Read Eagle's Cry: A Novel of the Louisiana Purchase Online

Authors: David Nevin

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

Eagle's Cry: A Novel of the Louisiana Purchase

For Luci
On the night of December 11, 1799, Gen. George Washington, retired now from the presidency of the United States for more than two years, sixty-seven years old and feeling older, saw a large, misty ring around the moon that hung over Mount Vernon.
“Coming on snow, General,” Billy Lee said. They were on the front lawn. The big white house that stood for so much in Washington’s life gleamed in the pale light. Billy was the general’s manservant, huge, black, devoted, crippled in body now and hung on the bottle as well, but he’d seen the general through the war and all that had followed. His speech was blurred by the loss of his teeth, providing another bond; Washington’s teeth were gone, his dentures painful, his speech necessarily careful. Which was all right—measured speech added to his gravity.
“Maybe not,” Washington said. Billy would be free with a lifetime income to support him when the general was gone. He was a good man and loyal, but you didn’t look to him for decisions.
In the morning the mercury stood at thirty-three, wind from the northeast wet and clammy, clouds hanging low.
“Don’t look good, General,” Billy said. They were in the stable, grooms saddling their mounts.
“You stay back, Billy—sit by the fire.”
“Nah, suh. You go, I go.”
“Well, I’ve never let a little weather stop me.”
“Yes, suh, but—”
“I know—I’m older now. But that doesn’t mean I’ll roll over and die when I see snow. Now that’s enough talk.”
“Yes, suh.”
They rode out of the barn. Temperature down, wind brisk, it
chill. He thought of the fire crackling in his study, quills sharpened and waiting on the gleaming desk. But he had rounds to make, fields and herds to examine, walls to check and foremen to query. That heifer in the far barn with the sore in her mouth, how was she doing? Hands expected to see the master as soldiers expected to see the general; you couldn’t sit in your tent all day and pretend to be a leader. Presently it began to snow.
“I done told you I smelled snow,” Billy said.
“That you did, Billy.”
The snow eased into steady rain. He drew his greatcoat collar closer. He didn’t want to see the day when rain could drive him from duty. But the balm he normally drew from the very sight of his land was lacking today. George Cabot’s letter had disturbed him deeply and he’d scarcely slept, lying there listening to Martha’s gentle breathing with awful visions of his country in trouble flashing in his mind. They were still there.
Listen to George up in Boston and it seemed the nation the general had nurtured was sinking in a tide of venom. Federalists attacking Democrats, Democrats snarling at Federalists. Damn all political parties anyway, shattering the American ideal! Of course, George did see things in extremes, but here he was talking of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as handmaidens of the devil. The general knew that no more decent man than Jimmy Madison had ever walked, let alone one smarter, but George saw all Democrats as Beelzebub’s minions. The blind conviction of his hatred told the story. Still, it wasn’t just Federalists—Democrats were haters too.
He sighed, slouching in his saddle. The thing was—but then he saw a sagging fence. Better have Henderson get those posts reset immediately. He swung down and lifted the post straight, kicking dirt in around it. When he remounted
he felt rather surprisingly winded. He was older, granted, but worse, he
old; the world sweeping by him, the country troubled. But what had kept him awake much of the night was George’s echo of a call that came more and more often: Come back, take command again, hold us together again lest we fly into fragments. But that was ridiculous, his time was past; John Adams was president now. Rescue us, show us the way, make us do right—they sounded like children acting up while the schoolmaster was out back relieving himself!
At the far barn Norris had set a fire, and Washington warmed his hands before turning to the heifer. She was standing, a good sign; he forced open her jaw and ran an experienced finger along its lower side. Yes, the canker was definitely shrinking. She rolled her eyes and bawled when he let her go. More of the blue ointment, he told Norris; keep after it.
Riding on, rain slanting against his face, he mulled over the nation’s divisions. Hold us together, Cabot mewing like a pussycat.
“Why in the devil does everyone look to me?” He glared at Billy. “Answer me that!”
Billy had a chaw tucked in his cheek. He spat a brown gout to clear for speech. “Why, General,” he said, “’cause you knows what to do. Most folks don’t know diddledum, but you got your head fixed on right. Most … well, look at me, hungering after the rum when I know it tears me up. But you …”
Well, it had been a rhetorical question anyway. He turned his horse to the path. But Billy was right; he’d always known what to do. Holding them together—the army, the country, the people—been successful too, until the rise of opposing political parties divided Americans who once had been a single people. At the start we were all together, in war, in striking a new Constitution, in firming the nation’s place in the world.
His horse stumbled and he rose automatically in the stirrups. But once the new nation was on its feet, his own cabinet had split, young Alexander Hamilton, his favorite, really,
off like a greyhound toward a future he could see more clearly than anyone else. And his other favorite, little Jimmy Madison, turned suddenly rabid in support of Mr. Jefferson, a man with whom the general had known from the beginning he would never be close. Tom and Jimmy had dug in their heels over a radically different vision.
He hadn’t seen the split coming. They’d had problems and Alex had offered solutions. Tom and Jimmy saw dangers ahead, but Alex’s solutions were immediate and real. But, now, looking back, what if Tom and Jimmy had been right all along? Alex was a near genius in finance, handsome, elegant, loyal—Washington felt him a sort of son. But that didn’t mean he was always right. Sometimes ambition betrayed him, the hungers of a poor boy who has risen too fast, the arrogance of a mind that raced beyond others. But genius wasn’t all that mattered. Heart mattered too.
A sudden image of Jefferson popped into his mind, tall, elegant of manner, rusty hair graying, head thrown back in that characteristic way when a thought struck him, saying, “Above all, trust the honest heart of the common man.”
The honest heart
. Now that, George Washington well knew, was the plain truth.
Another memory … a column of his men, must have been in ‘seventy-nine or maybe ’eighty, in there somewhere, the war settling into a terrible grind, the British locked into New York and Boston and holding hard. It was near dusk and he’d called a small attack and come out to watch the column go by, lean, hungry-looking men with rifles in hand, near empty haversacks slung, battered hats drooping over stern faces, rags tied around shoes that rotted on their feet. Marching out to fight, knowing that some wouldn’t return, knowing that before the night was out they might be running in retreat before superior British numbers. The whole trick was to go in and hit hard, sting the enemy, throw him off balance, keep him on edge, and then slip away to fight him another day. It would be a long time before those men slept.
He’d stood and watched them pass, and as they went by they’d nodded. Nodded! “Evening, Ginral.” “Evening, sir.”
“How do, Ginral?” They would salute on the parade ground, but here it was one soldier to another, one citizen to another, men with honest hearts marching to war. Evening, Ginral.
His eyes blurred for a moment. He blinked rapidly. The rain slanted harder, occasionally flaking into snow; he should go back, he supposed. Yes, he was older now and intimations that he wouldn’t live indefinitely were coming with disconcerting frequency. But he wasn’t gone yet, and until then …
He knew why George Cabot’s importuning disturbed him—it stirred the old call of leadership. He’d always been a leader. Born poor but of solid family, he’d molded himself so. Leading his men into combat for the British back in the French and Indian War—he’d been just a boy then, God, he’d been green, he’d had so much to learn. But some of his strength was the capacity to learn while holding poise and equilibrium. He’d made mistakes and sometimes they’d cost lives, but he never was flummoxed, never let his distress show, and he learned. His power wasn’t in brilliant schemes nor seeing deeper than anyone else could see but rather in the capacity to grasp the whole, make the parts work, calm passions, hold control when things wanted to go out of control.
But now? Martha said sixty-seven wasn’t old, but age is measured in more than years. It had been a long road …
He was home well before dinner at three, half hour at least.
“George!” Martha cried. “Didn’t you take shelter? Look at you—you’re all wet.”
He frowned; he wasn’t really wet.
“Flakes of snow in your hair! Oh, George! Your inner coat is damp too. Go and change; get something dry—”
