After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

But now, ahead and to his right, the agricultural expanse was interrupted by a long sweep of woodland that seemed to follow the course of a stream. As the woods drew nearer, the highway drifted right, sliding down along a heretofore invisible slope in the flat Illinois countryside. Then it suddenly drove more deeply, leveling off again under an arch of tall trees that lost itself inside a tunnel of bright new leaves.

Suddenly there were roadside signs, proclaiming the presence of New Salem State Park. There were log structures to be seen, and split-rail fences. The twentieth century had not entirely disappeared, but it was no longer unquestionably in charge; on that descending slope a border of some kind had been crossed.

On Jerry’s right now, as he cruised the narrow highway at reduced speed, a wooded slope went up. On his left, beyond more trees, he could catch glimpses of a small river, banks already green enough for summer. That, according to his map, would have to be the Sangamon, where Lincoln had once poled his flatboat.

The motel was on the side of the road toward the river. It consisted of a modest lodge made of logs, and rustic cabins scattered back from the two-lane highway. A handful of cars were parked in the gravel lot.

Jerry pulled off the road and parked, went through the business of seeing to his coat and tie again, crossed a wooden porch and entered a log-walled lobby. To his eye, moderately experienced in academic appearances, none of the three or four people in sight looked like the head of a foundation. Anyway none of them took any interest in his arrival. After peering vaguely into a restaurant and a gift shop, and generally standing around looking lost for a minute or so, he approached another hotel desk and asked if there were any messages for him.

“I’m not a guest here, but—”

The woman behind the counter was rummaging in cubbyholes. “Mr. Flint… yes, there’s a message for you, sir.”

This time the note was on a small sheet torn from a pocket notebook. And the handwriting, though nearly as superbly legible as that of the first note, was different, smaller and rather feminine.

Dear Mr. Flint—

Sorry again not to be able to meet you. The experiment is keeping Dr. Pilgrim and myself both busy. If you would please come up into the park and join us in front of the Onstot cabin, we can begin your introduction to our rather unusual enterprise. We hope to see you in the park this afternoon.

Jan Chen

(for Dr. Pilgrim)

Whoever Jan Chen might be, there was something intrinsically pleasing, Jerry thought, about her handwriting. The notebook sheet looked businesslike enough, but he thought he could detect the faintest whiff of perfume.

Jerry decided that he would walk up the hill—he’d done a good bit of driving already today, and would certainly have to do some more. The park entrance proper was a few hundred yards down the highway, but directly opposite the motel parking lot a fairly well-worn though unofficial-looking footpath pointed in the right direction before vanishing among the half-greened trees a few yards in. Breathing spring country air, Jerry crossed the highway—traffic just now was light to nonexistent—and started up.

The slope he was climbing was not particularly high, but almost until he was there the trees obscured his destination; Jerry wondered if the area had been logged since Lincoln’s time. A wasp cruised past then hummed away again. There were a few muddy places at flat spots in the path, but nothing that his city-shod feet could not avoid.

As Jerry crested the hill, which he saw now was really an extended ridge, a small log cabin suddenly appeared among the trees. Beyond it there was another, and another beyond that. All at once he became aware that the twentieth century had disappeared completely. There was only an earthen path, trees, logs—and above the trees a sky for the moment innocent of jet contrails. The tang of woodsmoke reached Jerry’s nostrils, and when he looked for it he could see a faint blue-white trickle rising from the tall stone chimney of the nearest cabin.

Jerry now noticed that mixed with the smell of woodsmoke came the aroma of cookery.

The door of the cabin stood ajar in the mild gray afternoon. Out of curiosity Jerry pushed it farther open—this building was an exhibit in a park that was open to the public, right?—and peered into the dim interior, which was lighted only by one small window on another wall.

A figure moved, near the broad stone hearth where a small fire glowed amid gray ashes. The figure was that of a woman, wearing a bonnet and a long dress—a dress about a hundred years too long. Her face as she turned toward the doorway was shaded by the bonnet, hard to see.

“Come in,” the woman said.

Jerry stood dead still, one hand on the door’s ancient-looking, handcarved latch of wood. “I—” he started to say, and then quit. No, he thought.

“Come in,” she invited cheerfully. “Try some cornbread.”

Blinking against the smoke and dimness, he managed to get a better look at the woman. She was about forty, fresh-faced and a bit plump. In one hand, protected by a thick homemade potholder, she was gripping a high-sided metal pan from which she now began to pry slabs of steaming yellow-golden stuff onto a large white platter that waited on the handmade wooden table. Other dishes on the table held more cornbread already cut into chunks of modest size. There was also, Jerry observed with faint but real relief, a package of paper napkins, very much of the late twentieth century.

“You had me going for just a minute,” he admitted.

“Beg pardon?”

“I thought—you being in the costume and everything—oh, never mind. I wasn’t sure what was going on.” It was easy enough to chuckle now.

“Oh.” The woman was still smiling at him, but not as if she really understood. “We’re from the historical society. We’re occupying several cabins here today, demonstrating what life was like for the original settlers.”

“Oh. I see. You’re doing a very realistic job.” Accepting first a paper napkin and then a piece of cornbread, Jerry spoke in honest admiration of the evident skill required for baking over the open fire. He listened politely to some more information on cooking tools and methods, and then strolled on. Out of the cabin now, he could see that the path continued on to join a system of broad gravel walks. In that direction were scattered a dozen or more log buildings whose loose grouping extended more or less along the top of the wooded ridge.

Picking up another brochure from a tray mounted on a rustic stand where the official walks began, Jerry learned that there were about twenty buildings in all in the reconstructed settlement. On this gray weekday a very modest number of other tourists were about. Jerry walked forward. He was just thinking that it oughtn’t to be hard to pick out a working scientist and his assistant when he saw them. There was no doubt in his mind, though they were still at a considerable distance.


Approaching the man he thought must be Dr. Pilgrim, Jerry walked past a water-powered mill that was, for the moment at least, motionless, a blacksmith shop manned by folk in historic costume, and half a dozen more cabins. Then he was drawing close to the people he thought he was looking for, and their machines.

The little machines, mounted on what looked like surveyors’ tripods, were aimed at what Jerry supposed must be the historic Onstot residence. The man who was concentrating his attention so energetically upon what the machines were doing was a couple of inches shorter than Jerry, compactly built, and of indeterminate age. At least he was still young enough for his black hair to be free of gray. His coloring in general was rather swarthy.

Muscular, hairy forearms protruded from rolled-up shirtsleeves. The half-dozen pockets of the man’s Banana Republic bush vest were stuffed with electronic cables, small tools, pencils, notebooks, and what looked to Jerry like camera accessories.

The young woman with him looked vaguely oriental, as if the name Chen might fit her. Her straight black hair, or most of it, was tied up in an expensive-looking scarf. She wore jeans and a tucked-in shirt, with large dangling earrings that were perhaps intended to show that she didn’t really belong on a construction crew.

At twenty yards or so, before either of the pair had given any sign of noticing him, Jerry paused in his approach. He was making a last effort at trying to figure out just what the hell they might be doing, so that his first attempt at conversation would not appear too stupid.

They had the Onstot cabin triangulated with their machines, and they were either photographing it or making surveyor’s measurements of it. Or maybe they were doing something that required both processes. A couple of passing tourists gazed at the workers in ignorant admiration, and passed up a close look at the Onstot cabin, being anxious not to interfere with whatever kind of special work was going on.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred