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In the spring of 1804, Private True Teague Kinneson—schoolmaster, inventor, playwright, and explorer—sets out with his nephew, Ticonderoga, to race Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to the Pacific. Along the way True and Ti encounter Daniel Boone and his six-foot-two spinster daughter, Flame Danielle; fight and trick a renegade army out to stop Lewis's expedition; invent baseball with the Nez Perce; hold a high-stakes rodeo with Sacagawea's Shoshone relatives; and outwit True's lifelong adversary, the Gentleman ...
In the spring of 1804, Private True Teague Kinneson—schoolmaster, inventor, playwright, and explorer—sets out with his nephew, Ticonderoga, to race Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to the Pacific. Along the way True and Ti encounter Daniel Boone and his six-foot-two spinster daughter, Flame Danielle; fight and trick a renegade army out to stop Lewis's expedition; invent baseball with the Nez Perce; hold a high-stakes rodeo with Sacagawea's Shoshone relatives; and outwit True's lifelong adversary, the Gentleman from Vermont, a.k.a. the devil himself. And when a beautiful and mysterious Blackfoot girl named Yellow Sage Flower Who Tells Wise Stories enters the tale, things start to get really interesting.
The True Account, which Lawrence Millman calls "part riotous adventure, part book of wonders, and part historical travesty," is the hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking story of a man "whose imagination is unfettered by either convention or fact, whose hopefulness and good nature yield to no force, and whose ways and stays rank second to none in the history of the world."
"An erudite and absorbing tweak of the Great Exploration." Kirkus Reviews
It is an important point of information in the history of the Kinneson family that from the moment of his mishap at Fort Ti, my uncle supposed himself to be constantly engaged in the prosecution of many heroic enterprises. These adventures often involved travel to far-flung places, great raging battles, and encounters with all manner of plenipotentiaries and unusual personages. The hillock behind my mother's cow barn he called the Heights of Quebec; and many a summer afternoon we stormed it together, taking the Citadel on the Plains of Abraham — a large granite boulder atop the hill — as he believed he had done with General Wolfe in '59. In the winter, when a thick sheet of ice and snow covered the hill, he stationed me on this boulder in the role of the French commander, Montcalm, and had me repel his assaults by pushing him whirling back down the frozen slope on the seat of his woolen pantaloons — a terrifying spectacle to me and to my parents, calling up in our recollections his fateful accident of years before. There was no doubt, from my uncle's easy talk of embrasures, fortifications, enfilades, scaling-ladders, and cannonadings, that he fully imagined himself to have been present at the fall of Quebec. But when I drew my father aside and asked him privately whether True had been involved in that battle, his hands shot up to his head and he said that, while he ruled out no improbability when it came to his older brother, if he had been, he was the youngest foot-soldier in the history of the world — being, according to my father's calculations, but seven years of age at the time.
Sometimes my uncle and I journeyed to the rapids on the St.
Lawrence just west of Montreal to reenact a historic meeting between the explorer Jacques Cartier and my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather,
Chief Tumkin Tumkin of the Abenaki tribe. Hearing that Cartier was searching for China and the Great Khan, and learning something of the dress and customs of that distinguished emperor, Tumkin Tumkin had stationed himself just upriver from the rapids in a robe of muskrat pelts dyed bright vermilion, with an absurd little round yellow hat on his head; his design was to impersonate the Celestial Personage and receive whatever gifts the French explorer had laid aside for him. In the event, Cartier instantly saw through our ancestor's ruse, but was so amused that he gave Tumkin Tumkin his second-best chain-mail vest and named the region of the rapids Lachine — or China, as it is called to this day.
The cedar bog to the north of our farm my uncle designated variously as the Great Dismal Swamp, or Saratoga, or Yorktown. From it we routed many a vile Redcoat, every last one of whom we put to the sword. For Private True Teague Kinneson was a ruthless soldier and showed no mercy to his captives. In his capacity as an inventor, he attached a sail made from an old flannel sheet to my little fishing raft on the Kingdom River, where we played by the hour at Captain Cook and the South Sea Cannibals. And when the ice began to form on my mother's stock pond, we recreated the scene of Washington crossing the Delaware.
