He’ll be twenty-seven in just two weeks, but he won’t live to see his birthday.
He doesn’t plan to.
The thick Turkish carpets muffle his footsteps as he walks, his polished spurs glinting under the hissing gas lamps. A few dawdlers glance his way; the gentlemen smile or nod, the ladies simper and giggle behind their fans. His dark ensemble might raise a few eyebrows — hardly appropriate evening-wear for a night like this — but none challenge him. Why should they? Tall and slim with brown curly hair, he cuts a dapper figure tonight in a smart black suit, frock coat and knee-high cavalry boots. Besides, he’s familiar here. Night after night he struts and frets his hour upon the stage, serenaded with rapturous applause and roses flung by adoring ladies. His audience love him. Some even revere him. Nobody suspects a thing.
Up the stairs, along the corridor. A faint smattering of applause, ripples of laughter; somewhere in Act III? Mustn’t dawdle. Time’s ticking on.
He slips his hand into his pocket, fingers curling around smooth walnut and cold metal. His snug little Derringer. Only one shot.
One is enough.
Fathers. Sons. Brothers. Cousins. An entire generation snatched into oblivion by steel, shrapnel and cannon-fire, swallowed up by the endless crushing tide of Union blue. Thousands of lost souls clamouring for retribution, their ghosts sighing among the sweltering bayous of Louisiana and the cotton fields of Alabama, white as new-fallen snow. Never again would they tramp over the rolling meadows of Georgia, nor reap the golden cornfields of Tennessee.
Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.
Ah, here we are. Last door on the left. He pauses to compose himself, the Bowie knife heavy on his left hip. Things could turn ugly. He hopes not.
But: plan for the worst.
Three. Two. One.
Weapons drawn, he slips inside.
Four places occupied. Furthest to his right, a heavyset uniformed man reclines on the settee with his fiancée, his epaulettes and brass buttons gleaming under the stage lights. Beside them, closer, a stout woman in bonnet and evening gown eases back in her chair with a creak.
And nearest the door, barely two paces away in a plush red rocking chair…
He shivers. Abraham Africanus the First, in the flesh. The unmistakable sideburns and beard, a full head and shoulders taller than his high-backed chair. Over a month since he last stood behind the tyrant, under a chilly March sky facing a sea of thousands with his reedy voice echoing over the crowd. ‘Malice toward none, with charity for all…’ Tell that to the mothers, widows and orphans left crying in the dark. Richmond swallowed in hellfire, night sky torn asunder as the shells screamed down. Limbless cripples pleading for quarters in the gutter. A shroud of grief over every Memphis street. The curtains drawn, the mourning wreaths on every door, the widows veiled in black crepe. All their boys in grey who marched away singing, and never came home again.
A ripple of laughter through the crowd, echoed by a comedic blast from the brass section. Unheard in the hubbub, he clicks back the hammer.
All or nothing. He walked in tonight, head high. He won’t be walking back out.
But: hope for the best.
Below, a man dressed in drag prowls across the stage. ‘…Guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap!’
The tyrant rocks forward, convulsed with laughter as his guests guffaw beside him.
Behind them in the gloom, a silent shadow steps forward.
‘For the South,’ John Wilkes Booth thinks, and raises his pistol.
© 2021 | Tom Burton