Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Seventy-Three

Previously: War Secretary Stanton holds the Lincolns and janitor Gabby Zook captive under guard in the White House basement.Private Adam Christy takes guard duties. Alethia is plucked from prison to play Mary Lincoln. Tad knows she’s not his mother but thinks she’s part of the plot to save his father.
Alethia closed the door and walked to her room. Her eyes shut, she enjoyed the cool breeze. The cottage in the Maryland foothills was charming and romantic. Before going in, she looked into Duff’s bedroom and found him sitting on the edge of the bed, drinking from a flask.
“Father? Are you all right?”
“Molly, come in. Sit next to me.” He turned around, and his face was wet with tears.
“You look troubled.”
“Demons.” Duff sipped his whiskey. “Old demons. I’ve kept secrets from you, Molly.” He paused. “No, I’ve kept secrets from Alethia. Molly knows everything she needs to know, but I want Alethia to know everything.”
“Don’t be afraid to tell me.” Her heart pounded so hard she feared she would faint.
“I wasn’t just captured at the first Manassas,” he said. “The Confederates caught me and a bunch of pals as we were deserting.”
“You still spent time in prison,” she offered.
“Belle Isle Prison at Richmond. The worst time of my life. Rotten food, rotting flesh. The hunger.” He looked at her. “I told you I was a big boy. I was always hungry. I’m still hungry.”
“There’s no shame in that. No one knows you were running away. Everyone was running away. Most of them were running back to the army, and some didn’t know where they were running—just running. They can’t prove anything. You got more punishment than you deserved.”
“No,” he whispered. “I deserved even more. Back in Michigan everyone thought I had courage to match my size. Many men challenged me to fight so they could brag they whupped the biggest man in the county. I ran away. I always ran away. I always was a coward. That’s what they called me. Big Yeller. When the war broke out, my friends told me if I wanted to shake that Big Yeller name I’d better join.”
“Courage isn’t beating men. Courage is admitting you can’t handle things. You’re smart, cautious, and brave.”
“After a while in prison, when a cell mate would die, I wouldn’t tell the guards for a few days. They never came in, just pushed the plates through the slot. I didn’t tell so I could eat the dead man’s food.”
“This is war.” Her eyes fluttered. “You do what you have to do to survive.”
“Soon,” he continued, with his head down, “I think they caught on to what I was doing. So they started putting healthier men in with me. I suffocated them in the middle of the night so I could get their food.”
“Oh.” Alethia could not help but be shocked. Only a monster could do that, but Duff was not a monster. War made monsters; prisons made monsters; a normal life made him normal again.
“Next they put a man as big as me in the cell. We figured a way to get out.”
“Did he know what you had done?”
“No. But the men in the cell block knew. When we all broke out and made it back to the Union lines, the others told. My last cell mate spit in my face when he found out. They court-martialed me and sent me to Old Capitol to be hanged. At least the food was good. Stanton found me, said I looked like Mr. Lincoln, and gave me a chance to escape hanging.” His eyes narrowed with intensity. “I hate him.” He looked at Alethia. “You hate me now, don’t you?”
“Do you want me to hate you?”
“Good,” she replied. “I love you too much to hate you.”

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