The Caroline

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Settling in.

Caroline assumed that Wyatt would be seeing to his own trunks in that farther bedroom and unpacked her own trunks and then those older trunks that the men had brought in for her from the shed, and then another from the attic. She replaced bookcases and books that her brother had packed away, having no use for them, and moved furniture around to suit what she remembered, stripping away the poor memories (if they could be so easily removed; she knew they couldn’t) and evidence of changes her father and brother had made in her absence.

Her life had suddenly changed for the better, except for the memories. She would see everything belonging to her father and brother cleared out and given away. The sooner she was able to obliterate the mark they had left, the better. It would soon pay for itself now that she was back. She didn’t like the idea of sharecropping. It was just another kind of slavery and tied them down to the land just as it had before, but without a cruel overseer. She’d need to find out what she could do, what was possible, and what was doo-able. It would be difficult for a few years, but they would manage. Her grandmother had always told her to come and see her in times of difficulty and now was one of those times, but they were far apart.

There was a book of drawings with a map of the river and their conjoined estates in the front of it. He had drawn that for her. She had also drawn him many times as he had sat for her, and sometimes she had drawn him from memory, especially after he had disappeared from her life. She sat down and fought back the tears as a lump rose in her throat.

She looked around through swimming eyes and tried to take her mind off those memories. She would make herself busy and would lay rooms out as she wanted them now, and intended that the house should return to more pleasant times. She could even invite her mother and sister back now into the home they had once known but without the difficulties that she had to endure for the first seventeen years of her marriage.

She walked back down to the scullery. “Where’s Wyatt? I thought he’d be unpacking in his room, but I didn’t hear him, and there’s no sign of him.”

“He went for a walk to look around. He said he’d be back for lunch. So where did you meet him?”

“Liverpool. In England, a month ago.” She bit into a molasses cookie. “I was never so scared in all my life when I first saw him standing over me. You saw that scar and his beard. That was all I saw, and I’d just seen him beat two men so hard that they could hardly walk. They’d tried to rob me.”

“Oh. Then they deserved it.”

“I learned that those cattle that are now going into the enclosure were to come here, of all places, so I managed somehow to get a berth on that same ship and came with them. I wasn’t sure that it was a wise decision at first. I had the tiniest cabin imaginable with no lock on the door worth speaking of. I was so scared I slept in my clothes the first two nights. They told me it was a calm crossing, but it didn’t feel that way to me, and then the ship’s cat joined me and just about gave me a heart attack. At least I wasn’t seasick.”

“He seems quiet.”

“He is. I don’t think he spoke more than a few words at all to me for that first week. I barely saw him except over dinner. The officers dined with the captain, and we were both there, at the same table. I discovered later that he not only owned that ship we were on but also others and a few river steamers. He did most of the piloting as we came upriver. You wouldn’t believe the cabin I had for that. What a contrast to that other! It was all rosewood and brass fittings, deep carpeting, and the bed so soft. I had hot water brought three times a day and a girl to wait on me, except I ate in the dining room. The meals were out of this world! I’ve got to find out what it cost and make sure I pay him back somehow.”

She decided not to tell Hannah any more for the moment; not about those men trying to break into her cabin, and succeeding, or about that day out in the countryside behind Vicksburg that she and Wyatt had spent together, or about that night with him in that Vicksburg hotel, and especially not about that damn contract that her brother wrote when he had wagered her. She could sit down with her later and fill her in on the last four weeks in some detail and tell her what she dare. She still was not sure she could believe that Robert was truly gone forever and that she was not only home but actually owned it. Then, as she looked about her and she remembered—mostly—what had happened, she realized that she could believe it. She glanced out of the window.

“How long ago did he leave?”

“About an hour.” That was almost how long she had been upstairs, so he hadn’t unpacked but had gone out even as she had gone to unpack her own things. “What did he do with that drawing that he brought?”

“He hung it up in the hall. A nice-looking boat that, the Caroline.” He had hung it with the drawing showing, thank god. She’d move it later.

“Which way did he go?”

“I’m not sure. I didn’t see him leave, but I got the impression he’d walk up the hill to the cemetery, look out from there and then go wherever the mood took him.” He’d gone to see his parents. It was probably the only chance he’d get once she had unpacked everything, but she couldn’t tell her that.

“I’ll get changed then and take that horse out.”

“Don’t rush. He said he’d be back about lunch, and if he ain’t, it can wait. It ain’t anything that will spoil, and I got some fresh bread in the oven. He won’t get lost.” She watched as Caroline went upstairs to change and then ten minutes later saw her ride off.

She began to sing. She hadn’t sung for years. It began to feel almost as if Caroline had never gone. The estate would soon be back to normal, as it once had been, now that she was back. Her life would soon be back in shape too.

Caroline had looked in on the drover first to see that he and his cattle were settling in, and she was glad to see that he was pleased with what he had seen. Good feed, good grass, good bedding free of dust, and shelter from the heat, the flies, and the rains. There was nothing wrong with the barns; they had been built to last, and there was plenty of food for the cattle with so many individuals bringing it in so that they might see these quality animals.

She had greeted others there whom she knew. Everyone seemed overjoyed to see her. The word that her brother was not coming back and that she was now the owner had obviously spread already. Rather than go looking for Wyatt, who would be able to look after himself, she toured the fields and made mental note of what needed to be done, though she was not sure where the money might come from to do it. Anything that could be done with the application of hard work, saws, axes, nails, and . . . had already been done. Hannah had been right; it was still a working farm, but it had been slowly bled to death. That could now change.

She had overdressed. Her riding clothes had been adequate for France and England, but they didn’t see the hot temperatures that Mississippi faced in early September. She was far enough out, and there was no one to see her. She rode off to the small swimming hole that she and he used to swim in. He, Henry Ibbotson—she could say his full name now—had often swum here with her. It was off-the-beaten track and straddled the two properties. It obviously saw as little use now as it had then except for them using it once he had cleaned all the dead wood out of it.

She tied up her mare and investigated the surroundings. It was not exactly as she remembered it but was overgrown a little more, except for the large slabs of brown gray sandstone that came down to the water’s edge. Those rocks got so hot in the full sun that you could barely walk on them in your bare feet unless you wetted them down continuously at first.

She had looked around carefully before she had approached the little oasis and had seen no one. She tied up the horse and, after thinking about it, slowly removed her riding boots and socks, dipping her toes in the warm water; and then, making up her mind, she slowly removed the rest of her clothes, piling them near the water’s edge and then walked out into the crystal clear water until it reached her waist before she struck out. She remembered that nothing had lived in there as it was a little too salty for most fish or algae. It was still that way.

She floated there leisurely, looking up into the trees and the sky as she daydreamed of what might have been, and feeling lucky in some ways at how things had gone so unexpectedly in her favor in the last day or so. There was still that old rope tied up high in that tree that overhung it. The memories began to come back to her.

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