The Caroline

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Do you really not recognize me?

He sat forward, almost leaning over the table.

“Take a close look at my face; this scar. Look into my eyes.” Henstridge did so and saw only hatred in them. He did not like the feeling. He struggled to remember where he might have met this man before. He was surprised, suddenly, to feel Wyatt’s hands close tightly on his wrists, holding him immobile. He had not been holding a gun under the table at all. Henstridge tried to extricate himself from that grip but found that he was trapped and could get to neither his pistol nor his knife.

“The wounds on my head were given to me by your dead brother just before I shot him in the belly that night on the landing above Helena and just before I shot you in your arm, this arm.” He turned it, feeling the other man respond to the pain from his elbow. “Then I shot your father. I did not know that I had removed two of his fingers until some years later, but I knew that I had hit him when he dropped his gun.” He smiled seeing surprise first and then dawning recognition in the face before him. “I was not feeling well at that moment myself after Jefferson had hit me with that saber of his, or I would not have missed any of you so badly. I did intend to kill all three of you for what you tried to do to me in such a cowardly way. I thought I might not live myself. I might have been yet another one that the river claimed—your father hoped so, and even believed it.”

Henstridge knew him now and knew that this evening could not possibly get any better than it already was but could get a lot worse. He was also unable to escape. “I could hear you discussing me and what to do with your moaning brother. As luck would have it, I was not about to die in the river—at least not yet—and your wild shots were well wide of me. That approaching steamer saw me and picked me up, or I would have died. You must have plotted my death for some time, the three of you, just as we—those of us around this table—prepared for this a long time ago, though never sure how it might be carried out.” Robert could see what was likely to happen to him now and looked for a way out of it. Wyatt smiled, feeling him trying to pull away again, but was unable to do so. For the first time, there was real fear in the man’s eyes. He could not kick himself free or move the table with it being so heavy, and on a pedestal. There was no point in shouting for help either. There would be no help for him on board this boat. Wyatt continued.

“I can confess something to you. My ambition is to see that there are no more Henstridges alive in this State. You will be the third, if I include your late brother. Your sister will be the last, but not in the way you might think. You can now answer one of my questions.” His grip tightened on the man’s wrists, causing him to wince. “What made you bring your sister into the wager? No man in his right mind would think to wager a woman in a poker game without there being some trouble come of it.” It had not been the question that Henstridge had expected. He relaxed rather than try to fight someone much stronger than himself. There would be an opening presented to him, if he but waited to find it. He smiled, though never feeling less like smiling in his entire life.

“Not if I won, as I had thought to do. No one would have found out. Besides, you don’t know my sister!” He realized even as he said it, that it was obviously not true, not after that earlier revelation about who Wyatt really was. He had known her very well and much better than any of them had even begun to realize.

“Ah, but I do know her, even though she does not yet know me after so many years. She was the reason why I was attacked that night as I waited to cross the river. I soon understood that. You, your family, your brother and father—you couldn’t have that uppity Ibbotson youth so close and learning too much about you while stealing your sister away from where she was needed. She was your passport to riches if you could shake some of your grandmother’s wealth loose, and she was also the one who ran the estate for you. You and your brother, and father too, were rarely there and had too much of a fondness for the bottle and gambling to be trusted with any property or with managing an estate, and you were happy to see how well she did that for you.” He let go of one of Henstridge’s wrists and quickly reached across into his jacket and removed the pistol that he knew was there, as well as the key to his room on the lower deck; then he let go his other wrist as he inspected the small gun.

“This adventure that we are about to conclude, started when I was in Liverpool, four weeks ago now. I overheard that there were animals to come to the Henstridge estate in Mississippi, and that you would be meeting them in New Orleans. I was tempted to change my plans then but could not at just that moment. I had more important things still to do. I needed to find your sister. I had heard that she might be with relatives near Paris.

“Then I heard of another also seeking passage to New Orleans. A woman, walking off down the dock. I could not believe my eyes when I did eventually see her. Your sister, Caroline. The woman I had been trying to find for five years. It did not take much to change my plans after that, and I decided that New Orleans would be my destination also. I was relieved in some ways that she did not recognize me immediately, but I have been close to her and keeping an eye on her ever since. I am glad that I was.” He sat back and watched Henstridge.

“Yes, Leonie did well persuading you that I might be enticed into gambling, when I never gamble.” Henstridge began to see how he had been deliberately misled at every turn. “You should not have been so ready to believe her, except you saw a means to become wealthy and to cover all those notes that the bank held against your estate, the only bank that would lend your father money—my bank—and she would help you to do it.” Henstridge was angry at the way he had been duped.

“After I learned that you would be meeting those cattle and would be accompanying them upriver, I took that ship too, with your sister. I had no need to go anywhere else after that. I had found what I had looked for over the last two years, her, and then made other plans for once I arrived here and waited for you to join us. I would never have left without you, even though you were several hours late.”

“So you intend to murder me as you murdered my brother and my father.”

“Murder? An awkward and unsettling word that. Murder was what you all intended for me just over five years ago and even now, if you get the chance. I made sure I would take at least one of you with me that night, and Jefferson was the closest. I defended myself against your father some years after that, as I told you. He paid with his life for what he intended again. His body went into the river, but I already told you that, and his belongings were cleaned out of his hotel. By doing that, killing him, I did society in general a great favor and made some new friends. You met three of them at the table tonight.” He watched him carefully.

“Your grandmother thanked me, when I eventually told her what I had done.”

“She’s dead!”

