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CLARK’S POINT, INDIANA TERRITORY 1809
The old general felt it coming at sunset on that fine cool evening, while he sat on the porch of his log house on the bluff overlooking the Ohio: a greater melancholy than any he had faced in the thirty years of his decline.
He set his jaw and drew himself up straight in his hickory chair. This awesome, poignant mood had tried to overpower him on many such evenings of late, and he feared it, and wished he knew how to brace his spirit against it. It wasn’t death he feared; he had been impatient for that for years. No, it was this eternity of days passing by, each one finding him more helpless to set things right.
The wild beauty of this place seemed to make it worse than it had been when he lived at Mulberry Hill across the river. Now melancholy seemed to come up the hill through the sighing treetops on the breeze from the broad river. It was in the rippling grass in the clearing and in the deep rushing of the Falls of the Ohio far below. It was in the sight of the sun going down at the end of another summer. Still another summer gone by, with all those injustices still unresolved.
The sunlight blazed directly into his eyes and flashed up at him from the surface of the river, but he did not shield his eyes or turn away. Here on this high place, it had become his habit to stare down the evening sun.
On the brassy glare of the river, above the falls, alongside the Kentucky bank, lay the dark oblong silhouette of Corn Island. There, he thought. Right there on that island it all started, in 1778. A conquest like none the world ever saw. Half a million square miles of domain, taken by a hundred and seventy starving woodsmen, who had the audacity to deem ourselves an army. The memory made him sit straighter; his eyes grew moist and a proud smile played on his mouth. But then, as always, followed the bitterness, and with the bitterness that old undeniable craving. Indeed, he thought. I have not touched any this long afternoon. It’s time.
With his cane he whacked three times on the wall. A Negro appeared in the doorway, lean, grizzled, clad in dingy white cotton. “You call for me, General?”
“Aye, Cupid. First, fetch me a jug of rum out here. Then, if you’d be so kind, sir, lay up by the hearth enough wood for the night. Make it the walnut. I like the smell o’ that. I feel in my bones, Cupid, this is going to be our first real chilling night of the season.”
“I do believe it is, sir.”
The general shivered. It seemed he had never once been warm enough since that winter campaign in ’79. “Then, if you’ll kindly poke the fire up good for me, and light a lamp on the table adjacent, then I should say you’d set me up well enough for a tolerable night.”
The old black man smiled. “You going to read, then?” Illiterate, he was perennially fascinated by the sight of the general looking at one thing, a book, for hours at a time.
“Maybe. But I have correspondence needs doing. If the rum doesn’t take me first …” I shouldn’t have said that, he thought; it isn’t seemly. But, by my eyes, if only they was somebody to whom you could say whatever was in your thoughts … some kinds of things you can say to a nephew, some to a niece, and some to an Indian, and some to your old comrades when they come around, but if you have no mate, there’s some things as just have to go unsaid …
The servant was poised with his weight on one leg, not sure whether he was dismissed; the general seemed primed to say more. His dark blue eyes were squinting through the sun and his mouth was open, as if he had not finished out his remarks.
I wonder if old Cupid could understand my discontent anyhow, the general was thinking. How would a slave take it to be told that his lot is happier than his master’s? But no. You don’t complain to people. Least of all to a servant. He had always believed it was the obligation of a gentleman never to complain, always to encourage, no matter how bleak the prospects might be. “If you’d bring me that rum?” he said instead.
The brick sun now sat on a purple horizon. Beyond the village of Louisville on the river’s far shore, the fields and forests of Kentucky had deepened to lilac, the westerly contours flushed red-gold. That a world which looked so like a paradise could be so full of injustices was a major cause of his melancholy.
Before the stroke it had not been so bad. In those days when he could still move around, still mount a horse, still go hunting and fowling with his nephews, the Croghan boys, still dig for answers in the mysterious Indian mounds; in those days when John Audubon would come and stay and ask particulars about this bird or that bird in the region; in short, until his body had betrayed him and made him a prisoner of his house and porch, it had been possible to put that wretched business out of his mind for days at a time. In the woods, on the trails, on the river, with hearty companions at his side and gun on his arm, the neglect and stupidity of an ungrateful country didn’t matter. But when he could only hobble about on a cane and hurt in every bone socket and sit wrapped in a cloak of retrospection, then the past had a way of growing bigger than the present and he could think only of the way things should have been.
On the river below, a convoy of four flatboats was making for the channel of navigable rapids past the falls, seeking apparently to make a run for it in the remaining light. The calls of the sweepmen rose up faintly from the valley, the words unintelligible but their anxiety audible in the turned-up ends of their calls.
Westward they go, day after day, the old general thought. To all that land out there.
All that land out there. That we the Clarks have given them. William and me.
He thought, as he did so often these days, of his famed youngest brother, William. Now there is a man for you! Got the glory he deserves, he did. And has been as good to me as all the fates has been bad. We ought to have been the two richest men west of the Alleghenies, him and me. But any dollar I make already belongs to the creditors, and those bloodsuckers do take it. And then William, he makes it up on my behalf. Selling off land to pay debts and suits … Riding about making endorsements and promises … Petitioning for me in Richmond and at Congress …
The thought of his brother’s devotion gave the general a bittersweet pain in his breast, and brought the melancholy a little closer. It was better to think of William in terms of his great triumph than in terms of that eternal dreary business of the debts.
The servant brought a tray with an uncorked jug of rum, two drinking glasses, and a carafe of spring water on it. He placed it on a bench along the hewn-log wall, and poured the amber rum three fourths of the way to the top of one glass, as the general liked it. As had become their custom, he then poured a shot for his own evening indulgence into the second glass.
“Here’s to William,” said the general, raising the glass to the level of the setting sun. “I took the frontier to the Mississippi and then he carried it on to the blue Pacific. Here’s to William, I say.” With a breathy slurp he drained the contents.
“To William, sir,” said the Negro, to whom this toast was by now familiar. Swallowing the rum with a shudder, he turned and went wobbly-legged down off the porch toward the woodpile which lay neatly corded between two tree stumps in the clearing. The general watched him and chuckled. Old Cupid couldn’t handle more than one shot.
The four flatboats were slipping fast in a single file down through the channel now in a glory of sun-reddened water, and General Clark watched them go and smacked his lips and sighed and felt the beloved comfort of the liquor rise to his head and pursue the rheumatic ache outward through all his limbs. He pulled the old deerskin lap robe closer around his waist and began to feel quite cozy. Perhaps this might be a tolerable evening after all. Wincing from a painful shoulder, he tipped another measure of rum from the heavy jug into the glass and then held the glass on his lap and watched the boats. He remembered his own little convoy of boats setting out down the same main channel under the ominous eclipse of the sun, in ’78, full of heroes-to-be, going against the forts at Cahokia and Kaskaskia and Vincennes and, he had hoped, north to the British stronghold at Detroit. Detroit, he thought, The one conquest I wanted more than anything.
He remembered, too, the boat of the Lewis and Clark expedition setting out down that same waterway, just six years ago, in 1803. And he remembered William returning from the Pacific in 1806. He could see him as clear as yesterday: leathery, serene, the look of infinity in his eyes, full of such descriptions of spaces and mountains as would make your heart race.
This is indeed a place of brave beginnings, the general thought, sipping more slowly now.