After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

Lincoln’s audience this evening approved of him in general, and they wished him well. But he was losing them as an audience, paragraph by reasoned paragraph of his speech. It was dull business that he had written out to read to them tonight, not words of triumph or inspiration. Urgent business, doubtless, but dull. Tonight it was enough for almost everyone but him to savor victory. The war at last was over.

Now the President’s voice was coming through clearly again. He was saying something about very intelligent blacks, including the former slaves who had fought in the Union ranks, being allowed to vote.

There was grumbling in the crowd at that. “Damned radical after all!” was one of the comments Jerry heard near him. “Democrats were right. He’ll have the niggers voting in the next election. Voting straight Republican.”


On the morning of Wednesday, April twelfth, Jerry awoke from a confused dream in a state of disoriented terror. He lay for an indeterminate time staring at the white plastered ceiling above him before he could recognize it as that of his room in Willard’s, and remember how he had come to be here lying under it.

Next he tried to gather his thoughts, to sort out the dream he had just experienced from the hardly Jess probable reality of the last few days. In his dream he had been somehow forced to play the part of a gate-guard at the White House. He knew he was only playing the part, because the job was not properly his and at any moment his false position was likely to be discovered. Worse than that, he could see that the assassins were already approaching, a horde of them on horseback, moving in a compact mass like the Union cavalry he had seen in the streets.

Jerry ran forward, trying his best to block the killers’ entry, but there was no gate in the iron fence for him to close, only a great gaping gap with broken hinges hanging at the sides. The mounted men ignored Jerry’s feeble efforts to hinder them and charged on past, raising sabers and carbines as they swept on to kill Lincoln, who was standing in the White House window holding an anachronistic flashlight.

Now, as Jerry lay in bed regarding one of Willard’s plastered ceilings, and listening to the rumble of wagon-traffic in the street outside, the dream-terror gradually faded into a very conscious horror at the truth. In this earlier and in some ways so much more innocent version of America, the President appeared to be readily accessible to any enemy. It was unbelievable to Jerry, raised on the idea of celebrities as casual targets, that the man had already survived more than four years in office in this bitterly divided country.

Someone in the restaurant last night had been talking about Lincoln’s customary bodyguard, a fanatically devoted friend of his from Illinois named Ward Lamon, who was apparently of gigantic strength and went armed to the teeth day and night. Jerry supposed such a watchdog might have had a great deal to do with Lincoln’s survival up till now. But another of the people in the restaurant had commented that Lamon had just been dispatched by Lincoln on some confidential mission. That, Jerry supposed, was going to make things easier for John Wilkes Booth on Friday night. And perhaps the absence of such a protector would make things simpler for Jerry too. At least he could hope.

And at least he had the name of the assassin—John Wilkes Booth. He could have remembered that even if Pilgrim had not reminded him. He could remember too that Booth had been—or was—an actor.

The trouble was that last night almost anyone, with only a minimum of luck, would have been able to work his way to within a few feet of a well-lighted and helpless Presidential target. Jerry had no idea where Booth was at this moment on Wednesday morning. But if the murderous actor had been in town last night, he had missed a great opportunity.

And Jerry had to stop him Friday, or else… but the old doubts arose again. Why should he, Jerry, trust Pilgrim’s assessment of the situation? Pilgrim had already tricked him at least once, and rather viciously.

Easy enough to say that he ought not to trust Pilgrim, but what was he going to do instead? Walk into a police station and tell them he’d been kidnapped from the twentieth century? Or settle down here to spend his life—probably a short, unhealthy one—as a petroleum salesman?

The bottom line for Jerry at the moment was that he was following Pilgrim’s orders because he really had very little choice. He would at least pretend to go along with Pilgrim’s plan, until some reason to do otherwise, some better chance of getting home, presented itself.

Thoughtfully Jerry got up, dressed himself in clean clothes—his laundry had been returned on schedule—and descended to the lobby. The ground level of the hotel was as crowded as it had been yesterday, and no one appeared to be ready to take time out from his own affairs to pay any attention to an out-of-town businessman named Paul Pilgrim, of blessedly nondescript appearance.

Looking at the throngs milling before him, he could see that there might be many others who would be considered more interesting than himself. For a moment he wondered if there might be any other time travelers on the scene. There were uniforms in plenty, of course, but still civilian clothes predominated. According to the jokes Jerry had overheard yesterday in the barbershop and the bar, seekers of political office were continually swarming into Washington from all across the nation, the eternal bane of the President in particular, and of everyone else in government who had in some degree the power to hand out patronage. The federal government of 1865 might be small and primitive by the standards of Jerry’s time, but no doubt it was huge and bloated by the prewar standards that these people around him could remember. Jerry suspected that civil service examinations did not exist in this world, and that the opportunities for enrichment at public expense were tremendous.

Over breakfast—it was huge, and very good; there seemed to be no lesser kind of meal obtainable at Willard’s—Jerry turned his mind to practical matters. As he visualized the situation, getting into the theater Friday evening was only the start of what he had to do. He would have to be as close to Lincoln as possible, preferably standing or sitting right beside him when the assassin approached. Obviously there were considerable difficulties. And the more Jerry thought about them, the larger those difficulties loomed.

For one thing, other people might be approaching this accessible President all the time, and how was Jerry supposed to recognize Booth when he saw him? At this moment he had not the faintest idea of what the man looked like. Other questions popped up in bewildering numbers, as soon as he began to consider the situation seriously. Was Lincoln going to be accompanied to the theater by any bodyguard at all? Evidently not by the formidable Lamon, and probably not by any competent substitute. But there might be someone on the job, someone who would interfere with Jerry’s effort to get close to the President, even while failing to stop Booth.

Presumably there would be other people in the President’s theater party too. His wife, doubtless. What was the old sick joke? Oh yes: Besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

But who else would be there? And what was the general layout of the theater? And where was the President going to sit? Hadn’t Pilgrim’s recorded briefing mentioned a box seat?

This was Wednesday morning, which when Jerry thought about it was none too soon to start finding out the answers. Maybe he would get another briefing from Pilgrim before he was expected to go into action, but maybe he wouldn’t.

Immediately after finishing his breakfast, Jerry stopped at the desk for directions to Ford’s Theater. Relieved to find how near it was, he started out on foot, picking his way across muddy intersections where no one had yet thought to install traffic signals. Turning off Pennsylvania, he walked five blocks east on E Street to Tenth, then half a block north. The theater was there, on the east side of the street.

There was no marquee or other sign projecting over the sidewalk, only a tall, wide front of red brick containing five arched doorways at ground level. There were also five windows in each of the next two stories above. Smaller buildings crowded up close against Ford’s on either side, and none of the structures looked more than a few years old.

Jerry approached the theater more closely. On the front wall posters advertised the current show, OUR AMERICAN COUSIN, starring Laura Keene. A additional strip of pasted paper reminded passers-by that the performance of Friday, April fourteenth, would be the last.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred