“A cracking good yarn . . . sheer storytelling power . . . James Alexander Thom is one of the finest historical novelists writing today. . . . Anyone who thinks there’s nothing left to be said about the Lewis and Clark expedition should read this book.”—John Sugden, author of Tecumseh: A Life
Following the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson sends Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the newly acquired territory. To survive, the two captains need an extraordinary hunter who will be able to provide the expedition with fresh game, and a sign-talker to communicate with the native tribes. They choose George Drouillard. It is Drouillard, an actual historical figure, who becomes our eyes and ears on this unforgettable odyssey.
A magnificent tale told with intelligence and insight, Sign-Talker is full of song and suffering, humor and pathos. James Alexander Thom has created the rarest reading experience: one that entertains us even as it shows us a new vision of our nation, our past, and ourselves.
“Excellent . . . It is at once an adventure story [and] a historical document. . . . Even though many readers know the story of Lewis and Clark, Thom’s novel will give them new insight.”—The Indianapolis Star (four-star review)
About the Author
James Alexander Thom was formerly a U.S. Marine, a newspaper and magazine editor, and a member of the faculty at the Indiana University Journalism School. He is the author of Follow the River, Long Knife, From Sea to Shining Sea, Panther in the Sky (for which he won the prestigious Western Writers of America Spur Award for best historical novel), The Children of First Man, and The Red Heart. He lives in the Indiana hill country near Bloomington with his wife, Dark Rain of the Shawnee Nation, United Remnant Band. Dark Rain is a director of the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Planning Council.
Read an Excerpt
Fort Massac, Lower Ohio Valley
November 11, 1803
An eagle soared westward above the river bluff against a gray overcast, as if leading the lean hunter toward the fort, though the fort was where he was going anyway. He would see the big mysterious boat moored below the fort, he thought. It should be there by now.
Eagles often seemed to lead the hunter, even though his per-
sonal Shawnee name was Nah S'gawateah Kindiwa, meaning Without Eagle Feathers. The name by which he was known was George Pierre Drouillard.
The tawny skin of his face was taut over jutting bone, his mouth wide, thin-lipped. His hazel eyes were paler than his skin, which gave a strange brightness to his gaze that sometimes made people uneasy, as he knew it did. It was not good for a métisa half-breedto make white people uneasy, so hunting and trapping alone was suitable work for him, away from the towns.
Drouillard rode a bay horse, and led an army mule that carried the boneless venison of three deer and the meat and fat of a bear, all bundled neatly in their own hides and hung on a packsaddle. He watched the silhouette of the eagle as he rode. Already he smelled wood smoke from the fort: hickory, oak. And he smelled latrine.
He sent a thought up: Without Eagle Feathers follows you, kindiwa. There was a reason why that was his name, and it was a sad and sorry reason, no fault of his. Still, eagles often led him.
Led by Eagles, that would have been a better name. If only there remained a shaman to do a new name ceremony for him, that could be his personal name. One could change to a truer name, with shaman help.
Then another name came into his memory and made him laugh. Once when he was drunk a whiteman had asked him his Indian name and he said, "Followed by Buzzards." The fool had believed him, though that would be a true name for him too, appropriate for a hunter. He was a good hunter. Not just a tracker and stalker and sharpshooter. In boyhood he had learned the voices and sounds of all the animals and birds, and could call and decoy them in their own languages. He was such a good hunter that Captain Bissell, commander of Fort Massac, employed him to bring game to the fort to feed its soldiers. He was paid for the meat by the hundredweight. He took his pay in gunpowder, lead, soap, and the printed paper that the américains called money. The army provided the pack mule. Followed by Buzzards. He rode along laughing. It was a laugh just slightly bitter, the taste of much Shawnee people's laughter these days.
He rode the curving path through leafless woods, and the river below was green and wide. The woods opened ahead onto a stump-studded clearing, in which the fort stood massive on its earthworks, log and stone. Originally it had been a French fort, now garrisoned by soldiers of the United States, who had rebuilt it from ruins. From its promontory on the north bank of the Ohio, one commanded a view of some thirty miles of the river, from the mouth of the Tennessee almost down to the Mississippi. It was almost like seeing as an eagle sees. There was a spirit in the place that was much older than the age of the fort. Drouillard knew this would have been a lookout place of the Ancients, those who had built the great, silent hill-mounds everywhere along these rivers, then had died or gone away before whitemen came.
But of course the eagle could look down with scorn even at this high, proud place, and see farther horizons.
Out of the woods now, he looked down to see if the big mystery boat was moored below the bluff, and it was.
He had seen it yesterday while hunting opposite the mouth of the Cumberland, had stood watching it pass below with four soldiers rowing and one on the tiller and another on the bow. It was a long, black-hulled galley keelboat with a sail mast forward and a cabin in the stern. This was not quite a real ship, he thought, such as the seagoing ships he had seen down at New Orleans, but it was much more like a ship than the usual flatboats and barges that brought whitemen and their goods down the Ohio to the Mississippi. Days before he had seen it, he heard the rumors and the mysteries about it. People all down the Ohio were talking about the coming of this boat. Rumors moved much faster than boats, and made mysteries that had to be figured out.
A rumor said this boat had been sent by the President of the United States, and that its commander was a friend of President Jefferson. Another rumor said that President Jefferson was going to take control of the Mississippi country from the Spaniards. Another rumor, or maybe a part of the same one, was that the américains coming on this boat intended to go all the way west to the ocean on the far side, and make a trading route all the way to the farthest place, called China.
To a solitary woodsman like Drouillard, such rumors were merely curiosities, and he could see no way they would be important to him, any more than the rumors three years ago when all the whitemen had expected strange happenings just because their calendar turned to 1800 and a new century. Whitemen presumed that their ways of counting time had power.
But there were two things about these rumors that made his instincts tingle, like the sound of a growl in the underbrush:
One of the soldier officers on this boat was said to be called Clark, a war name from his childhood memory: memories of shooting, houses burning, women dragging their children into the woods to hide from the Town-Burner soldiers whose leader was the dreaded Clark. The name was still a curse in the house of Drouillard's uncle, Louis Lorimier, for Clark had destroyed Lorimier's great trading post in Ohio and ruined him. Was this officer the same Clark, now coming again?