Mon
Jun 12 2017 10:00am

Jonathan F. Putnam Excerpt: Perish from the Earth

Jonathan F. Putnam

Perish from the Earth by Jonathan F. Putnam—the second Lincoln and Speed mystery—is meticulously researched and deftly plotted, revolving around a true historical murder that, while nearly forgotten today, was one of the most infamous crimes of the nineteenth century and played a key role in driving the nation toward civil war (available July 11, 2017).

Newly minted trial lawyer Abraham Lincoln is riding the circuit, traveling by carriage with other lawyers and a judge to bring justice to the remote parts of Illinois. Meanwhile, Lincoln's close friend Joshua Speed steams up the Mississippi River aboard a steamboat owned by Speed's father when suddenly, his journey is interrupted when a rigged card game aboard the ship turns to violence―and then murder.

Speed enlists Lincoln to defend the accused, but soon they come to discover that more than just the card games are crooked aboard the Speed family's ship. As the day of judgment hurtles towards them, Lincoln must fight to save the life of his client while also preserving the cause he holds so dear. 

CHAPTER 1

Though Judge Speed had described the War Eagle to perfection, I almost missed her departure. I strode the dusky St. Louis levee, thickly forested with belching steamboats and bobbing skiffs, frantically searching for a stern-wheel steamer with an oversize bale of cotton placed between twin smoke-stacks. At the last minute, I saw her, just as the dockhands were casting off her moorings, and I ran at full tilt and leapt toward the receding deck. How different everything might have been if my jump had fallen short and I’d been left to swim back to shore through the Mississippi current.

But in October 1837, my legs harbored the spring of a twenty-three-year-old man in his prime. My leap carried me into the webbed rope guards surrounding the main deck. I rested for a moment, breathing heavily. Then I pulled myself up by means of one of the metal posts that ringed the deck, freed my small kit bag from the tangle, and headed upstairs to the hurricane deck.

The War Eagle was a great beast of the waters, about one hundred fifty feet from stem to stern, with twenty staterooms for passengers of means up top and space below for another two hundred men, women, and children on the main deck. I walked along the promenade toward the rear of the hurricane, past the dining room, the women’s cabin, and the barber’s shop. The ship was in the center channel of the river, heading north, and a cool autumn breeze blew at my back.

At the rear of the ship, I leaned out, holding onto the flagpole, and watched the wheel thrash the churning waters. Then I opened the salon door and stepped into an ornate room painted in green and gold, with high ceilings and gingerbread woodwork. All the illumination came from a sparkling cut-glass chandelier, ablaze with several dozen candles. There was not a single window. For all the occupants of the salon knew, it could be brightest noon or blackest midnight outside.

As I entered the salon, those occupants were arranged as if posing for a tableau vivant, and though I had never met any of them before, I felt certain at once I knew every man present.

The Gambler was seated on a simple wooden chair behind a slim Regency table. His face was lined but clean-shaven, except for a bushy moustache that obscured much of his mouth. His age was indeterminate; anywhere between thirty years and fifty would have seemed right. He had on a straw hat with a faded blue band running around the base, a dull black frockcoat with all three buttons buttoned, and a gray vest and gray trousers underneath. A small portion of the gold chain of a pocket watch was visible underneath the frockcoat. He gave the overall impression of a slightly down-on-his-luck planter—except for the cards, which were blazing through his hands like a furnace being fed by three firemen.

The Gambler was busy throwing the monte, and from the size of the disorderly stack of crumpled bills and assorted gold and silver coins on the table in front of him, it was apparent he was throwing it with skill.

Arranged around the Gambler were a dozen players and hangers-on. The players sat or leaned against their own chairs, desperately scrutinizing the Gambler’s moves, certain they could prevail if only they followed his hands closely enough. The observers stood a half step away and leaned backward, as if the lean of their bodies would be sufficient to protect them from the urge to show they could best the miscreant. All of them shouted with glee as the player in the square made his pick of card; all of them shouted with sorrow when the Gambler turned the card and, inevitably, showed the player he had picked the wrong ticket.

Slumped over on a chair a few feet away from the gambling table was a drunken Fool. His battered straw hat was tipped forward to obscure his face, and it rose and fell as he snored.

A young Artist stood at a three-legged easel off to the side of the Gambler’s table. He had curly dark hair and a boyishly pudgy face with ruddy cheeks. He held a thick pencil in his right hand and his eyes darted back and forth between his subject, one of the players at the table, and the half-finished sketch on his board. 

At the far end of the room, the Barkeep stood next to his stand, scanning the crowd around the Gambler for the telltale signs of a man in need of additional courage. A few players had abandoned the table altogether and stood clustered around the bar stand, drinking without restraint and no doubt assuring one another their luck would be better the next night.

On the wall behind the bar stand was a full-length portrait of General Washington. It was the only painting in the room, and the artist had managed to capture the general’s determined visage with such realism, he almost looked alive.

Standing off to the side, five paces away from the Gambler’s table and very much an observer and not a player, was a finely dressed Dandy, about my age, who was coolly smoking a cigar.

There was a tall, light-skinned Negro woman standing as straight as a ramrod on the side of the room, mending a dark garment with a needle and thread while pressing her body into the wall. She was wearing a long cotton dress with an apron; a brown headband held back her hair. Occasionally her eyes danced around the room, returning time and again to the Gambler. It was plain she was his slave.

In an upholstered chair was displayed a vivacious Actress with her blonde hair in ringlets of curls. Her dress was a brilliant red, with daring, tightly banded sleeves and a low-cut bodice that liberally revealed her well-rounded bosom. A rough-looking fellow, unshaven and long haired, with a razor-sharp nose and a cheap cloth hat pulled low, nuzzled close to the woman, his dark whiskers lying hard against her porcelain breast.

The Actress in the brilliant red dress was the only person who noticed when I entered the salon. She gave me a becoming smile, fluttering her eyelashes rapidly, and averted her eyes down toward her other breast, the one not occupied by the poorly shaved rogue, as if to indicate a vacancy. I smiled, gave a half bow of thanks, and put up my hand to decline the invitation.

Instead, I took a few steps forward so that I would be in the peripheral view of the Dandy who was smoking by the doorway. He had a regular profile, a patrician bearing, and a soft, doughy face. After a few moments, he nodded to me.

I stuck out my hand and said, “Joshua Speed, Farmington, Louisville.”

“John W. Jones, Ames Manor, Nashville,” he replied in a slow drawl.

“Has your luck been good or ill this evening, friend?”

Jones considered this, pulling vigorously on his cigar. “A bit of both,” he said.

“How so?”

“Ill, because I have lost every hand I’ve played with that bandit.” He nodded toward the table, where the Gambler was in the middle of another deal. “I’ve been known to throw the cards myself—merely for amusement, of course—and I feel sure I know every trick. I cannot tell how he does it. At each deal, I was certain I had followed the red card, but I turned instead a darkie.

“His hands make the desired card appear as if from thin air,” my new acquaintance continued. “Look how large they are.” I followed his gaze and saw the Gambler did indeed have massive hands—hands that looked like they could palm the decorative bale of cotton atop the War Eagle.

“It does seem ill luck you found such a skillful player aboard your ship.”

“At the same time, my luck has been good, for I have not wagered more than I can afford to lose.”

“The only wise course,” I said approvingly.

Jones looked me up and down, assessing my neat dress and well-trimmed whiskers, and evidently decided he could trust me.“I’ve just been to New Orleans to accompany Ames Manor’s final cotton harvest of the season,” he confided in a low voice, “and I have been paid by the brokers there in gold and silver coin.” He patted a bulge in his pocket, and I heard the luxuriant tinkle of a full purse.

