Chapter 1: Prologue
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.
Chapter 2: like old friends again
“I see. And why did you not take a buggy or a wagon into town?”
Mattie suppressed an impatient sigh. She had explained the thing three times now in great detail for Sheriff Morris, who sat across his desk from her, stroking his oiled moustache. His deputy, Sutherland, a young man not much older than Mattie, stood by being very rude and blatant in his ogling of her. Mattie did not appreciate it, for his look was prurient. She knew she must look ghoulish, covered in dried blood as she was, but that was no reason for the fool to forget himself and gawk at her.
“I did not take the wagon because I had only just fed the horses,” Mattie said, in answer to his question, “and I feared the exercise would trouble their stomachs, which have been sensitive of late. They have been prone to colic, and I do not see the sense in creating more difficulties when I could just as easily walk to town. Also the business of tacking and hitching would have taken some time, as I am somewhat less able to be quick about such work than others.”
“I see,” replied the Sheriff. “Now, tell me again – how came this man, Cunningham, to be on your property in the first place?”
Mattie was not one to sneer at an officer of the law, but the hour was late and she was weary from the evening’s ordeal, and therefore had half a mind to pick up her father’s pistol from where it sat on the desk and throw it directly in the man’s face.
There was a creak and a bang from the front door in the other room. The Sheriff looked pointedly at his deputy, and when he received no acknowledgement, he cleared his throat. Sutherland gave a little jump of surprise as he stood up straight, and made his way hastily out of the room.
The Sheriff watched him go, an exasperated look on his face which reminded Mattie very distinctly of a tired bloodhound. There was a murmur of conversation from the other room, and Sheriff Morris turned his gaze back to Mattie.
“I believe you were about to explain how Cunningham came to arrive at your farm.”
Mattie did not manage to suppress her sigh this time. She embarked on her tale once again, and had got as far as Cunningham hitting her with the liquor bottle, when Sutherland reappeared in the office doorway.
“I am sorry to interrupt, Sheriff,” he said, not looking at Mattie, “but there is a... Well, there is a man and he has asked to see you. He will not speak with me.”
Sheriff Morris sighed. “It appears that I will get no rest tonight,” he said, standing up. “Wait here, Miss Ross.”
Mattie made no reply, although privately she wondered why, if Sheriff Morris was so eager to be at home in his bed, he had induced her to repeat herself for no reason she could discern.
The Sheriff left the door open behind him, but Mattie did not eavesdrop. Or she attempted not to, at least, until the raised voices in the other room made it impossible to avoid.
“I have been tracking Cunningham for several weeks, and yes, I would like to know why it is that I am to return to Texas empty-handed.” The voice of the newcomer conveyed annoyance and self-importance, and was extremely familiar.
Mattie stood and leaned out of the office to see the source of the commotion. Standing before Sutherland and Sheriff Morris, looking as foolish as ever in all his buckskin and fringe, was Mr. LaBoeuf.
He continued to rant on about cooperation between jurisdictions and regions, and about the importance of the public safety. Mattie looked at him. He was the same as when last she saw him, although now at least he did not appear to be suffering from a partially severed tongue, or a blow to the head, or an errant bullet to the shoulder.
When finally he paused in his speechifying (presumably to catch his runaway breath,) the deputy attempted meekly to explain what had transpired. The impatient look on LaBoeuf’s face made Mattie’s mouth quirk up in a smile, and she had to school her own face into a serious expression before she allowed herself to step out of the Sheriff’s office.
“Mr. LaBoeuf? Are you the only Ranger in Texas available to chase outlaws into Arkansas, or is your reappearance in these parts pure serendipity?”
LaBoeuf turned sharply and stared at her. “Miss Ross?”
“Yes, it is I,” she replied.
LaBoeuf was across the room in two long strides, his spurs ringing against the floor boards. He grabbed her firmly by the shoulders. “Are you injured? Whose blood is this?”
“You need not worry; it is not my blood. Or, not much of it is mine. Most of it belonged to your Mr. Cunningham. You see, I am the reason you will be returning to Texas empty-handed.”
He stared at her uncomprehendingly for several seconds, and then he blinked and unhanded her, taking a step back as he frowned. “I suppose it does not surprise me that you are to blame for that,” he said. His voice seemed rather faint to Mattie. He continued to stare at her, bemused.
After a moment, LaBoeuf reached out and clasped her chin, turning her face gently this way and that to see her bruised cheekbone and the cut on the top of her head. “That is some mark he left on you,” he said. His eyes examined her face, searching for other flaws and injuries, Mattie guessed. Finally his gaze rested on hers, and his hand dropped away. “Are you otherwise hurt?”
“I am only bruised, and there is a goose egg on my head where he broke his bottle over it. My throat is sore from the throttling he gave me, and I expect some bruises to appear there, as well,” she replied. She held his gaze steadily as she continued. “I was able to prevent him from harming me as he intended.”
LaBoeuf replied only by regarding her in silence. He shook his head. “I would not have brought Cunningham back to Texas alive after all, then. I would have killed him myself if you had not.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, but there is no need.”
“Indeed,” he said. He regarded her for another moment, the corner of his mouth drawing upwards in one half of a smile. “Truly, it is a great pleasure to -”
“Miss Ross,” interrupted the Sheriff, “why does it not surprise me to find that you are acquainted with the Texas Ranger out for the man you have just killed?”
“I would not know why it does not surprise you, for I am not privy to your thoughts,” Mattie replied tersely. “But I certainly do not appreciate the implication that I am deserving of a reputation as some kind of scalawag! If you look at the thing rationally I think you will see that the opposite is true.”
The Sheriff blew a breath out of his jowls and frowned at her in apparent bewilderment. “Well, I do not see what else can be done tonight. We will sort everything out once there is light enough to see by. I will come see you in the morning, Miss Ross, as will Mr. MacLeod, the undertaker.”
“And what of me and my reward?” LaBoeuf asked.
“Well, you did not catch the man, so I suppose there will be no reward. You will have to take that up with the appropriate parties in your jurisdiction,” the Sheriff replied.
“Now, see here -” LaBoeuf began. Mattie hastily interrupted.
“Gentlemen, it would seem that since I was the one who caught the man, it is up to me whether I collect on any offered reward moneys.”
“Yes, well, I guess we will see about all that tomorrow,” said the Sheriff.
“I guess we will,” Mattie replied. With that, she went into the office and recovered her father’s pistol from the Sheriff’s desk before striding purposefully past the Sheriff and out the door.
Mattie was out into the dark street and heading back in the direction of the farm before she realised that LaBoeuf had followed her. He fell into step beside her. “That Sheriff of yours does not offer much in the way of assistance.”
“He would not be ‘my Sheriff’ at all if I had my way. He is a lazy man who is transparently disinterested in his own calling. He is lucky that the people of this region are generally peaceful, law-abiding folk, or else he would not be at liberty to be quite so idle,” Mattie replied. “I presume that this Cunningham hailed from Texas or Louisiana or some such place, and not from Arkansas.”
“You presume correctly. He was from San Antonio.” LaBoeuf paused for a moment, and then continued, his tone light. “If Sheriff Morris is as incompetent as you say, you might find that after this episode, the ‘peaceful, law-abiding folk’ of Yell County may see fit to make you their Sheriff.”
Mattie stopped her walking and turned to face him. “I see you are as garrulous as ever, Mr. LaBoeuf. Is there a reason you are following me? This has been a trying night and I would like to go home.”
“Is your mother waiting for you there?”
“My mother is in Little Rock with my brother and sister, visiting relations. They will not be back until the day after tomorrow.”
“In that case, I will go with you to your home and remain with you until your family returns. You should not be alone,” he said.
“Do not be ridiculous, Mr. LaBoeuf,” Mattie replied. “I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I do not need to be chaperoned in my own home.”
“Of your capability I have no doubt, having witnessed sufficient evidence of it myself. But shooting a man on a mountaintop is a different matter altogether from slitting a man’s throat in your own barnyard. You may find that you do not feel like yourself.”
“I am not a little girl anymore,” Mattie said drily. “I do not need protection from the booger-man.”
“Miss Ross, please,” he entreated. “Allow me to accompany you home, at the very least. It is dark and you have been through an ordeal. I will not feel right otherwise, if only as your friend.”
“All right,” Mattie relented. She suddenly felt weary beyond words, and longed to be tucked in her warm bed. The very thought of the journey home in the dark exhausted her. It galled her, but she did not have the energy to argue with him further.
They turned and walked back to the Sheriff’s, where LaBoeuf’s horse was tethered. It was a different animal from the woolly Appaloosa he rode at the time of their last meeting. This one was a handsome piebald mare who was compact and strong-looking, with sound legs. She seemed good-spirited also, for she turned her head and greeted LaBoeuf with a soft nicker.
“I guess you did not ride here, unless you have hitched your mount someplace else,” LaBoeuf said, glancing at Mattie as he untied the reins.
“You guess right. My horse has been colicky of late, and I did not want to bother her, as the roads are dry and clear, and it is just as simple to walk.”
He frowned at her for a moment, giving his head a shake. “I am certain that you are about the only person alive who, having nearly been throttled and bludgeoned to death, would elect to walk for assistance so as not to bother your horse.”
Mattie did not see the foolishness he seemed to imply. “Despite being rather chewed up, I could still stand a short journey. What I could not stand was the thought of any of our horses needlessly perishing from colic simply because I was feeling delicate.”
LaBoeuf seemed ready to argue, but some second thought seemed to stop him, and he did not reply. Instead he took his horse by her reins and turned her around so that Mattie was at her near side.
“This is Sal. Do you have some trick to mounting a horse one-armed and unassisted, or may I be so bold as to offer you a leg up?” he asked, his tone now verging on the ironical.
Mattie shot him what she hoped was a withering look. “If you would be so courteous as to bring her close to this fence,” she replied, gesturing at the rails behind her, “I will not have to trouble you for a leg up.” She turned then and scaled the fence, perching herself on the top rail while keeping her feet on the lower.
LaBoeuf brought a perplexed but obedient Sal close, and Mattie stuck her left foot in the stirrup, grabbed the horn, and swung herself on before he could say another word about it.
“Still riding astride, I see,” he said, almost under his breath. He gathered Sal’s reins and led her out into the street.
Mattie pursed her lips, ready to give him a tongue-lashing, when a thought occurred to her. “How do you plan on mounting, Mr. LaBoeuf?”
He glanced up from beneath the brim of his silly rodeo clown hat, and gave Mattie a curious look she did not recognize. After a moment, he looked down and cleared his throat. “I will walk. I have been on the road for several days, and Sal could use the rest. Thankfully I too could use a rest, but from the saddle, on my part.”
“Now who is putting his horse’s well-being before his own?” Mattie asked. She sensed her tone contained equal measures of mirth and scorn. Even as she prodded him, she hoped he did not truly take offense.
LaBoeuf looked up at her again, and smiled. He shrugged his shoulders before looking back out at the road. “I reckon I am guilty of that, yes.”
After that, they were like old friends again. They made their way slowly up the dark road, telling stories about the things they had seen since last they met. Mattie told LaBoeuf about their cotton crop, and horses she had bought, the second storey they added to the house last spring, and about the prize Little Frank had won at the county fair for the handsome red bull calf he had raised himself. LaBoeuf, in turn, told her many (probably tall, she surmised) tales of life as a lawman in west Texas, about train robbers and sleeping under the stars, and about card games and disputes about land and cattle. Mattie listened as he talked, watching fireflies flicker in the darkness before them. For the time it took Sal to walk them from town to the edge of the Rosses’ property, Mattie almost forgot about the earlier brutalities of the day.
LaBoeuf walked Sal up the oak-lined road which led to the house, and tethered her to one of the front porch rails. The yard was dark and utterly silent, for there was not even a breeze to stir the yellowing leaves on their dry stems. Mattie shivered, and hoped LaBoeuf did not see. Certainly he said nothing as Mattie allowed him to help her down from the horse.
He looked at her in the blue light of the moon for a moment, and then he cleared his throat and looked about the yard. “Do you have a lantern?” he asked.
“Yes,” Mattie replied, moving around him to scale the porch steps and retrieve a punched tin lantern from where it sat in the shelter of the parlour window sill. She brought it to him, and watched as he reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a match with which to light the lantern. The match head flared, illuminating his face for a brief moment. It reminded Mattie of the very first time she ever saw him, sitting outside the boarding house in Fort Smith, looking very proud and silly in all his cowboy folderol.
Swallowing a lump in her throat, Mattie looked down. She had not thought that approaching the dark, silent yard would stir up such trepidation in her. Privately, she was grateful that she was not alone, although she did not know how exactly to tell him so. Nor did she understand why it was that she did not want to.
“Where is the body?” LaBoeuf asked. “We must find a place to stow it until the sheriff decides whether I may take it back to Texas. The bounty did not stipulate that the man must be alive, which is a lucky turn for me.”
“I left him by the woodshed,” Mattie replied, pointing. “I do not want to put him in the barn; it will spook the horses. I suppose we could put him in the ice house, if he is securely wrapped. We have old sheets which could be used.”
“Yes, that will do,” LaBoeuf said. He started towards the woodshed, and Mattie followed him. He glanced at her. “You need not trouble yourself. I will take care of the man.”
Mattie ignored him, and LaBoeuf seemed about to make another protest when they turned the corner of the woodshed and stopped short.
Cunningham was gone.
The signs of their struggle remained – the dirt and woodchips were scattered about and stained with much blood, and broken glass littered the ground. But Cunningham himself was gone.
LaBoeuf lifted the lantern to widen the circle of light it threw. “This is the place?” he asked.
“Yes,” Mattie replied, her throat dry. “Yes, I left him right here. He was not moving or breathing, and I left him here, face down. He was dead, Mr. LaBoeuf! Where... That is, how...?” Mattie spun around and searched the yard, but it was too dark to even see if he had left a trail. The woods beyond were impenetrably dark as well, and silent, except for the croaking chorus of frogs, and the distant hoot of an owl. Mattie swallowed.
What if he had gone into the house and hidden himself there? What if he had fled into the woods? What if he was watching them right this instant, vulnerably illuminated as they were in the darkness by the light of their lantern?
LaBoeuf was staring down at the ground in puzzlement. His thoughts seemed to follow hers, for he glanced at her, his expression tense. He stood close to her and said under his breath, “Do you still have your father’s pistol?”
LaBoeuf nodded, and abruptly took her hand in his. Mattie did not have time to protest, for he turned and pulled her back to the front of the house. Sal was still tied to the porch rail, happily ripping up what grass she could reach with her long neck.
Not pausing or letting go of her hand, LaBoeuf untied Sal and lifted Mattie onto her with one smooth movement. He led the horse out into the middle of the yard before stopping and pressing the reins into her hand.
“Are there any other guns in the house?” he asked.
“Yes. There are two rifles in the front room, Papa’s and Little Frank’s. It is the room immediately on the right, and the rifles are in the rack on the far wall.”
“I remember the lay of the place,” he replied. He glanced up at her, and Mattie did not like the worried look he gave her. “Tie the reins around the horn, and have your pistol at the ready. I must leave you without a light, and search the house. If you hear any noise or commotion, ride straight into town and fetch the sheriff. Do not come into the house, and do not look back.”
“Mr. LaBoeuf, really -” Mattie began, but LaBoeuf cut her off.
“Miss Ross, you must promise me that you will take Sal and get out of harm’s way. Cunningham could be in the house, armed, and if anything should happen to you...” He looked at her, and he seemed troubled. “Well, it is much simpler if you go at the first sign of trouble.”
He did not give her a moment to promise or refuse. LaBoeuf turned and walked back to the house, grabbing his Sharps-Carbine from where he had leant it against the porch.
Mattie watched as LaBoeuf climbed the porch steps and entered the house, the lantern in one hand and the gun in the crook of his elbow. She held her breath as she watched the light bob from room to room.
Sal shook her head, the metal and leather of her large bit slapping as she blew out an impatient breath. Mattie wanted to say something, or pat her neck in reassurance, but she could not. Fear had stunned her.
The light reappeared on the porch, and then moved towards her as LaBoeuf walked across the yard. Soon he was at her side once more, taking the reins. He did not speak as he led her back to the house, where he helped her down once again from the saddle.
“He is not in the house. I have barricaded the back door and lit the fires. Is there any other way to gain entry to the house?” he asked, securing Sal once more to the porch rail.
“No, there is not,” Mattie replied. “You checked the cellar?”
He nodded. “There is nothing down there but some fastidiously organized stores.”
Mattie could not tell whether he was complimenting her or poking fun, but either seemed untimely, and she frowned. When LaBoeuf reached down to grab her hand again, she pulled her fingers free.
“I do not need your assistance to walk. I am not an invalid,” she said.
“Very well,” LaBoeuf replied. He went back up the porch steps, leading her into the parlour. He had built up a fire in the little woodstove, and lit the kerosene lamp on the polished cherry wood table her father had made for her mother one Christmas. The two rifles from the office were leaning against the settee.
“I am going to search the barn and get Sal squared away. I will return shortly.” With that, he turned and departed, lantern and gun in hand. Mattie followed him, watching as he closed the door behind him. She was alone in the creeping silence of a house which had never seemed anything but welcoming to her before.
Perhaps Mr. LaBoeuf had not been wrong about not feeling like her usual self, Mattie thought.
Sighing and blinking back the ache which crouched behind her eyes, Mattie became intimately aware of the crust of dried blood still sticking her dress and her shimmy to her skin, as well as the dirt and bits of sawdust still stuck in her hair. She walked down the hallway into the kitchen, where she found another fire burning in the cook stove. Mattie checked the reservoir and was relieved to see that there was plenty of hot water left in it. She was relieved she would not be forced to go outside to the pump.
Mattie filled a tin basin with hot water and carried it carefully out of the kitchen, intending to go upstairs to her bedroom to clean herself and change her clothes. She stopped short at the bottom of the stairs. It was dark at the top; LaBoeuf had not left any lights burning up there.
She pursed her lips in brief contemplation, and then walked down the hallway to her mother’s bedroom, and shut the door behind her. In the daylight, all of this would seem very silly, she knew. But for now, she would simply have to make do.
After unpinning her hair from its knot and letting it tumble down around her shoulders, Mattie unbuttoned her bodice and peeled the stiff material away from her skin. She frowned at the state of her shimmy and corset, stained ugly brown with blood. Her skin too was covered with little flecks of the stuff where it had dried. She shuddered, and reached for the soap on her mother’s washstand.
Once she had washed and dried herself, and combed and picked the dirt and sawdust from her hair, and rinsed it with more fresh water, she went to the small cupboard where her mother kept her clothing. There she found a clean nightgown, and her mother’s woollen heart-warmer which she kept for cold winter nights. It was not winter, nor was it particularly cold, but after Mattie held it to her face and inhaled the familiar scent of her mother which clung to it, she threw it around her shoulders and knotted it in place.
Mattie stopped and looked at the rusty-coloured water pooled in the bottom of the basin. She hesitated a moment, then shook her head. She would dispose of it in the morning, in the daylight.
She returned to the parlour and sat on the settee, curling her legs up underneath her. It felt good to be out of her dirty clothes, and the heat radiating from the stove began to settle into her skin, dispelling the shivers which had been threatening her. In silence she examined one damp lock of her hair, passing it between her fingers as it dried into a long curl in the warmth of the fire. She thought about how she had brushed and combed it that morning, and struggled to pull it into a halfway tidy knot before accepting that it would only ever look imperfect without her sister’s assistance. She had not expected to see another living soul that day, so she had not thought it much mattered.
LaBoeuf returned then, closing and locking the front door behind him.
“Miss -” he began, but his words dropped off as he paused in the doorway, staring at her.
Mattie stared back at him, frowning. He was looking at her most queerly, his brows drawn together and his mouth ajar as if he had been interrupted.
“Mr. LaBoeuf?” Mattie asked. “Are you all right?”
LaBoeuf seemed to return to himself then, and he cleared his throat and came into the room.
“He is gone, that is certain,” he said, removing his hat and sitting down in the chair across from her. He looked exhausted. “I searched every part of that barn, and every other building on the property, and there is no sign of him except at the woodpile. I expect he must have come to his senses after you fought him off and fled into the woods.”
“’Come to his senses’?” Mattie exclaimed. “Mr. LaBoeuf, he bled all over me like a shoat! You saw the state of the place. I do not understand how I did not kill him. I thought I surely had.”
“I will find him. In the meantime, I will stay here. It is a mere precaution, so do not be alarmed. A coward such as Cunningham is not likely to return here to harass you. Not after the walloping you gave him.”
Mattie regarded him, mulling over the contradiction with which he had just presented her. Did he believe she was in need of his protection, or not? “I suppose that is comforting, after a fashion,” she replied finally, frowning.
LaBoeuf sat back in the chair and commenced to filling his pipe.
“Have you eaten recently, Mr. LaBoeuf?” she asked, watching as he meticulously tapped tobacco down into the deep bowl of the pipe.
“I ate on the road, before I got to town. I reckoned I would not find a boarding house in time for supper,” he replied.
“Would you like some coffee, then?”
He looked up at her. “Although I appreciate your efforts, you need not trouble yourself to play hostess on my behalf.”
“It is no great trouble, if you would like some.”
“Truly, I am fine. All I require at this time is a place to sit, and my pipe, if you do not mind it.”
Mattie shrugged, and settled back against the settee as she watched him light his pipe. She tried to imagine what her mother would have to say about sitting with Mr. LaBoeuf in this way, practically in her inexpressibles. She hoped that, given the circumstances, her mother would forgive her.
“How long have you been on the trail of Mr. Cunningham? And for what crime, for that matter?” Mattie asked, idly combing her fingertips through the ends of her hair. She felt a pang of longing for Victoria. Although Mattie did her best to be self-reliant, and could manage a brush and a comb reasonably well, braiding and pinning up her hair with but one hand had proved nearly impossible. Their tempers were very disparate, hers and Victoria’s, yet braiding and twisting Mattie’s hair up together had become something of a morning ritual between them. Mattie had missed her little sister while she’d been gone. Her hair was a half-pinned catastrophe without her, and Mattie did not like it, for she valued a tidy appearance.
“I have been in pursuit of Cunningham for two months now,” LaBoeuf replied, pulling methodically on his freshly lit pipe. “He turned up in the El Paso area in the spring and made a nuisance of himself in generally the same way I gather he was attempting to do here. He was on the hunt for work, that is certain, but he seemed to find more liquor bottles and crooked card games than obliging employers. In any event, he was caught raiding a corn crib and came to blows over the matter with the owner of said corn, a man named Cartwright. He shot Cartwright and lit out. In earnest, we did not give much thought to pursuing him until we gathered through various channels that he was wanted in San Antonio for another charge of murder, as well as numerous crimes related to stock thievery, which is, I reckon, the vocation he has chosen for himself.”
That Cunningham was a stock thief hailing from San Antonio caused some string to be plucked in her memory, but Mattie did not have a moment to pursue it, for LaBoeuf continued.
“When I learned that there was a price on the man’s head, and that he had connections in Arkadelphia and Pine Bluff, I elected to pursue him. I do not believe I am boasting when I say that I have earned myself something of a reputation for always getting my man, one way or another.”
“Hm,” Mattie replied. “And is money so dear a thing to you?”
“What, do you find no practical use for money? I would someday like to retire from the business of chasing outlaws from pillar to post, and have myself a wife and a home. Both of these enterprises require some degree of financial security, I think you will agree.”
LaBoeuf began to talk about rewards he had pursued, as well as some tales of his regular work with the Rangers. Mattie listened in silence for some time, but soon felt her eyelids growing heavy, the exertions of the day weighing on her. She knew she ought to retire to Mama’s bedroom, but it was warm here, and the way LaBoeuf’s flat Texas drawl rolled over his stories with great leisure was rather soothing. The thought of getting up and walking down the hallway to sleep in that dark room did not appeal to her.
Before she could make a deliberation in the matter, her eyes slid closed and she fell into a strange half-sleep. She was still aware of her surroundings, of the fire in the stove and of LaBoeuf’s low voice, yet she began to dream all the same.
In her mind’s eye she saw before her the tin basin she had left on her mother’s washstand, filled with dingy, blood-tainted water. There was a rag on the rim of the basin whose end dipped down into the water. As Mattie watched, tiny grey mushrooms began to sprout from the damp rag, coiling together in a forest of furry, finger-like trees. They grew taller and fatter, eventually sprouting little shoots which resembled arms more than branches. Their growth accelerated, and soon they were the size of summer squash, their bulk knocking the basin from the washstand, the remnants of the water splashing over Mattie’s feet. They were enormous now, too big for the room, filling it and pressing against the creaking beadboard ceiling. Mattie turned towards the door to flee, but the fungus had already claimed it, sealing the exit with its foul-smelling, yellowish grey flesh.
With a jolt, Mattie awoke herself from the weird vision. She swallowed the lump in her throat and clenched her jaw, breathing heavily through her nose to slow her racing heart and prevent herself from gasping aloud. She blinked up at the ceiling as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. It was still night, and the lamp was lit, casting the room in swatches of warm golden light and long shadows. She had no reckoning of how much time had passed. A spider scuttled along the ceiling directly above her head before reaching the wall and disappearing into a space between the boards.
Not wanting to let on that she was awake, Mattie turned her head slightly and observed through slitted eyes that LaBoeuf was sitting in the chair across from her, the lamp on the table beside him. His rifle leaned against the chair. His pose was relaxed, and there was an open book resting on his chest, which he was reading. He was frowning. Mattie tried to make out the shining gilt title on the leather spine, but she could not.
“I see you peering at me there, Miss Ross,” LaBoeuf said, without looking up from his book. When Mattie did not reply, he glanced at her. “You are troubled by unpleasant dreams.”
Needled, Mattie sat up, gathering the wool heart-warmer close around her shoulders. A quilt – one of Victoria’s cozy but aesthetically imperfect creations – had been thrown over her. She pulled her knees up to her chest and glowered at him.
“You ought to have woken me,” she said, somewhat indignantly.
“I have seen you asleep before,” he replied. Mattie looked at him sharply, a curt retort forming on her lips. His expression was tiresomely reasonable, however, and Mattie could see he meant nothing by it, bold as he was. “In any case,” he continued, “after all that has happened, rest is what you require. You became quite noisy in your sleep. You were having a nightmare.”
Mattie felt her face flush in embarrassment. Although one’s dreams could not be helped and were therefore nothing to be bashful about, the thought of LaBoeuf watching her thrash involuntarily in her sleep discomfited her.
“It is nothing,” she replied flatly, after a moment.
“You need not always be stoic, Miss Ross. You are not made of metal.” LaBoeuf looked down at the book in his hands, contemplating its open pages for a moment before closing it and setting it aside. “You are human, made of skin and bones like any other. It is not weak to be afraid after what has happened to you today.”
Mattie rested her chin on her knees, hugging them to her chest as she regarded him. “It is not weak to be afraid because I am a woman, you mean.”
“Hm. And would it be a sign of weakness for you to be afraid, Mr. LaBoeuf?”
“I suppose it would be, but that is another matter altogether.”
“How is it another matter altogether? You know better than most what I am capable of. I do not see how it is any more acceptable for me to tremble in the face of danger than it is for you.”
LaBoeuf fixed her with a look which was, at once, both troubled and exasperated. “Miss Ross, do not be obstinate. I only mean to express that, if you are upset by what you have been through today, there is no shame in it. Furthermore, it would hardly factor into my estimation of your character, which is, incidentally, quite high. So you need not punish me with that sour look you are giving me any longer.”
“All right,” Mattie said, after a pause. She felt she had been talked into a corner, and did not much care for it, but it was the middle of the night and it seemed silly to argue. She continued to observe him, holding her knees to her chest. “Although it has been a long time since last we saw one another, we have still been acquaintances for some time. Formalities seem unnecessary, under the present circumstances. You may call me Mattie, if you like, rather than Miss Ross.”
“All right, Mattie,” he said, nodding. His eyes did not leave her face, and Mattie cleared her throat and stood up, looking away.
“I will say goodnight.” Mattie retrieved a candlestick from the sideboard and returned to the table to light it, using the flame already lit on the lamp. As she did so, she caught a glimpse of the book in LaBoeuf’s hands, which he was occupied with reading once again. It was Little Men, one of the many novels she and Victoria shared and in which Little Frank had scarce interest.
“That is a favourite of mine, and my sister’s,” she said. LaBoeuf looked up from its pages and raised his eyebrows at her.
“I thought you said goodnight,” he replied in a teasing tone.
“Oh, indeed,” she said, glowering at him as she straightened and made her way out of the room. “Goodnight, Mr. LaBoeuf.”
“Goodnight, Mattie,” came his reply. She could hear the amusement in his voice as she strode down the hallway with her light held in front of her. It seemed that Mr. LaBoeuf had gone from simply looking ridiculous to acting it as well.
Entering Mama’s bedroom, she saw the basin on the washstand, and hesitated. After a beat, she shook herself and put down the candle. LaBoeuf was not the only one acting ridiculously. She put the basin out in the hallway, and then closed and latched the door.
She did not dream of the mushrooms again.
Chapter 3: ought to have been a lawyer
The morning dawned clear and crisp, and Mattie was up with the sun.
Her body was wrapped in aches she had not felt last evening, as though during the night her whole self had become one large, tender bruise. It made washing and dressing uncomfortable, and pinning her hair up purely impossible. She settled for brushing it out and leaving it hanging down her back in one long fall. She was glad for the bright daylight which flooded the house, for it threw great, reasonable light into every corner, making her fearfulness in the night seem all the more foolish. It allowed her to go up to her bedroom and dress herself in her own clean clothing.
Dressed and scrubbed and combed as best as she could hope to be, Mattie gathered an armful of wood for the kitchen stove and got the breakfast fire going. She fetched water for coffee, and emptied the basin of bloody water down the privy. She led the horses out into their paddock, and milked the cow before letting her and the little red bullock out to graze as well. She shooed the chickens out into the yard to scratch for bugs, and collected the eggs she could find. She then filled a washtub with cold water and vinegar, and put all her bloodied clothes in to soak.
Inside, she prepared a sheet of biscuits, sliced several thick pieces of salt pork and set them to frying, and made a small pan of grits. She boiled coffee as well, for although she still did not care for it herself, she did like the perfume it gave the air as it percolated.
After all this, LaBoeuf had still not risen. Mattie was surprised; in the brief time she had spent with him on the trail of Tom Chaney, he had been the earliest of risers. She went upstairs and rapped on the door to her brother’s bedroom. Receiving no answer, she opened it, and found that the room was empty. Frowning, she came back downstairs, and as she passed the parlour doorway, caught sight of a pair of red wool socks with feet in them. LaBoeuf was laid out flat on the parlour rug, fast asleep and snoring.
Mattie paused in the doorway, observing him. He had removed his boots, his coat, and his vest, and had unbuttoned the top button of his faded chambray shirt. His suspenders were shrugged off, and he lay with his hands resting on his middle and his coat bunched under his head. His Sharps-Carbine lay next to him, neatly parallel to his body. He was perfectly still, and aside from his noisy snoring, Mattie thought he rather resembled a corpse laid out for a wake.
It was a singularly disturbing thought. She cleared her throat, and he was awake in an instant.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, sitting up and blinking blearily at her.
“Yes,” she replied. “Only you might have slept upstairs in Little Frank’s bedroom. I thought that would be obvious to you or else I would have said as much. I apologise.”
“No apology is necessary; you have not been negligent in your duties as hostess. I slept here deliberately, for I wanted to be at the ready if Cunningham returned.”
LaBoeuf scrubbed a hand over his face, and then paused, his face forming a quizzical expression. “Is that salt pork I smell? And coffee?”
“Yes. I thought after your days sleeping rough on the road, you would want a proper breakfast. It will be ready shortly, if you wish.” Before he could reply, Mattie turned and left the room.
She was frying eggs when he appeared in the kitchen. He helped himself to a basin of hot water and went out the back door, heading in the direction of the privy. Through the window, Mattie could see him crouching by the water pump, using a mean-looking bowie knife to shave, the way another man would a straight razor. He used a small piece of looking glass to see his work, and Mattie was unsurprised to find that he was no less vain now than he had been when they met.
Finally he finished with his preening and came back inside; his skin was pink and his hair and whiskers damp. He took the plate of food and the hot coffee Mattie handed him with a funny sort of smile on his face, as though she were performing an entertaining and unexpected trick.
Ignoring him, Mattie served herself and sat down across from him at the rough hewn table there before the cook stove. He almost dug in before her say so, but she interrupted him by bowing her head and saying aloud a prayer of thanksgiving. When she finished, LaBoeuf looked both admonished and annoyed. Mattie’s thought was this: LaBoeuf ought to spend less time bird-dogging riff-raff and more time in church if he thought himself too big and important to even say grace. They ate in silence for several minutes.
“This is very good,” LaBoeuf remarked after a time, not looking up from his plate. Mattie examined the cowlick at the crown of his head. It stood up as proudly as ever, in spite of the combing he had obviously subjected it to.
“You say that as though you are surprised,” she replied. “Did you doubt my abilities as a cook?”
He shook his head in apparent amusement. “I am beginning to think that in addition to death and taxes, one might also rely on your orneriness. A man could set his watch by its regularity. Do you not know how to graciously accept a compliment when it is presented to you?”
Mattie eyed him for a moment, and then cleared her throat. “No, I suppose I do not.”
LaBoeuf paused in his eating and regarded her across the table. “Well, you ought to learn. These biscuits are some of the best I have had. Certainly they are a mighty improvement on the meals at the Monarch in Fort Smith, if you remember. And if you disagree with me on that score, then I do not know.”
Mattie grimaced and nodded her agreement. “Yes, I always did feel cheated at that place, and I would not recommend it to anyone headed to those parts. Mrs. Floyd was kind enough, I suppose, although she did give the first free room to a newcomer when I was already doubled-up with an old woman who variously robbed me of my share of the bedclothes and infected me with a cold.”
“Haw!” he said. “I do not know whether I am heartened or dismayed to find that you are as saucy as ever you were.”
Mattie did not know how to respond to such a statement, and so remained silent and carried on eating her breakfast.
“How are your injuries treating you this morning?” LaBoeuf asked, after a spell.
“They are treating me about as well as can be expected,” Mattie replied. “My head aches some and I am sore in general, but otherwise I am without complaint.”
LaBoeuf nodded in reply to this, and then his eyes dropped to her neck. In spite of the high lace collar of her dress, the bruises which mottled the skin red and blue were still visible. Feeling scrutinized, Mattie looked down at her plate.
“I believe I will see if I can pick up Cunningham’s trail today,” LaBoeuf said, scraping up the last of the grits on his plate. “I expect he fled into the woods to lick his wounds, so to speak.”
“What is your plan?” Mattie asked.
“My plan is to see whether he survived the night, and then determine where he might go next if he is not dead.”
“I see,” Mattie said simply, and they finished their meal in silence.
LaBoeuf thanked her for the food and disappeared back to the front of the house. Mattie guessed he intended to clean his rifle or some such; she did not bother with him, for she had chores to do. After washing and wiping the breakfast dishes, she tidied the kitchen and replenished the wood and water by the stove. She was halfway across the yard with the slop pail, headed in the direction of the barn, when LaBoeuf reappeared, following her out the kitchen door. He was fully dressed in his buckskin coat and his hat, and he wore his revolver and had the Sharps-Carbine in the crook of his elbow.
“I am going,” LaBoeuf announced, looking at her expectantly. It was obvious that he wanted her to question him so that he could bedevil her with deliberately perplexing responses. Mattie figured the most certain way to disappoint him was not to question him at all. “I do not expect to be gone very long,” he continued.
“All right,” she replied, and carried on her way up to the barn, the heavy bucket of slops swinging against her leg with each step.
When she had finished feeding their two hogs, she walked back down to the house and found that LaBoeuf had gone. Mattie did not resist the smirk that pulled at her mouth. The man was as much a popinjay as the morning he appeared in her room at the Monarch boarding house and attempted to intimidate her. Big spurs and all, he had not changed.
Mattie set about dealing with her befouled clothing from the previous day. She built a large fire outside the lean-to in the yard which they used as their summer kitchen. She drew many buckets of water from the pump, pouring them into the large black iron kettle they kept for dirty, heavy jobs. It was hauled out several times a year for the making of soap, and vinegar, and for rendering hog fat. Soon the water was boiling, and Mattie fetched her blood-stained dress, her shimmy, and her corset from the house, and dropped them in. She boiled them, stirring the water occasionally with an old broom handle.
She had been stood there minding her work for some time when LaBoeuf emerged from the woods. He was encumbered with a small wild turkey, which dangled limply from his hand by its two feet.
“Hidy,” he said, laying his burden out a few feet from the fire before seating himself on a nearby section of tree trunk used as a stool. He commenced to filling his pipe with tobacco with a very satisfied expression on his face. When Mattie continued to ignore him, he cleared his throat. “I might have shot you some of those fat geese flying over if I had my bird dog with me,” he said, cocking his head in the direction of the northern sky.
“You need not be too sorry about it, for although that turkey is mighty scrawny, to add a goose or two would have been pure gluttony. There are only two of us here, unless you are expecting guests of which I am unaware.”
“You ought to get a dog,” LaBoeuf said, ignoring her criticisms. “A farm is not a farm without a dog to guard it and its inhabitants.”
“I did not know that your designation as a Texas Ranger afforded you the wisdom to make recommendations as to how cotton farms ought to be run,” Mattie replied.
“You know that I am right, but as is your way, you do not want to own to it. That is fine; we both know it, and that satisfies me.” LaBoeuf paused here and lit his pipe using a long twig he poked into the hot coals of the fire. “I found the place where I believe Cunningham made camp in the night.”
Mattie stopped turning her clothes over in the water. “You did?”
“I did. I followed the crick back into the woods, and about half a mile in, I found the remnants of a cook fire as well as some bloodied strips of sacking I guess he used to staunch his wound. In the fire were scattered the bones of what looked to be a squirrel or perhaps a small groundhog, and so I reckon he was fit enough to snare himself some supper. The ashes were cold and he was long gone, however. My guess is that he left at first light.”
Mattie regarded him for a moment, considering this. “Do you think he has gone away altogether?”
“I reckon so, yes,” LaBoeuf replied, his eyes on hers. “I do not think you need to fret that he will return to this place. You scared him off.”
“I do not fret that he will return. I am only concerned that none of the eggs or chickens go missing in the night,” Mattie said, stirring the clothes once more in the water before pulling them up on the end of the broom handle to examine them. It would be impossible to tell how the stain would affect her dark blue dress until it dried. If it showed, the dress could always be dyed a dark brown or black to hide it. The stain in the corset had come out reasonably well, and in any case the garment was old and worn, and Mama had commented recently that Mattie ought to have a new one. The shimmy, however, was a lost cause. The stain had faded somewhat, but a large, diluted brown splotch remained on its front. It would only be good for rags, or perhaps for some part of a future scarecrow.
Mattie felt LaBoeuf’s eyes on her, and she glanced up to find him watching her with an oddly soft expression on his face. It recalled the way his face looked in the moonlight that rainy night he made to leave her with Cogburn in the Winding Stairs when the Marshall decided their “coon hunt” had run its course. The look in LaBoeuf’s eyes presented her, then and now, with an aspect of him that Mattie could not figure. The gentleness seemed strange and out of place, and it made Mattie uncomfortable generally.
She looked back down at her work, removing the clothing from the water and laying it all out on the grass to cool.
“Well,” LaBoeuf said, after a protracted silence, “I guess that harkens back to my suggestion that you need a dog about this place to guard your eggs and your chickens, but I know you will not heed it.”
Mattie was on the verge of forming a response when LaBoeuf looked sharply over her shoulder and stood. Mattie turned and saw Sheriff Morris coming around the front of the house with Deputy Sutherland in tow.
“Hidy,” LaBoeuf called. Mattie pitched him a resentful look, which he missed. The man was a presumptuous fop, greeting guests on her land when he was a guest himself.
“Miss Ross,” the Sheriff nodded, coming to a halt before them. He seemed somewhat surprised to find that Mattie was not alone. “Mr. – LaBoeuf, was it?”
“Indeed,” LaBoeuf replied shortly, and Mattie could tell that he was perturbed at having his name forgotten.
“Well, I am here to tell you that Mr. MacLeod will come by this afternoon with his wagon to collect the body, but in the meantime I would like to have a look at the place where yesterday’s ugliness happened.”
“You can certainly have a look at the place,” Mattie replied, “but you should know that when Mr. LaBoeuf and I returned here last night, we found that Cunningham had risen and disappeared. It seems I did not kill him, after all.”
“What!” Sheriff Morris exclaimed, the word hauling up a string of dry, hacking coughs behind it. “What do you mean ‘risen and disappeared’?”
“I mean that the man had apparently collected himself and gone. There was no body where I had left one,” Mattie replied. She narrowed her eyes at Deputy Sutherland, who was again ogling her very openly. He seemed particularly interested in the pinned-up sleeve at her side, and only looked away when he finally felt her glare. He was not the first to stare at her arm. Nor would he be the last, she guessed. You would think people had never even heard of rattlesnakes, the way they stared.
“I searched the house and the outbuildings last night and could find no sign of the man,” LaBoeuf interjected. “I have just now returned from a search of the woods. I found a campsite up the crick where I suspect Cunningham spent the night. From my knowledge of him, my guess is that he will head downriver to hide out with family he has in Pine Bluff or Arkadelphia. He will need time to convalesce from the thrashing Miss Ross delivered him.”
“I see,” said Sheriff Morris, dabbing his forehead with a rag which was grey from many washings. “That is a shame. But there is nothing for it. This Cunningham will have to go and trouble that jurisdiction, and with any luck, he will kill a man and be caught at it so that he may be done away with altogether. For my part, we cannot spare the manpower.”
“You will not go after him?” Mattie asked.
“What, send Sutherland after him into Perry County, and every county after that as far as this Cunningham sees fit to wander? No, no. If he returns here, we will have to deal with him, but otherwise, certainly not. As I say, we cannot spare the manpower.”
Mattie glanced at LaBoeuf, and found him regarding the Sheriff disapprovingly. However, he simply said, “That is fine. I will go after him myself, anyhow.”
“Do as you please,” the Sheriff replied. “As for you, Miss Ross, if Cunningham returns, kindly fetch the law before you attempt to remove the man’s head from his body.” Then he gestured at Sutherland, and with a tip of their hats, they departed.
Mattie and LaBoeuf watched them go, and then LaBoeuf let out a sigh and said, “I guess I am bound for Pine Bluff, via the Arkansas River. I will depart in the morning.”
“I guess I am bound for Pine Bluff, also,” Mattie replied. LaBoeuf turned and fixed her with a curious stare.
“Now, what do you mean by that?” he asked.
“I am going with you. You will apprehend him, or kill him in the doing of it. I want to see it done with my own eyes, or by my own hand, if I must.”
“Mattie, I will avenge what he has done to you. You do not need to make yourself a part of it. I will take care of it. I swear on my honour.”
“You will hunt him down to collect the money on his head,” Mattie replied. “If what was done to me is to be avenged, then I will be the one to do it.”
LaBoeuf gave her an exasperated look. “Mattie, please. You cannot ask me to take you along. First, there is the danger. Second, your duty to your family’s property in your mother’s absence. Your mother would not -”
“My mother returns on the train tomorrow afternoon with my brother and sister, and they will look after the farm. My mother will understand.”
“What you are proposing is simply out of the question. I will pursue him alone, and that is an end to it,” LaBoeuf said.
“If I do not go in your company, then I will go alone,” Mattie replied. “You have no authority to tell me to stay or go. I am a grown woman, and I have my own stores, and my own horse. I am free to do as I please. You have no say in it.”
LaBoeuf glowered at her, and Mattie sensed that his view of the situation had passed beyond mere frustration and had stretched into the territory of genuine anger. “I ought to have a word or two with your mother and tell her that you would not be nearly so troublesome had she or your father ever given you a proper hiding.”
Mattie had to clench her hand into a fist to keep from slapping him across his smug face. “How dare you!” she snapped. “Not only do you speak to me as though I am a naughty child in your charge, which I am most certainly not, but you are a guest of mine here and should therefore be ashamed of saying such disrespectful things about my mother and my dearly departed father. I have never been so insulted.”
“If I ever met a mule as stubborn as you, I would shoot it dead to save all of mankind the trouble,” LaBoeuf replied, his face flushed an aggravated red. “If you do not understand that I am attempting to protect you from a harm which has already made itself known to you, then you are slow-witted as well as saucy, difficult, and altogether too proud to be tolerated!”
“Protect me! Protect me, indeed. You know I am able to defend myself if need be.”
“What I know is that you are being obtuse, and much too blithe,” LaBoeuf said, his voice lowered. “Mattie, Cunningham very nearly killed you. It was only a stroke of pure luck that he did not violate you, strangle the breath from you, and toss your broken body aside to rot in those woods.”
Mattie swallowed, recalling the feeling of Cunningham’s fingernails digging into her wrist, and into the flesh of her neck. “Well,” she said, after a pause, “there is no need to be quite so sensational about it, Mr. LaBoeuf.”
He continued to stare at her in apparent disbelief before turning away and sitting back down on the stump. He removed his hat and placed it on the ground, and then picked up the dead turkey at his feet and, grabbing the knife from his boot, neatly removed its head.
Mattie watched him for a moment, and then sat down on another stump.
“If you will gut that turkey and remove its feathers, I will roast it for our supper,” she offered. “You can take what pieces remain with you tomorrow when you depart, whether we go as ‘trail pardners’ or not.”
LaBoeuf did not reply. Methodically he removed the turkey’s innards, and began removing its feathers.
“You said once that I had ‘earned my spurs,’” Mattie said. “Do you think I have become soft in the intervening years?”
LaBoeuf looked up and regarded her for a moment before shaking his head. “Judgment Day will come and go before anyone can accuse you of being soft,” he said. “That is not the thing. Rather, it is that I do not see the necessity in putting yourself in danger when I can go after Cunningham on my own. Do you not think I can catch him?”
Mattie stared down at the grass between the toes of her black shoes, considering her thoughts on the subject and how best to communicate them to LaBoeuf. “I do not doubt your ability to bring Cunningham to justice,” she said finally. “In fact, I have every confidence that you will track him down, be it sooner or later. I have not doubted your grit since you proved yourself in the Winding Stairs.”
LaBoeuf eyed her with a curious expression on his face, as though he were somewhat surprised by her words. He cleared his throat. “What, then?” he asked.
“I do not relish the idea of staying here on this farm and growing fearful of shadowed corners and draughty stairwells. I do not wish to look over my shoulder every time I go to fetch a stick of firewood.”
“But your mother and your siblings return tomorrow, do they not?” LaBoeuf replied, frowning. “I will stay with you until then, if you like. Cunningham is injured and will therefore be slow on the track, so a day will not greatly affect the outcome. You will feel safe when you are with your family once again.”
“I will feel more anxious when they return,” Mattie replied, shaking her head. “For then I will worry not for myself, but for Mama, and Victoria, who are both gentle by nature, and even Little Frank, who is hot-headed and will not back down from a fight. My father is dead. They are mine to protect, and I do not know how I will sleep soundly knowing that Albert Cunningham could come wandering back across our fields at any moment he pleases.”
Mattie forced herself to continue to meet LaBoeuf’s eyes at the conclusion of this speech. She wanted to look away.
“I know you are not naive of the fact that the world is full of men like Cunningham, and worse,” LaBoeuf replied, his tone contemplative. “Seeing justice done to Cunningham will not, unfortunately, remove all wickedness from the world, nor will it diminish the chance of encountering it. Not even for you, who has tangled enough with evil for one lifetime.”
“You are correct,” Mattie replied. “However, if you truly believed that the insurmountable nature of collective human wickedness was reason enough in itself not to counteract it where it is found, I think you would not have chosen the vocation you did.”
LaBoeuf regarded her, and then his whiskers twitched and he began to laugh. It was a loud, hearty laugh, and soon enough he was leaning his elbows on his knees and wheezing. Mattie did not join, for she did not think she had said anything amusing.
“You ought to have been a lawyer, Mattie Ross,” he said when he was able to catch his breath. “Let us hope you would be working for the prosecution, or else us lawmen would all be in a great deal of trouble.”
He seemed to be making her the object of his fun, and Mattie grew impatient. “So you will not run me off the roadway if I follow you at a distance in your pursuit of Cunningham?”
LaBoeuf groaned and wiped at his eyes. “Do not be ridiculous. We will go together, pard. Truth be told, I could use some company on the trail, even if your company is rather like befriending a horsefly.”
Somewhat insulted, but pleased that they had come to an agreement which was to her satisfaction, Mattie merely sniffed in response.
They spent the rest of the afternoon preparing for their journey, which would take them down the south bank of the Arkansas River. LaBoeuf said he would be surprised indeed if Cunningham was headed any other place than Pine Bluff, and he immediately set about poring over Papa’s maps and asking her questions about the local terrain and what supplies could be got along the way. He then penned a letter he would not show her or discuss. Mattie guessed it was to whoever served as his master with the Rangers in Ysleta. Feeling sportive, she told him that if he was writing a silly letter to his sweetheart, she did not care to know the contents anyway. His face reddened, and he finished his letter in very short order.
Mattie, meanwhile, roasted the turkey over the fire in the lean-to, and began making lists in her head of what she ought to bring along with her. She began also to compose a letter of her own; one to her mother which would explain her absence. Mattie turned the turkey on the spit and grimaced. She could imagine her mother’s reaction to the news that her eldest daughter had gone off on another adventure. Mama would likely take to her bed for a week.
Mattie sighed. She had lied to LaBoeuf when she said that her mother would understand. Mama would not be happy, but Mattie would find a way to placate her upon her return.
While the turkey roasted, Mattie prepared food for their journey. She cooked two pones of cornbread, and then packed the last of the salt pork, some corn meal, and a lump of lard, which she wrapped in waxed paper. In the larder she found a small sack of dried apples, and stowed those. She bundled the food and the smallest cast-iron skillet and pot together, and hoped it would not be too much of a burden for Alma, her horse. LaBoeuf had taken a look at the beast and pronounced her sound in spite of her recent ailments.
Mattie thought she ought to take some money with her, but when she went into her father’s office and opened the locked drawer where they kept some cash, she found that the lock had been tampered with and one hundred dollars in cash was missing. Mattie thought it curious indeed that Cunningham had taken the time to root out the money, but had left the rifles in the office alone, in spite of the fact that he did not seem to own a firearm. She guessed he had done this before he even encountered her in the barnyard. She shivered to think of him marauding in the house while she fed the pigs, ignorant of the danger he presented.
If she had any doubt about pursuing him, the discovery of the missing one hundred dollars put it to rest. Mattie was determined to get that money back, and if Cunningham died in the process, all the better.
By the time the turkey had finished and they sat down to eat, the sun had set and they were both exhausted. They ate mostly in silence, although LaBoeuf did take the time to say that the turkey was very good. The bird was so small that they ate nearly all of it. The rest Mattie wrapped in paper and put with the other stores she had gathered.
That evening, LaBoeuf laid out his revolver, his Sharps-Carbine, her father’s Colt’s dragoon pistol, and Little Frank’s Henry rifle on the parlour floor, and commenced meticulously cleaning and checking each one. Mattie sat nearby and wrote her letter to her mother, as well as one to Lawyer Daggett, outlining what ought to be done with the farm if anything dire befell her.
“I think this piece may be more trouble than it is worth,” LaBoeuf said. Mattie looked up from her writing to see that he held her father’s pistol in his hand. It had served her reasonably if not impeccably in the past, and although Mattie decried superstition generally, she had a notion that it might do her a good turn to carry it with her on this journey regardless of its efficacy as a firearm. LaBoeuf would think this a silly and impractical view, she was aware. She opened her mouth to spin some complicated yarn that would highlight its necessity, but LaBoeuf’s eye caught hers, and he gave a little shrug of his shoulders.
“Still, it may prove itself useful. Better to have it than not,” he said, and laid it with care next to his revolver.
They worked in silence for a short while longer, before Mattie finished her letters and folded them labouriously using her one hand and a paperweight. When she was nearly done, she felt LaBoeuf’s gaze on her, and looked up to find him watching her fold the paper.
“You manage remarkably well,” he said, squaring the firearms away. With a tired sigh, he sat back in the armchair and cracked one his knuckles. “You tend the animals, and cook, and do all manner of rough work. It is commendable.”
