From Mattieís Journal.
The first time I saw him he was drowning. I heard a gunshot and shouting and I knew some innocent had been bushwhacked. I could see only a floating clutch of jet-black hair, the hint of a salmon pink shirt as the current bore him slowly along. It was enough to tell me someone needed the help of a strong swimmer like I was. Lem taught me to swim, sure he hid me from folk but he also taught me what I needed to survive that harsh land. He taught me how to hide real well.
What I mean to say is, it was instinctive. I dove into the chilly foaming river, grabbed him by his fancy shirt collar, and pulled him toward the rocks. He was still in my arms as I pulled him behind the waterfall, not struggling at all. I dragged him like a sack behind the falling curtain of water which made a perfect screen to keep us hidden from the bushwhackers. Iíd used that hiding place many times when taking a bathe in the river. I held him tight against my side, my arms firm around his chest muscles and felt the tremors pass through his sodden body. His head lolled against my cheek and I could smell horses and the iron scent of blood that permeated him. Afraid as I was, I managed to get a quick look at him. Beneath the pallor, I could see long black lashes pasted to his cheekbones and hair like an Indianís, shiny as ink. His skin had a tan to it that wasnít caused by the sun. His pants were kind of strange with metal studs all the way down the side; fancy pants-I had never seen the like. His trembling lips were full and bloodless, vibrating with shivers. It was like holding a frightened puppy. He shook so much I was afraid Iíd drop him back into the river to drown.
I listened carefully over the rush of water to the men riding away. My hearing is very very good, maybe to compensate for not talking, I donít know. Even as I hoisted my burden up, I noticed how the water ran in drops from the hair fringing his face as his head fell limply forward. I knew from the pounding of his heart against my palms that he still fought for breath, fought to live, but I could feel there as well river water he had inhaled and which had to be expelled. I heaved him over onto his belly and pushed on his ribs till he coughed and a trickle of water ran from his mouth. Then hauling him back into the river before he could fight against me, I dragged him to the safety of the far bank, straining to keep his chin above the rushing water.
Once there, I pulled him ashore by one arm, all the while determined not to lose the battle against the undertow that threatened to steal him from me. As I struggled to free him from the riverís grasp, I considered the lessons Lem had taught me about keeping clear of strangers, not getting involved. Yet here I was risking my life for this man I did not know from Adam who might surely die of a gunshot wound if not pneumonia. He might even be a danger to me, might try to hurt me. But all I wanted at that moment was to get him to safety; it was the strongest urge I ever remembered feeling.
So, I wore out my strength trying to free him from the pull of the water and looked at him laid out on the sand like a drowned thing, like a foal washed ashore and dying. He lay face down half in the water still but I had no strength left to get him fully onto dry land. He seemed too weak to help himself and I wanted to shout to him, tell him to move, to rouse himself, but of course, no sound would come. I cursed myself for being so handicapped meaning as it did that I had to do more. I hauled him over onto his back so he could get a good gulp of air into himself and revive. It worked and he started to move slowly, lifting a hand to the wound on his head. I could see it good now - above his left eye, a deep furrow of a bullet track, bleeding gently. I watched his chest heave as he gasped in air. Whoever shot him might come back and come after me. My instinctive fear of strangers came to the fore and I turned to flee, scooting back to my mule. I was ready to mount when he spoke, when I heard that soft desperate voice for the first time.
ďIs somebody there?Ē I was compelled to look back to where he was writhing in the sand, sliding back into the water.
ďI canít see.Ē I knew then that he
could not really hurt me if he was blind but I was cautious anyway in my
approach. I waved my hand before his face just to be sure he wasnít
trying to trick me as he crawled around. He was telling the truth;
being blind he needed my help even more. I pulled on the flailing
arm and he grabbed my leg in desperation. Heart pounding, I had to
fight the urge to run away from him again as he gasped in a tone that revealed
his own fear, ďWho are you? Speak, speak! Help me.Ē
His breathing was becoming shallow again and I could tell then he had spent most of what little energy he had grabbing at me so I did the only thing I could do. I knelt before him and held on to him till his breathing began to settle into a more even rhythm.
As I stroked his back through the soaked shirt, he gradually relaxed in my arms and when I had calmed him like a broken in horse I laid him down and fetched the mule over and helped him over its back. He looked pitiful stretched over, his arms either side of the mane, his long legs dangling almost to the ground. We had barely crested the rise when he passed out. Even today, I wonder why I did not leave him to his fate by that river, why I felt I had to take him to safety. Oh how that decision set in course a chain of events that forever changed my life and led me to this point today, nearly twenty years later.
I still remember that journey so clearly, as well as I remember everything about those few days we had together. He did not wake as we plodded towards the town, not even when I had stop to reposition him when he threatened to slip off. I headed straight for Doc Samís place where I knew he would get help. I couldnít tell how badly hurt he was, whether he would die from his hurts, but I knew old doc could give us refuge. He would know how to help. I was useless to him in my condition-he could not see the signs I made and I could not talk to reassure him. I did not even know his name, nor he mine.
I helped Doc get him settled in the examination chair. When Docís wife, Sarah, was alive, I stayed there with them whilst Lem worked and was used to helping the Doc with his healing. The stranger was very weak and dirty yet beneath it all quite handsome. His hair, black as the night sky was long, falling into his eyes and past his collar. I rubbed the fascinating thick silver ring on his finger as I held his hand in mine hoping it would reassure him. It was from his mouth the words I had hoped never to hear came. The same men who shot and blinded him had killed Lem. When Sam sent me out to get water, I took the opportunity to shed a few tears for Lem and for myself. From now on, I would be on my own and I wondered what would become of me. Lem had meant the world to me, had cared for me when no one else would take me, had tolerated my dumbness and treated me well. Wiping my eyes, I returned with the water and caught the tail end of the conversation Doc was having with the stranger. He was telling him to get away and leave us be, to leave me. I couldnít bear that and he needed me, heíd die without help. Since I had saved his life, I felt responsible for him and after all, I had no one left in the world to care about. Grabbing the Docís arm, I shook him in frustration and tried to make him understand that I would not abandon this man. Doc gave in as I knew he would and set to working on cleaning and bandaging the strangerís wound. I could tell he was scared from the way he gripped my hands in both of his and I did not pull away; rather I held him until the doc had finished and it felt good to be able to give him some security.
Our safety was short-lived. We could not stay at Docís for long, the bushwhackers were on our trail and I had to help my stranger to the livery stable and into a buckboard. It was a struggle and by the time I had him hidden under sacking he was unconscious again. My terror made the short journey home to Lemís house feel like hours. By the time I got there, the shadows had begun to lengthen, and I hoped that maybe in the dark the men would not be able to find us. I roused my stranger enough to get him out of the wagon and into my bed where I pulled off his boots and tried to make him comfortable. I hung sacking at the windows to hide the light and fool Lemís murderers into thinking the house deserted should they approach. Turning my attention to my patient I saw he was flushed and clammy, indicating a fever. Iíd nursed Lem through enough winters to know that he needed to be cooled down so I set about filling a bowl with water and finding cloths to bathe him with.
As his fever lessened, he started to stir and my instinct was to avoid contact with him. But he caught my wrist in a strong grip and pulled me back. I sat on the bed and studied him as he rambled. Even though he was flushed with fever and so weak his words came out in gasps, I could see he had a nice face, what you would call handsome, I am sure. He had a kind, upturned, expressive mouth and I guessed he was the sort to smile a lot. I had removed the bandage from his eyes so I could bathe them and I longed for him to open them so I could see their color. He was young too, maybe four or five years older than me. When he spoke his voice was melodic, the sort I could listen to for hours-an angelís voice. I think it was his voice I fell in love with first. But the words he spoke were those of a desperate man as he sought a way to communicate with me. Then it came to me like a lightning flash that I could use his beautiful lips to signal to him, an excuse to lay my fingers on them. One tap- no, two taps-yes, but more like caresses than taps. That amused him and he laughed a laugh that made my heart leap and I was struck further by feelings I had never had before-excited feelings. I wanted those minutes with him to last forever, to always have his laughter in my ears. Was this really what it felt like to be in love?
He spoke softly to me, asking me questions and I listened, realising for the first time that he was frightened of being blind. He tried not to show that fear but I knew from the catch in his voice when I left his side to fetch the doll from the trunk that he was afraid of being alone, afraid of the future. He needed me. No one had ever needed me that much before. Yet despite his fear, he wanted me to leave, he considered my safety above his own survival. But I could not bear to leave him. Why, I had only just begun to love him and the joy of that was worth the risk of danger. I had to be with him even though it might mean confronting those murderers; already I loved him too much to give him up. I just wanted to stare at him for hours and hours, fill my eyes with his beautiful face, my ears with his voice, to hold him against my breast, to make him laugh. Even though one half of my heart wished to grieve for Lem, there was another half singing in joy. And still I did not even know his name and had no way of asking. All I knew was that he was gentle, thoughtful and trustworthy and he needed me.
No, I still donít know at what point in our journey I fell in love with him.
When his energy was spent through the effort of talking and he began to lose his fight against sleep, I pulled the bedcover up over him and the doll he still held and kissed my fingers to his lips. He did not stir.
I went out into the yard to hide the wagon as he asked me to, and thought about his request. He wanted me to leave him but I could not do that. Alone he would not be able to defend himself. Then my thoughts turned to his comments about my looks. I had never thought that a man might want to look at me. Lem kept me away from people, especially young men. He said they would never want a dumb girl friend. I had never looked at myself through the eyes of someone else-never even thought about it. I had never been allowed to consider men, marriage or children.
Was I beautiful? I did not know, but I remembered there were old clothes of my motherís in a trunk and maybe if I cleaned myself up and put on a dress I would be beautiful enough for a blind man.
When the stranger urged me to leave him
once more, I made up my mind to wear the prettiest dress so that once he
felt me in it he would never try to make me leave again. It would
make him want and love me as much as I wanted and loved him.
I chose the finest, laciest dress in the trunk. Iíd tried it on before many times and knew it fitted well. I guided his hands to the dress so that he could feel how beautiful it was, then led his fingers to my face so he could see me with them. As he stroked his way around my features, he finally opened his eyes fully and I got to stare into his sightless eyes. They were blue, framed in long black lashes, but oh, how I wished he could see me and tell me if he really thought I was pretty enough. I longed to kiss the creases at the corners of his eyes- laughter lines- as much as I wanted to kiss his eyelids, his nose, his lips. Then we were kissing my first real kiss and I swear my heart stopped pulsing for a few seconds then returned to thud hard against the cage of my ribs. That was only the beginning of the most perfect night of my life. You probably think I am romanticising, that I was just a silly young girl unprepared for the wiles of men, innocent and easily seduced, that fear made us take refuge in each otherís body. But it wasnít that way at all. I was in love, he was in love and we made love. He made me feel more alive than I had ever done. As he gently explored my body, he told me about his life, his family, his ranch, and finally his name. Johnny. I would never be able to say it aloud but in my mind I shouted it loud and strong. Johnny Lancer, my Johnny.
The morning came and I rose before he awoke and checked the window for intruders. All seemed safe. Johnny woke smiling to the caress of my hair on his face. He was so happy. We worked on making ammunition out of shells and nails as a way of defending ourselves; despite his blindness, he was resourceful. Still I was reluctant to let him be exposed to danger and when the time came I did what Lem had always done with me, I pushed him down into the basement and covered up the hatch with the counter to keep him safe. He quieted after I banged a bowl down hard; yes, he sure got the message. I did not know what I was going to do, I did not have a plan and yes, it was a risk but I couldnít let him die for me, like he said-he was an animal waiting to be slaughtered. I figured they would just realise there was no one to harm them and they would leave. I was naïve, but after the night I had spent, I was euphoric and felt capable of anything.
It was foolish of me, and Johnny must have been worried out of his mind when he heard the one they left behind come at me. I did not panic, rather I fought him off till Johnny climbed out of the basement and tried to fool my attacker into believing he could see. In spite of my efforts, his blindness was all too obvious and they were soon engaged in such a close fight that I had to intervene. I hardly gave a thought at that point for my own safety. Together, though, we managed to knock him out and stow him down below. The satisfaction of overcoming our individual handicaps to achieve something was a good feeling and I just had to kiss him again.
We still had the remaining two murderers to deal with and to that end Johnny devised an ingenious plan of rigging up the shotgun to the door handle so when the door was opened the man would be shot. I hoped he would have the energy to deal with the remaining murderer because as he explained the plan his breath came increasingly in shallow pants. We hid in the basement at the bottom of the steps, clinging to each other, my hand guiding the pistol in his grip towards the opening. As we listened to the remaining bushwhacker rave on above us, to the sound of his feet as he discovered the hiding place, to the pouring of lamp oil on the wood around the scratch of a match as he lit, I held tightly to my love. I watched Johnnyís head bow in defeat and hoped he felt as I did that if we were going to die at least we had had our one night together.
As the world brightened above us
and I resigned myself to burning to death there was a new sound, a gunshot
I think, then the two strange faces of his father and brother smiled down
at us. Johnny enfolded me in the circle of his arms, ďItís all over,
Mattie, letís go home.Ē
Home. When he said that I almost wept. This was my home. But Johnny meant for me to go with him, to make his place my home, it was almost a proposal and I accepted the invitation.
So it was that I went back to the magnificent stone built Lancer ranch with Murdoch and Scott and Johnny cosseted and safe in the buckboard. It was hard to accept that one family could own so many acres of land, rivers and hills and animals. The ranch house was the biggest I had ever seen with too many rooms to count, filled with fine sturdy heavy furniture, models of ships walls of book filled bookcases, candelabra and oil lamps. The beds were huge and oak framed with soft mattresses and thick counterpanes. The kitchen was bigger than Lemís shack and full of pots and pans and gadgets. The solid doors closed firmly, the large windows were hung with deep dyed rich drapes, which protected the upholstery of the huge couches and armchairs from fading in the sunlight. The carpets were so deep and soft underfoot that I took to walking barefoot just to experience the texture of the woollen tufts between my toes. The main living area smelt of fresh air, polish and wealth. There were flowers in vases on the tables and oil paintings on the walls. The luxury of it all was overwhelming.
I was given my own room and although I slept in it, I spent most of my time with Johnny in his room. Even Johnnyís bedroom had bookcases and a table with armchairs; it alone was better furnished than Lemís house.
I anxiously followed his family as they carried Johnny into his room. Too weak to take notice of much of the journey he had fallen asleep before we entered the valley. He did not resist as his father undressed and bathed him and got him into a nightshirt. He looked so still and vulnerable now he was cleaned and tucked up in his own big bed. Teresa could not hide the shock on her face when confronted with how feeble and unresisting he was and how much he depended on me. It was obvious to me from her reaction that he was normally the resilient and self-sufficient member of the family.
As Teresa smoothed down his pillow and stroked his hair, she gazed at me with an expression that demanded what I was to him. He stirred at her touch and called for me, reaching out with his hands, which I caught in my own. I stared back at her for I was not ashamed of my love for him.
Taking a seat by the bed, I held his hand
whilst he fell back into a fitful sleep, comforted him through troubled
dreams, stroked his hair till he quietened and stayed by him till the doctor
came. I did not leave his side as the doctor cleaned and stitched
the wound in his head, gave him tinctures and herbs and put drops in his
eyes that made him scream my name in pain. I held him tight through
his fears of facing a life blind, of never being able to mount Barrancca
again, of being dependant upon his family of never seeing my face.
He could only face it if I was there with him to help him. I lost
count of the number of times he told me he loved me and I mourned the fact
that I could not say those words back to him.
It was on my fourth day there when Johnny was still too weak from the doctorís treatment to be out of bed that Sam came to visit me. I thought at first he was interested in Johnnyís recovery but it turned out he had a proposition for me. He wanted to take me east to a school that specialised in educating people like me. I was surprised at his insistence on my going there, couldnít he see how much I loved Johnny? Noting my indecision, he promised to give me a day to think it over. His idea saddened me. Since coming to Lancer I had not considered my future, I had merely lived for the present, relishing every second I could spend with Johnny, looking at him, watching him sleep, feeling his soft breath on my cheek, listening to his soft voice whisper over and over how he loved me. I was busy just being close to him, stealing kisses from him, supporting him in his weakness. I was enjoying the role of nurse to him. Samís words made me think of things I had not considered before. I was so in love with Johnny I scarce thought about him regaining his sight. Now I would have to face the reality of the bandages being removed the next day, the same day Sam wanted a decision from me.
You are probably thinking what decision was there to make. A life of luxury with a man who loved me or to leave love for the possibility of learning how to communicate. It was the hardest decision I had to make. As I sat by him that evening and held onto his hand like I would never let him go I brought it close to my heart where he could feel it beating and thanked God he could not see the tears flowing down my face. Tomorrow he would be able to see me. What would he see? Would I measure up to the image in his mindís eye? Would I be a disappointment to him? I tried to picture myself through his eyes, had nothing to offer him and he hadÖall this. When we were hiding, I was able to protect him, I was his sight, and I was useful to him. Once his sight returned what use would I be to him? He would see me for what I am, a poor dumb girl and he would only pity me. I was afraid that once he could see, he would stop loving me. I sat in that lovely room in a leather armchair at the side of his bed, feeling his hand upon my heart and knew that I had no place amongst that finery. He had fallen in love with a shadow. So, I hardened my heart and made my decision. I would go east and just maybe I would learn ways to communicate properly and become worthy enough to return to Lancer and let him know how much I loved him.
