The Caroline

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The game continues.

They settled in to play as on the previous evening but with more assurance now that the ice had been broken, and they had 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 need to throw in those cattle out there too. 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 while I lost, just as you did last night too. 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 though 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.”

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