The Caroline

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What game you playin' here, boy?

When Caroline had gone, Hannah suddenly threw herself into the young man’s arms and let the tears flow, and took him to task once she heard missy’s feet at the top of the stairs.

“What game you playin’ here? How come she don’t know you despite that Wyatt name? What’s goin’ on?” She dusted some flour off a chair. “Sit down. I’ll get you a coffee, and you can tell me before she comes back down, though I think she’ll be an hour or more up there.”

“She doesn’t know me yet, Hannah. I thought she might, but things have been pretty hectic around her since I saw her on the docks in Liverpool, four weeks ago, and she has had no time to stop and see anything or anybody, never mind think. I wasn’t sure I should tell her who I was right off the bat, so I just waited for a better time, which never seemed to happen.”

“Four weeks you say? A lifetime in your company, and she still doesn’t know you?” She had difficulty believing that.

“I thought she might know me more than once, but she didn’t.”

“She must have gone blind, or she’s got her mind fixed on something else. I knew you about a minute after you stepped in here despite that beard. Your mother kept me informed about what you were doin’, but she never mentioned that you’d put on muscle and filled out, nor about the beard. I think I might know why you’re back now and risked coming here and not expecting a fight on your hands. Was it you that saw to Robert?” He nodded. “And her father?”

“Him too. They intended to finish what they started. Her father almost succeeded when I met up with him in New Orleans, before I recognized him.”

“I should have poisoned them. I knew it. What happened all those years ago? Can you tell me?”

“When the dust has settled, I’ll tell you what I can.”

“Is this what they did to you? Your mother never said.” She gently touched his head.

“Jefferson did that just before I shot him, but they all three of them intended that I should die that night. I shot the others at that same time, but I missed what I was really shooting at. I took to the river after that and was rescued by a steamer. I was all of three months getting my health back and remembering who I was.”

“So that’s why she didn’t hear from you.” Those things she had wondered about began to fall into place. He nodded. “She nearly went out of her mind when she didn’t hear from you. It dragged on and on while I watched her go downhill, and nothin’ I could do for her. We both thought the same thing, with her father and those two all banged up as they were. It was too much of a coincidence, but we knew nothin’, and they had their lies ready to explain everything. Jefferson hinted at it in some strange way in his ramblings. I sat with him some nights and tried to coax what I could out of his restless mind, but he was goin’ downhill. I learned enough to suspect a lot, but when I thought I might be able to say something to her, she was gone with little warning. Just as well. None of it was comforting.” She watched him load his coffee with brown sugar as he’d always done.

“When I came back and tried to find her to let her know I was still alive, I found she’d gone, and no one knew where, not even my parents. I found out two years ago from her grandmother where she was in Europe and went after her, but it took two years of searching, to bump into her again, and she never knew me. I was as close to her as I was to you, and she didn’t know me despite me using her name.” He sighed. I don’t think I should be surprised. My own mother didn’t easily know me with this scar and the way I’d changed. Not for a minute or two. I didn’t have the beard then either.”

“They deserved to die for doing that to you, and to her. They destroyed her by what they did, the damn fools, and now they paid for it. Are you sure Robert’s dead?”

“I’m sure.” He sounded sure. “I put him into that stern wheel with my own hands.” He saw the grim smile on her face. “But no one needs to know that. Caroline knows some of it. Don’t tell my mother. They’re dead and gone, and that’s all anyone needs to know. She doesn’t know any of that.”

“No, a mother shouldn’t know that, but I’m glad you told me. It’ll be a change to have a real man about this place again. I’ll say nothin’. So it was you that almost killed Jefferson and did some damage to the other two and not some wild drunk soldiers as they tried to make on. Now we are learning what really happened. I couldn’t be sure until now, but I had my suspicions.” She refilled his cup. “I suppose I can add the little that I know. Robert saw his brother out of this life with a pillow over his face one night, but no one else knows that, and I ain’t told no one until now. Another secret. I saw him do it, but he didn’t see me. He saved me the trouble. I was tempted to do the same thing myself more than once. Many’s the time I wished I had, and poisoned him and his father both.” They could both hear Caroline moving furniture about somewhere above them.

“When are you going to tell her who you are?”

“I’m not. She’ll know me soon enough now that she’s back here, where she’ll be able to relax. She was in strange and hurtful places, and many confusing things were happening around her. Robert intended she wouldn’t make it home, and he tried to stop her. She killed one of the two men who tried to get to her, with that gun I gave her, but she doesn’t know that either, so don’t tell her, and I killed the other.”

“You’ve been a busy man, Henry, Mr. Wyatt, and I won’t say a thing except amen to it all. But hard times need a man to be decisive. Maybe even to kill another. They intended it for you, so they got their just desserts.”

“You won’t slip up over my name, will you?”

“I’ll try not to, but it ain’t going to be easy. And I almost whacked you with this spoon when you called me ma’am.”

“I know. I saw it coming. I couldn’t call you Hannah, not so soon, or she would have noticed. I’ll go for a walk before she gets done. I’ll see to my trunks when I get back. If you open the smaller one, there are some wine bottles in there to go with dinner and for you and others to toast the change of owners. I brought them from France.”

“We don’t need wine to celebrate that, but we have a good beer always on the go. You can have some of that with your lunch. I’ll go and spread the good news, about Miss Caroline and some of the other, but it wouldn’t surprise me if others recognized you just like I did. The old place feels better to me already and has more life about it with her and you being here. How I’m goin’ to keep my mouth shut in my excitement and not call you Henry or some other choice words I had for you, I don’t know.”

“It soon won’t matter. I shall walk over the hill and see my mother and father again. I was last up here a year ago, so I’m overdue to let them know I’m home, but I sent her a letter on that mail packet that must have come through here a few days ago. I sent one to her grandmother too. You can tell her I went for a walk and may have got lost if I’m a little late for lunch.”

“You’re playing a strange game, Henry, Mr. Wyatt. I hope you know what you’re doin’. She’s goin’ to be either as mad as a bear with a sore head when she finds out who you really are and me knowin’ it and not tellin’ her, or she’ll—well, I don’t know what she’ll do. Probably all of ’em.”

“She has to know me in her own time, Hannah. I’ll not rush it. It won’t take long now.”

“That beard don’t hide you from them as know you. It didn’t from me. She’ll skin you alive when she finds out who you really are and you under her nose for weeks.”

“I hope so. I’ve waited long enough, wondering, waiting.” He hugged her again and kissed her. “I’ll try to be back before lunch. I doubt I’ll be missed.” They could hear the sounds of furniture moving.

“I’ll miss you. We’ll wait for you. You’ve no idea how I wept for joy when I heard you was alive from your mother, but Caroline had gone by then and no easy way to tell her. You will stay after . . . when . . . won’t you?”

“I’ll never be far away from her or this place, or my parents. Not now.”

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