The Caroline

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An Intruder in the Night

An Intruder in the Night

Caroline found that once she got used to the different noises, being on the river was far more easeful to her rest than being at sea with its more turbulent motions and nothing to see for several days. Here, in contrast, there was a constantly changing riverbank, barely visible at night other than for fires flickering here and there. During the day there were always other boats to be seen crossing ahead of them, or behind them.

After the war, shipping on the river had picked up rapidly to regain what they could, of lost opportunity and to regain the markets that they had lost. They were active as they had never been toward the end of that war, trying to regain lost ground. She could see activity everywhere she looked, almost as though slavery had not ended at all, though it had. People still had to work to survive, and even those who thought they were free were still indentured to some master even if it were just the land, or the necessity of providing for their own family.

She could see the ruins of once fine houses, burned in retribution for some resistance to the invading union soldiers or by disgruntled slaves in a final act of rebellion against a tyrant. Of those, a few stark skeletons of chimneys and ribs of timber stood out. Some had risen from their former ashes. Life had to go on. There seemed to be almost as many churches as there once had been fine mansions. At other places along the banks, cypress, stout oaks, and other trees, heavily bearded with Spanish moss waving in the breeze, saw them slip by; but mostly there was scrub and vines down close to the river.

They seemed to be met at fairly regular intervals by wharf boats bringing passengers out and taking others off as they slackened speed. Other boats focused upon making the trip up to the major centers to the north as fast as they could, while the Caroline was more of a steady workhorse. There were those who preferred the more leisurely pace and did not mind that it might take a couple of weeks to achieve what the faster boats might do in just three or four days. But then, they had usually chosen their company well so that any tedium would be relieved, either by gambling—though gambling had been outlawed on the river—or in the company of a beautiful and obliging woman, usually not one’s wife. Time, for them, was not as important as it was for others.

Many passengers spent as much time on the hurricane deck as they could, where the stifling heat was at least blown away by the steady breeze, keeping flies—if there were any—off, if the tobacco smoke from the abundant cigars and cheroots did not. At least it was cooler there, above the river, and there was shelter as the inevitable thunderstorms rolled through most afternoons. She could see the approaching line of a thunderstorm moving upriver behind them, obliterating all sights behind them as it steadily advanced a little faster than they were moving. There were stronger winds with it, blowing the heavy downpour upon those who had thought to find some shelter from it on the lower decks. Finding that they could not avoid getting wet, they retired to the other side of the boat; retreated to one of the salons or the dining room, and failing that, went back to their stifling cabins, if they had one. Those others on the rafts might take shelter under canvas, if the wind did not loosen it, or they put up with the warm rain. It was a warm enough downpour that it was not too unpleasant, but out on the open river the lightning was always a danger. Deaths from lightning strikes were not unheard of.

Wyatt had not emerged to join her as he did from time to time to sit with her either there or in the salon where she took her meals. She had looked forward to conversing with him of an evening, but he was busy somewhere.

It was getting late, and he still had not appeared, so she decided to retire. She could hear the steady hammering of rain above her head on the deck, along with the steady roar of thunder and flashes of light from cloud to cloud and cloud to ground. The downpour alone would have been a comforting kind of sound, but she did not like the accompanying jolts of thunder, which kept her awake for an hour or so with brief and rattling reverberations shaking the windows. The only other thing, which was slightly disturbing, was the steady throbbing through the woodwork of the engines below, but that soon began to diminish as they slackened speed, as they had done on the previous night.

She detected that they had slowed as visibility had diminished. That night, she slept even better than she had when they had been tied up at the levee in New Orleans. The cabin was much bigger, much more luxurious and the lock was more sturdy but without a bolt on the inside, though her windows were wide open against the heat. She could see the curtains, blowing in the breeze as they moved.

She had gone to sleep too easily, considering what was going through her mind about what had happened in just the last three weeks and what still lay ahead of her. Her brother had most certainly not been pleased to see her, seeing a direct threat to him after what he had done with the money she had counted on. She had held herself in check, however, and had felt it better not to create a scene or threaten him too obviously, though she had certainly caused him a stab of deep concern by her presence and her words. She would think carefully how she would recover what was hers and protect herself from his usually devious machinations at the same time. He was one who would dwell upon an ill and try to see that it was repaid ten times over. She had no illusions about what her brother might intend. She had recovered her pistol and laid it on the table beside her bed so that it would be within reach. Although it was more comfortable where she was than on the Osprey, it seemed less secure to her with more people around her and her brother.

In her sleep she had barely heard the screams of some animal meeting its end in the jaws of some predator on shore as they had moved closer to the bank. She had turned over to blot out the momentarily disturbing sound. It was an event that happened thousands of times a day on the river somewhere.

She awoke suddenly sometime later, hearing a board creak inside of her room to find a darker shadow, a man, approaching her bed. How he had got in without having her wake instantly, she could not be sure, except to have made so little noise he must have had a key. She was wide-awake in an instant. Her eyes were well adjusted to the low light, whereas his were still affected by the brighter moonlight outside (the storm must have blown on), and he would not have a clear view of her or where she was. She had no illusions about it being a case of someone entering the wrong room by accident or anything relatively innocent like that, and did not hesitate, but reached for her gun.

He realized from the sudden sound of movement in front of him that she was awake and would soon let out a cry for help. He lunged toward her carrying what might be a blanket in his hands, but he was too late. That one man had now become two struggling together just inside of her room. The second man seemed to be striving to drag that first man out of her room by his hair. She saw the glint of a bare knife blade in the moonlight.

Without needing to think about it, she raised her gun, cocked it, and fired in one action as she had practiced so many times. She did not aim anywhere in particular, just intent on hitting the indistinct target closest to her, in the body. He was close enough to her that it would be hard to miss. The noise in such a confined space, even though not so very confined, was deafening after the peaceful still of the night, and would be loud enough to wake half the boat. The flash of light from the barrel illuminated everything a little more, but also blinded her for a few moments, and the shout of pain that also intruded upon her senses, followed by cursing, told her that she had inflicted some kind of wound to have elicited that kind of response.

He was driven back both by her shot, and the efforts of the man behind him. He was outlined in the brighter light from the door space for just a second, followed by a splash as he went over the side and fell into the water. That was when she also realized that the noise from the engines had stopped. They had stopped sometime earlier. They must have tied up near the bank for the night when that storm had effectively blinded them, with visibility being down to just a hundred or two hundred feet, with the lead rafts occasionally disappearing from view altogether. It would not be a good time to meet another boat coming downriver.

She could also hear the sound of violence continuing outside of her door. From what she could hear outside of her cabin (she still had not had presence of mind to get up and close her door and hold it closed), there were two others outside engaged in a struggle for life. One of them was probably the man who had tried to stop that first one before she had shot him. There was the loud scuffling of feet on the deck, curses, and even heavy breathing, which had to be loud, considering that her ears were still ringing after her gunshot. Those sounds were followed by another curse, a sudden cry of pain, as though a knife had been driven into someone. There was the sound of blows being delivered between two men, causing her to wince, and then after that, a moment of silence broken by a gradually rising scream of pain that was suddenly cut off, followed by another much louder splash and then silence. It sounded as if at least two bodies had gone into the river to join that first one. She felt that she knew who one of them had to be and hoped that he had not been injured trying to save her. She had shot only the first man that had been in her room.

She lay still, trembling with fear that suddenly came over her. Her heart was palpitating, and she had to remember to breathe. She still held her pistol tightly in her hand. She had fired only one of the two barrels as she had cocked only the one in her haste. It might be only a small gun, but it was enough to kill anyone at such close range, except he had not dropped, but had tried to escape over the side or had fallen over. She cocked the unfired barrel and waited.

Nothing else happened to disturb her, except that she could hear movements and voices in other rooms beside her. Others had indeed been disturbed by the obvious noise of a gun discharging and by the sudden altercation on the deck, ending with whomever was involved, going over the side, as the first man had. Others would come to investigate shortly. With others ready to take note of what had happened and who would soon appear with all their questions, she leaped out of bed then and moved cautiously over to her door. It was open, of course, with a key still in the lock outside while her own was still sitting on her bedside table.

She removed the key, closed the door, and relocked it from the inside and leaned back against the door, able to breathe now and able to feel her pulse hammering in her head. There was the strong smell of the discharged gun throughout the cabin, but at least she was safe. She now had two keys. No one might be aware of what had happened in her cabin, although those in rooms close to her own must surely be aware that it had been from nearby. She took a match out of the holder and lit the lamp in the middle of the table, turned the wick down, uncocked the gun carefully, sat at the table with the gun held loosely in the folds of her nightdress, and waited to find out what might happen. She shivered in the suddenly-felt coolness, stood up, retrieved a wrap from the foot of her bed, and then sat nervously on the bed, waiting. She heard footsteps outside and then inquiries addressing someone.

“Are you all right? I heard a shot and some shouting.” There was a response from somewhere below.

“An alligator was crawling onto the raft, and someone took a shot at it.” She recognized that voice coming from over the side. It was Mr. Wyatt. She laughed nervously at the gall of the man to tell such a tale, but he must have done that to avoid alarming anyone or inviting too many questions now that the problem had been dealt with. He had gone overboard with one of her would-be attackers. It was to be hoped he was uninjured and safe. He did not sound to be in distress, though he would certainly be wet.

“I thought I heard someone let out a cry after that. I knew someone had gone overboard.”

“That was me. That shot scared the hell out of me,wherever it came from, and I lost my footing and fell in.”

“You shouldn’t be down there with an alligator on the loose.”

“Damned right!” She could envisage a hasty retreat from the raft. Yet no one had shot at any alligator. Hers had been the only shot.

Wyatt must know what had happened as he seemed to have caused at least one of those men to go overboard after dragging the other back from in her cabin as she shot him. No one seemed to know or said anything about what had really happened. They either did not know or didn’t care, or did not wish to scare anyone about a possible robber on the loose. Just as well. She would be more careful in future about how she secured her door. There would be the back of a chair under the handle after this.

She discovered that her hands had stopped trembling, and she reloaded her gun, now that she had time to do so with others around. She would clean it later that day. No one else would be likely to bother her that night after that disturbance.

When everyone had dispersed back to their own berths, she waited for a further ten minutes; dressed; and, carrying her pistol with her, slipped out of her cabin, locking it behind her, finding that the storm clouds had moved on some hours before and that the moon was now well up over the trees. It was also pleasantly cool.

She saw where there was a trail of water near the railing of the lower deck where someone had climbed back aboard. She followed it, concerned that it might be one of the two men who had seemed interested in her. There was nothing that she might identify as blood in that light, but there was too much of it to be blood. It was water. She tried to follow it in the dark but lost it on the stairs to the hurricane deck, just twenty feet from her own cabin door where people sat during the day to see the banks slipping by, and then she saw that it continued up the stairs that led up to the pilot house sitting above everything. Few members of the crew were allowed up there after dark, and no passenger. She thought she might know who it was that had climbed aboard after carrying the second of her two assailants over with him. Wyatt, of course.

No bodies were recovered, but then no one went looking for any, or said anything about an attempted robbery or, worse, gone wrong. If there really were alligators in the river—and she knew that there were when it was warm enough, perhaps even this far upriver, though she had seen none—then they would soon see such a repast removed soon enough; but that tale about shooting at an alligator had been just that: a tale.

Within minutes, now that the weather had cleared and there were no other squalls bearing down on them, they moved out into the channel again to resume their run upriver.

Neither of those men had been her brother, but she knew that he had something to do with it. He really had been disturbed to see her.

When she left her room the next morning, she noticed that there was a chair propped up against the side of the cabin and saw signs of a youth that she had seen scrubbing down the decks and cleaning out some of the rooms, as well as involved with numerous other tasks about the boat, disappearing around the corner. He had spent the night in that chair making sure that no one else disturbed her during the night. Wyatt must have directed him to do that.

No one said anything about it at breakfast other than a brief comment about some idiot waking everyone up by taking a shot at an alligator.

Wyatt unexpectedly joined her before she had finished and asked her if she had slept well. He seemed to have a knowing smile on his face. She returned it and spoke softly so that others would not overhear her. She could see that his knuckles on one hand appeared raw.

“You mean apart from the intruder into my cabin, that shot, the scream, and then two men scuffling outside of my door and then going overboard into the river, one of whom was assisted by you, I believe.” He let her continue. “All of which no one seemed to notice except for me. And you, though you were not entirely honest with the gentleman who wanted to know what had happened.” He just smiled at her as she got around to answering his question. “I slept well up to that point, but then I sat up the rest of the night. Thank you for intervening with that second man, and thank you for the guard.” He inclined his head to acknowledge her appreciation of his action.

“Did they both die?”

He was not about to insult her intelligence or her obvious knowledge of what had happened by denying anything.

“One of them almost certainly did. The one I struggled with.”

“Good.” She felt no compassion for either of them. They had intended no good for her—she was sure of that. “I will not regret it if they both did, though I had rather not have killed anyone. I doubt they intended better for me.”

“Your shot scared me and spooked that second man. The one I went over the side with caught the edge of the raft with his head and may have suffered a broken neck. I didn’t stay around to check in the dark. I doubt he survived, but I wasn’t about to go searching for him and to pull him from the river and invite too many questions about a body being there after you fired off that shot. The other—the one you shot—may have made it to the bank and kept going. Wise man. I didn’t see any trace of him other than a trail of fresh footprints in the sand. I am sorry I wasn’t faster off the mark and got to them before that first one entered your cabin. There were some questions I would have liked to have asked them. I watched them both the first night and then last night. I didn’t expect anyone might steal that spare key from the steward. Better if we don’t say anything and scare anyone. There will be someone sleeping outside of your cabin after this. Try not to shoot him.” She smiled at his banter. “You can give him that second key, later.”

“I will. I am in your debt even more now, and I do not like to be in anyone’s debt. I hope you dried off properly.”

“I had a bath and changed. Thank you for not contradicting the rumor of someone shooting at an alligator.”