“I manage as well as I must,” Mattie replied, rather uncomfortable. Although he meant his words as a compliment to her, his tone of condescension annoyed her. Was she expected to be an invalid without purpose or usefulness because she lacked one arm?
“What have you told your mother?” he asked, nodding at her letters.
Mattie set the papers aside and leaned against the back of the settee. “The truth, excepting a few details which will only upset her.”
“That is wise. No need to worry the poor woman any more than she will be.”
“Indeed,” Mattie replied, standing up. “I will go see to the night chores, and then I believe I will retire so that we may get an early start in the morning. Goodnight, Mr. LaBoeuf.”
“Goodnight,” he said.
A cool breeze had whipped up after sunset. By the light of a lantern, Mattie worked quickly to get the animals settled in. When she had finished, she closed and latched the barn door behind her and hurried back to the house, the wind whipping her hair all around.
She went up to her bedroom and closed the door. Taking her comb from the washstand and catching a glimpse of herself, she paused and stared. Her loose hair was a mess.
Mattie shrugged off her coat and attempted to untangle the knots, but the comb kept getting stuck. She sighed impatiently and pondered her predicament. Riding all day and sleeping on the ground at night for who could guess how many days was going to turn her hair into an absolute nest of snarls by the time she returned home. If only Victoria were here, she could assist in at least pulling it back into some practical plaits for the time being.
The sound of LaBoeuf shuffling about downstairs gave Mattie pause. She eyed herself in the mirror. Well, she thought, it is either this, or I cut it all off with that knife of his.
Hairbrush in hand, she left her bedroom and went down to the parlour. LaBoeuf was in the armchair, a cloud of pipe smoke about his head and Little Men open on his chest.
“I thought you had retired,” he said, not looking up from the book. “Is everything all right?”
“Everything is fine,” Mattie replied. “The animals are all well, and I think Sal and Alma are fast friends already. Only there is a wind outside, and as you can see, it has made a mess of me. Although combing and brushing my hair is not typically difficult for me, plaiting it and pinning it back is, but I can usually leave that to my sister Victoria.”
LaBoeuf looked up from his book then, his brows drawn together in a frown. “I am sure that is true. Why do you tell me this?”
“Would you be so helpful as to assist me in brushing the tangles out, and perhaps with pulling it back in some way? Do not think me vain – it does not need to be handsome. It is just that I cannot ride or track or easily do much of anything with my hair all blowing in my face, you see.”
LaBoeuf sat up and set his book aside, looking at her with no small amount of annoyance. “It is not enough that I am forced to chaperon you against my better judgment, but now I must also be your valet?”
“By your tone of voice one would think that I had just demanded that you walk to the ocean and back to fetch me a dipperful of water,” Mattie replied. She did not see why he needed to be so difficult about it. It was not such a hateful request.
“All right, if you insist,” he said, glowering at her.
Electing not to fan the flames of his ire, Mattie walked over and handed him the brush, and sat down on one end of the settee. She turned her back to him, but she caught his sigh as he sat down behind her.
“This seems very untoward,” he muttered, and Mattie felt his hand slide under the mass of her hair. He held it for a moment as though weighing it.
“Does it?” Mattie asked, puzzled. She could not see what difference it made, given that they had spent nearly every moment in each other’s company that day, not to mention their previous acquaintance, and that they would travel and make camp together in the coming days, as well.
LaBoeuf did not reply to that. He ran the brush over her hair so lightly that he barely caught a single hair.
“How do you expect to work out all the tangles if you are brushing my hair like you would a baby’s?” Mattie complained. “Have you never brushed out a horse’s tail? It is more like that. Start at the bottom.”
LaBoeuf exhaled noisily. “I have done this before.”
“Have you? Well, you cannot tell,” Mattie replied. After a moment, she frowned. “When have you done this before?”
“I have a sister.”
“Oh. I did not know. You do not speak of your family.” Mattie pondered the notion that somewhere, LaBoeuf had a mother and a father, a sister apparently, maybe some brothers. Perhaps he really did have a sweetheart waiting for him in Texas. He had said that he hoped one day to settle down and marry, after all.
“Yes, I have an older sister, Claudine,” he elaborated. “Before her there are my three brothers, Rufus, Everett, and Alexander. They are all older by some years, but Claudine and I are near to the same age, and so we were each other’s companions as children.”
“How nice to have a large family,” Mattie replied. She was curious and wished to know more, but LaBoeuf seemed reticent, and Mattie was not fond of impertinent personal questions herself, and so could not reasonably expect LaBoeuf to withstand them.
They both fell silent, but it felt to Mattie oddly peaceful, as LaBoeuf combed his fingers through her hair and began dividing and plaiting it. Her eyes wanted to close, and she had to fight a strange and rather alarming urge to lean back against him. She kept her spine as straight as a ramrod, digging her fingernails into her palm. Her face felt unaccountably hot despite the cool evening.
“Braid it tight and we will not have to fuss with it again,” she said.
“Yes, I know,” LaBoeuf replied. The moment he secured her long braid into a knot at the back of her head with her pins, she stood up.
“Thank you,” Mattie said, her mouth dry. “I am obliged to you for this.”
LaBoeuf looked up at her, and his eyes seemed more bright and blue than they had before. “There is no obligation,” he replied, and pressed the brush into her open palm.
“Goodnight, then,” she said, and departed.
When she passed the mirror in the hallway, she stopped and gaped at herself in shock, craning her neck to get a glimpse of what LaBoeuf had done to her. The top half of her hair was parted down the centre of her skull and pulled back and divided into two tight plaits which fell from the crown of her head. The bottom half of her hair was gathered into one thick plait at the nape of her neck. All three plaits were looped under and their ends secured in some mysterious manner which Mattie could not quite figure. She lifted her hand and felt the tidy mass at the back of her head. It was a very old-fashioned arrangement; Mattie looked like a photograph she had seen of her mother when she was a young woman. Despite its intricacies, it was very practical – all of her hair was pulled neatly out of the way into a bundle that would not come loose, but which also lay against her skull in such a way that she could still wear her father’s wide-brimmed hat comfortably. As she pressed her hand against it, she noted that what pins LaBoeuf had used did not even dig into her flesh.
Altogether, it was near the cleverest thing Mattie had ever seen. Not that she had any plans of telling LaBoeuf that, of course.
As she settled into her own bed upstairs for the night, Mattie could not help but marvel at LaBoeuf’s work. She wondered what old Rooster Cogburn would have to say if he found out that the Texas Ranger could not only ride, and track, and shoot a man off his horse from four hundred yards away, but that he could also plait a woman’s hair if a need presented itself.
Mattie guessed that Rooster would have a few choice words to say about that, indeed.
Chapter 4: a fine morning for wayfaring
Mattie awoke before the sun rose the following morning. She sat up and stretched, blinking to focus her eyes in the dimness, for the grey light of dawn was just beginning to filter in through the window panes. Placing her bare feet on the floor, she shivered, and hoped that the cold weather would hold off for the duration of her adventure. She glanced at her pack and her bedroll, which were leaned against the foot of the bed. She was puzzled to see that a folded sheaf of paper had been placed on top of her bedroll.
Standing, Mattie grabbed it and found it was a letter addressed to her, written in an unfamiliar hand which was tidy and formal, and completely lacking in calligraphic flourish. Hastily, she read:
Dear Miss Ross,
By the time you read this letter, I will have gone to capture Cunningham, and as you have no doubt guessed, I shall do so without your company.
I am aware that you will be considerably vexed with me. However, I believe that with time you will see that I have made the decision which is best for you. The trail is no place for a young woman. Your mother, when she returns, will agree. Remember that although you are grown and very headstrong besides, it is your duty to obey your mother in all things until you marry.
Do not be frightened for yourself or for your family. I will capture Cunningham and bring him to justice. On this you have my word.
You have my gratitude for your generous hospitality during my brief stay in Yell County. When I gathered that Cunningham was headed through Arkansas, I was glad.
Here he had written something more, but had scratched it out so that it was illegible. He continued:
When you have done away with any spite you feel towards me and you see that I am in the right, I would be pleased to get a letter from you, which you can send courtesy of the Rangers, as follows.
At the bottom he had written where one could address a letter to the Ranger battalion in Ysleta, Texas. Nearly shaking with fury, Mattie folded the letter and placed it inside the cover of a book which sat on her bureau.
That he would write such a pompous, magnanimous letter when he planned to disappear like a thief in the night, Mattie could hardly believe. He had previously shown himself to be vain and arrogant, but never deceitful. Worse still, he must have entered her room while she was sleeping in order to leave his letter. Bitterly, Mattie wondered how much food the wretch had liberated from the cupboards and the cellar.
Mattie dressed in the clothes she had laid out the night before – an old pair of Little Frank’s trousers and one of his checked shirts, warm wool socks, her winter coat, and boots. She had packed extra socks, her nightgown and also a dress, should they find themselves in a civilized place. With her pack and bedroll over her shoulder, she went downstairs and collected Little Frank’s rifle and her father’s pistol, as well as the bundle of food which LaBoeuf had in fact left behind, and placed it all on the front porch.
She then went to the barn and milked the cow and fed all of the animals, and made certain that all was in order for her family’s return that afternoon. She left the letters to Mama and Lawyer Daggett on Papa’s desk.
Once she tacked Alma up and loaded her with all they would need for their journey, she led the horse to the fence by the barn and mounted up. The sun was cresting the jagged horizon of pine trees to the east when they rode across the yard, and Mattie took one last look around at the farm. She hoped that no catastrophe befell the place. If anything happened, it would be on her conscience.
Grimly, she turned Alma towards the southeast and urged her into a brisk walk. They would soon meet up with the Arkansas River and LaBoeuf, for if he thought that she could not find him, he was a lack-wit as well as being a dandy and a scoundrel.
It did not take long to join the southward course of the river, and Mattie found a narrow road running along it which allowed her to keep sight of it and not lose her way. The path was well worn, but Mattie guessed it was not frequently used, as it was covered thickly by fallen leaves, and she knew there was a busier, wider thoroughfare to the west. LaBoeuf might have taken the other road, but Mattie reckoned not, for he would prefer a stealthier route, and in any case, it was likely that Cunningham would have taken the more secluded path as well.
It was a fine morning for wayfaring. It was crisp and cloudless, and the sun still offered some warmth in its rays. Around midday, Mattie stopped to let Alma stretch her neck and tear at what greenery she could find among the carpet of leaves on the forest floor. She tipped her head back and looked up at the sun through the few dry leaves which remained on the trees around her. Assuming their train had run on schedule, Mama, Little Frank, and Victoria would be arriving at the little depot in Dardanelle. She was sorry that she would not be there to greet them, for she had promised to be, and she knew Mama would worry and not know what to do. She hoped that between her two siblings, they might help poor Mama and find their way home.
Mattie shook her head and urged Alma forward. There was nothing for it now.
For hours there was no discernable sign of another living thing on the trail except for the birds and squirrels and other creatures of the woods, which regularly stopped in their own business to chirp and squeak and scold Mattie and Alma for trespassing. Late in the afternoon, however, a promising sign presented itself. There was a fresh pile of “horse apples” in the road. They were not steaming , but they had been there only a couple hours at most, Mattie guessed. She took this as an indication that LaBoeuf was not far ahead of her at all.
Alma accumulated spirit as the afternoon wore on into evening, the exercise seeming to do her much good. Mattie let her pick up a gentle trot as the sun began to sink below the trees, but darkness fell abruptly, and Mattie soon slowed her down to a walk once again. She was pleased that Alma was well, but did not want to risk an injury to her feet or legs on the uneven forest path.
In the blue light of dusk, the sound of birdsong faded, replaced by the infrequent hoots of owls and croaking of frogs. As the darkness deepened and stars emerged, Mattie could hear the faint, leathery rustle of bat wings overhead. She thought of the stories Papa used to tell her when she was small, about lone travellers on night roads being tracked by panthers and lions, and all manner of beasts which emerged from their hidden dens only at night.
Mattie shivered, and shook herself. There was no use in worrying about what lurked in the forest until she had reason. She did wish that she could stop and make camp, however. She was becoming saddle sore, and Alma’s energy was waning. She hoped that, because he had started out earlier than she, LaBoeuf would already have stopped for the night somewhere ahead on the trail, and that by continuing on in the darkness, she might make up the distance between them.
Her hope was not in vain. As Mattie crested a small rise in the landscape, she saw a light glowing through the darkness two hundred yards ahead. She allowed herself a moment of anxiety that perhaps she had somehow bypassed LaBoeuf and stumbled upon Cunningham or some other traveller instead, but she dismissed it, and pressed on.
She soon discovered that the light was a campfire, and that a horse and a man were silhouetted against it. The man was seated and leaning against a log, staring into the fire. Mattie got close enough to see that it was LaBoeuf before Alma’s plodding made enough noise to rouse him. Mattie stopped her. LaBoeuf’s head turned in their direction, and his eyes searched the trees.
Mattie dismounted, and the sound of her feet thumping to the forest floor alerted LaBoeuf to her presence. He stood, pulling his pistol from his holster and peering out into the darkness.
“Who is there? I warn you, I am a Texas Ranger, and I am armed,” LaBoeuf called.
Mattie led Alma to the line LaBoeuf had strung between two trees for Sal. The latter was resting one of her hind feet, and her head was low and dozy. At their approach, she exhaled a tired greeting. Mattie tied Alma there, and walked into the circle of light thrown by the campfire.
“I was once told that it is very imprudent to make camp by your cook fire, and that it is Ranger policy to avoid such a blunder,” Mattie said, coming close and holding her stiff hands out to the fire to warm them. She met his fierce gaze without blinking. “You ought to know that I could see your fire from nearly two hundred yards away, even in these dense woods.”
“Sakes alive!” LaBoeuf cursed, returning his pistol to his holster. He shook his head in apparent disbelief. “You are harder to shake than a tick in June.”
“You thought you would take a page out of Marshall Cogburn’s book,” Mattie said. “You thought you hornswoggled me good, but I guess you did not figure that I would follow you. That was very foolish, for not only have I followed and found you with an ease which ought to be shameful to you, but now I know your word is worthless, too.”
“Mattie, if you do not turn that horse of yours around and head on back where you came from, I will make you sorry that you stayed,” he threatened, pointing a finger in her face and glowering at her. “And this time Cogburn is not here to stop me!”
“You do not own this road or this river, Mr. LaBoeuf. I am free to track Cunningham to Timbuktu if I choose. If you do not want to be reasonable, I will follow at a distance, and we can both proceed on this path as strangers. I do not see why it should be so, however.”
The look he gave her then was fierce, and Mattie could tell that he wanted very badly to reach for his belt and wallop her. She tipped her chin up and met his eyes, and did not blink. Finally, he turned away and cursed, and sat back down to glare into the fire.
Unaccountably, Mattie felt sorry. She would rather have kissed Cunningham than say so, however, and after a stretch of silence broken only by the crackle of the fire and the sounds of the horses eating, she sat down to his left, leaving enough space between them that she faced another side of the fire altogether. She wanted to be able to escape should he change his mind and decide to thrash her after all.
“Although I will grant that you held up as well as any man in our pursuit of Tom Chaney, I think you overestimate your understanding of the evil that dwells in men’s hearts,” LaBoeuf said finally, in a low and serious voice. He continued to stare into the fire, frowning. “If anything should happen to you, it would be my responsibility.”
Mattie’s first thought was to tell him that he was not a relation of hers and was therefore not responsible for her, but instead she paused and contemplated the thing a moment. “If Cunningham harms me, or you, or any other person for that matter, I believe that on the Day of Judgment when all souls will be weighed and found wanting, Cunningham is the one who will answer for every crime he committed with his own hands. Do you not agree?”
“I suppose I do,” replied LaBoeuf, glancing at her.
“In any case, you did what you could to dissuade me from this course,” Mattie said. “I know this, as do you, and I made it abundantly clear in my letters to Mama and to Lawyer Daggett. If some catastrophe befell me, you would not suffer.”
LaBoeuf stared at her for a moment before giving a shake of his head. He looked tired. “Well, then. I guess you will have your way once again, after all, Mattie Ross.”
The beleaguered tone of his voice detracted somewhat from her satisfaction at this victory. She was on the verge of scolding him for being a poor sport when her stomach growled audibly. He looked at her with his eyebrows raised, and she blushed.
“Have you eaten?” he asked.
“Not since this morning, and it was a cold, hurried breakfast, as I did not start my journey as I anticipated I would,” she replied.
With an exaggerated heavenward roll of his eyes, LaBoeuf stood and retrieved a small iron pot from where it sat next to the fire. In it was a portion of pork and beans, still warm. He offered it to her.
“I brought my own stores,” she said. “You do not need to share with me.”
“Our agreement yesterday afternoon was to head out as pardners, and since you have proved yourself an able tracker and caught me in my deception, I reckon we can return to our previous understanding,” he said grudgingly.
“All right,” Mattie agreed, accepting the beans. “We will share equally in this. I have salt pork and cornbread for our breakfast in the morning.”
LaBoeuf only made a sort of grumbling sound in response, and returned to his spot by the fire, where he began arranging his bed roll. He lay down and pulled a colourful blanket over himself. Mattie guessed it was a thing native to Texas, for she had not seen one like it before. He placed his hat over his face and did not say another word to her.
Mattie finished the beans. She rinsed out the pot by the bank of the river before placing it next to the fire to dry. She checked on the horses, and fed each one of them a piece of dried apple from her pack. She laid her bedroll out on her side of the fire, and pulled her blanket over herself.
Their little fire formed a cup of light in the wide black night. The last thing Mattie saw before she closed her eyes was the light reflecting off the tree branches above, and the smoke rising into the starry sky.
When Mattie awoke in the morning, she found that she had curled up into a ball and pulled her blankets up to cover much of her face. As she stiffly unfurled herself and sat up, she disturbed a thin layer of frost which had settled all over her blanket and her saddle, and even the top of her head. She was relieved to see that, an arm’s length away, LaBoeuf was up reviving the fire.
“You are awake,” he said.
“I am,” she replied, rubbing her eyes.
“I see your hair is bearing up to sleeping rough on the trail thus far.” He was eyeing her speculatively, and Mattie felt a foreign stab of self-consciousness. She ran her hand over the braids coiled against her head, smoothing the wisps which had come loose while she slept.
“I think I will go down to the river to wash,” Mattie said, standing and quickly shaking out and rolling up her bedroll.
“There is a crick up yonder whose water is clearer and faster than that river. It is better for washing,” LaBoeuf said, gesturing back into the woods. “We will have to cross it today.”
“All right. Have the horses been watered?”
Mattie nodded, and turned into the woods to find the crick. It was only a dozen yards away, and Mattie could see the spot where LaBoeuf had broken the glass-like crust of ice which had formed on its stony banks in the night. For a moment, Mattie watched the water bubble up underneath the thin ice, which was disappearing as the sun rose higher in the sky.
She washed her face and hands, and the cold sting of the water took her breath away. When she returned to their camp, LaBoeuf was frying salt pork in a small iron pan with legs like a spider’s. When he had finished, Mattie fried thick pieces of cornbread in the fat, and that was their breakfast. While they ate, LaBoeuf said not a word to her, his mouth set in a grim line.
That he was not his usual loquacious self perturbed Mattie. It was plain that he was sore at having been caught.
“You are still down in the mouth at my presence here,” she said. “That is fine; I guess I cannot expect you to be congenial to me under the present circumstances. However, I think that we were friends once, and this enterprise will be much pleasanter for us both if we are cordial to one another.”
“Cordial,” he repeated, weighing the word. He looked at her. “Yes, I reckon we are friends and that I can be cordial, in spite of your continued efforts to make me look a fool at every turn.”
Mattie considered telling him that he did a fine job of making himself look a fool without any assistance on her part, but she did not. To say so would be counter to her goal of placating him. After all, he was only a man, and one who guarded his pride with particular ferocity.
“I did not set out deliberately to make you look a fool,” she said. “You can be confident that my regard for you is sincere. I would not be here in these woods with you if that were not the case.”
LaBoeuf eyed her for a moment, and then cleared his throat. “What I wrote to you in my letter was a fact – I was glad to find myself in Arkansas. You see, I once made the acquaintance of a remarkable young woman from Yell County, and I hoped to see her again.”
Mattie glanced away, feeling her cheeks heat and a smile pull at the corner of her mouth. She bit her lip to stifle it. “While I am not happy in the slightest to have crossed paths with Cunningham, if he brought you here I cannot regret it altogether, either.”
LaBoeuf fixed her with an odd, measuring sort of look which lasted so long that Mattie began to feel uncomfortable.
“Well?” she asked. “Shall we shake on it, then, that we are friends, and pardners, and we will put our disagreements behind us?”
LaBoeuf nodded, and held out his bare hand, and Mattie shook it. It was warm, despite the cool morning, and rough and soft all at once. He gripped her hand firmly, his expression solemn.
“I reckon I will regret this at some future moment,” he said. “I am glad, though, that at least Reuben Cogburn is not here to suggest any of his wild schemes, or to put more holes in me.”
Mattie recalled Cogburn’s stubborn insistence that he was not responsible for LaBoeuf’s injured shoulder. “You may feel different if you get a hankering to shoot cornbread out of the air once we are clear of these woods.”
“You will not join me in such a game? It will keep your aim sharp,” LaBoeuf replied, a measure of good humour returning to his face. He tilted his head at her, and his eyes caught the morning sunlight.
Mattie shook her head. “It would be a waste of both food and ammunition. Wastefulness is capital among sins.”
“Your knowledge of sinful behaviour is broad for being guilty of so few yourself.”
“I am as sinful a creature as the next person,” Mattie replied, discomfited. She realised then that her hand was still grasped in his, and she pulled it free. “We ought to get on the trail. We are wasting time. Had you planned to get as far as Morrilton today?”
LaBoeuf regarded her in silence for a moment longer, and then smiled at something he apparently found amusing. “I had indeed. My hope is that Cunningham will stop for supplies or perhaps doctoring there, and if we do not catch the man himself, we will be able to glean a reckoning of his next step. I do not want to continue without some certainty that he is indeed headed downriver to Pine Bluff, or west to Arkadelphia.”
“All right,” Mattie agreed. She turned away and they began to break camp and get the horses ready to depart. They made quick work of it, and an hour later they had already forded the bright little crick nearby. The only sign that they had been there at all was the smouldering remains of the fire, and some hoof prints in the dirt.
They rode for hours through the woods in the shadow of Petit Jean Mountain before crossing the river and finding themselves in clearer, more cultivated territory. The sun had begun to sink in the west and the sky was clouding over. Mattie hoped they would come to Morrilton soon, for she did not relish the thought of finding a place to camp on the bald prairie.
They reached Morrilton late in the afternoon, before suppertime. The town was small but handsome. Its main street boasted a block of low brick buildings with fine board sidewalks, fronted by railroad tracks and surrounded behind by several blocks of clapboard storefronts and houses. Thin blue threads of smoke rose from chimneys and stovepipes, and the streets were full of horses and people and vehicles of all kinds.
LaBoeuf located a livery stable and suggested that they allow the horses a rest and proceed about town on foot, unencumbered. Mattie agreed.
While LaBoeuf haggled rather ineffectually with the liveryman, Mattie sat on a barrel of nails and watched the activity of the town. She examined the faces of the people in the street carefully. For all they knew, Cunningham might be in Morrilton yet, walking the streets without a care, ignorant that he was being followed. Mattie noticed that many of the townspeople stared at her. She supposed that the sight of a one-armed woman in trousers sitting on a barrel of nails might be an oddity, but that was hardly an excuse to gape. Some people behaved as though they had no control over themselves whatsoever.
Eventually LaBoeuf emerged and stood before her. He smoothed a hand over his hair before replacing his hat on his head. “I agreed to a higher price than I would have liked, for the man was very liberal with information. Cunningham was in town yesterday. He suggested we try the doctor, a man called Quick, for he is certain that Cunningham sought doctoring.”
“You are a lawman. You could not extract this information while also paying a reasonable price to livery our horses?” Mattie asked, her dim view of LaBoeuf’s bargaining acumen confirmed.
“You have much to learn in the ways of diplomacy if you wish to continue your career as a ‘law-woman’ or what have you,” LaBoeuf replied, turning and walking purposefully down the sidewalk. Mattie hopped off of her barrel and fell into step beside him.
“I have no such vocation, and no desire to embark upon one, either,” Mattie said. “And you are one to talk about diplomacy. Here I thought your idea of the thing was to invite yourself into people’s private rooms and attempt to threaten and intimidate them.”
“Yes, well, you will have to pardon my mistake, for you give a good impression of a gun-for-hire,” LaBoeuf replied shortly. He sounded impatient and in no mood to cajole. Stopping a moment, he pointed across the wide street. A building of whitewashed clapboard stood there, with a sign above its door which read DOCTOR SAMUEL F. QUICK in tall black letters.
They crossed the street and let themselves into the place, a bell over the door announcing their arrival.
“Just a moment,” came a man’s voice from the office beyond the small reception room in front. They stood and waited until a young woman about Mattie’s age emerged from the back. She had pale yellow hair and was dressed in a blue lawn walking dress which was pretty and, as far as Mattie could tell, very fashionable. She wore a small hat on top of the curls gathered on her head, and she smiled brightly at them both as she passed and left the office. While she seemed pleasant enough, Mattie could not see the sense in a hat so small that it did not shade your face or neck, and did little else except make a nuisance of itself with hatpins and such.
“Well,” LaBoeuf said in a low voice, and Mattie glanced up to see him looking after the girl as she disappeared down the sidewalk.
“Well what?” Mattie asked, but she did not receive a reply, for at that moment a man emerged from the back office. Mattie guessed him to be about fifty years old, or perhaps fifty-five. He was short and round, with steel grey hair and “Burnsides” on his face. His complexion was ruddy, and he wore a pair of thin, wire-rimmed spectacles on his nose.
“You do not look like any kind of person I have seen in these parts before,” the doctor stated, examining LaBoeuf with blatant curiosity. He turned his dark eyes on Mattie. “You are mighty peculiar yourself.”
“If we are newcomers to your town, that is an impudent way to welcome us,” Mattie replied.
LaBoeuf sighed impatiently. “I am not from these parts; I am a Texas Ranger. I am on the trail of a man named Cunningham who I understand was in Morrilton as recently as yesterday. The man is considerably injured. I would like to know whether he came to you for assistance.”
“I do not mind telling you that this Cunningham passed through here yesterday afternoon,” Dr. Quick began, giving a rueful shake of his head. “I cleaned and stitched up a rather nasty cut on his neck which had started to fester. It was a grisly wound, and I am surprised he did not die from the loss of blood when it was first dealt to him.”
LaBoeuf turned and glanced at Mattie with his eyebrows raised, as if to say that she had done a good job. She ignored him and looked at the doctor.
“What happened then?” she asked.
“He absconded without paying me. The man is a thief. I ought to have learned by now never to trust his type, and to demand payment upfront.”
“His type?” LaBoeuf asked.
“Yes – dissolute, violent sorts. His degeneracy was discernible to me immediately upon making his acquaintance, but I am a Christian man and would not turn him away. Did you not notice this? His kind is the reason I gave up doctoring in the western territories and returned east, to more civilised country,” Dr. Quick replied.
“Did he leave you with any impression of where he might be headed?” LaBoeuf asked.
“Not as such. He talked ceaseless nonsense as I tended his wound. He did make mention of his mother, who he said resides in Arkadelphia. But when I turned away to wash my instruments, he was off my table and out the door without so much as a by-your-leave,” Dr. Quick said. “I notified the Sheriff and they are looking for him, but to no avail.”
“I see,” LaBoeuf said. “I reckon he likely left town not long after, then. Do you know if he had any connections in Morrilton, anyone with whom he might have stayed?”
“None that he spoke of.”
“Well, you have been helpful. We thank you,” LaBoeuf said, tipping his hat to the doctor and turning to leave. Mattie had little choice but to follow.
“Are we going to speak to the Sheriff?” Mattie asked as they left Dr. Quick’s office.
“I suspect the law here will be about as helpful as your Sheriff Morris.” LaBoeuf stopped short on the board sidewalk and looked out over the street, frowning in contemplation. “Yes, I think he is headed to Arkadelphia. I have an inkling he will tarry there to recuperate, and then head west.”
“You have an inkling?” Mattie repeated. “What do you mean, an inkling?”
“I mean that judging by my knowledge of his movements and his associates, I expect that Cunningham has ‘gone to ground’ at his mother’s in Arkadelphia. He will have to pass through Hot Springs on his way, and there he can find entertainment of the sort he likes. Gambling and drinking, I mean.”
“I see,” Mattie said. She nodded. “In that case, let us make tracks for Hot Springs.”
LaBoeuf shaded his eyes and looked up at the sky. The sun was sinking quickly towards the western horizon. He glanced at Mattie. “Did you have your heart set on sleeping in a boarding house tonight, or would you mind another night in the wilderness?”
“It seems foolish to waste both time and money staying in town,” Mattie replied. “Also I do not wish to stay in a boarding house more often than is necessary, for I do not relish the gossip and impertinent questions.”
“Indeed, gossip. Do you not think that some folks will find it scandalous, a young unmarried woman travelling the country unaccompanied but for an unmarried man?”
“Yes, I do think some folks will find it scandalous. Well they should. You ought to,” LaBoeuf replied.
“Why should I? We are hardly a pair of eloping ‘lovebirds.’ I am out for business the same as you. I know I am in the right, only I have no desire to be stared at or talked about.”
“Lovebirds, indeed,” LaBoeuf muttered. He shook his head. “Let us fetch the horses. We will cross the river, at least, and see how far west we can get before it is dark.”
“All right,” Mattie said, excited at the progress they were making. LaBoeuf tilted his head and gave her a curious look.
“A smile! That is a rare thing from you. I reckon you are enjoying yourself on this adventure,” he said, his voice taking on a teasing tone.
Mattie sobered instantly. “Do not be silly, Mr. LaBoeuf. I am on this errand for practical reasons alone.”
“Haw!” he responded, but he said no more. They walked to the livery, and soon they were on the trail once more.
“A plum thicket? Truly?” LaBoeuf asked, craning about in his saddle to cast his sceptical gaze on her.
“Truly. On a goat,” Mattie replied.
They had crossed the Arkansas River for the second time, and they were now headed on a southwest course in the direction of Hot Springs. Sunset was upon them as they passed through flat country whose vista was broken only by a handful of small farms. The wind had grown colder, and Mattie hoped they would find trees or some other shelter soon.
“And this was a dare that was put to you?”
“It was,” Mattie said. “I do not take up notions such as riding goats through plum thickets for their own sake.”
LaBoeuf considered this for a moment. “I did not know that girls were fond of dealing strange and unladylike dares to one another.”
“I do not know whether or not they are. This particular dare was doled out by a boy with whom I attended school.”
“How long did your parents allow you to be at school?”
“I left school when I was 10 to help my father manage the farm,” Mattie replied. She urged Alma forward and brought her up alongside LaBoeuf, for the roadway was now wide enough to allow them to travel two abreast. Sal and Alma seemed pleased enough about it, bending their heads together as they walked.
“And did you have many boys as your friends?”
“Not especially,” Mattie replied, and gave him a sidelong glance, uncertain whether he was “pulling her leg.” The truth was that she had not had many friends in school at all, girls or boys. Papa used to like to say that Mattie was born as serious as doomsday. That was true, and other children had always seemed to find her peculiar. There was a girl named Ida Brewer whose farm was near theirs, and they often walked to and from the schoolhouse together. Ida was sensible and not as silly as the other children, but she was meek, and Mattie always felt as though Ida was like her hostage, and the other girl would have been as contented to walk alone.
It had not much mattered, and it did not make Mattie sad or regretful to think of it now. Her younger siblings had been fine playmates, and she had always liked Papa’s company best, in any case.
“The only girl I knew growing up was my sister, Claudine,” LaBoeuf mused. “She has always had a very sweet and gentle temperament, and would not be found riding goats through plum thickets. Not like... Well.” His words trailed off, and he frowned.
“Not like me,” Mattie said, finishing for him. She felt somewhat stung, although she did not know why she should, and she turned away as her cheeks reddened.
“I do not know why I should be shocked,” LaBoeuf continued. “From all I know of you, you were born without a fearful bone in your body.”
Mattie found herself without much of a response, and so she said simply, “I have a reasonable fear of fools, and that is all,” and they fell silent for some time, the road passing easily beneath their horses’ hooves. “Sal seems a responsive and steady mount,” Mattie observed, after a spell. “Do you ever use those spurs on her?”
LaBoeuf seemed perplexed for a moment, glancing down at his feet, dug deep in his stirrups. “Ah,” he said, looking back up, but not at Mattie. “No, I do not find that I have need of them with her.”
“Then why do you wear them? Surely even you are not so vain that you would wear spurs that you do not use.”
There was a long pause, so long in fact that Mattie thought LaBoeuf intended to ignore her question altogether. She was about to badger him when he spoke.
“I am partial to the sound they make when I walk,” he said, his voice low and uncharacteristically cowed.
Thinking his pride had been battered enough, Mattie said nothing in reply, but she could not help the smile which spread across her face. LaBoeuf shot her a look of annoyance, and did not say anything more. They rode in silence for some time, their horses’ heads drooping with their plodding pace. They were growing tired.
“Your sister, Claudine – where is she?” Mattie asked eventually, attempting to settle on some topic about which they could speak without much risk of contention. “You mentioned also that you have three brothers. Do they live in Texas?”
“No, they do not,” LaBoeuf replied. “My sister lives in Pineville, Louisiana, with her husband and children, and our mother. My father was a lawyer in Pineville, and that is where we grew up. My brothers have settled in the Dakota Territory, Colorado, and California, respectively. They have families there.”
“My mother’s people are from Monterey,” Mattie said. “I have met my Grandfather Spurling only once, when he came to visit us with his second wife, but I was very small. Where my Grandfather lives, you can see the ocean from the house. I would like someday to see California, but I doubt I ever shall. Have you been to California?”
“I have not. In fact I have never been west of Tucson.”
Mattie would not have minded hearing more about LaBoeuf’s family, but they crested a small hill then and found themselves on the rim of a shallow valley filled with dense forest. They stopped, and LaBoeuf surveyed the land before them for a moment.
“I propose we camp in these woods tonight, for it is hard to guess what shelter will be found beyond,” he said, in a decisive tone which suggested that his was not a proposal at all. It rankled Mattie, but she was too tired to harangue him, and in any case, she happened to agree.
“That is fine. I believe the horses are played out,” she replied.
They made their camp nearby in the shelter of some large pine trees, close to the banks of a muddy crick which Mattie figured must drain into the Arkansas. Once the horses were fed and watered and tied to a line so they could stretch their tired backs and graze, LaBoeuf made a small fire and Mattie set about making their supper from what was left of the turkey, some corn mush, and dried apples.
Twilight gathered as they ate, and soon their fire was the only light to be seen. When they had finished, LaBoeuf leaned against the fallen trunk of an oak tree and smoked his pipe. Mattie sat nearby, looking into the fire. She was exhausted, and her injuries were plaguing her. The lump on her head throbbed with particular fierceness now, and she longed for sleep.
“I ought to cut one of these saplings and make a fishing pole,” LaBoeuf said, apropos of nothing. “That crick looks likely for catfish. It is the sort of place they like, for they can laze about in the bottoms gathering up all manner of trash as it is swept down to the river.”
“The thought of catching fish bait in the dark does not appeal to me even for the sake of some catfish, but you may do as you please,” Mattie replied.
LaBoeuf tipped his hat back on his head and reached over, retrieving a brown bottle of whiskey from some hidden place. He uncorked it and regarded it for a moment before holding it out to her. “Care for a smile?” he asked.
Mattie frowned at him. “I am no adventuress. You may keep the drink for yourself.”
LaBoeuf made a sort of choking sound and shot her a scandalized look. “Adventuress! A simple refusal would have sufficed, Miss Mattie Temperance.”
Mattie did not respond. Silence fell, but for the shuffling of the horses, the crackling of the fire, and the periodic glassy clink of LaBoeuf’s liquor bottle. Some time passed, and Mattie became aware that LaBoeuf was scrutinizing her rather fixedly in the firelight. She looked at him.
“Nineteen,” he said, nodding. “I guess you must be round about nineteen by now.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I was considering how old you were when first we met, and how old you must be now. Am I correct when I say you are nineteen?”
“You have spent too much time in the wilderness chasing criminals if you believe that this sort of impertinent talk is tolerated by people of good society,” she replied.
“Hm,” LaBoeuf said. He paused there and drank from his bottle. “My sister was married when she was your age.”
Mattie’s thought was that the same was true of Mama, but she did not say so. “That is very interesting. I wonder if your sister knows that her brother takes pleasure in bothering folks with rude and tiresome questions.”
“My sister certainly does know that, and I believe she would say that is why I became a lawman,” LaBoeuf replied. “Do you have a beau, or do the young men of Yell County cower at the prospect of contending with your razor tongue?”
They had been getting along all right that day, and Mattie did not understand why LaBoeuf had begun harassing her. “You ought not to sneer so readily at the notion of temperance. That liquor has put the devil in you.”
“Haw haw!” said LaBoeuf, his expression smug. “I see you will not be drawn out.”
Mattie stared at him a moment longer, confused by his behaviour. “I am tired. I believe I will sleep now. Goodnight.”
She stood and collected her bedroll, which she laid out in the spot where she had been sitting, close to the fire. She rested her head against her saddle, and turned her back on LaBoeuf, and the fire.
In spite of her fatigue, Mattie did not fall asleep right away, for LaBoeuf stayed up drinking and throwing fresh logs on the fire for some time. She could not escape the sensation that his eyes lingered on her back, nor did she wish to turn over and have her suspicion confirmed.
Eventually sleep won her, and she remembered nothing more.
Chapter 5: a sight for sore eyes
It took Mattie and LaBoeuf nearly two days to reach Hot Springs, arriving in the town just before sunset on the second day.
The lands they passed through, heading southwest, were thick with pine woods and sparsely populated. There were only occasional small farms in clearings as they went, and Mattie found that the people of this part of Arkansas were not nearly so friendly and neighbourly as they were in Yell County. Often they simply stood in their dark doorways, staring at Mattie and LaBoeuf as they passed, and no smile or hail of welcome was sent their way. Mattie was disappointed. She had thought all of Arkansas was filled with generally decent folk, but the dwellers of these piney hills and valleys seemed coarse.
With little else to occupy the saddle-bound hours, they talked, and Mattie soon came to know many things about LaBoeuf, including the fact that his full name was Virgil Emery Theo LaBoeuf, he would rather eat dirt out of the road than ever again lay eyes on a piece of hardtack, and that although he thought his sister’s husband to be a “cussed fool” he enjoyed visiting them in Pineville when he had the leisure, for his five nieces and nephews there were very amusing. She also found that when he left off drinking whiskey, things were much pleasanter between them.
For her part, Mattie felt at liberty to speak of her own siblings, and of her plans for the farm. On that second afternoon, as they approached Hot Springs, she found herself talking about her father, and his many schemes, and the little sojourns they used to take to hunt on the Petit Jean, and how he loved to play tricks and make Mama laugh. After some tales she fell silent, thinking on what tales she might have been able to tell had Tom Chaney not come into their lives and cruelly and unjustly ended her father’s. Five years had passed since his death, but that slight had grown only marginally easier to bear. Some sad or pensive look must have crossed her face, for LaBoeuf cleared his throat and spoke.
“Although it is the natural way of things for children to bury their parents, it is a hardship to lose a beloved parent when you are young,” he said. “My own father passed out of this world when I was but twelve years old.”
“What happened to your father?” Although LaBoeuf had spoken of his family, he had mentioned his father only in an oblique way which led Mattie to believe that he had died.
“He took a wound at Sharpsburg which festered and killed him. My mother was devastated, and with my older brothers away fighting, she had but my sister and me to comfort her.” LaBoeuf paused here and looked out at the horizon for a moment before continuing. “I wanted nothing more than to run as fast as I could to Maryland and put a bullet in those men who killed my father. I tried to enlist but they would not take me even as a drummer boy, small as I was. Of course by the time I was fifteen, they were not quite so particular.”
Mattie had heard about LaBoeuf’s truncated and ignoble service in the war during their previous adventure. She thought of how heartsick his mother must have been, with her husband dead and all her sons off fighting. Mattie wondered if, having already been widowed, the woman saw any glory in those last months of war, or if she simply wanted her sons to return home safely. Mama used to say that she had not cared if the Union won the war and burned them all out of their homes, so long as Papa came back to her in whatever condition God saw fit to send him.
“Your mother must have been greatly relieved to have you all at home again, when all was said and done,” Mattie said.
“Yes, she was,” LaBoeuf replied. “It did not last long, for soon we were all off scattered to the four winds, but by then she was occupied enough with seeing Claudine married and settled, and we have always been diligent in our regular letters to her.”
“Do you enjoy correspondence, Mr. LaBoeuf?”
“Certainly, both the sending and the receiving of it,” he replied. He frowned, and cleared his throat. “Although at times we are very busy in Ysleta, we do have our ‘dry spells,’ so to speak, and it is a fine thing to have letters to read, and to respond to. Perhaps when all this business is done, you would like to send me a letter from time to time.”
“All right,” Mattie said. She felt a smile tug at her mouth, and she turned her face away, feeling oddly hesitant for him to know how much the thought of an occasional letter from him pleased her. Sourly, she reflected that already she was turning into a silly old spinster.
They rode on in silence for some time longer, until the pine-forested hills began to give way to a gently sloping valley which contained a small, pretty town in its basin.
“I believe that is Hot Springs,” LaBoeuf said, reining Sal to a halt.
“It is a handsome place,” Mattie observed.
“You may not find it so handsome when you get a taste of what goes on here. There are parts which are fine and civil, and in fact downright grand, but it is a town full of gamblers, taverns, and music halls. I understand that it is a popular stop for eloping ‘lovebirds,’ also.”
Mattie pursed her lips, her cheeks feeling unaccountably warm. “I see now why Cunningham would make certain to pass through.”
“Indeed,” replied LaBoeuf. “We should not delay if we want to find somewhere to stay and get the lay of the place tonight.”
On riding into Hot Springs and finding themselves on what appeared to be the main street, Mattie thought the little town even prettier up close than it had looked from a distance. There was a block of respectable hotels whose signage boasted mineral treatments for relaxation and every kind of ailment. The buildings gleamed white in the sun, their wide fronts supported by enormous columns. It was a handsome effect, although privately Mattie thought it ostentatious.
Near the train depot, LaBoeuf stopped and spoke with a young boy selling hot peanuts. The boy pointed up into the town, and after LaBoeuf favoured him with a coin, they rode in that direction. They soon found themselves traversing a block which housed a different character of hotel altogether.
These hotels were neither respectable nor grand, and most had rough taverns on their main floors. LaBoeuf stopped in front of one, dismounted, and began tying Sal to the hitching post. Mattie followed suit. This hotel called itself the Princess Hotel. Its clapboard front was grey and weathered, its once bright red sign faded to a rusty brown. Thin, discoloured curtains flapped limply out of the open windows in the upper floors, and the sidewalk out front was littered with broken glass.
LaBoeuf paused on the stoop of the ugly little building, and turned to look at her. He regarded her for a moment before speaking. “I reckon it would be a useless exercise to ask that you stay out here and let me go in alone,” he said.
Mattie considered it, and then nodded. “Yes, it would be.”
“All right then.” He led the way, holding the door open for her rather solicitously.
“Thank you,” Mattie said. His courtesy surprised her, although on reflection she was not sure why, for his manners had always been agreeable enough to her, if not his opinions.
Although the Princess presented itself as a hotel, it seemed that its primary purpose was a tavern, for the front doors opened directly into a wide room which was filled with small, round tables, and dominated by a broad wooden bar. There was a doorway to the left which led off to a foyer containing a desk and a staircase. The tavern was dusty and stuffy, and nearly empty of people.
A man was slumped over at the end of the bar, a half-full glass of whiskey clutched in one limp hand. The barkeep was wiping glasses with a dingy rag at the other end. A slight young woman carrying a pile of dirty linens came through the room, eyeing LaBoeuf and Mattie with great suspicion before disappearing into a back room beyond the bar.
They approached the bar, and LaBoeuf leaned forward to speak to the barkeep, who did not look up from his work.
“Sir, I am looking for information about a man by the name of Albert Cunningham. Do you know him?” LaBoeuf reached into his buckskin coat and removed a coin, which he placed on the bar top.
The barkeep paused his wiping, and looked at the coin. He then looked up at LaBoeuf. “Who are you to be looking for information?”
“I am a Texas Ranger,” LaBoeuf said in an important tone, “and Mr. Cunningham is in considerable trouble with the law. Your assistance would be appreciated.”
There was a groan from the man at the end of the bar, and what sounded like it might have been a belch. Mattie wrinkled her nose.
“This man is taller than me, but shorter than him,” she said, gesturing at LaBoeuf. “He has brown hair and blue eyes, and he will have had a bandaged wound on his neck. Do you know him?”
The barkeep seemed about to respond when the man at the end of the bar groaned again and began to speak, his voice a low slurring of words.
“Shitfire!” he swore. “I had a suspicion that chasing after that damn stock thief was a fool notion, and here is the proof. If I had known the two of you were after him, I woulda stayed home. Surely he will turn himself over to the law to save himself the aggravation of being followed by Sergeant LaBoeuf and his deputy, Mattie Ross.”
The speaker was Rooster Cogburn.
“Oh, hell,” LaBoeuf muttered under his breath.
“Marshall!” Mattie exclaimed, spinning about to look at the grizzled man leaning heavily on the bar, his stool wobbling as he tried to stand.
“Hidy, Cogburn. What brings you to Hot Springs?” LaBoeuf asked.
“Dad blame it,” Cogburn cursed, ignoring LaBoeuf and giving his grubby coat a sharp yank. He appeared to be tangled up in his clothing, and his holster. He also appeared to be inebriated.
“Do you require assistance?” Mattie asked, approaching him. He stopped his fussing and sat back on the stool, peering at her with his one eye.
“Ah, it is you. Thought the drink had got to me and I was seeing imps and fairies. Hmph,” he said, turning away to finish off his glass of whiskey with a grimace.
“Yes, it is I, Mattie Ross,” Mattie replied. “You are a ‘sight for sore eyes,’ Marshall. How came you to be in Arkansas? I heard you had gone to Texas.”
“Texas! Do not speak to me about that dry, godforsaken cow patch. The whole blasted state can go to the devil. I did not care a whit for it,” he said.
LaBoeuf cleared his throat. “I believe Cogburn said he was on the trail of a stock thief. What stock thief is that, Cogburn?”
“I am looking for your man Cunningham. He is wanted for murder in San Antonio, and I am after the bounty on him,” Cogburn replied.
“Ah,” LaBoeuf said. He glanced at the barkeep, and then back at Cogburn. “Perhaps we should have our parley in private.”
After procuring another drink, Cogburn followed LaBoeuf to a table in the corner, but not without considerable grumbling. The three of them sat down, LaBoeuf with his back to the near-empty room.
“What do you know about Cunningham?” LaBoeuf asked.
“I know he is a canny son-of-a-bitch,” Cogburn replied. He glanced at Mattie, and then cleared his throat. “Man’s a stock thief. Shot a range detective down in San Antonio and lit out. Been tracking him for near two months. What do you know about him?”
“I know he is wanted for murder and stock thievery in your parts, and for murder in mine. He has been a thorn in the side of the law across Texas and Arkansas, and I aim to put a stop to it.”
“Hm,” Cogburn replied. He nodded at Mattie. “How’s she figure into it?”
Before Mattie could open her mouth, LaBoeuf spoke. “Cunningham was in Yell County six days ago, and happened on Mattie alone. He... Well, he attempted to kill her, but she fought him off and damn near killed him, truth be told. I got to Dardanelle that very night and when I realised that the local law enforcement would not assist me, I made to continue after the man. Mattie does not have much faith in my abilities, and insisted on coming along.”
Mattie glared at LaBoeuf. He had adapted fine to her presence, and seemed to welcome her company over the last few days. Now here he was putting on a big show for Cogburn. “I know I do not need to tell you to pay no mind to LaBoeuf’s guff, Marshall,” she said. “Cunningham has one hundred dollars in cash money which he stole from me, and I want it back. I will get it back.”
“That will be quite a feat,” Cogburn replied.
“Why is that?” Mattie asked.
“Because Cunningham is gone. I have been here for the better part of a day and he was already gone when I got here. I expect your hundred dollars in cash money is lining the register drawers of every watering hole on this street, and resting on a few bureaus and in some garter belts, besides.”
“Cogburn,” LaBoeuf said, a warning in his tone. He spared Mattie a glance, and then cleared his throat. “Have you any idea of where he may have gone, or has the trail gone cold?”
“He has gone to Arkadelphia,” Cogburn replied. He took a swig of his whiskey.
LaBoeuf stared at him, incredulous. “You know this and yet you have not pursued him? When did you discern this information?”
“Earlier today. Seems Cunningham has loose lips when he’s got a drink in him and a dancing girl on his knee.” Cogburn laughed at this, and polished off his drink.
LaBoeuf was not quite so amused. “You could be near Arkadelphia by now if you had not tarried. And for what? So you could get your fill of drink and gambling and dancing girls yourself, I have no doubt. I thought I had witnessed the depth of your inattention to duty five years ago, but I see now that you can sink lower still.”
“You were quite willing to delay the start of your pursuit in order to make sure I stayed put in Yell County. This is not so very different,” Mattie pointed out. In truth, she agreed with LaBoeuf, but his high-handedness rankled her as it always did.
“Not so very different? No, it is not so very different excepting that I offered to stay so that you would feel safe. I suppose you will say that Cogburn wished to do the same for the town’s stores of whiskey,” LaBoeuf replied. He fixed her with a look which was downright petulant.
“Do not be ridiculous,” Mattie replied. She turned back to Rooster. “Are you going to continue your pursuit of Cunningham, Marshall? If so, when did you plan to depart?”
“In the morning. I have seen the sights of Hot Springs, and I do not care to see much more.”
“We will go with you,” LaBoeuf said. “The two of us can discuss the matter of the bounty later.”
“The two of you? What about my share of the bounty?” Mattie asked.
LaBoeuf and Rooster both turned and looked at her. “Your share?” LaBoeuf echoed.
“Yes, my share. I am assisting in Cunningham’s capture the same as you two are, am I not? This is not as it was before; I am not employing either of you to catch him for me. I want my one hundred dollars in cash money back, and if the three of us apprehend the man, I am entitled to one third of the bounty on his head,” Mattie replied.
“It seems my punishment for tarrying here in Hot Springs has been delivered swiftly in the form of the two of you,” Rooster said. “For now I must not only tolerate your chatter, but I must lose two thirds of my pay, as well.”
“If that is your view on the matter, Mr. LaBoeuf and I are doing just fine on our own and can continue on without you,” Mattie replied, standing up. “We need not waste any more time here. Come along, Mr. LaBoeuf.”
“Do not tell me to ‘come along.’ I am not one of your field hands,” LaBoeuf said. “We will carry on as a company. We can talk terms tomorrow, when we are on the track again.” He did not say this to Mattie, but directly to Rooster, who looked at LaBoeuf for a long moment before he nodded in reply. Mattie narrowed her eyes, sensing that some conversation was happening to which she was not privy, but she said nothing.
“Come,” LaBoeuf said. He reached out and grasped the sleeve of her coat. “We ought to secure lodgings for the night.”
“You are not my field hand and I am not yours, so you have no cause to order me about, either,” Mattie replied. She looked at Cogburn. “Where do you plan on staying tonight, Marshall?”
“I have a room upstairs,” he replied, gesturing vaguely at the upper floor of the hotel.
“I wonder whether they have rooms available,” Mattie began. “Perhaps -”
“We will go find a boarding house and return to make our plans after we have had our supper,” LaBoeuf interrupted, tipping his hat to Rooster. He closed his hand around Mattie’s wrist and pulled her away from the table.
“You are behaving very strangely. Not to mention that you are being violent and rude,” Mattie said as he dragged her out of the hotel. The sun was setting quickly and the street was lit by the gas lamps in the windows of the hotels and taverns. “The hour is late and it may be a hard task finding rooms elsewhere. Should we not at least inquire as to whether there are any vacant rooms here?”
