The Caroline

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New Orleans, 1871

Life is tragedy rather than comedy, though it is wiser to view it as comedy.

One night in New Orleans, almost three years later, all that changed again, and almost for the worse. Wyatt intervened one evening in rescuing a young woman, even two of them—he had not been sure at first—from an apparent assault. He had struck the man down, only to find that the man he was then facing seemed to know him. He fired a gun up at Wyatt and then had leapt to his feet and drawn his swordstick to finish him.

One of those young women had then intervened and knocked the sword aside so that it did not do as much damage as had been intended, but it had done more than enough. Before he succumbed, however, Wyatt retrieved the man’s own sword; he recognized him now despite the dark and his growth of a beard—Henstridge—one of the three men who had tried to kill him that night, three years before. He shot his own pistol into the man and then pushed that sword into his heart, even as the man shot again into his face.

He remembered nothing else for a few minutes.

When he came to, he heard concerned voices above him. He had been shot twice, perhaps, and had been wounded by that sword. He was lying on the ground and could not move, but the pain told him that he was still alive. He could not immediately understand what was said until his head cleared from its ringing after that gun had discharged in his face. Whether its bullet had hit him or not he still could not be sure. The other shot, the first, certainly had, and had knocked him off his feet; but at least he had wrested that sword from Henstridge’s hand before he might do more damage with that, than he already had.

Then he heard another speaking; a woman. She spoke English with a trace of French while the other woman’s voice had been more in another tongue, that described as Creole, but which covered many flavors of language and was a mix of many. “Came the hour, came the man. Now it is our part. He saved all of our lives. But he is gravely wounded and losing a lot of blood.” He felt a warm hand pass gently across his brow. “Can you hear me, m’sieur?”

“Yes.” He groaned more than he spoke. He hurt everywhere.

“Good. You have been shot as well as stabbed. Lie still, and we will get you out of here.” She turned from him and spoke to others even as she was pushing some material into his shirt to staunch the flow of blood and causing him more pain. “We cannot leave him here. We need to get him home and see to those wounds, but he should live. You and Father take him, if Father is not in too much pain. It is only a short distance, and he should be able to walk with your help once he recovers a little. There are others, friendly to us who saw what happened who will help us and say nothing. I shall see to getting rid of this body and hiding its identity, or else there will be too many questions by those in authority that have no love for us. The river is not far, and I know of those who will help me get him there without being seen, and then we’ll strip him and let the river hide another secret.”

Wyatt knew whom they were discussing; the man who had done this to him before he had shot him dead. That man had recognized him before he had recognized who he was dealing with. It had been a surprise for them both but had almost cost Wyatt his life. He heard the young woman speak again.

“I shall need that knife. It would not do for him to be too easily recognized if his body is found before the river deals with him. I have been seen in his company in too many places, and there would be questions to answer that I would rather not be asked. There is one law for the likes of him and another for us.”

What was she about to do? He felt little concern for himself. He was not sure what she wanted the knife for, but there had been determination in her voice. He guessed what she might have to do to obscure his identity and no doubt had her own very good reasons for doing it. There were many opportunistic scavengers that dined close to where the steamers tied up. There was always a steady stream of unmentionable refuse and kitchen scraps going overboard; and that body would be regarded no differently, once the clothing was off it, and the blood would attract bigger carnivores, some of which lurked under the pilings of piers and built-out landings.

He heard others moving nearby and felt others taking an interest in his wounds as they added more padding to slow the bleeding, though he could not respond to anything said or done to him. He had been unconscious for a while but not for long, and he was beginning to get his wits back. He would be able to move—soon.

“This man, I have seen him before.” They were discussing him, off to one side. “I’d remember him anywhere with that scar on his forehead, and now he has another one to go with it and two new ones to his body. I did not remember fast enough that stick was also a sword. He is a pilot on that steamboat that just tied up at the steamboat landing. Jennings’s boat, the Pelican. I’ll get word to the captain, but I’ll tell him as little as I can about this—just that his pilot was set upon, and wounded and will be laid up for a week with us until he recovers. I will tell him no more than that where others might overhear me or see me. I would not like to make trouble for him. Jennings is a kind man who has helped us on several occasions, and he knows us enough to trust what I shall tell him and where to find us later to learn the full story.”

Wyatt remembered no more than that. Once they'd begun to move him, he must have passed out.

Wyatt woke up in a strange room. It was clean and brightly lit with the sun streaming in past light curtain material which ballooned in, and blew about in a strongish breeze. Despite that, it was overpoweringly warm as it always seemed to be, and the smell of spicy cooking and perhaps of incense, also filled the room as well as the faintly pleasant smell of a cheroot. There were sounds of laughter deeper in the house as dishes were being washed, overlain by other kitchen noises and the hauntingly pleasurable patois of the area, a mixture of a dialect of a kind of French, never spoken in France, and of a strange English that no one familiar with English might ever have recognized; but this was New Orleans. It was a rich and expressive language that he knew and loved. It was friendly. The decoration and the pictures on the wall, as well as clothing hanging across a corner of the room, told him that this was a woman’s room and that he was probably in her bed. There were various small decorations looped over each of the four corner posts of the bed. He could see the two of them at the foot of it but knew that others like them were up by his head, and that one of them would be a rosary in the midst of voodoo charms. In that same room there would also be a small wooden or metal box sitting on a Bible and containing a fragment of the true cross. If all such fragments were brought together from throughout the world into one place, there would be enough wood of various kinds to have made a thousand such crosses. There was an industry based upon it. They liked to cover their bets. They paid service to different religions, several gods, and various spirits. It harmed no one and might save them.

The legs of the bed would also be sitting in tall metal or glass cups, perhaps with creosote in them, to stop insects, spiders, or even scorpions, if there were any here, from climbing up into the bed with its occupant.

There was a large cross hanging on the wall opposite the foot of the bed and the almost obligatory picture of the Madonna and child that went with it. He also saw his own razor lying there. Jennings had been to see him. From the absence of any rasping sound as he moved his head on the pillow, he realized that someone had recently shaved him. He may have been here longer than he might think. Despite the other smells, there was also a smell of cleanliness and the perfumed scent of a woman that would cling to everything she cared for and touched. He was immersed in it. It comforted him. It also told him that he was safe and that he was still alive.

It was strangely comforting; the sounds and smell of a home, where love, ruled, albeit a strange home and not his own; but then he had no home of that kind, at least not close by. There was a brightly colored bird watching him from the windowsill of the open window, letting a cooling breeze of air in. A slight movement beside him caught his attention, and he tried to turn his head but couldn’t; his neck was stiff. Then he remembered being struck there the previous night. He felt a delicate touch of a woman’s hand on his brow and heard the swish of a skirt. An angel moved into his limited range of vision to look kindly down upon him as she first put her cheroot aside and then brought a damp cloth to his brow. He almost laughed at the strange incongruity of it all—one of the most strikingly beautiful women he had ever seen, with such an unladylike habit, for other circles—but such things were common here. His pillow was damp beneath him as though she had bathed his brow several times before, to try to ease his discomfort.

Smoking a cheroot or a cigar was a strange habit for a beautiful young woman to have, and she was very young. Moreover, she was very beautiful, with white teeth—obviously looked after, despite that other strange habit—as she smiled at him. She was one of those he remembered from the levee the previous night or earlier as he had intervened on their behalf and had struck that man, Henstridge, and had knocked him to the ground. She spoke in that strange but beautiful language again, a nondescript mixture of many tongues, just as the people were a mix of many bloodlines and, often, the better for it, feeling kinship with so many. However, it was a wary kind of kinship. Your worst enemies were among those closest to you.

“Lay still, monsieur Wyatt.” How did she know his name? Jennings, of course. “You will soon be on your feet again. Mr. Jennings was here and brought some of your things. He will come again later.” He digested that. He had been here longer than he had thought. She did not tell him that Jennings had wanted to know what had happened and that he had learned about Mr. Henstridge and his sudden horror at seeing this “ghost” from his past. That name, Henstridge, had meaning for him, and he understood much more than he might say to anyone. Jennings was well-enough known to them that they were able to tell him all that they had done in disposing of that body without fear of him telling anyone else. After all, he was a member, in a way, of their community, having married not one, but two sisters as a means of rescuing them from what might have faced them with no closely related males left alive after that war, to protect them. It had been marriage according to natural custom and not that of the church, but just as binding to honorable folk.

“He, that man, Henstridge—Colonel Henstridge—he called himself, but he was never in the army, shot you after you attacked ’im and took ’is stick away, but not soon enough.”

She pronounced the him and the his, as if there were two ee’s in the middle of them and also had difficulty pronouncing the h (except for those first ones and a few others, which she had concentrated upon before she said them) as with anyone whose first language might be French, though not this kind of French. It was hauntingly pleasant to listen to, but quite different from the Southern accent he was most used to hearing, and her voice flowed like honey.

“If you ’ad not soon taken away ’is sword and shot ’im yourself, and run ’im through, ’e would have finished you off with that second pistole. You ’ave been ’ere for almost deux—two—days.” He was surprised to hear that. “You took ’im by surprise and scared the ’ell out of ’im, or ’e may ’ave taken more care over ’is first shot or even ’is second and killed you. He was destined for death that night, anyway.

“The devil ’as ’im now in that other place and is playing ‘is tender little games with ’im.’” She spat out of the window and made the sign of the cross to protect herself from having said that word, 'devil', just as she would say bless you (though likely the Creole equivalent) following a sneeze to keep the expelled demon moving. “’E is dead and long gone down the river and good riddance, with no one the wiser, while you live, so you need not worry ’bout dat. E’ll not be found now.” She seemed sure of that. “The gators wouldn’t leave much.” She chuckled at that. “They eats us, yes, if we gets careless going after them. But mostly, we eats them.”

She was wonderful! Wyatt had never come across such a woman before, and he was captivated.

She turned away and spoke to someone else in the other room, telling them in a gentle voice and in a way that he barely understood for a few moments that he was awake now and needed some soup. Yes, he was hungry, and it smelled good.

He was mesmerized by the way she spoke and watched the movement of her lips as though to help him understand her better. It quickly came back to him.

“Jennings . . .” He tried to ask a question, but she interrupted him to save him the effort.

“He’ll be back soon.” She continued to bathe his head as he visibly relaxed upon hearing that.

Another young woman, who had to be the sister of the first, with their characteristic and similar features—black hair and deeply suntanned skin, or their natural complexion, and whom he also recognized from the earlier confrontation—brought some soup in and began to feed him once she had stuffed some cushions down behind him. She spoke much better, proper English than her sister. There could be no mistaking that they were sisters, however, despite their differences.

The soup was very hot and spicy, with large pieces of what seemed like chicken and other meat of a more chewy texture in it—probably alligator, that the other woman had mentioned—one of many varieties of poor man’s beef, and free, if you didn’t mind a fight. Most food fought to survive, and everyone and everything was on the menu at some time or other in the bayous and backwaters here, especially if they went after alligators. He decided he would not ask, and learn more than he needed to know. It tasted good and was undoubtedly nutritious.

She had a faint bruise under her eye from that slight contretemps that had cost a man his life. It did not detract from her beauty to the slightest degree. He remembered how she had suffered that, seeing her knocked off her feet. He wanted to reach up and touch it, to comfort her, but knew that he must not do that. It was what had launched him into action to attack the older man, resulting in his death after a most violent struggle, and in him, being where he was. Good things sometimes came from bad things. Some things would also never be revealed in the confessional, and what had happened that night would be another one of them.

When he had finished eating she tidied everything away and came back to sit by him. He was surprised to hear her speak without the deep accents of her sister. She spoke to him as though she had been educated in one of the better academies for young women, but he had also heard her speak in the same patois as her sister, before she had brought him that food.

“That man.... You knew him. He knew you. I heard him swear when he saw who you were, and he was scared.” Her sister had said the same. He had been scared right enough. Fortunately, Wyatt had been too angry to be scared himself at that moment and had been able to respond with the violence that had been needed.

He responded. “Yes, we knew each other. I knew as soon as I recognized him that he would try to kill me. I saw that in his face.” He confirmed what she had suspected. “He blurted out something about having thought I was dead. He was wrong.”

“I’m glad he was wrong.” She sounded pleased and left him in no doubt as to what she thought of that. “Your own clothes have been washed. Blood must be washed out quickly, or it stains.” They must have undressed him and seen to his wounds before getting him into the nightshirt he had on.

“We decided not to leave anything on him that might allow him to be identified. He had some money with him but not much: some papers; a ring; a watch and his small pistols, as well as a knife and a sword stick.” She pointed to the corner of the room where it was standing. “I cleaned the blood off it. We dared leave nothing on him, to identify him if he were found, that might lead anyone back to us. I dare not risk going to his hotel to recover what else he had, but others did that for me after I told them where he was staying. Those other things are here also for you to examine and keep if you wish. As far as anyone might know, he moved on and may even have gone upriver on one of the steamers. As long as he’s not found, there will be no questions; and we shall all be safe, god willing. By the time his friends and relatives might begin to realize that he is missing, there will be nothing to link him with us. You should take what you want. What you leave, will soon be disposed of.”

Wyatt wanted none of his belongings but he did look over the papers. They were personal and might be of some use to learn more about him. He would keep those. They could have the modest amount of money and the rest of his things.

“You came upon us at just the right time or he may have killed us. He thought I had betrayed him. He employed me for the last week, once he knew that I could speak the French of my ancestors in France and not just the local patois, which surrounded me all my life.

“He had me going into various banks, dressed as a French woman—he had bought the clothing for me; he knew where to shop—and instructed me how I was to behave, to speak, and to conduct myself, and installed me in one of the hotels. Not the one he was in, fortunately, but he had more on his mind than to try to use me in that other way.” She had no difficulty discussing that and knew all about the habits of gentlemen once they were distant from their own families. “I was to visit the banks in New Orleans and inquire about a woman who was in some way related to him, I think. Hortense de Tourneau, whoever she was.”

Wyatt’s attention was suddenly caught by that name. He knew it.

“I was to speak the French that they speak in France, which my father taught me, and with poor command of English, though I speak that as well as I might be needed to (he could attest to that himself). I was to let them know that I had a small but valuable package that I carried, unopened, with me to show them but was not to let it out of my possession, for that lady, from her relatives in France. I was to explain that the direction of that bank in New Orleans had been obliterated by exposure to salt water in the crossing. The sea had been very rough, and I had been so very sick and terrified that we would not survive! At least, so I said. I was to return to France in a few days; and if I did not discover a direction for the lady, or her bank, that I would have to take it back with me."

She smiled. “He was trying to learn which bank the lady dealt with, but they—those bankers—knew all about those tricks. He promised that if I were able to locate the bank, he would see to the rest. She must be some relative of his. I think he intended to forge her signature on something once he found her bank, and he said that if I succeeded, that I would be extremely well rewarded. I spent several days visiting the main banks—the bank of Orleans; The Planters’ bank; the Louisiana bank; New State Bank; and the US bank, and others. What bank did I not visit? and getting an appointment each time, but could learn nothing. He followed me and observed me from a safe distance all the time.

“When I told him, day after day, that I had no success, he thought I must be lying to him. He became angry and began to accuse me of working behind his back and cheating him and even of trying to contact this de Tourneau lady myself to warn her if I hadn’t already alerted the bank by my clumsiness, and he began to hit me.” She gently touched her still-sore cheek. “My sister intervened and so did my father, but he was too much for them, and he was armed. He knocked my sister down and stabbed my father in the arm before he turned back to me. If you had not appeared at that moment, I am afraid what he may have done to all of us to hide his purpose. It may have been our bodies going down the river instead of his.

“He seemed to know you. I never saw such surprise or fear as he showed on his face at that moment. You might have been a ghost to him, he went so pale. Thank you for what you did.” He acknowledged her gratitude with a smile.

“I think I am the one in your debt.”

She just smiled at him in return. He knew that he had made friends for life with a blood debt holding them together. He felt very pleased for that and was happy that he had been of some service to them.

Within two days, Wyatt was back on his feet and ready to join Captain Jennings and his boat before it left without him. He thanked the two young Creole women and their father and mother for saving his life and might have offered payment, but he held off, realizing that they might feel insulted, believing that he had saved their lives more than they had saved his. There were other ways he could thank them without putting their backs up. They might be poor people, but they were proud. Jennings knew them and would advise him there.

They walked with him back to his boat, one girl on either side of him, and Leonie, the older of the two, holding his arm.

Before they left him, she repeated what her father had already told him. “If you find you need help at any time, we expect that you will allow us to be of service to you. You may also come and stay with us whenever you tie up at the levee. Jennings does, or stays with my aunts.”

“Thank you. I will remember.” Her sister passed him the overnight bag that Jennings had brought for him that contained his shaving kit, brushes, and a change of clothing; and they saw him climb aboard. He and Jennings waved to them from the pilothouse as they made ready to get underway. They would meet again.

Jennings smiled at what he had seen. If Wyatt were not careful, he would find himself in love with not just one but two beautiful young women as he had once fallen in love, and had done so more than once, while never forgetting his Madeleine.

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