All this maternal fussing! He couldn’t help the iron in his voice, “That will do, madam.” He was ready for dinner now. Actually he did feel a bit of a chill, but it was a little late now to mention the tickle in his chest. He took a long sip of claret and felt the act of swallowing, not a good sign.
After dinner, ignoring a half-dozen new letters, he read
the papers aloud and soon had Martha laughing over his comments. As concession to that tickle in his chest he went to bed early and in the morning decided not to go out. There was the new mail and swallowing his tea had been, yes, difficult. Why not cosset himself? After all, he wasn’t as young …
Letters full of fear and foreboding from Fisher Ames and Timothy Pickering and Oliver Wolcott and one from Colonel Hamilton picking poor John Adams apart. John was having a troubled presidency, attacked by his own party as well as by Democrats and taking it hard. And why shouldn’t he? The general himself took criticism like a bee-stung horse, and what was wrong with that? A man who’d molded himself into a leader wasn’t likely to sit around with a smile as folks savaged him. And the Democratic papers had made brutal personal attacks in his last years in office, and if he could lay hands on a few of the worst editors he’d give them a taste of the horsewhip … except that that would be beneath his dignity.
When Cullie brought tea he asked her to add a little honey to ease his throat and say nothing to Mrs. Washington. A dull ache lay at the center of his chest. He sat by his window gazing over his grounds where three inches of snow had fallen overnight. He loved this place. As he studied it, he felt decision forming: those trees yonder did, after all, mar the view and should be cut. It was always his way, study as long as needed, then unshakeable decision and prompt action. He’d walk out later and mark the trees. Thus he had run army and country.
The letters echoed Cabot’s call—come back, come back. It was a cry of anguish, but it was the wrong prescription. There was no going back, there never was.
On the other hand, that didn’t mean there was nothing he could do. A leader must find his own way to lead. The problem was our divisions, the fear we would break apart or come to civil war. He shut his eyes, listening to the fire crackle, and it came to him that this new division of the parties really was but a metaphor for a struggle for the nation’s
soul. Who are we? What kind of country do we want? Maybe that query had been in the wings from the beginning and we’d been too busy winning independence and getting onto our feet to notice. Maybe it was maturity that brought it before us, lingering immaturity that made dealing with it so difficult.
But what could he
A leader must rise above problems, see deeper and understand more than others. Parties seduced men into dogmatism—your way comes to seem the right way and then the only way and then the sanctified way, and opposition becomes first aberration, then evil, then treason. How to lift his people above that? He must find the kernel of truth, grasp it whole, turn it like a gem to the light, and make his people see as broadly as did he. He could do that—call for a big public dinner, let people know he had something to say. When he had everyone’s attention, give them a talk or even a metaphorical toast that would guide quarreling men back to sanity.
But what would he actually say? He must be very careful, must think it all through as he once had done in war, for he knew he would get just one chance and then the force of his words would be gone. Think it through, ruminate across the years, see what they had wrought … and where they’d failed. He sighed, adjusted the chair’s bolster at his neck, and let his mind drift back to the war where it all had begun. He’d been an ignorant Virginia farmer—he could see that now—and had learned about the varied country and its immensely varied people with not a few pratfalls. But his men stayed with him, they taught him, and he learned, and they went to war together … .
He’d never found decision difficult, but now with thousands of men awaiting his orders and a skilled army prepared to destroy him, he faced overwhelming detail. Everything—weather, food supplies, clothing and blankets, shoes, wagon stock and the animals to draw them, stocks of powder and ball, and when he could expect replenishment, how many ill or wounded and hence how many effectives, how to force feuding generals to work together, how to meld Virginia and
Massachusetts troops into units, scout reports on terrain and the enemy …

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