“This is a rough establishment,” LaBoeuf said, leading her to the post where Alma and Sal were hitched. “We will find a boarding house that is more suitable. Your mother would not want you to stay there, surely.”
“Marshall Cogburn is staying there.”
“He is no longer a Federal Marshall,” LaBoeuf replied, and he sounded annoyed.
“All right, but I do not see why we should not stay with him. Would that not be the most reasonable course? The Princess Hotel is not fancy, but that is all right. It would not cost us much and we would get an earlier start in the morn-”
“Why will you never defer to my superior wisdom? Why do you insist on questioning every decision I make?”
“Despite what you may think, I do not conduct myself in this manner with an aim of vexing you,” Mattie replied. “I question this decision because it does not reason to walk across a strange town to find room and board when we might at least have made an inquiry about vacancies there.”
LaBoeuf exhaled heavily, his eyes narrowed. It was clear that he was considerably aggravated. “The Princess Hotel is a gambling room and a brothel, and you would not be safe or easy there. Such establishments are the typical ‘bill of fare’ for your hero Rooster Cogburn, but I reckon that the degree of offense you would suffer in staying there would be too great even for you, who so enjoys being righteously offended.”
“Oh,” Mattie replied merely, frowning. She was annoyed with LaBoeuf’s patronizing lordliness, but she also felt puzzled that he would concern himself with keeping her from ugly and dangerous places. She could not help but marvel that he still thought her so delicate.
“I wonder that you are familiar enough with brothels and gambling rooms that you were able to recognize one so readily,” Mattie said. She pulled her arm free from his hold, and began to unhitch Alma.
“It is beneath my dignity to respond to the implication you are making, so I will merely say that as an officer of the law, I am familiar with all of the places where criminals find their kind,” LaBoeuf replied, in a rather testy tone of voice.
Seeing no gain in provoking him further, Mattie brought Alma around to the hitching post and mounted. LaBoeuf did the same, and began leading them back up the street towards the train depot. LaBoeuf again stopped and asked the boy selling hot peanuts for directions. The boy suggested the Hickory boarding house, which was only one block from the depot.
They found the Hickory to be small and unadorned but neat enough and, in Mattie’s opinion, as respectable as could be expected in this curious town. There were two rooms left, and gladly Mattie and LaBoeuf took them.
By the time they had seen to the horses and washed and changed – Mattie trading her trousers for the dun brown calico dress she had brought – it was suppertime. Mattie came down from her room and found LaBoeuf standing at the bottom of the staircase. He had evidently been waiting for her, for he looked up at her approach and cleared his throat.
“Let us hope that the food here is more generous than at the Monarch boarding house,” he said under his breath as she descended the stairs and fell into step beside him. He seemed to be back in a more conciliatory mood.
They took two seats at the long table in the dining room. LaBoeuf pulled a chair out for her before seating himself next to her. Mattie glanced at him, wondering at his changeableness, but his face revealed nothing as he removed his hat and placed it under his chair.
The supper was good enough. It was boiled ham with potatoes and cabbage, served with thick slices of bread with butter, as well as apple sauce and pickles whose spicy taste was novel to Mattie. Her mother’s pickles were mellower in flavour, and sweeter. Mattie enjoyed these peculiar new pickles very much.
“I have no quarrel with your cornbread, but I own that it is a pleasant change to have a slice of bread,” LaBoeuf said in a low voice. “I hope you will not take offense to my saying so.”
“I take no offense at all, for I agree with you,” Mattie replied. “I like these pickles, as well. We do not make them so spicy at home, but I own that perhaps ours could be improved in this way.”
“In Texas I believe it is customary to add the seeds of a hot pepper to your pickle brine for extra spice. You ought to get yourself some hot pepper seeds and try it.”
“I did not realise the two of you were traveling together, Mr. LaBoeuf, Miss Ross,” came a voice from the head of the table. It was Mrs. Lovett, the widow who owned the Hickory boarding house. She was a small lady with dark brown eyes and a peering expression that reminded Mattie of a sparrow. Her hair was grey, and she wore “widow’s weeds” and a tiny pair of spectacles perched on her nose. “If I had but known this, I would have tried to make some arrangement to room you closer together. As it is, you are in opposite ends of the house!” She giggled. Her laugh was a high, twittering sound.
“The proximity of our rooms is irrelevant, for we are only staying this one night,” Mattie replied. LaBoeuf’s elbow nudged hers. “That said, we thank you for your concern.”
“My dear, it is my pleasure. Although I think perhaps it is your loving parents, wherever they may be, whom I am doing a good turn by keeping some distance between you and Mr. LaBoeuf.” Mrs. Lovett smiled conspiratorially at Mattie before letting loose a fresh peel of giggles.
LaBoeuf made a sort of choking noise in his throat, but Mattie continued to stare at Mrs. Lovett in shock. “Mrs. Lovett, I assure you that whatever assumption you have made about Mr. LaBoeuf and myself is unfounded. Mr. LaBoeuf is accompanying me strictly for business reasons.”
“Not to worry, dears. You are not the first couple to come here on the sly, and I doubt you will be the last. Your little deception is safe with me. Will you be getting married tomorrow?”
“There is no deception,” Mattie replied, becoming annoyed. “Mr. LaBoeuf is a friend and a travelling companion and that is all. We have no plans to marry, on the sly or otherwise!”
“You ought not to be so picky,” said another guest, an older man sitting across from Mattie whose face was craggy and rough with day old stubble. He leaned his elbows on the table and pointed at her with his fork. “With that sour face and your arm besides, you are a spinster in the making, and that is a fact.”
Mattie clenched her fork in her hand and took a steadying breath as she glared at the uncouth boor of a man. Before she could speak, however, LaBoeuf cleared his throat.
“Now, see here,” he said. “That is no way to speak to a lady, spinster or no. I must insist that you apologize to her immediately.”
The man eyed LaBoeuf for a moment, as though weighing the merits of “calling his bluff.” He must have found his own hand wanting, for his eyes slid to Mattie’s. “Beg your pardon, miss,” he said. He returned to eating his supper, eyes fixed on his plate, and said nothing more.
“Ma’am, I must beg your pardon as well for disrupting your fine meal with this foolishness,” LaBoeuf said, looking down the table at Mrs. Lovett. “But I assure you that what Miss Ross says is the Gospel truth – we are not eloping sweethearts or anything of the sort. There is nothing romantic or untoward about our errand.”
Mrs. Lovett leaned forward, seemingly eager to learn more of this errand, however unromantic it may be, but another guest distracted her, and she turned away.
“I think our landlady has been tippling the sherry,” LaBoeuf said softly to Mattie.
Mattie did not reply. She did not care to say anything more at this table, which was apparently populated with gawkers and busybodies. It perturbed her also that her word alone was not enough to silence them, but LaBoeuf’s was.
After supper, they retreated to the front porch, where LaBoeuf stood against one of the whitewashed wooden pillars by the steps and smoked his pipe. Night had fallen, and rather than retiring for the evening, the people of Hot Springs were out in the streets in all their finery. At a hotel across the street, a couple climbed into a smart black carriage with wheels whose bright yellow paint gleamed in the light of the gas lamps. The lady wore a fine green velvet dress, and had some kind of black fur wrap for her bare shoulders. Mattie had never seen anything quite like it before, but did not care to say so to LaBoeuf.
“Well,” he said, once he had finished smoking his pipe. He cast a contemplative look over her. “I am going to hunt Rooster down and make arrangements for tomorrow. You need not come if you do not care to. The Lord alone knows what kind of rough bughouse he will have installed himself in by now.”
Mattie regarded him. She had trusted his word the day they agreed to set out for Cunningham, but he had bamboozled her. Although they had gotten along all right since, she did not trust that he would not, once again, come to some kind of agreement with Cogburn behind her back.
“No,” she said finally. “I believe I will go with you. It is likely that I will never find myself in Hot Springs again, and so I would like to have a look at the place before we depart.”
“All right,” LaBoeuf said. He took a step closer to her and held his elbow out. Peering curiously up at him, she took it. “What say we give those horses a rest and go on foot?”
Taken aback by his odd gallantry, she allowed him to lead her down the steps and out onto the sidewalk. They headed back in the direction of the Princess Hotel, a route which took them through the finer part of Hot Springs, and then the rougher part.
Mattie had never been in so wild and lawless a place. Even the western territories were by comparison rather civilized; here there was scarce evidence of any kind of civilization whatsoever. Or at least there was scarce evidence of the better parts of it. Instead there was only drink, and vice, and debaucheries of every imaginable sort.
Each tavern they passed was packed with men, so many that they spilled out into the street with regularity, bringing their loud shouts of laughter and their violence with them. More than once on their journey they passed men engaged in a scuffle. None of what Mattie saw altered her view that men behaved like beasts when permitted, and were all the more beastly when they had drink in them.
The angle of LaBoeuf’s arm was stiff and did not allow Mattie much freedom to manoeuvre. She supposed he did it in an effort to keep her from harm, but it was bothersome all the same. As they side-stepped two men fighting right in the street, Mattie spoke.
“What do you suppose prompts them to such violence? Is it the drink alone?”
“In my experience it is usually cards, or a woman, or some prior disagreement or conflict of tempers. I will own that the drink does not assist in pacifying anyone, however,” LaBoeuf said.
Mattie thought to say that, if that was so, LaBoeuf ought to know better than to drink at all, but things had been quarrelsome enough between them for one day, and so she said nothing. They soon arrived once more at the Princess Hotel, which was now crowded with drinkers and gamblers. The press of bodies was close enough once they were inside that Mattie extracted her arm from LaBoeuf’s grip and followed behind until he found Rooster seated alone at a small table near the back of the room.
“Here I thought both of you would have recollected your wits and decided to bow out,” Rooster said as Mattie and LaBoeuf sat down at the table.
“What, and leave you here?” Mattie asked. “What purpose is there in going ahead as separate parties when we can go ahead as friends?”
Taking her question to be rhetorical, Rooster did not reply, and took a swig of his drink instead.
“We have secured lodgings at the Hickory boarding house,” LaBoeuf said.
“How did you sign the register, there, LaBoeuf? Is she masquerading as your deputy, or your wife?”
LaBoeuf fixed Rooster with a look. Mattie could tell that he was beginning to find Rooster tiresome already, but he did not give voice to his aggravation. “I thought we might discuss our course of action for tomorrow,” he said.
“There is nothing to discuss,” Rooster replied.
“I do not think that is true. For one, there is the matter of the bounty -” LaBoeuf began, but Rooster interrupted him by dispatching the remainder of his drink and standing up, his chair falling to the floor behind him with a clatter.
“I will depart at first light and head south to Arkadelphia. Until then, I aim to go on a spree. You two may do as you like,” Rooster said. With that, he turned and departed.
“Well,” said LaBoeuf, looking uncomfortable.
Mattie regarded him. “Do not let me keep you from your fun.”
“Yes, your fun. Are you not going to join one of these card games, or see a music hall show, or visit one of the bathhouses?”
LaBoeuf seemed to consider something as he looked at her. “This town offers many diversions, but none interesting enough to tempt me. They do not resemble my idea of ‘fun.’”
“What then is your idea of fun, if it is not drinking or gambling or whoring?”
LaBoeuf’s face reddened. “One hardly knows how to respond to a question served with such sauce, especially from a supposed lady, but I will allow it,” he said. “When my duties do not demand my immediate attention, I will pass the time by reading. If the weather is fine, I enjoy fishing and hunting. I am not a great admirer of parlour games. They are too silly for my liking. I do like to hear music, although I have no aptitude for it myself.”
“I enjoy music as well,” Mattie replied. “I used to play the piano, although Mama is the true virtuoso in the family. Victoria has the voice of a songbird, and Papa used to play the fiddle. Little Frank has tried to pick the instrument up, but he is easily distracted and will not practice. We used to have ourselves a merry time when we were all together.”
“Am I to understand that you no longer play the piano, then?”
“I am able to pick out a simple melody and play a duet. My days of playing alone came to an end when I fell down that pit full of rattlesnakes,” Mattie replied.
“Ah,” LaBoeuf said. “I did warn you away from that pit.”
Mattie scoffed. “That is true. What you did not warn me about was that the kick of your Sharps-Carbine was worse than that of a mule.”
“Be that as it may, I wager it saved all of our skins that day,” LaBoeuf replied, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he looked at her.
“I think your sharp aim had as much to do with it, even if you are suddenly too humble to own to it,” Mattie said.
LaBoeuf looked at her in apparent puzzlement, as though he was trying to decide where the insult lay. His eyes moved above her face, and he cocked his head. “Your hair could use some attention,” he said.
Mattie looked away, her hand smoothing self-consciously over her plaits. Over the last two days, she had been unable to tidy it more than tucking errant wisps back in, and she knew she must look a shambles. Suddenly she felt mortified beyond what was appropriate to the situation. She stood, wanting to be alone.
“I think I will retire, Mr. LaBoeuf. We still have a long journey ahead of us when we leave this place, and I will take advantage of a comfortable sleep while I may. Goodnight.” With that, she turned and left him sitting in the tavern. He said her name once as she walked away, but she did not turn back.
Mattie walked back to the boarding house alone. The streets were hardly deserted, however. It seemed the people of Hot Springs did not care to keep the hours of decent folk. One tavern’s signage boasted of a musical revue of “dancing girls,” and as Mattie passed it, she could hear wild piano music coming from within. She paused in the long rectangle of light produced by the gas lamps inside, and caught a glimpse of rich red wallpaper and curtains edged with gold braid. Two women with bare shoulders and painted faces stood on a low stage, singing a bawdy tune.
“You planning on coming inside, or are you just trying to finagle a free show?” asked a man who leaned in the doorway to the tavern.
“I want no part in your ‘show’ at all, no matter if it is free or not. I aim to steer clear of hell in the hereafter. You may do as you please,” Mattie replied. She turned on her heel and hurried down the street and around the corner to their boarding house.
After stopping in to check on Alma and feed her a piece of dried apple, Mattie went up to her little room and latched the door behind her. The boarding house seemed safe enough, but one never knew what to expect in strange places filled with strange people.
Mattie changed into her nightgown, goose bumps breaking out on her skin as the cool night air touched it. She sat on the edge of the bed then and removed the pins from her hair, unwinding her plaits until her hair fell all around her shoulders. She brushed it out until it crackled with static. Then she painstakingly wove it into one long, uneven plait which fell plainly down the middle of her back. She said her prayers, and blew out the lamp, and went to sleep.
It seemed to her she had only been asleep a short while when she was awoken by a sound at her door. The doorknob rattled, and there was a thump, followed by the low, muffled sound of a curse. Mattie sat up and lit the lamp.
“Who is there?” she asked warily.
“LaBoeuf,” came the reply.
Frowning, Mattie pulled her dress on over her head and went to the door. She unlatched it and opened it a crack to find LaBoeuf peering in at her. She opened the door the rest of the way.
“It is you, Mr. LaBoeuf! You had me worrying that a stranger was at my door. What time is it? Is something the matter?”
LaBoeuf stood there in the dim light of the hallway, and he seemed to sway on his feet for a moment before steadying himself with a hand on the doorjamb.
“Cogburn is drunk,” he said. The stench of whiskey wafted off of him and Mattie stiffened.
“From the smell of you, it would seem he is not the only one,” she replied.
“Hm,” LaBoeuf said. He leaned forward, peering over her shoulder. “How is your room? It is to your satisfaction?”
“I am sure it would be fine if I could but sleep in it, as that is its intended purpose. Why are you here?”
“This is a rough place, and my room is quite far from yours, and so I thought...” His words trailed off and he regarded her silently, his eyes drifting down to her throat. He frowned. “Those bruises do not look much better.” He reached out one hand, and his thumb brushed against the exposed skin above her collar.
“Mr. LaBoeuf!” Mattie exclaimed, jumping back and clutching her collar closed. LaBoeuf snatched his hand back as surely as if she had rapped his knuckles. “It is not enough that you are imposing on me at my bedroom door, but now you think you can molest me in this way? I thought better of your manners than this, but I see I was right about drink putting the devil in you.”
LaBoeuf gave her a look which was at once chastened and annoyed, and he seemed to be biting back some retort.
“For the sake of peace I said nothing about your entering my bedroom to leave your letter the other day, but now you give me cause to revisit that offense,” Mattie said. “You are the very soul of arrogance. You are pompous, and audacious, and there will come a day when you will be humbled in your hubris. If not by human means, then by God’s own hand. A woman is not safe leaving her door unlocked with you about.”
LaBoeuf stepped back as though she had hit him in the chest. He seemed battered by her words, and opened his mouth to reply, but Mattie did not afford him the chance, instead shutting the door in his face and latching it.
Mattie stared at the door, her chest tight and hot with anger. He was the most insufferable man on earth, she was certain. After a moment, she heard him stir, and walk slowly down the hallway, the sound of his spurs dulled by his inebriated steps.
She went back to her bed and extinguished the lamp, but it was quite some time before she was able to fall back to sleep.
Chapter 6: divine providence
Mattie stood in her little room at the Hickory boarding house, peering through the semi-darkness at the clothes laid out on her bed. She had brushed her hair and tied it back with a thin piece of string at the nape of her neck, and scrubbed herself with fresh cold water from the pitcher until her skin was pink. The result of her efforts with her hair was not as tidy as she would have liked, but there was nothing to be done about it. She quickly dressed in Little Frank’s shirt and trousers, rolled up her dress and nightgown in her pack, and gathered the rest of her things. She went downstairs, finding the house quiet but for some stirring in the kitchen. Leaving her pack in the foyer, Mattie went outside to see to the horses. When she stepped into the dim stable, she found Sal was already tacked and resting in her stall. Mattie quickly groomed Alma and checked her hooves before tacking her up and hurrying back to the house.
LaBoeuf sat on a chair on the front porch, smoking his pipe. He did not look at her as she ascended the steps and paused before the front door. She was about to speak when he cleared his throat.
“Mrs. Lovett tells me breakfast will be ready shortly,” he said, still not looking at her.
Mattie regarded him speculatively. “If I go in to eat, will you quit this place and attempt to rouse Cogburn and depart before I can catch you?”
LaBoeuf puffed once more on his pipe, and then stood and knocked the ashes out over the edge of the porch rail. He tucked the pipe into his coat, and stepped around her to open the door. “That is not my aim,” he said, and went inside. The door closed behind him.
Mattie looked out over the street. Smoke was beginning to rise from the chimneys and stovepipes, drawing thin blue lines against the pale sky. A mule cart piled high with cord wood was driving slowly down the street. The town of Hot Springs was awakening.
Mattie turned and went inside, into the dining room. Several of the other boarders were awake now, seated around the table, serving themselves from crocks and platters and tureens. Mattie sat down in the empty seat across from LaBoeuf, and filled her plate with fried eggs, biscuits, and grits. She refused the coffee that was offered to her by Mrs. Lovett. There was no buttermilk to be had.
LaBoeuf did not speak to her during the meal, nor as they prepared to leave, nor as they made their way back to the Princess Hotel to retrieve Rooster. Mattie attempted twice to draw him out, but both times he behaved as though he had not heard her speak. She gave up her efforts and rode at his side in silence.
When they arrived at the Princess Hotel, Rooster was waiting out front, mounted on a bay quarter horse gelding who stood resting one of his hind feet and snoozing, even in the din of the busy street. Rooster was smoking a cigarette.
“Hm,” Rooster said when Mattie and LaBoeuf came to a stop before him. “I thought we agreed that she would be on a train by now.”
“What do you mean?” Mattie asked, although she suspected what the two men were up to.
“We talked it through last night, me and Mr. LaBoeuf,” Rooster replied. “We both have a mind to put you on the train back to Yell County, but we reckon you will not go, and will make trouble for us if we attempt to use force on you. What do you say, sis?”
“I say you can be certain I will make trouble for you,” Mattie said. “You are trying to cheat me out of my one third share of the bounty, to say nothing of my one hundred dollars in cash money which I intend to retrieve from Cunningham. If you think you can simply put me on the train to Dardanelle and hear nothing more about it, you are both fools. That is larceny and I will take it to law.”
“There you have it,” said LaBoeuf, in a smug tone. “I told you that I attempted to get shot of her to no avail.”
Mattie glared at him. “A blind simpleton could have tracked you along the Arkansas River. If that was your best attempt at ‘getting shot’ of me, you ought to give consideration to another line of work.”
LaBoeuf glowered back at her for a moment, but did not reply. Rooster seemed to be struggling to stifle a smile. He eyed Mattie. “I hope you will keep your lawyer at bay this time. I have no desire to be berated.”
“I left a letter for Lawyer Daggett at home. Although you were of course not mentioned, I was very clear in saying that I had chosen this course for myself and would not be deterred. You will not be bothered,” Mattie assured him.
“All right, then,” Rooster said. He stuck his cigarette between his lips and gathered his reins in his hands. “Looks like you are out of luck again, LaBoeuf.”
With that, Rooster chirruped to his horse and started down the street in the direction of their course.
Mattie gave LaBoeuf one final look to express her displeasure, which he returned in kind. Mattie supposed that their friendship, such as it was, had met its end. She urged Alma onwards, and fell into step behind Rooster. Whether LaBoeuf followed or not, she found she hardly cared.
There was little conversation between the three of them as they travelled south towards Arkadelphia. It was slow going through those parts, for there were few clear roadways. They found themselves picking their way slowly between the slender trunks of pine trees instead of riding easy on the wide highway. Mattie thought that the ride to Arkadelphia would only take a day, but as the sun crested in the sky and then began its descent towards the western horizon, she realised that they would have to stop and make camp in the woods that night.
Finally the silence grew tiresome to her, and she cleared her throat.
“It seems a strange coincidence for the three of us to find ourselves together once more,” Mattie said. “It has the air of divine providence about it.”
“Divine providence,” Rooster repeated, in a rather mocking tone. “If being saddled with the two of you is divine providence, I reckon God has a cruel sense of humour.”
“Marshal Cogburn, that is blasphemy,” Mattie scolded.
“I am sure that blasphemy is the least of his sins,” LaBoeuf muttered from behind her.
“It may be blasphemy,” Rooster said, not having heard LaBoeuf, “but it is true all the same. I ought to have stayed in Texas, but I got it into my head that it was time for the wind to change, and this reward money was the way to change it. Fool notion if there ever was one.”
Rooster’s tongue loosened then, and he began to talk of what he had been up to during the last several years. He spoke of his adventures as a range detective, of fence-cutters and cattle thieves. Mattie glanced over her shoulder more than once to see what LaBoeuf thought about Rooster’s tales, him being a lawman from cattle country himself, but he said nothing, and pretended he did not notice her.
The sun sank below the trees, and they stopped in a small holler in the hills to make their camp. LaBoeuf strung a line for the horses while Mattie gathered firewood and a pail of water from a nearby stream. Rooster sat leaning against a hollow tree rolling a cigarette and dropping tobacco all over himself. Although the waste perturbed her, Mattie did not stop to help him, for she did not approve of his laziness.
Mattie made a little stew of salt pork and beans, with the last of the cornbread to sop it up. They had eaten almost all of their food, and their breakfast in the morning would be meagre.
“We must stop for supplies in Arkadelphia if we do not apprehend Cunningham there,” Mattie said when they had finished their meal and were sitting around the campfire with the darkness deepening all about them. “Perhaps fortune will be on our side and we will catch up with him.”
“Fortune, or plum luck,” Rooster replied. He sat smoking a cigarette and nursing a bottle of whiskey. Mattie’s mood had darkened when he pulled out the bottle, for she was not keen to tolerate Rooster’s particular brand of drunkenness. Her only consolation was that he did not offer any to LaBoeuf, and that LaBoeuf seemed to have run dry of his own store of whiskey. He sat opposite her, across the fire, smoking his pipe.
“If we can force some good information from Cunningham’s folks, we may yet catch up to him,” LaBoeuf said.
“That is a lot to hinge on one ‘if,’” Rooster replied.
LaBoeuf huffed out a short sigh to show his annoyance. “If you had pursued Cunningham with the expediency you ought to have, you might have him in hand, and Miss Ross and I would both be headed back to our respective homes. So you must pardon me if I am not interested in your criticisms of our present course.”
Rooster had nothing to say to this, and took a swig from his bottle instead. After tapping the ashes from his pipe, LaBoeuf lay down on his bedroll, put his hat over his face, and proceeded to ignore them both.
Mattie and Rooster were quiet for some time, the stillness of the night disturbed only by the crackling of the fire. Mattie looked over at Rooster, examining his face in the firelight. He had aged since last she saw him, and did not look well.
“I was sorry that you did not stay in Fort Smith long enough for me to pay you the reward which I promised you,” Mattie said. She looked down at her hand in her lap, and her voice softened. “Your departure also robbed me of the opportunity to properly thank you.”
Rooster said nothing.
“Did you receive any of my letters?” Mattie asked.
“Two or three,” he replied.
“I see. Has no one ever informed you that it is customary, when you receive a letter inquiring after your health, to send a reply in kind?”
“Hm,” he said. He glanced at her. “How is that arm of yours?”
“As well as can be expected,” Mattie replied.
“You get used to it,” he said.
“Yes, you do.”
There was a pause. Rooster did not seem eager to share news with Mattie, forcing her to ask questions of him. “How does the widow Potter?” she asked. “Or should I say, your wife?”
Rooster made a grumbling sort of noise in his throat. “We did marry some time ago in San Antonio. In the spring I took sick. She got it in her head that I had the ‘French pox.’ It weren’t. Just ague. Anyhow, she was set against me, and so I left. Been rambling the ranges since. Damn fool woman.”
“Perhaps you could go back to her now. She will see that you are not ill, and that she was in the wrong.”
“Too much trouble. Women are altogether too much trouble.”
“All fools are troublesome, regardless of their sex,” Mattie replied.
“I reckon you are right about that,” Rooster said. He threw the butt of his cigarette into the fire and took a pull from his bottle. “Tell me, sis. Your meeting with Cunningham, did it happen as LaBoeuf told it to me? He said the man tried to throttle you and you near cut his head clean off with a broken bottle.”
“That was the way of it,” Mattie confirmed.
“Hm,” Rooster replied. He was silent for a spell, staring into the fire. Finally he looked up and caught her eye. “Good girl. Too bad you did not quite manage it. To be short one like him in this world would be a fine thing, whether I go without that reward money or not.”