During the long Vermont winters, when the wind came howling down out of Canada and the drifts lay six feet deep between the house and the barn, my uncle taught me Latin and Greek and astronomy and mathematics and the physical sciences. He read to me by the hour from both the ancients and moderns, and in the evenings we frequently cleared away my mother's kitchen table and chairs and performed scenes from Homer or Virgil.
'Arma virumque cano,' he would roar out in his booming stage voice. And it was off to the races with the brave hero of the Aeneid, while my mother, baking the next day's bread or peeling apples or doing the farm accounts in her black daybook, smiled, and my father's ink-stained hands shot headward. When we undertook the Iliad, my mother sometimes agreed to play the part of Helen, and my uncle and I carried her in her rocker from the window by the door to the chimney corner we called Troy; and indeed, with her tall slender form and long golden hair and eyes as blue as the sky over the Green Mountains on the fairest day of summer, she fit the role of Helen as well as any woman could. But on another occasion my uncle mistook my father for a Cyclops and chased him round and round the kitchen with the fire poker.
'None of this is your fault, Ti,' my terrified sire cried from the other side of the barricaded woodshed door. 'Above all, remember that none of this is your fault.'
Well. I had never supposed that my uncle's little ways and stays were my fault, or anyone else's, including his. Nor did I for a single moment believe that he meant the least harm to my father or any other creature in the universe. Though as my uncle's own history amply illustrated, accidents would happen; and perhaps it was as well for my father that he had the presence of mind to retreat until our version of the Odyssey had ended with the hero's return to Ithaca and his loving Penelope. Penelope was my mother's cat.
My uncle's favorite play, however, was his own. I shall come to that drama very soon. But first, a few words about the appearance of the playwright himself.
Private true Teague Kinneson — I refer to him by his full title because my uncle set great store by his military rank — was very tall and very lanky, with sloping, rugged shoulders, a trim, soldierly mustache, and keen yellow eyes that appeared to be as pitiless as a hawk's, though in fact he was the most sympathetic man I have ever known. He wore, over his scout's buckskins,
Jacques Cartier's chain-mail vest, which had been handed down in our family from Tumkin Tumkin and which he believed had saved his life in battle a dozen times over; a copper dome, which had been screwed to the crown of his head by the regimental surgeon who operated on him after his fall at Fort Ti; a loose-fitting pair of galoshes, whose tops he rolled up to his bony knees for winter and down around his ankles for summer; a red sash about his middle somewhat resembling an Elizabethan codpiece; and, to cover the shining metal crown of his head, a red woolen night-stocking with a harness bell on the end, like the bell of a fool's cap, to remind himself where he was at all times, and also that 'compared to the Almighty Jehovah, all men are fools.'
My uncle was somewhat hard of hearing from being so much subjected to cannon fire over the course of his military expeditions, so he carried at all times a tin ear trumpet as long as my mother's yard measure.
On those expeditions he went armed with a homemade wooden sword; an arquebus with a great bell-like mouth, of such incredible antiquity that even he was uncertain of its origin, though family tradition had it that this ancient firelock had been used by his Kinneson grandfather on the field of battle at Culloden just before the clan moved from Scotland to Vermont; and a large black umbrella to keep off the sun and rain, embellished on top with the family coat of arms — a crossed pen and sword, signifying that from time immemorial Kinnesons had 'lived by the one and died by the other.'
When not off adventuring, my uncle divided his time between his playwriting, his angling, his books, my education, his garden, and his inventions. To begin with the play. He had been working on his Tragical History of Ethan Allen, or The Fall of Fort Ticonderoga for twenty years and more. He styled it a tragedy because he believed Colonel Allen to have been much undervalued, and indeed thought that the old Vermonter should have been our first president. It was a long play, running well over three hours. And on the occasions when he had arranged for it to be performed, it had not met with a very kindly reception, even in our own state. From certain hints my uncle himself had let drop, I feared that it had been roundly hissed off the stage.
But he had the greatest faith in the world in his Tragical History, and pegged away at it year after year, firmly believing it to be nothing short of a masterpiece-in-progress. What pleased him most about the play was that it violated none of Aristotle's dramatic unities. Aristotle the Greek philosopher, pupil of Plato, and chronicler of all branches of human knowledge known to his time? No, sir. Scholia Scholasticus Aristotle — my uncle's great tutor during his time at Oxford University — of whom you will soon hear more.
When it came to angling, my uncle loved to cast flies, like our Scottish ancestors. In fact, he and my father were both avid fly-casters and had taught me this noble art when I was very young. We three enjoyed many a fine May morning on our little river, enticing native brook trout to the lovely feathered creations that my uncle tied during winter evenings. He fashioned long, limber rods from elm and ash poles, wove fine horsehair leaders, and was the neatest hand in all Kingdom County at laying his high-floating colored artifices deftly over rising fish. There was just one difficulty. Private True Teague Kinneson was so tenderhearted that he could not bear to kill his catch, and so released every last trout he caught unharmed to the cold waters from which it had come. Yet no man ever enjoyed the art of fly-fishing more or took more pains to match his flies to the natural insects emerging on the water; and the sight of my copper-crowned uncle, rod held high and bent, playing a fine splashing trout, and crying, for all the world to hear, 'Hi, hi, fish on!' was a most splendid spectacle.
My uncle's books, of which he had many hundreds in several languages, he kept in his snug little schoolhouse-dwelling behind our farmhouse, which dwelling he called the Library at Alexandria. He spared no expense when it came to purchasing these volumes, and he supported his scholarly avocation with the proceeds from his garden in my mother's loamy water meadow near the river. There he tended half an acre of the tall, forest-green plants known as cannabis, whose fragrant leaves and flower buds he ground into a mildly euphoric smoking tobacco very popular in Vermont and of which he himself faithfully smoked half a pipeful each evening after supper.
Of all his books, my uncle loved best a hefty old tome bound in red buckram called The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de La Mancha — of which he believed every last syllable to be the revealed gospel truth. In fact, it was partly in honor of this same ingenious gentleman that my uncle wore his chain mail and polished his copper crown until it shone like the top of a cathedral. For ever since his accident, he had fancied himself something of a modern-day knight-errant. Yet it was not giants disguised as windmills that he sought to fight but the Devil himself — until he cast that horned fellow out of the Green Mountains in a tow sack, in consequence of which expulsion he feared that 'the Gentleman from Vermont,' as he termed Old Scratch, might be doing great mischief elsewhere.
Being a kind of perpetual boy himself, though a big one, my uncle was a great favorite with all the boys and girls in the village, for whom he invented huge kites, spinning whirligigs, velocipedes with sails, magic lanterns, catapults, wheeled siege-towers, fire-ships, rockets, and I don't know what else — none of which ever, to the best of my knowledge, had the slightest practical application. Besides his vast fund of classical stories and poems, he knew a thousand tales of witches, ghouls, and ghosties, in the telling of which he terrified no one so much as himself. He was deathly afraid of large dogs, small serpents, lightning — he had been struck eight times since the installation of his copper crown, and it was said in the village that, like a tall ash tree in a Vermont hedgerow, he 'drew electricity' — and of nearly all women, though he had the greatest respect for and confidence in my mother, as did my father and I.
One of my uncle's most curious inventions was a wooden, Dutch-style shelf clock, about a foot and a half tall, without any works or innards but with a very passable painting he had done on it of his hero Quixote, that Knight of the Woeful Countenance, doing combat with a windmill. The painted hands of this clock were set forever at twenty minutes past twelve, which hour had a triple significance to my uncle. First, he was utterly certain that this was perpetually the correct time at Greenwich, England, so that by knowing the hour where he was, and the altitude of the sun, he could always calculate his correct longitude and divine where he was in the universe. And it distressed him not in the least that no matter how many times he made these calculations, his position never came out the same twice but varied wildly, from the longitude of Calcutta to that of Venice.
The second point of significance concerned a saying in our family, which was that whenever a lull fell over the conversation, it must be twenty after the hour. Admittedly, between my uncle the ex-schoolmaster and my father the editor, one or both of whom seemed always to be discoursing from dawn straight through until midnight, there were not many such lapses of silence in our household. But when by chance no one happened to be talking, my uncle would leap up and dash out to his Library at Alexandria to check the time on the Dutch clock and confirm that it was indeed twenty past the hour, which was a great relief to him. And though the clock was less reliable as a timepiece than was entirely convenient to one wishing to know the actual hour, it was so reliable as a conversation piece that it never failed to set the talk in motion again.
Third, and finally, it was inside the hollow case of this remarkable clock that my uncle stored his hemp tobacco.
From what I have retailed to you thus far, you might well suppose that mine was a very odd and somber boyhood. Odd, I will grant you. But somber?
Never in this world. For my uncle was ever a second father to me. In fact, it might be said that between my true father and my uncle True, the pair of brothers made one complete and perfect father. Or so I thought, at least. And no boy could ever have had a more complete education than I. When my interest first in sketching, then painting, birds and wildlife began to emerge, my uncle even took me on a tour of the great museums of England, France,
Italy, and the Lowlands. By which I mean that we canoed across the 'Atlantic Ocean' — our pond, that is — and on the far side he described the great paintings of the world so exactly that I all but saw them. Say what the village might, then, it was a splendid way to grow up. And to anyone who thought differently, Private True Teague Kinneson doffed his belled cap, bowed low, and said, 'Why, bless you, too, sir. With a tooleree and a toolera and a tooleroo!'
Of all my uncle's many schemes and projections, the one nearest his heart was no more and no less than to discover the Northwest Passage. From my earliest visits to the Library at Alexandria, I remember him poring over the old histories of his mostly ill-fated fellow expeditionaries and visionaries who for more than three centuries had sailed in quest of that elusive route to the riches of Cathay. On a wall map of North America behind his writing desk, the blank territory to the north and west of the Missouri River was labeled terra incognita; and when my uncle's saffron-colored eyes grew weary during our school lessons or his interminable revisions of his play, he liked to pause and gaze at those intriguing words and muse about the great foray that he and I would someday make into that unknown land.
In the spring of 1803, when I turned fifteen, my uncle received, from his Boston bookseller, Alexander Mackenzie's Voyages from Montreal, on the River St. Lawrence, Through the Continent of North America, to the Frozen and Pacific Ocean. The intrepid Mackenzie, it seemed, claimed to have done that which, above everything else in the world, my uncle himself had long wished to do — to have forged his way through the wilds of America to the Pacific. ''With a mixture of bear grease and red vermilion,'' my uncle read aloud to me in his harsh, nasal, schoolmasterly voice, ''I wrote on a rock above the western sea, Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.'
'Oh,' he cried out, smiting his metal dome in a way that would have done credit to my father, 'I am bested. It's already been done, Ti. And wouldn't you know, by a fellow Scotsman.'
My uncle could scarcely have been more distressed had Mackenzie's words 'from Canada by land,' etc. been branded on his forehead with a sizzling hot iron. But then his eyes gleamed with a new light — for his spirits never flagged longer than a minute or two — and he said that to go overland in Canada was one thing; but to cross through the Territory of Louisiana, to Oregon and the River Columbia, was something else again. 'That will be our route, Ti. Eureka! We leave tomorrow.
'What's more,' he continued, 'to make sure we get to the Columbia and not some puny, less illustrious Canadian river, we will start there. We will make the trip backward. From the Pacific.'
'But, uncle,' I protested, 'how will we get to the Pacific? How can we start from there until we get there?'
Whereupon he smiled and said, 'We will go round the Horn by ship, Ti. You might ask Helen of Troy to put us up a lunch.'
Early the following morning we prepared to embark. We allotted an entire day for the journey, including our return trip overland. Besides his chain mail, the belled stocking cap over his copper crown, and his galoshes, my uncle carried a flagstaff and flag, his umbrella, his collapsible spyglass, his arquebus, and his homemade sextant and astrolabe for determining our latitude and longitude. Instead of sea biscuit and salt beef, we had laid in a stock of my mother's most delicious baked-bean sandwiches, a brown crock of her famous ginger cookies — which we called cartwheels because of their prodigious size — and a stone jug of switchel, the popular Vermont haymakers' drink distilled from pure mountain spring water slaked with a touch of molasses and a touch of vinegar; for we did not know where we would find our next supply of fresh drinking water.
We set sail at sunrise on my fishing raft, which my uncle had christened the Samuel de Champlain, he wiping his sleeve across his eyes at the thought of leaving his beloved Green Mountains for a whole day, my mother calling 'Bon voyage, my brave expeditionaries' — and my father mouthing to me, 'Not your fault, Ti. Not your fault.'
The first leg of our trip went capitally. We stopped to visit the Amazonian delta, where one Sucker Brook debouched into the Kingdom River. Theremy uncle, briefly disembarking from the Samuel de Champlain to perform a necessary office in the alders, was harried back onto the ship by a thirty-foot anaconda — which bore more than a passing resemblance to a spotted yellow newt sunning itself on a tamarack stump. Our vessel was three times beaten back around the tumultuous Cape Horn (the High Falls at Kingdom Common) by fierce headwinds laden with hail, sleet, and driving snow. At last, on the fourth attempt, we cleared the tip of the Cape with room to spare and sallied on up the west coast of South America past the Juan Fernandez Islands, as my uncle called the stone-filled timber cribs in the river designed to regulate log drives. Then on to the Galápagos, where he had arranged for us to be set upon by a party of three lads from the village, their faces all besmeared with blue river clay, in the guise of cannibals. After putting these savages to rout and beating up the coast of Spanish California past the mission of San Francisco — the little French Canadian chapel just outside town — we reached the mouth of the Columbia — Kingdom Brook — at noon. Out came my uncle's sextant and astrolabe, out came his book of navigational tables. After the most elaborate mathematical calculations, he estimated our latitude at about 60° north, from which he concluded that the Columbia entered the Pacific not far south of Alaska. To celebrate this surprising news he smoked half a pipe of hemp.
With the daunting overland portion of our trip through terra incognita now at hand, our explorations were about to begin in earnest.
Reminding me that everything we saw next would be country viewed by Americans for the first time, and that we were about to venture where the foot of civilized man had never trod before, and, furthermore, that I should take particular notice of everything I saw so that, when home again, I could paint what had 'ne'er been painted before,' and commending us both to Providence and to our Maker, my uncle planted the flag on a little knoll overlooking the river and we started out again. Our struggles up the rapids of the Columbia, as represented by several old beaver dams, were Herculean — indeed, a hotter, wetter, more tedious and arduous four hours than we had getting to the Rockies, or Kingdom Mountain, can scarcely be imagined. But our travails were not yet over. In the thick hemlock woods on the mountainside we fought off a horde of black flies, which my uncle mistook for 'the all-puissant Blackfeet'; and as evening drew near, and we waded back down the little foot-wide rill on the back side of the mountain — the 'broad Missouri' — a swarm of mosquitoes descended on us with all the savagery of the 'treacherous Sioux.' Seth Hubbell's sheep pasturage my uncle denominated the great western prairie; Seth's dozen merino sheep, a thundering herd of bison.
As twilight settled over the mountain and we started down the last slope, my uncle said, 'Ti, we've done it. We have discovered the Northwest Passage — backward. I only wish Colonel Allen could have been with us.'
Exhausted, soaked through and through, bruised and bug-bitten, we arrived home at a little after eight o'clock, to a heroes' welcome from my father and Helen of Troy, who fixed us a late supper of ham and eggs and pancakes laced with maple syrup. I ate eleven pancakes, my uncle twenty-six, my mother four, and my father one and part of another, which I finished for him.
My uncle then fired up his long, curved hemp pipe and began to recount our adventures of the day. Stimulated by the mild cannabis fumes, he told how the Samuel de Champlain had been wrecked on the Columbia and how, having been cast away, we had made our way back afoot. My father's arms and elbows were now sticking directly out from his head in an attempt to exert more pressure upon that seat of reason. Warming to his subject, True fetched his map of North America, and, in the large blank section, began to trace our route very exactly, marking down the places where we had skirmished with the Blackfeet and Sioux and asking me to draw in a few bison. At this juncture my father rose from the table and declared that even if I should turn out to be a Vermont Michelangelo, he did not believe he could bear to have another artistical relative. My uncle, in the meantime, had neatly inscribed on the map, 'Private True Teague Kinneson's Chart of the Interior of North America, Designating His Journey, by Land, from the Mouth of the Columbia to the United States. As attested to by True T.
Kinneson, May 15, 1803.'
So matters ran along in our home for the next several weeks. At fifteen, I was reading changeable old Ovid's lively Latin and, in the Greek, Thucydides, as well as my uncle's favorite historical chronicler of all time, Herodotus, who wrote of giant crocodilos and flying lizards and other marvels stranger still.
When I came to Xenophon's The March Upcountry, we enacted his incredible trek through the land of the Persians and Medes by hiking up into Canada and back one sunny day. En route we encountered a great horned owl, which I later painted, life-size, presenting the picture to my mother.
By then it had become apparent — my father's concern about another artistical Kinneson notwithstanding — that I had a real flair for drawing and painting, particularly birds. I loved best their colors. The reddish brown thrasher with its long narrow tail, the indigo backs of our little northern bunting, the bright lemon plumage of the winter grosbeak against the snow.
Indeed, there was no bird or animal that I did not find beautiful in its own way.
For several months my mother fed an orphaned fox at the back door, a slinking young vixen that tolerated only her. I sketched this she-fox and many other animals as well — deer, beaver, and a bear that raided my uncle's hemp garden and gourmandised on the ripening flower buds, then lolled on his back with his four black paws in the air like a big dog wishing to be scratched. But portraits of people were difficult. My best effort in this department was a group arrangement of my family seated in the farmhouse kitchen one winter evening. Here is my mother, Helen of Troy, baking her cartwheel cookies; my father slumps at the table with his hands pressed to his head, looking on as my yellow-eyed uncle, in full explorer's regalia and belled stocking cap, works on his 'Chart of the Interior of North America.' 'And what, Mr. Mackenzie, say you to this?' he would say to himself as he inked in our route. What indeed!
There was, at about this time, some talk between my parents of sending me down to Boston to study with Copley or Stuart, or perhaps to the great artist-scientist Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia. But they had meager funds to underwrite such a venture; and who would then keep track of my uncle? Whose little ways and stays, I must say, seemed to grow ever more extravagant.
Then came July 4 and the great news from Washington. ''President Jefferson, in a single bold stroke,'' my father read to us from the Washington Intelligencer, ''has more than doubled the land mass of our young nation by buying, from France, the territory called Louisiana, stretching from west of the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains and north to Canada. Moreover,'' he continued, ''trusted sources report that the president will soon appoint an expedition to go overland to the mountains and beyond, to discover the most practicable watercourse to the Ocean Pacific.''
My uncle, who, though listening to my father, had seen fit to thrust his ear trumpet close to the newspaper itself, was in a frenzy of anticipation. 'Great Jehovah!' he cried. 'Did you hear that, Ticonderoga? An overland expedition to the Ocean Pacific. I must lead that expedition. Having made the same tour backward, I can see no obstacle to completing it frontward.'
He now put the trumpet to his mouth and, clapping the larger end to my father's ear, he roared into it, 'I'm going back to the Pacific, Charles, or I shall know the reason why.'
After recovering somewhat from this rather excruciating experience, my father started to say, 'The reason why, dear brother, is that, not to put too fine a point on the matter, you have never been —'
'Ah, ah, Charles,' said my mother, smiling and shaking her head, while my uncle now scanned the piece in the Intelligencer through the small end of his trumpet, alternately nodding his head in agreement or frowning and shaking it, so that the little bell on the end of his cap jingled like a whole carillon.
'The reason why, dear elder brother,' my father tried again, 'is that — is that — oh, to the devil with it — the reason is that you might as well undertake to guide Captain Lewis to the Great Khan of China, like our ancestor, Chief Tumkin Tumkin.' My uncle raised his thickety white eyebrows.
'China,' he said, casting a glance out the back window of the kitchen at the stone wall angling up the slope. 'China —'
Hurriedly, to deflect this dangerous train of thought, my father read on. ''The expedition will travel up the Missouri, whose ultimate source is believed to rise near that of the Columbia, then proceed down that river to the Pacific, in what is projected to be one of the greatest journeys of discovery in history.''
'Do you see, nephew?' cried my uncle, now gazing at me through the big end of his trumpet. 'Exactly our route in reverse. They can't do it without us. Take a letter, lad.'
The Honorable Thomas Jefferson,
President of the United States of America
Dear Mr. President,
Having just returned by land from the mouth of the River Columbia and the Oregon Territory, I will undertake, for two dollars a day and found, to lead an expedition safely across Louisiana to the Pacific Ocean, through the land of the all-puissant Blackfeet and the treacherous Sioux, whom I plan to pacify and win over by introducing them to the propagation, cultivation, and inhalation of that panacea for all the spiritual ills of mankind—hemp. Eagerly awaiting your confirmation of this assignment, I remain,
Private True Teague Kinneson
Green Mountain Regiment
First Continental Army
'And back?' my mother suggested.
'And back?' my uncle said.
