The Caroline

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Do you really not recognize me?

Wyatt 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.”

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