After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

There were plenty of tree branches within reach; the only question was which one of them to choose. In a moment Jerry had got hold of a limb that looked sturdy enough to support him, and had swung out on it. He had left the roof behind before it occurred to him to wonder whether his left wrist was going to be able to support its share of his weight. He looked down once; his wrist, impressed on a cellular level by the distance to the ground, decided it had no choice but to do the job.

Hand over hand Jerry progressed painfully toward the trunk. He wasn’t going to look down again. He shouldn’t have looked down even once. Instead he would concentrate on something else. What kind of tree was this, an elm?

Eventually, after six or eight swings, alternating handholds, he was close enough to the trunk to be able to rest his feet upon another branch. Now he could look down again, and did. Men in derby hats, three or four of them or maybe more with pistols in their hands, were swarming through the yard below. They appeared to be running from front to back and back to front again. So far the raiding party seemed to be trying everything but looking up. The new spring leaves sprouting between those men and their potential victim in the tree were thin and fragile, and so was the screen they made; silently Jerry urged them to grow quickly.

Edging his way toward the trunk, he reached it at last and went around it—this far above the ground the stem was slender enough for him to embrace it easily. The next step was to choose a direction and start out, one booted foot after another, along another branch, meanwhile still gripping upper branches to keep his balance. His chosen course was going to take him toward the alley that ran in back of the house, and was divided from the back yard by a tall wooden fence. The fence had a long wooden privy butting up against it, the planks of both constructions being freshly whitewashed, as if Tom Sawyer lived here.

Now, with a sinking feeling, Jerry became aware of the fact that there were people sitting on horses out there in the alley, their faces upturned in his direction.

This discovery made him pause, but, after considering the alternatives, he pressed on. One of the people who so silently observed his progress was a chestnut-haired young woman, wearing trousers underneath her full skirt, who sat astride her horse like a man.

The branch under Jerry’s boots grew ever more slender the farther he got from the trunk, and bent ever lower with his weight. The higher branches that he clutched at with both hands were bending too. Now Jerry’s boots were no more than five feet or so above the slanting, tar-papered privy roof. A goat, tethered in the yard near the back fence, was looking upward with deep interest at Jerry’s acrobatics.

By now the branches bearing his weight had sagged enough so that he was partially screened, by tall hollyhocks and bushes, from the back door of the house. In that direction cries of triumph and screams of outrage signalled that the police had at last managed to force entry. With relief Jerry released his hold on the branches, half-stepping, half-falling to the roof of the outhouse. He would not have been surprised to put a leg through the roof of the privy and get stuck, or—God forbid—plunge to the very depths. But no, the wood beneath his boots was solid.

And a good thing, too. He had just begun his next move, a vault over the fence and into the weed-grown alley when a gunshot sounded from the direction of the house, and a bullet went singing over his head.

Then he was on his feet in the alley. Colleen Monahan and two men, all three of them mounted, were with him, and someone was urging an unoccupied horse in front of him. All Jerry could remember about riding was that for some reason you had to get on from the left side; not that he had ever tried to get aboard a horse before. He wasn’t doing very well at it now.

“He’s hurt,” Colleen was saying sharply, mistaking his clumsiness for weakness or physical disability, “You, give him a hand!”

Somehow Jerry was pulled and pushed up into the saddle. He had barely got his feet into the stirrups when they were off, heading down the alley at what felt to him like a gallop. More gunshots sounded, somewhere behind them.

Another horse and rider were close beside Jerry on each flank, and someone was holding his mount’s reins for him. Bouncing fiercely up and down, he clung to the front of the saddle, where there was supposed to be a horn, wasn’t there?—no, he had read somewhere that only western saddles were so equipped.

Coming out of the alley, the four riders thundered southeast on Ohio Avenue, then across one of the iron bridges that crossed the foul canal, leading them into the half-wild Mall. To the west, on their right, the truncated Washington Monument rose out of the morning fog, balanced by the bizarre towers of the Smithsonian a few hundred yards to the east. Fog was rolling north from the Potomac now, coming in dense billows, and once they were a hundred yards into the Mall Colleen called a halt.

The small party sat their horses, listening for immediate pursuit, One of the men with Colleen was black and one was white. Both were young and poorly dressed; Jerry decided that he had never seen either of them before.

“Nobody comin’,” the black man said after they had been silent a while. He appeared to be unarmed, though the white youth had a pistol stuck in his belt. The horses snorted and shifted weight restlessly, ready for more early morning exercise.

“They’ll be looking,” said Colleen, Her frivolous little lady’s hat had fallen back off her head with the riding, but was still held by a delicate cord around her sturdy throat. She looked at Jerry with what he read as a mixture of sympathy and despair. “How bad are you hurt? Did they hit you back there?”

He realized she was talking about the gunshots, and shook his head. “I’m bruised, that’s all. From talking to Lafe Baker. But I don’t think I can ride very far.”

“All right.” She gave the white youth a commanding stare. “Ben, ride back to the War Department, learn what you can—then report back to me.”

The young man—he really was very young, maybe sixteen, Jerry saw now—nodded. He started to speak, evidently found himself inarticulate, and departed with a kind of half-military salute to her and Jerry.

Colleen turned to the young black. “Mose, take the rest of these horses and put ’em away. Then return to your regular job. Bakers people will be looking for a mounted group, so Jim and I will travel on foot.”

She swung down out of her saddle, the long skirt immediately falling into place to cover up her trousers. Jerry dismounted also, without waiting to be urged. It proved to be a lot easier than getting on.

“Yas’m.” Mose looked Jerry in the face steadily for a long moment, as if he were seeking to memorize his features, or perhaps to find something; it was the most direct gaze Jerry had received from a black person since his arrival in this era. Then Mose dismounted too, gathering all of the horses’ bridles into his hands.

With a motion of her head Colleen led Jerry eastward through the mist. When they had walked twenty yards through the long grass of the Mall, Mose and the horses were already invisible behind them.

“So it’s bruised you are, is it?” she asked, looking sideways at him as they moved on. “I hear that Lafe Baker himself is bruised this morning, a great black shiner underneath one eye.”

“I expect he is. But how did you find out?”

“I have my ways of knowing things. Men, you may have noticed, often don’t take a woman seriously. The colonel might have gone back to New York by now, I don’t know. Well, you’re a strange man, Jim Lockwood, but it appears that in some ways you can be a marvel.”

“You’d better watch out for Baker,” Jerry warned her grimly. “He asked me if I knew you. I told him no, but…”

“I’ve got my eye on him, never fear. When I heard he was planning to raid Bella’s this morning, I thought it just might have something to do with you. And if anything happens to me, Mr. Stanton’ll know who to blame. Let’s try going this way.”

For a moment Jerry wondered if he had been followed after all. But he was sure he’d gotten away unnoticed. One of Booth’s people? He gave the problem up as unsolvable.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred