After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

“I appreciate your sympathy.” Jerry allowed his eyes to close again. “How far is Springfield?”

Johnson squinted up toward the sun; there were certainly no road signs to consult. “Should be there by dinner time, or so they told me. This road’s a new one to me—maybe you’ve been over it before?”

Jerry shook his head.

“Well then, we’ll just be explorin’ together. I’m a land agent for the railroad, and have been talking to some surveyors. Don’t believe I caught what your line is?”

Jerry considered. “I travel,” he said after a moment.

“Hahaa. Between jobs right now. Wal, m’friend, I don’t know if Springfield is a-going to be the best place to find a new one. Chicago, now, I’d say your chances are bound to be better there. Things will be a little slow all over, I’m afraid, now that the war is winding to an end.”

“An end,” Jerry repeated. He was barely able to keep himself from asking: What war?

The other nodded. “Grant’s troops entered Richmond on the third. Can’t be long now before Lee surrenders. That should just about finish her off.”

“On the third.” Jerry thought he was going numb all over. “What’s today?”

“Well, the fifth. Wednesday.”

Jerry was riding with his eyes closed again. He told himself that when he opened them, he would be riding in an automobile. But he couldn’t convince himself of that, not while the damned buggy kept bouncing so. Not while he could smell the horse, and hear the beat of hooves. Grant and Lee. Richmond. Sure.

“Hate to see a man suffer so,” said the voice of Winthrop Johnson. “Here, have a hair of the dog?”

Jerry opened his eyes to see, almost under his nose, the jouncing right hand of his companion extending a small metal flask in his direction. With a kind of desperation he accepted the flask and put it to his lips. The taste of the stuff inside was fiery, but still surprisingly good, and the net result of a couple of small swallows actually beneficial.

“What is that?” he asked, gasping lightly as he handed the flask back.

“Peach brandy.” His benefactor seemed somewhat surprised by the question.

“It’s very good—no, no more, thanks. One hair of the dog is plenty.”

“Not from around these parts of Illinois, are you, Jim?”

“No, no. Back east.”

“Thought so, listenin’ to the way you talk. I’m from Indiana, myself. You from New York, maybe?”

“That’s right.”

“Thought so. I can usually pin a man down by the way he talks.”

The countryside flowed past the buggy at a slow pace, but still faster than his feet had been able to make it move, and with infinitely less effort on his part. His brief stint of walking had been enough to convince him that this mode of transportation was in every way an improvement.

At intervals Win Johnson’s rig passed a couple of heavy wagons, laden with farm produce and laboring in the same direction. Two young women costumed in ankle-length dresses and pinned-on hats went by going the other way, in a light two-seater carriage pulled by a graceful gray horse. Jerry, numb with wonders, observed them in their Scarlett O’Hara costumes almost without surprise. Johnson tipped his hat lightly to the ladies, and Jerry caught on just in time to tip his own hat just before the other carriage passed.

Why was he going to Springfield? Chiefly, he decided, because he had to go somewhere. He couldn’t have simply waited in an abandoned farmhouse for something to happen. But God knew what was going to happen to him next.

With half his mind Jerry continued to make wary conversation with Win Johnson, while with the other half he got busy trying to reconstruct the exact circumstances of his departure from what he considered the normal world—the late twentieth century, in which era he had spent his life up until now. This just didn’t feel at all the same as his childhood escape from the burning house. No, this experience was vastly different. Apart from the subjective difference, this time he had been outfitted.

But how had it happened? Everything had seemed perfectly normal when he’d arrived in Springfield. He’d registered in a real, modern hotel, one with plumbing and electric lights and elevators. Then he’d driven out to New Salem, where there were split-rail fences just like these, and at about that point things had started to go subtly wrong. After he’d met Dr. Pilgrim and Jan Chen the deterioration had speeded up.

After visiting New Salem, and the Foundation office, he’d gone out to dinner with Jan. He could still sense pizza and wine in aftertaste. But damn it, there had to be something besides wine to explain why he’d passed out. He hadn’t consumed that much. He just didn’t, ever, drink enough to knock himself out. He never had. Certainly he wouldn’t have done so in the course of an extended job interview.

It could be, it could very well be he supposed, that someone had put something other than wine in his glass. Certainly Jan Chen had had the opportunity. Jerry hadn’t been taking any paranoid precautions—hell, he hadn’t even been paying attention. But why should she, or anyone else, have drugged him?

Because, the obvious answer came, Jan Chen and Dr. Pilgrim, and probably Olivia and Mr.

Helpman too, had determined that he was going to wake up here. Wherever “here” might be.

Have they spoken to you about your going on a trip of any kind?

But basically he couldn’t believe it. No, somewhere there was a real explanation. A better one at least than the one he couldn’t swallow, involving as it did the armies of Grant and Lee. This place through which he was riding now was some kind of extended historical area, an expansion of New Salem. And… and Jerry couldn’t really believe that either, but at the moment he had nothing better.

Somehow the hours passed, and with them the miles of the seldom-traveled road, with never a utility pole in sight, or even a contrail in the sky. Instead there was the smell of the open land in the spring, and the feel of the open air. There were also a great many flies, drawn perhaps by the smell of horse. Once Johnson pulled off the road and whoa’d the horse, and the gentlemen relieved themselves in the tall roadside grass, beside a copse of trees. There were whole sections of mature woodland here, much more of it remaining than in the Illinois that Jerry knew.

They climbed back into the buggy and drove on. The burden of Johnson’s conversation was what a smart man ought to do after the war, what turn the climate for business was going to take when peace became the normal state of affairs once more. Johnson was not so much anxious to convince Jerry of any course of action as to use him as a sounding board. What did Jerry think of petroleum as an investment?

“I think it might do well.”

Eventually the woods thinned out considerably, and they passed some dwellings that were not attached to farms.

“Looks like we made it,” Johnson remarked unnecessarily.

The unpaved road was gradually becoming an unpaved street. The capital city of Illinois was even muddier than the countryside, and Jerry’s first general impression was that of an extended rural slum. Not only dogs, but pigs, goats, and chickens appeared unfettered on every road. But the houses were clustering more closely now, and the gardens grew closer together. Now the streets were tree-lined; elms speckled with green springtime buds made graceful gothic arches, spanning some streets completely.

“Where can I drop you off, Jim?”

“Eighth and Jackson.” Jerry had been pondering how best to answer this question when it came, and now he gave the one Springfield location that he was able to remember.

“Right you are. Remember what I said, Chicago’s probably the place for you to try.”

“I’ll remember, thanks. And thanks for the ride.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Jerry jumped out of the buggy when it slowed almost to a stop at the proper corner. He remembered to retrieve his carpetbag. Win Johnson clucked to his horse and rolled away.

Long afternoon shadows were falling across Eighth Street. There was one building in sight that Jerry could recognize, the house on the north-east corner of the intersection. He stood in the dusty street with his carpetbag in hand, staring at that house, for some time after the sounds of Winthrop Johnson’s horse and buggy had died away. That was Abraham Lincoln’s house on the corner, and if Jerry only went up to the door of it and knocked… but no. If Grant and Lee were fighting in Virginia, Abraham Lincoln couldn’t be here in Springfield, could he? President Lincoln would have to be in Washington.

Unless, of course—it hit Jerry suddenly that Lincoln had been shot, just as the war was ending. Of course; Jan had talked about that at some length last night: the tragic loss that Lincoln’s death had been to the country and the world. The peculiar intensity of her talk came back to Jerry now, though at the moment he couldn’t recall all the details of what she’d said.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred