Omnibus from the 1860s
Previously in the novel: War Secretary Edwin Stanton holds President and Mrs. Lincoln captive under guard in basement of the White House. Janitor Gabby Zook by accident must stay in the basement too. Guard Adam Christy reports on his condition each evening to his sister Cordie and fellow hospital volunteer Jessie Home.
“Miss Zook, Miss Home,” Adam said, straightening his shoulders as a grin covered his face. “I thought you had fallen into a bit of trouble, you were so late.”
“Don’t worry, me laddie,” Jessie said. “I daresay I can defend meself and me friend better than ye could.”
“Maybe so.” He ducked his head and ran his fingers through his red hair. Looking up, Adam smiled again. “Did you have a good day at the hospital?”
“How is Gabby? Is he eating well?” Cordie chose to ignore his pleasantries.
“He’s fine, Miss Zook,” Adam replied. A cloud crossed his face. “Oh. There’s one thing.”
“Oh my Lord,” Cordie whispered, putting her hand to her ample bosom.
“He’s all right,” he said, trying to reassure her. “His quilt got—cut up. He needs a new one.”
“Cut up?” Jessie interjected. “Merciful heavens, what happened?”
“Someone cut it.” Adam breathed in deeply, and then knitted his brow. “He—they thought something might be in it.”
“There are only socks in it,” Jessie said.
“Who could be so mean?” Cordie shook her head, unable to understand what was going on, why her brother was in the Executive Mansion in the first place, and now a perfectly good Gabby quilt ripped to shreds.
“Mr. Gabby would like another,” Adam said.
“Of course,” Cordie replied. “I don’t want him to catch a chill, not with winter coming.”
“Private Christy,” Jessie said, “ye never answered the question. Who ripped the quilt?”
“I can’t tell.” His eyes pleaded with her. “Please don’t ask anymore. We all could get into big trouble.”
“The saints forbid ordinary people be privy to the goin’s on in the White House,” she said.
“Please don’t be mad at me,” Adam said, impulsively taking a step toward Jessie, who stood her ground. “It’s not my fault. I didn’t rip the quilt. I—I just can’t tell who did. I agree with you. It was a mean thing for him—them—to do. But I can’t do anything about it.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Cordie patted his hand. “It’s done and can’t be undone. A Gabby quilt is easy enough to make. I’ll start a new one tonight.”
“Thank you, Miss Zook.” He smiled at her and then glanced shyly at Jessie. “Do you forgive me, Miss Home?”
“Let me see, ye upset us dreadfully,” she said slowly, a twinkle in her eyes.
“Don’t tease the boy, Jessie,” Cordie said, watching the agony in Adam’s face. “I can’t stand to see a young man as unhappy as he is.” She smiled to herself over the skills Jessie used around men, skills she herself did not know how to use, nor did she possess the looks to make them effective. Cordie was too old to be jealous, so she just enjoyed watching men swoon at Jessie’s feet.
“I’ll tell ye true, laddie, if ye want to atone, ye may accompany us to our boardinghouses,” Jessie said. “’Tis much too late for respectable ladies to walk the streets alone.”
“Yes.” Adam vigorously nodded. “I’ll pay for omnibus fare, for all three of us.”
“Faith, I didn’t know the army paid so well,” she said.
“Oh, it doesn’t.” He smiled. “But it would be well worth it.” Adam hailed one of the lumbering omnibuses pulled by two large, bored horses and proudly paid the fares, stepping aside to allow the women to pass him and select seats.
“You can have the window seat, me dear,” Jessie said to Cordie, who knew very well her young companion was more interested in sitting next to the private than allowing her to have the view of the dark streets of Washington. After Adam settled into the seat next to her, Jessie leaned into him. “So, from Ohio, ye are.”
“Yes, Miss Home.”
“Bein’ from Scotland, I know nothin’ about Ohio. I crave to learn, though.”
Mrs. Frederick Lander
Previously in the novel: War Secretary Edwin Stanton held President and Mrs. Lincoln captive under guard in basement of the White House. Duff and Alethia find pretending to be the Lincolns difficult, especially with Tad coming down sick. Stanton interrupts their dinner to make sure Duff is not eating too much. Alethia finds herself romantically attracted to Duff.
“Good night, Father.” Alethia tried to hide her disappointment that Duff did not offer to share his bed with her. As she went to her room, she decided it was for the best. They should not become intimate in the middle of their mission. She wiped a small tear from her cheek and thought Duff a very wise and wonderful man. Instead of undressing, Alethia quietly listened to Duff as he removed his shoes, slacks, and shirt. She clutched her bosom as she thought of him putting on his nightshirt and slipping into bed. Shaking her head, Alethia chastised herself for her silly thoughts. A knock at Lincoln’s door caused her to jump.
“Come in, Mr. Hay,” Duff said.
“I wouldn’t bother you so late, Mr. President,” Hay said, “but I heard something tonight that I thought you needed to know immediately.”
Alethia wrinkled her brow and went to the door to eavesdrop more efficiently.
“I was at a party…”
“Where was it?” Duff asked.
“At the home of Colonel Frederick W. Lander,” Hay replied. “You know him. The civil engineer.”
“Of course. Last I heard he was wrestling with a bout of influenza.”
“He still is. He remained in his room the entire evening. The event was a fund-raiser hosted by his wife for the federal hospitals at Port Royal, South Carolina.”
“She was an actress or something like that, wasn’t she?” Duff said.
“An angel on stage,” Hay gushed. “When I first came to Washington I was quite smitten with her. Along with many others. She had many suitors.”
Not unlike Rose Greenhow, Alethia thought. Her mind often wandered to her childhood friend and wondered if she had ever escaped prison. She knew for certain Rose had not been executed, because she would have read about it in the newspapers.
“Even Mr. Stanton, before he remarried,” Hay added, “if that can be imagined.” After an embarrassing pause, he continued, “But that’s not what I came to say. During the evening Mrs. Lander sat beside me on her davenport and told me of meeting a brash young actor at an opening-night party at Grover’s Theater—a Virginian, I believe she said—who was trying to impress her with a story about some scandalous activity he was planning with friends that would make the front page of every newspaper in the nation.”
“And what might that activity be?”
“She said he didn’t elaborate, but from his tone and manner she drew distressing conclusions.”
“Kidnapping, sir, possibly assassination.” Hay cleared his throat. “Of you, Mr. President.”
The concept of losing Duff to assassins caused Alethia to lurch into the room. Thinking better of intruding into the conversation, she decided to be startled.
“Oh, Mr. Hay.” She eyed him haughtily, as she thought Mrs. Lincoln would.
“He was telling me about a party,” Duff said.
“And to give the president a gift. Going through the buffet line, I noticed a large bowl of licorice.” He pulled a handful of the black candy from his pocket and placed it on the nightstand. “I thought he might like some.”
“Oh.” Alethia sniffed. That terrible stuff. He won’t eat decent food but turns his teeth black with that disgusting candy.”
“Now, Mother, you know it’s my only vice.” Duff looked at Hay and smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Hay. That was very kind of you.”
Both Alethia and Duff noticed Hay staring at the top of Duff’s open nightshirt.
“Is anything wrong?” Duff asked.
Hay paused, shook his head, and smiled, saying nothing. Alethia caught her breath, stepped forward, and then laughed.
“Oh, I know what you’re thinking, seeing Mr. Lincoln shorn like a sheep,” she said blithely. “But he has a cold coming on, and I absolutely refuse to rub ointment on that dreadful, hairy chest. So he must shave every time he feels under the weather.”
“Yes.” Duff coughed.
“You’ll keep our little secret, won’t you, Mr. Hay?” Alethia fluttered her eyes.
“Of course, ma’am.” Turning a light pink, Hay backed up.
“We’ll discuss that other matter tomorrow,” Duff said.
“I really don’t think there’s anything to it,” Duff added. “Just chatter at a party.”
“I hope so, sir.” Hay backed to the door, fumbled with the knob, then left.
Listening for Hay’s receding steps, Alethia and Duff smiled.
“At least you got the licorice.” She nodded at the nightstand.
“Yes.” Duff picked up a piece and looked at it. “It’s the one thing I absolutely can’t stand to eat, and I must.”
(Author’s note: This story contains mature dialogue.)
Dammit, I had to pick up my brother Royce at Love Field again. He would be drunk and would slur insults all the way from Dallas to our home in Gainesville, an hour’s drive away.
One thing I liked about my father was that he had confidence in me not to get in any trouble. One thing I didn’t like about my father was that he made me go to the airport when my brother was flying in on leave from the Marines. I was eighteen, and today that would be considered child abuse but in 1966 it was okay.
Experience told me to skip going to the gate. Go straight to the main concourse bar, and there Royce was, sitting at the bar bending some guy’s ear.
“…and that’s why you should never eat breakfast.”
As soon as I walked up, the guy mumbled something about Royce’s ride being here, threw some bills at the bartender and got the hell away from my brother as fast as he could. In a few minutes we were driving on Mockingbird Lane toward the interstate when my brother ordered me to take a left at the next block.”
“Just do it! Dammit!”
One thing I learned about driving with a drunk in the car. Go ahead and do what they say. A lot less hell to pay. Next he pointed to an apartment complex on the right and demanded I pull in there. After I stopped the car and turned off the engine, I guessed that Royce had progressed from mere alcohol to marijuana, and this is where his dealer lived.
“Go ahead and thank me. I’m going to get you laid.”
“Just get out of the car! Dammit!”
So we got out of the car, and Royce staggered toward an apartment and banged on the door.
“Candy! I got some business for ya!”
“Is that you, Royce?” a woman with a husky Texan drawl called out. “Haven’t I told you time and time again I don’t do that shit anymore? I’m gonna be an actress, so go to hell!”
“It’s not for me, Candy. It’s my baby brother.”
“No! Go away!”
Royce repeated the name Candy loudly in a sing-song voice until the door opened, and a dirty blonde in capri pants and a loose man’s shirt grabbed my brother’s arm and pulled him in.
“Shut up for God’s sake!” she hissed. “The neighbors will call the cops!” Then she looked at me. “You too, little boy. Are you really this drunk’s brother?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied softly as I entered the apartment. It wasn’t as run-down as I thought. Actually, it was rather expensive looking.
“I want him to lose it tonight,” Royce announced, pointing at me. “And you’re the girl to do it.”
“Royce,” Candy said with a sigh and shaking her head, “you have pulled some stupid shit before but this is absolutely crazy.”
He ignored her, fumbled with his wallet, pulling five twenty dollar bills and shoving them into my hand. “Now don’t you dare give her the money until you got what you came here for.”
“You’re not going to watch, are you? I mean, you’re not going to tell me where to put my elbows and things like that?”
“Dammit, kid. You don’t know what I’m doin’ here. This bitch is Candy Barr! The best whore in Dallas!”
“I told you, Royce, I don’t do johns anymore! I’m a dancer!”
“Then why did you lay me?” he shot back.