Late into the night, I sat watching his
features relaxed in sleep shadowed in the lamplight, listening to his gentle
breathing, calmer now the fever had gone, all fitfulness soothed by my
touch. I gazed on his bandaged eyes and wondered what they would
look like once the spark of sight relighted them. I tucked the doll
Iíd brought with me under his pillow, touched my lips tenderly to his.
Because his sleep was unnaturally heavy due to the doctorís medicines,
he did not murmur as I placed his hand beneath the covers and left his
side for the oak table that had probably been shipped from the old country.
There I took up a sharp pencil and a piece of paper and wrote a note for
him as best I could. I hadnít much schooling; only what Sarah had
taught me and I was conscious of my ignorance showing in my spelling.
No one had thought it worth educating me. Another reason why I was
not fit to be his wife. That done I returned to my room but did not
Dawn came bringing with it hope for my love in the shape of the doctor. I was already at Johnnyís side when he entered the room with his leather case of surgical implements and tinctures. Johnny was very scared and was insistent that I stay and hold his hand when I would rather have gone and waited for Sam alone below. I told myself that once the bandages were off and he could see again, his fear would be soon gone and he would forget me. I fought the guilty feelings that threatened to overwhelm me. I had to appear strong for him as he held my hands in a vice-like grip, his knuckles whitened with the strain. He openly admitted his fear and begged me to stay close. I probably seem hardhearted to you, and I agree, I had to be. But I knew he would get over it. After all he had a loving family to see him through hard times, help him mend his broken heart. He would survive. So I decided to find a way to leave his side before the bandages were removed and this I accomplished with the help of Teresa who smoothly took his hand as I let go. As his father and Scott entered the room, I took the opportunity to slip the note into Murdochís hand, gave my love one last gaze as the doctor began to uncover his eyes and crept silently out. I deceived him; it is so easy to deceive a blind man, isnít it? I let him think that Teresa was me. But it wasnít the meanest thing I did to him.
Sam was waiting for me with the buggy, borrowed dresses and gifts stowed behind and as we slowly pulled away from the house, I heard his pleas. He was calling my name, begging me to stay. He must have been at the window, he must have been able to see me. I resisted the urge to turn round because that would have ruined everything, I would have changed my mind and stayed. I tried to block out his sweet voice telling me he loved me as he pursued the buggy along the stony ground in his bare feet. Had I turned round I would still not have been able to see him through the tears that veiled my eyes. This time I was blind. He would recover from his broken heart. I never recovered from mine.
There have been many times over the years since that moment that I have wondered why I left him, what my life would have been like had I turned round, jumped down and clasped him to my chest and loved him. He was my first and only love. As you know, I never learnt to speak with my voice but became reasonably proficient at writing and signing thanks to old Sam. I had to give up the school within months of arriving here as my condition became obvious. I was both frightened and pleased to discover I was pregnant: frightened because it meant my future was uncertain and I knew I could not go back to him. Pleased that I would always have something to remind me of my first love. You have probably guessed now why I am telling you all this. You probably guessed when I mentioned the blueness of his eyes, the blackness of his hair. Now that Joshua, my dear husband is gone, it is time to tell you that your real father is still alive and if you want to meet him, the directions are in the letter that accompanies this journal along with a letter addressed to Mr Johnny Lancer in Morro Coyo. He does not know about you my darling Maria, I did not want him to feel beholden to us. Furthermore, I did not want to take the chance of seeing him again and awakening old emotions long buried. I did not want him to see me, nor did I want him to feel he had to make an honest woman of me. He had his own destiny to carve without us.
But you, my treasure, you are so beautiful and talented and you look so much like him. If you decide to go, give him that letter from me. It explains who you are and asks him to consider welcoming you as a guest for a while. Your father is a good man, an understanding man and although I have not been in touch with him since that day I left, I know he will love you.
So here it is, your story, my story and Johnnyís story. Joshua was as good a father as any girl could hope to have and he loved you as his own. But he never replaced Johnny in my heart. Now you know the truth and you can rest assured that you were made from love and that I loved your father completely and exclusively. That although I broke his heart, I can give him a great gift Ė you, if you want to go to him. It is your choice. Choose wisely.