A Night at the Theater

What would have happened if….? Originally published in the journal Twisted Endings, this story is in the genre of alternative reality. What if John Wilkes Booth had experienced a little mishap in Ford’s Theater on his way to the Presidential box….

 

     “Hold on to that horse! He’s a wild one—and make sure he don’t get the better of you!” admonished John Booth. He was in the alleyway next to Ford’s Theater, addressing Joseph, better know as Peanuts, the lame brained scrub he knew all too well. The kid couldn’t find a pair of shoes in a shoe store, thought Booth, and so much depended on everything working out just right this evening. He had arranged for a more reliable person to hold the getaway horse but, without consulting him, the job had been passed off to Peanuts. Egads!

There was no time to lose. It was nearly ten o’clock and the third act would be well underway. Booth was timing his appearance to coincide with the funniest bits of the play, when the audience would be the most relaxed and distracted. He was familiar with Our American Cousin although he himself acted no role in it. Entering the side door of the theater as quietly as possible, he took a deep breath. He pulled the small Derringer pistol from his pocket and began mounting the stairs to the presidential box in total darkness. Earlier that same afternoon he had climbed these very same steps in order to drill a peep hole in the door to the box. He wanted to be able to see who was sitting where when the time came. Every detail had been carefully planned—or so he thought.

He had counted twelve steps earlier, so what the hell was this…..Damn! He tripped on the last step (there were thirteen, actually), and as he stumbled he fell on his right arm, causing the gun to go off accidentally. The bullet got him in the foot. DAMN that hurt! In attempting to get up Booth staggered forward, lost his balance again and was propelled right through the flimsy door and into the box. The President was immediately in front of him, but he seemed unperturbed by the commotion, only turning slightly to see who the intruder was. Booth caught sight of Major Henry Rathbone rising from his seat in the far corner. The Major was no doubt wondering what in blazes was going on, having heard a shot fired outside and then seeing this demented stranger come crashing through the door.

Booth picked himself up. It was now or never, he thought. The show must go on. “SIC SEMPRE TYR….,” he started to shout but was cut short by an unexpected thwack to the side of the head. He hadn’t seen Mary Todd Lincoln get up from her chair and was totally unprepared for the mighty smack she gave him with the back side of her fleshy hand. Ouch! That hurt too, but not nearly as much as his foot which was now really beginning to throb.

“You damn fool,” she shrieked indignantly, “get out of our box!”

Meanwhile, the Major’s fiancée, Clara Harris, started screaming like a banshee. Rathbone lunged at Booth who dropped his useless pistol and pulled out a knife. They grappled clumsily like two stags locking antlers at rutting time. Rathbone was the stronger man. He soon wrested the knife out of Booth’s hand, then managed to hurl him over the side of the balcony. The actor dropped to the stage, landing solidly on his feet, but— THUNDERIN’ ZEUS!—did that hurt like hell! His foot was now exploding in pain. He managed to pull himself together. In a final gesture of defiance he turned to the audience, declaiming, to the best of his thespian ability, “The South is avenged!”—although he knew it was anything but. Besides, with the theater in total uproar, nobody could hear what he said anyway.

The actors on the stage were still frozen in place, mouths agape at this inexplicable disruption of the performance by their colleague. Booth exited stage right where he found Chester, the stage manager, blocking his way.

The man began to voice a strenuous objection. “Mister Booth, sir, what the devil….”

Booth pushed him aside without a glance. “Out of my way, you ninny!” he bellowed.

He limped out to the alleyway as quickly as he could, which wasn’t very fast at all, only to find no horse and no Peanuts. Unbeknownst to Booth, while he was bumbling his way through Ford’s Theater the horse had escaped with the boy following in hot pursuit. They were now a good two miles away.

“Damn that stupid kid! Damn that horse! Damn everything!” he railed at no one in particular, the alleyway being deserted. It had all been a total fiasco.

John Wilkes Booth hobbled off down Tenth Street, into the darkness of the night, cursing the whole time.

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