WHERE OR WHEN
Steven Utley was an American writer who helped found the famous Turkey City Writer’s Workshop in Texas that also included Bruce Sterling, Howard Waldrop, and many other prominent writers. Utley authored five story collections, including Ghost Seas, The Beasts of Love, and Where or When. His series of Silurian Tales appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, SciFiction, and many other venues. He coedited the anthologies Lone Star Universe (with George W. Proctor, 1976) and Passing for Human (with Michael Bishop, 2009) and also wrote poems, humorous essays, and other nonfiction over the course of his career. He died in early 2013 and is much missed. This story was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1991.
Suddenly, we were going. Just as suddenly, but completely unexpectedly, I came tumbling through dense, tangled underbrush, crashed heavily into an arrester net of creepers, and half-lay, half-hung there, panting, aching, astonished. Above me were draperies of vines and the interlaced branches of scrub pines; patches of blue sky were visible through the interstices. All about me were gloom and silence. Then, from afar, came a long, rippling burst of noise, pow pop-pop-pop pow.
Before the sounds could fade completely, there was a second burst, more ragged than the first but also more sustained, pop-pop-pow, and a pause, and then pop-pop-pop, pause, pow-pow-pop. It must have gone on like that for half a minute or more, during which time an unpleasant suspicion began to form in my mind. As the racket subsided, I cupped my hands around my mouth and sang out hopefully, “John!”
There was no answer, only another long series of rippling pops.
After some minutes’ thrashing about, I managed to find footing and get up and out of the creepers. I found myself on a slope, surrounded by stunted pines and up to my waist in underbrush. My stick and beaver hat were gone, and my Dundreary whiskers were full of twigs, burrs, and bits of leaves. My clothes were torn and dirty. The day was very warm, and I was already slimy with sweat; my hand came away streaked with a film of mud when I wiped my forehead. Self-pity welled up in me. I would never be allowed into the exposition in my present disheveled state.
I called out John’s name again. This time someone called back, “Help!” and before I could decide from which direction the cry had come, there were other sounds, of flailing limbs, cracking rotten wood, shredding fabric, and eloquent profanity, and a woman burst headfirst halfway through a mass of foliage some yards from where I stood. I didn’t recognize her immediately, though I had been introduced to her not an hour before, subjective time. She, too, had been in John’s party and should have been in it still. Now she had lost her cap and her parasol, and her coiffure, which had been so carefully done up for this jaunt, had been undone by branches, thorns, and simple gravity. She had a long, bloody scratch along the curve of one fine cheekbone and looked mad enough to bite into a live badger.
“Don’t just stand there!” she snapped. “I’m caught! I’m upside-down in this goddamn stupid bush!”
I made for her, but it was hard going. The legs of my trousers ended in loops that passed under the shanks of my black Wellington boots; a loop would catch on one stick of wood or another every time I took a step. Finally, I had to stop, sit, and get out my pen-knife. It was a replica of an exquisite nineteenth-century instrument and razor-sharp. I cut the loops off and disgustedly flung them away into the underbrush.
The woman grabbed me as soon as I had come within grabbing distance. I let her cling to me for a few seconds while I got my breath back. Then I tried to pull her out of the bush. It was no use.
I said, “Can’t you just sort of back out of there?”
“Not with these clothes on. I can’t move. This is the height of mid-nineteenth-century fashion I’ve got on, and it’s like wearing a circus tent. I can’t breathe, either. They made me wear some goddamn piece of armor-plated underwear.”
“They always have been sticklers for accuracy of period detail.”
“Who in eighteen fifty-one’s gonna get to see what I wear under my dress?”
“Well, you just never know, do you?” and I gave her a wryly apologetic grin that absolutely failed to endear me to her, took out my trusty pen-knife again, and got around behind her. Viewed from that side, she rather resembled an enormous blossom. Her legs, sheathed in long, lace-trimmed drawers, were the stamens, and her numerous and varied petticoats, the petals.
I said, “Good God, how many petticoats are you wearing?”
“Eighty or ninety.”
“There’s enough silk here for a parachute battalion.”
“It’s not silk, it’s muslin.”
“Just cut, cut! Jesus Christ!”
I began to saw at the material. She began to curse, first somebody named George, whose idea it evidently had been, and then John, whose fault it all was. She stopped in mid-slander as the rippling pops were repeated.
“What’s that noise?” she said.
“Well, I don’t want to alarm you, but—”
“Alarm me?” She glared around at me as best she could. “Gosh, you mean to say something’s wrong with this picture? You mean to tell me this isn’t the goddamn Crystal Palace? Jesus! I never would’ve guessed!”
She was within her rights to be upset, upended in a small tree as she was, and probably lost in time and space as well. Still, her sarcasm stung. I tried not to let her irritation infect me and kept ripping at her layers of petticoats. “I think we’ve landed near a battle or something,” I told her. “I think that sound like popcorn popping is guns being fired. A lot of guns.”
“Oh, that’s great, that’s just great. Look, while you’re trying to cop a feel back there, reach up and cut through this corset.”
“You’re going to have to undo some buttons or something at your end first, so I can get up under your jacket and blouse.”
We fumbled and fussed for several minutes more. At last she was able to slither forward out of both bush and most of her clothes. She did still have on her jacket and blouse, her long drawers, stockings, and boots, and I had made a point of leaving some fabric below the waist, so that she now wore a droopy, uneven, knee-length skirt adorned with a few bedraggled ribbons and bows. I watched as she reached into what remained of her clothing and began to tug at something. She caught me watching and paused to look me straight in the eye.
“A gentleman averts his gaze when a lady removes her corset.”
“A thousand pardons.”
I averted my gaze, and she fell to grunting and gasping. After a time, during which I heard two more or less distinct volleys of pops from not so far off as before, there came a final, triumphant exhalation from behind me. A moment later, trailing imprecations and strings or straps or possibly poison-barbed tendrils, an odd rectangular object sailed semi-rigidly over my head and lodged itself in the branches of a scrub pine.
“Okay to look now,” she said crisply, so I looked. Stood right-side-up and free of the undergarment from Hell, she was a rather attractive brunette in her early or middle thirties. I found that I had to admire the way she raked some errant strands of hair out of her face, brushed dirt and leaves from one sleeve of her jacket, adjusted a soiled glove just so, with the air of one who need do no more to restore herself to presentability. She stepped toward me and offered her hand. Not everyone can look terribly, terribly formal in not much more than clothing remnants and a hairdo that has exploded, so I was duly impressed.
“We were introduced before,” she said, “but I’m no good at remembering people’s names. I’m Elizabeth Hazel.”
“Lewis Alisdair. Charmed.” I took her hand and made a little bow over it. I was stuck in character. Amusement flickered at the corners of her mouth, and she made a slight curtsying motion. We had signed on with John to go play-act, and, by God, with or without John, here we were, play-acting.
“Okay,” she said, dropping my hand and her own show of formality as though both suddenly just bored the daylights out of her, “now let’s go find John so I can kill him for dumping me into a damn bush. No, wait, first I’ll sue him for every penny he’s got. The Institute, too. Then I’ll kill him.”
“I don’t think you can sue him, or the Institute, either. That waiver you signed—”
“Oh hell, that’s right. Well, I’ll just have to settle for killing him, then.”
“These things have been known to happen. It may not have been John’s fault.”
“Who else’s fault might it be? He is our guide. He is supposed to know what he’s doing. He was supposed to deliver us safe and sound to London in eighteen fifty-one.” Fists on hips, she glared around unhappily at the woods. “I don’t know where the hell we are, but I sure don’t expect to run into Queen Vicky and Albert around here. We’ve obviously missed the exposition by God knows how many years or miles – or both, most likely. So kindly stop defending that asshole, okay?” Now she was glaring unhappily at me. “What are you, anyway, the Institute’s liability-law boy, public relations, what?”
“I’m a sightseer, too. Bought a ticket, same as you,” and I gave her what was meant to be a rueful, we’re-in-this-together kind of look, to which she responded with all the warmth of a frozen dinner. Falteringly, I slogged on. “It’s not that I’m – I’m not defending John, but I have known him a long time, and I’ve traveled with him before, and I’m just saying—”
“He is an asshole, you know. He revels in it.”
“The point is—”
“He was coming on to the women in the group before we left.” She feigned a shudder. “Made my skin crawl, he’s such a creep. I think being a creep must go with the job or something. Like whatever it is that makes someone able to time-travel also makes him a creep. Like there aren’t already enough goddamn asshole creeps who can’t travel through time.”
I waited before speaking to make sure that she had exhausted the subject of creeps for the time being. “The point is,” I said, “John will find us. Wherever we go in time or space, outside our proper matrix, we’re anomalies. We leave a trail John can’t miss in a hundred years.”
That was time-travel humor, but old time-travel humor. She didn’t even bother to smile politely. “I know we’re not marooned here forever or anything. At least we better not be. But what do we do until that jerk gets here?”
“We’re supposed to stay put when something like this happens, but that may not be such a good idea under the circumstances. The battle sounds like it’s coming our way.”
After a moment, she said, “Any idea where we are or who’s making all the fuss?”
“Judging from the trees, somewhere in the northern temperate latitudes.”
“That narrows it down.”
“Judging from the gunfire—” I shrugged helplessly. “My specialty is nineteenth-century English literature.”
She looked at me in frank dismay. “How fascinatingly interesting,” she said, in the voice women usually reserve for dealing with lecherous bores. “I don’t suppose you also happen to know any woodcraft, do you? As in how to figure out which way we should go? Or how to start a fire and find food and water, just in case we do get stuck here? No? Great. I need Tarzan, Daniel Boone. I get a prissy English lit specialist.”
Heat was creeping up my neck and face, and in the back of my mind was a bubbling sound like vinegar and baking soda stirred together. Sometimes, the natural product of chemistry between a man and a woman is a stink bomb. I said, “I cannot imagine how you expected to pass yourself off as a well-bred Englishwoman of the nineteenth or any other century.”
“Now what’s that supposed to mean?”
“How in the world did you ever get past screening? Good God, your accent’s bad enough – what is that, Dallas? Texarkana? But. Worse by far. Proper nineteenth-century ladies do not use the s-word in conversation, or the f-word, or any other a-to-z word, for that matter. Proper nineteenth-century ladies probably don’t even think those words.”
I might as well have insulted her pet cat. She gave me the most belligerent look I had seen on a human face since my first marriage. “You got a problem with the way I talk?”
“I’ve got a problem with you, period. And another thing I’ve got is a strong aversion to getting mobbed. When we do get where we’re going, don’t speak to anyone until I’m clear of you. You’ll probably start a riot by saying fuck in front of the queen.”
“Don’t think I can play the part, huh?” She sat up straight all of a sudden, folded her hands in her lap, drew a breath, fixed me with cold old Pleistocene ice in her eye. She said, perfectly calmly, perfectly veddy-English-thenk-yew-snootily, “I can do anything to which I put my mind, Mister Alisdair, up to and beyond impersonating a well-bred Englishwoman.” By comparison, her earlier show of formality amounted to a hug and a howdy-do from a loose and crazy woman.
“I have degrees in history and linguistics,” she went on, “and I have professional-acting experience. I speak four languages and numerous dialects.” She paused, cleared her throat softly, and another amazing change came over her. Her new voice dripped Canarsie. “On my second excursion, I met Anne of Austria.” Enn ahv Awstreeuh. “She was Louis the Thirteenth of France’s girl friend.” Ghil frin. “I hid my recording equipment in my wig.” She had come around again to East Texas for that. “Get the picture, asshole?”
“Well, shut my mouth,” and I did.
Probably we could have sat there, not speaking, not looking at each other, until John found us or Hell froze over, whichever occurred first, but another volley of gunfire made us peer nervously into the surrounding woods. It was impossible to see more than twenty yards in any direction, but it seemed to me that the popping noises were coming from directly up the slope. I could hear people yelling now, too, and had a horrible thought. What if they were Apache Indians or Nazis or other barbarians who were notorious for cruelty?
Elizabeth was looking around wonderingly. “Who’d be dumb enough,” she said, “to bring an army into this place?” Obviously, no one as smart as she. “There’re probably snakes in these woods. There’re probably ticks,” and I saw her shudder again. This time, the shudder seemed genuine. “Yuck. Ticks.”
“Let’s get out of here.” I pointed downhill. “I think we should go that way.”
“I think so, too. And fast.”
