Now, in the distance, the sky is empurpled by dawn. The stars have dimmed against the lightening void, and the horizon becomes invisible as a sharp-cut silhouette – something you might trace with pencil and compass.
I like to believe Mattie was her name – that she told me it true, even if just that one time. It’s passed my lips enough times, maybe more like a prayer than a rightful name. Mattie. Mattie, you out there somewhere? Mattie – where’d you get to, girl? It’s just a word is all it is, a word spoke to the darkness. But so are all words. Goodness, purity, truth, God. You build somethin with your eyes closed. You speak it to life. Then you open your eyes – and what kind of tower? Where’s it reach to? Maybe nowhere. Maybe all the way to heaven.
He pauses. There is rustling movement among the listeners. Perhaps some of them are waking to his voice, the same voice they fell asleep to, and are now wondering what a thing is a story with just a beginning and an end. Perhaps some of them are just antic against the dawn.
We searched her out for a long time, Moses continues, Abraham and me. Sometimes we’d hear stories that sounded like they could of been her – but we never saw her again. Ten years now. Could be I’m cursed to tail women my whole life. My wife and daughter – they got away from me. Mattie the Vestal – who ran when I sent her runnin.
He stops again and seems to consider how long he has been chasing people who refuse to be found.
It was only one girl I had any talent for huntin, he says. She – well, she cost me my eye, and the price of my brother, finally, in exchange for Maury there.
He gestures with a nod of his chin to the large mute sleeping at the perimeter of the group.
Just a young girl, that one. I bear her no grudge. One thing you could say about her, she balanced the log books like a true accountant of life. She – yeah, she got away from me too.
He pauses one last time – and this time the silence feels like a bottomless chasm everyone, all the listeners and the teller too, stands on the precipice of.
But that’s a different story altogether, Moses Todd says finally. I guess this story here’s found its finish.
He and his companion travel with the caravan one more day. When the night falls again, he is silent – as though his story of the previous night has exhausted him in a profound way. One of the children, a toddler, approaches him sleepily. The one-eyed man reaches out his hand as if to tousle the child’s blond hair, but at the last moment he pulls his arm back – as though afraid his touch could never be light enough to keep the youngster from shattering harm.
In the morning, both men are gone.
The caravan continues its slow progress over the plain in the direction of many Americas – more than can be counted. Three days later, it is attacked by marauders. The caravaners manage finally to repel the attack, but not without significant losses. Half the travellers are killed, but half survive.