THE WABASH RIVER, June 1827
A MIST ROSE FROM THE EARTH IN THE EARLY MORNING DAWN, giving the forest a surreal and unearthly appearance, a different world in a different time, a dream world of fairies, goblins, and dragons. As Clayton rode in this dream world, the mist swirled around him, at times coming up to his two horses’ withers. He was nearing the Wabash River.
He had been traveling hard for several weeks and had moved out of the Appalachia, from the Smoky Mountain range through the Clinch Mountains into the great Cumberland Plateau of Kentucky and across the Ohio River. Now the deep, rich smells of the Indiana summer filled his nostrils.
As his horse stepped lightly through the woods in diffused light, rays of sun played through breaks in the leaves, and nature showed off its skill with light and shadow, creating moments of melodrama for no one to see but a chance traveler. As the mist played through the canopy of trees, young Clayton Pinckney was lost in a dream world, enchanted and amused by various fantasies. He thought to himself that, in this setting, he should expect the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table to break through the trees and advance toward him. Or, a sorcerer should appear, playing tricks on his eyes with the haze, crooking a finger to beckon him to follow through the magical terrain to a hidden castle.
Soon the mist burned off, and the sun warmed the earth. The cottonwoods and oak were thick. Small patches of blue sky moved in and out of the green ceiling. It was quiet except for his horses’ soft plodding, the creak of his saddle, and an occasional blue jay or mockingbird.
He tried to picture the prairies of the northwest with tall grasses. How tall? Tall as a man? He tried to see himself riding swiftly along, witnessing a large herd of buffalo. He tried to picture the Mandan and wondered what adventures would befall him. What customs? Maybe they ate raw meat. What about scalping? He had heard they scalped people! Maybe they would burn him at the stake as an intruder. What if he wrote about cultures that were so strange and repulsive that the whites found his accounts abhorrent? What if his stories only created a further gulf of misunderstanding? No, remember what the chief said: Decide what you want and don’t waver. Don’t doubt. The universe will bend to you. He smiled.
Then the vista jarred him from his worries and daydreams.
There it was…the Wabash.
He dismounted. The sun was straight above. After he filled his canteens and watered his horses, he sat down on the grassy bank, filling his senses with the beauty of this country. He felt an unusual peace and entertained the thought of staying in this place forever. He could forget his quest. He could stop here, create a clearing and build a cabin, plant some corn, and live off what the land had to offer. This area had him hypnotized. Here, he would never have another care in the world. The land called to him to forget his quest.
No! he scolded himself and stood. I have work to do. I have to finish what I started. This is not just about me. No, never waver.
He looked up at the sky. The sun was getting hot and the humidity oppressive. He decided he needed to hunt.
He got a deer, a couple of squirrels and found plenty of other things. He made a fire and roasted the meat. When he was full from feasting on venison and some of the delicacies he had foraged: papaws, a yellowish edible, seed-filled fruit, butternuts, dewberries and some sassafras root he made into a tea, he felt content again and very pleased with himself; so far, the journey was going smoothly.
I have traveled this far so well, demonstrating skill and ability for living in the wild. Would Father be proud of me? he wondered. Then he chided himself again for being so preoccupied with needing his father’s approval. Or anyone’s approval, actually. Be your own man, Clayton, he thought.
He stood and stretched, drew a deep breath and took in the smell of the river, gazing at the Wabash from under a grove of sycamores, their ghostly, mottled branches motionless. The breathless summer air was filled with the heady smell of earth, honeysuckle, and trees. Trees. It was time to search for some to fell, good straight ones to make a raft for crossing the river. He had become proficient at crossing rivers. After navigating the wide Ohio, the Wabash looked routine.
He set about the task and worked until sunset, sweating freely as twilight refused to give up the heat from the day. Finally he sat down, looking at his stack of eight-foot logs piled on the banks of the river.
He tiredly decided to finish in the morning. The night was still hot and humid; he lay on his bedroll uncovered, listening to the frogs and crickets singing a soft symphony and fell into a deep sleep.
HE HAD A LIGHT BREAKFAST AND WENT TO WORK AGAIN, binding the logs together with rope and crafting a crude rudder. He pushed the new raft into the water. Packing his gear and balancing the load carefully, he strapped it down securely.
For a while, he studied the river. It looked as sleek as ice – calm, cool, and serene. He coaxed the horses into the water. The raft would carry the supplies and free the horses of any burden as they swam. He boarded and pushed off with a long stick.
The river flowed easily. He worked the crude rudder. The long stick no longer touched bottom. Even though he was slowly headed downstream, the raft was making headway for the other side. The horses were swimming alongside with slack reins. Everything seemed fine.
Suddenly, he saw currents moving fast, dead ahead, with wide eddies darting back and forth, weaving a treacherous tangle. They appeared from a river sleek as glass, sub-currents from below the surface. Where the eddies met and repelled, they left great dimples. He watched with alarm as twigs, dead leaves and branches floating on the surface were sucked into the water pits.
Clayton’s heart pounded wildly as he used his rudder as an oar, pumping it back and forth viciously with all his strength. The clumsy craft responded, plowing forward, upriver from the treacherous eddies. Then a sudden, strong current grabbed the craft with powerful unseen hands and drove it into a vortex of whirling water that appeared where calm water had been. Clayton spun helplessly as the raft crashed into the horses. They screamed, their eyes wide with terror. The raft bounced off them, whirled and rocked wildly. The raft tipped. Clayton threw his body to the high side, but it was too late. The raft rose like a wall, the powerful current pulled it down, and Clayton with all of his gear dumped into the river.
Foam blinded his eyes as he struggled. The river will bludgeon me to death with my own raft! Down with all his might he dove, struggling to escape the brutal weapon waiting for him on the surface. After just seconds that seemed like hours, he thought he was safe from the dangerous craft.
As he swam to the surface, his eyes searched the murky water. He saw light, but without warning, he was caught in another whirlpool concealed under the surface of the river, and he was plunged to the bottom. He nearly lost consciousness as he bashed against the riverbed. Precious air was hammered from his lungs. His senses could not determine up from down. His lungs told him he was out of air. He felt himself being sucked along. His leg scraped the bottom. The bottom! He now had a point of reference. With all of his might, he kicked the ground to impel himself upward. His lungs screamed for air and blinding terror took hold.
God! I’m going to die!
His muscles flexed and strained at the heavy bonds of the river. He fought the compelling impulse of his lungs to gasp. Clayton swam with all of his might to free himself from his smothering foe. Fighting for the surface with the horror of impending unconsciousness and its following death, he pulled and clawed at the water, trying to pierce the surface. But unseen hands dragged him down. He was captured in another eddy.
He fought its power and swam with all of his strength. What direction am I going? The river’s grip would not release him. A fog shrouded his mind and his swimming became random, useless flailing. Life-giving air was his only thought. Unconsciousness was blanketing him. His last thought, as all became black, was that the river had won.
A BLUE LIGHT FILLED HIS MIND, HIS BODY, AND THE RIVER, like an explosion. He heard a soft chorus singing; it was the most beautiful song he had ever heard. Over the voices was the sound of a single voice singing in a luscious soprano.
I am dead! he lamented. These are voices from Heaven, angels from God. This is the end – a glorious quest cut short before it even began.
But the single voice was so compassionate, benign, and gentle, he gave in. He no longer cared for his safety or his quest. He recognized the voice somehow. He calmly tried to decide if it was the same voice that came to him in the orchard or the Cherokee village. He could not be sure. Destiny. It had spoken of destiny.
This is my destiny? Death? No. It cannot be.
He was no longer aware of his body or the river, just the glorious voice. As he listened, it soothed him. It told him of the other voices, the supporting chorus. It showed him who they were, one by one. He could see them. He singled out a wolf, a pine, a mountain in Manitoba. A deer lifted its head from the meadow, responding to Clayton’s attention. It spoke to him in a language that he could understand as concepts, not words, a language that could only be heard in the mind.
One by one, he met flowers, grasses, trees, and animals, each having a distinct personage and character. Thousands and thousands of entities appeared. It was as if he was being introduced to them. Time was not seconds, minutes, years, or centuries. There was no time, just the thrill of awareness, them to him and he to them. They all spoke to him, and Clayton listened, enraptured.
Suddenly, the voices faded…
His head was above water. He gasped, desperately trying to pull the sweet, cool air into his hungry lungs and choked. He coughed and retched water. Life-giving air was his only thought as he drank it in convulsively.
I’m alive! The thought exploded. He bobbed up and down like a cork, still unable to see with water in his eyes. He felt panic again. He flung his arms, splashing at the water, trying to coordinate his oxygen-starved muscles to swim. His foot hit a shoal and he pushed toward shore. Struggling to pull himself onto the bank of the river, he crawled on all fours and collapsed, gasping.
He lay there for some time, his heart and mind trying to still itself from the terror he had just experienced. What was that? Whose voice was that? In the throes of near death, did I imagine it? And the other voices? It was as if they…as if they were aware of me? As if…I was meeting them?
He sat up and gazed at the beautiful river. It amazed him as it shimmered peacefully in the sun, the smooth, glistening water hiding its treacherous trap from anyone who would try to challenge it. It had almost won.
He thought of the Greek legend of the Sirens luring sailors to destruction upon the rocks by their sweet singing. Or maybe the singers had saved his life. Could they have been the voices of nature? Could they have saved him?
He shrugged. Voices! How can I know the truth of this? Tell me, Chief Tall Trees!
He stood up and looked around. There was no sign of the raft or the horses. He was on the other side of the Wabash with nothing. No gun, food, mounts, or gear. He searched the bank and traveled for miles up and down the river to salvage anything he could, but there was absolutely nothing. His crude map had washed away with his saddlebags. It did not indicate mileage, and the scale was distorted, but it was better than nothing.
What am I going to do?
He sat down on the ground, knees up to his chest. He held his head in his hands. There was no hope now. He had his life, but the river had taken everything else. Suddenly, he reached inside his shirt for his money belt. It was still secure. He reached to his hip. The knife was in its sheath. Money and a knife. That was good. He could figure out how to purchase new horses and gear. Otherwise, he would have to make it on foot all the way to St. Louis. That would take months.
He slumped again. He thought, I won’t get far with nothing but a knife, and no horse, no food, not even a clear idea of direction. It will take a miracle from God or…magic.
He shook his head. No, I don’t believe in magic. But the chief said never waver. Never doubt. Know what you want. The universe will bend to you.
Clayton sat on the bank, his head in his hands for about five minutes, his mind churning over the dangers that lay ahead. Then something caught his attention. He stood and strode over to the edge of the water. The object was floating back and forth, bumping against the shore.
It was Tecumseh’s medicine bundle.
HERE FOR AMAZON UK