Low chicago, p.44
Part #25 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
Nighthawk looked at Meathooks, whose expression was as stoic as ever. He looked at Biggest Woman and their eyes met. God knew she wasn’t his idea of heaven, but he’d found his once, and lost it. How could he take that away from another man? “You’d better be right,” he finally said in a low voice. “If not—”
“If things are still fucked up after we round up everyone else,” Croyd promised, “we can always come back again.”
Nighthawk wasn’t sure if Meathooks was following everything they were saying—hell, he wasn’t sure if he was, himself—but he looked at him, and nodded. For the first time Ali’s features relaxed, and he nodded back.
“Great, that’s settled,” Croyd said. He looked around. “Now, I don’t suppose you’ve invented the mirror since you’ve been back here.”
“No,” said Meathooks.
“Any reflective surface will do,” said Nighthawk.
Ali snorted. “We have ponds.”
A Long Night at the Palmer House
“I DON’T LIKE FLYING blind,” Croyd said hesitantly.
“Not much we can do about it,” Nighthawk replied. It was the best he could come up with to bolster Croyd’s flagging spirits. There’d been a definite lack of amphetamines in the Ice Age and while that calmed Croyd down a little, his energy levels were sinking fast. Thankfully they were at the end of their list, with only two names to go. Croyd could feel only one blip on the radar screen of his mind, so that probably meant that both were in a single location, unless one had died and their corpse had been punted somewhere into the time stream.
They had a long way to travel to come back. Nothing like their jaunt across millions of years to the time of the dinosaurs, but Croyd had been fresh for that jump, in complete control of his powers. Nighthawk could see that he was now badly in need of sleep and/or artificial stimuli, neither of which was possible.
“One thing for sure,” Nighthawk added in an attempt to cheer him up. “Unless we arrive in the dead of winter, it’s gotta be warmer there than here.”
The spasms unleashed by Croyd’s temporal powers took hold—Nighthawk would never get used to that—and seemed to go on for an uncountably long time. He was on the verge of useless panic when he felt warm, soft grass on the soles of his naked feet, a warm breeze caressing his naked body. Christ, Nighthawk thought, that feels good.
He opened his eyes and looked around the open landscape. It was early evening, just past sundown, and by the look of the trees whose leaves were just beginning to turn color, early fall. He turned, looking carefully over the vicinity, hoping to find another care package left for them by their unknown benefactor, but it seemed that this time they were on their own.
Croyd slumped down to the ground on his knees, close to exhaustion. Nighthawk bent over him, as always habitually careful to not use his ungloved left hand. “You all right?” he asked, his right hand on his companion’s shoulder.
The Sleeper looked up. “That was a tough one. I don’t know how much I have left.”
“One more jump, Croyd. That’s all, just one more jump.”
“Christ,” he whispered, shutting his eyes. “I can barely stand. We gotta get some clothes somewhere. We gotta find Galante and Cynder—”
“Well, what do we have here?” a voice suddenly drawled from behind him.
Nighthawk turned. Without his support Croyd fell flat on his face. Nighthawk swore to himself. He was getting tired, too. Tired and careless. He should have heard them coming up behind them.
Five of them, in their teens, roughly dressed in worn and dirty clothing. Nighthawk knew their kind. He’d run into them before in every decade of his long life. Punks. The breed didn’t change much from one era to the next.
They stood in an arc before them. Most were small and weaselly looking. The one who’d spoken was a big brute, though, with an oft broken nose and really bad teeth that were exposed in an openmouthed grin. They seemed unarmed, but the presence of hidden weapons, knives or clubs of some sort, was more than possible.
“I think we found us some nancys,” said the big one.
“Dirty sods, they is,” replied the runt on his left.
“Real dirty, with a nigger and all,” said the one on his right.
Croyd pulled himself to his knees, groaning. “I knew this would eventually happen.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Nighthawk said.
“Ooooh,” the big one said. “Take care of this, nancy.” He reached behind his back for a long-bladed knife.
“Fuck this,” Croyd said, and suddenly there were four piles of clothes. The last punk on the left gaped and gasped. “I left one for you,” the Sleeper said.
He couldn’t be much more than his mid-teens. He was shaking with fright. Though his lips were working, no sound came out. Nighthawk reached out and gripped his right forearm. He could feel tremors of fear ripple through his flesh. He gave him his best hard look, used the deepest tones he could muster when he spoke. “Let this be a lesson to you,” he said. “Repent!”
And he sucked a day out of his life.
The kid sagged, would have fallen if Nighthawk wasn’t holding his arm. He moaned as a sensation of awful loss swept over him. Tears ran down his cheeks. Nighthawk released his arm and he staggered away, sobbing. After a few steps his pace turned into a ragged run. He never looked back.
“Goddamn,” Croyd said, standing and sniffing the air. “First time I’ve seen the shit scared out of someone, literally.”
“Lesson learned, I hope.” Nighthawk closed his eyes, feeling strength flow back into him. It was better than a good meal and a long night’s sleep. It was a feeling that was all too easy to give in to, a temptation he always had to fight.
The worst thing about their stolen clothes this time around was not their poor fit. It was their smell. The only good thing about sending them off into time—and Croyd in his current state wasn’t exactly sure when he’d sent them—was that it also took their fleas, lice, and other verminous hangers-on with them. The punks had lost their knives as well as their long johns when Croyd dispatched them, but none of them had left any money behind.
As they strode through the early evening, Nighthawk realized where they were.
“We’re in Lincoln Park,” he told Croyd. Fortunately, their encounter with the nineteenth-century delinquents had taken place in an isolated corner of the preserve, probably where they frequently prowled for privacy, seeking couples whom they could prey on.
“What, again?” Croyd looked around. “Less crowded than last time.”
“Yeah.” It was still warm, with a hot wind blowing. They passed a bench, with a folded newspaper stuck between the wooden slats of its seat.
“Hang on a minute.” Nighthawk went over to the bench, Croyd following him. He picked up the paper, turned it back to the front page.
“What’s the matter?” Croyd asked at the sudden look on Nighthawk’s face.
“Find out what the time is,” Nighthawk said presumptively.
Croyd muttered to himself as he approached a strolling couple. “Excuse me, sir,” he asked politely. “Can you tell me the time?”
The man seemed suspicious of Croyd’s appearance, but nevertheless he stopped and warily consulted his big, silver-cased pocket watch. “A quarter after seven.”
Croyd tipped an imaginary hat. “Thank you, sir.”
“God,” Nighthawk said. “We’ve got less than two hours.”
“Two hours for what?”
“The date,” he said, pointing to the typeface.
“October 8, 1871,” Croyd read. “So?”
“We’ve cut it real close this time. Maybe too close.” Memories he’d intentionally buried almost a hundred and fifty years ago raced to the surface of his mind. He had no need to consult his memory palace. These recollections were too raw, too painful, to fade away. What to do? he frantically asked himself. What can I do?
“It’ll destroy almost four square miles of the city and leave a hundred thousand people homeless.” And, Nighthawk thought, destroy my life. Unless I change things.
“And—we can’t stop it, can we?” Croyd asked. “I mean, that would alter almost everything.”
Nighthawk wanted to tell him, Yes, let’s stop it—but that would make him the worst type of hypocrite. He said, “And there’s Galante and Cynder to consider. How can we find them?” Before my entire world burns.
“I don’t know,” Croyd said. “I can feel a presence, maybe a strong one. It may be both of them, somewhere south of here. But you know I can’t focus too finely. Someone out of time is out there and it’s got to be them. But exactly where?”
Nighthawk closed his mind and concentrated fiercely. If he ever needed one of his visions, this was the time. He thought so fiercely that he could feel his pulse throb, he could feel his muscles tense like cords of steel throughout his body.
Think, he told himself fiercely, goddamnit, think!
But that was not the way it worked. He couldn’t try to force his visions to come to him. He had to open himself to them. He had to be ready to accept them. He took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax. He felt the night air on his face, the scratchy material of his rough clothes against his skin, the very pressure of the Earth binding him to its surface. He opened his eyes and he could see nothing. He heard Croyd make vague sounds, as if he were speaking, but they meant nothing to him. Nighthawk let his mind loose, seeking, and somewhere he found it.
Heat. It was hot. Sweat sprang up on his forehead and ran in rivulets down his face as he felt the flames all around him, burning, burning everything in sight. An incendiary Armageddon was sweeping across the world, destroying everything in its path, leaping across rivers and enfolding everything in its greedily hungry grip.
“The Fire,” he said suddenly. “It’s all got to do with the Fire.”
“You sure, John?” Croyd asked dubiously.
“You said they were south of here?”
“As best as I can tell, but—”
“The Fire started south of here and leaped across the Chicago River and roared north through the city, burning all night.” Nighthawk nodded. “It’s all got to be connected, somehow.”
Croyd was doubtful. “I don’t know. Seems kind of flimsy to me.”
Nighthawk felt sudden, unaccountable anger. “Do you have anything better to go on?”
“Well … no.”
“We should take a cab,” Nighthawk said. “But we don’t have any damn money and we can’t take the chance of trying to hijack one and getting stopped by the law. Come on.”
He started to jog, and after a moment Croyd followed him.
They headed south, exiting the park at Fullerton, found a major cross street heading south, and ran down it, ignoring the glances of curious strollers moving at a more sedate pace. They came to where the Chicago River forked east and north. “You know where you’re going,” a huffing Croyd said as they crossed the east fork in the pedestrian lane of the nearest bridge.
“Everyone knows where the Chicago Fire started. Mrs. O’Leary’s barn.”
“I thought … thought that was … a myth,” Croyd rasped.
Nighthawk just shook his head, saving his breath.
No one really knew what caused the Great Chicago Fire, but they sure as hell figured out where it began to burn. He turned west at the first street corner they came to.
The city was becoming sparser, much less densely built, particularly after they crossed the Chicago River again at its main fork, taking the first rickety wooden bridge they came upon. They were on the west side now, though still within city boundaries. The landscape took on a more countrified look. There were no imposing buildings, no paved streets. It was almost like a suburb, if suburbs consisted of rickety wooden houses with accompanying barns, hog pens, and sprawling vegetable gardens.
“Hold up,” Croyd wheezed. “I’ve got a stitch.”
Nighthawk eased his pace, and they slowly got their breath back. Croyd, especially, was shaky. He staggered forward a few steps, his legs gone rubbery.
“Good thing we’re almost there.” Nighthawk indicated a minor street that was more path than thoroughfare. It was unpaved and a sluggish, shallow stream meandered in a slight depression adjacent to it. As they made their way cautiously along the dirt street, on intermittent sidewalks of wooden slats, they passed small, shabby wooden houses of two or three rooms that looked as if they’d been thrown together with little planning, let alone style or grace.
The houses were interspersed between empty patches of land, some fenced with wooden poles and barbed wire into pasturage, others planted as truck gardens. Outbuildings, privies, barns, storage sheds, chicken coops were all scattered almost randomly across the sprawling landscape. “Welcome to urban living, 1871 style,” Croyd said.
“Better than crowded tenements,” Nighthawk said.
“Not much. It also smells like cowshit. Or horseshit. Or some kind of shit.” Croyd suddenly stopped and clutched Nighthawk’s arm. “Hold it,” he said.
They paused before a haphazardly built two- or three-room structure that had a section of wooden sidewalk before it, bordering the margin of the meandering, garbage-choked stream.
“This it?” Nighthawk asked tensely.
They picked their way carefully to the backyard, where a barn almost the same size as the house stood, along with a smaller structure, a single-room cottage that was so close to the barn that its rear wall almost touched one of the barn’s sides.
“The legend about the cause of the Great Chicago Fire,” Nighthawk said, “it supposedly started in a barn when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern.”
“So…” Croyd’s voice dwindled into silence.
“The part about the cow was bullshit,” Nighthawk said. “Invented by a newspaper reporter who thought it would make a good story. But the Fire did start in or near Mrs. O’Leary’s barn.”
“Let’s just be careful,” Croyd suggested.
Carefully they went into the backyard, carefully they approached the cottage, carefully they opened the door a crack, and crowded close together to peer inside.
The single room was more mean than comfortable. It had four items of furniture. A bed without a headboard. A wooden chair. A small vanity table with a mirror, which strangely for such a lower-class dwelling was filled with small containers of perfumes, powders, makeup, and other female accoutrements. Finally, the table had a low, rickety stool before it.
The stool was empty. The bed had a man sleeping in it. The chair was occupied by a young-looking, athletic man who was securely tied to it and gagged.
The cottage had only a single window that let in little light, so the two could discern few details, but it was clear that the young man tied to the chair was terrified. His eyes were nearly bugging out of his skull, his face was strained.
Nighthawk and Croyd exchanged glances, then each pulled out the knife acquired with their clothing. They advanced cautiously into the room. Croyd put a finger to his lips, and the young man nodded vigorously. Nighthawk had the sudden feeling that the fellow looked vaguely familiar. Perhaps he had seen his picture somewhere, as unlikely as that seemed.
Nighthawk stopped at the chair, Croyd went on to the man in the bed.
Up close the youngster seemed scarcely out of his teens. Nighthawk gestured in what he hoped was a soothing manner, clearly showing him the knife, and touching it to the strands of rope that crossed his chest. He started sawing through them as Croyd reached the bed.
The sleeping man was breathing heavily, snoring irregularly but loudly, and was cradling a jug in his arms. Croyd leaned over him and placed the knife gently against his throat. He snorted loudly in his sleep. “
Galante snorted loudly again and brushed at his face as if chasing flies away.
“Hey!” Croyd barked. He plucked the jug from Galante’s arms and plunked him hard on the forehead with it. “Wake the fuck up!”
Galante snorted even more loudly. Then his eyes flew open, and his whole body twitched as if he meant to jump up out of the bed, but he somehow stopped himself as he felt the pressure on his throat increase.
“Jesus, Galante,” Croyd said, “you look terrible.”
He did. He was unshaven, his eyes were bloodshot, his tousled hair was greasy. The clothes that he wore were filthier than theirs and he stank of bad tobacco, vile drink, and his own body odor. Nighthawk sawed through some of the ropes binding the young man to the chair and removed his gag.
“Thank God, you saved me, thank God!” he babbled. “They kidnapped me—were going to kill me if the ransom they wanted wasn’t paid. They took me right out of my hotel room. I was in town playing with a barnstorming team when they took me—”
“Wait,” Nighthawk said. “You’re a ballplayer?”
“That’s right. I’m Anson. Cap Anson, they call me.”
Nighthawk felt the time currents rush over him like a frigid stream. It was impossible.
Cap Anson, nineteen years old at the beginning of his career, went on to become one of the greatest baseball players of the nineteenth century. The first man to accumulate more than three thousand hits in his career, he played for the Chicago White Stockings for two decades and was one of the most important and powerful figures in baseball.
He was also, unfortunately, a virulent racist who was implacably opposed to playing against black players and was a staunch advocate of the color line.
And I’m rescuing him, Nighthawk thought.
Seemingly, in this time line, he’d fallen victim to Galante. Maybe, probably, he was killed. And Anson’s absence, along with who knew what other factors, led to the breaking of the color line much earlier than in theirs. But we’re rescuing him—
Nighthawk kept cutting his bonds. The ballplayer stood shakily, and almost fell. Nighthawk reached out automatically to support him, and as his right hand touched Anson, he could see, even now, the disgust flash across Anson’s face.
Low Chicago by George R. R. Martin / Fantasy / Science Fiction / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes