A name from the past.
The soup was very hot and spicy, with large pieces of what seemed like chicken and other meat of a more chewy texture in it—probably alligator, that the other woman had mentioned—the poor man’s beef, and free if you didn’t mind a fight.
Most food fought to survive, and everyone and everything was on the menu at some time or other in the bayous and backwaters, especially if they went after alligators. He decided he would not ask and learn more than he needed to know. It tasted good and was undoubtedly nutritious.
She had a faint bruise under her eye from that slight contretemps that had cost a man his life. It did not detract from her beauty to the slightest degree. He remembered how she had suffered that, seeing her knocked off her feet. He wanted to reach up and touch it, to comfort her, but knew that he must not do that. It was what had launched him into action to attack the older man, resulting in his death after a most violent struggle, and in him, being where he was. Good things sometimes came from bad things. Some things would also never be revealed in the confessional, and what had happened that night would be another one of them.
When he had finished eating, she tidied everything away and came back to sit by him. He was surprised to hear her speak without the deep accents of her sister. She spoke to him as though she had been educated in one of the better academies for young women, but he had also heard her speak the same way as her sister before she had brought him that food.
“That man, Henstridge, you knew him. He knew you. I heard him swear when he saw who you were, and he was scared.” Her sister had said the same. He had been scared right enough. Fortunately, Wyatt had been too angry to be scared himself at that moment and had been able to respond with the violence that had been needed.
“Yes, we knew each other. I knew as soon as I saw him and recognized him, that he would try to kill me. I saw that in his face.” He confirmed what she had suspected. “He blurted out something about having thought I was dead. He was wrong.”
“I’m glad he was wrong.” She sounded pleased and left him in no doubt as to what she thought of that. “Your own clothes have been washed. Blood must be washed out quickly, or it stains.” They must have undressed him and seen to his wounds before getting him into the nightshirt he had on.
“The spoils, his personal belongings and what he had about him, are yours now. It is an old custom everywhere; to the victor go the spoils.” She brought a bundle of clothes into view. “These are all his clothes and belongings. All of them, including that glove he used to hide his loss of fingers on that hand, although he made sure others were aware of it when he wished to plead that it was one of his many war injuries. Ha!” She left him in no doubt as to what she thought of that.
“We decided not to leave anything on him that might allow him to be identified. He had some money with him but not much: some papers; a ring; a watch and his small pistols, as well as a knife and a sword stick.” She pointed to the corner of the room where it was standing. “I cleaned the blood off it. We dared leave nothing on him to identify him if he were found, that might lead anyone back to us. I dare not risk going to his hotel to recover what else he had, but others did that for me after I told them where he was staying.
Those other things are here also for you to examine and keep if you wish. As far as anyone might know, he moved on and may even have gone upriver on one of the steamers. As long as he’s not found, there will be no questions; and we shall all be safe, god willing. By the time his friends and relatives might begin to realize that he is missing, there will be nothing to link him with us. You should take what you want. What you leave will soon be disposed of.”
He wanted none of his belongings, but he did look over the papers. They were personal and might be of some use to learn more about him. He would keep those. They could have the modest amount of money and the rest of his things.
“You came upon us at just the right time, or he may have killed us. He thought I had betrayed him. He employed me for the last week once he knew that I could speak the French of my ancestors in France and not just the local patois, which surrounded me all my life.
“He had me going into various banks, dressed as a French woman—he had bought the clothing for me; he knew where to shop—and instructed me how I was to behave, to speak, and to conduct myself, and installed me in one of the hotels. Notthe one he was in, fortunately, but he had more on his mind than to try to use me in that other way.” She had no difficulty discussing that and knew all about the habits of gentlemen, once they were distant from their own families. “I was to visit the banks in New Orleans and inquire about a woman who was in some way related to him, I think. Hortense de Tourneau, whoever she was.”
Wyatt’s attention was suddenly caught by that name. He knew it. “I was to speak the French that they speak in France, which my father taught me, and with poor command of English, though I speak that as well as I might be needed to (he could attest to that himself). I was to let them know that I had a small but valuable package that I carried, unopened, with me to show them but was not to let it out of my possession. It was for that lady, from her relatives in France. I was to explain that the direction of that bank in New Orleans had been obliterated by exposure to salt water in the crossing. The sea had been very rough, and I had been so very sick and terrified that we would not survive! At least, so I said. I was to return to France in a few days; and if I did not discover a direction for the lady, or her bank, that I would have to take it back with me.
“He was trying to learn which bank the lady dealt with, but they—those bankers—knew all about those tricks. He promised that if I were able to locate the bank, he would see to the rest. She must be some relative of his. I think he intended to forge her signature on something once he found her bank, and he said that if I succeeded, that I would be extremely well rewarded. I spent several days visiting the main banks—the bank of Orleans; The Planters’ bank; the Louisiana bank; New State Bank; and the US bank, and others. What bank did I not visit, and getting an appointment each time, but could learn nothing. He followed me and observed me from a safe distance all the time.
“When I told him, day after day, that I had no success, he thought I must be lying to him. He became angry and began to accuse me of working behind his back and cheating him and even of trying to contact this de Tourneau lady myself to warn her, if I hadn’t already alerted the bank by my clumsiness, and he began to hit me.” She gently touched her still-sore cheek. “My sister intervened and so did my father, but he was too much for them, and he was armed. He knocked my sister down and stabbed my father in the arm before he turned back to me. If you had not appeared at that moment, I am afraid what he may have done to all of us to hide his purpose. It may have been our bodies going down the river instead of his.
“He seemed to know you. I never saw such surprise or fear as he showed on his face at that moment. You might have been a ghost to him; he went so pale. Thank you for what you did.” He acknowledged her gratitude with a smile.
“I think I am the one in your debt.” She just smiled at him in return. He knew that he had made friends for life with a blood debt holding them together. He felt very pleased for that and was happy that he had been of some service to them.
Within two days, Wyatt was back on his feet and ready to join Captain Jennings and his boat before it left without him. He thanked the two young Creole women and their father and mother for saving his life and might have offered payment, but he held off, realizing that they might feel insulted, believing that he had saved their lives more than they had saved his. There were other ways he could thank them without putting their backs up. They might be poor people, but they were proud. Jennings knew them and would advise him there.
They walked with him back to his boat, one girl on either side of him, and Leonie, the older of the two, holding his arm.
Before they left him, she repeated what her father had already told him. “If you find you need help at any time, we expect that you will allow us to be of service to you. You may also come and stay with us whenever you tie up at the levee. Jennings does, or he stays with my aunts.”
“Thank you. I will remember.” Her sister passed him the overnight bag that Jennings had brought for him that contained his shaving kit, brushes, and a change of clothing; and they saw him climb aboard. He and Jennings waved to them from the pilothouse as they made ready to get underway. They would meet again.
Jennings smiled at what he had seen. If Wyatt were not careful, he would find himself in love with not just one but twobeautiful young women as he had once fallen in love, and had done so more than once, while never forgetting his Madeleine.