After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

Next he toured the house, upstairs and down; everything he saw confirmed that the place had been abandoned for years. Almost all the windows were gone, all the rooms suffering from exposure to the weather.

Returning at last to the room in which he’d awakened, he looked again at the tall hat waiting for him on the floor. This time he tried it on. It fit him nicely. The folded garment turned out to be a coat. He was afraid that it would fit him too, and threw it down on the mattress without making the experiment.

Then Jerry went down on his knees beside the carpetbag and started taking out the contents. Most of it was clothing. There was a spare vest and trousers, along with several sets of odd-looking underwear, of the same general style he’d already found himself to be wearing, and socks and handkerchiefs. There were two clean shirts, much like the one he had on, with detached collars packed in a separate interior pocket of the bag.

Another small pocket in the bag held a straight razor, folded shut, and a small pouch made of a material that felt something like plastic but wasn’t. In the pouch Jerry discovered a bar of soap, and a small brush he could dimly recognize as a shaving aid, probably because it had been packed in proximity to the razor.

Yet another small interior pocket held a small blue-steel revolver. Jerry, who was no firearms expert, fumbled around gingerly with the thing, turning the cylinder and gently thumbing back the hammer and slowly letting it down again. Peering at the cylinder he could see cartridges occupying five of the six chambers. Something about them looked peculiar even to his eye, amateurish with regard to firearms.

In the same pocket of the bag there was a folded letter, still in its envelope; envelope and letter were creased and worn. In faded, water-spotted blue ink the letter was addressed to one James Lockwood, at some illegible location in Missouri. The handwriting, Jerry thought, was probably feminine. And it looked, he thought, oddly like Jan Chen’s.

He opened the letter and started to read. There was no date or any other heading.

My Dearest Jim—

That was about all he could make out; the body of the letter had been soaked worse than the address. He would try to decipher the rest later, when he had time. Or he would mind his own business. These things weren’t his.

Working quickly, he repacked the bag with all the items he had taken out of it. Then at last he grabbed up the coat from where he had thrown it down, and tried it on. The coat proved to fit him as well as did the garments he was already wearing, but the cut of it was very strange, different from that of any suit coat Jerry had ever worn. It came down halfway to his knees, and hung on him as unpressed and shapeless as the trousers.

Now Jerry started on the coat’s pockets, with which it was well supplied. They contained a handkerchief, basically clean, and a small folding pocket knife. There was also a great deal of paper money, in several colors and varieties, with every variety claiming to be dollars. Most of the notes bore the name of one bank or another, in different states. And then there were gold and silver coins. Counting it all up as best he could, Jerry figured that he was in possession of something close to a thousand dollars altogether, if this money was real.

But of course it couldn’t be, not really. The money, like the clothing and the gun, had to be part of the big joke that was being played on him. Yes, of course it did.

His fingers were shaking more and more as he stuffed the cash away awkwardly into the unfamiliar pockets of the coat.

There was a key—a single key—resting by itself in one of the inner pockets of his coat. An old-fashioned large key, with a comparatively simple bit. From the moment he saw it, Jerry had the feeling that it was important.

And there was a locket in one of his coat pockets, with a painted miniature likeness inside. The likeness of a comely young woman with brown hair, wearing a high nineteenth-century collar; he didn’t know her. She was certainly not Jan Chen, or the one-name Olivia either. Was she perhaps the woman who had written the indecipherable letter to Jim Lockwood?

Jerry’s head ached, and so did his throat. Remembering the pump in the back yard, he went back to it, and with much squealing and clanking of metal made it work. For what felt like a long time there was no result. Then water, rusty at first, gushed from the spout, and Jerry soaked his head in the yellowish irregular stream, and swallowed a much-needed drink.

All right. Joke or whatever, he was here, and he would deal with the world as it came to him.

If this was a joke he could go along with it. He put on his coat and hat—the first people who saw him dressed like this were going to laugh at him, but so what—and went out of the front door of the house to stand on the edge of the road. Between the ruts there were some horse-droppings that didn’t look all that old. The road itself was not modern gravel, but what looked like clay, in places no more than mud. Here and there puddles still lingered from the last rain. Split-rail fences of the type Jerry had seen at New Salem marked off fallow fields on either side.

In one direction, toward Jerry’s left, there were some buildings in sight, a mile or two away. In the other directions, nothing that looked like a habitation. Carrying his carpetbag, he started walking to his left, which he decided had to be north, assuming that the rising sun still marked the east.

These untended fields were deriving no benefit from their fences, but the wooden rails provided perches for a profusion of songbirds. The day was warm and clear, but not yet hot. All Jerry could think of was that if he kept walking long enough on a road, someone would come out of a house, drive up in a car, or descend in a helicopter, and start to explain the joke.

The more he thought about this tremendous joke, the more explaining he could see that it was going to take. But on the other hand if he once admitted that this might not be a joke—

His mind had reached a place where logical thought seemed to be of little benefit. Therefore he rested his mind as best he could, and kept on walking.

Another human being came in sight at last, a man, way off across the fields, driving horses as he walked beside them—no, the animals that he drove were mules. They were hitched up to something, pulling it.

Jerry had been walking for about a mile when he became aware of another engineless vehicle, this one overtaking him from behind. He heard the thunk of hard wheels on uneven ruts, the quick hooves of a horse, the jingle of harness.

Jerry stepped off the road. He turned and made himself smile as the driver of the wagon pulled to a stop beside him. The driver, a man of about forty, was dressed in a costume very similar to Jerry’s, with minor variations. “Headed for Springfield?” he called down cheerfully.

“Yes. I certainly am.” Jerry took the question as an invitation, tossed his carpetbag into the small cargo compartment at the rear of the buggy—or whatever this four-wheeled two-passenger vehicle ought to be called—and climbed up awkwardly onto the single high seat beside the driver. In a moment they were under way again, in a hard-jolting but still remarkably quiet ride.

Holding the reins in his left hand, the driver extended his right to shake. “Winthrop Johnson. M’friends call me Win.”

“Jer—Jim Lockwood.” He had a letter in his pocket, didn’t he, to prove his identity? If it should ever come to that. Whatever the game, he had to play the cards he had been dealt. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Don’t think a thing about it. Suppose you haven’t been walking far?”

“No, no. Not far.” Jerry took off his hat, scratched his head, and rubbed his eyes. Already the buggy’s motion was beginning to revive his queasiness; but he had no wish to go back to walking. “Truth is, last night some friends and I got into a bottle. Went a little deeper than I planned.”

“Hahaa.” It wasn’t really a laugh, more a drawn-out sound of sympathy. Win Johnson shook his head; he was obviously a man of worldly understanding. “I’ve been down that road myself more than once. There’ve been mornings when I didn’t rightly know where I was when I woke up.”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred