A deceiver, being deceived.
As Leonie had suggested to him, once he had been introduced, and the rules and the modest stakes agreed upon, the game started slowly, and there was little conversation in the smoke-filled and stifling room as the cards were dealt and played. Wyatt looked tired and appeared to be not too attentive to the cards, but he won steadily. They were almost too serious and had obviously been drinking before he had arrived. He took his cue from them as to what was expected while they each sniffed around each other like dogs learning what they were up against. He did not mind drinking a little more than he might have done, as he knew that no matter what he did, he would be allowed to win that evening. He remained alert and observant, careful of what Leonie signaled him to do as they cooperated to be sure that he, Wyatt, would win tonight.
Leonie dealt the cards. When Wyatt lost, which he did, infrequently, he tended to lose relatively little, but the others at the table were losing steadily—they seemed careless in what they did in their impatience to move the game along. At the end of the evening, he was only a modest winner in the usual scale of such games on the river. It was not a large sum of money but an encouraging amount. He seemed to have about two thousand or more dollars in front of himself. A river pilot might take a year to earn that much, but he knew that he had not won it fairly, and he had been allowed to win it for a reason. It had been steadily given to him to encourage him to bigger things on the following evening.
At about one in the morning, he apologized that he must leave but promised that he would join them again on the following evening. He pleaded that he needed to get enough sleep and to clear his head so that he could at least take over his duties as pilot on the rapidly approaching day. They all retired after that.
Caroline waited for him on the following evening. He joined her for dinner, and then they sat again on the foredeck, as though nothing had happened the previous evening that needed any explanation. As far as she was concerned, after she had thought about it for some time, it didn’t. Nonetheless, she would still have liked to have known what had transpired after he had left in company of that other young and vibrantly attractive woman to go to his room. She felt reasonably sure that it had not been a sexual liaison, not after those moments they had shared together in Vicksburg and what he had told her of Leonie. She felt sure that he was not that close to her.
She knew better than to ask and to betray her burning curiosity about something that was none of her business. She was aware, however, that as they sat together that evening and talked of little in particular that he was easily distracted and that there were times when his attention was elsewhere. He seemed to be watching for someone. Perhaps that young Creole woman again.
She reasoned with herself that she had no need to feel any hurt by that. She had no claim upon him or he upon her despite what they had shared in Vicksburg, and their paths would all too soon diverge once she left the boat.
It was not Leonie who stole him away from her but the youth who had been asked to keep an eye on her. It was getting late anyway, so she excused herself at the same time. Wyatt walked her to her cabin on the port side of the vessel and saw her to her room.
He gently took her key from her and unlocked her door. He led the way inside and looked around to be sure that no one else might have gained access while she had not been there. He had not expected to find anyone, but it was better to be cautious. He knew that her brother was even then waiting for him to appear, to continue what they had begun on the previous night.
As he gave her the key, but without letting go of it, they stood very close and looked into each other’s eyes. She saw a strange look in his face—one of both sadness and great tenderness that caused her heart to thump wildly—and she wondered, for a moment if he was about to enfold her into his arms and kiss her. She would not have objected.
He had been on the point of beginning to say something at that same moment but changed his mind. He smiled, almost sadly, leaned over and kissed her on her forehead, reluctantly relinquished her key to her, leaving the room and closing the door behind himself.
She knew that he stood and waited to hear the key turn in her lock before she heard him walking off to his own cabin. She stood there, not moving for a full five minutes, before she suddenly found some life again. She did not understand herself or the heaviness of her heart—no, she did understand that—and wondered what she might do. She was at a crossroads in her life and needed to make a choice of direction. How could anyone be in love with two different men at the same time but with one of them only a memory?
She slowly took her clothes off, washed in the warm water left for her, dried herself, and changed into her nightdress. She then took her pistol from her purse and laid it on her bedside table. It chattered softly on the wood and slowly began to move across the table from the vibrating pulse of the engines as they had slowed a little with darkness closing in on them. She moved it onto the cloth, covering the center of the table, and stopped its noise and its movement.
She sat heavily onto her bed and could no longer hold back the tears, uncertain what to do with herself and torn between two loves, and the past and the present.