“Why would I contradict it? I may not have seen an alligator, but I was not where you were. It was a rat that I shot at, of the human variety. Were you not afraid that his body would show up and raise questions about your story?”

“Not in this river. There are many bodies float down here. Few of them are ever found or identified. The alligators soon take care of them.” Hers would have been one of them, but he did not tell her about his suspicions. Thankfully, she did not seem to know what had been intended for her. Her brother had sent two of his companions to deal permanently with her. Her showing up had indeed rattled him. He would have much more to be rattled about before they got much further upriver.

“So the wet trail leading to the upper deck and to the pilot house was yours?”

“I hope so. Yes, it was. I was the only one who came back aboard. I knew he had a knife, but thank you for shooting him, rather than me, when you did.”

“Thank you. I seem to be constantly in your debt, first in Liverpool, then on the Osprey, and now here. I shall see you repaid, you know.” He just smiled at her.

“I have no worry about that, Miss Henstridge, but there is no urgency. Do you carry so many valuables around with you as to invite robbery, or is it that your brother hates you or fears you so very much as to risk doing what he seems to have tried to do?” She would not try to deny what seemed obvious.

“You saw that prickly exchange between us when he came aboard. Who hadn’t? There is little love lost between us. But I have nothing worth stealing that he might know about.” He caught the way she had said that.

“Perhaps he believes you do. Or more likely, your arriving back home unnerved him more than it should. He may have been trying to protect his own inheritance and decided to take care of you before you might take care of him with that little pistol, or brashly suggesting to him that you might let the rancher in Texas know about his cheating—there were a few who heard that little exchange.” She had not cared who might have overheard what she had said, but she had been angry with him and had let her feelings overrule her usually cautious self. “Rather than robbery, there may have been something more final on their minds. I bet he didn’t know you carry that little two-barreled gun.”

“How did you know that it has two barrels? I fired only the one.”

“I saw it in your bag in Liverpool when I picked it up. Should I approach your brother and ask him about what happened?” Surely he would not think of doing that.

“He would deny it, even if you can find him. He’s had time enough to think about what must have happened. He would distance himself as far as he could from anything like that. He would always hire others to do his dirty work as he has the perfect excuse: not having full use of his arm. He favors a swordstick to make up for his infirmity, but he also carries a little gun hidden away. He will never stand up to a man, face-to-face, nor a determined woman either, but will try to gain a coward’s advantage and work behind a man’s back.” Wyatt already knew that. “My father and my other brother were no different. Father and Robert both tried to persuade others that their injuries were because of that war, but they weren’t. They neither of them fought in that war, and their injuries came after that war ended.” She sighed heavily as some thought to do with that, overcame her. “We must seem like quite a family to you.” He did not make a comment in response to that.

“And where are they, your other brother and your father?” It might be expected that he would ask, even though he knew the answer already.

“Dead! At least my eldest brother is. He was the only one who fought in that war. He was shot almost five years ago after some brawl that saw them all wounded in one way or another, and he never recovered. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Robert may have assisted him out of this life while Father was not there to protect him. They had always hated each other. I am not sure how my father died. He disappeared on a trip down to New Orleans a few years ago while I was away, but I only learned of that last Christmas.”

“And what brought you back to America, Miss Henstridge?”

“I wish you would stop calling me that. My name is Caroline while we are sitting and talking like this together. Several things brought me back. My grandmother is getting old, and her letters to me changed quite suddenly almost two years ago, though I did not always get them until they had traveled across half the continent, following me. I began to hear from other relatives too. Then my father disappeared. I knew that Robert could never manage anything, so I must admit to being slightly curious about the state of the plantation under his management, but mostly I came back to see my grandmother.” She decided she had no need to say more than that.

“So she lives? I thought I heard your brother say something about her being dead, or are we talking of another grandmother? We all of us have two of them.” She looked startled as though she had been caught in a lie.

“Yes. However, I have always known only one grandmother, and she is alive, or she was when I last heard from her. However, my brother believes that she is dead. That’s what he believes, and I would like it to stay that way for her safety, so please say nothing.” He was smiling at her with a strangely judgmental look on his face, or was that her conscience making it seem that way? “What a deceitful family, as well as being a murderous crew! I can see what you are thinking without you saying anything.” She blushed as he smiled.

“I was about to say nothing of the kind, nor was I thinking it. I doubt that you would know what I am thinking.” He continued, “The gentle art of deception. Everyone practices it when it is necessary.” She looked up at him, faintly comforted by his comment. He was not one who might need to deceive anyone. She saw nothing in his face to explain it.

“No doubt you have a very good reason for nurturing such a belief about your grandmother. I shall say nothing, Miss Henstridge. Caroline.”

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