The Caroline

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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 too, 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 thatsoon began to diminish too 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.

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