After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

Jerry’s was a middle berth tonight, with one man snoring below him and another overhead. Bootless, hatless, and coatless, his belongings tucked around him, he dozed off wrapped in Sam’s gift of a blanket. His coat, with revolver carefully enclosed, was folded under his head.

He was awakened in the small hours of the morning, by the sound of heavy gunfire.


Jerry had his revolver in hand and his boots on when his feet hit the narrow aisle between stacks of berths. Most of his bunkmates were already on their feet, milling around and cursing in the near-darkness, and a good proportion of them were also armed. The train had ground to a stop by now. Armed male passengers were looking out of windows.

This was no train robbery, though. Squeezing himself into position at a window, Jerry could see that huge bonfires had been built along both sides of the track. Men on horses were racing madly by, waving their hats and yelling, whooping up a giant celebration.

Jerry caught the words shouted by one rider who shot past at top speed: “—Lee’s surrendered!—”

Now the door at the men’s end of the car was standing open and someone had thrown a bundle of newspapers aboard. Someone else had got the lanterns burning brightly. Bottles of whisky and flasks of unknown fire were being passed from hand to hand, and Jerry choked down a swig.

Presently he got to see a newspaper, dated Monday, April tenth. The lead story on the front page read:





The Official Correspondence Between Grant and Lee

On Thursday, the President paid another visit to Richmond. Accompanied by Mrs. Lincoln, Senators Sumner and Harlan, and others…

Celebration was spreading aboard the train. Exploding, Jerry decided, would be a better word for it. Amid the noise the women, wrapped in shawls and blankets, were coming forward from their sleeping compartment demanding to know what was going on. Men, some of them utter strangers, shouted victory at them, hugged and kissed them. Women screamed in joy and prayed when they heard the news, thanking Providence for the end of casualty lists.

The train whistle shrieked again and again, but so far the train remained standing where it had stopped. Jerry could see lights in windows out there, some kind of a town nearby, no one sleeping in it now. Men were leaning out the open windows of the train, firing revolvers into the air, bellowing to add their noise to that of the celebration going on outside.

Jerry had turned to face the rear in the crowded aisle, wanting to see Colleen as quickly as possible when she appeared from the women’s quarters. But so far she hadn’t come into sight. He swayed on his feet with the jolt that came as the train at last made an effort at getting into motion again.

The jolt was repeated, this time with more effect. The movement drew more cheers from those aboard, as if it were another military victory. “Mistah Lockwood?”

There was a tug on Jerry’s sleeve, and he looked down into the face of a small black boy. “What is it?”

“Youah wife, sah. She want you back in the baggage cah. Two cahs back.”

Baggage car? All Jerry could think at the moment was: She’s found out something. Maybe Bakers people are on board. “Lead on,” he said, pausing only to grab his coat and hat from inside his berth.

He followed the boy back through the narrow corridor that bypassed the women’s section of the coach, and then outside through its rear door. There was no enclosed vestibule between cars, only one roaring, swaying platform coupled to another, a standing space beaten by the wind of the train’s passage and sprinkled with the sparks and soot and cinders of its power.

“What—?” The boy had disappeared, somewhere, somehow. Jerry wrenched at the handle of the door leading into the next car, but if his guide had gone that way he had locked the door behind him. There were two ladders close at hand, one on the end of each car, each ladder a series of rungs riveted or welded to the body of the coach, leading up to the train’s roof. And now at the bottom of the nearer ladder, a few feet away, a dark figure stood, gripping a rung with his left hand, holding a gun in his right, aiming it at Jerry. The gunman was mouthing words of which the train noise would let Jerry hear only a shouted fragment. “—sends his regards—”

Had Jerry been at all familiar with the reality of firearms, had he ever seen at first hand what they could do, he might have been paralyzed by the threat. As matters stood, he reacted before fear could disable him.

At the karate dojo they had sometimes, in leisured safety, rehearsed responses to this situation. Rehearsal paid off now. Jerry raised his own empty hands—the first step was to make the attacker think you had surrendered. Then a fraction of a second later he lashed out with a front snap kick, catching both wrist and gunbutt with the toe of his right boot.

There was an explosion almost in Jerry’s face. Powder fragments stung his skin, while the flash and the bullet went narrowly over his left shoulder. The gun itself went clattering away in darkness. Immediately after impact Jerry’s right leg had come down to support his weight again, so now he had both feet as solidly planted as anyone’s feet could be on the rocking, jouncing platform. Jerry was no black belt, and the straight overhand punch he threw at his opponent was not as hard as some he had sent at the wooden makiwara in the practice dojo. But still it landed with considerably more force than the man might have anticipated from someone of Jerry’s size and build, even had he seen it coming.

Hit on the cheekbone by a stunning impact, the disarmed man let out one surprised sound and staggered back, his first inadvertent step carrying him off the platform at the top of the steep iron stairs that led down to the ground. While the train was in motion those stairs were barricaded, but by nothing more than a low-slung length of chain, whose links now caught the tottering man at the back of his thighs. For a moment his arms waved frantically. He tried, and failed, to grab at the handrailing beside the steps. Then he was gone.

By now the figure of another man had appeared on the platform, and Jerry turned instinctively to meet the new threat. Dimly he could see that the arm that came swinging up at him held a knife. He blocked the blow somehow, but the man’s other fist, or something he held in it, clouted Jerry on the side of the head and he went down, momentarily dazed. Now at last he remembered the pistol in his own inside pocket, and managed to pull it out. It was kicked out of his hand before he could fire. He tried to roll over on the narrow platform, but his opponent was crouching over him, knife poised for a downward thrust.

Another gunshot punctuated the steady roaring of the train. The second enemy sprang away, and in a moment had vanished up the ladder to the roof. One more shot rang out even as the man was climbing, and Jerry thought he heard the ricochet go whining away from heavy steel.

Colleen, wrapped in a blanket over her nightgown, stood in the open doorway of the forward car, a stubby-barreled pistol in her hand. In a moment she had moved forward to crouch over Jerry. “You hurt?”

Before he could answer he had to get to his feet and take an inventory. Everything was functioning. Amazingly, he thought, there was no blood, Along his left forearm the sleeve of his coat had been ripped by his attacker’s knife, but the blade had not pierced the shirtsleeve or the skin beneath.

“Let’s get inside. This’s only a two-shot.” And Colleen, gesturing with her pistol, tucked it back into the folds of her blanket. “Damn it all, I should have known right away. Little nigger boy came to tell me you wanted me to stay put. I should have known.”

Inside the train again, in the light of the kerosene lamps, he could see the anger in her eyes, and could tell that some of it at least was directed at him, Jim Lockwood, the experienced agent, who had just fallen for what must have been some kind of a crude trick. But she was angry at herself too.

“What do we do now?” he asked, humbly.

She looked at him in surprise, then shrugged. “Keep going, get to Washington fast as we can. Got a better idea?”


Inside the coach the celebration was still in progress, and if anyone aboard the train had heard the sounds of gunfire out on the platform, no one would have thought twice about them. But eventually the excitement tapered off, and most of the passengers returned to their berths. A few stayed up, singing patriotic songs in drunken voices. Jerry, back in his berth, dozed fitfully, hand under the pillow of his rolled-up coat, where his gun would be if he had managed to retain it. He had refused Colleen’s whispered, reluctant offer to loan him her reloaded “derringer”, as she called it. He thought, but did not want to admit aloud, that she could probably use it much more effectively.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred