The Caroline

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Home at last.

Their arrival had been widely announced, except in the main house. They walked into the house and almost bumped into an older woman of about forty years. She turned several shades of paleness before she found her tongue and grabbed Caroline into her arms heedless of the jam that dribbled from the bowl of a wooden spoon she held. Fortunately, it went to the floor to be licked up by the dog that had followed them in with its tail wagging furiously, torn between two loyalties. His stomach won. She eventually found her voice again.

“I don’t believe it. I thought you were still teaching in France, or was it England? Your grandmother lost track of you until your next letter would come, but she tried to tell us where you were through Nathaniel—Nathaniel Gass, your grandmother’s protector—who came visiting often when the others were not here, but we haven’t heard from her for more than three months. Let me look at you.” She held her at arm’s length but did not want to let her go. “What you doing back over here, girl? I thought you was fixed over there for good after you left.” A more pressing and discomforting thought occurred to her. “Is your brother with you? He won’t be pleased to see you.” She looked around.

“He’s not with us. So you do still remember me, Hannah.”

“Remember you? How could I forget you? You saved me from many a trouble. Come on through. I always got coffee or tea goin’, like old times when your mother was here. Ain’t nobody around to object that I can see, and I don’t care if they was around, anyway. I’d kill the fatted calf if we had one. Things did change for the better when they took to being around less—your father and brother—but never for long enough and they always came back. Mostly. ’Cept your pappy didn’t come back once. Nobody shed any tears or lost sleep over that.

“Losing you as they did, when you went away, slowed them down a lot and meant they had to focus more on what should be done here, but they wasn’t needed anyway for the hard work and wouldn’t have done it anyway, so they soon picked up their old habits again. They got deeper and deeper in debt as they spent more time away after you left. They neglected everything, but it wasn’t allowed to be too neglected for long; it just changed without them knowin’ it. We knew what needed doin’, and we did it, whether they knew about it or not. They weren’t here most of the time to argue. We even bought our own seed and kept the place up as best we could. We hoped you’d be back someday.” Her relief and happiness at seeing Caroline was obvious.

“You must have heard that your pappy went missin’ some years ago—yes, I mentioned that—and you knew Jefferson was dead ’cause he died afore you left.”

“How is Grandmother?” Hannah looked around the large kitchen to be sure that no one would overhear that discussion. Her grandmother had never been openly discussed in the house for some years now after they had heard that she had died, even though Caroline and Hannah had both known better.

“She’s well. Cranky as ever, bless her soul, but well. She’ll outlive us all.”

Caroline remembered the man standing by her after ignoring him for too long as they made their greetings. Hannah had been looking him over as Miss Caroline had spoken. There was something in his eyes once you got to them after being distracted by those scars and that beard. His eyes looked familiar to her. They seemed to be smiling at her. “This is Mr. Wyatt who accompanied me from the boat. He’ll be with us for two or three days until his steamer comes back downriver.”

His steamer! Hannah looked at him as he extended his hand with a smile, but she said nothing, not even when he winked at her, sending her heart a leaping and confirming what she had begun to suspect. Mr. Wyatt? Wyatt, my foot! She thought she recognized him despite that beard and those scars on his head, but how didn’t missy know him? No explainin’ some things. What’s with that girl’s eyesight and her mind? She said nothing, feeling more than a little choked up at that moment, having two such surprises in one day.

She could see his trunks were in the hallway and a drawing of a boat in a frame. She didn’t wonder why he needed two big trunks if he was only staying a couple of nights. He had other things to do. One of them had chinked a little as he had seen it set down.

She dabbed at her eyes with her apron. “I was peeling onions. They do that to me every time.” She fooled no one. I’ll put him on the east side of the house in the bedroom your mother had. It’s one of the brightest and most cheery rooms upstairs. Those windows is open, so it’s all aired out.”

“Point me in the right direction, ma’am, and I’ll see to getting my trunk up there and settled in.” He saw her eyes flash.

Ma’am? She resisted taking her wooden spoon to him, but it was a close-run thing just as she had done in times past, and he knew it as he still smiled at her. “Top of the stairs and turn to the right.” He did not move. “I’ll see to lunch then, but it’s still a couple of hours away.”

“We’ll manage till then. We ate just before we left the boat. Is Josh still here?”

“Of course he is. Where would that old fool go? He’s as much a fixture as I am. He still tells about you working alongside of him and the others in the fields, until he told you off and told you that if your pappy saw you doin’ the work they was supposed to be doin’, that he’d not only beat you, but he’d beat them too, but ten times harder until they was more senseless than they already was for lettin’ you. Didn’t stop you, though.”

“No, Hannah, it didn’t. I made sure I knew where my father and brothers were at those times. I didn’t mind working. It was better than being in the house. I told my father that if he thought to stop me or took into any of the workers again for putting up with me doing that, that I would leave. I think he believed me.”

“Oh, girl! It was never wise to threaten your pappy with anything. I never knew that, but I think he knew I’d poison him in his dinner one night if he did anything to hurt you, so that was why he mostly left things in your hands as he did.”

“While I remember, Hannah, there are some cattle coming along behind us. A bull and four cows along with a few-days-old calf that will need to be weaned eventually. I sent two of the boys out to help drive them, though the new calf will need to be carried, and I saw others coming from the fields.”

“Good. We haven’t had a cow or fresh milk or butter or cheese for too long unless we bought it, or Mrs. Ibbotson brought some over when she knew there was none of them home, or I went over there.”

“We’ll need space provided for them and a room for the drover. He comes with them and should be with us for a few months, if not longer, to get us all used to what to do. It was probably the only wise thing that Robert ever did, except he won them in a poker game, or so he said. That cabin at the side of the barn might be a good place.”

“I’ll tell the boys to clean it up and get some pens repaired. You stayin’ for long? I didn’t mean to scare you off talking about your brother like that. Come to that, where is he? I thought he was meeting those cows off the ship. No matter. Still in New Orleans likely. He left two weeks ago, and we ain’t seen him since. You know he won’t be happy to see you here.”

“He wasn’t. I already met him. He was in New Orleans, and we met on the boat coming upriver, but he seemed to have missed his stop. I heard he’d gone overboard after a fight with someone he intended to cheat, so it seems that he won’t ever be back.”

“And did he?”

“Go overboard? Yes, I believe so. He was not on the boat when we arrived here, so he’s gone. I heard from a very reliable source that he went into the river the night before last.”

“And him not able to swim.” She didn’t sound so very concerned to hear that. “That’s the last of ’em then. Well, I suppose I shouldn’t feel so good on hearing that, but I do if it means what I think it means.” She saw the smile on Miss Caroline’s face and knew she could believe it. Caroline knew more than she said, and so did the man with her—a man she knew well. The older woman’s eyes flickered to Wyatt, but he had turned away and was looking out of the window. He was the one that had put Robert overboard, likely dead at the same time. “So I take that to mean that you’re stayin’ for a while. A long while I hope. Unless the bank is itchin’ to put us out as they did for other families after that war, with those carpetbaggers comin’ in with their loans.”

“I don’t know about the bank. I was told that they wouldn’t bother us too soon.” She glanced at Wyatt seeing him smile at her. “I own this place now that Robert’s gone, so I’ll definitely be staying.” Hannah just stood there, not yet sure what this strange new relationship was between the two of them. “He lost it in a poker game just a day or so ago, just before he . . . died. An unfortunate accident, I was told”—her eyes flickered to Wyatt—“and I intend to bring it back if I can. I’m staying until I’m carried off the place, or I’m put off it. We’ll keep the bankers away if I can do it in some way.” She did not say anything about how she might have possession of it, if her brother had lost it to someone else in a poker game. She wouldn’t ask yet, but she figured she could guess.

“You can do that right enough where they couldn’t. They were not very attentive stewards and didn’t keep a close eye on any of us sharecroppers or what we was doin’. Just as well. We worked against them more than with them and cheated ’em up hill and down dale, hopin’ you’d come back one day. It wasn’t right, but what they were doing warn’t right either. What would folk like us do with money? Well, hallelujah. I like those kind of accidents, even though I shouldn’t say that.” She looked heavenward. “Forgive me, Lord. Maybe we got a bottle of something stronger to go with that coffee. It won’t be missed now. Might as well celebrate.”

“You mentioned the Ibbotsons, Hannah. How is Mrs. Ibbotson? I should go and see them.”

“They are both doin’ well.” She spoke as much to Mr. Wyatt as she did to Caroline, but Caroline did not notice.

“So they stayed after—did they?”

Hannah rescued her from going into their son having disappeared that night and tearing herself apart as she had so many times over that before she left. The strange thing was that the Ibbotson boy—man now—was standin’ right beside her and she didn’t seem to know him. She couldn’t figure that one out, but she’d find out what was goin’ on soon enough.

“They stayed. Like old Josh, they had nowhere else to go.” She saw Wyatt watching her and gently shaking his head to caution her to be careful what she might say to Caroline. “So my father and brother didn’t drive them out. I hoped they would stay, but I wasn’t sure.”

“They couldn’t drive ’em out. They tried. They thought to burn one of their barns down one night to intimidate them and get them to sell, but they were met by more than they figured on, almost like they was expected, which they was. We saw to that. We knew every move your pa and your brother made. That pair didn’t do anything around here that we didn’t know about and saw repaired and fixed up after. After that, they tore up some of their crops, but they always bounced right back and didn’t seem to have lost anything. Truth to tell, what they lost over there, we made sure was made up from here, and no one ever knew, so it came out of their own pockets whether they knew it or not. They gave up when they realized that anyone might take a shot at them out of the dark. It wasn’t worth their lives.

“The Ibbotsons didn’t give up and wouldn’t sell and always managed to find money from somewhere to keep their heads above water and the wolf from the door. Not like here.” She knew more about that than she was about to say, and the one responsible for that was standing beside her.

“That horse you used to ride is still here but mostly neglected, except for the grooming and the walking and feeding. Like the rest of us, she ain’t getting any younger.”

“I’ll get out on her when I get chance and see how things have changed.”

“After you left, I packed your things away as you requested, so that they couldn’t disturb them. I’ll get a couple of men to bring them over from the shed for you. I’ll see they get up to your old room. Mr. Robert mostly left it alone when you left. He went through your room, mind you, but there was nothing much left there of any value or interest after we’d finished with it, and we weren’t about to tell him what had happened to it.” She patted her on the arm. “Why don’t you go and see to getting your things unpacked and that other trunk unpacked while I get your other things organized and I’ll talk to Mr. Wyatt here?”

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