Authors: Jonathan F. Putnam
Tags: #FIC022060 Fiction / Mystery & Detective / Historical
Jonathan F. Putnam
This is a work of fiction. All of the names, characters, organizations, places and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to real or actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Jonathan F. Putnam
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crooked Lane Books, an imprint of The Quick Brown Fox & Company LLC.
Crooked Lane Books and its logo are trademarks of The Quick Brown Fox & Company LLC.
Library of Congress Catalog-in-Publication data available upon request.
ISBN (hardcover): 978-1-62953-777-1
ISBN (paperback): 978-1-62953-820-4
ISBN (ePub): 978-1-62953-821-1
ISBN (Kindle): 978-1-62953-822-8
ISBN (ePDF): 978-1-62953-823-5
Cover design by Louis Malcangi
Crooked Lane Books
34 West 27
New York, NY 10001
First Edition: August 2016
To Christin, my divine muse
y general store still bore the name A. Y. Ellis & Co., though Ellis had departed long ago. It was one of a dozen stores that stood around the perimeter of Springfield’s central square and served its two thousand inhabitants. We sold dry goods, patent medicines, bedclothes, groceries, books—everything the village needed.
Springfield was thick with lawyers, frequent customers of our more expensive items. The senior member of the local bar was Stephen Logan, a fellow son of Kentucky who had moved to Illinois a decade earlier and built a thriving law practice around the many real estate transactions in the growing village. Nearly forty years of age now, he had magnificent whiskers and an aquiline nose.
Logan bustled into the store one morning in March 1837 and barked out a question that proved to be life changing.
“Aware of any unused beds in town, Speed?”
“Has Mrs. Logan thrown you out again?” I returned.
“Would that I were so lucky,” Logan said with a harsh laugh and a shake of his head. “I’m sponsoring a young lawyer who’s moving here from New Salem. Not so young a fellow, in point of fact, but new to the bar, and he’s nowhere to sleep when he arrives. You seem to keep a close company with the other unmarried men about town. I thought you might have some idea.”
I looked up from the stack of pantaloons I had been counting behind the counter. “There may be an empty berth in my bed just now,” I replied cautiously. Since my own arrival in Springfield almost three years earlier, I had lived in the narrow second-floor room perched atop the Ellis store proper. The room contained space for little besides two double beds, each barely the width of side-by-side pillows, and a decrepit dressing table. Hurst and Herndon shared one of the beds. I slept in the other with what had been a rotating rogues’ gallery of disreputables: most recently, a weasel-faced man from Georgia named Simpson who talked to his mother in his sleep and had decamped for the Michigan Territory the week prior. None of us had been sorry to see him go.
“Is the berth available to my man or not?” asked Logan impatiently.
“You say the fellow’s a lawyer?” I was hoping, upon Simpson’s opportune departure, to exercise some discretion when picking his successor.
“He’s tried a few trades,” Logan replied. “Now he’s trying the law, though his legal career’s yet to be written. He has managed to last two terms in the legislature. I’ll bring him by and see if you two can’t get along well enough to share a bed at night.”
Several weeks later, Logan returned as promised with his acquaintance. I stared at the newcomer as he ducked to enter the storeroom. He was several years my senior, very tall, and very thin, indeed close enough to the point of emaciation that I would have kept him away from my mother, were she nearby, lest she swoon from maternal concern. He had wide-set gray eyes, deep brows, a strong nose, and a lantern jaw. He wore his hair long, curling over his ears and parted rather severely at the high peak of his forehead. He was dressed in the black frockcoat, shiny vest, and thin bow tie of his new profession.
“Joshua Speed, Abraham Lincoln,” said Logan, introducing us.
Lincoln put down two small saddlebags and gripped my hand.
“How are you?” he said cordially. “As I was telling Logan, I am in need of bedding but not a bed, as I’ve recently contracted with a carpenter to have made a single-frame one.” His voice was reedy and higher pitched than one would have expected to emerge from so large a being.
“What do you need, then?” I asked, feeling relieved. The stranger’s size, if nothing else, marked him as a poor candidate for a bedmate.
“A mattress, blankets, sheets, coverlid, and the hardest, cheapest pillow you’ve got,” Lincoln replied.
I did the figures quickly in my head. “For a good friend of Logan’s, I can let you have the lot for seventeen dollars.” As I saw his face start to fall, I hastened to add, “You’ll not find a better price anywhere on the square. I’m sure of it.”