Mattie did not have a response to this, and so she said nothing, settling instead for staring once more into the fire. She thought about Cunningham, and the afternoon he fell upon her, and how she believed she had killed him, and how she had not felt one ounce of remorse for the bloody deed. Mattie frowned, and shifted her seat on the hard ground. She felt tired right down to her bones.
“I think I will sleep now,” she said, sitting up to reach for her blanket, which she had warming by the fire.
“I think I will sit for a while yet,” Rooster replied, as Mattie arranged her bed. “Perhaps tomorrow you can tell me what you have been doing to keep yourself busy up there in Yell County.”
“Perhaps,” she replied, smiling.
Mattie lay down with her head resting against her saddle. Although she was very tired, she did not fall immediately to sleep. With her eyes closed, she listened to the sound of the fire slowly dying, and of LaBoeuf’s soft nearby snores, and of Rooster humming almost too low to be heard:
The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies; she brings us glad tidings, and tells us no lies.
They arrived in Arkadelphia the following afternoon. It rained steadily all that day as they rode through the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains. The pine woods gave way to forests filled largely with bare trees, their wet bark black against the grey sky. Some trees still had their shrivelled brown leaves attached, but not many.
The weather put them all in a bad humour, and they did not talk much at all until they crossed into the outskirts of Arkadelphia.
“There is the post office,” Rooster said, pointing as they rode three abreast down what appeared to be the main street of the town. It was a wide avenue, with many businesses flanking each side. Many of the buildings were brick, and seemed quite fine. “Ought to be able to find out where we can find Cunningham’s people there, if the clerk is obliging.”
“We will question him and get our information, whether he is obliging or not,” said LaBoeuf.
“We will question him?” Rooster repeated. “She will question him.” He gestured with his reining hand at Mattie as they came to a stop in front of the squat clapboard building which advertised itself as the post office.
“You cannot think to send a woman in to do the work of the law,” LaBoeuf replied, a measure more scorn in his voice than Mattie thought was necessary.
“I can make inquiries and discern a lie as competently as either of you,” she said.
LaBoeuf spared her a withering glance, as though she were nothing more than a tiresome child.
“We are strangers here, and it is clear enough that you and I have a particular kind of business with the Cunninghams,” Rooster said. “If the clerk is a friend to those people, he may not talk. Mattie can play that she is a distant relation or some such, and the clerk will take more kindly to that, so long as she is not too peppery in her manner.”
“’Not too peppery’?” LaBoeuf repeated. “Haw!”
Mattie glowered at him, but did not favour him with a reply of any kind, “peppery” or not.
“Also that arm of hers will invite pity, which may grease the wheels,” Rooster said.
Mattie’s glare shifted from LaBoeuf to Rooster. That may have indeed been true, but he did not have to say it.
Silently she dismounted Alma and tied her to the hitching post outside the post office. Rooster and LaBoeuf followed suit. Mattie made to go inside, but LaBoeuf caught her by the elbow.
“You be careful, now,” he said.
Mattie pulled her arm out of his grasp. “I am sure I will scarcely be able to muddle my way through this task without you by my side, puffing up your chest and singing the praises of the Texas Rangers to anyone who cannot escape quickly enough.”
Her words contained more sarcasm than she typically liked to give, but LaBoeuf was intolerable. She turned and strode into the post office, the bell over the door tinkling to announce her.
The post office was a small room divided across the centre by a low counter topped with fine wooden latticework that stretched to the ceiling. Behind it, a clerk was sorting mail into the large honeycomb of mail slots which covered the rear wall. A narrow door led to a room behind.
“I’ll be with you in a moment,” said the clerk, without turning to look at her.
“Do not trouble; I am in no great hurry,” Mattie replied, attempting to soften her voice. She frowned. She did not think of herself as harsh, only forthright, but this playacting was a stretch for her.
The clerk turned around and came to the counter. He was a young man who she guessed to be about her age, still “wet behind the ears” and just old enough to use a razor. He was nice looking enough, with dark hair, combed and oiled, and brown eyes. Looking at her expectantly, his eyes dropped to her short arm. The slightest frown creased his brow, and when his eyes met hers again, they were equally full of curiosity and pity.
“How may I help you, miss?” he asked.
Mattie inhaled a deep breath and swallowed her irritation. “My name is Victoria Cunningham, and I am looking for relations I have here. I visited your town only once, many years ago, so I do not remember their exact address. I was hoping you might assist me. My cousin’s name is Albert Cunningham.”
“Oh,” the clerk said, his eyes dimming somewhat. “Miss, I regret to tell you that there has been some unpleasant business with your cousin which may interrupt your plans.”
“What kind of unpleasant business?”
“It is an unseemly thing to speak of, Miss.”
“Please,” Mattie said, stifling her impatience. “I would like for you to tell me what has happened.”
The clerk looked troubled a moment, and then he sighed. “Some weeks ago, the body of a young woman was pulled from the Oauchita River. I will spare you the grisly details. The sheriff believes that Albert Cunningham is responsible, and there is a warrant out for him.”
“I see,” Mattie replied. “How terrible. I am sure my dear aunt must be heartsick. Will you please tell me where I might find her?”
“Of course,” the clerk said, “of course! I would only be too happy to assist you in that regard.” He took a pad of notepaper and a pencil, and began to write. When he was finished, he tore the sheet from the pad, and paused with it clasped between his fingers.
“Do you know your letters?” he asked, that pitiful look returning to his eyes again.
“I am literate,” Mattie replied, her temper growing short. The clerk nodded, and passed her the slip of paper. She read it. He had pencilled a vague location on it in tidy, gently looping script. It described a place out the end of Pine Street.
“Thank you,” Mattie said. She tucked the paper into her coat pocket. “You have been most helpful, and I am obliged to you.”
“It was my pleasure,” he replied, favouring her with a warm and genuine smile. “God bless you, miss.”
Mattie did not know how to reply, and so she smiled stiffly and walked out of the little office.
It had stopped raining, although the sky was still the colour of gunmetal, and the streets sodden. LaBoeuf and Rooster were leaning against the side of the side of the building, several feet apart, smoking in mutual silence.
“The Cunninghams can be found on Pine Street,” she announced, handing the slip of paper to Rooster. “The clerk also informed me that Cunningham is wanted in this place for yet another murder of an innocent person.”
“We will make a federal marshal of you yet, sister,” Rooster said, grinning.
“Did you obtain directions to this place?” LaBoeuf asked. “None of us are natives of this city.”
“No, I did not,” she replied.
“Never mind it,” Rooster said. “We can get directions easily enough.” He tipped his chin at the traffic of wagons and carriages and pedestrians that filled the street.
They mounted and did exactly that, asking the way from a man driving an empty coal wagon. He was in his middle years, and had so much coal dust ground into his skin and his clothing that it seemed impossible to Mattie that he could ever wash every bit of it away. The only clean part of him was his bright green eyes. He told them the way they had to go, which was not in town at all, as it happened, but on a country road to the west. He said the place they sought had once been a large farm which produced turnips and carrots and onions enough to feed a quarter of the town, but the family had fallen onto hard times and subsequent disrepute some years ago, and so they sold much of their land, and now there was very little to be said about the place or its people.
It did not surprise Mattie to learn that the Cunninghams were trash.
They bid the coal man farewell and began riding west. They followed his careful directions, and were soon travelling down a narrow dirt track with bare trees on either side. The landscape continued to flatten as they rode, and the trees to thin, so that soon they found themselves on the open prairie. Little farms were scattered here and there, their houses sheltered by stands of poplars and burr oaks.
The coal man had said that they would have to cross a rough “corduroy” bridge of logs which spanned a deep crick, and soon after they would see the Cunninghams’ place on the north side of the road. It was all exactly as he described, and Mattie was thankful that they had met a man who could boast such knowledge of the peculiarities of the local geography.
They soon came upon the place, a rough cabin constructed of logs, well back from the road in a stand of trees. They had passed a sawmill in town, but Mattie guessed that the cabin had been built before the sawmill, and never replaced with a proper house. A kitchen had been added to one side of the building, and it was little more than a lean-to of saplings and mud, with a stovepipe sticking out its slanted roof. Dark smoke rose from the pipe.
Mattie thought of the old cabin her father had built when he first married her mother and settled their land in Yell County, and how it stood there still, having been converted to an ice house when he built their current house. Even its little glass windowpanes had been removed and reused. The thought of the ice house, which stayed blessedly cool even in the depth of the muggiest, most unrelenting heat of August, gave Mattie pause. Suddenly she longed for her home. She wondered how Mama and Little Frank and Victoria were faring, and whether they were worried. Perhaps they had given her up for dead already.
“I reckon this is the place,” Rooster said. His bay quarter horse, Whiskey Jack – who was thus named for his colour, and because he had been won in a game of cards – came to a halt without being told and immediately began tearing weeds and grass up from the ditch.
“What do you say, Cogburn?” asked LaBoeuf, resting his elbow on the butt of his rifle. “Do you suppose Cunningham is hiding there? We have no cover here and have therefore lost the advantage of surprise. If he is there, he knows we are coming.”
“In earnest I doubt he is there. That would be too lucky for us,” Cogburn replied. “We ought to tread lightly, though. Never know what’s coming down the barrel at you.”
They rode up the path which led to the house. It was little more than a rainwater-filled rut in the surrounding fields, all of which had obviously “gone to seed.” Brown grass and weeds grew unkempt on land which, to Mattie’s eye, seemed ideal for sweet corn, or feed corn, or hay at the very least. It was a sin to let it lie fallow for as long as it had obviously been left.
Stopping in the yard, Rooster cleared his chest and spat on the ground. “Anyone at home?” he called.
From inside the cabin there came a shuffling, and a sound like a chair being dragged over floorboards. After a moment the front door was opened, but only a dark slender crack, and no face or limb could be seen.
“Who is that out there?” said a voice from inside. It was a woman’s voice, high and thin, and it did not sound particularly feisty.
Rooster and LaBoeuf looked at one another, and Mattie guessed they were both weighing whether to be truthful or not. Rooster looked away first.
“It is the law, and we are looking for Albert Cunningham,” he said.
There was a pause, and then the woman spoke again. “Tie your horses up at the fence over yonder and come inside.”
They did as the woman asked, and shortly found themselves standing inside the cabin. The one-room structure was warm enough, but oily black smoke gathered about the bare log roof from the cook stove, and the place was draughty. Bits of paper and rag had been used to shut up the many holes along the tops of the walls and around the small windows, which did not have glass panes, but instead used a kind of sturdy greased paper which was opaque, and let in very little light. The wood floor was bare and unfinished, and there were gaps between the uneven boards where you could see the dirt beneath. There was not even a simple rag rug to provide warmth or give the place some charm.
In Mattie’s view it was a sad excuse for a dwelling, especially for one so close to civilization. A rough cabin was one thing up in the mountains or in other wild places. It was quite another when it was only down the road from town. It could have been a cozy place, but little had been done to improve it.
The woman, who had introduced herself as Althea Cunningham, was seated by the cook stove, her hands in her lap. She clasped and unclasped them at random, her face lined with nervousness, and she did not seem eager to look at the congress standing in her doorway.
“Ma’am, when was the last time you saw your son?” LaBoeuf asked.
“Not for some months now. He has been down in Texas, working the range,” she replied, in a wispy, delicate voice. She did not look at them, but continued to stare worriedly at the wall beyond the stove.
Rooster and LaBoeuf shared a look. LaBoeuf cleared his throat and continued. “You do your son little good by lying for him, ma’am. Has he passed through here in the last several days?”
“I tell you, he is in Texas!” she whined, turning to LaBoeuf with an entreating expression on her face. “I have letters from him. I have not had one from him in some time, but I have no doubt that there in Texas is where he remains.”
“He was in Hot Springs only a few days ago,” Rooster said. “He spent time with some fine ladies there, and they were only too eager to tell us all about it. My pard here tracked him to Morrilton before that, and he was up in Yell County just last week. All his crimes have been noted by the local authorities, so let us dispense with your lies and proceed.”
Mrs. Cunningham seemed to deflate then, her shoulders slumping forward and her chin tipping down. She drew in a breath, and blew it out in a sigh.
“He passed through here yesterday. You have just missed him.”
LaBoeuf turned and gave Rooster a reproachful look.
“Did he give any indication of where he was headed?” LaBoeuf asked.
“No, he did not, and I do not see why it should matter!” replied Mrs. Cunningham. Her chin quivered, and Mattie could see tears shining in her eyes. “He is innocent of the crimes for which you hunt him! It is all a grave misunderstanding.”
“We wish to find him so that he can do no further harm,” LaBoeuf said. “Can you not see that after what he has done, that would be best?”
“He is but a wayward boy, easily swayed by the low company he keeps! Do you not possess a shred of mercy for him between the three of you?”
There was a beat of silence, and then Mattie, LaBoeuf, and Rooster all spoke at once.
“No,” they said.
“You seem a decent woman, if somewhat soft-hearted,” Mattie continued, “and it is not your fault that your son does as he pleases without a thought for another soul. God gave us all free will and how your son uses his own is not your responsibility. I will reserve my pity for you, and for those he harms, not for him.”
Mrs. Cunningham turned her gaze on Mattie. Her guise of pitiful pleading disappeared, and her mouth twisted into a scowl. “You are a rude and unnatural girl. I can see that the blow God dealt you in that ugly injury of yours has made you bitter. But that is no reason for you to inflict suffering on others. If a man rejects your clumsy advances, you ought to be humbled. You should not then turn about and play at being some kind of victim.”
Mattie was about to make a retort, but LaBoeuf took a step forward. “Now, see here. I have no desire to speak harshly to a woman, but you mind what you say to her. Your son is a drunkard and a violent coward, and he was fortunate to escape Yell County with his life. He did not deserve to, and had I been present, I would have shot him dead myself. That is a fact.”
The woman sneered at LaBoeuf and said nothing more.
“You have shown your hand,” Rooster said. “I see your son has told you all about what fun he has been having, after all.”
“It is all a grave misunderstanding,” Mrs. Cunningham repeated, nodding her head resolutely, almost as though she spoke only to her own self.
“Maybe so, but your son is wanted in several jurisdictions, and he has been reckless. The sooner we find him, the less likely it is that he will harm another and find himself in deeper water,” Rooster said. “And if you help us, we will not have you prosecuted for giving shelter to a wanted man.”
“Help you? I would sooner die,” Mrs. Cunningham said, turning her cold gaze on Rooster. “Anyhow, he is bound for Texas, a state so large you have little hope of finding him!” Her haughty smile died on her lips as she realised that she had given her son away.
“Ma’am, I am a Texas Ranger. We will most certainly find him, with or without your assistance,” LaBoeuf said.
Mrs. Cunningham glowered at each of them, and then turned her face away and would not be drawn out. She refused to say another word.
They quit the place shortly thereafter, all three of them agreeing that it was unlikely that Cunningham was hiding there, for there was hardly any place to hide. LaBoeuf checked the shed and the smokehouse in the back to be certain, but he found only a meagre supply of split wood and a thin, ailing milk cow. They left, and meandered vaguely in a westward direction as the sun began to set on the horizon.
“Do you think she was telling the truth, Rooster?” Mattie asked, riding by his side. LaBoeuf rode a few strides behind them.
“I think she surprised herself in doing so, but yes, she was telling the truth,” Rooster replied. “Now the trouble is determining where he plans to go in the great state of Texas.”
LaBoeuf pulled up alongside Mattie. “My guess is he will head to Texarkana first. Thus far he has largely kept to moving straight from town to town, I reckon because he is poorly supplied. We do not know if he even has a horse; he did not have one in Yell County, at least. If he is heading into Texas, he will not bypass Texarkana.”
Rooster seemed to mull this over a minute before nodding. “I think you are right, pard. It is a long way between here and Texarkana. We may catch up to him yet.”
“I am confident that we can catch up to him so long as we make prudent use of our time and do not tarry,” LaBoeuf replied. It was obvious that he remained annoyed about Rooster’s delay in Hot Springs. Frankly Mattie did not blame him, but she saw little advantage in clinging to the thing, either.
“We will make good time, all right,” she said. “Why, we have already quit Arkadelphia and are headed for Texarkana! We will find somewhere to camp tonight and get a good start in the morning. I am confident we will have Cunningham in hand in no time. Do you not agree, Rooster?”
“Hm,” Rooster grumbled. “Any one of us would likely make better time alone, but that is not to be.”
With that, he urged Whiskey Jack on and pulled ahead of Mattie and LaBoeuf by several strides. He produced a bottle of brown liquor from his saddlebag and commenced to drinking from it.
“If that is Cogburn’s idea of making good time, I reckon we are in trouble once again,” LaBoeuf said.
“You are scarcely any better,” Mattie replied, although Cogburn’s drinking concerned her as well. What if he decided once again in some wild place that he was finished with this business? She would simply have to hope that the prospect of the reward money would be enough to keep him in check. Appealing to his higher nature was not sufficient, it seemed.
“You rise to his defence very readily,” LaBoeuf observed. His tone was sardonic. “You and Cogburn have become bosom friends once more, have you?”
“I do not know what you mean,” Mattie replied.
“I mean nothing. I am merely observing that the two of you seem to find much to talk of together. You are ‘two peas in a pod.’ Do you not agree?”
Mattie turned, trying to discern his intent. He had an expression on his face that Mattie had difficulty identifying, excepting that it was obvious he was annoyed. He did not meet her eyes although he must have known she was looking at him. Eventually, she turned away, looking ahead at Rooster’s back.
“I do not know to what I am agreeing, because you are not talking sense,” she said.
“It is strange that you should make a hero of a man who spent the war bushwhacking and keeping company with men so bloodthirsty they make our quarry seem downright gentle in comparison.”
Mattie wondered whether LaBoeuf would stop talking if she stopped responding.
“Ah, I see. You have nothing to say to that, do you? Well, what do you have to say about Cogburn riding alongside the James-Younger boys in those days? You are always eager to share your opinions. Pray, Mattie, tell me what you think about Rooster’s long and colourful career.”
Truthfully, Mattie did not think much of many of Rooster’s exploits. His morals were changeable at best. But LaBoeuf carrying on in his sarcastic, prideful way was doing nothing to aid his cause, whatever it was. They both knew what kind of man Cogburn was. What purpose was there now in discussing the uglier sides of him?
“You did not need to defend me against that woman,” Mattie said, by and by. “I could easily have done so for myself.”
LaBoeuf did not respond immediately. Mattie could feel him looking at her then, scrutinizing her. Eventually he spoke. “Why do you insist on undermining me at every opportunity?”
“Undermining you? I do not undermine you at every opportunity,” Mattie replied. “If I undermined you at every opportunity with which you present me, I would never require another occupation. Rather, the opposite is true: I have bitten my tongue so many times on this sojourn that I wonder if it will ever recover.”
“If your tongue is at all diminished during this trip, we should all count ourselves lucky indeed,” LaBoeuf grumbled.
“Your hubris is very tiresome,” Mattie said. “It is no wonder that you spend all your time away from home, chasing criminals in the wilderness. I doubt your colleagues can tolerate you except in very small doses.”
Mattie pressed her calves into Alma’s sides, and pulled ahead of LaBoeuf so that the three of them rode in a string. The distance between each of them stretched out until they were only barely connected at all. A passerby might have thought them complete strangers to each other.
There was no more riding abreast or passing the time by talking that day, or the next.
Chapter 7: together until this business is finished
Cogburn was drunk. There was no mistaking it. He was drunk, and he had been for the two days since they left Arkadelphia. He showed no signs of slowing or stopping.
They were camped on the shore of a little crick not far from the town of Hope. It had rained steadily all day, but the trees provided some cover. Rooster had reclined against the wet trunk of a walnut tree the moment they erected a shelter and started up a campfire. Mattie and LaBoeuf did most of the work while Rooster sat drinking. Mattie made them a meal of bacon and beans and cornbread from the supplies they had obtained in Gum Springs, but by the time it was ready, Rooster had fallen dead asleep and would not be roused. Mattie and LaBoeuf ate together in silence, the rain beating a disheartening tattoo on the makeshift canvas roof over their heads.
After they ate, LaBoeuf smoked his pipe and Mattie sat to his left, silently staring into the fire, wondering if she ought to be at home with Mama and Little Frank and Victoria, tending the cool weather crops and putting up stores for the long winter ahead, rather than sitting on the cold ground in the wilderness with a drunkard and a Texas cuss who was little better than a snake in the grass.
For the first time Mattie truly thought that she may have been a fool to undertake this errand. One such adventure was likely enough for a single lifetime. Perhaps she ought to have let LaBoeuf leave Yell County without her.
“I do not like it,” LaBoeuf muttered.
The sound of his voice after such a long spell of silence startled Mattie, and she looked at him. “What is it that you do not like?” she asked.
“I do not like this strangeness that has come up between us and I would like to put it aside,” he replied, regarding her with great seriousness. He continued, his voice lowered, and Mattie guessed he had rehearsed his words. “We cannot trust that Cogburn will not do us a bad turn one of these days. Not out of spite or malice, but because he is a drunk and cannot be trusted. I take no pleasure in saying this, but it is the truth. We must make sure that the two of us are of a like mind on this errand, or else it is each man for himself. Or each woman.”
Mattie sighed. “I am loathe to admit it, but I agree. I reckon we are still on the right track but I do not think that can be credited to Rooster’s designs. I think we have been lucky, is all.” She trailed off, and then frowned as she recalled the earlier part of his speech. “What did you mean, ‘a strangeness’?”
“I mean this distance that has come between us since Hot Springs,” he said. “It had been a rough road before that, I think we can agree, but we had made our peace with each other. We were ‘pards’ on the trail. Since Hot Springs we have not had more than a few civil words between us, and I do not like it.”
Mattie was surprised and rather embarrassed that he was taking the bull by the horns in this way. Yes, they had fallen out, but Mattie did not think he much cared beyond his wounded pride. Before she could respond, he continued.
“Do you truly believe I would harm you, Mattie? That I would...” LaBoeuf paused here and frowned, seeming to struggle for his words in a way very unlike him. “That I would force myself on you, as Cunningham attempted to do?”
Mattie gaped at him, her face flaming at the impertinent subject. “Why do you ask me this?”
“In Hot Springs you said a woman is not safe leaving her door unlocked with me about,” he said. His expression was wary and troubled as he looked at her, and his eyes conveyed some wound she did not realise she had inflicted.
“Oh,” Mattie replied. She did not know he had taken her words so dearly to heart. “Aside from the occasional thrashing, I know you would never deliberately do me harm.”
LaBoeuf did not smile at this. He looked away from her, his expression very dour. “I do not like the impression you seem to have of my character.”
“What other impression am I to have but the one you have presented me with?”
“I thought we had made friends of each other. It seemed that way before we reached Hot Springs.”
“I thought the same. But you were rude and untoward, and then conspired with Rooster to get rid of me despite our prior agreement to go on as pardners. What was I to make of such behaviour?”
LaBoeuf frowned and looked down at the ground, seeming to contemplate her words. “You are right,” he said, after a pause. “I treated you wrongly. I should not have made any such plot with Rooster. I reckoned you would have had enough adventure and would be eager to return home. I was glad, for I thought it would be safer for you. I forgot how dogged you are in your determination.”
Mattie nodded, accepting his apology, demeaning as it was.
“As for the other, I have no excuse. Truly I came to your door to see that you were all right. I reckon the drink... Well, I did not intend to offend your honour, nor your good reputation.”
“If you did not drink so much whiskey or make a habit of entering ladies’ bedrooms uninvited, you would not find yourself in this low position of having to make amends for your behaviour,” Mattie said.
LaBoeuf grimaced. “I will own that is likely true. However, that you are the first and the only lady to give me such a hard time about entering your bedroom unasked.”
“There have been others?” Mattie asked, trying to keep her voice down so as not to wake Rooster. “You are incorrigible! What did they do, if they did not give you a hard time?”
“Typically they have cried, and always they have given me the information I sought,” he replied. “When I made your acquaintance in Fort Smith those five years ago, I thought you would give me the easiest time of all, given your young age, and that you were sick and recently bereaved besides. Then you opened your mouth.”
“You are a devil,” Mattie said. “I am shocked that the Texas Rangers encourage these kinds of investigative methods.”
“They do not, strictly speaking. That is my own method.”
“You ought to be strung up by your toenails, molesting innocent people in that way. What would your mother say about such behaviour?”
LaBoeuf looked surprised, and his face reddened. “Ah. She would not condone it.”
“Well, there you have it,” Mattie said.
They were both quiet then, staring into the hot embers of the fire. Mattie wondered at LaBoeuf and his changeableness. At times he was as well-mannered a man as Mattie had ever encountered, if somewhat pompous in his airs. Then he would turn and be bold as brass, without apology, as though he did not have to answer for his ways to any authority, earthly or otherwise. The man became more puzzling to her the more time she spent in his company.
“Your hair is all a mess again,” LaBoeuf said, after a pause. He was examining her in the firelight.
Mattie felt her face flush with embarrassment. “I do not know what sort of manners a boy learns in Louisiana, or in Texas for that matter, but in Arkansas a decent person does not seek to mortify others at every turn.”
LaBoeuf chuckled, and Mattie’s anger flamed. She was about to scold him when he spoke. “Whether you believe it or you do not, my aim has never been to mortify you. I only wished to know whether you would like me to assist you with your hair, for I know its untidiness vexes you.”
Mattie stared at him, taken aback. Its untidiness did vex her, and it vexed her worse still to know that he could so easily take stock of her. She felt strangely exposed under his eyes. Before she could think of something to say, LaBoeuf stood and went to Mattie’s pack, next to her saddle. He opened it and dug around until he found her hairbrush. He returned and sat next to her.
“Turn around,” he said softly.
Mattie turned her back to him. She felt him unfasten the bottom of her plait and begin to unravel it. They were both so silent that Mattie could hear only the low hissing of the fire, and LaBoeuf’s steady breathing behind her.
“It does not bother you that Rooster will know about your talent for braiding ladies’ hair?” Mattie asked as LaBoeuf brushed the tangles from the ends of her hair.