We turned and lumbered down the slope. The growth fought us every step of the way. As though the underbrush were not bad enough, the land here was as choppy as the surface of a gale-swept sea: we had traveled very little distance at all before we found ourselves slogging uphill; then the ground dipped again, more sharply this time. And as though thicket and broken terrain were not a bad enough combination, neither of us was outfitted for a trek through the wild woods. We hadn’t gone ten yards before her stockings were only a memory. Her fashionable boots looked as though they were already beginning to disintegrate. Mine were just starting to pinch my feet.
Yet we pushed on, until we came to a sluggish creek that had cut a shallow, steep-sided ravine through the tangle. There we practically collapsed. We were dripping perspiration and covered with burrs and approximately three hundred fresh scratches apiece.
We had managed to put some distance between the fighting and ourselves, but not much, and certainly not enough. The shooting still sounded close. I couldn’t be sure, because I now discovered that my watch had been torn from its chain, but my guess was that it had taken us the better part of an hour to cover, at most, a quarter of a mile of ground.
Elizabeth knelt in the mud beside the creek, dipped in her handkerchief, oohed gratefully as she dabbed it against her face. “I’m so thirsty,” she said.
“Me, too, but not enough to drink this stuff.” I did scoop up some water in my hand and splash it on my face. “Inoculations or no.”
“Where’s your spirit of adventure?”
“Left it on the expressway in rush-hour traffic this morning. I almost missed getting to the jump-off on time.”
“I bet now you wish you had.” She re-wetted her handkerchief and swabbed her face some more. “I wish I had. This is the worst blind date I’ve ever had.”
We were actually grinning at each other. Exhaustion had taken a little of the starch out of both of us.
The shooting sounded very close now.
I said, “We’d better keep moving,” she muttered something heartfelt, and we picked ourselves up and trudged on.
The ravine widened and deepened as we moved downstream, and as the banks drew away from us on both sides, scrub pines and saplings closed in densely. Soon, neither bank was visible. The creek itself broadened and deepened and meandered. The ground became swampy underfoot. We were soon exhausted again and had to take another rest. Maddeningly, the sounds of gunfire seemed no farther behind us than ever.
“John’ll never find us in this place,” Elizabeth said.
“He certainly does have his work cut out.” I reached over and started to give her a reassuring pat on the arm, but she recoiled.
“Look,” she said, “just don’t mess with me, okay?”
Mercurial bitch, I thought.
Not looking at each other, we listened to another volley or two.
I heard her sigh. “Guess we’d better go.”
Still not looking at her, I started to get to my feet and gripped the bole of a dead pine to steady myself. Just about eight inches above the spot where I had placed my hand, a patch of bark as big around as a saucer suddenly exploded with a zing, spraying me with splinters and grit. My hand dropped to my side, very quickly, seemingly of its own volition, for it took me another couple of seconds to decide to drop to the ground. I looked around frantically but could see only trees and creepers and, hanging among the pines, a small puff of bluish smoke. Elizabeth was still on her feet. She looked down at me exasperatedly, as though I were a total stranger who had embarrassed her by willfully falling at her feet in public and having a fit.
“Elizabeth,” I said.
“What’s the matter with—”
I grabbed her and pulled her down and rolled halfway on top of her, and there was a moment as short as a heartbeat during which she was too surprised to react and the woods were silent except for a subdued, almost featureless sort of background bee swarm murmur, and then, abruptly, the murmur resolved itself into the sounds of men and masses of men thrashing and crashing about in the underbrush, and yells of excitement, and an eruption of reports, quite close this time, and quite emphatic, and now much less like the sound of popcorn popping than like that of pebbles or dried peas being shaken in a large gourd, and there were more zinging explosions among the trees. Some of the yelling turned anguished. The sounds were all around us now; we weren’t near a battle, we were in it. I risked a look but there was nothing to see except a thick haze of gunsmoke drifting among the trees. I pulled my head back in and lay on my belly beside Elizabeth in the mud.
The woods grew gloomier as gunsmoke collected under the branches. There was a bitter smoky stench in the air that stung our eyes and burned our throats, and now, between blasts of gunfire, we could hear men crying out in pain and terror. From just downstream, off to our left, came a blurry bawled command, the rustle and crash of heavy movement through underbrush, then splashing noises. I glimpsed shadowy forms pushing through knee-deep water at the nearest bend of the creek. From upstream came another thunderous rattle of gunfire. Orange flames flickered among the trees, and there were more cries, more sounds of movement.
