The Game Begins
After he and Leonie had entered the cabin, and with the door closed behind them, Leonie turned into him and moved into his arms, seeking consolation and comfort in her ill-concealed agitation. He held her close and smoothed the hair back from her brow. This was a particularly difficult time for her.
“Yes, that time has come. I am sorry to have dragged you and your father into this with so little warning.”
“That does not matter. At least the time has come after all these years. I am here for the same reason you are; to bring master Robert Henstridge to his knees. I prepared for this, letting him believe that he can trust me, as I helped him cheat a few times.” She smiled. “He believes that I am pouring out my troubles to you and asking your help to ruin him while drawing you into a game that you will first win, tonight, so that you will learn to trust me as he will never dare do, and then once you have been primed to think that a killing is at hand, he will strike.”
There were other things she suddenly felt that she needed to know. “The woman you were with—”
“Caroline Henstridge.” He filled in her full name. She had heard it before, of course.
Two of them with that Henstridge name? Her surprised look asked the question for her.
He continued, seeing the look of surprise on her face. “Yes. His sister!”
It meant something to her. “Her!”
Many of the little pieces began to fall into place for her: his interest in her, his being here with her, and staying close to her. “So you did manage to find her at last, as we knew you would. I have seen her before, I think. I am glad you found her. She is nothing like her father or her brother. I thought you would find her with that old lady’s help. She is very beautiful!” Could she be jealous? There was a hint of feeling in the way she said it. “This is the wrong time for her to be here, except . . . does she know what her brother is capable of, or her father before him, before he died?”
“She knows. We had a long talk last night about many things, but she still does not know me, and I am finding that difficult to understand. She is closing her mind to many things that she finds hurtful.” He would not try to hide what must have been obvious from Leonie, that they had both spent the night away from the boat and in the same hotel, but would not say anything about them having eventually shared the same room. She would not have judged him for that, anyway.
“And yet she trusted you despite not recognizing you. She must sense something about you. She is blind but not so blind. She does not yet know who you are or even that she loves you, yet she trusted you as few women might. I wonder how long it will take her. What is holding her back? However, I do not think she likes to think of you with me. I saw the look in her eyes as I stole you away. She may not know who you really are, and yet she resents me taking you away from her, so there is something there. She shows the hurt that she has suffered and is very confused. She also has the same blood as her brother and her father, and I would not like to be seen as the woman stealing her man from her. She was disappointed, even jealous; I could see that in her eyes, so you may be having an effect.”
He laughed gently. “She does not know who I am! I waited for her to recognize me as we sailed from Europe and a hundred times since then, but she didn’t.”
“Are you sure?” He nodded. He was very sure. “And yet you spent more than a year looking for her when you heard where she was, trying to find her. One day she will wake up and see you.”
He hoped the same. “She knows none of that, and I could not tell her. She is locked away in another life with a memory she cannot and will not easily relinquish and is still blinded by pain. It is both endearing as well as frustrating, but it needs time to change all that, as well as a very different setting than this boat and everything that has happened to her so far.”
“How can she not know you after you shared such a love?” She looked up into his face, recognizing his attempt to hide himself from the man he would face tonight. “Yes. The beard, which you now hide behind, those scars that she knows nothing about, and which draw the eyes away from looking into yours. Many men returning from that war have such scars, and were changed, within, because of their experiences. Yet you have not changed in all the time that I have known you, and even before you had that beard. She will eventually see the man behind it and not those other distractions. The eyes are the same, your good character and frustrating ability to resist all women, even me, your peculiar mannerisms. If she truly loved you, she would have known you in an instant when you looked at her, or spoke, with or without that beard. I would have.” He laughed at that.
“My eyes may not have changed, but the man and my life has, before you knew me. The river, and what happens on it, changes a man. She is holding on to a memory that is five years old, of a nineteen-year-old youth who no longer exists. She has that memory burned into her brain and her heart, and will see nothing else just yet. Nothing of that older memory has changed for her. However, the time will come when it will change and she will see me then for who I am, but I will not hurry that time along, no matter how much I wish it to happen. It is much safer for her if it happens slowly. When she looks at me she sees a stranger, an older and more scarred man, in both senses of the word; physically scarred and emotionally too, but I have made great progress. She now sees me, not as a threatening stranger, as she first did, but as a good friend. I will not jeopardize that by moving too quickly. Strange as it must seem, I think she may be falling in love with me again while believing that I am a different man. How she will be able to reconcile these two conflicts I do not know, but it will be interesting to see. I will settle for it happening, however it might happen, but I would rather that she wake up and see me for who I really am, rather than continue to see me only as Mr. Wyatt. That will soon change, however, when we get to her destination.
“I must admit that I hoped she might know me before now, as you said; but then, if she recognized me too easily, then so might her brother. It is better this way. At the moment she is afraid to open her eyes and see what is before her and have all those older and most precious memories driven off like a mist in the heat of morning, but never to find them again in the same way that she is desperately holding on to. Her father did recognize me, just before I recognized him. It almost cost me my life before he lost his. It would have done but for your intervention. I will not be that careless again. That is why I grew this beard.”
She shook her head. They were embarking upon a dangerous game that could be solved much more easily another way. “Why this plan now with all its dangers? Why not just shoot him? I would do it for you. It would achieve the same thing. The last of your enemies would be dead, and she would inherit the estate and know nothing of how it was done, or why.”
“I dare not, other than as a last resort. The brother married. Something I had not expected or planned for. He may have an heir and not even know it himself. It must be done this way now.”
“Ah.” She began to understand. “I knew that it was not just a coincidence that brought you to us that day in New Orleans; it was fate that saw all our paths cross just at that moment and in the way that they did. Fate also intended that you would be grievously hurt in that encounter, and that we would be the ones to repay you by looking after you for the time that we did, so that you might learn more of us, and so that we would all meet up in this way at this time. Even fate can sometimes take a misstep. We will never be able to repay you for what you did for us then and since. We would gladly have done ten times what we needed to do to see you back on your feet. Even to have killed that man for you before now. I would not have let you die after what you unhesitatingly did for us, risking your life then, for us, just as you risked it the other evening to save his sister from his murderous intent.” She seemed to know much more than he realized.
“My family has been ready for you to return to see to that other devil when you would not allow us to do so for you. Fate also saw to that. It saw us brought together on this boat now, all of us, to continue what they began and to see justice done. Fate must have a role for her to play, somewhere. I wonder if he feels the angel of death getting closer and breathing down his neck. He cannot know that he is shortly to die, though whether at your hand or at mine or my father’s, but that is also fate. Perhaps it is my fate to die also for the part I will play in this. He will want to kill me after what will happen to him.”
“It is not your time, Leonie, nor mine. It is his, and his alone. No. I shall be the only one in danger when he finds out what we have done, and I will be ready for whatever might happen. Tonight will not be difficult. The light will be dim, and I shall give him no clues to trigger any memory that might warn him. As far as he is concerned, I am a cautious gambler, but that you have persuaded me that I cannot help but win with your help. He cannot know that everything is stacked against him instead of me. It is tomorrow night that he will become dangerous, after he loses everything, if all goes as planned. But that part of it is for me to see to after you and your father and the others have gone.”
“Be careful.” She put a hand on his arm. “He is treacherous, like his father. Even worse, as he is a coward. He will shoot you in the back if he is given a chance and then come after us and perhaps even the others at the table if he believes they may have had any part in his losing, and he will suspect.”
“I think I should be jealous of her, rather than she of me, but then I love you only like a sister who has but the one brother, but even that love is overpowering. It is a strange feeling. I hope she is worth it. You have spent too many of your lives looking for her, protecting her and us, and being revenged upon them.”
“She is worth it. I had no real life until I found her again. The greatest satisfaction will be for me to see her living in her own home once more and able to see me for who I really am. Those other painful memories will soon be behind her, as they always should have been. However, I am not doing it just for her or out of revenge. Revenge is a force that destroys too many people and especially those who try to carry it out. No, I regard this as long-overdue justice, just as I did with her father, even though that meeting was accidental. I had no choice in what I did then. She would have no peace and nor would others as long as even one of them remains alive. He shall recognize me just before I kill him. I shall have that satisfaction, at least.”
“Be careful. That was the downfall of his brother at your hands.” She reached up and touched his face. “In another time and another life...?” He took her hand and kissed it. She recollected their purpose in being there. “If we do not go forward now, we may lose the opportunity. He believes that I am seeking you out even now to persuade you into a game that he has prepared for, for the last few days with my help. He has learned to begin to trust me, though he will never truly trust me when the stakes become as high as they soon will be. He believes he cannot lose with me to help him.” She laughed gently, even cynically. “Me! If only he knew. When he does find out, he will try to kill us all. He is worse than his father, but few know that.” Wyatt was already aware of the lengths he would go to remove even small obstacles and embarrassments from his path, including his grandmother (he and his father had worked together on that) and more recently his own sister. Perhaps even his elder brother, if the truth were known, seeing his opportunity to remove him from his way. He would not have grieved long, if at all, over loss of his father either, seeing the entire property come to him in the end, despite its crippling debt.
“He will try. He will not succeed. We know of him. He does not know of us for the moment, but he soon will. What of the others?”
“They are ready. Tonight it will be easy for you to win as he intends for you, while he will lose a little of what he has already won to encourage you. He has not dared to cheat as he usually does, not with Culbertson watching him and the cards like a hawk and insisting that I run after whatever else they need.
“I am free to move about the room to serve drinks and some food, as Culbertson dictates, as well as to deal the cards as required [Henstridge cannot believe his luck there], so I can see most of the hands one way or another in a mirror or the glass-fronted drawings or by seeing them as I approach the table to do what is demanded of me, though none of them are hidden from me anyway. No one might suspect how it is done, except he knows, while believing that he is the only one who does, and not everyone at that table. I let him know with a slight movement of my head, when only he can see me, whether to bet small or large or not at all. He does not know that the entire table will be against him tomorrow. It is important for a man to know who his friends might be, but it is much more important to know who his enemies are, and he has many of those that he does not know. He believes that I would do anything to see Culbertson lose to gain my freedom from him. His plans for me after that are all too obvious. I can see it in his eyes. If he only knew that Culbertson is my father and is itching to kill him as I do, if you don’t!”
“As long as he continues to suspect nothing.”
“He suspects nothing. Nothing!” She poured him a glass of liquor. “You will need the smell of this on your breath and to appear slightly inebriated.” He rinsed a little of it around his mouth before swallowing it and dabbed a little on his coat lapel. She moved back into his arms, as a sister might, for a well-loved brother, and not at all shy to do so as he kissed her on her forehead. She gently disarranged his hair to give him a slightly wild look as though he had been drinking and had become careless of his appearance. He smiled at her.
“It will soon be over now. It is a pity I did not do this years ago and saved you from this danger.”
“Do not worry about me. There is a time for everything: a time to be presented into the world, a time to live, a time to die. I am scared, but I have done all that I can. Be very careful. If he recognizes you, he will suspect what we are trying to do, and he will try to kill us both tonight, rather than see the game continue, even though he believes that he would eventually be a major winner. At least he believes that he will win. He even has that winning hand prepared.” She laughed.
“Yes. That hand is already dealt and is ready to be played tomorrow night. He will call for a new deck of cards for that. There can be no suspicion of him cheating when he wins. He carries those cards with him all of the time. He trusts no one, not even me, with so much at stake. He saw to the initial arrangement of the deck which will be carefully introduced into the game after the shuffle and the cut. That is for me to do. He does not know that I also prepared another deck just like it. Mine will be the one played and not his, but he will still get the hand he expects. Your hand, however, will beat it. I will make sure everything is clear to you tomorrow. Tonight does not matter. No matter how badly you play, or how poor your cards, you will be allowed to win, somehow. They all trust me, though Henstridge has difficulty trusting anyone quite that far, and with good reason. Do your part this evening, and then we can do what we need to do tomorrow. We need to go now before he becomes impatient.”
He looked tenderly down upon her. “If he finds out that you are Culbertson’s daughter—”
“If he finds out who you are, it will be the same thing."
He opened his door and looked out carefully before they left together.
Caroline had gone from her table back to her room, but it was getting late, so she had probably retired. He guessed what she might be thinking after he had gone off with Leonie but could do nothing about it. It would all be revealed soon enough.
As Leonie had suggested to him, once he had been introduced, and the rules and the modest stakes agreed upon, the game started slowly, and there was little conversation in the smoke-filled and stifling room as the cards were dealt and played. Wyatt looked tired and appeared to be not at all attentive to the cards, but he won steadily. The others were almost too serious, and had obviously been drinking before he had arrived. He took his cue from them as to what was expected while they each sniffed around each other like dogs learning what they were up against. He did not mind drinking a little more than he might have done, as he knew that no matter what he did, he would be allowed to win that evening. However, he remained alert and observant, careful of what Leonie signaled him to do as they cooperated to be sure that he, Wyatt, would win tonight.
Leonie dealt the cards.
When Wyatt lost, which he did, infrequently, he tended to lose relatively little, but the others at the table were losing steadily—they seemed careless in what they did in their impatience to move the game along. At the end of the evening, he was only a modest winner in the usual scale of such games on the river. It was not a large sum of money but an encouraging amount. He seemed to have about two thousand or more dollars in front of himself. A river pilot might take a year to earn that much, but he knew that he had not won it fairly, and he had been allowed to win it for a reason. It had been steadily given to him to encourage him to bigger things on the following evening.
At about one in the morning, he apologized that he must leave, but promised that he would join them again on the following evening. He pleaded that he needed to get enough sleep and to clear his head so that he could at least take over his duties as pilot on the rapidly approaching day. They all retired after that.
Caroline waited for him on the following evening. He joined her for dinner, and then they sat again on the foredeck as if nothing had happened the previous evening that needed any explanation. As far as she was concerned, after she had thought about it for some time, it didn’t. Nonetheless, she would still have liked to have known what had transpired after he had left in company of that other young and vibrantly attractive woman to go to his room. She felt reasonably sure that it had not been a sexual liaison, not after those moments she had shared with him in Vicksburg and what he had told her of Leonie. She felt sure that he was not that close to her.
She knew better than to ask, and to betray her burning curiosity about something that was none of her business. She was aware, however, that as they sat together that evening and talked of little in particular, that he was easily distracted, and that there were times when his attention was elsewhere. He seemed to be watching for someone. Perhaps that young Creole woman again.
She reasoned with herself that she had no need to feel any hurt by that. She had no claim upon him, or he upon her despite what they had shared in Vicksburg, and their paths would all too soon diverge once she left the boat.
It was not Leonie who stole him away from her, but the youth who had been asked to keep an eye on her. It was getting late anyway, so she excused herself at the same time. Wyatt walked her to her cabin on the port side of the vessel and saw her to her room.
He gently took her key from her and unlocked her door. He led the way inside and looked around to be sure that no one else might have gained access while she had not been there. He had not expected to find anyone, but it was better to be cautious. He knew that her brother was even then waiting for him to appear, to continue what they had begun on the previous night.
As he gave her the key, but without letting go of it, they stood very close and looked into each other’s eyes. She saw a strange look in his face—one of both sadness and great tenderness that caused her heart to pound wildly—and she wondered, for a moment if he was about to enfold her into his arms and kiss her. She would not have objected.
He had been on the point of beginning to say something at that same moment but changed his mind. He smiled, leaned over and kissed her on her forehead, reluctantly relinquished her key to her, leaving the room and closing the door behind himself.
She knew that he stood and waited to hear the key turn in her lock before she heard him walking off to his own cabin. She stood there, not moving for a full five minutes before she suddenly found some life again. She did not understand herself or the heaviness of her heart—no, she did understand that—and wondered what she might do. She was at a crossroads in her life and needed to make a choice of direction. How could anyone be in love with two different men at the same time but with one of them only a memory?
She slowly took her clothes off, washed in the warm water left for her, dried herself, and donned her nightdress. She then took her pistol from her purse and laid it on her bedside table. It chattered softly on the wood and slowly began to move across the table from the vibrating pulse of the engines as they had slowed, with darkness closing in on them. She moved it onto the cloth, covering the center of the table, and stopped its noise and its movement.
She sat heavily onto her bed and could no longer hold back the tears, uncertain what to do with herself and torn between two loves, and the past and the present.