“Rooster would not know it if Hell itself cracked open beneath him. The whiskey has put him out,” LaBoeuf replied. He combed his fingers through her hair, brushing against the nape of her neck. Mattie shivered and pulled her legs to her chest, resting her chin on her knee. “Anyhow,” LaBoeuf continued, “I do not know if this can truly be counted as a talent, for I have only practiced on two subjects in my life.”
“I think it can be counted as a talent. You do it very well.”
“I thank you.”
“In any case it is preferable to your other talent, sneaking into ladies’ bedrooms.”
LaBoeuf gave a quiet guffaw. “I will quit that if it is such a burr under your saddle. I do not wish you to return to Yell County thinking ill of me.”
Mattie had no response to that, and so she gave none. An owl hooted in the woods, and she shivered.
“Your hair is a lovely thing,” LaBoeuf said, in a voice so soft it was almost as though he spoke only to himself and not to her.
Mattie’s brow furrowed, and she pressed her cold nose against her wool-covered arm. Whether what he said was true or not, she did not understand why he would say such a thing. To compliment her cooking or to assist her with managing her hair, she deemed acceptable behaviour. But this comment bothered her, and she did not know how to reply. Finally, she concluded that graciousness without any invitation for further embellishment would be best.
“Thank you,” she said.
LaBoeuf ran a finger down from the crown of her head to the nape of her neck, parting her hair. Mattie shivered, and felt goose bumps break out on her arms despite her warm coat. As LaBoeuf began to wind her hair into plaits, he cleared his throat.
“I did not mean to embarrass you, there.”
“You did not,” she replied. “Only I am not used to such talk.”
“What kind of talk is that?” he asked.
To this, Mattie found she again had no reply. She shrugged her shoulders.
“Ah,” said LaBoeuf. “Well, if it bothers you, I will simply remain silent.”
Neither of them said anything for a moment. “I doubt your ability to remain silent for any negligible period of time,” Mattie said finally.
LaBoeuf guffawed. “I should take offense to your saucy words, except you are very likely right.”
Mattie hid her smile against her wool-covered arm, and said nothing more. To her surprise, they passed the rest of the evening in a silence that she could only describe as peaceful.
The following morning, Mattie awoke to find herself alone next to the newly revived embers of their fire. LaBoeuf and Rooster were both gone; Mattie guessed one of them had thrown new kindling and sticks on the fire, for it was catching on. She was grateful, for the rain had stopped but it had turned cold in the night, and everything around them was covered in a thin white gauze of frost. If frost had not been such a thorn in her side when it came to raising crops up, Mattie would have found it beautiful.
She sat up and squared away her bedroll after giving it a shake to remove the frost. She then grabbed the water bucket from by the fire and walked down through the trees to the bank of the little crick.
Mattie picked her way down the slope, the empty bucket banging against her leg as she walked. She emerged from the trees close to the bank, and found Rooster and LaBoeuf there by the water, some twenty yards away from her. They stood facing one another, very close, and Rooster was saying something which seemed harsh, for he stuck a finger in LaBoeuf’s face, and LaBoeuf was frowning fiercely at him. She thought for a moment they might come to blows, but LaBoeuf took a step back and looked down at the ground.
She thought Rooster had slept through their talk by the fire. But perhaps it was not so. Perhaps he had heard them discussing his drunkenness and was angry. Mattie was briefly shamed, but still she felt that LaBoeuf had been full in the right to broach such a parley with her.
Quickly she filled her bucket and carried it back up to the campfire. She made coffee and got some salt pork frying. By the time she was warming the previous night’s beans and browning pieces of cornbread in the frying pan, Rooster and LaBoeuf returned from the crick.
“Good morning,” she called from her seat on a stump. She looked anxiously at LaBoeuf, but his expression was blank and revealed nothing to her. He sat down on the opposite side of the fire and poured some coffee into his tin cup.
“Good morning to you, sis,” replied Rooster. He sat down against a log next to her, between her and LaBoeuf. Mattie glanced at LaBoeuf through the smoke, but he seemed unwilling to meet her eyes.
They ate their breakfast mostly in silence, although Rooster took to humming as they cleaned up and broke camp, scattering the ashes of the fire and tacking up the horses. Mattie noticed that Rooster did not pull out his usual bottle of whiskey, and her stomach turned. He seemed cheerful enough, but he must have heard them talking, and the thought of it made her feel guilty. She did not care for duplicity of any kind.
When Rooster went down to the crick to fetch himself a canteen of water, Mattie went to LaBoeuf’s side. He was tacking up Sal and securing his bedroll and saddlebags.
“What were you and Rooster discussing down by the crick bank?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I came down to the crick to fetch water, and saw you and Rooster having a discussion which seemed unfriendly. What were you discussing?”
“Ah,” LaBoeuf said, frowning. He paused, scratching his chin with the tip of one thumb. “We got caught up in swapping range tales and so forth. Very little that would be of interest to anyone not well acquainted with Texas.”
Mattie regarded him shrewdly, noting that he would not meet her eyes, continuing instead to fiddle with the leather straps on his saddle, as though they needed adjusting.
“I am not well acquainted with Texas, but I am certainly interested. What did you speak of?”
LaBoeuf stopped his hands and rested them on the saddle. He eyed her for a moment, a troubled crease between his brows. “It was nothing of importance. I know what you are thinking. You are thinking we mean to leave you. I assure you we will not. We will all three be together when we apprehend Cunningham, so do not fret.”
“You cannot blame me for thinking it,” Mattie replied, pursing her lips. “You have tried to leave me behind several times now.”
“It is not what you are thinking, Mattie, believe me,” LaBoeuf said, the frown on his face deepening. He was sincere in this, no sarcasm evident in his tone, but he seemed troubled. Mattie did not know what to make of it.
“Well, I suppose I believe you,” she said. “Surely a Texas Ranger would not plot to leave a young woman alone in these woods with few supplies and no method of finding her way home, would he? Would you?”
“No, Mattie, I would not do that. Cogburn talks a big game, but he would not either. As I said, we will be together until this business is finished. Then we will go our separate ways.”
Mattie regarded him, and thought of what would happen at the end of this adventure, when LaBoeuf would climb on Sal and bid farewell to her with a tip of his hat and an “adios,” as he was fond of saying. Perhaps she would not see him again after that. It was serendipity enough for one lifetime that she had met him again after their time pursuing Tom Chaney.
The thought made her sadder than she would ever have guessed.
LaBoeuf tilted his head, squinting at her in the bright morning sunlight. “That is a sombre expression, even for you. What troubles you?”
Mattie met his eyes for a brief moment, and then looked away, shrugging her shoulders. “I was thinking that it is not likely that I will ever see my one hundred dollars in cash money again.”
“Ah,” LaBoeuf nodded. “You were thinking of your money. No wonder you looked so sorrowful.”
“Indeed,” Mattie said. She turned away from him then, and set herself to tacking Alma up.
Rooster joined them moments later, and they mounted their horses and set off to the west. Rooster did not pull his bottle out all day.
Mattie searched in vain for an opportunity to speak in private once again with LaBoeuf, but no such moment presented itself that day. They rode for many more hours than was typical for them, which Mattie supposed was due to the fine weather, and to Rooster’s sobriety.
Rooster, meanwhile, talked endlessly about people he knew and places he’d been. At one point, he had been explaining how to distinguish counterfeit Confederate currency from the genuine article for nearly twenty minutes when Mattie caught sight of the look of distaste on LaBoeuf’s face and guessed that Rooster knew about counterfeit bills because he had a hand in making them.
When they finally stopped for the night in what remained of an abandoned homestead shanty, Mattie was so saddle sore and exhausted by attempting to make sense of Rooster’s rambling and barely coherent tales that she did little more than eat a cold piece of cornbread and collapse on her bedroll to sleep.
The next morning dawned clear and bright. Mattie left the little shanty to find Rooster and LaBoeuf smoking on its partly collapsed front porch. Rooster was looking up at the sky.
“By my money, we will have snow by nightfall,” he said.
They ate a hurried breakfast and departed once more on their southwest course. By late afternoon they had reached the easternmost bends of the Red River, where Rooster announced that he was “wore out” and found them a spot to camp in a clearing near the sandy bank of one of the river’s oxbows.
While Mattie settled the horses in and got a fire going, Rooster sat on a stump and rolled several cigarettes. LaBoeuf cut down a thin birch sapling, stripped it of its bark and branches, and cut a little notch at its tip. He produced a coil of fishing line from his saddle bags, and said that he was going down to the water and would not return until he had caught them all some supper.
Mattie watched him disappear into the trees, and then glanced at Rooster. He was caught up in his occupation and did not seem to have even heard LaBoeuf speak. Mattie noticed the top of a bottle poking out of his coat pocket. She threw a large, dry branch on the fire, and followed LaBoeuf.
She found him leaning against a rock in a shady spot, casting his short line out and drawing it slowly back to him through the water with his gloved hand. His hat rested on the rock behind him. It was still and lovely by the river, and if not for the bare trees, it might have been a spring day.
“How is the fishing?” Mattie asked in a low tone, coming to a stop beside him. She did not want her voice to frighten the fish away.
“It would be better if it would cloud over, but I think it may yet. We shall see,” he replied.
Mattie leaned back against the rock next to him, watching his line pull a V through the surface of the water. It looked like a flock of geese flying north in a chevron.
“Do you like to fish?” LaBoeuf asked.
“Papa used to take us fishing on the river in summer, when the cotton was high and there was little that needed doing. I have not been since he died,” she said.
“I reckon that farm of yours must be very handsome in summer,” LaBoeuf said.
“It is,” Mattie agreed. The silence that followed was only interrupted by the gentle lapping of the water before them. “Mr. LaBoeuf, do you have faith that the wicked will be punished in the hereafter?”
“That is an odd question to be asking,” LaBoeuf said, frowning as he looked down at the rod in his hands. “Yet I suppose it is a thing to ponder. Yes, I do indeed believe that the wicked will be punished in the hereafter. But I reckon we ought to be sure and punish wickedness in this life, all the same.”
Mattie felt a smile pull at the corner of her mouth as she regarded his profile. “I agree.”
“Would you like to fish a while?” LaBoeuf asked.
“Do not trouble yourself,” Mattie replied, shaking her head. “I do not know how I should do it with only one arm.”
LaBoeuf seemed to consider this a moment, and then stood up straight, shaking his head. “Come here,” he said.
Mattie took a step closer to him, and he moved behind her and placed the rod in her right hand. Unsure how to manage it, she braced it against her hip.
“Cast out, and hold on tight to it,” LaBoeuf said, still standing close to her. Awkwardly, Mattie hauled back and cast the short line out, the lure dropping into the water with a quiet plink. LaBoeuf reached out and grabbed the line, slowly bringing it towards them. “There you are,” he said.
They repeated this exercise several times. LaBoeuf’s assistance embarrassed her somewhat, but Mattie was so pleased to be fishing that she did not reject it.
Mattie suggested letting the lure drop to the bottom of the shallows, and soon enough there was a sharp tug on the line. Before she could draw breath to say a word, LaBoeuf wrapped his arms around her and grabbed the rod and the line, helping her drag a darkly speckled, slippery channel catfish of middling size flopping onto the bank.
“Will you look at that,” he said, crouching down. “This fellow will be good eating.” He pulled his knife from his boot and grabbed hold of the squirming fish, tapping it firmly at the base of its head with the wooden handle of the knife. The fish undulated twice more, and then went still.
“I did not think you would have any luck with only a birch switch and a bit of cornbread and grease.”
Mattie turned to see that Rooster had joined them on the bank, and was looking sceptically down at the fish in LaBoeuf’s hands.
“I was not the one who had the luck. Mattie here caught this one,” LaBoeuf replied. “I think I will attempt to catch myself one as well, and then we will have a fine meal.”
“Hm,” Rooster said gruffly. He sounded dubious still. He lit a cigarette and tossed his match down in the sand.
They watched as LaBoeuf pulled from his coat pocket another piece of cornbread and put it on the hook. He cast out once, twice, three times, and nothing happened. On the fourth try, he lost his bait and had to put another piece on. He cast out again, and as he was reeling in, his rod gave a sharp downward yank.
“Bully for you,” Rooster said as LaBoeuf hauled a second catfish of similar size onto the bank.
Mattie watched as Rooster and LaBoeuf took their knives and neatly gutted the fish, throwing the heads and innards down to the sandy crick bank, where all manner of creatures would feast on the unwanted parts. She felt useless watching them, for filleting was a task which required two hands. Finally, she turned away and started back up the bank.
“Bring me the fillets when they are ready,” she said over her shoulder as she went.
Mattie returned to the camp, where she stoked up the fire, and placed their last three potatoes in the embers to cook in their skins. She set out a pan of cornmeal to dredge the fish, and placed the spider skillet over the fire to heat. She watched as the dollop of lard she dropped in the pan slid across its black surface, leaving a greasy slick in its wake.
Rooster came out of the bush, a tin plate of fillets in his hands. He passed it to her and looked around their little camp.
“We need more wood,” he said. “LaBoeuf is down there yet, washing the knives. Never have I met a more fastidious man. I think it is good enough to wipe the scales off on your trouser leg, but I reckon that is a place where we differ.”
“There is nothing wrong with taking good care of your things,” Mattie replied.
“Hmph. I will go find us enough wood for the night.” With that, he departed.
Mattie dredged the fish in cornmeal and laid them in the hot fat, which spat and sizzled noisily. As she did so, she thought about LaBoeuf down by the river’s edge, painstakingly removing every scale from his knives in the growing darkness, careful not to dirty his boots or his buckskin. Mattie found herself hard pressed not to smile at the thought.
The fish was ready to be turned. Without thinking, Mattie reached out and grabbed the handle of the skillet to remove it from the fire, her hand wrapping around the hot metal.
Mattie yelped, immediately dropping the spider skillet. The fall jostled the pieces of fish, sending fat spitting into the hot embers, but none of it fell into the fire. Her heart pounded as the burn on her hand caught up with her initial shock, throbbing fiercely. She dug her teeth into her bottom lip to bite back the curse which threatened to give itself voice.
“What is it?” LaBoeuf called, emerging from the trees. “I heard you cry out.”
“It is nothing,” Mattie replied as he stopped before her, trying to keep the pained waver out of her voice. “I grabbed the handle of the skillet with my bare hand, and burnt myself. It is my own fault; I was careless.”
LaBoeuf took her hand in his and turned it over, examining the angry red stripe across her palm. Wincing, he gave her a sympathetic glance, and bade her to sit down on a log by the fire. He took the empty water bucket and disappeared back into the woods, reappearing a moment later with fresh, cold crick water.
“Stick your hand in here and it will stall the burn,” he said, setting the bucket down at her feet. He sat down beside her on the log, looking expectantly at her. Mattie did as he instructed, flinching at the sharp cold on the burn. After a moment, however, the stinging began to subside.
“I could have fetched the water myself,” she said. “You did not need to do that for me.”
“I know it,” LaBoeuf replied, pulling out his pipe and filling it with tobacco.
“Turn the fish over,” Mattie said, nodding at the pan. “I do not want all our catch to be burnt to a crisp on account of my carelessness.”
LaBoeuf took a fork and carefully turned the fish over, revealing a golden-brown crust of cornmeal. He sat back down beside her, and lit his pipe.
He smoked in silence as she soaked her hand. When he had finished, he tapped the ashes out into the fire and put the pipe aside. He stood and walked to his pack, rummaging for a moment before returning with a handful of rags. He sat down beside her.
“May I?” he asked, reaching for her hand.
Mattie nodded, allowing him to take her hand in his. He lifted her hand from the bucket of water and dried it carefully with one of the rags.
“Here,” he said, producing a small tin pot from his coat. He unscrewed the top, revealing a sticky greenish-brown salve. Mattie peered at it sceptically.
He dabbed the salve on her burn, gently rubbing it into her tender skin. It stung for an instant, and then a cool, soothing sensation spread across the palm of her hand.
LaBoeuf set aside the salve and reached for a clean rag, which he began to bind around her hand. Mattie examined the top of his head as he worked. His cowlick stuck up and waved in the breeze.
“I do not like that I cannot bandage my own hand,” she said, after a long silence.
LaBoeuf glanced up from his work and contemplated her. “Most people would require some assistance tending an injury such as this, myself and Rooster included,” he said. He looked back down and finished tying off the rag. “It is nearly impossible to do every single thing on one’s own. Why is it that you make such a point of never being needful?”
Mattie frowned. “I do not behave in a particular fashion because I believe it will be vexing to you, or to anyone. I am not myself out of a sense of pride. I simply behave in the manner closest to that which is right.”
“Grit,” LaBoeuf intoned, a hint of gentle teasing in his voice as he regarded her, his eyes twinkling. He still held her hand cupped in his own. Mattie grew uncomfortable under his gaze and made to pull her hand away. LaBoeuf held on, lifting the hand to his mouth and dropping a kiss on her knuckles, a quick press of dry lips on her skin.
“There,” he said. “Now it will heal all right.”
Mattie stared at him in surprise, but did not have a chance to remonstrate him for his boldness, for Rooster emerged from the woods then, a bundle of wood for the fire in his arms.
“How’s that fish coming along, there?” Rooster asked. He dropped the wood by the fire and straightened up, looking at them both. His canny gaze landed on their still joined hands, and then came to rest on LaBoeuf’s face. As Mattie looked on, some silent exchange passed between the two men, and LaBoeuf’s jaw tightened, and he looked away. Mattie extracted her hand from LaBoeuf’s grasp and stood.
“I burnt my hand on the skillet, and Mr. LaBoeuf was kind enough to bandage it,” Mattie said, holding out the injured appendage for his examination. “I will put the fish back on. Our supper will not be much longer.”
LaBoeuf stood as well. “You should not trouble your injury. I will do it.”
“That is not necessary. I can manage it.” Mattie grabbed the coarse piece of sacking she had been using to move hot things and scour pots. She wrapped it around the handle of the skillet and moved it back over the flames, ignoring the answering throb of her burn as she made use of her hand.
“Mattie, you are not our housekeeper,” LaBoeuf said quietly, almost as though he did not want Rooster to hear. “I can cook the fish well enough if you cannot. Your hand is injured and you ought to rest it. Do not be obstinate.”
He was right, Mattie knew. They had equal parts in this venture, and she was not there simply to cook their meals. Her hand ached, and she decided that in this instance, to contradict him would serve only her pride and not the greater good.
“All right,” she said, backing away from the fire. She sat down on a flat boulder nearby and rested her hand in her lap.
Rooster, meanwhile, had sat down on the opposite side of the fire, and had his bottle of liquor out. In silence they watched LaBoeuf finish frying the fish.
Mattie guessed that the fresh fish and the liquor put Rooster in a fine mood, for while they ate, he talked animatedly of the war and some of his adventures before and after.
“I rode with a fella named Avery Boyle, an Irishman from up north someplace,” he said after they had finished their supper and the moon had risen. “This was during the war, if I recall, as we were in Missouri at the time. We was camped near the Kansas border. Anyhow, we was stuck there for some days, and we all got to drinking. This fella, Boyle, he had a bellyful and fell into one of the fires. Drunk as we were, it took us some effort to heave him out. His face was all burnt and the whole camp stank of it, the hair and all, but he was alive. He weren’t able to say much, and we sat debating what to do with him for some time. Few fellas thought it kinder to shoot him, as he was in considerable pain and we had nothing to relieve it. We had few supplies generally at that time. What was it, the winter of ’63? I do not precisely recall now. Anyhow, before we could determine whether it would be best to kill him, one fella said he knew of a remedy for burns. His name was Mose Pearl, and he was from the Great Smoky Mountains or thereabouts, and it was some old Cherokee remedy. He cooked it up from roots and things, and put it all over Boyle’s face, and then we had him sleep out in the woods with a bottle of corn liquor because his moaning was bothersome.”
Rooster paused here and took a deep swig of his whiskey, staring into the fire. Mattie could not tell if that was meant to be the end of his story or not, for it held no conclusion in it. Finally, she spoke. “What happened to the Irishman with the burnt face?”
“Well, next morning we got up and he was gone, nowhere to be found in the woods. It was a strange thing. We decided he had probably expired and a big cat or some other creature had come and got him, and we all ought to be grateful it didn’t come for us or our horses.”
“That is a terrible thing,” Mattie said, wondering as she always did with Rooster what the purpose in the telling of this story was.
“Terrible thing, and a strange thing at that,” Rooster continued. “We were in a skirmish that day and lost some men and moved south. Couple nights later, Boyle comes strolling out of the woods, whistling a tune with his bedroll hung over his shoulder. Stranger yet, his face was as good as new, if a bit pale, and taught and shiny like a new apple.”
Mattie stared at him. “You are pulling my leg,” she said, glancing over at LaBoeuf. The other man was smoking his pipe and regarding Rooster with a sceptical expression on his face.
“I ain’t pulling your leg, sis,” Rooster replied. “Boyle did not know where he had been or for how long, or even how he came to be with us again. We asked Pearl about it and he just scratched his beard and said he only did what his great granny used to do, and was not certain whether or not any of this had gone as it ought to have. Anyhow, didn’t matter none. Boyle departed our company not long after, and I believe he died up in Virginia the next spring. Pearl stayed on until we got word that Richmond fell. When we heard, he stood and said, ‘Well, boys, I reckon I better go home and see my wife,’ and he walked off into the woods. Never heard nothing about him again.”
Silence fell between them. The fire popped and hissed, and an owl hooted somewhere in the woods.
LaBoeuf shook his head, as though he did not think he would ever make sense of Rooster. “I am going to turn in,” he said, standing up to arrange his bedroll. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” Mattie replied. Rooster said nothing.
They were quiet for several minutes after LaBoeuf got settled, turning his back on the fire. Mattie glanced over at Rooster, whose chin was drooping close to his chest.
“I am going down to the river to clean the dishes, and then I think I will also turn in,” she said.
Rooster’s only response was a grunt. Mattie stood and gathered the supper dishes, and carried them down to the river in the crook of her arm. The moon was low and bright, casting enough light for her to find her way down to the water. There she kneeled in the sand and scrubbed the plates and pans while thinking about Rooster’s strange story. She wondered whether LaBoeuf had wanted to needle Rooster about the unsavoury nature of his time on the Kansas border during the war. Knowing LaBoeuf, he almost certainly had. She stacked the clean plates up and smiled to herself.
“What is making you look so giddy?”
Mattie jumped up and stood at the sound of a voice right next to her. Rooster was leaning against a tree trunk with one hand, peering down at her. She had not even heard him approach.
“Do I look giddy?” she asked.
“You do. It is a strange and unsettling thing to see such a girlish expression on that face of yours,” he replied. Stiffly, he leaned back against the tree trunk and placed an unlit cigarette in his mouth.
Mattie scowled at him. “Whether my expressions are pleasing to your eye is no concern of mine.”
“You got a fella back home?” Rooster asked, rummaging about in his coat pockets, presumably on the hunt for a match.
“In spite of your tendency towards drunken stupor, I had thought you wiser than that. It should be obvious that I do not have a beau, and why.”
Rooster found a match and struck it, holding it to the end of the cigarette and observing her in the brief flame. He tossed the match aside and coughed wetly. “I once made the acquaintance of a woman who had been born with hands which resembled crawfish claws more than they did hands. She was a fine show-woman, and had been married three or four times, if I recall.”
“Yes, but to what sort of men, I wonder?”
“Hmph,” Rooster grumbled. “I do not remember, but if you are going to be particular about it, then you have no one to blame but yourself, baby sis.”
Prickled, Mattie frowned. “I would rather be particular than accept any old fool.”
Rooster regarded her, puffing on his cigarette. “I did not think we were talking about any old fool.”
“I do not know what you mean,” Mattie replied. She looked away.
“You are a bad liar. Not enough practice,” Rooster said, a crooked smile splitting his face. “Anyhow, as far as old fools go, LaBoeuf is not so bad. He likes too well the sound of his own voice, and it is unnatural for a fella to be vainer than his woman, but he is braver and loyaler than most, and he is a good shot. Perhaps you ought to encourage him before his head is turned by another.”
Mattie gaped at him, astounded and mortified. She would not give him the satisfaction of acknowledging his preposterous comments. “I see you have a ‘brick in your hat’ and will not talk sense until you are sober. If you are ever sober. Goodnight.”
“It is when I am on a spree that I talk the most sense, but you tell yourself whatever you like, girl.”
Mattie picked up the stack of clean dishes and awkwardly tucked them in her arm. She turned and walked back up the riverbank to their campfire, silently cursing Rooster the whole time. He had most widows beat as far as the enterprise of busybodying went.
She approached the welcoming circle of light thrown by their fire. She set the dishes down, and looked at LaBoeuf’s shadowed form on the far side of the fire. He was dead asleep and snoring.
If Rooster thought that she was silly enough to make a fool of herself by giving LaBoeuf any kind of “encouragement” whatsoever, his brain was more softened by whiskey than she had previously feared.
As she put the dishes away and lay down in her own bed roll, a light snow began to fall from the dark night sky.
Chapter 8: an unsentimental view of the thing
Naturally, Rooster’s bout of temperance did not last. Mattie and LaBoeuf agreed to tolerate him and carry on as they had done, sharing the duties of making and breaking camp between themselves. Rooster did not seem to notice that he contributed little more than stories as they made their way toward Texarkana. Even his provisions were of no help to them – he had only tobacco and spirits, and a little bag of salt that he guarded jealously and said was “for trading only.”
He typically rode in front, drinking and singing and telling his stories. He did not care whether Mattie or LaBoeuf paid him any mind. As it was, they listened to him about half the time. The other half they hung back and rode in silence, or else talked of where they thought Cunningham might be.
They neared Texarkana on the fifth afternoon after their departure from the Cunninghams’ in Arkadelphia. The country became less wild and more settled as they rode west towards the Arkansas portion of Texarkana. The land was well cultivated and flat, as though someone had pressed it with a great iron. It was a cool, grey day, and the wind chapped their hands and faces.
“Have you ever been to Texarkana?” Mattie asked LaBoeuf. They were once again riding together behind Rooster, who was about thirty yards ahead of them. Mattie eyed him dubiously as he reeled in his saddle. Whiskey Jack took a few steps off course, wary of his rider.
“I have,” LaBoeuf replied, “many times. It is an interesting place, filled with travellers and business-minded folks, owing I suppose to its location and the confluence of railroads there. It is not a place I would choose to settle and raise a family, however.”