“It is perhaps cheap enough,” said Lincoln, “but small as it is, I’m unable to pay it. If you’ll credit me until Christmas, I’ll pay you then if I do well. But if I fail in this, I do not know that I can ever pay you.”
As I looked up at him, I realized I had never seen a sadder face.
“See here, Lincoln,” Logan interjected, “I told you you were better off sharing a bed. And this fellow Speed is not your usual frontier shopkeeper. He’s a regular gentleman to the manor born. On his father’s side he’s descended from the sixteenth-century English historian of renown, John Speed. And his great-grandfather on his mother’s side was Dr. Thomas Walker, the tutor of young Thomas Jefferson.”
“I’m quite sure he has some illustrious forebears,” Lincoln said to Logan. “Most men these days do. Or claim to, at least.” He gave me a toothy grin. “But you’ll pardon me if I’m interested at the moment in more practical matters.”
“Which bothers you more, the tuneless playing of a violin or the butchery of a mouth organ?”
I smiled and said, “I can stand either, I suppose, if played with a pure heart.”
“And do you thrash about greatly in your sleep?”
“My bedmates have aired many grievances about me but never that one.”
“Only cigars, and then only after a few draughts.” As he nodded, I added, “And what are your shortcomings?”
Lincoln laughed and shook his head. “There are many, as you’ll discover for yourself soon enough. You can hardly expect me to admit to them at the outset. Where’s this bed of yours?”
I pointed to a pair of narrow winding stairs leading from the far corner of the store. Without another word, Lincoln grabbed his saddlebags and ascended, the wooden steps squeaking loudly in protest. I asked Logan, “You said he was new to the bar. How long has he been practicing law?”
Logan pulled out a gleaming gold pocket watch and gave it a few winds. “About thirty minutes,” he said. “We’ve come from the courthouse directly. Judge Thomas swore him in this very morning.”
The ceiling above us creaked. Lincoln was pacing back and forth, as if measuring out the room. Then the footsteps sounded on the staircase again, and the long, ungainly figure gradually reappeared. The saddlebags were nowhere in sight, and his face was obscured by a broad grin.
“Well, Speed,” Lincoln said. “I am moved.”
hat evening, Lincoln and I sprawled in front of the great stone fireplace in the back room of the store. I set a good-sized blaze to warm us from the April chill and swiped two bottles of mash from underneath my counter. I offered one to my new room-mate but he declined. The fire roared and hissed and spit.
“Logan said you come from New Salem,” I said after I’d taken a few pulls from my bottle. The town was a commercial village on a high bluff above the swirling waters of the Sangamon River, about twenty miles downstream from Springfield itself. “What landed you there?”
“The current, as much as anything,” said Lincoln. He was lying on his back, his hands interlocked behind his head. “I was a piece of floating driftwood after I reached majority and left my father’s house. I was piloting a flatboat with some fellows back in ’31, bound for New Orleans with bacon and corn and such, when we got snagged on the milldam at New Salem. We caused such a commotion and it took so long for us to float loose that by the time we left, I felt like I knew half the town. A man named Offutt told me that once I completed the trip down the Mississippi I should return and manage his store for him.”
“So you did?”
Lincoln raised himself up on his elbows and laughed. “I returned all right,” he said. “Only problem was, there was no store. Offutt was well-meaning, but he was a windy, brain-rattling man when it came down to it. Eventually he did manage to open a store, for a few months, but just as quickly it petered out.”
Lincoln watched the playing flames before continuing. “After that, I tried pretty much anything I could to stay clothed and fed. I had a group of fellows there in New Salem who’d treated with me with much generosity, and I desired to remain in their company. I was a storekeeper again and failed at it again. I was an indifferent postmaster. I surveyed land—that was enjoyable enough, except for the brambles. At least it was, until my surveying instruments got seized by the sheriff for failure to pay my overdue notes on the store that’d gone out of business.” He chuckled ruefully.
“You must have done something right,” I said, “to have been elected twice to the state legislature.”
“As I said, I have a lot of friends in New Salem.” The modesty of his smile seemed genuine. “But a man can hardly live on the legislative salary warrant alone. Besides, we’re in session only a couple of months of each two-year term.”
“So now you’ve hit upon the law,” I said. It had once been my chosen profession too.
“So now I’ve read law,” he said, nodding. “
, front to back. Twice. I studied with no one but the mosquitoes.”
“There’s no prospect of a Mrs. Lincoln as of yet?” I asked. I myself was merely twenty-two years of age, but I guessed Lincoln to be five or six years my senior, getting on in life to remain a bachelor, moving to a new town, and seeking a single accommodation.
