The Caroline

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The wager. Digging himself even deeper.

Robert summed up what he had to offer.

“My estate, everything I still have, and my sister, against what is on the table and your steamboat here. At least it is one venture that I have not yet tried. If you can wager a Caroline, why should not I do the same? She will know nothing of it until it is too late.” He could see that his suggestion had taken hold. Their night together cannot have been so unrewarding after all, and especially if she had given into to him already, as seemed to be the case, but he dared say nothing of that.

His sister had no need to learn of this other than as something to taunt her with afterward. She might just be sufficiently annoyed with him that, win or lose, and he would not lose, he might just be rid of her after all. He was getting the better of the deal. The man opposite him was seemingly unaware of the liabilities that were outstanding against the estate, and he was happy to leave it that way. He might be able to sell the boat back to him. He was said to own several steamers and even two or three ocean-going ships.

Wyatt sat forward and spoke quietly. “I accept. We should write it all out as an agreement with our signatures attached and duly witnessed by these others present.”

“Of course. If there is paper.” Leonie opened one of the drawers of the desk and took out the last two sheets of paper, along with a pencil, and passed them over to Henstridge.

He read it aloud as he wrote with some difficulty in the manner of a man not used to writing, though his mind was clear enough to find language that said what was intended.

I, Robert Henstridge of the Henstridge estate in upper Mississippi, wager the Henstridge family estate, which I inherited from my father . . .

He revealed nothing of their various encumbrances, which were very large and which Wyatt already knew about.

. . . all livestock and equipment, houses, buildings and so on, everything, against the steamship, theCaroline, owned by Mr. Wyatt.

He signed it and passed the pencil over to Wyatt, who wrote a similar contract on a second piece of paper.

I, Wyatt, owner of the steamship, the Caroline, wager my vessel the Caroline, and all my winnings on the table, in a game to be played with Robert Henstridge against his entire estate. Winner takes all.

He signed it. “We should have these witnessed.” Those other men there were quite willing to serve as witnesses.

Henstridge reminded him of that other wager. “There is that other thing we discussed. We should write that out too.” He might even show it to his sister to show that he had not been lying. “Is there more paper?”

Leonie opened the other drawers and shook her head. “There is no more.”

Wyatt stood up and removed a framed drawing from the wall of the room. It was a drawing of the boat they were on: the Caroline. He loosened the back and slid that sheet of heavier paper out of its frame. He placed it on the table for Henstridge to write out another wager on the back of it, which he proceeded to do with a look of satisfaction on his face as he smiled mischievously.

“Almost like the old days when entire families were sold off on the auction block or to cover a wager. Even some poor whites were sold that way, and still are behind the scenes.” He looked up and around the table at the set faces that clearly disapproved of his action even though they could not see what he had written, but he did not care. No one would ever find out about it.

This contract, made this ninth day of September 1873, gives Caroline Henstridge (spinster of twenty-three years)…

That comment would be sure to irk her. He was beginning to enjoy this.

… body, mind, and soul, and all else that she possesses about her, into the sole ownership, of . . .

“I will leave a gap for you to fill in a name for yourself later, when you have thought about this. You never know, after you have known her a little more intimately you might change your mind.” He had a smug look on his face. “I doubt that the one night you had with her in that hotel in Vicksburg, if it was just the one, will be enough, though it might be. If she wears on you, as I warned you she might, you might decide to lose her to another after this game when you discover what a liability she is likely to become to you. She will fight you tooth and nail over this if she finds out about it.” He was having fun, not believing that he might ever lose, and that his effort to be rid of his sister in this demeaning way would be enough to see her gone out of his own life forever. If not, she would not survive long, after she showed up on the estate. Her would-be protector—if that was what he was, Wyatt—would continue upriver as Henstridge’s temporary guest aboard his former boat until he might raise the money to redeem it.

He glanced up at Wyatt with a smirk on his face. “I wouldn’t want to saddle you with her without some escape for you.” He began a new line.

. . . to do with as he wishes from this moment forward. This contract also conveys ownership of any and all future children between them that may arise from his possession of her.

He chuckled as he wrote that last mischievous sentence. “Might there be children already do you think?” Wyatt sat still and said nothing. Henstridge would pay for that unkind and uncalled for remark, as well as for the rest of it. “Best if I do not sign it, or fill in your name, and then if she does not suit, or proves difficult if not downright intransigent, you can easily pass her on to another. Of course, the $500 a year is discretionary once you take possession.” He seemed to be having fun, having disposed of his sister, at least symbolically. He threw the pencil down and passed it over for Wyatt to read.

Wyatt read through what he had written, hiding his distaste for such a contract that smacked of bondage and slavery, picked up the pencil and wrote his name in larger letters in the middle of the blank line: Wyatt. No one other than him would ever see this. His opponent smiled at that.

“You commit yourself so easily so soon. So, she did manage to get through to you! You obviously do not know her as I do.” Wyatt decided against striking the man at that moment.

He fought against his better instincts, to ignore the man’s extended hand to seal their agreement, and grasped the other man’s hand very firmly, hard enough to cause him pain as he debated whether or not to strike him while he held him immobile, but decided against it. There was too much more at stake to respond as he felt like doing at this moment, and he would have his revenge in its entirety in another way in a short while. He smiled, little as he felt like doing so. “I am sure your sister would not approve of this.” He let go of his hand. It would not do to have him sense anything of what he was feeling at that moment.

Henstridge opened and closed his fingers to bring some life back to them. “Of course, she would not approve.” He laughed cynically at him. “My sister approves of nothing I have ever done. She will not find out about this until it is too late, if at all.” He smiled again, but it was a forced smile. She would certainly find out about it.

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.

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