FATES AND TRAITORS
He had nowhere to go but into the arms of his vengeful enemies. Supporting his weight on the crutch, he made his way to the door, wincing as a shower of sparks flew too close before his face. The crutch slipped from beneath his outstretched arm as he reached for the latch, but he let it fall. He would face the soldiers standing, defiant and proud on his own two feet.
He drew himself up as he shuffled into the doorway, and raised his carbine —
And then he was lying on his face in the dirt, his head spinning, his neck trembling electrically as if in the aftermath of a lightning strike, his strong body strangely limp and heavy. He could not open his eyes, or dared not try.
He heard the faint thunder of quick footfalls, felt the strike of the soldiers’ boots on the earth transmitted through the ground to his forehead. Something warm and liquid trickled from his neck down his collar past his clavicle, over the old scar he boasted as a war wound, but when he reached up to brush the irritant away, his hand and arm did not respond. Dimly he puzzled over this oddity as the men gathered around him.
“Is he dead?” an unfamiliar voice queried, shrill with excitement. “Did he shoot himself ?”
“No,” replied Lieutenant Baker. “I don’t think so. I don’t know what happened.”
John wanted nothing more than to riposte with a mocking jest, but the words eluded him, whirling beyond his fingertips like cottonwood seeds caught in a sudden gale. He felt them swirling about him, small and white and soft, thousands upon thousands, felt himself sinking into them as they mounded up around him on all sides. The crackling blaze faded, its light and sound growing faint, but the smell of scorched tobacco and ash lingered in his nostrils, a curious singularity that kept the white softness from engulfing him completely.
There were hands upon him, he realized, inquisitive and none too gentle. He had been shot, he heard someone say. They found the wound on the right side of his neck. Someone had disobeyed orders and had shot the most despised man in America, robbing the Yankees of the trial and execution they surely craved.
John felt himself rising, lifted roughly and carried away from the heat and light that flickered beyond his closed eyelids. He heard the crash of a roof falling in as he was placed on a patch of soft grass, his blood rushed in his ears, and his head began to pound. He ached all over, his strangely heavy, frozen body sparking with pain.
He had been shot through the neck, he realized, vaguely aston- ished, as the last of the white softness blew away. He was probably dying.
He tried to speak, but he could manage no more than a wheeze, which was enough to draw the men closer. “Thought he was dead al- ready,” one muttered.
“He’s on his way to dying,” said another. “Hold on, he’s trying to talk.”
“Tell — ” John rasped. “Tell her — ”
A slim figure bent over him, lowered an ear close to John’s mouth. “Go on.”
John took a shuddering breath through the thick fluid collecting in his throat. “Tell my mother . . . I die for my country.”
Nearby, a man cursed. Another spat in the dirt. “Tell your mother you die for your country,” the slim figure repeated slowly. “Do I have that right?”
John swallowed and tried to nod. The man nodded once and moved away.
He drifted, jolted from time to time into wakeful horror by unex- pected surges of pain running the length of limbs that felt nothing else. He could not move. He struggled even to breathe. He closed his eyes to the falling ashes but could not shut his ears against the soldiers’ words. One man repeatedly insisted that John had shot himself. John wanted to set the record straight, but he found it too difficult to gather the correct words and put them down again in the proper order.
“I tell you again, that can’t be,” said Baker. “I was looking right at him when I heard the shot. His carbine wasn’t turned upon himself.”
The discussion wore on, and John felt himself succumbing to wave after wave of exhaustion. Then two other men approached and settled the matter with a revelation: a Sergeant Corbett had shot the presi- dent’s assassin. He had the spent cap and an empty chamber in his re-volver to prove it.
Corbett, John thought. He knew no one by that name, could not imagine how he might have offended the man aside from killing his president and freeing him from tyranny. Perhaps this Corbett had a pretty little wife who had once waited outside a stage door to greet John with sweet blushes and flowers. He smiled and tried to offer the ser- geant a gallant apology, but his lips moved without sound.
“I went to the barn.” The new voice rang with zeal. “I looked through a crack, saw Booth coming toward the door, sighted at his body, and fired.”
“Against orders,” said Baker, without rancor.
“We had no orders either to fire or not to fire,” the sergeant pro- tested. “I was afraid he’d either shoot someone or get away.”
The lieutenant did not rebuke him.
John drifted in and out of consciousness, succumbing to exhaus- tion only to be choked awake when blood and fluid pooled in his throat. As the heat from the conflagration rose to a blistering intensity, the soldiers carried him from the lawn to the front porch of the farm- house, where Mrs. Garrett had placed a mattress for him. Her cool, soft hand on his forehead revived him, and when he struggled to ask for water, she understood his hoarse request, quickly filled a dipper, and brought it to his lips. But it was no use. He could wet his tongue but he could not swallow.
He asked to be turned over, expecting a rebuff, but the soldiers complied, lifting him and placing him on his stomach. Still he could not clear his throat. Hating his helplessness, he asked to be rolled onto his side, and then the other, but that was no better. Panic and despair swept through him at the thought that he would drown in his own sick. Coughing, wrenching his head, he managed to catch the attention of the slim man who had taken his message for his mother. “Kill me,” he whispered when the man knelt beside him. “Kill me.”
“We don’t want to kill you,” said the man. “We want you to get well.” So they could stretch his neck, no doubt. But he was already a dead man. And what, he thought wildly, had become of Herold?
The hours passed. His throat swelled, his lips grew numb. He felt himself sinking, only to revive, time and again. He wished the slim offi- cer would sit beside him, to hear and commit to memory his last loving words for his mother. As for last words for his country, as well as for the North, the manifesto he had placed with his sister for safekeeping would have to suffice. Dear Asia, childhood playmate and lifelong con- fidante, who disagreed with him vehemently on almost every political matter but loved him still — she knew not what he had entrusted to her, but news of his demise would remind her of the thick envelope locked away in her husband’s safe. Asia would find his last great written work, his apologia, as well as documents and deeds and a letter for their mother.
Their mother. How grateful he was that she could not see how he suffered.
He realized he had fallen unconscious when he woke to the touch of calloused hands bathing his wounds. He had been pondering some- thing . . . yes, his last words. In Asia’s safe, in the home she shared with her husband and children. A sudden worry seized him. Would she burn the papers, fearing they would implicate her, endanger her family? No, not loyal Asia, not the family historian who had begged their mother not to destroy their father’s letters as she had fed them into the flames. Asia would spare his writings, and far from implicating her, they would exonerate her. He would have abandoned his mission rather than bring suspicion down upon any member of his family or upon any lady — even one such as Mrs. Surratt, who had lent her tacit support to the plot by harboring many of the conspirators in her boardinghouse, by giving them an inconspicuous place to meet. But none would condemn her for that, a respectable, devout widow unaware of John’s true intentions. Of all the women who loved him — and Mrs. Surratt did love him, as one loved a comrade in arms — she alone shared his devotion to the South.
Fluid filled his throat; he choked, gasped, grew dizzy — and rallied, somehow. He wished he had not.
His thoughts turned to Lucy. If only he could retrieve his diary from his coat pocket and gaze upon her portrait before the light faded from his eyes. He could imagine the shock and reproach in hers. She would mourn him, but in silence, lest his notoriety ruin her. He could not blame her for that. Few knew of their secret engagement, so Lucy would grieve, but in time her heart would heal, and with her ties to the assassin forgotten, she would eventually marry someone else. Someone safe, someone her parents could accept. That dull security would be John’s last bequest to her.
The sky was softening in the east when a physician came to exam- ine him, a South Carolinian from the sound of it, unsettled by the sight of so many armed Yankees but determined to do his duty. John fought to stay conscious throughout the examination, and was rewarded with one last comedic jest when the doctor announced that he was badly in- jured but would survive.
If not for the smothering thickness in his chest John would have derided the fool. Throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it.
“But the ball passed clean through the neck,” said Baker, incredu- lous. “How can he live?”
Sighing in consternation, the doctor cleaned his spectacles, re- placed them, bent over his patient again, and peered at the holes on ei- ther side of John’s neck. Then, straightening, he declared that closer scrutiny revealed that the shot had severed the assassin’s spinal cord. His organs were failing, one by one, and if he did not drown in his own blood and sputum first, he would slowly suffocate.
“Well,” the slim man said, “that’s it, then.”
John was powerless to resist as the slim man bent over him and briskly searched his pockets, taking from him a candle, his compass, and his diary, in which John had placed Lucy’s photograph. Before he could beg the man to let him gaze upon her image one last time, the officer was gone, taking John’s belongings with him. But would he carry John’s last message for his mother?
Agitated, John coughed and spat blood, gurgling in lieu of speech, desperate.
He thought he would suffocate before anyone responded, but then the lieutenant was at his side, frowning intently down upon him. John jerked his head twice to beckon the officer closer, and though his mouth twisted in revulsion, Baker complied, bending over and placing his ear close to John’s lips.
“Tell my mother — ” He could scarce draw breath. “Tell my mother that I did it for my country — ” He could not fill his lungs; his throat constricted ever tighter. “That I die for my country.”
The sun had risen above the distant hills, harsh and unnaturally warm. He clenched his teeth, his eyes tearing against the glare until some pitying soul draped a shirt over a chair to shield his face.
He was John Wilkes Booth. If he had done wrong in ridding the world of the man who would declare himself king of America, let God, not man, judge him.
Out, out, brief candle!
Did he not have a candle in his pocket? No, the lieutenant had taken it, and Lucy’s portrait, and his diary, his apologia. But he should need no candle to see by, with the sun so hot upon his face.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.
Yes, and so he should remind the good women who had loved him, to give them some measure of peace. If he could but find pen and pa- per and ink, and light his candle to see by, for it had grown so dark so suddenly. . . . He strained to pat his pockets but was surprised to dis- cover he could not move, and surprised again that he could have for- gotten something so important.
Lieutenant Baker peered curiously down at him. “You want to see your hands?”
He wanted the use of them, but since he could not speak to clarify, he could only lie passively, unresisting, as the lieutenant lifted his hands up and into his line of sight. He glimpsed the tattoo he had given him- self as a child, his initials etched upon the back of his left hand between his thumb and forefinger, his defiant, indelible rebuttal to all those who would deny his right to bear the proud name of Booth.
He gazed upon his hands, as limp and insensible as those of a corpse.
“Useless,” he croaked. “Useless.”
All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.
The world would not look upon his like again.
This is an excerpt from FATES AND TRAITORS, reprinted with the permission of Penguin Random House and the author. Jennifer Chiaverini’s Fates and Traitors: A Novel of John Wilkes Booth publishes on September 13, 2016. For more information visit jenniferchiaverini.com.
JENNIFER CHIAVERINI is the New York Times bestselling author of Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, The Spymistress, Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, and the Elm Creek Quilts series. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and two sons.