The Caroline

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The wager.

As Wyatt closed the door to his cabin behind him, he found Leonie waiting for him again. He did not light a lamp. She took his arm as she gently brought him to sit by her on the bed. She was calmer now than she had been on the previous night, and matter-of-fact about what was to happen.

“There will be no other opportunity after tonight. We reach Helena tomorrow or the day after, and he will leave this boat if he is not stopped. He may not have been able to dispose of her as he wanted to, but he will try to kill her again, eventually. That is why he must not leave this boat alive if you wish to really protect her.” He knew that for himself. Caroline had become an added complication in his life again, but a welcome one.

“I have helped that Henstridge man to win up until now, except for last night, but that was also part of his plan. He has no need to mark any of the cards, as he usually does, and to risk discovery. He knows that Culbertson would be able to see marked cards a mile away, and I told him of his reputation and his short temper. He is rumored—I told him—that he had killed the last man who tried to cheat him. At least with me helping him as I am, there is no need to risk being discovered having marked any cards or doing any of those other things that he believes Culbertson will be watching for. If only he knew how mild and gentle my father really is. When this fails for him, as it will when he recognizes that the hand of every man at that table is against him, he will try to kill you and me, as well as those others.”

He smiled, hoping to comfort her. “I know. I am counting on it, but he will have to go through me to get to anyone else. It will not take him long to realize that the only way he might recoup everything is to kill me just as they once tried to do when they were trying to protect all that they valued at one time, an inheritance, though how they discovered our plans to run off together I do not know. What a strange turn of events!” She picked up the conversation to tell him what he needed to know.

“I shall switch decks for that last hand as Culbertson will suggest as a matter of fairness with so much riding on the outcome; and I shall deal Henstridge, three aces in the five cards, and you, three kings. He will ask for two cards to replace the two he will discard. One of them will be the fourth ace. You will ask for two cards when you throw away two of your kings while making sure you keep the king of spades, to match the suit of the other two cards you were dealt, the ten and nine of spades. This will give him four aces and you, four kings, or so he will believe. The two cards you get will be the queen and jack of spades to give you a straight flush, which beats four of a kind no matter how high.” She chuckled at the way it would unfold. “It will be interesting to see his face when he sees that hand on the table. When he thinks about it, he will realize that I must have doctored the hand and that you and I were collaborating. It will be obvious that I must have been helping you and not him. If you do not soon kill him after that, then he will come after all of us. He will kill you if he sees an opportunity to take it all back from you, and preferably before you have chance to leave that room.” He was aware of all that she said for himself, but she needed to be sure that he understood.

They settled in to play as on the previous evening but with more assurance now that the ice had been broken, and they had a chance to size each other up. Wyatt continued to win as he had the previous night while Henstridge continued to lose. The others seemed to be surviving, being more cautious.

Henstridge’s impatience with the cards grew with hand after hand that went against him as the night wore on, but it was an act. He drank steadily and appeared to become more and more reckless, as well as careless, making simple mistakes that cost him dearly from time to time.

“I have never seen the cards go against me for so long. My luck has to change sometime!” They continued to play as the hours steadily advanced. Wyatt eventually won everything that had been brought to the table that evening.

The time had come to provoke what had been planned to happen. Wyatt yawned and began to collect his winnings together into one pile. “It is getting late. I must leave soon.”

“No, no, no. Not so soon, surely.” He saw that Wyatt was serious about leaving. “Then one last hand. Just one. You should at least give me a sporting chance to win back some of what I have lost.”

“I am tired. I thought you had wagered everything you had brought to the table.”

“Not quite. Yes, I lost money, but what is money? How would you like to own an estate near here?” Wyatt looked at him suspiciously.

“What kind of an estate? How big?”

“Two thousand acres of good bottomland by the river. The Henstridge estate. It is well-known on the river and is mine now after my father died.” He seemed serious about it.

“I think I might know that estate. It is worth much more than my winnings on the table.”

“I know, but there comes a time in the life of every man when he needs to make a life-changing decision, and I have discovered that I have little desire to continue what I was born into. I had no choice about any of it anyway. I would rather live in the city. That’s where all the life is. What do you say? That estate is worth about $100,000 after that war, with everything: the main house, fifteen cabins, barns, equipment, horses; but no slaves, unfortunately, after that war. I will also need to throw in those cattle out there. If I don’t have the land, then they will be of no use to me.” Wyatt knew that it would be worth that if it were not encumbered to more than half its value with the bank, but Henstridge would not know that he knew that.

