A chance to escape.
Having been offered a temporary escape, Henstridge bolted for the door and turned toward the stern, where he might leave the boat cleanly without fear of hitting a raft as Wyatt began his count and, upon completing it, began to follow him down to the lowest deck. There were few places for Henstridge to hide in such a short time, but it would be the safest place to leave the boat if one could get far enough out from the churning paddle and provided one had the courage to leap into that water in the dark. Impending death would give a man, even a coward, wings on his feet to escape.
Wyatt had no intention of letting him leave the boat alive to pose a continuing threat to others. He followed him quickly, heedless that he laid himself open to sudden attack from the shadows. He was confident of his ability to survive whatever Henstridge might try to do, and would not give him time to strike from the shadows as he was sure to do.
As he had half expected, Henstridge lunged at him out of the near-dark just out of the light of one of the stern lanterns. He had not gone very far at all. Wyatt ignored what he could not see and quickly closed with his opponent, not giving him opportunity to use the knife he undoubtedly held, as he drove him back hard against the corner of one of the supports, hearing him gasp in pain, and then gripped the arm that he knew would be the one holding the knife, his left. He swung him around then, bringing them both to the side of the large wheel, throwing water and spray over the deck by them. They could both hear the steady thump and hiss of the cylinders somewhere forward of them and below where they were standing, as they drove that wheel around with a constant swishing sound. The footing was wet and slippery.
Wyatt disarmed him by the simple act of pushing his extended arm into that rotating cage of metal, hearing him drop the knife before the wheel took it from him, and Henstridge began to fight back against him. He reached down and took hold of Henstridge’s leg just behind his knee and lifted him so that he began to lie across the barrier that separated the narrow walkway from that wheel.
Henstridge knew what was happening, and fought like a man with death breathing down his neck to hold on to anything that might save him and then began to claw at the man holding him. He had gone beyond screaming and was desperately fighting for his life but had not believed it until this very moment.
The swiftly rotating arms of the metal cage hit him just once at first, half scalping him at that moment before Wyatt lifted him completely and let the wheel take him. Henstridge had gone silent after that first wound had knocked him out. The wheel did not slow for even a heartbeat as it took the body out of his hands and forced it between the solid wooden side of the boat and the wheel, in a space that no man would ever normally fit in. His body was hung up for a few seconds on the piston mechanism below their feet, with his arms flailing like those of a marionette in death, at the lifting and falling motion, pulling and pushing, as it moved the wheel around. Eventually, the spokes at the side of the rotating wheel broke more bones and then finally took him from the piston and the boat, and spewed him into the river, undoubtedly dead by then, as well as possibly dismembered. Wyatt did not feel sorry.
He looked about. No one had seen what had happened, but then it was dark, and the hour was late. The noise of the wheel, with water flying off it; the constant hiss of steam; and the low roar of the engine would have hidden all sounds of their struggle, even though it had not entirely covered the noise of all those bones breaking. It had been a fast death, unlike that of his brother. He moved away from the light spray beginning to damp him down and checked himself for any wounds or signs of blood. There were none that he could see in that dim light, or feel. He leaned onto the port rail and stared out into the darkness over the river as he recovered his thoughts and savored what he had accomplished. As a Roman emperor had once said: “The corpse of an enemy always smells sweet.” He regretted nothing of what had happened. It was over at last. He was free, and so was Caroline.
He would go and tell Leonie and her father what had happened—or a simpler and briefer version of it—so that they might rest. It would be as difficult for them to rest as it would be for him, but they could talk. He would then recover everything from that room where a man’s life had been decided, and return with them to his own cabin.
He would spend an hour or two in the pilothouse with the captain until his mind settled down, or he might never be able to sleep. It seemed as though they might put in close to the bank for the night again, with the fog beginning to build over the river, and with some of the most tortuous meanders ahead of them. They would be some hours later than expected into Helena.
Now, he could go forward with everything else he knew needed to be done, though five years overdue.