Lincoln laughed so hard he was sent into a coughing fit. “Don’t beat around the bush, Speed,” he shouted when he regained his breath. “Please, do tell me what’s truly on your mind.”
“My experience in sharing a bed, and a narrow one at that, every night with another man is that it’s impossible not to learn of his affairs,” I replied seriously. “So you can either pretend and ignore the obvious or acknowledge it straight away.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Lincoln returned, turning serious himself. “I remain unmarried. To my profound sorrow.”
His voice trailed off, but I sensed he was gathering his words and so I kept my tongue silent. At length he continued, “I’d formed an understanding with a young woman in New Salem. Two years ago. She was a handsome girl. But . . . we had to delay matters while she waited to inform a former beau of hers who’d gone missing. And then, just when it seemed we would move forward to a promised land of contentment . . .” He went mute, and this time he did not continue.
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.
“Brain fever,” he murmured.
We sat in silence and watched the crackling hearth. The yellow-orange light of the fire cast Lincoln’s tensed face in sharp relief. I regretted having touched so raw a nerve when I was just getting to know the man.
“I’m afraid we somehow detoured down a maudlin road,” said Lincoln after a minute, shaking his head back and forth to rouse himself. “Let’s turn back. Have you heard the one about the Baptist preacher from Indiana?”
I hadn’t, I said, gesturing for him to relate it and glad for the change of subject.
Lincoln clambered to his feet and began pacing about the room, as if addressing some unseen jury. His posture was a little stooped in the shoulders. “So this preacher, he begins his sermon by telling his parishioners”—here Lincoln adopted a voice of self-important pomposity—“‘I am the Christ, whom I shall represent today.’ Well, he launches into his sermon, and it’s a barn-burner. All fire and brimstone.
“Now at one point, a lizard darts out from the shadows and runs right up the preacher’s leg. He doesn’t stop the sermon—he
merely loosens his pantaloons and kicks them off. But by then the lizard is up on his chest, into the pocket of his shirt, and so the preacher, still midsermon, unfastens his shirt collar and pulls his shirt away too. This rids him of the lizard finally, but the preacher is too consumed by his vigorous speechmaking to notice his state of undress. So he’s standing in front of his congregation, his naked, hairy stomach extending over his undershorts, as he comes to his thundering conclusion—‘and that is the will of the Lord.’”
Mirth now played at the corners of Lincoln’s mouth and around his eyes. He went on: “The congregation is stunned, speechless. Finally, one old lady in the front row rises up and shouts”—Lincoln took on her squeaking, scolding tone—“‘If you represent Christ, then I’m done with the Bible.’”
Lincoln slapped his own thigh and I roared with laughter. He threw himself down again on the plank floor in front of the glowing embers, his long legs splayed outward and a wide grin spread across his face.
“I’ve done nearly all the talking,” he said as our merriment died away. “How about you? How did a gentleman like Joshua Speed, with all his illustrious forebears, end up out here on the frontier?”
To my everlasting good fortune, a few days before my seventeenth birthday my lungs were afflicted by terrible disease. I was taken by our private carriage to Farmington, my family’s estate, where Dr. Mathews bled me for several days running. But when the disease did not relent, the doctor told my resigned parents—who had already lost three children to illness—that it was hopeless. My father ordered our house slaves to prepare a suitable gravesite.
For reasons no earthly soul could hope to comprehend, the doctor proved wrong. I lived. And it was during the long months
I spent convalescing in my childhood bedroom, at first gasping mightily for each breath and then, much later, leaving my bed and learning how to walk again, that I started working out a design for my life.
As the second son and sixth surviving child of the great Judge John Speed of Louisville, my destiny was in my blood. I would not inherit any part of Farmington, where my father and our sixty slaves raised hemp and corn from a land of such splendid virgin fertility that the same fields could be planted, without interruption, year after year.
Accordingly, once the old schoolmaster Smith declared in my fourteenth year that I had learned as much as he and his birch rod had to teach, my father directed me to follow the path worn by my older brother, James, to St. Joseph’s College in Bardstown, Kentucky. The two years I spent there under the unimaginative hand of Bishop Reynolds seemed to confirm my fitness for my charted future: a clerkship with a local scrivener and then reading law myself one day. Had the disease not disrupted my studies, I have no doubt the law would have remained my calling, and my millstone.
As it was, as I regained my strength at Farmington, I began to realize I was not actually bound to a future where drafting a fine pleading in chancery by candlelight was the highest possible achievement. One day, my brother James came to visit and found me out of bed and gazing through the window.
