Full Circle. The last man to die.
They both of them saw their papers placed in the middle of the table. Wyatt slid the other back into its frame as it had been, and hung it back on the wall. It would go with him to his cabin when he eventually left here.
He looked at Henstridge. “If I lose, I still take this with me. It is unenforceable, so can be of no value to you or anyone else, and no one need know.”
“Agreed.” Henstridge chuckled. He would certainly lose, but could not help but add a further comment. “When you get to know my sister a little better, you will find that it is not something a man would be wise to publicize or try to collect, anyway. She would shoot him first or maybe worse if he thought to claim anything else from her that she had not already willingly given up to him.” He was needling him again. “You should destroy it.”
The final game was agreed upon. There would be only one round of cards. Up to five cards could be discarded and replaced. After that, they would have to be satisfied with what would already have been decided by the cards. Only the recklessly insane would consider playing such a game. Unless, of course, there was a way to cheat.
Leonie found a new deck of cards on the sideboard. She shuffled it and then cut it before she picked it up again. No one saw Leonie smoothly replace one deck of cards with another as Henstridge deliberately spilled his drink to distract everyone, and tried to catch his glass before it shattered on the floor. Then, she dealt five cards to each of the two remaining players: Henstridge and Wyatt.
Both men gave the impression of being cautious with so much at stake, sitting back, to view what they had been dealt, and presumably weighing the odds of throwing in the cards and calling for a new deal, or continuing, and reading what they could in their opponents action and expression. With three aces in the one hand and three kings in the other, neither man threw in the hand they had first received, of course, which would have triggered a new deal; and both therefore tacitly agreed to proceed with the game to its conclusion no matter what that undoubtedly meant for one or other of them.
Once they had agreed to continue with the cards dealt, Henstridge called for two cards after he laid two down; and Wyatt did the same, as Henstridge expected.
Each observed his hand without betraying what he saw and then laid his cards face down on the table as they considered what it now meant. Fate had already played her part. There could be only one winner, and it was already decided which of them it would be. Henstridge looked across the table at Wyatt and grinned.
“Assuming you win, what will you do with my estate, and even with my sister?” He was calm about what had already happened, assuming, smugly, that only he and the one who had helped him might know that he had the winning hand.
“I haven’t thought about it.”
“Of course not. You might not win.”
“As you say, I might not win.” Henstridge sat back and lit a cheroot. Wyatt leaned over and turned the five cards over that lay in front of Henstridge so that all might see them. Henstridge did not try to stop him. Wyatt saw the four aces that he had been told about. There was a smile on his Henstridge’s face.
“My luck turned. Best hand I have seen in a long time! So what do you have?” He believed he already knew.
Wyatt turned over his own cards and revealed something that drained the blood from his opponent’s face and caused him to choke upon the smoke of his cheroot. Henstridge saw a straight flush and not the four kings that he had expected to see. He could not believe his eyes. He looked quickly at Wyatt to see him looking at him implacably, with a smile on his face, and then looked toward Leonie, but she had her back turned to him so that he might read nothing in her face.
A trick had somehow been played on him, and he could do nothing about it. Leonie must have switched the cards, but how? He had not let that other deck out of his possession until just a few minutes earlier. He felt his ears burning, and his mind was in a feverish turmoil as he tried to think clearly.
Wyatt leaned over and picked up the documents from the table before the other man tried to do something about them. He tore up the one he had made, wagering the Caroline, and then folded the other and placed it in his inside pocket. He retrieved everything else that was on the table. He would see those others well-rewarded later, as had been agreed upon before they had come aboard. They had played their part and had brought this man down as they had all intended. They would be well paid for their effort.
Henstridge was still in shock, pale and dazed. He had not understood how he had lost so well. They were his cards, and he knew what he had received in that deal and what the other should have been given, or so he had thought. He expected to see four kings presented, not a straight flush. He dare say nothing. Lives were lost when a man accused another of cheating, though how it had been done still escaped him, and he could see that the table was not sympathetic to his loss but glad of it. He had needled them from time to time at their timidity or foolishness. He held himself in check. He had a gun in his pocket but could not use it before others might stop him, and the shots would be sure to be heard. He needed to see that no one there lived beyond tonight to say what had happened at that table. He would need to bide his time and choose his moment, but time was running out. He tried to put a better face on it, though he was still pale. It was the first time he had ever lost so much, everything to his name, and was still not sure how it had been achieved.
“So I lost!” He tried to put a brave front on it, but his eyes were hard and unsmiling now as he looked across at Wyatt. “There are certain private and personal things that I would like to recover from my estate, yours now, if you do not object.”
“Of course. Your passage on this boat is paid up to there.”
Both of them knew that it would never get that far, and one of them, at least, would soon be dead for this night’s work.
Wyatt and everyone else sitting at that table, as well as Leonie, knew that Robert Henstridge would do all in his power to retrieve that contract before they might ever get to their destination, and he would see it destroyed. How he was to kill Wyatt, and the other three, was something that was beyond his ability to consider at that moment, though each person there knew the kind of man he was and could see the way his mind was working. He had never thought for even the briefest moment that he might lose everything he possessed, despite cheating, and it had been a shock for him. He was in a dangerous mood as he weighed how he might turn everything around, but he had no friends at that table.
He could not know it, but Leonie was leaning against the cabinet behind him, watching him. She had a small gun hidden in the folds of her dress, ready for whatever he might think to do, to try to change the outcome, and prepared to put it to the back of his head and pull the trigger if it were needed.
After that stunning upset, the others, along with Leonie, quietly left the room, leaving the downcast and confused Mr. Henstridge and Wyatt alone. She had not wanted to leave. Only one man deserved to die tonight, and she knew who it had to be, but Henstridge was a coward and devious. Wyatt well-knew what he was facing.
They were all aware, after the surprising upset of that game, that one man, at least, was in a murderous mood. He had learned that his carefully crafted plan had been overturned but with him still not understanding fully how it had been done. Somehow, his plan had been discovered, if it had been discovered—he could not be entirely sure, though he would be, once he thought about it with a clearer head—and began to think about how it could have happened. Leonie must have done that, but how? His mind simmered with what he knew he would do once he had fully collected his thoughts. Everyone in that game would be made to pay, Leonie especially. The man in front of him must also die and that paper recovered and destroyed before others learned of it.
What was almost unbearable, was that this Wyatt fellow was sitting back from the table, watching him with a smile on his face yet without saying anything, waiting for some response. He knew that he had been made a fool of, and that far from manipulating the game as he had planned, he had been the one manipulated.
Wyatt poured him a drink while watching him, and with his other hand beneath the edge of the table. It was clear to him that Henstridge knew what must have happened, or he soon would, and who might have done this, though perhaps not sure how, or why, for the moment.
Henstridge reached slowly across the table and turned up the two discards that Wyatt had put aside, revealing two of the three kings that Wyatt had started with. The cards had been changed, or Wyatt would still have had two of the four kings in his hand. He had held on to that deck until just a few moments before that last game had begun and before he had given it up to Leonie to deal after the other had been shuffled and cut. It had never left his possession until he had passed it to Leonie, and the only time he had lost sight of it had been when he had moved to catch his falling glass.
Wyatt could see the question in his eyes and tried to explain it to him to clear up the confusion evident in his ruddy face.
“I see you are confused at how you might have lost.”
Henstridge nodded. There was no point in trying to bluster about not knowing what he meant. “There was a third deck of cards, and that deck was the one that was used. Yours is here.” He placed the entire deck of cards onto the table. Leonie had somehow switched them on him with an identical pack that had also been manipulated to provide the hands lying on the table.
Henstridge retrieved it, turning the top few cards over in two piles, representing the hands that should have been dealt, finding the order of cards that he had expected. “Leonie!” was all he said as Wyatt smiled annoyingly at him, seeing the trick played on him at last.
“Leonie. And the others.” He watched him carefully, aware of the way his mind was working. “They say a man’s fate is outlined at his birth in those various forces that rule us all, if you believe in that kind of thing. That may be true, but this game was begun and planned more than two years ago and then was brought into the light of day recently, just a few days ago in New Orleans, even before your own plans concerning your sister’s limited future. Two of your friends are dead for that after they tried to get into her cabin. One was shot dead; the other had a broken neck.” He waved his hand toward the general expanse of the river to explain where they had finished up. “Where your third friend is, is hard to guess, but he realized the kind of reception that awaited him in Vicksburg in that hotel, if he had been foolish enough to try anything further, so he wisely took off.”
“I know nothing of that,” he lied easily. “Why this way?” He was not asking about his friend but about the game that had just ended.
“We’ll get to all that eventually. You shouldn’t blame Leonie for what happened, though she was a most willing co-conspirator, as was her father, that man you knew as Culbertson.” It began to become clear to him. “The others at the table were also part of the plot.” Wyatt watched his face and his eyes, which had dropped from his own, lest too much might be read in them. “I knew that you cheated, even if I had not overheard your sister say as much when you came on board. However, I cheated better.” Henstridge had found that out for himself, and he did not like that feeling.
“That question again.” Wyatt watched him closely, aware of the changes that he could see. The initial surprise of losing was wearing off. Anger was evident, but it was under precarious control until he had learned what had been behind his loss and had readjusted his initial impression of the man sitting opposite him. He would not dare to give free rein to his feelings at that moment but would seek to gain some advantage before he might strike. He would watch for an opening, but there was almost certainly a gun pointed at his middle at that very moment.
Wyatt could read his every emotion and thought. He was as easy to read as a child with his emotions so close to the surface. Henstridge intended to kill him the moment the opportunity arose. He would not provide him with one. “I see that you do not recognize me. The beard does that for me as it did for your father on his various sojourns to New Orleans where he tried not to be recognized.
“I didn’t have the beard when I last met your father, and he did recognize me even before I recognized him. It took me a few seconds and almost cost me my life. He was angry and scared then too, enough to miss his intended target when he shot at me. He was almost as angry as you are now, but for a very different reason: I had just derailed his plans in another direction with that young woman, Leonie and her family. We none of us got away from that incident without injury, though it was a fatal injury for your father.” Wyatt could see that he was confused and knew none of what he was saying.
“This river plays so much of a part in the lives of so many people. Your father was dead, both shot, and ran through by his own sword in that little stick of his before he went into the water that night, along with all of the other refuse and discards of society.” Wyatt smiled. “I thought you might be interested to learn why your father just disappeared and was never found. If the alligators did not get him, he would soon reach the delta and then the gulf. He would not get that far, of course. Leonie’s interest and distaste for your family began about then, but mine had started some years earlier.”