Candy smiled slightly. “Because you looked so pitiful when you came into the Colony Club that night. You didn’t even know what kind of drink to order.”
“Well, he’s more pitiful than I was, so get in that bedroom! I want to get home and get some sleep!”
Candy motioned at me, and I followed her into the bedroom.
“First thing, go into the bathroom, take off your clothes, take a hot, soapy shower, and when you come out I’ll be in bed.”
“I took a bath before I drove down here,” I replied weakly.
“Dammit, do what she says, kid!”
Royce must have had his ear crammed next to the door.
“I’m so nervous I don’t think I can turn the shower knob on. Could you show me?”
Candy was smarter than she looked because she cocked her head, as though she knew what I was thinking.
“Sure, little boy. This way.”
After we entered the bathroom I turned the shower on and closed the door so Royce couldn’t hear us.
“So you’re the Candy Barr, Jack Ruby’s girlfriend?”
“Well, let’s just say friend. Jack’s not exactly boyfriend material.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “So you know a lot about who killed Kennedy?”
“You don’t want to know, little boy.”
“Yes, I do. Listen, I’m not going to go to bed with you. You seem like a nice lady, but, no offense, you’re really too old for me.”
“Thank God, somebody in Royce’s family has some sense.”
“So we’ll go back into the bedroom, bounce on the mattress while you whisper stuff about the assassination in my ear. Then I give you the hundred bucks, and Royce will get off my back, okay?”
She nodded and turned off the water. As we walked back into the bedroom she whispered, “Your brother likes a lot of noise, you know what I mean?”
“Oh, you’re really hot!” I screamed as we sat on the bed and started bouncing.
“Thatta boy, kid!” Royce yelled on the door, banging it with his open palm.
“Oh, yes, yes, yes,” Candy purred as she leaned in and began murmuring all the good dirt on what happened that day three years ago.
“Wow!” That was actually in response to what she told me, but it also pleased Royce to no end.
“That’s it! That’s it!”
I had some theories of my own about who shot President Kennedy, but I would have never guessed the truth.
“What’s goin’ on in there? I don’t hear any action!”
“Now! Now! Now!” Candy was in hysterics. I decided she would be a good actress.
My mind went blank, so I had to improvise.
“Oh, come all ye faithful!” I sang. It was all I could think of.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Royce was enjoying this way too much.
While I put my clothes back on, Candy muttered one last thing in my ear. “By the way, little boy, you can’t ever tell anyone this, because some big thug will come in the middle of the night and blow your head off.” She put her hands on my face and smiled. “And it’s such a sweet little head, too.” Then she kissed my forehead.
I handed her the hundred dollars and opened the door. Royce hugged me, unintelligibly congratulating me on my transition into manhood.
“Was it great?”
“Words can’t describe it.”
Lincoln in the Basement began as a dream in 1989. I often dream stories in which I am an observer. This particular one was from the point of view of the Executive Mansion janitor, who was in the basement of the Executive Mansion when President and Mrs. Lincoln were escorted in at gunpoint by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Because he had seen too much, he had to stay in the basement with the Lincolns, and, after a period of time, began to believe he was the president.
As I began writing the story, I realized the poor janitor could not be the main character because he was basically incapable of change. I instead focused on the plight of the young soldier given the task of holding the Lincolns captive. He, indeed, changes from a naïve, eager servant of Stanton’s cause to an alcoholic disillusioned by the abuse of power.
As a caveat, I want to make clear that I have taken historical figures such as Secretary of War Stanton and LaFayette Baker and used them to create fictional characters with qualities of greed, lust, and corruption. While some historians have theorized that Stanton may have been a conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination, others maintain his innocence. I concur with this conclusion, and have fictionalized his personality to portray the danger of believing oneself to be infallible.
Lincoln in the Basement is meant as entertainment and as fodder for intellectual debate on political power, not as a strict interpretation of history.
(Author’s Note: I was born backwards, so it makes perfect sense to me to post on my blog the sequel before the first novel. And if you haven’t viewed my blog before it doesn’t make any difference. If you did read the sequel, now it will all make sense after you read about what happened first.)
Previously in this book: John Wilkes Booth escaped death in the Virginia and took on the role of dark avenging angel punishing the people whom he considered responsible for the death of Mary Surratt. Here in the last chapter he has found his final victim, Edwin Stanton. If you have not read previous chapters. Go to February 2016 under Archives for chapter one.
Where’s the man that usually delivers my medicine?” Stanton asked in a huff.
“Oh, you must mean David Herold. He wasn’t available tonight. Your doctor sent a messenger to my boarding house to inform me I was needed to deliver your sulphate of quinine as quickly as possible.”
Stanton’s eyes narrowed. Zook was the last name of the janitor in the Executive Mansion basement. He always talked about a sister, though Stanton could not recall her name at the moment. David Herold was one of the conspirators hanged at Old Capitol Prison. And, he remembered, Herold was a pharmacy assistant sent to Seward’s house along with the big brute who was supposed to kill the Secretary of State. Why would this woman be throwing about these names?
“My dear Mrs. Stanton,” the woman said, staring into her face. “I can tell by looking at you that you are on the verge of collapsing from fatigue. You’ve probably exhausted every fiber in your being preparing for your Christmas festivities tomorrow and then caring for an ill husband.” She patted Ellen’s hand. “What we women are called upon to do.” She turned to smile at Stanton. “Don’t you agree with me, sir, that your wife should take to her bed immediately?”
His jaw slackened. “Why, of course. It is past our usual bedtime, isn’t it, my dear?”
“I would not think of such a thing,” Ellen said in protest, though her tone sounded rather tame. “In the amount of time we have spent discussing my fatigue, I could have taken the drops from you, Miss Zook, and administered them to my husband.”
The woman lifted her hand and cocked her head. “No more debate. You must retire to your bedroom. After I have applied the drops I shall let myself out.”
“Please, Ellen, do as she says.” Stanton wheezed. The tension made his asthma worse. “Let the woman do her job and be gone.”
“Very well.” She sighed and turned for the door.
Miss Zook followed her and carefully closed it behind Ellen. Next, she went to the window and shut it.
“Don’t do that,” he ordered in irritation. “I need the cold air to control my asthma.”
She ignored his request and removed the pillow, allowing his head to drop unceremoniously to the bed. Placing her hands on the sides of his cranium, she lifted on the neck and pulled back his skull so that the nasal passageways were now vertical. Stanton noticed her manner was very rough, quite a contrast to the usual touch of the doctor’s aide. He watched as she took a bottle from her bag and daubed the liquid on a cotton ball. With her finger, she thrust the ball into his nostrils. He stirred in apprehension.
“That’s too much,” he protested. “I’ve been given sulphate of quinine for years and that’s too much.”
“In discomfort are you?”
“You know very well I am.” Stanton felt his temper rise, which he knew, would exacerbate his condition.
“Don’t you recognize me, Mr. Stanton?” Suddenly the nurse’s voice deepened. “I’ve been around you for about two weeks now. Sometimes delivering groceries, sometimes as a telegraph messenger delivering your party invitations. I sat next to you at the function in the White House. The garrulous colonel from Indiana. Oh, I’m sure you don’t remember me. I could tell you were not interested in my story about the battle at Gettysburg. Another night I spilt a cup of hot coffee in your lap. I was dressed as a waiter that time, with red hair from Ohio. I do hope it burned your thighs sufficiently.”
By this time, the aide had returned the bottle to the bag. Clamping a firm, rough hand over Stanton’s mouth, the person drew a sharp knife from the bag. The blade glistened in the light from the fireplace. Stanton struggled to call out but soon realized his efforts were insufficient.
“All my disguises were very helpful. I learned quite a bit about your personal life. I learned the name of your doctor. He sends bottles of sulphate of quinine on a regular basis to your home. I learned—ironically through party conversation with your wife—that you two no longer share a bed because of your worsening asthma condition. With each of our encounters I deliberately made a point of irritating you, because each time your nasty temper grew, your asthma worsened.” Leaning down into Stanton’s face the nurse smiled, showing white straight teeth. “Don’t you recognize me now? I told you once I would return to kill you.” He nodded as he brought his knife up. “Yes, I am John Wilkes Booth.”
As he pulled the sharp edge across Stanton’s throat he added, “And you, sir, are no gentleman.”
Edwin Stanton’s entire body shuddered as he coughed uncontrollably. Damned asthma. His earliest memories were of lying in bed back in Steubenville, Ohio, with his parents hovering over his bed as he wheezed, his chest expanding and contracting dramatically. His lungs craved air, which struggled through the swollen bronchial tubes. He hated his body for not functioning up to his ambitions as he grew into a young man studying the law. He fought against his disability while he established a practice. His determination made him a valuable asset for large companies and for his years in government. Asthma never stopped him. Perhaps the struggle against the impossible made him more resilient and more intolerant of the weaknesses of others.
His wife Ellen tapped at his bedroom door before entering. She shuddered slightly at the frigid December winds blowing through the open window. Exposure to excessive cold was the first line of defense when an asthma attack began. Going over to his side, she placed her slender hand across his forehead.
“No excess perspiration,” she murmured, more as a comment to herself than a conversation with him. “That’s good. Perhaps we can control it this time without any undue stress.” Ellen looked down and smiled at him wanly. “I told you not to attend those holiday dinners, but you never listen to me, do you, my dear?”
Stanton’s wife was the only person allowed to utter gentle rebukes. He trucked no insubordination from anyone else. He did not even venture excuses for his heavy holiday season because they never held any sway with her. President Grant had just announced Stanton’s appointment as Chief Justice of the United States and therefore he had become the prized guest of honor in Washington social circles. He would not be sworn in until after January 1, 1870, so until then Stanton felt persuaded to bask in his newfound popularity.
“Of course, you are right.” Those were the only words he uttered before a new wheezing spasm convulsed his body.
She shrugged. “I must admit I enjoyed the conviviality of the Christmas gatherings after all those years of war and the terrible confrontation with President Johnson.”
“When will the doctor’s aide arrive with the sulphate of quinine?” Stanton did not like it when Ellen reminded him of his crimes and subsequent cover-up. “I don’t know how you allowed the household to be bereft of the only medicine that soothes me.”
“Each home we visited was insufferably hot and overly decorated with holiday greenery, don’t you agree? As soon as I started perspiring, I knew your lungs would begin to contract. And the fragrance of the evergreens overcame even my own senses.” She paused to pat his shoulder reassuringly. “Yes, I should have known better. I don’t know why but I thought I had another bottle tucked away in some cabinet or other.”
“Yes, you should have,” Stanton agreed petulantly.
“Edwin, dear,” Ellen said, lifting her hand from his shoulder, “Your life would be so much more pleasant if you weren’t so insufferably superior. Do you remember the man who sat next to you at the White House dinner? I thought he would never stop talking about his near-death experiences at the battle of Gettysburg. The look on your face was priceless. And then the party at Benjamin Butler’s house. That clumsy waiter spilt coffee in your lap. How you howled.” Ellen chuckled and then clucked him under his bearded chin. “And here I am teasing you about your discomfort. But you have to admit. Whenever someone of your temperament suffers a bit of humiliation—well, I must say, it is amusing.”
“A distinct rap at the front door echoed throughout the house.
“Ah, your medicine has arrived at last.” She left without another word.
A twinge of wistful regret momentarily replaced the numbing asthmatic pain in his chest. Yes, he told himself, the fact he would never be held legally accountable for his actions did comfort him. His being Chief Justice assured him of that, but he mourned wife’s alienation over the years. Stanton was sure she had no inkling that he had held the Lincolns captive in the Executive Mansion basement, nor that he masterminded a string of murders in 1865 or that he orchestrated the impeachment of Andrew Johnson solely to cover up his other crimes. Yet she must have sensed something was amiss. She was kind and nurturing in a motherly fashion, but Ellen exhibited no warmth or romance for him as her husband. She even moved to another bedroom after Lincoln’s assassination. Of course, her excuse that his chronic asthmatic attacks kept her awake was a genuine justification. Yet Stanton could not help but think the aura of guilt that emanated from his psyche must have repelled her.
Hearing voices in the foyer and subsequent steps up the stairs, he struggled to prop himself up on his pillow. Stanton anticipated a nurse to appear with a bottle of sulphate of quinine and to apply the nasal drops, a momentary respite from his discomfort. When the door opened, Stanton wrinkled his brow. Before him was a matronly, rather heavy-set woman in nurse’s attire. She wore thick-lensed glasses and clutched a small black doctor’s bag.
“Dear, this is Miss—what did you say your name was?” Ellen said.
“Cordie Zook, Ma’am,” the woman said in a distinct Pennsylvania Dutch accent.
“Yes, Miss Zook.” Ellen smiled briefly.
Andrew Johnson knew the last leg of his train trip home to Tennessee in March of 1869 was not going to be pleasant as a new conductor entered the car at the depot in Wytheville, Virginia. The conductor tucked his little wooden box containing tickets and cash under his right arm. He glowered at the passengers. Johnson observed the man’s pinched thin lips, his pepper gray hair peeking from under his blue conductor’s hat. His slender body was straight as a lonesome pine in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The former president assumed the posture was the result of imperiously following railway regulations to the letter. The conductor demanded exact change from soldiers wearing Union uniforms, but persons with distinct Southern drawls received a large smile, and miraculously he found change at the bottom of his little box for them.
When Johnson had left Washington City that morning, his daughter Martha insisted that he have proper change for all his tickets and even packed a small lunch for him. Johnson found the conductor on the first train to be quite cordial. He even told the former president that he would bend the rules to allow him to smoke his cigar, even though this was a non-smoking car, as long as he had a window seat and politely tipped his ashes out in the morning air. After all, the conductor explained to him, this idea of having a separate car for smoking had only begun since the end of the war, and passengers must be given time to adjust to the changes.
All of that changed when the new conductor joined the train at Wytheville. By the time he stopped by Johnson’s seat, the former president had taken out his change purse and was counting out the coins.
“I hope you don’t think just because you used to be president you don’t have to pay your train fare,” the man said in an icy tone, which made his Appalachian accent more pronounced.
“No, of course not,” Johnson replied in his humblest and most respectful voice. As he handed the conductor the coins he smiled innocently. “I hope I counted that out right. I never learned arithmetic until after I was married.”
The conductor grunted as he counted the money twice, very slowly. “Very well.” He began to walk away, but he turned for one last glower of the former president’s pulling a cigar out of his coat pocket and patting his other pockets to find a match. Swinging around, he raised his voice. “This car don’t allow no smokin’.”
Johnson could feel his infamous anger rising from his stomach, but forced it down. Whatever anyone might think of him, he prided himself on being considerate of the feelings of the common people, including the ones sharing the train coach on the long ride to Greeneville. They did not need the stifling atmosphere of anger created when a former president would lose his temper.
“Of course, sir.” He put his cigar away and stared out the window, preferring to concentrate on the reunion with his wife Eliza. She had stayed by his side in Washington City during the ordeal of impeachment and trial in the summer of 1868. Her tuberculosis grew worse and forced her to return to their home in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains where the air eased her breathing. His daughter Martha stayed in the Capital to act as his official hostess. His son-in-law David Patterson was one of the senators from Tennessee, so Martha actually spent most of her time with her husband and their family. Johnson felt quite alone.
His first action after the trial was to inquire discreetly with the national Democratic Party leadership if they would support him in his bid to run for a term as president in his own right. Democrats fought valiantly to keep the Republican majority from removing him from office, Johnson reasoned, and therefore might be willing to support him again. Unfortunately, they informed him the mood of the country was against him. Northern voters clearly saw him as one of the last vestiges of the old southern order of White supremacists. Instead, they nominated a less well known, less controversial Democrat to oppose the Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant, whose victory over the South had made him a mythic hero. The general won the presidency easily.
Johnson could not help but think about how at one time he had appointed Grant to replace Stanton. Within a few months Stanton convinced Grant to abdicate his post, leaving it open for Stanton’s return. But Johnson could not hold a grudge. Hell, he told himself, he even smiled and shook hands at the Executive Mansion Christmas reception with Benjamin Butler who had been one of the leaders in the impeachment proceedings. If Grant had attended the party, Johnson would have shaken his hand too. So when Grant declined to ride in the same carriage to the inauguration, Johnson was a bit surprised but followed his inclinations not to encourage bitter feelings. He remained at the Executive Mansion, and when the news came that Grant had been sworn in, he quickly left for the train station. Perhaps it was just as well he had forgone the ceremony because Stanton surely must have attended. He was the one person Johnson could not have forced himself to greet cordially.
The fact that Stanton would never face legal consequences for his acts of treason and betrayal stuck in Johnson’s craw. The little evil man’s only punishment would be to fade into history, hopefully as only a minor footnote in the accounts of the American Civil War. Johnson felt a tinge of his old craving for alcohol, which he had always used to ease his uncontrollable hatred for Stanton. Johnson closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath. If he had learned anything through the ordeal, which began the night of Lincoln’s assassination, it was that alcohol never solved any problems. It only made matters worse.
A train whistle roused him from his inner thoughts. Johnson looked out the window to see that the train was pulling into the station at Greeneville. He smiled as he recognized faces of old friends who had never given up on him, going back to the days when he was nothing but an illiterate drunkard with no skills or ambitions. When he learned how to be a tailor, Johnson could count on these the people to bring him cloth they had made themselves so he could turn it into a pair of pants or a coat. He accepted their payment of fifty cents gratefully. The pennies added up, and he found hope for a better life for his family. They encouraged him to run for public office, voted for him and applauded when he won elections. And they never believed the lies told about him during the impeachment.
After the train jerked to a stop, the conductor made his way down the aisle to Johnson’s side and informed him he could leave now. “There’s a crowd out there. Don’t know why.” The man’s pale, wrinkled face did not move a muscle.
“Thank you, Mr.—excuse me, what was your name again? I can’t seem to keep a name in my head anymore.”
“Fisher, sir, Edgar Fisher.”
“Mr. Fisher, thank you so much.” Johnson stood and shook the man’s hand vigorously. “You’ve made the trip mighty comfortable.” He looked up and down the length of the train car, watching the other passengers gather their belongings to leave. He held on to the conductor’s hand. “Mr. Fisher, I must assume you had sons in the Confederate Army during the war. East Tennessee suffered during that tragedy, now didn’t we?”
“I had two boys.” He paused to keep his voice from cracking. “Only one came back.”
“That weighs on my heart more than anything else. To know a neighbor’s boy died at the hands of men that I sent to war. I don’t know how I will ever atone.” Johnson heard his own voice crack, and he was not ashamed of it.
Slowly Fisher raised his other hand to clasp their grip. “My boy who made it home—he always told me if you ever got on one of my trains I should throw you off.”
Johnson guffawed and slapped the man’s back. “And I wouldn’t blame you if you did. The last few years have been mighty rough times, ain’t they?”
“Mighty rough times.” He paused as a small smile crept across his lips. “I suppose North and South have been mighty grieved, Mr. President.”
Johnson looked around again to see that they were alone. “Now which way would you like for me to skedaddle, Mr. Fisher?”
The conductor nodded to the left. “That way will take you out to where most of the folks are waiting for you, sir.”
“Well, you lead the way, Mr. Fisher.”
The conductor escorted him to the exit but paused at the landing and stepped back. “The next time I see my son I’ll tell him he was all wrong about you, Mr. Johnson. You’re a good man, sir, and I won’t mind telling my son that.”
Johnson stopped just inside the door because he knew as soon as the crowd saw him, they would yell and applaud, ending this pleasant moment. “Where do you all hail from, Mr. Fisher?”
“Morristown, sir. And call me Edgar, sir. I’d be proud to wait on you, Mr. President, if you ever ride one of my trains again.”
He stepped forward and as the gathering erupted with cheers he shook the conductor’s hand again. Johnson waved both arms to greet the townspeople. Johnson paused a moment as the cheering continued. He felt good getting back to the basics of politicking, turning a doubter into a supporter with nothing more than a big smile and a touch of thoughtfulness. Perhaps, after a short period of recuperation, he would try to run for senator, or some other fool nonsense.
Bruton took Baker by the armpit and led him out of the saloon and over two blocks. Baker hardly noticed all the night prowlers, some staggering like himself, others leaning against lampposts and having a smoke and a good laugh with friends. Baker felt Bruton’s hands against his back forcing him into a public privy. Right after he relieved himself, Baker went to his kneels to vomit violently into the toilet.
“Are you all right, my dear friend?” Bruton called from the outside.
“No,” he replied before another round of regurgitation. Baker became aware that the door opened and Bruton lifted him to his feet.
“You are ill,” he commented with concern as he pointed the older man toward the door of Louis Lesieur’s establishment. “The best cure for the queasy stomach is a glass of Louis’s best cognac.
Before Baker could disagree, his companion deposited him in a chair and left for the bar. He felt the room swirling, and his eyes would not quite focus which made the disorientation worse. His head was about to droop onto the table when Bruton appeared and placed a healthy portion of cognac in a cut-glass goblet in front of him.
“To your health, Mr. Baker; or do you prefer General Baker?”
The gurgling in his stomach returned, and the saloon felt unbearably hot. “Huh?”
“Never mind.” Bruton sat and took a sip of his cognac. “I’m still curious about the outrageous revelations you plan to announce in your hearing before Congress. What could be more shocking than the brutal mortality statistics of the war itself?”
“This is shit,” he barely articulated after a swallow of the cognac. It had the same appalling under taste as the English ale from their first stop. He pushed it away
“Louis will be insulted.” His young friend pushed it back. “Don’t embarrass me in the pub of my dear friend Louis. I will never live it down.”
Baker scowled as he obediently lifted the glass and drank it as though it were a homemade elixir for the three-day bellyache. He did not care how fine a lawyer this fellow claimed to be and how wonderful a legal defense he might provide. Baker was convinced he did not want to remain his friend, and he desperately wanted to be in the arms of his Jenny in their own home. If drinking all of this bitter libation would hasten the end of this evening, then so be it. He upended it and gulped the rest.
“Now tell me your scandalous news,” Bruton insisted.
“John Wilkes Booth is not dead.” His numbed lips formed each syllable with difficulty.
“I find that hard to believe.” The young man’s tone went flat, without expression.
“I saved his life. Gave him money to disappear out West. The killing had to stop.” A spasm shook his thick torso as another wave of nausea swept over Baker.
“Yes, I think it is time to go home.” Bruton lifted Baker from his chair and guided him out the door. He hailed a hack, gave the driver an address and settled the older man as comfortably as he could in the carriage seat.
Baker looked up from his slumped position and pleaded, “Take me to a doctor.”
Bruton leaned in and whispered, “I can’t do that, Mr. Baker.”
“Because you have to die.”
“What?” Baker was confused. Bruton no longer sounded like a Bostonian but a Southerner, not the Deep South but somewhere closer. And the voice was familiar, but he could not quite place it.
“You see, I am not attorney-at-law Roman Bruton. That’s a name and a backstory I just made up. I told you once you were no gentleman.”
His brain, almost anesthetized, came to an awful realization. “You’re Booth.”
“How brilliant of you,” Booth replied in glorious derision expressed like a dream through his Maryland inflection.
Frantically Baker tried to sit aright and lean toward. “Driver! Take me home!”
“But he is taking you home.” Booth firmly pulled him back. “I gave him your address. Because you spared my life I will allow you to die in the arms of your wife.” Booth laughed in self-indulgence. “My dear Mr. Baker, I know everything about you and Mr. Stanton and the entire stinking plan.”
“But—but I saved your life! Please let me live!”
“Oh, you have ingested enough arsenic tonight that there is no way you can survive beyond morning’s light.”
“But I’ve changed! You know I have changed! I’m a good man now!”
Booth put his arm around Baker’s shoulders to grip him. “Yes, I know. But you want to reveal to the world that I am still alive, and I cannot allow that.”
“We’re going to Steve Walker’s on Fifth Street, a little north of here.” After a pause, he continued, “I enjoy hunting also. Spent most of my youth on horseback scouring the wooded countryside for small game to shoot. My mother lectured me severely for leaving the dead carcasses on the ground instead of bringing them home for the cook to produce an evening meal. Never cared much for wild game. But I loved the hunt. Ah, Steve Walker’s. I told you it wouldn’t take long.”
Baker looked around trying to remember if he had ever been in this tavern before. A well-dressed bartender attended the intricately carved sideboard. Fresh-faced tipplers affected a stance to display their attire to the best advantage. Baker decided such a place would have never interested him. The old warrior had no patience for men who avoided soiling their hands from hard work.
After depositing his guest at a table, Bruton went to the bar to place his order. When he returned, he had two small trays holding four shot glasses filled with whiskey and placed one in front of Baker while reserving the second for himself.
“I’m so proud. I didn’t spill a drop. If I had not become a lawyer, I would have made a good waiter. Extending his hand, he tapped the rim of each glass. “Four of the finest whiskies in Philadelphia. I am anxious for you to taste them and tell me which one you like best.”
Baker grabbed Bruton’s right hand, tugged off the soft leather glove and turned it over to examine the palm. Even in the dim light he could discern the remnants of callouses. The young man pulled his hand back, blinked several times before forcing out a light-hearted snigger.
“Excuse my blunt behavior,” Baker explained in a slur, returning the glove to the owner. “It’s just you can learn a lot about a man’s character by the condition of his hands. Though rather pampered now, I can detect a trace of callouses from years past.”
With a natural flair, Bruton fitted the glove back on his hand. “Years of gripping the reins as I galloped through the countryside, my friend.” He sat with aplomb and picked up one of the shots. “Try this one first. The dark amber. It has a nutty aftertaste I think you will like.”
Baker lifted his glass and paused, hesitant because of his experience with English ale. Finally he sipped, then gulped. “Not bad.”
“I’m so pleased.” He leaned back in his chair, his head now completely cloaked in darkness. “So you are considering another appearance before Congress.” Bruton paused as Baker downed his second round of whiskey. “Did you like that blend? I have to admit it’s not one of my favorites but is not without its merits.”
Shrugging, Baker said, “Whiskey is whiskey.” He squinted a couple of times, trying to focus. “They do have a kick, for sure.”
“What you need is a good lawyer to protect your interests in front of Congress. As I said, I’m a lawyer. I would be very proud to represent you. No charge. For patriotism, shall I say?”
“So did you serve in the Army?” Baker glanced at the third whiskey. Only one or two more drinks, and his brain would land in a blissful world of benign acceptance of mere existence.
“To my disgrace, I did not,” Bruton replied with controlled contrition. “My father insisted upon hiring a substitute. Dirty business it was.”
“Dirty business,” he grunted. “You don’t know dirty business like I know it.” He drank his third, and added, “The master of dirty business is former Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. God, I hate that man.”
“You are not the only person who feels that way, I’m sure.”
“Is there a piss pot around here someplace? I gotta go real bad.”
“The cleanest facilities in the drinking district are at the finest establishment, Louis Lesieur’s. On Seventh Street, only two blocks away. And after you relieve yourself, you must have Louis’s cognac, the best liquor in the city. But first you must try your fourth whiskey. I promise it will be the best.”
Baker leaned forward, his mouth agape. He tried to focus on Bruton’s four glasses. “But—but you haven’t finished your first drink.”
“Your mind is playing tricks on you. I’ve finished all of them. Now be a good fellow, drink, drink, drink.”
He gagged as he guzzled the last shot. A definite distress rippled through his gut. “I don’t feel so good. I need to get home.”
“I will be insulted if you do not join me at Louis’s. After all, I am offering my vast legal experience to you at no charge.”
Someone tapped Lafayette Baker’s shoulder, causing him to look to left. There stood slender young dandy, dressed in a tailored suit, adorned with a silk cravat stuck with a diamond pin. He posed elegantly, leaning a pearl-handled cane. “It isn’t fair, isn’t it, Mr. Baker? There you risked your life in the service of your country, and soft clotheshorses like me discount your stories as nothing more than sweet apples hawked at a street market. I say we round them all up and kick them in the ass.”
Baker detected a Boston accent. He tried scrutinizing the man’s face but the flickering light of the tavern made that difficult. Most of the time Baker did not waste his time on dandies, but this one appealed to his ego, which was bruised to the extreme at this moment. Eventually he chuckled.
“Let me buy you a drink, friend.”
“No, it will be my honor to buy you all the drinks you wish, but not the swill in this establishment.” The young man pulled coins from the breast pocket of his brocaded waistcoat and tossed them on the bar. He put a gloved hand on Baker’s shoulder to guide him from his stool to the door and on the street. “You look like a sportsman, sir. Our first stop should be Dick Perriston’s on Chestnut just south of Fifth Street. Dick is known for his fine old English ale.”
Baker found himself being whisked along Ridge Avenue to a better neighborhood of saloons. The young man used his pearl-handled cane deftly to push aside those who did not move fast enough.
“You have me at a disadvantage, sir. You seem to know everything about me, and I don’t even know your name.”
“Roman Bruton,” the young man said with a laugh. “Isn’t it a perfectly horrendous name? My parents honeymooned in Italy many years ago and became fascinated by everything about Rome, hence my rather pompous given name.” He nudged Baker. “My middle name is even worse. Cassius, if you can believe it. You should see the family home in Boston. My parents fashioned the parlor after an atrium. Both Papa and Mama came from wealthy shipping families so they are shamefully ostentatious in their consumption of the finer things in life. I enjoy my comforts but there are limits, don’t you think?” Before Baker could answer, Bruton lifted his cane to tap the swinging sign over the saloon door. “Here we are, Dickie Perriston’s.” He laughed loudly. “He hates it when I call him Dickie.”
Inside Bruton forced their way to an empty table in a corner and pulled a chair out for Baker. “I much prefer sitting at a table than at the bar, don’t you?” Again he continued, not waiting for a reply. “I’ll be back with a couple of ales.” Immediately he disappeared in the crowd.
Baker was at a loss to explain how he lost control of the evening. He would have been perfectly content to drink the evening away in the seamier district, but this dandy took over with such positive energy, Baker did not mind. He even felt flattered, an emotion he rarely experienced. Bruton bustled back and plopped two mugs of the famous ale on the table, pushing one over to the older man.
“So, tell me, Mr. Baker, what is your sport of choice?” Bruton asked as he lifted his mug and imbibed.
“I enjoy hunting. In fact, my brother-in-law had invited me for a short hunting trip into the woods just beyond the city west side. I frankly wasn’t up to it.”
“I am not surprised.” He leaned in, revealing a glimpse of his chin in the lamp light. “Here you are, an American hero, protecting the men who made the decisions that won the war, and no one appreciates you. I read your book. Fascinating.”
Baker found Bruton rather long-winded, but he decided the young man’s flamboyance gave him time to appreciate his ale. The palate was a bit disconcerting, but he had never indulged in an English ale before and perhaps it was an acquired taste.
“I look forward to your new account in the British magazine.” He paused to wipe the foam away from his moustache. “What was the name of it again?”
“Colson’s United Service Magazine. It has a limited circulation. I doubt if you will find a copy.” Baker finished his mug and pushed it away.
“Then you must tell me what’s in it. But first let me refresh your drink.” Again, Bruton popped away to the bar.
Putting both hands to his forehead, Baker checked himself for perspiration. Summer in Philadelphia could be muggy, but he swore he felt more like a fever was creeping across his brow. It was a sensation he had never undergone on any of his rampages through saloon row anywhere in the country. Interrupting Baker’s self-diagnosis, Bruton appeared and placed a fresh mug in front of him.
“Now, tell me, what nuggets of government scandal do you have to share?”
Baker sipped the ale and decided the undertones were not growing on him. “For one thing, John Wilkes Booth did not act alone; that is, there was more to the conspiracy than his small band of henchmen.”
“You don’t say.”
“If I can find the courage to return to Congress with a request for a new hearing, all of America will know the breadth of the evil that manipulated the fate of the war.”
“I figured as much myself.”
He frowned and pushed away the mug. “I’m sorry. I can seem to get accustomed to this ale. I know it is impolite to decline a gentleman’s generosity but—“
“No need to say more,” Bruton interrupted with a smile. “If you take but one more sip, I will take you to a much finer establishment than this. It’s known for its wide selection of incomparable whiskies.”
After a brief deliberation, Baker shrugged, upended the mug and drained it. After all, he did not want to seem unappreciative of Bruton’s hospitality. With a heavy haze settling on his brain, Baker yielded completely as his young companion led him down another street.