There were other sounds, too, a rising roar of wind among the treetops, a crackling, a hissing. I couldn’t imagine what they signified. Then came a different sort of smoke smell, and at almost the same moment Elizabeth put her mouth close to my ear and yelled, “The woods are on fire! We’ve got to get out of here!”
As though on cue, flame curled through a tripod of dead pines not twenty feet from where we lay. Elizabeth made to get up. I grabbed her arm roughly.
“You want to get yourself shot?”
She jerked away. “I sure as hell don’t want to burn to death or suffocate!”
“Keep down, or you won’t have to worry!”
“Come on, if you’re coming!” and she slid herself into the water.
Better shot than cooked, I decided, and followed. I found myself wading in knee-deep water, with soft, ankle-deep mud sucking at my boots. Behind us, the fire suddenly roared along the bank, seeming to leap from treetop to treetop, consuming everything immediately combustible, scorching everything else. The air filled with sparks, and the heat was so intense, the smoke so thick, that we were momentarily driven onto the other bank. A cloud of airborne burning bits engulfed us like a swarm of hellish insects, stinging as they alighted on our faces and hands. Breathing was like swallowing heated needles. Our hair and clothing began to smolder, and Elizabeth screamed and started beating at herself. I looped an arm around her waist, forced her back into the water, dunked us both. She pulled free and surfaced several feet away, sputtering and clawing hair out of her eyes.
“Go!” I yelled at her. “Go! Go!”
And we went, blistered, half-blinded, and choking, through Hell.
Everywhere there was fire and smoke and noise and horror.
Once, we heard someone in one of the thickets along the bank cry out that he was burning and beg to be shot. His pleas abruptly broke off in a wail of agony that must have persisted for a full minute. Elizabeth unexpectedly grabbed my hand, and I felt her fingernails bite into my palm; under the mud and the soot, her face was bone white.
Farther downstream, as we skirted a fire that burned all the way down the bank to the water, a flame-swathed figure lurched blindly out of the inferno. It was pawing at itself and moaning hideously, and as it broke through the thicket, burning vines dragged and snatched at it as though to pull it back into the heart of the blaze. It slipped in the mud on the bank opposite us and seemed to dissolve in a boiling cloud of steam.
I covered my eyes with my hands as we plunged past.
In some places there was no fire, only shadows and that infernal, constant pow-pow-pop, now close by, now remote. Once again, we were caught in a cross-fire and lay clutching each other in terror against a reedy bank while bullets clipped small branches and pieces of bark overhead. The shooting quickly rose to a furious crescendo, then died away as abruptly and unexpectedly as it had begun.
When we had heard only distant battle sounds for a long time, Elizabeth leaned close to me and said, “This is it for me. I’m worn out, and I’ve lost a shoe in the mud. This is as far as I go.”
“We aren’t safe here.”
“We aren’t safe anywhere in this goddamn swamp. May as well die here as anywhere else.”
“We’re not going to die. John—”
“Oh, screw John, and screw you, too,” and with that she crawled up the soggy bank and flung herself down on relatively dry ground. There was nothing for me to do but follow her into the thicket. For no reason I could imagine save that I was stuck in character again, I pulled off my ruined jacket and offered it to her. She looked at it and at me with consummate distaste and declined to accept. The whole exchange was leaden pantomime. We were too tired for actual argument any more, though not too tired to disagree. She wadded up her own jacket for a pillow and apparently fell asleep as soon as her head touched it. I was dead tired, too, and hungry and thirsty as well, but I was too worried to fall asleep. Where was John?
And night fell, but the shooting never died away completely, and neither did the brush-fires. I could hear the intermittent crash of gunfire all about, often punctuated by shouts. The smell of burning was everywhere, and its crimson glow was reflected among the trees and against the sky. One blaze flared up not twenty yards from us. I went forward to keep an eye on its progress, and by its light saw dead men lying among a jackstraw pile of pine trunks. The fire had already gone over them, charring them and their garments beyond recognition and leaving a sickening seared-meat smell hanging about the area. As I turned to leave, I was startled by some firecracker-like explosions among the smouldering corpses – lingering flames were setting off the unused cartridges in the dead men’s pouches.
I returned to Elizabeth, sat down beneath a tree, leaned against it. Though it seemed that I closed my eyes for only a moment, when I opened them, the woods were suffused with a sickly gray light, and somewhere a bird was cawing.
Before me stood a stranger.
He was dressed in rather dusty and shabby dark clothes and carried an antiquated but effective-looking short rifle. The muzzle, which was pointed at my midriff, looked wide enough to accommodate a banana. By his right hip hung an equally antiquated revolver in a holster, by his left, a wooden canteen on a strap. His black slouch hat had seen better days. The shadow of its brim smudged the details of his face above his whiskery chin and solemn mouth.
I raised my hands and showed him my palms.
He gestured with the rifle in the general direction of the burned area and asked, in a low, soft drawl, “You looked at all that?”
I found my voice, but it was barely more than a hoarse whisper. “Y-yes.”
“What do you think?”
“It – it’s horrible.”
The stranger tilted his head back slightly, and something like a smile distorted the solemn mouth. “Oh, I don’t know. Those’re the first Yankees I’ve seen in a while that are cooked just the way I like ’em.”
I had the distinct sensation of icy fingers stroking my shoulder blades.
“Not much like the videos at all,” he said, “now, is it?”
“You’re from up the way!”
“You folks ain’t from around here, either.” The “ain’t” sounded like an affectation. “I could tell that even without seeing your trails. You’re anachronistic at worst,” and he shot a look at Elizabeth, “and inappropriate at best.”
Elizabeth was still asleep, with her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped protectively around her head. I knelt beside her and shook her gently. She gave a grunt and a heave, and that was all.
I shook her again and got a petulant moan out of her this time. She rolled onto her back, ran her parched tongue over her cracked, blackened lips, peered out from under the arch of her elbow.
“Company,” I said, nodding in the stranger’s direction.
She blinked, not understanding. I helped her into a sitting position, and then she noticed him. They studied each other for several seconds.
“Another time-traveler,” I told her. Elizabeth looked relieved. I didn’t know how to set her straight.
“Judging from your clothes,” he said, “or what’s left of ’em, I’d say you’re just a couple of lost sightseers.” There was offhanded contempt in his voice as he spoke the word “sightseers.”
“I think she’s some kind of reporter—”
“– and I’m from the University of—”
He cut us short with an impatient wave of his rifle. “Where you folks suppose’ to be?”
“The Crystal Palace exposition in London, England,” I said. “Eighteen fifty-one.”
“That so? Then you only missed it by about a dozen years and a couple thousand miles. This is Virginia—”
“Virginia!” Elizabeth and I exclaimed in unison.
“– and it’s the first week of May, eighteen sixty-four.”
He let us gnaw on that all we could stand. After a while, Elizabeth struck her knee with her fist and bawled, “Where the hell is John?”
The stranger made a shushing sound at her with his mouth, a shushing motion with his hand. “My guess is your guide’s trying to sort your trail out from everybody else’s. There’s been a lot of fighting right around here over the last few years, and there’ll be some more for a while to come. There was a big battle over by Chancellorsville just last year. Big or little, past or future, each one of these fights has got its own crowd of spectators. You can just see ’em out of the corner of your eye. Well, I guess you can’t see any of ’em, since you’re just passengers. But when I look, this whole area’s all criss-crossed with – it’s like seeing one of those time-exposed photos of a highway at night. All streaks of light, except that this ain’t just a time-exposed picture. It’s double- and triple-exposed a hundred times over.”
“May we please have some water?”
Elizabeth had cut in just as he obviously was getting going on a subject dear to him. He stopped and glared and seemed to have to shift mental gears.
“We’re very thirsty,” she continued. “We haven’t had anything to drink since yesterday. We’re incredibly hungry, too.”
He stared at her for a moment more, then shifted his rifle to draw the canteen strap up over his head. He handed the canteen to me. I uncorked it and handed it to Elizabeth. “You’re so gallant,” she said as she took it.
“Now don’t gulp,” the stranger warned her.
She took a gulp and began to cough.
“Serves you right,” said the stranger. “Sip.”
She gulped again and coughed again.
Since she patently wasn’t listening to him, he spoke to me. “Can’t give you food. Only got some hardtack and a little salt meat, and it’s got to last me a bit. Just make you thirsty again anyway. But you won’t starve before your guide finds you and takes you home.”
“I’ll be sure to mention your solicitude to the folks back home,” Elizabeth said, dangerously close to sarcasm. I could have strangled her.
“I’ll be obliged if you don’t mention my solicitude or anything else to the folks back home.”
Elizabeth handed the canteen over to me. I raised it to my lips and took a careful sip. The water was warm and strange-tasting. The idea crossed my mind that tadpoles had probably swum in it, perhaps swam in it even now, but I didn’t care, and I swallowed gratefully. Then the idea crossed my mind that burning men may have been extinguished in it as well, and I quickly re-corked the canteen and handed it to its owner. He slipped the canteen’s strap back over his head.
“You’d best lay low here till your guide comes. Last thing anybody wants is dead passengers around here, so you keep your heads down. This is a dangerous place for you. Actually” – there was that smile again – “this is a dangerous place for just about anybody. There’re Yankee soldiers and Confederates scattered every which way in these woods. You’re just off the end of the whole battle line.”
Without further ado, he turned to go.
“Wait!” Elizabeth said. “Can’t we stay with your passengers until our guide gets here?”
“Don’t carry passengers.” He was already walking away.
She called after him plaintively, “Can’t you please take us home?”
He paused, half-turned, touched his hat brim. “Ma’am,” he said, “this is home,” and with that he strode off and was quickly lost to view and to hearing as well.
I suddenly realized that I had been holding my breath for some time. I let the air rush out of me and sagged deflated against a tree.
“Now there,” Elizabeth murmured, “is a truly weird person.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
She looked at me curiously, but I just turned away. My hands and knees were shaking. I didn’t know much about the American Civil War, but I recalled reading or hearing that northern Virginia was some of the most fought-over real estate in North America. Anyone who wanted to be a spectator to the Civil War could do worse than to visit Virginia. Anyone who wanted to live the Civil War, and had the power to reach it, and didn’t burden himself with passengers, could come to this place at this time and stay indefinitely and never run out of opportunities to participate – if not, perhaps, in the crazy hope of changing the outcome, then only, perhaps, with the crazy joy of contributing to the carnage.
I felt those cold fingers brush along my spine again.
“What do you think he meant,” Elizabeth said, “when he said this was home?”
“I think,” I began, and paused to ask myself if I really wanted to go on and tell her I believed he meant that this was a mighty fine place to kill people. The answer was no, so I shrugged and lied. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”
And we fell silent then, and sat almost together in our thicket, fearful and attentive, she listening to the distant incessant clatter of firearms, and I for any sound that might be the stranger returning. I took no comfort from his assurance that he preferred not to have our corpses discovered in his slaughterhouse. Sociopaths changed their minds, too. When, at length, we did hear the unmistakable crack of wood snapping underfoot, both of us uttered hoarse little cries of fright and spun around – just as John stepped out from behind a tree. He beamed at us and said, in his infuriatingly cheerful way, “Not too much the worse for wear, I trust.”
He was dressed as I had last seen him, in a striped cloth suit and a beaver hat. His hair was immaculately waved and curled, and there didn’t seem to be a speck of dirt anywhere on his person.
Elizabeth squawled at him in the voice cats use when their tails get caught in doors: “Where the hell have you been?”
He looked at her amusedly. “Oh, around. Before that, at the exposition, of course. I think everybody in England must’ve been there.” He fingered his silk cravat, stroked his moustache, looked past her to give me a man-to-man kind of smirk. “Don’t ever let anybody tell you that nineteenth-century gals weren’t lookers, or that they didn’t know how to have a good time.”
“John,” said Elizabeth, “I am riven with nausea at the mere thought.”
He laughed. “I just didn’t know you two’d gotten lost. Not at first, anyway. When we arrived in London,” and he looked very pointedly at me, “you weren’t around,” and he looked as pointedly at Elizabeth, “and she wasn’t around, and I just sort of figured both of you’d run off into the crowd or, ah, somewhere.”
Beside me, Elizabeth groaned in disgust. “Give me a break!”
I took my cue from that and said to him, “We didn’t even know each other before we wound up here. We don’t seem to like each other now that we have gotten acquainted.”
“Pity. She’s really not bad-looking underneath all that dirt, you know.”
Elizabeth went straight at him, spewing curses. Though he would have made two and a half of her, he retreated, stepping surprisingly daintily through the plant debris as she reached for his lapels with her two very dirty hands. She was half-unshod, however, and there were thorns in the mat of plant stuff underfoot, and it was no time at all before her lavish description of his mating habits was cut short by a yelp of pain. She grabbed her foot and hopped backward a couple of steps to sit on a fallen bole.
I asked myself, bitterly and not for the first time in all the long while I had known John, why he had to be the one with the special affinity for my favorite place and period of history. I stepped over to Elizabeth and knelt before her. “Let me see your foot.”
“Oh God, what is this? Sight of blood turn you on or – ow! Damn it!”
I showed her the thorn, then tossed it aside. “John,” I said, “give me your handkerchief.”
I noted with a certain sense of satisfaction that he looked distressed as he drew the handkerchief from his pocket. “This is real silk, Lew. Silk.”
“So it is, John, so it is.”
“God,” Elizabeth murmured as I bound her foot, “for a guy who can’t find his own ass in the woods, you’re such a damn Boy Scout.”
She said it almost tenderly. Very surprised, I looked up at her face. She smiled fleetingly. After a moment’s hesitation, I smiled back. Removing a thorn from someone’s foot is vastly underrated as a bonding experience. I felt like Androcles.
Then her attention swung from me and her foot back to John, and she immediately took on the aspect of Mount Pelée about to blow.
“Hey,” he told her, “give me a break, okay? I did have other people to look after on this little excursion. I am sorry about losing you. But you know how it is. These little slippages happen.”
Mount Pelée exploded. “This little slippage nearly got us killed!”
“But it didn’t actually get you killed. And I did come looking for you as soon as I realized that you really weren’t around. And now I have found you, haven’t I? Well? Haven’t I?”
Elizabeth sullenly yeah-yeahed. I didn’t respond. I was dead tired. All I wanted to do was go home, and he grated on the little I had left that could be grated on. There is no one more smug than somebody who has your signed waiver stashed someplace safe.
A resounding crash of gunfire from downstream made us look around. John’s expression was mildly reproachful. “Boy,” he said, “everybody seems to have got up on the wrong side of bed this morning. But, as I was saying. Sorry it took so long to locate you. You’ve really got no idea how many time-travelers are wandering around this area right now, right at this very minute. Their trails are everywhere. I mean, everywhere. New trails and old ones, too. Who’d think so many people’d want to come watch two armed mobs chase each other around the countryside? Give me the good times, thank you.”
“Let’s get out of here,” I said wearily. “The battle’s starting up again.”
He nodded, but he also said, “Where’s your spirit of adventure, Lew?”
“Same place as my sense of humor. Gone.”
“Boy, I guess so. Well, come on, the twenty-first-century express is now boarding.” He stepped closer, gave his spotless gloves a sorrowful look, held out his hands to us. I took one. Elizabeth started to take the other, then held back.
“My hands are dirty,” she told him. “Mustn’t mess up your nice clean gloves.”
She reached out and deliberately wiped her black fingers against the front of his coat.
“Much better,” she declared, and entwined her still-nasty fingers with his.
He sighed. “Lady, you are no lady.”
“Cut the crap,” she said, “and just take us home.”
There was a moment’s lightheadedness, a sensation of blacking out, and then the three of us were floating together through the treetops, unmindful of gravity and spiky branches alike. Now, as we emerged into the open sky, I saw the vast extent of the forest and caught a glimpse of a road below and ahead, and a long swarm of men.
It was only a glimpse, though. Among the trees were many opaque puffs of grayish-white smoke. Rising here and there were columns of darker stuff, some of it shot with red and orange flames. As far as the eye could see, the world lay obscured by a translucent, pungent haze.
Beside me, John said, “I even ran into some visitors from our own future. First time for me. It was some historian with a pack of grad students in tow. Fun bunch they were, too, let me tell you. They got all sniffy when I asked ’em about things up the way. Said it was against the rules. Rules? I said, and the old guy just grinned at me and cackled, There’ll be laws one day, and cops, too. Can you imagine? Cops!”
I remembered the stranger’s smile as he talked of Yankees cooked just right, and I nodded, more to myself than to John. I could imagine cops.
Then, suddenly, we were going.