After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

“One of these towns here?” He was reasonably sure that they were still in Indiana.

“No, no. Far to the south.”

She mentioned a brother, and Jerry asked: “Is he in the army now?”

“He died at Vicksburg.”

“Uh… sorry to hear it,” Jerry replied awkwardly.

She acknowledged his sympathy with a slight nod. “I have another brother with General Sherman in Georgia.”

“Older or younger?”

“Oh, younger. I’m the oldest in the family. Twenty-four. What about yourself?”


“I meant, about your family.” She blushed just slightly.

“No brothers or sisters,” he said shortly. Jerry suspected that as an only child he had missed out on a lot of happiness.

“You meant there never were? Ah, that’s too bad. It must have been a lonely way to grow up.”

“I had a lot of cousins around when I was small,” he said truthfully. “That helped.”

She hesitated very briefly before she added: “And no wife now, I suppose?”

“No wife.”

“That’s just as well in our line of work. You’ll leave no widow.”

“Is that why you let yourself get into it—I mean, did becoming a widow—”

Colleen nodded, and before he could very well express his sympathy again she had turned to the window, as if to keep him from seeing her face. Jerry wanted to ask her more questions about herself, but, not being ready to answer the same sort of questions, he forebore.

As he served the evening meal’s first course, Sam announced that the train would reach its final stop, Detroit, early the next morning. He suggested that reservations for Mr. and Mrs. James for the next train east be made by telegraph from the next stop. Jerry thought that a good idea and gave Sam money for the telegram.

During the night Colleen tossed in her bed, crying out with nightmares. Jerry, awakened on his sofa, went to comfort her.

He took her by the arm, wanting to wake her gently. But she pulled free and rolled away across the wide bed, whimpering. In the midst of her broken murmers, Jerry thought he made out a name: Steven.

Suddenly Colleen rolled back toward Jerry, clutched his wrist, and pulled him onto the bed. He lay there, atop the covers, with an arm over her covered shoulder, comforting her as best he could.

Slowly Colleen came fully awake, the moans of her dream-struggle turning into a soft and hopeless weeping.

“Hey, it’s ok, it’s all right.” Jerry kept reassuring her gently as he lay there with no urge to do anything but soothe her. Gently he stroked her hair.

Presently she ceased weeping, and soon after that she said: “You’re a good man, Mr. James. Perhaps the best I’ve met in this business. Now go back to the sofa.”

She was patting his arm gently, but her voice, though it still trembled, had an edge to it.

“Yes ma’am,” said Jerry, and went back.

Their train carried them into Detroit right on schedule, early on the morning of Saturday, April eighth. In the railroad depot of that city they said goodbye to their millionaires’ quarters, and to Sam, who had fixed them a sizable hamper of food to take along when they boarded their next train.

Switching trains was accomplished without any special difficulty, but the loss of their private car meant goodbye to any chance for open conversation, and though it eased the problem of how to keep his background obscured, Jerry had mixed feelings about that. It meant, as well, goodbye to other privacy, and that he did not like at all.

On the plus side, he now began to overhear a lot of interesting conversation, conveying useful information to the visiting alien. The other passengers on this train were all white—Jerry gathered that blacks rode in the baggage car when they rode at all—but otherwise quite a mixed bag. This train was vastly inferior to their private accommodations, but luxurious compared to the local that Jerry had ridden out of Springfield. Their coach boasted a water closet at each end, as well as sinks. There was even a cooler for drinking water, tin cup attached by a slender chain.

Here, as in the private car, the layout was somewhat compartmentalized. The rear compartment, about a fourth of the car, was for ladies only, but Colleen, like most of the other women, chose to stay with her male companion as much as possible. Seemingly there were no unaccompanied women aboard.

She rode beside Jerry in a double seat, while around them children wept, shouted, laughed, and otherwise made a racket, and adults dozed, chatted, or endured the trip in silence. The roaring train surrounded them oppressively, raining considerably more soot and sound upon them than they had been exposed to in the private car.

The clocks in the passing towns kept getting further and further ahead of Jerry’s watch. By now Jerry had begun to wonder whether any regular time zones had yet been established. These people seemed to be setting their watches and clocks by the local sun! Not that he cared much; he had more immediate problems to worry about.

At a whistlestop just east of Cleveland, Colleen touched Jerry on the arm and pointed unobtrusively out through the grimy window beside her.

“Some of Lafe’s people,” she murmured, so softly that no one but Jerry would have had a chance of hearing her.

Jerry looked out the window with great interest, just in time to observe a couple of tough-looking men in civilian suits and bowler hats stop a young man on the platform. He had put down his carpetbag and they were showing what might be badges—Jerry couldn’t really tell from where he sat—and obviously interrogating their victim.

Colleen added in the same low tone: “Only looking for bounty-jumpers, most likely.”

Now he was really lost. Damn Pilgrim, anyway. He asked: “And how are bounty-jumpers best recognized?”

“They wont be recognized at all, I’d bet, if it’s to be left up to those two,” Colleen sniffed. She appeared to regard Lafe’s agents and their victim with about equal disdain. The train pulled out before they saw the conclusion of the incident.

The day wore on, passengers feeding themselves from whatever food and drink they had brought with them. A garrulously extroverted young soldier, recently discharged and radiant with joy as his Pennsylvania home drew ever nearer, went from seat to seat aboard the coach offering to trade some of his hardtack biscuits for a share in more palatable fair. Jerry and Colleen shared some of the contents of their hamper with him, but declined to try his biscuits, which he had been carrying wrapped in a long-unwashed fragment of blanket.

When darkness had fallen and it was time for berths to be made up, the ladies retired to the female compartment in the rear. Overnight passengers, it appeared, were expected to supply their own bedding, and sure enough, the bottom of the hamper packed by Sam revealed two folded blankets.

A uniformed porter came around to fold the men’s berths down from the wall, causing the daytime seats to disappear as part of the same transformation. The only railroad-supplied bedding was the slightly stained mattress pads that came down with the berths, triple-deck constructions with each shelf jutting independently from the wall.

The night of April eighth passed uneventfully, and Colleen dutifully rejoined her husband next morning somewhere in Ohio. At the first stop that the train made after sunrise, people in their Sunday best came aboard carrying palm branches. Jerry stared at them uncomprehendingly.

“Palm Sunday,” Colleen beside him commented.

“Oh.” Sunday, the ninth of April, he thought. That leaves five more days. Am I really going to do what Pilgrim tells me? Do I have a choice? If this is Palm Sunday, next Sunday will be Easter. And Friday the fourteenth will be Good Friday, won’t it?

Colleen gazed after the happy Christians moving past them through the car. “Were your folks religious, Jim?”

“No. Not much.”

“Mine neither. But there are times when I think I’d like to be. Are yours still alive?”

“My mother is,” he said, abstractedly, truthfully. “My father—my original father kind of walked out, I understand, when I was very small.”

“Stepfather bring you up?”

“Yep. I always think of him as my father. He’s still around.”

As if unconsciously, two-thirds lost in her own thoughts, Colleen reached to take his hand. No one had ever taken his hand in quite that way before, he thought. Almost—he supposed—the way a loving wife might do it. For some reason Jerry was moved.

The remainder of Sunday passed as had the days before, in soot and sound and roaring motion. How many such days had he now spent in this alien world? He was starting to lose track.

The train that bore him was beginning to seem itself like a time machine—or an eternity machine perhaps, a mysterious and inescapable conveyance whose journey never ended. Eventually the lamps were once more lighted, the berths made up again. Men and women retired in their separate compartments.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred