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 remembering Lewis all week here on “American Heroes,” including posting excerpts from the book.
Colbert’s Ferry, Tennessee River
October 8, 1809
It must have been a nightmare.
The cruel light of dawn poked through the trees, stabbing Lewis in the eyes. He winced away from it, screwing his eyes shut, trying in vain to stave off a brain-numbing headache.
They were camped in the woods somewhere near the Tennessee River, but he had no memory of getting to this place last night. What he did remember couldn’t possibly be true. It was too horrible, too fantastical, to be anything other than a product of fever and exhaustion.
He tried to sit up and immediately regretted it. A wave of nausea gripped him and he rolled over on his elbows, gagging up a stream of rust-colored liquid. He scrabbled in the dirt for a minute before managing to shove himself onto his haunches and take in the scene around him.
His saddlebags were on the ground next to him. A pasty Neelly was asleep on his bedroll nearby, his breath ruffling his beard with each exhalation. Pernia was sleeping too, his coat thrown over him like a blanket, his back to the dying fire.
Seaman nuzzled Lewis’s hand with a cold nose. “Jesus, Seaman, what the hell happened last night?” Lewis whispered, petting the dog’s head with a shaky hand. “I barely remember anything—”
But he did remember. They’d been traveling hard since leaving Old Factor’s Stand yesterday morning. Riding all day, stopping only to eat, camping in the woods. He was sick, so sick, but he wouldn’t let them stop. Couldn’t. Wilkinson’s men were chasing him, and they’d probably catch him in the end. But at least he’d make them work for it.