After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

What would another good Confederate fanatic say to that? “Lee could not help it,” Jerry protested. “He had to surrender, to save his men from useless slaughter.”

Booth was looking at Jerry as intently as before, as if hoping against hope to hear from him words that would mean salvation. “I know he could not help it; but now his army has disappeared. Richmond is lost, the government dissolved. Where will you go?”

“I mean to find General Johnston,” Jerry declared stoutly. “In Carolina. We can go on fighting in the mountains.”

Booth looked as if he might be envious of this heroic dedication. Certainly he was moved by it—though evidently not to the extent of being ready to emulate it himself. “I wish I could come with you,” the actor announced wistfully, and for a moment Jerry feared that his stratagem might after all be about to damage history beyond repair.

But only for a moment. Booth continued: “But alas, I cannot. Matters of even greater moment hold me here.”

“I’m sure they do, sir.” Jerry’s reply was so promptly spoken and came with such obvious sincerity that Booth was gratified.

The actor sipped at his coffee, made a face, and stood up suddenly. “I will write you a note,” he declared, “to present to a friend of mine. When you are finished, come into the dining room.” But then he suddenly changed his mind and resumed his seat. “Never mind,” he amended. “Take your time. When you have eaten, I will take you there myself.”

Young Anna had returned now, with warm water in a basin, and a collection of bandages and unlabeled jars containing what Jerry presumed were household remedies. She began tending to his arm, which required that he first take off his coat. The old knife-cut in the sleeve, usually inconspicuous, became for the moment plainly visible.

Booth impulsively got to his feet, taking his own coat off. “If you would honor me, sir, by wearing mine. We appear to be of a size.”

“That’s not necessary, Mr. Booth.”

“I repeat, I would be honored, sir, to have you accept it from me.” There was a proud, almost threatening urgency in the actor’s voice.

“In that case, sir, I shall be honored to accept.”


Soon after Jerry had finished his supper, and thanked his hostess with what he hoped was sufficient courtesy, he and Booth set out upon the darkened street. Dogs in nearby yards barked at them mindlessly, undecided between offering greetings or challenge. Jerry now had an evil-smelling poultice bandaged to his left wrist, and was wearing Booth’s coat. The garment, of some beautiful soft tan fabric, was a little loose in the shoulders but otherwise fit its new owner well enough. Booth meanwhile had somewhat gingerly put on Jerry’s coat.

Hardly had the kitchen door of Surrat’s boarding house closed behind them when Jerry recalled that the man called Paine, inside, was still in possession of his, or rather Baker’s, pistol. But Jerry said nothing. He wasn’t going to go back and ask for the weapon; he had never really trusted himself with firearms and in fact was rather relieved to be without it.

“It is only a few blocks to your lodging for the night,” Booth had informed him courteously when they had reached the street. “If you are quite able to walk?”

“Food and rest have marvelously restored me. Food and rest, and a sense of being among friends once again. Please lead on.”

They trudged west on H Street, Booth whistling a slow tune softly, and soon passed the imposing structure of the Patent Office. A conversational silence grew. Jerry kept expecting to be asked more details of his escape, but it was not to be. Perhaps Booth was jealous of the daring feat; or, perhaps, absorbed in his own plans.

Just when they had left the Patent Office behind, the streetlights dimmed suddenly, brightened again briefly, dimmed and then went out.

“Nine o’clock,” Booth commented succinctly, striding on. There was still some faint light from the sky, and the occasional spill of illumination from the window of a house. Enough light to see where you were going, generally, if you were not too particular about what your boots stepped in.

Somewhere, not too far away, black-sounding voices were raised in a hymn. The April night was very mild. Summer here, thought Jerry, must be ungodly hot. He could remember it that way from his trip in the nineteen-seventies.

Now Booth as he walked was pulling something out of his pocket, passing it to Jerry. “Brandy?”

“Thank you,” Jerry took a small nip and passed the flask back. They walked on, Jerry listening, thinking, or trying to think. Tomorrow night, less than twenty-four hours from now, he was quite possibly going to have to do something nasty to this generous assassin who walked beside him now. Or Booth would do something nasty to him. He, Jerry, would not be able to do much to anyone else in Ford’s Theater tomorrow, he supposed, without derailing history.

Now Booth was saying in a low confiding voice: “Tomorrow, when you have rested, I should like to have a confidential talk with you. On the subject of what the true duty of a Confederate ought to be, at this time, in this city.”

“I shall be glad to have that talk, Mr. Booth. But I shall be better able to give it the attention it deserves if I get some sleep first.”

“Of course.” They paced on another quarter of a block before Booth added: “It is difficult, in this city, for a man who has a great enterprise in mind to find someone reliable to work with.”

Jerry made an effort to change the subject. “Where are we going?”

“To a certain house on Ohio Street, where they know me well. I am sure any friend of mine will be graciously received there.”

They had passed Ninth Street by now and had come to Tenth, where Booth turned left. Ahead, the street was bright with private gaslights; Jerry realized that the path the actor had chosen for them was going to take them directly past Ford’s Theater.

Tonight’s performance was evidently not over yet, for both sides of the street in the vicinity of the theater were solidly parked with waiting carriages. A couple of taverns in the same block were doing a good business, various drivers and servants passing the time inside while they waited for their employers.

“Perhaps I will be recognized here,” Booth muttered, as if to himself. “But it doesn’t matter.” He squared his shoulders and strode on bravely in Jerry’s soiled and knife-torn coat, which fit him imperfectly.

Two more blocks south on Tenth Street, and they had passed the theater, without any sign of Booth’s being recognized. At that point Jerry’s guide crossed the Avenue, then turned right. Again Jerry had caught a glimpse of the White House in its park; again it seemed to him that nothing of any consequence in this city could be more than a few blocks from anything else.

Booth as he walked resumed his grumbling about his associates, still without naming any names. He could find one bright spot, though. “Paine, of course, has demonstrated his coolness and ability. He rode with Mosby in the valley, before he was captured and had to give parole.”

Jerry could vaguely recall hearing of a Confederate guerrilla leader named Mosby. “Yes, Paine struck me as one who might be counted on in a pinch.”

“Yes.” Booth was sad again. “O’Laughlin—you haven’t met him yet—is the only other one of the group with any military experience, and that no more than trivial.”

Still it must be more than you have yourself, thought Jerry. The actor was obviously young, healthy, athletic. Jerry had seen and heard enough in this world to be sure that no one was kept out of the army—any army—for any such triviality as a perforated eardrum, say. So Booth could have been with Lee if he’d wanted to. Or he could be still fighting at this moment, with Johnston. But he had obviously chosen to remain a well-paid civilian, living and working in the North. An interesting point, but certainly not one that Jerry was going to bring up aloud.

A few more blocks and they had reached their goal, a large wooden structure on Ohio Street, set back in a deep, wide lawn behind an iron fence, and surrounded by tall trees already leafed for spring. Jerry, looking at the size of the building and the number of lighted, red-curtained windows it possessed, remembered suddenly that Booth had spoken of their destination as a “house”. Now Jerry realized that the actor hadn’t meant a home.

They entered the house—how else, thought Jerry?—through an inconspicuous side door. Farther back there stood a long hitching rail where enough horses were currently parked to outfit a squadron of cavalry. The music of a violin, playing something quick and sprightly, could be heard from somewhere inside.

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