“I hoped if the opportunity presented itself on my trip home,” he continued, “I’d use that stake to play for the wealth to purchase an estate of my own. I’ve even traveled farther upriver than necessary in search of the opportunity. But it’s not to be.” He sighed. “I shall have to be content with bringing the proceeds home to my father and older brother and spending another year in their employ.”

A pulse of surprise and recognition ran through my body, and I stepped back to consider the man more fully. I had stumbled upon, I realized at once, my alter ego. Some six years earlier, at the age of seventeen, I had lain on my deathbed at Farmington, the second son of the owner of a great estate, the narrative of my life seemingly written since birth. When, miraculously, I recovered from my illness, I resolved to break free of the confining comforts of home and strike off on my own. I had done so without a backward glance, riding away from Farmington at the age of nineteen and finding a general store to run near the frontier, in Springfield, Illinois.

Had I never fallen ill, I felt sure I would today be this man Jones, obediently superintending the proceeds of our estate for my father and older brother and dreaming whimsical dreams about how I might someday make my own way.

“You’ll soon find your path,” I said, “but it’s not at the tables. I thank heaven for your sound judgment. You must not risk your family’s wealth with that man.”

“Is there no one else who will play me?” shouted the Gambler. We looked up and saw that all the seats opposite him were empty. The crowd surrounding the Barkeep at the far end of the room had grown accordingly. I sensed the Gambler had been watching my conversation with the young planter closely.

“I’ll give it a go for a dollar,” I said to my new acquaintance. “Perhaps I can spot his trick.”

I walked up to the table and slapped down a paper banknote. The Gambler swept it onto the floor with a flick of his wrist. 

“I mean to play it,” I said angrily.

“I stopped playing for one dollar hours ago.” His voice was, unexpectedly, as clear and smooth as a snowmelt stream. “We’re up to ten dollars a throw.”

I opened my purse, careful to show the Gambler it contained only a few bills, and smoothed out a ten-dollar note from the State Bank of Illinois. Given that the state bank had, in the midst of the financial Panic some months previously, stopped making specie payments to support its paper currency, it was doubtful my note’s value much exceeded its worth as a scrap of paper on which to jot a grocer’s list. The Gambler surely knew its precise market value better than any man present, yet he did not reject the tender.

“The game’s easy enough,” he said, displaying three “kings” to me, one red and two black, each a satirical rendering of the late, unlamented, English King George IV.

The Gambler flipped the cards over; the obverse sides were identical, with the insignia of an American eagle whose talons gripped a tattered Union Jack. The red king reposed in the center. My eyes held it as tightly as the great bird clutched the enemy flag.

The Gambler began moving the cards around, slowly at first but then faster and faster, like a waterwheel gaining speed, so that eventually the individual blades dissolved into an unmediated blur. At this close distance, I could appreciate the full enormity of his hands; whenever he picked up a card, it disappeared from view before reappearing at its new position.

Still, I felt certain I had followed red George on his journey, and when at last the Gambler laid all three cards side by side, I pointed confidently to the card on the left. In a single motion the Gambler turned my card, revealing a black George, and swept my note into his stack.

“Next time, surely,” he murmured.

Before I could retreat to my place besides Jones, a man staggered into my shoulder, nearly knocking me from my feet. It was the drunken Fool, roused from his slumber, and as he apologized and busily straightened my frockcoat with careworn, filthy hands, he whispered into my ear, his breath thick with brandy, “Follow my lead and you’ll get rich. Play again.”

I stepped back to the table and threw down an Illinois twenty, engraved with a portrait of a farmer shucking corn while steamships and railroad engines belched thick smoke in the distance. This note had scarcely greater market value than the ten I’d just lost. Meanwhile, beyond the Gambler, the Fool was procuring two glasses of whiskey, each four fingers deep, from the Barkeep.

The Gambler accepted my new bet without protest. He threw the cards; I picked my ticket; and I lost, the Gambler turning over all three cards to show where red George lay undisturbed.

“Here’s the glass you asked for,” the Fool slurred as he stepped toward me again.

As I reached out, the Fool passed the drink halfway to my hand and let go. The glass crashed to the polished wooden floor of the salon and bounced, the splattering liquid dousing my boots and pants as well as the Gambler’s. I swore with anger. The Fool muttered abject apologies. The Gambler glared at the Fool venomously and felt about inside his frockcoat for a handkerchief to dry off his stitched leather shoes.

For less than a second, the Gambler’s eyes left the cards on the table in front of him in order to aid his search for a cloth. Yet I saw plainly in that time the Fool, moving with surprising dexterity for a man so intoxicated, take a pencil from his pocket and draw a mark on the obverse side of red George. Without appearing too obvious, I looked at the card and saw the eagle protecting red George now had an extra talon on its right claw. 

“Try again?” the Gambler asked me, his eyes fixed once more on his cards as he used his cloth to wipe off his shoes underneath the table.

The Fool, moving again with drunken slovenliness, clumsily elbowed me to the side. “Let me have a go,” he mumbled.

The Gambler tried to shove the Fool out of the way. “You lost your last dollar hours ago. Now, if you please, this gentleman”—he nodded at me—“and I have unfinished business.”

“That’s my dollar, and it’s good,” the Fool insisted, throwing a silver coin onto the table. Looking at me, he added, loud enough for the Gambler to hear, “The barkeep must of counted my change wrong when I procured our refreshment.”

The Gambler sighed, told me not to go anywhere, and threw the cards for the Fool. When the flying cards had, at last, assumed their final positions, the Fool made a great show of deliberation and study. He reached out his trembling hand and touched the eagle with the extra talon.

“Sorry, friend, I told you—”

The Gambler broke off in the middle of his sentence, the Fool’s coin still trapped beneath his index finger. He stared wordlessly at red George.

“It’s about time my luck turned,” the Fool slurred. “Let’s go again.” He placed a crumbled five-dollar banknote on the table. 

The Gambler stared unblinkingly at the Fool for several long seconds. Then he nodded, took up the cards, and did his shuffle.

The Fool touched red George again and gave a great cheer of triumph. The Gambler mouthed, soundlessly, “Impossible!”

The rest of the room noticed something unusual was afoot. 

The Fool nudged me and said with an ill-concealed wink,

“Now my luck’s changed, perhaps yours will too.”

I stepped back into the box and won back my ten and, in the next throw, my twenty. Beads of sweat started to gather along the edges of the Gambler’s elaborate moustache. The crowd had migrated from the bar stand back to the table, and I saw theFool whispering into the ears of a few men. Before I could decide to press my luck, one of them shoved me out of the way and slammed a twenty-dollar note onto the table.

“About time for me to turn in,” announced the Gambler loudly.

The crowd of players shouted him down. Particularly large players positioned themselves on either side of his chair, blocking any easy exit. The Gambler stayed put.

The players threw down money and picked red George with gleeful rapacity. Fistfights nearly broke out as men jostled to be the next to step into the box. Every player, it seemed, was winning back wha the had lost earlier in the evening. Even the sorry, unshaven rogue who had been keeping company with the Actress stepped up to the table and won fifty dollars. I saw that she had explained the scheme to him, and upon his return to her porcelain breast, they split the winnings.

The Gambler’s face was the color of day-old ash. The great stack of his winnings dwindled toward the bare table surface. His crisp white shirt collar had gone limp with sweat. The crowd of players was cheering unrestrainedly.

Even the Gambler’s slave showed signs of increased animation. She had taken a step away from the wall, and she appeared to be following the tempest closely. No doubt she feared she herself would be played into the pot before long.

General Washington looked on severely from the far wall as if rehashing his lectures to the troops about the evils of gambling.

“I insist,” the Gambler shouted at last, when only a few coins and tattered bills remained in front of him. “I’ve had enough.” He struggled to his feet, his fists clenched, prepared to fight his way out of the room if necessary.

“Not until you play me for two thousand dollars,” shouted a patrician voice from behind me. The room filled with gasps.

“You haven’t got it,” barked the Gambler, trying to regain his bravado.

Wordlessly, the planter Jones tossed his bulging purse toward the Gambler’s table, where it landed with a crash. With apprehension leaking out the corners of his eyes, the Gambler sat back down in his chair, untied the drawstring, and began counting out the purse’s contents.

I grabbed Jones’s arm and pulled him back. “You cannot be serious,” I whispered urgently. “You promised you wouldn’t wager what you couldn’t afford to lose. It’s folly.”

“It’s certainty,” he hissed.“It’s freedom. You know it as well as I.” 

“At the least, start with a one-hundred-dollar bet,” I insisted. “Try out the stratagem before you risk it all.”

The young planter shook his head. “He’ll flee for sure after the next throw,” he said. His breath was coming rapidly. “It’s all or nothing. This is my only chance.”

“You’ve got it, all right,” the Gambler said dejectedly from the other side of the table. “But I haven’t. Despite what you may think, I’m an honest man.” The crowd jeered. “I cannot play for what I do not have. So I bid you a good night, sir.” He rose to his feet again.

“Wait!” shouted Jones. Desperation was starting to come into his features. “Let me see that watch of yours.” He pointed to the gold chain at the Gambler’s waist.

The Gambler carefully drew the watch out of his pocket, unlatched the chain from the button securing it, and handed it to the planter, saying as he did, “I could never play for that. My wife, may she rest in peace, gave it to me on the day we wed. It’d been passed down in her family for generations. There’s no price you could put on it.”

The planter looked over the watch carefully. “What’s this engraving mark?” he asked, pointing to an etching on the obverse side and showing it to me. “‘Geo. Wash.’” He added, his voice rising with excitement,“Do you mean to say this belonged to the general himself?”

The Gambler said glumly, “I told you I could never play for it. Give it back.” He held out his hand.

“It would fetch three thousand at least from the dealers in the French Market in New Orleans,” Jones whispered over his shoulder at me, his eyes aflame with greed. “This is even better than I could have hoped.”

I looked at Jones and back at the Gambler. The slump of his shoulders was almost too pronounced. Something was amiss.

“I beg you to reconsider,” I pleaded with Jones. “Think of your family. They’re counting on your good judgment.”

“There’s no glory for cowards,” he shot back. To the Gambler he said loudly, “I consent to play you for it. That against my purse. I come out the loser, even if I win, but it’ll have to do.” When he saw the Gambler wavering, he added, in a domineering voice he surely used to command the slaves on his father’s plantation, “I insist you play me. Otherwise, I shall spread word all along the river that you are the lowest, vilest type of gambler, one who refuses to meet his manly obligations.”

The Gambler looked around frantically, seeking some last means of escape, but sat down with a weary nod. He took up his formerly trustworthy companions and, halfheartedly displaying them to the planter, gave them their shuffle.

The Gambler spread the three cards out on the table. The eagle on the far right had the extra talon in his claw. Yelling out, “Red!” Jones leapt to claim it with an exultant index finger.

Giving a long hopeless sigh, the Gambler turned the card. I knew it before I saw it.

Black George stared up at the room.

 

Copyright © 2017 Jonathan F. Putnam.

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Jonathan Putnam is a writer and attorney. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, he is a nationally renowned trial lawyer and an avid amateur Lincoln scholar. His second Lincoln & Speed Mystery, Perish from the Earth, will be published in July. The first book in the Lincoln & Speed series is the critically acclaimed These Honored Dead. Find out more at www.jonathanfputnam.com

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1 comment
1. Shiela Edwards
I love history.
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