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The True Account

A Novel of the Lewis & Clark & Kinneson Expeditions

by Howard Frank Mosher

Paperback, 337 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $13 |


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The True Account
A Novel of the Lewis & Clark & Kinneson Expeditions
Howard Frank Mosher

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Book Summary

Determined to beat Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in a race to the Pacific Ocean, Vermont schoolmaster, inventor, playwright, and explorer True Teague Kinneson and his nephew Ticonderoga head west, eincountering Daniel Boone and his lusty spinster daughter, an army of Spaniards and Anasazi, Sacajawea's Shoshone relatives, and other unusual adventures along the way. Reprint.

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Excerpt: The True Account

The True Account

A Novel of the Lewis & Clark & Kinneson Expeditions

Mariner Books

Copyright © 2004 Howard Frank Mosher
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0618431233


We had set a very close watch over my uncle, Private True Teague Kinneson,
since his triumphal return from the Pacific and the Columbia River. I say "we,"
but in fact, keeping track of the comings and goings of the renowned
expeditionary, schoolmaster, inventor, and playwright had, since my early
boyhood, devolved mainly to me. My father had his newspaper to print, the
Kingdom County Monitor, in which he kept track of the events in our remote
little Vermont village. My mother kept track of our family farm, a job that
required her entire attention from before dawn until after dark each day. And
ours being a very small, if very affectionate, family, this left me to keep track
of my uncle. Who, as my father often said, clapping the heels of his hands to
his temples and pressing as hard as he was able, as if to keep his brain from
exploding, bore much watching.
From the time I was six or seven I was the private"s constant
companion, pupil, fishing partner, apprentice, and confidant, not to mention
his co-expeditionary. Nor is it surprising that we were inseparable, when one
stops to think that it was he who christened me Ticonderoga — Ti for short —
after the principal matter of his play and the signal event of his life — the fall
of the fortress of that name on the narrows of Lake Champlain to Ethan Allen
and a handful of Vermont woodsmen and farmers in 1775.
Unfortunately, it was that same milestone in the history of our
Republic that resulted in Private True Teague Kinneson"s own fall and
subsequent affliction — or, as my kindhearted mother called his strange
disorder of the imagination, his "little ways and stays." As he was drinking
rum flip with Ethan and celebrating their victory by singing a ballad, most of
which has now been lost to posterity but whose refrain was "Tooleree,
toolera, tooleroo," my uncle lost his footing and struck his head so sharp a
blow on the gate of the fort that he never, I am grieved to report, quite
regained his correct wits.

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
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.<