Mattie paused in the barn entranceway, and looked up at the wide blue sky. It was a perfect late September day, the kind that made a body glad to be alive. Strictly speaking, Mattie knew she ought not to be anything more than thankful for her health, and beyond that should only be glad that she was born to die, for only in heaven could she know true happiness. However, Mattie believed that God, creator of apple trees and wild geese and furry caterpillars with fat brown stripes on their backs as well as lovely September afternoons, must Himself appreciate a little admiration now and again, and so she was glad, and felt satisfied to leave it at that.
As her gaze dropped from the sky and cast out over the fields in the distance, Mattie reflected that there was much to be thankful for. The kitchen garden had produced nicely, although Mattie thought the beans were on the spindly side. The cotton was in, and it was a handsome crop this year. The price they got, though not extravagant, was nothing to sneeze at. Mattie’s mother and her siblings had gone to Little Rock to visit some cousins the week prior, but Mattie had stayed behind to see the cotton come in. She was not one for idle visiting when there was work that needed doing. Yes, the cotton was in, and that was the large part of the farm’s work. But there were stores to lay in, and it was time to think about planting the winter garden, and about slaughtering the hog. There was always something to think about, always more work to do. Another thing to be thankful for.
Latching the barn door behind her, Mattie swung the pail in her hand, and began to whistle a tune as she walked back to the house. It took her a moment to realise that it was one of the silly songs Marshall Cogburn and Mr. LaBoeuf used to sing and whistle on the trail of Tom Chaney, when they were into the whiskey (“confiscated in evidence”) and had decided to tolerate one another for the time being.
It had been nearly five years since the winter her father was murdered and she made the acquaintance of Cogburn and LaBoeuf. Although it had been a bloody and dangerous episode, and her arm had been the “pound of flesh” she paid for her vengeance, Mattie still thought of those days fondly. She often found herself wondering how both of her old trail “pardners” were faring. She had sent several letters over the years to places where she hoped one or the other might be, but had never received any word from either of them.
Mattie walked past the woodshed, and looped her song back to its beginning, as she could not recall much else except the first verse.
“Whistling girls and crowing hens always come to some bad ends.”
Mattie stopped short and spun around in surprise at the sound of a voice. A man was leaning against the woodshed. He was dressed in brown trousers and a home-dyed blue shirt, and his boots looked road-worn. A cloth bundle sat in the dirt at his feet. Although his face was puffy and red, and he was in need of a shave, he was young, and his expression seemed kindly enough.
“Who are you?” Mattie asked. “This is private land. The thoroughfare that goes through the country does not pass through this property. The road is over there, if you look.”
“My name is Cunningham,” he replied, smiling easily. “Albert Cunningham. I am looking for work. Is your father here?”
Mattie did not answer his question. “Our cotton has already been brought in. We will not need any more hired men this season. If you carry on into town, you may have some luck. Or from there you will at least be able to make your way down the river to Morrilton or thereabouts, where there is most certainly work.”
“That is a shame, for I do like this place,” he said, continuing to lean against the woodshed as though he did not have a care for anything. His eyes dropped from her face to her arm, the one which had to be sawed off at the elbow. “How’d a little girl like you end up like that? It still hurt you?”
Mattie did not reply to those questions, either, for they were impertinent and his presence was becoming tiresome. “How I came to be the way I am is no concern of yours. There is no work to be had here. I can offer you some food, perhaps, but that is all.”
“I know there is food. I have already been in the house,” he replied. He stood up straight, and lifted a brown bottle to his lips which had heretofore been concealed at his side. The bottle’s contents caught the light as he tipped it, a murky, yellowish-brown liquid sloshing about inside. Corn liquor or some other variety of moonshine, Mattie supposed it, although she had never seen any for herself.
“Then I must insist that you leave at once,” Mattie said, a cold sensation gathering in the bottom of her stomach.
Cunningham took a step towards her. He was only a head taller than she, but he was solidly built, and bested her weight by a wide margin. His hair was brown, and his dark blue eyes would have been nice except that there was a curious emptiness in them which Mattie could only see now that he stood close to her. They were bloodshot and yellowed from drink, as well.
He looked out over the farm and sighed as though he was tired, his shoulders dropping. “You are alone here,” he said. It was not a question. His eyes finished their appraising circuit and landed on hers.
All at once, Mattie knew he meant to harm her. With every ounce of strength in her good arm, she threw the empty bucket in his face and whirled around to run to the house.
He swore and batted the bucket away, but he was too fast and was on her in an instant, grabbing the back of her dress and spinning her about to face him. With his right hand he slapped her in the face before back-handing her the other way, sending her tumbling to the ground.
Dazed, Mattie tried to stand, but she felt something crack against her head, and bright lights flashed in her eyes like firecrackers. Glass rained on the dirt and sawdust around them, and Mattie realised as she collapsed once more that he had broken his bottle against her head. She touched her hand to the stinging wound, and it came away bloody.
Roughly, Cunningham knocked her onto her back in the dirt, and when she kicked at him and scrabbled with her bloodied hand, he wrapped his hands around her neck and squeezed.
Oh Lord, Mattie thought, I do not wish to die this way. It would break my mother’s heart to find me like this.
Mattie continued to hit and scratch at him as hard as she could with her hand, even as her vision dimmed horribly, the edges turning shimmery and black, the sound of her frantic heart pounding loudly in her ears.
The man hissed in pain as she managed to scratch his face, and released her throat in order to restrain her arm, pinning it over her head. He gripped Mattie’s wrist in one hand, attempting to cease her struggling. He squeezed, and Mattie felt the small bones grind together as his fingernails dug welts into her skin. Gasping at the pain, she felt panic and sorrow shiver through her. She could not dislodge him; he was too heavy and strong.
Stretching her hand in a last attempt to free her arm, her fingertips brushed against something hard. It was the broken liquor bottle. Mattie ceased her twisting and went still beneath him.
“That’s it,” he muttered, and after a moment he let go of her wrist, pressing one forearm over her throat as the other began pulling roughly at her skirts.
Swallowing the yell which crouched in her throat, Mattie took a deep breath and reached for the bottle, wrapping her fingers around its chipped neck. Once she had a firm grip, she did not hesitate. She brought the bottle down with all the force she could manage in her compromised position. Her sudden movement piqued his attention, and he lifted his head at the moment that the bottle connected with his jaw. Its jagged edge slid hard against the bone, and drove itself into the flesh of his neck.
For a brief moment, Mattie thought he had turned and thrown up on her. She blinked hard, and found that he was looking right in her face as blood bubbled from his neck, coating her front with it. His eyes, though dull and yellowed by alcohol, registered his shock and dismay. He opened his mouth, but only a strange gurgling sound emerged from him, and Mattie flinched as blood and spittle sprayed her face. He slumped over her then, and went still.
All was quiet. Mattie stared at the sky above, which was cloudless and tinged with pink and amber from the oncoming sunset. A lone crow flew across it, cawing. The freight train noise of her heart hammering in her ears began to abate.
Stiffly, Mattie tried to sit up and move his limp form off of her. When she could not, she dragged herself out from under him instead, pulling herself free with a gasp.
Turning, she looked at him. He was slumped awkwardly with one arm beneath him. His blood (and hers, she supposed) stained the sawdust all around in a grisly mess. He was utterly still, and did not appear to be breathing. Mattie did not want to get close enough to check. She shuddered hard, her stomach turning over so abruptly that for a moment her head swam dizzily, and she thought she might be sick. Swallowing, she slowly got to her feet and walked to the nearby water pump. She worked the handle, catching the water in a bucket. She washed her hand and her face, attempting to rinse away the blood – his and her own. There was nothing to be done about the front of her dress.
Wiping her face and hand with the hem of her apron, Mattie walked up the back steps of the house and let herself into the kitchen. She opened the cupboard nearest the door and groped about on the highest shelf until she felt her fingers brush against a flour sack. She pulled it, and several bullets fell out, hitting the floor before rolling under the table. Her father’s old Colt’s dragoon pistol had been kept in that very place since the day she came home from Fort Smith. Collecting the bullets, she dropped them back into the sack, where they clinked metallically against the pistol. Clutching the flour sack in her hand, she left the house and closed the door behind her.
Mattie strode across the yard and out into the road, and began walking in the direction of town. The sun sunk low into the horizon, and night began to fall. She walked faster, and did not breathe deeply until she saw the lights at the edge of town.
She had killed the man, but he seemed to dog every step of the journey just the same.