“You almost ready to return to Reynolds’s dungeon?” James asked with a good-natured shout as he entered my bedroom. “You know how cross the Bishop gets when his boys tarry in their studies.” James was nineteen years of age at the time, with a great mop of sandy hair and a perpetual grin.
future had never been in doubt.
“I’ve been thinking,” I said. “Perhaps I won’t return to Bardstown—not right away, at least. I think the merchant’s life suits me better.”
“What could possibly be stimulating about that?” asked James with genuine wonder.
“Tell me, what have you done in the past week that held your interest?”
“Old Jenkins has let me organize the papers for an ejectment action all by myself,” my brother began excitedly. “An elderly miller has lost his lease, but he’s refusing to leave, as he must. And, let’s see, I attend daily a class that’s reading the whole of Chitty’s
Work on Pleading
I stared out the window again. Acres of sage-green hemp stalks swayed in the afternoon breeze. I could make out in the distance the moss-covered rock enclosure marking the fountainhead of a small, clear stream. I had spent many afternoons in my youth scrambling down and up the stream’s steep banks, amid the aromatic mint and tender, pungent cress. But I realized I had never explored where the stream led when it left our land.
Early one morning the following month, finally freed from my sickroom, I walked along the stream’s banks and found it flowed into the mighty Ohio River and from there westward into our bountiful Nation. I broke the news to my father that instead of returning to St. Joseph’s, I had secured a clerkship in the large wholesale store of William H. Pope in central Louisville. I learned the business from Pope, finding more pleasure in the hurly-burly of commerce than I ever could have hoped to secure from even the most elegantly crafted pleading.
After several years with Pope, I seized the idea to follow the stream still further west. The Red Man was receding, making increasing room for the inevitable spread of white civilization and enterprise. With the defeat of Black Hawk in the war of 1833, a wide new swath of central Illinois—long the preferred destination of impatient, adventurous young men from Kentucky—suddenly became habitable. Late one evening at a large family gathering at Farmington, an obscure second uncle mentioned that my cousin James Bell was in need of a junior partner for his mercantile business in Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois.
Thus it was that on an auspiciously warm day in September 1834, I climbed aboard my loyal horse, Hickory, to set off for Springfield. Slung over the horse’s back were several saddlebags my mother had stuffed full of fine clothes, though I doubted these would be of much use on the frontier. I was just shy of twenty years of age and six feet of height, with long, curly black locks resting on my shoulders. As she gave me a parting kiss on the cheek, my older sister Lucy teased me that I looked like the poet Byron, heading off to exile.
My younger sister and confidante Martha, at fourteen as gangly as a newborn colt, loped alongside as we trotted toward the main road. “Why must you leave, Joshua?” she called up at me.
“There’s a whole continent to discover,” I called back.
“Take me with you, won’t you?”
Martha threw up her hands toward me, but I merely shook my head and laughed. “You can come visit,” I said, “once I’ve found whatever there is to find.” With that, I spurred Hickory on and we left Farmington behind.
Springfield stood on the edge of a vast prairie whose wild grasses rose as high as the late summer wheat in Kentucky. As I rode through the prairie, the grass waved back and forth in the breeze like the billows of the ocean while the shadows of fleeting overhead clouds raced ahead of us. In the distance, a prairie fire burned, and the ribbons of fire along the horizon made it appear as if the clouds themselves were aflame.
My first years in Springfield confirmed the wisdom of my momentous decision to follow that little stream away from my birthplace. My cousin Bell soon tired of the day-to-day affairs of the store and became an absentee owner, and I reveled in the autonomy produced by his long absences.
Better still, Springfield brimmed with unmarried young men, and my nights never lacked for company. There was Billy Herndon, who’d grown up in Springfield and, after a brief and unsuccessful term at Illinois College, had returned to work as a part-time clerk for me at my store; ambitious Matheny, the son
of the court clerk and from age fifteen the deputy clerk himself; young, pale Hay, hoping to latch on to an attorney as an office boy for hire; stolid Hurst, a clerk in a rival dry goods store; and many other choice spirits too. It was a sort of social club without organization. We spent our evenings milling about the storeroom fireplace or dangling from the rafters of the stables behind the Globe Tavern, bottles in hand and vying to top one another with callow good humor. Lincoln, I assured him, would fit in famously.
Despite my boldness in questioning him, I withheld from Lincoln that night one important aspect of my biography. She’d sworn me to silence. Besides, the chapter had so recently closed that I was unwilling yet to reopen it to examination.