“She’s not dead. Neither then, nor now, but it was a very nice funeral.” Henstridge did not understand what he was hearing. “She wanted it believed that she had passed on, however, to bring an end to your family’s plotting to rob her or to see her dead. I became her protector, but at a distance, and I was the one who purchased her estate—for a dollar, would you believe—after she . . . ‘died.’ I then changed its name and saw that she was surrounded by those who could protect her if you ever found out what we had done. She is no more dead than I am. She will even outlive you.”

“So you do intend to murder me, to shoot me in cold blood?”

“You mean much as you would have dealt with me as well as your sister? No. She survived your first bungled attempt by those two men, with my help, though I was a little slow off the mark. I suppose they were to smother her in her bed, or knife her, and then drop her overboard.” He thought about that. “I am tempted, but no. I am not as unsporting as you were that night on the Landing. You still have your knife. I will give you a ten-second start out of that door, and then I shall come after you. There is no point in dragging it out any longer than that. The river will be a close and sure refuge for you if you dare take it. Unfortunately, we are nowhere near the bank, so it will be a long swim. I will not follow you there in the dark. At least I don’t think I will.”

“I cannot swim! And you have my gun and one of your own.” He watched as Wyatt took the loads out of both pistols.

“Now, like you, I have only a knife, but I shall leave that here.” He laid it on the table. “I suspect we might be fairly evenly matched if I do that to make up for that infirmity that I once gave you when I tried to kill you before. Ten seconds start, remember. Do not try to involve anyone else or break into your cabin for another gun, or I shall not feel inclined to treat you with mercy when we meet up. I shall make it fast for you unless you choose the river. However, if you can kill me or wound me, you can then recover this”—he patted his pocket where that paper on the estate resided—“and may then be more relaxed in your escape. You might even be able to get to the skiff on the first raft, but don’t bet on it. I also suggest that you forget about trying to return to that estate, if you do escape. There are others who will be after you then.”

Having been offered a temporary escape, Henstridge bolted for the door and turned toward the stern, where he might leave the boat cleanly without fear of hitting a raft as Wyatt began his count and, upon completing it, began to follow him down to the lowest deck. There were few places for Henstridge to hide in such a short time, but it would be the safest place to leave the boat if one could get far enough out from the churning paddle and provided one had the courage to leap into that water in the dark. Impending death would give a man, even a coward, wings on his feet to escape.

Wyatt had no intention of letting him leave the boat alive to pose a continuing threat to others. He followed him quickly, heedless that he laid himself open to sudden attack from the shadows. He was confident of his ability to survive whatever Henstridge might try to do, and would not give him time to strike from the shadows as he was sure to do.

As he had half expected, Henstridge lunged at him out of the near-dark just out of the light of one of the stern lanterns. He had not gone very far at all. Wyatt ignored what he could not see and quickly closed with his opponent, not giving him opportunity to use the knife he undoubtedly held, as he drove him back hard against the corner of one of the supports, hearing him gasp in pain, and then gripped the arm that he knew would be the one holding the knife, his left. He swung him around then, bringing them both to the side of the large wheel, throwing water and spray over the deck by them. They could both hear the steady thump and hiss of the cylinders somewhere forward of them and below where they were standing, as they drove that wheel around with a constant swishing sound. The footing was wet and slippery.

Wyatt disarmed him by the simple act of pushing his extended arm into that rotating cage of metal, hearing him drop the knife before the wheel took it from him, and Henstridge began to fight back against him. He reached down and took hold of Henstridge’s leg just behind his knee and lifted him so that he began to lie across the barrier that separated the narrow walkway from that wheel.

Henstridge knew what was happening, and fought like a man with death breathing down his neck, to hold on to anything that might save him, and then began to claw at the man holding him. He had gone beyond screaming and was desperately fighting for his life but had not believed it until this very moment.

The swiftly rotating arms of the metal cage hit him just once at first, half scalping him at that moment before Wyatt lifted him completely and let the wheel take him. Henstridge had gone silent after that first wound had knocked him out. The wheel did not slow for even a heartbeat as it took the body out of his hands and forced it between the solid wooden side of the boat and the wheel, in a space that no man would ever normally fit in. His body was hung up for a few seconds on the piston mechanism below their feet, with his arms flailing like those of a marionette in death, at the lifting and falling motion, pulling and pushing as it moved the wheel around. Eventually, the spokes at the side of the rotating wheel broke more bones and then finally took him from the piston and the boat, and spewed him into the river, undoubtedly dead by then, as well as possibly dismembered. Wyatt did not feel sorry.

He looked about. No one had seen what had happened, but then it was dark, and the hour was late. The noise of the wheel, with water flying off it; the constant hiss of steam; and the low roar of the engine would have hidden all sounds of their struggle, even though it had not entirely covered the noise of all those bones breaking. It had been a fast death, unlike that of his brother. He moved away from the light spray beginning to damp him down and checked himself for any wounds or signs of blood. There were none that he could see in that dim light, or feel. He leaned onto the port rail and stared out into the darkness over the river as he recovered his thoughts and savored what he had accomplished. As a Roman emperor had once said: “The corpse of an enemy always smells sweet.” He regretted nothing of what had happened. It was over at last. He was free, and so was Caroline.

He would go and tell Leonie and her father what had happened—or a simpler and briefer version of it—so that they might rest. It would be as difficult for them to rest as it would be for him, but they could talk. He would then recover everything from that room where a man’s life had been decided, and return with them to his own cabin.

He would spend an hour or two in the pilothouse with the captain until his mind settled down, or he might never be able to sleep. It seemed that they might put in close to the bank for the night again, with the fog beginning to build over the river, and with some of the most tortuous meanders ahead of them. They would be some hours later than expected into Helena.

Now, he could go forward with everything else he knew needed to be done, though five years overdue.

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