had burlap sacks pulled over their heads, and sawed-off short rifles. They’d be on him in a matter of seconds.
He pulled out one of his pistols as his horse began to sidestep, its great eyes rolling in terror. Pernia started to bleat. Up ahead, Neelly wheeled his horse and started back toward him. Even at this distance, Lewis could see his eyes, wide, bulging, sick with fear—
His heart surged. He’d never felt so goddamn mad in his life. So Wilkinson thought he could take him here! Thought he’d run like a scared rabbit! Like hell!