“That is at least five or six times what is on the table.”

“Then what else might you wager?” He cast his mind about, as though just thinking about it now. “How about this boat, the Caroline? I know that you own it. That would make up the difference. You have other boats, I heard, so it is not as though you would lose everything, as I would, if I were to lose.” He sat back and watched what he thought he could see going on in his opponent’s face while trying to present the appearance of being frustrated and impatient with his life this far away from what he really preferred to do.

Wyatt did not wish to appear too eager. “This boat is worth that alone. To construct her today would cost more than that.”

“But she is old and slow. We lost a day in Vicksburg while repairs were made to the engine and the hull. Besides, if you were to win, which seems more than likely the way the cards have gone against me for two nights now, then you could sell off the estate to one of those Union army officers awash with money, or to one of those acquisitive northern politicians, and then you could easily afford to build a much larger and better boat. You have won almost every hand this evening, just as you did last night, while I lost. Fortune has smiled on you just as she has been unkind to me. However, I am prepared to bet that my luck will change by the next hand.” He was voicing the constant expectation of the inveterate gambler after a run of losses. “What do you say? All or nothing? Who is to say what is the true value of either this old boat or of my estate; they are close enough matched. Of course, if it is too great a decision to make or if you are afraid of losing, after winning so steadily I will understand. But with the streak of luck that you have been having—” He shook his head as if not understanding it. “However, I suppose you are right to be cautious, and I should not be so reckless.”

“Cautious, yes, but also interested. Go on.”

“Good. However, there is one other obligation that I had overlooked and that I should disclose to you about that estate. I am not sure how to deal with it.” Wyatt was still listening. “My sister.”

“What about your sister? How do you mean?”

“She is a dependent upon the estate, upon me, now that she is back from Europe. Whoever wins that estate winds up with her too, by default, and will need to pay her allowance. Two thousand dollars that I owe her are on the table there, but there is also an annual allowance of $500, which the estate is obliged to pay her for the rest of her life. It was left by my father in such a way that the income must go to my sister. It kept her in Europe until now. It was a small price to pay. If I lose the estate, then I must find her allowance from another source and see her return to Europe as soon as I can. But I fear that I will be unable to find that kind of money if I lose.”

“What are you suggesting?” No gentleman would discuss his sister in any kind of company, and especially not this one as he seemed prepared to do.

“I will have to put my Caroline, my sister, as well as the estate against this other Caroline. One Caroline for another. I hope you see that I have no choice. Yes. I know that she represents a liability against that estate with her grandmother dying with nothing of any value to leave to her, so I must somehow see that she is looked after for her sake, and I will have nothing left to me if you win. I have several friends in New Orleans who would help me, so I will not wind up entirely destitute, but she could not possibly take on my lifestyle after that, and I would not choose to drag her along with me any more than she would choose to go.” He made it all seem so plausible. He had no such obligation to his sister but was feeling mischievous. He had seen the mutual interest that Wyatt and his sister had shown in each other’s company.

He was treading on dangerous ground but did not too much care. After tonight, nothing would matter. When he won, as he was sure to, he could decide what to do about her if she did not leave of her own accord. The sudden thought of wagering her in the game intrigued him. It might also intrigue the man sitting opposite him and draw him more securely into the game, even if nothing could come of it. He smiled, wondering if he dare go further with what he was thinking, even though he had gone halfway with it already.

He had tried to solve that same difficulty in a more decisive way with his sister the other night, but it seemed to have failed, and he had not heard back from those he had sent to do what they had been paid to do. He would have to deal with it eventually if he could not solve that problem now and drive her back off downriver. It would be worth giving her the $2,000 she expected, or even twice that, if it would see her gone. If, however, she insisted on getting off with him opposite Helena and going to her former home, there would be another opportunity to be rid of her, though it would not be easy. He would need to think about it later. She would have to have a fatal accident that others might accept as an accident, or he would be held responsible, and that would not do. Better to get rid of her this way if possible. It would work out the same way in the end, he would see to that.

“If I lose this bet then I will be reduced to penury, and my sister will have been entirely denied the income that she might have had coming to her from the estate. It seems only fair that the winner of that same estate, if it is you, should continue that obligation where I will not be able to. I assure you that it will stand it.” He smiled. “Besides, she is not entirely unattractive to you. You dine with her most mealtimes and evenings. However, I realize that it is very irregular, but I must consider her comfort. She is, after all, my sister.” Everyone at the table knew that his supposed concern for his sister was a sham.

He hurried to correct himself, realizing that he might be offending everyone at the table. “Of course, she is no more a chattel to be passed on than a slave might have been in a time not so long ago. We are speaking not of a person but of a financial obligation, and she will not find out about this from me. I must still see to her welfare and her security if I can, and this seems to be the best and only way to do it if I lose. Of course, it should also be done properly and with some consideration for honor and propriety, especially if there might be a time when she learns of this, which, of course, she will not.”

He could see the effect his suggestion had upon the man opposite him and could see the gradual dawning of interest, if nothing else. Perhaps they had shared much more in Vicksburg than he might have suspected from what the maid had told him, though that, had been more than enough to raise a question of honor. He had better not touch upon that, however.

“As her guardian, which I was, I suppose, after our father died I could have arranged a marriage for her had she been here. Many women find their husbands that way. Perhaps she is as interested in you, as you seem to be in her, though you may also be married already, and marriage may be out of the question, or you may already have formed an antipathy toward her.” She had that effect upon him within two minutes of their own first meeting after five years of not seeing each other.

“I am not married.”

“There you are then. There is nothing to say that you need to act on any of this if you do not wish to or that she needs to find out about it. I doubt she will stay long in this area anyway. There is nothing here for her. Her grandmother is dead, and our mother is somewhere in the East, and she has nothing. She will go back to Europe soon.”

Wyatt listened patiently and calmly rather than take obvious offence at what he was saying or by responding to his outrageous suggestion concerning his own sister.

“I watched you both for the last few days. You seem to get on well together. You spend a lot of time together of an evening as you sit and talk. You even managed to persuade her to go off beyond Vicksburg with you in that carriage, which I could not have imagined her doing with a relative stranger, and no other woman with her to serve as chaperone upon such a short meeting.

The others at the table held back from voicing any comment, satisfied to let Wyatt play the game he had started. They had been warned what the ending would be. He would deserve it.

“You could take her off my hands and do us both a favor. She is not unattractive, though her tongue can be a little too sharp most of the time. She is also a little too outspoken perhaps; but the right man, a firm husband, if that thought is not too unappealing, would soon cure her of that.” Wyatt was silent, willing to let him ramble further.

“I cannot say it any more clearly. That if you win, you must take her, this financial obligation, off my hands.” This bringing his sister into the wager had been a masterful touch as a further inducement to draw his opponent in, as he seemed more than a little interested in her. When he won, as he knew he was sure to do, he would offer his sister up anyway as a consolation prize and as a means of being rid of her altogether once he told her that it had been Wyatt who had suggested such a wager and had even insisted on it. He could easily feign being shocked. It might solve all his problems and give her a poke in the eye. She had seemed to have formed an attachment herself for him, so he could burst that little bubble too. She would be ready to escape back to Europe after that, and he would not have to do anything else to soil his hands.

He summed up what he had to offer. “My estate, everything I still have, and my sister, against what is on the table and your steamboat here. At least it is one venture that I have not yet tried. If you can wager a Caroline, why should not I do the same? She will know nothing of it until it is too late.” He could see that his suggestion had taken hold. Their night together cannot have been so unrewarding after all, and especially if she had given into to him already, as seemed to be the case, but he dared say nothing of that.

His sister had no need to learn of this, other than as something to taunt her with afterward. She might just be sufficiently annoyed with him that, win or lose, and he would not lose, he might just be rid of her after all. He was getting the better of the deal. The man opposite him was seemingly unaware of the liabilities that were outstanding against the estate, and he was happy to leave it that way. He might be able to sell the boat back to him. He was said to own several steamers and even two or three ocean-going ships.

Wyatt sat forward and spoke quietly. “I accept. We should write it all out as an agreement with our signatures attached and duly witnessed by these others present.”

“Of course. If there is paper.” Leonie opened one of the drawers of the desk and took out the last two sheets of paper, along with a pencil, and passed them over to Henstridge.

He read it aloud as he wrote with some difficulty in the manner of a man not used to writing, though his mind was clear enough to find language that said what was intended.

I, Robert Henstridge of the Henstridge estate in upper Mississippi, wager the Henstridge family estate, which I inherited from my father . . .

