The Caroline

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A voice she knew.

“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 before she shot him. No one seemed to know or said anything about what had really happened, almost as though 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 wet 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 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 a little 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 too. 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 too. 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 consciencemaking it seem that way? “What a deceitful family too, as well as being a murderous crew! I can see what you are thinking without you saying anything.” She blushed.

“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, Ms. Henstridge. Caroline.”

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