They rounded a bend in the river and St. Louis slid out of sight. Lewis shook his head, trying to clear it, as the morning sun beat down on him. The fever was biting into his brain.
Like an apparition in some dreadful nightmare, the trees on the other side of the river began to swim in and out of focus, first advancing, then receding. Before he could grab onto something, his knees went out from under him and he fell hard onto the deck of the barge.
He lay on his side on the rough planks, moaning. Seaman whined and licked at his face. One of the boatmen, a rough-looking chap with yellow hair, glanced over at him and laughed roughly. Catching the attention of his fellows, he inclined his head towards Lewis and muttered, “All hail his Excellency the Governor—king of the drunks.”
Lewis didn’t have the strength to protest. He was sick, very sick, and it had been all he could do to act normal this morning in front of Clark and the others. The performance had exhausted the last bit of energy he had.
Pernia came running from the other end of the barge, where he’d been busy securing the baggage. “Governor!” he cried. “Mon Dieu! What’s the matter?”
“Malarial ague,” Lewis said haltingly. “It’s flared up again.” He was shivering like a leaf in the wind; the sunlight itself seemed to be the source of the pain. “Pernia, please…bring me some water.”
“Of course! Pour le bien de Dieu, let me move you out of the sun.”
With difficulty, Pernia dragged him under the wooden canopy that sheltered the boatmen, passengers and baggage from sun and rain. He propped Lewis up against a barrel of flour and ran to dip some cool water out of the river.
Pouring sweat, Lewis dragged off his cravat and struggled to remove his green coat. He felt robbed of his senses. He’d had the ague off and on for years, but never this bad, not that he could remember. “Pernia,” he called, “get my medicine chest, will you? It’s in the big black trunk, right on top…you know what it looks like…”
Pernia rushed back with a bucket and a dipper of water, then ran to fetch the medicine chest. Lewis held the dipper in shaky hands and gulped down a couple of mouthfuls. His stomach cramped. He gagged and spit up a little onto his waistcoat, but forced himself to keep the rest down. Pernia came back with the chest and helped him out of his coat, laying it carefully over the top of the barrel.
With trembling fingers, Lewis pried open the medicine chest and hunted through his myriad collection of medicinal herbs and pills. Finally, he found a small bottle of milky liquid labeled Laudanum.
“All right, Pernia, this helped the other day.” He handed the bottle to the little Creole. “Put thirty drops of this into a spoon…I would do it myself, but my hands are a bit unsteady…”
Pernia uncorked the bottle and measured out the required dose. The medicine smelled strongly of alcohol. Lewis took the spoon and gulped it down, blanching at the foul taste.
“There, that’ll make it better…” Lewis leaned his head back against the barrel and gave Pernia a weak, glassy-eyed smile. He fumbled with the buttons on his waistcoat. “You know, this heat is terrible…it shouldn’t be this hot in September…”
“Governor, maybe we ought to turn back,” Pernia said. “You’re ill, sir. We could hail a boat going back to St. Louis, and wait to leave until you’re well again—”
“No.” Lewis shut his eyes against the glare of the sun. “I can’t turn back, Pernia. I’ve tarried too long already. I should’ve left a month ago. As it is, he’ll be ready…he’ll be waiting…”
“Who, Governor?” Pernia mopped Lewis’s forehead with his discarded cravat. “Secretary Eustis? Why, you can make short work of him.”
Lewis didn’t answer. Behind his eyelids, an odd illusion was taking shape. The gentle rocking of the boat on the river reminded him of being on the back of a horse. He was riding on a gray horse through an endless forest…mist was rising from the cool forest floor, and dark twisted trees were growing up all around him…Pernia was also on horseback, and Seaman was running by his side…but they weren’t alone—
Lewis jerked back into consciousness and stared around him. Pernia was bending over him, his brow furrowed with concern. A short distance away, Seaman lay in the shade, panting. But he knew when he turned his head, he would see it.
The other creature was there, too.
It took the form of a black wolf. It sat on the deck grinning at him, its black lips skinned back over yellowed teeth, its slick greasy fur gleaming blue-black in the sun. It licked its lips with its enormous tongue and looked at him with small, gray, evil eyes.
“Damn.” He felt a stab of despair. “The sonofabitch followed me.”
“Who, Governor?” Pernia lifted his head, his eyes darting around at the boatmen and fellow passengers. “Who are you talking about?”
Lewis didn’t answer. He knew Pernia couldn’t see it. Nobody but himself could see the black wolf, not even Seaman. The creature had been dogging his steps for weeks. It was with him all the time now—in the streets of St. Louis, in the Masonic hall, in the alley outside the tavern. God, it had even been in the room with him and Clark last night!
Somehow, it always knew the worst possible time to appear. When he was sick, when he was weak, when he was scared.
“Oh, he’s very clever,” he mumbled to himself. “And bold…so very bold…”
“Governor,” Pernia wiped Lewis’s forehead again. “I really wish you’d let us turn back—”
“We can’t, Pernia.” Lewis tore his eyes away from the black wolf and focused them on Pernia. He grabbed his servant’s wrist and gripped it hard. “Pernia…you’ve got to help me now. Please…I need you. Help me, Pernia.”
“Of course,” Pernia said, watching the river.
Exhausted and aching, Lewis closed his eyes and waited for the medicine to take effect. The barge bobbed gently as the current of the river lapped against its sides. The yellow-haired boatman looked in their direction and said something to his mate, and they both laughed. Out in the sun, the black wolf drooled and grinned.
“It’s a long trip ahead,” Lewis mumbled. “But don’t worry. We’ll make it, Pernia.”
Despite the heat, Pernia shivered. “I’m not worried,” he said.