He revealed nothing of their various encumbrances, which were very large and which Wyatt already knew about.

. . . all livestock and equipment, houses, buildings and so on, everything, against the steamship, the Caroline, owned by Mr. Wyatt.

He signed it and passed the pencil over to Wyatt, who wrote a similar contract on a second piece of paper.

I, Wyatt, owner of the steamship, the Caroline, wager my vessel the Caroline, and all my winnings on the table, in a game to be played with Robert Henstridge against his entire estate. Winner takes all.

He signed it. “We should have these witnessed.” Those other men there were quite willing to serve as witnesses.

Henstridge reminded him of that other wager. “There is that other thing we discussed. We should also write that out.” He might even show it to his sister to show that he had not been lying. “Is there more paper?”

Leonie opened the other drawers and shook her head. “There is no more.”

Wyatt stood up and removed a framed drawing from the wall of the room. It was a drawing of the boat they were on: the Caroline. He loosened the back and slid that sheet of heavier paper out of its frame. He placed it on the table for Henstridge to write out another wager on the back of it, which he proceeded to do with a look of satisfaction on his face as he smiled mischievously.

“Almost like the old days when entire families were sold off on the auction block or to cover a wager. Even some poor whites were sold that way, and still are behind the scenes.” He looked up and around the table at the set faces that clearly disapproved of his action even though they could not see what he had written, but he did not care. No one would ever find out about it.

This contract, made this ninth day of September 1873, gives Caroline Henstridge (spinster of twenty-three years)…

That comment would be sure to irk her. He was beginning to enjoy this.

… body, mind, and soul, and all else that she possesses about her, into the sole ownership, of . . .

“I will leave a gap for you to fill in a name for yourself later, when you have thought about this. You never know, after you have known her a little more intimately you might change your mind.” He had a smug look on his face. “I doubt that the one night you had with her in that hotel in Vicksburg, if it was just the one, will be enough, though it might be. If she wears on you, as I warned you she might, you might decide to lose her to another after this game when you discover what a liability she is likely to become to you. She will fight you tooth and nail over this if she finds out about it.” He was having fun, not believing that he might ever lose, and that his effort to be rid of his sister in this demeaning way would be enough to see her gone out of his own life forever. If not, she would not survive long, after she showed up on the estate. Her would-be protector—if that was what he was, Wyatt—would continue upriver as Henstridge’s temporary guest aboard his former boat until he might raise the money to redeem it.

He glanced up at Wyatt with a smirk on his face. “I wouldn’t want to saddle you with her without some escape for you.” He began a new line.

. . . to do with as he wishes from this moment forward. This contract also conveys ownership of any and all future children between them that may arise from his possession of her.

He chuckled as he wrote that last mischievous sentence. “Might there be children already do you think?” Wyatt sat still and said nothing. Henstridge would pay for that unkind and uncalled for remark, as well as for the rest of it. “Best if I do not sign it, or fill in your name, and then if she does not suit, or proves difficult if not downright intransigent, you can easily pass her on to another. Of course, the $500 a year is discretionary once you take possession.” He seemed to be having fun, having disposed of his sister, at least symbolically. He threw the pencil down and passed it over for Wyatt to read.

Wyatt read through what he had written, hiding his distaste for such a contract that smacked of bondage and slavery, picked up the pencil and wrote his name in larger letters in the middle of the blank line: Wyatt. No one other than him would ever see this. His opponent smiled at that.

“You commit yourself so easily so soon. So she did manage to get through to you! You obviously do not know her as I do.” Wyatt decided against striking the man at that moment.

He fought against his better instincts, to ignore the man’s extended hand to seal their agreement, and grasped the other man’s hand very firmly, hard enough to cause him pain, as he debated whether or not to strike him while he held him immobile, but decided against it. There was too much more at stake to respond as he felt like doing at this moment, and he would have his revenge in its entirety in another way in a short while. He smiled, little as he felt like doing so. “I am sure your sister would not approve of this.” He let go of his hand. It would not do to have him sense anything of what he was feeling at that moment.

Henstridge opened and closed his fingers to bring some life back to them. “Of course she would not approve.” He laughed cynically at him. “My sister approves of nothing I have ever done. She will not find out about this until it is too late, if at all.” He smiled again, but it was a forced smile. She would certainly find out about it.

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