'Yes. To the Pacific and back?' 'Oh, yes. Of course 'and back.'
Write, 'Postscript — and back,' Ti.'
I did so, and then, lest this matter of high state policy fall into the hands of spies, my uncle had me transcribe it into Greek. Not knowing the Hellenic for 'Blackfeet' and 'Sioux,' I found myself at a standstill. But my unperplexed uncle, thumbing through Xenophon, found a phrase for 'sooty-footed Persians,' which took care of the Blackfeet; as for the Sioux, on reflection he thought it safe simply to write — Sioux.
He posted this proposal the next morning and followed it up with many more communications to the President, including a thirty-page treatise in Latin called A Brief History of the Flora, Fauna and Native Peoples of the Oregon and Louisiana Territories. Also, he sent Mr. Jefferson a copy of his revised 'Chart of the Interior of North America.'
The fact that we received not a single word in reply to these missives did not deter or discourage Private True Teague Kinneson in the least. Indeed, I must say that my uncle seemed impervious to discouragement. When he rose in the morning, he never once, so far as I knew, doubted that his commission and summons to Washington would be coming through that very day; throughout the summer and fall of 1803 we made trial runs with my raft on the Kingdom River and compiled lengthy lists of what we would need to take with us.
Vermont's red and yellow autumn gave way to winter. At Christmas, from his hemp income my uncle presented me with a new muzzle-loading flintlock rifle, my mother with a brindled cow for her dairy, and my father with a padded vise of his own invention, in which to clamp his head when the world was too much with him.
One day in March, when the sap had just started to flow in our maple-sugar orchard, my uncle strapped on his snowshoes and said he planned to go to the top of Kingdom Mountain and reconnoiter our route to the Pacific. It seemed safe enough to let him conduct this reconnaissance on his own, so I went to work with my father, the Monitor being due out the next day. That evening, however, we were met at the door by my most anxious mother, who had just discovered a note from the private informing us that he had left for Boston to raise money for our trip.
My father's hands were already fluttering upward, like two large moths toward a candle. Pressing his head down from the top, as if to prevent himself from taking flight, he said, 'Fetch me my clamp, Ti.' I ran for the Christmas vise. After my mother and I had affixed this apparatus to his head, screwing it down very tightly, he seemed to experience some relief.
'What, sir,' I inquired, 'are we to do?'
'Why, Ti, I suppose that we must wait a day or two and see if your uncle comes back. If he does not, we will have to go after him and run him to ground. Else I fear greatly for his sake and, frankly, for the sake of Louisiana and the Republic.'
In truth, my uncle had run off two or three times before, once to the neighboring village of Pond in the Sky, which he had mistaken for Dover, on the English Channel, to assist Lord Nelson against Napoleon; and again over the border into Canada, to escape the blandishments of a determined local widow-woman named Goody Kittredge, who had set her cap for him and his hemp income. In both instances he had been home by nightfall.
Now, as evening came and my uncle did not, my father had us ratchet the head vise ever tighter, until his kindly gray eyes began to start out of their sockets; my mother continued to go to the window and look out into the blue twilight creeping over our mountain; and I began to feel dreadfully remiss that I had not kept better track of my ward. The night wore on, and eventually my mother coaxed my father, still wearing the vise, to bed. But by then I was more alarmed than I could ever recall being.
The idea occurred to me sometime after midnight. I would, I resolved, run my uncle to ground myself, even if I had to follow him to the Pacific to do so. Before I could lose my nerve, I began to pack my watercolors, a cylindrical metal tube of blank canvases, my gun, and other possibles. Around two a.m., having stocked up with a good supply of my mother's cartwheel cookies, I stole out of our farmhouse and made my way down to the village, where I spent another two hours at my father's newspaper office, printing several dozen handbills that I believed would be useful in my search. Just as the sunrise struck the soaring peaks of the Green Mountains, turning them as pink as one of my mother's sugar-glazed apples, I boarded the southbound mail.
'Gone to find uncle. Much love, Ticonderoga,' read the note I'd left on the kitchen table. Yet despite the confident tone of my message, I had the strongest feeling, as the stage jolted down the line toward Boston, that even if I were fortunate enough to locate Private True Teague Kinneson, persuading him to come home again might well prove impossible.
Copyright © 2003 by Howard Frank Mosher. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Posted July 25, 2003