The Caroline

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He'd been in front of her the whole time.

Caroline rushed up to his room again and threw the curtains wide.

His things were laid out as though he had to leave suddenly without time to pack. His nightshirt, which she had worn herself just a few days earlier, was where he had dropped it. She picked it up and held it to her face, breathing deeply of it, gaining strength and purpose from it. There was an aching emptiness in her heart but also a deep determination beginning to take hold of her.

There was his toiletry laid out, his brushes with tortoise-shell back (they stirred a memory, albeit faintly), even his razor, strop, a comb. Why would he leave those behind? Surely, he would need those wherever he went. Then she saw something else hanging at the side of the mirror; a leather thong with a piece of jewelry on it. She drew closer and saw what it was. It was a ring, a simple copper ring. It was the exact same, as the ring on her own finger. He had taken it off so that she would see him first, before she recognized him any other way from such tiny clues. Her heart was beating fast by then, and she began to see everything through a haze of tears, which she blinked away.

Breathlessly, she looked around and saw a small black box on his bedside table. She was not sure she dared open it. Her fingers trembled, but she lifted the lid. Nestled inside were letters. Her letters! There was a lock of hair, also hers. In the bottom was a sheet of parchment with writing on it; vows of love between them. What had once been drops of blood were flattened and spread out with the mark of a thumbprint in each of them. His thumbprint in her drop of blood, and her thumbprint in his. ‘We married.’ His suddenly remembered words spoken that night came back to haunt her. She felt nauseated, but needed to know more, even though she knew all she really needed to know. The letters were all from her. The earliest ones were addressed to him and had been placed in that log before he had disappeared. The latest ones were those she had written to her grandmother from Baltimore, then France, Italy, France again, and then her last ones from England saying how she might return to Paris, where she had other relatives, but she had changed her mind about that. Her grandmother must have given them to him so that he might find her.

Her mind was working in many different directions now and seeing all those things that she had missed, which now had meaning to her. The way he had looked at her in Liverpool with a question in his eyes. That question, she now knew, was not so much about if she were injured but waiting to see if she might recognize him. It had been the same kind of curious attention he had paid to her all the way across the Atlantic, waiting, wondering. He had been cautious then, but had gradually relaxed in both relief and disappointment. No. Disappointed puzzlement. He had wondered why she had not known him.

His trunk was also there. She lifted the lid on that and gently lifted out his clothing to the bed. In the bottom were four books, a music box . . . She knew them before she even touched them or saw the printing on the spines or the writing inside the cover of them. They had been gifts from her, just as there were others in her room that had been gifts from him with just such another music box and that figurine that she had not dared take with her but that she had intended to recover.

There were also the logbooks from the Pelican from previous years (she had wondered if steamboats kept a log, and it seemed that some captains did) as filled in mostly by Jennings and after that by both Wyatt and Jennings. She turned to the date she was now curious about and saw an entry for the 23 August 1868, that fateful day for her as well as for him. Jennings had described how he had pulled a young man from the river that evening, just above Helena, and more dead than alive. He had grievous wounds to his forehead that had almost taken his scalp off. He guessed, as had that surgeon, that it had been a blow from a saber that had bounced off the young man’s skull. There had been a doctor aboard the boat at that time, so he had not put the young man through any more hardship by trying to put him ashore in that foul weather and back into the hands of his waiting enemies. Her own father, and brothers!

There was a loose sheet of paper: a drawing of that young man at the time as he lay wounded there. It had been drawn to try to identify him on their various stops but without that scar on his brow. She recognized him, of course. She did not need to read further, but she understood much more now.

She should have stayed at home a little longer, as he had said, and checked. Her life from that point on would have been very different, and they could have gone off together if they had not stayed and plotted the downfall and deaths of her father and brothers. She had given him up for dead, however, and could no longer stand being in the same house as her own family.

She looked around, her eyes beginning to swim as all the small pieces began to fall into place for her. She cried aloud in sudden understanding, no longer able to hold back her feelings. She found herself embraced by Hannah, who had followed her upstairs and had taken pity on her.

“How could I not have known him, Hannah? I loved him more than life itself and still do. Why did he not tell me? What he must think of me! When did you know who he was?”

“About two minutes after he walked in the door with you. Don’t forget, I already knew he was alive; it was just that I hadn’t seen him since that day he disappeared either, though he’s been up to his parents a few times since then. He couldn’t hide from me behind that beard or that scar. I wouldn’t worry what he might think of you now. He was always in love with you, and love forgives a lot of things.”

“How could I have been so blind?”

“Don’t torture yourself over that, miss. It really is him. Back again. No one else. Him! Just as I remembered him with that little birth mark under his chin and that mischievous look on his face. I helped him shave last night and take that beard off. With your brother dead, he didn’t need it no more. I damn near cut his throat when I uncovered that birth mark under his chin and knew for sure who he was, as if I hadn’t already known. I cried for a while in his arms, and he told me what happened all those years ago that kept him away. He is a man now right enough. He grew up fast when your father and brothers tried to kill him—he told me all of it—but was only a boy back then. I knew there was something about him, the way he looked at me and smiled almost as though he had a secret from me and I couldn’t fathom that for a minute or two. He used to steal my molasses cookies and get up to all kinds of mischief.” Caroline remembered. He had always been fun loving, but he had rarely visited, and never had been there when either of her brothers or father were home.

“I knew in my heart and from the way they behaved around me after that, what they had done, but I assumed they had succeeded.”

“So did they. That was their undoing. He told me some of it, but some he wouldn’t tell, and maybe never will.”

“But that name, Wyatt?”

“Henry Wyatt Ibbotson as he filled it in on that contract just before he left. The middle name was from his grandfather.”

“I thought the W was for William. He never would tell me what the W stood for, even though I teased him about it.”

“See? We don’t always know everything we should about the folks we’re closest to and love. He told me some of it as I shaved him and before he left. Your pappy and brothers, they tried to kill him down on that landing, one evening, intending to get rid of his body into the river. They hadn’t known he was armed, or they might have been more careful. They paid a high price for that, with Jefferson being gut shot after he’d struck him with that damned saber he’d brought back from the war with him. With Jefferson lying there bleeding to death—although it took him long enough to die—and with their own wounds, they were occupied for long enough that Henry took to the river, not knowing whether he would live or die at that moment. He was picked up by a steamer after he grabbed hold of a log. Fate sure looked after him that night and set markers of death on those other three. I’m surprised they didn’t feel death itself walking with them every step of the way they took after that, and counting off the days when they would die at his hands, as was preordained, and demanded. That was justice. You were sent off for a reason, honey, to get you out of the way and let him see to those other two.”

Caroline listened with a pale face and wide eyes. She had known none of this in such detail until now and from reading that logbook. She had suspected what they had tried to do when they all came back as they did, bloodied, and with Henry not showing up after that, leaving her to wonder and to fret and agonize and to eat her heart out. They said nothing, but it became obvious from the way they looked at her and fell silent if she were close, as well as remarks that she overheard when they became careless. She heard Jefferson mumbling things, in his feverish sleep, the few times she could trust herself to go close to him without feeling the desire to kill him. Had she known for sure then what she had just found out, she would have eased him out of this world and might have done the same for her father and Robert, but less easefully. No one would have found out. Those who loved her would have hidden everything, and their bodies would never have been found, just as seemed to have happened anyway, except for Jefferson.

Hannah consoled her by putting her arm about her shoulder. “Henry recovered, of course, but they didn’t know that. He met up with your father in New Orleans two years ago. Your father recognized him and was afraid for his life. He killed your father, but I didn’t know that until this morning. He grew his beard after that, wanting no more surprises like that.”

“My father deserved it, and so did Jefferson, after what I now know. He killed Robert on board that steamer just a few days ago, but I can’t blame him for that. I would have killed him myself if I could. You should not have let him go, Hannah, but should have come upstairs and told me. I would have stopped him.” She would have found some way no matter what it might have taken. “How did I not know him, and now he has abandoned me for my stupidity.”

He had done nothing of the kind. He had known what he was doing. He hadn’t trusted either her or himself to spend another night under the same roof together after she woke up to who he was, as he could see she was on the verge of doing.

“And who might blame him if he had? No, miss, you should not have let him go without you. I couldn’t stop him.” She did not say anything of the lengthy conversation she had with him before he had gone. He would be back one way or another. It would work out now as it should. The tears had begun to flow again. It was a good sign. She was even choked up herself.

“But what am I to do?”

“I am sure you will think of something. He was to go up to Cairo and wait for the Caroline or join her there. It might be two days or three or four before he comes down this way again to pick up his things.” All his things. She knew what he had meant when he had said that with that determined look in his eyes. All his things, meant her too.

“Then we have time. I must go to him.”

“Yes, missy, you do, but you can’t do it by yourself.”

“What do you mean?”

“You was never this slow before. Who allus helped you over those difficulties that you always seemed to have, and was always there for you?”

“My grandmother!”

“You hit the nail there, girl. You can get up there in three, four hours. Josh will take you. You tell her everything, you hear me, everything. Take those other things with you to show her; those letters and those contracts, including that one behind the door. I think she’ll surprise you, though, with what she already knows, and has been doin’ for the last two years, tryin’ to get you home, and helpin’ Henry find you.” Her grandmother would know everything she needed to know, long before Caroline got there. She was probably sitting down with Henry about now and both making their own plans for her. That girl would never know what hit her when the last five years were finally swept aside.

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