Mattie considered this, and it led her thoughts to LaBoeuf’s earlier admission that he would one day soon like to “settle down,” as he said, and have a wife and some children.
“Do you have a sweetheart back home in Texas?” Mattie asked. LaBoeuf looked at her sharply, and Mattie raised her eyebrows in what she hoped was an expression of idle curiosity.
“Ah. No, I do not have a sweetheart in Texas,” he replied. “Or anywhere, for that matter.”
“You said that you hoped to one day settle, and have a house and a wife, which is why I ask,” Mattie elaborated.
LaBoeuf regarded her, and then cleared his throat. “I reckon if I want that for myself, I had better start the search for a good companion.”
“I would not know anything about that, but I am sure you are right.”
“You would not? Here I thought the business of courting and marriage was the primary domain of all respectable young ladies.”
“Some respectable young ladies, perhaps,” Mattie said.
“So you do not count yourself among their ranks?”
“I do not concern myself with things which are irrelevant to me,” Mattie replied. “I doubt I shall ever marry.”
LaBoeuf seemed to have no response to this, and all was quiet between them for some time. Mattie thought the subject abandoned, but suddenly he spoke again. “Perhaps you have not yet encountered the man who would make a suitable mate for you.”
“I do not think that is the trouble,” Mattie replied.
“What then do you think is the trouble?”
“The trouble is that I have long held the opinion that men will live like billy goats if they are permitted,” Mattie said. “If a woman wants to take it upon herself to marry a fellow and keep him from living in a low and slovenly way, then that is her business. As for myself, I am not interested in that occupation.”
“That is an unsentimental view of the thing,” LaBoeuf said. “What if you made the acquaintance of a man who was not a ‘billy goat’ in need of a shepherdess, but was a decent and respectable man who wished to marry you out of a fondness for your company?”
“This hypothetical scenario of yours is very interesting,” Mattie replied, “but it is rather like asking how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. I am sure you find it great fun to ponder, but it has precious little practical value.”
“You mean to say you do not think such a man exists?”
“It is arrogant to say as much, for I do not know all there is to know, but I have seen just enough of this world that no, I do not think such a man exists,” Mattie said.
LaBoeuf regarded her in silence for several moments before looking away. “Well, then,” he said, in a voice so low Mattie almost did not hear him.
Mattie turned her gaze straight ahead, and frowned to see that Rooster had stopped and was waiting for them.
They rode up to him and stopped their horses. Mattie dropped her reins almost to their ends and sat her weight up in the saddle so that Alma could stretch her back. The horse reached her nose down to the ground and gave a soft nickering sound before letting out a heavy sigh.
“We are nearly at our destination,” Rooster said. He gestured to the west, and Mattie could see the gathering of dark smoke in the distant sky, indicating the town beneath it. “What say you, LaBoeuf? Will we find our man in a tavern or a brothel? It is early yet, but perhaps the whores in Texarkana keep store hours.”
“Cogburn,” LaBoeuf said, frowning at him. “I realise this sort of talk is more for the benefit of my offence than Miss Ross’s, here, but you ought to mind what you say in the presence of a young woman.”
“Some of the foulest mouths I’ve known have belonged to young women,” Rooster replied.
“I have no doubt that is true,” LaBoeuf sighed. “Let us proceed. We will enter the first tavern we find and start our search there. We will be able to cover some ground before we need to find lodging for the night.”
They chirruped to their horses and set off once more. In an hour, they had arrived in the outskirts of Texarkana. They stopped once they were in the centre of the town, nearly at the Texas state line. By the train tracks they found a livery, and decided to board the horses and let them rest a spell.
“This task will go faster if we split up,” LaBoeuf said once they had seen the horses settled.
“Hm,” said Rooster. “I suppose you mean for me to take one side of the street and you and the girl to take the other.”
“That is what I was going to suggest, yes,” LaBoeuf replied. “Miss Ross and I can try what hotels and boarding houses we come across, and you can try the taverns and other such places.”
“That is what you were going to suggest,” Rooster repeated. He coughed and spat on the ground, and then continued speaking in a peevish tone. “I am not sure she will be any safer alone with you than she would be following me into rough places, but I guess that is how you figure it, LaBoeuf.”
LaBoeuf said nothing to this, but glared fiercely at Rooster. Mattie looked between the two of them, puzzled as to the source of their vexation, beyond their continued general dislike of one another.
“I am gravelled,” she said. “It does not matter who goes with whom so long as we find our way back together here, in an hour or thereabouts, hopefully with some good information regarding Cunningham. Let us not cavil – we are only wasting time.”
“I agree. I reckon you can judge well enough your own path. Go with whomever you choose,” LaBoeuf said to her. He turned then and began to walk away up the street.
Rooster watched him go, a scowl on his face. He glanced at Mattie.
“You heard the man, sis. Do as you like,” he said. He turned and went also, only in the opposite direction.
Mattie stood there in the muddy livery yard, watching the two of them stalk off. Her thought was that she would like to have but one day on this errand wherein her two companions did not chafe one another.
She watched Rooster walk down a ways, and then cross the street to a tavern which stood on the other side. He went inside. She turned her back on him and walked in the direction LaBoeuf had gone.
It took her only a minute of brisk walking to catch up to LaBoeuf down the street, outside of a hotel. He was standing on the front stoop, an expression of frustration on his face.
“Hallo,” Mattie greeted him as she approached. LaBoeuf looked up, and seemed surprised to see her. She came to a stop before him. “What is your plan, Mr. LaBoeuf?”
“Well,” he said, “I propose we query the hotels along this row and see what we can find. Failing that I suggest we make contact with the local law and see whether they have heard aught of our man.”
“I agree,” Mattie replied. “Marshall Cogburn has gone to ‘query’ a tavern down the other end of this street, so I do not know when we will see him sober next.”
LaBoeuf’s brows drew together in a frown as he regarded her. “Are you making sport of Cogburn?”
“Only somewhat,” Mattie replied with a shrug of her shoulders. “For the most part I think I speak the truth. Shall we begin?”
“Yes, let us go.”
They continued down the street, stopping at two more hotels and a dry goods store. They discovered nothing, and were treated warily by the people they met. Mattie supposed it was due to LaBoeuf’s high-handed ways and the unusual dress they both wore, but that was no excuse for poor manners, in her opinion.
As they were leaving the second hotel, two men entered the lobby, talking loudly and blustering about as though the place belonged to them alone.
“- no surprise in that,” one of them was saying. “These western towns are scarcely more civilized than the territories.”
“They will not even catch the man who done it, I warrant,” replied the other.
“Of course they will not! He has fled and is likely already over the state line. No one will give chase.”
LaBoeuf gave Mattie a weighty look, and then stepped forward and stopped the men. “Pardon me, sirs, but what is this that you speak of?”
The men both stared at LaBoeuf a moment before transferring their baffled looks to Mattie.
“Why, there has been a murder, of course,” the first one said after a moment, in a pompous tone.
“You have not heard?” the other added, incredulous.
“Where has this murder taken place?” LaBoeuf asked. “Quickly, now – I am a Texas Ranger in pursuit of a dangerous criminal and cannot afford to waste time on palaver.”
The first man blanched. “The thing happened at a hotel very near to here, on Beech Street. I will give you directions.”
The two men proceeded to detail a series of directions wherein they contradicted one another repeatedly and fell to quarrelling over it more than once. Mattie did not see how it could be so difficult to find a place in a frontier town with broad, western-style streets laid out in an orderly way, and so she simply listened for the street names and ignored the rest of their nonsense.
Mattie and LaBoeuf left as soon as they could break away from the two men, and headed back in the direction they had come. Sure enough they found their own way without any trouble, and when they turned the corner onto Beech Street, the large crowd gathered in front of a rundown boarding house was enough to indicate that they had arrived in the right place.
They approached the crowd, which was populated with people of all sorts, hoping, Mattie supposed, to get a glimpse of whatever grisly scene lay within the boarding house.
LaBoeuf craned to see over the heads of the people before them, and then turned to her. “The law is here already. I will see if I can be of any assistance,” he said, and disappeared into the crowd.
Mattie turned away. She walked down the board sidewalk, out of the crush of onlookers. Admittedly she was curious, but the local authorities hardly needed yet another person gawking and getting underfoot. She sat down on an empty upturned crate around the side of the building where there was no one, and waited.
Mattie considered the trail of mayhem the man had left behind him as he fled west. Things had gone in such a way thus far that she assumed Cunningham was responsible for whatever violence had transpired here. She wished that she had had the wherewithal to take her father’s pistol and finish the job of killing him when the opportunity had presented itself back in Yell County. Cunningham’s subsequent crimes would have been prevented, and Mattie would now be at home with her family, enjoying the hard work and plenty of the harvest season.
Her only regret in such a circumstance would be not having had these times with LaBoeuf and with Rooster which, although each man was tiresome in his own way, had yielded a kind of high-spirited adventure she had not enjoyed since the last time they were together, and which, in private moments, she could admit to herself that she coveted.
Mattie reckoned it was a sin to call running away from home in the pursuit of a criminal a high-spirited adventure, but that was the truth. She missed her home and her family, but sleeping under the stars, riding and tracking, camping, and fishing all agreed very well with her. Even Rooster’s meandering stories and LaBoeuf’s tall ones held their own peculiar charms.
She guessed their adventure was almost at its conclusion. They had nearly caught up to Cunningham now, and soon she would be headed back home. She supposed it would be best to put herself and Alma on a train; certainly LaBoeuf and Rooster would be eager to head back to Texas for their respective rewards. They would not be willing or able to accompany her home.
“There you are.” Mattie looked up to see LaBoeuf standing at the corner of the building, watching her.
“I am not one for a large crowd,” Mattie said. “I thought I would do myself and everyone else a good turn by waiting here, out of the way.”
LaBoeuf came and sat down on the crate beside her, the big rowels on his spurs ringing against the sidewalk boards. He removed his hat and ran a hand over his hair before replacing the ostentatious thing on his head. Mattie glanced down and saw that his knee was touching hers. She eased her limb away from his and placed her hand in her lap.
“Were you able to gather any useful information?”
“A woman was killed here, only an hour or so ago,” LaBoeuf said, frowning. He was troubled. “No one knows the name of the man who was with her and who later quit this place, but judging by the descriptions given by those who saw him, I reckon we have caught up to Cunningham at last.”
“A woman? What woman?”
“Ah,” LaBoeuf said hesitantly, glancing at her. “Well... She was a lady of the evening.”
“Oh,” Mattie replied. “What happened?”
LaBoeuf’s cheeks reddened, and he cleared his throat. “Cunningham was ah, keeping company with this lady, and the Sheriff reckons they quarrelled about some matter, and Cunningham strangled her and pushed her body under the bed before fleeing. He stole a horse also, and it is believed he headed west into Texas.”
Mattie frowned down at the toes of her boots, silently remonstrating herself for her earlier musings. “High-spirited adventures” indeed.
“What, have you nothing to say about this being the just punishment for her sins?” LaBoeuf asked.
Mattie looked at him. “Surely you cannot think me so heartless as all that.”
LaBoeuf regarded her for a long moment, and then shook his head. “No, I do not think you so heartless as all that.”
“Perhaps this woman lived a life of sin, but to have it taken in violence by a man like Cunningham is hardly ‘an eye for an eye,’” Mattie said.
“I agree.” LaBoeuf was silent for a moment, and then said quietly, “I do not think she had the opportunity to do much sinning at all. She was very young.”
Mattie had nothing to say to this, and they sat listening to the sound of the crowd murmuring and gossiping around the corner. Mattie thought about all the harm Cunningham had done during his flight from justice.
“More with each day that passes I regret that I did not kill him when the opportunity presented itself,” she said finally.
“Do you?” LaBoeuf replied. “Well, I regret that I did not catch him before he got anywhere near you.”
Mattie turned to him. He was looking at her with great sincerity; there was no bluster about him at that moment. But he appeared deflated somehow, older and more tired than usual, frustrated with something over which he held no sway.
“We ought to go find Rooster,” Mattie said.
LaBoeuf sighed. “Yes, we ought to. There is no use in sitting here. If we are quick, I think we can catch Cunningham before he gets too far into the wilderness.”
“Let us go then.”
They walked back to the livery, where they found Alma and Sal contentedly eating their hay in two stalls next to each other. Whiskey Jack was in a third, dozing with his great chestnut head hung low.
LaBoeuf went into Sal’s stall, running his hand along her dark brown and white rump and her side so she would not startle. He checked her hooves, and then stood and gave her a pat on her neck.
“I am glad we can pursue Cunningham immediately upon Cogburn’s return, but I own that I would have liked for the horses to have a proper rest. Poor gal. I am wearing her ragged, I fear,” he said, almost to himself.
“Yet she would keep on until she could go no further, if you asked it of her,” Mattie replied, standing by the pine post at the entrance to the stall. “That is a good horse to have.”
“She is a fine mare, sound and steady, and she has seen me through our share of scrapes withal,” he said. “Perhaps it is about time for her to retire from this game of tracking criminals in the wilderness.” He paused, his hand resting on Sal’s neck. “Perhaps it is about time I did the same.”
“But Mr. LaBoeuf, you cannot possibly think to quit our search now!” Mattie exclaimed. “We have come so far, and we are right on Cunningham’s heels, I am sure of it!”
LaBoeuf came and stood beside her. “Come now, I have no plans to abandon our work and leave you in Texarkana with only Cogburn to assist you. I am speaking of my future life when I return to Ysleta. I am getting too old for this life, and I do not wish to have what time is left to me cut short by a bullet, either.”
“You speak as though you are an old man, which is hardly the truth,” Mattie replied, perplexed by him. “And I have not known you to shy away from danger. Indeed you have sought it out.”
“I have,” LaBoeuf agreed, his brows drawing together in a crease. “Since running away to join up in the war I have wanted only to be where the fire is hottest, so to speak. I hardly knew then what that truly meant. But now I find I grow weary of the violence. I long for some peace, a place of my own. Do you understand that?”
Mattie was struck with an image of the lovely September afternoon when Cunningham came into her life. She thought of the freshly harvested cotton fields, of the hay in the mow, of the horses and the little milk cow Jessie in the pasture. She thought of how pleased she had been at the good season they had enjoyed, and how she looked forward to seeing Mama, Little Frank, and Victoria, of meeting them at the train station and hearing about what fun they had had in Little Rock, of delighting in what gifts they brought her no matter how many times she insisted they not waste their pennies.
“I understand,” Mattie replied.
LaBoeuf looked at her, and his eyes spoke of peace and of quiet, of soft green places and the warmth of sunlight. All words died in her throat. Mattie wondered how he might look without all his gaudy trappings, in a parlour at dusk after a long day of work, his eyes warm and tired, and his hand on hers.
“I reckon you know there has been a murder, or you are more incompetent as a lawman than I have guessed, LaBoeuf.”
Mattie turned to see Rooster standing in the wide stable doorway, silhouetted by the late afternoon sunlight.
“Yes, we know there has been a murder, and we suspect Cunningham is to blame,” LaBoeuf replied tiredly. “What else do you have to say about it?”
“I have nothing else to say about it,” Rooster said. “I only wonder what you are doing jawing Mattie’s ear when we are nearly at the pinch of the game. I plan to pursue Cunningham even if you do not.”
“I plan to pursue him, all right.” LaBoeuf reached for his saddle on the wall between Sal’s stall and Alma’s. Mattie went into Alma’s stall and began to tack her up as well.
“There is no need to be acrimonious, Marshall Cogburn,” Mattie scolded as she worked. “Mr. LaBoeuf and I were just making ready to depart. We planned to pursue Cunningham the moment you returned, did we not, Mr. LaBoeuf?”
LaBoeuf did not reply. Mattie could see only the very top of his downturned head as he fastened Sal’s girth.
“It seems our man was sighted heading west out of town,” Rooster said. “I guess he aims to go to the woods for cover, and we had best start there and see if we can pick up his trail.”
“That is all right with me,” LaBoeuf grumbled. “Let us be off as quickly as we can and get this business over with.”
They mounted up and started off towards the west once again, and Mattie felt that they were completely at the mercy of providence, for they had little to guide their course now.
Once they had crossed the state line and the streets and buildings of Texarkana thinned and receded into the distance, Mattie paused to take a look around at the “great state of Texas.”
In the strictest geographical sense, there was not much to distinguish it from Arkansas, as far as Mattie could see. Whether the people were any different, it was not yet possible to say, for they did not encounter anyone as they traversed a stretch of plains, heading for a thick stand of piney woods crouching on the horizon.
The sun crept across the sky, headed in the same direction as their path took them. The sky cast over with snowy-looking, low grey clouds, and they rode in a single line with Rooster in front, then LaBoeuf, and Mattie in the rear. The wind sharpened, and they did not speak.
It was twilight by the time they reached the edge of the woods. A glow of light and the smell of smoke on the wind announced the presence of some living being, and by and by they came upon a tiny log cabin with a thatched roof. A man sat smoking a pipe on the little stoop, with was made of a smooth split log. He wore a threadbare coat whose sleeves were too short for his lanky arms, and a tall hat made from dusty, moth-eaten beaver felt.
They brought their horses to a halt in what passed for his yard. The man leaned against the door behind him, and although he regarded them, he did not stand or offer a greeting.
“What say there?” Rooster called. “You see a man pass through here, recent-like, on a horse? He woulda been in a mighty big hurry.”
The man did not answer immediately. Instead he continued to stare at them, and to smoke. Mattie glanced to her side to see what LaBoeuf thought of this, but his eyes were fixed on the man.
“Might have,” he said finally.
Rooster waited for the man to continue, but he did not. Rooster cleared his throat. “Which way was he headed?”
“Can’t say,” the man replied.
Mattie looked over and saw that Rooster had gone very still. “Now, can you not say because you do not know, or because this man has paid for your silence?”
Mattie heard LaBoeuf’s saddle creak as he turned to look at Rooster. Hardly a sound broke the silence.
“Well?” Rooster prodded, his voice patient and untroubled. “Which is it?”
There was another beat of silence, and then the man was on his feet and turning to scurry into his cabin. But Rooster moved with a speed which took Mattie aback, and thumped to the forest floor and grabbed the man by the back of his coat before he could escape.
Rooster threw the man to the ground, face up, and pinned him there with one foot planted squarely on his chest. His Colt Single Action was in his hand before Mattie had seen him reach for it. He cocked the piece and pointed it in the man’s face.
“You’re at a fork in the road, friend,” Rooster said. “You got yourself two paths to choose from: you get right with me, or you get right with your Lord. Which is it gonna be?”
The man was either obstinately foolish or stunned into silence, for he did not answer. Rooster leaned over and pressed the muzzle of his revolver into the flesh of the man’s cheek. The fellow squirmed and wheezed, clutching at Rooster’s leg.
Abruptly, Rooster eased off of him and the man rolled over, coughing. He hissed something at Rooster, who leaned down again.
“What’s that?” he barked.
The man choked out some words which were indistinguishable from where Mattie and LaBoeuf sat. Rooster cursed and kicked the man sharply in the ribs in reply.
“Marshall Cogburn!” Mattie protested, as the man cried out. It did not seem right to torment the wretch with violence, in spite of their aim.
The man said something finally which seemed to satisfy Rooster, who spat on the ground and holstered his revolver. He returned to Whiskey Jack’s side and mounted in one smooth motion.
“Cunningham asked for directions, and this fella told him to head southwest, through these woods, where he will eventually find a lake,” Rooster said. He urged his horse on, and Mattie and LaBoeuf followed. Mattie pulled up alongside him.
“What did the man say to incite you to treat him so viciously?” she asked.
“Said he’d tell me all I wanted to know if I beat Cunningham’s price,” Rooster replied. “Don’t know what cards he thought he was holding. I knew he would start barking once I put an ounce of pressure on him.”
Mattie turned to look at LaBoeuf, who had remained silent throughout this entire exchange. His face bore an unreadable expression, and Mattie turned back around in her saddle.
They rode through the woods, putting distance between themselves and the log cabin. The darkness was becoming impenetrable as the forest grew denser and the night more absolute. They did not speak as they rode abreast, picking their way slowly through the maze of slender pine trunks.
Mattie did not like this dark feeling which had descended on the three of them. As if to underscore her anxiety, an owl hooted nearby. The next time LaBoeuf wound through a stand of trees and was close to her side, Mattie cleared her throat and undertook a bright tone.
“If this is a taste of what I might expect in Texas, I believe I have a greater understanding of how you came to be the sort of man you are,” she said.
“Oh, indeed? And what sort of man am I?” LaBoeuf asked.
Mattie swallowed, her teasing mood abandoning her as quickly as it had taken hold of her. She spoke before she could think better of it. “The best sort,” she said. She looked away, feeling strangely bashful, and glad that darkness surrounded them. “Do not take offence. I am only ‘yanking your chain’ because you are so easily affronted.”
LaBoeuf did not seem to have a reply to this, and did not have time to think of one, for Sal stumbled then, nearly unseating him. He cursed, and dismounted to see whether she had been injured. Mattie and Rooster stopped, waiting as LaBoeuf bent down to examine the horse’s legs.
“She is not lame,” he announced eventually, standing up. It was too dark to even make out his face, and Mattie had to guess where he stood by the sound of his voice, which held a great deal of frustration. “It is too dark to press on. I do not like it any more than you will, Cogburn, but I suggest we stop and make camp here.”
“Hm,” Rooster replied. “No, I do not like it, but you are right, pard. We are more likely to hobble our horses in these woods than to find Cunningham.”
Mattie’s heart sunk in disappointment, but she saw the reason in it. It would do them no good in their endeavour if they found themselves without horses, especially now that Cunningham was mounted.
They found a small clearing in the trees nearby, just large enough to build a campfire and throw down their bedrolls, and to string a line for the horses.
As Rooster and LaBoeuf got the horses settled, Mattie walked off between the trees to gather firewood. She did not take a light of any kind with her, for she guessed it would be easier going to simply allow her eyes to adjust to what little light there was from the moon.
She did not walk far, only deep enough to gather an armful of sticks, and never so far that she could not hear the sound of Rooster and LaBoeuf speaking to one another in low voices. It was so dark, and had become so still in the woods, that she could see the glow of Rooster’s cigarette when she turned to look back at them.
Mattie tripped on something, a root she thought, and half fell to her knees, dropping the sticks all around her.
“Blast,” she cursed, groping in the darkness. Slowly she began to gather up her sticks once again. She had recovered about half of them when she reached her hand and touched something that caused her to draw back. Her fingers had touched something wet and warm which stuck to her skin. She put her hand under her nose and sniffed.
It was blood.
“Mattie?” It was LaBoeuf, and he was close.
“I am here,” she said, struggling to keep her voice even as she rose to her feet. “Bring a light, there is something -”
“Hell,” he swore, appearing beside her with a lit knot of pine in his hand. He held it out, and the light revealed the body of a horse. Mattie held her hand up – it was slick with dark, congealing blood.
The light moved away from her as LaBoeuf leaned over to examine the animal more closely.
“The animal has been shot,” he said. “I reckon it is the horse Cunningham stole, for it is only just dead. Perhaps it went lame. Or perhaps he simply shot it for no reason. I do not know.”
The sight was grisly indeed. Mattie turned her face away. The poor dumb beast had done nothing to deserve such an ugly fate, to die frightened and injured away from all that was familiar to it. The sight of the pitiful creature reminded her too much of Little Blackie, only it was much worse. This horse had not been shot out of compassion for its suffering and sacrifice. It had probably not been shot for any merciful reason at all.
LaBoeuf sighed. “Come away,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “We can do nothing for the poor beast now.”
Mattie gathered the bundle of sticks close to her chest and they returned to the place where the horses were tethered. Rooster had cleared a spot for the fire, and was waiting there, smoking a cigarette.
“Mattie stumbled upon Cunningham’s horse,” LaBoeuf said to him. “It seems he shot the animal for one reason or another. Either way it is recently dead. He cannot have gotten far, although he will have had a better time on foot than on horseback in these dense woods.”
“If only we did not have to wait here for the night to pass,” Mattie said. “We cannot apprehend Cunningham soon enough for me.”
“Cool your heels, sis,” Rooster replied. “We’ll get him yet.”
“You ought not to encourage her,” LaBoeuf muttered.
“Encourage me?” Mattie asked, turning to stare at him. His expression was dark, and he seemed vexed beyond the merits of their circumstances. She did not understand him.
“Yes, encourage you, that is what I said,” LaBoeuf replied. “Neither of us ought to. We are both fools. Mattie, you should not be here. It is too dangerous.”
“Too dangerous? Why, I have come this far all right, have I not? Not to mention our previous sojourn.”
“You paid dearly enough for that one act of vengeance,” LaBoeuf countered. “Why do you take on another?”
“This is not an act of vengeance. I simply want my one hundred dollars back,” Mattie replied.
“I think we both know that is not the whole truth of it. You told me yourself that you doubt you shall see that money again. No, you want to see Cunningham dead for what he did to you. Not for the danger he poses to others, not for your one hundred dollars. For what he did to you.”
Mattie met his gaze. “And if I do?”
“I fear your desire for vengeance makes you foolhardy,” LaBoeuf replied.
“And it does not have the same effect on you?”
“I have no desire for vengeance. Mattie, this is merely a duty of my occupation. I am pursuing Cunningham because if I am successful, there is money in it for me. That is all.” He paused then and looked to Rooster with an entreating expression. “Do you have nothing to say, Cogburn? Do not pretend you think she ought to be here, with a man like Cunningham on the loose.”
“You are the one who brought her along, pard,” Rooster replied.
LaBoeuf shot Rooster a thoroughly exasperated look. Rooster returned it. He threw his cigarette to the ground and cleared his throat.
“Reckon I might go see a man about a horse,” he said. “You two holler when you’re through with your squabbling.” With that, he turned and ambled off into the woods and out of sight but not, Mattie supposed, out of earshot.
LaBoeuf turned back to her, his expression sombre. “Please, Mattie. See reason. We are well past the point of ridiculousness. It is not safe for you, here.”
“I do not see why this continues to be a sticking point between us,” Mattie replied. “I am here and I am staying. You swore to me that we would be together when we bring this business to its close. Is there no honour in your word at all, then?”
“There is honour in my word, all right. Only my honour is not anywhere near so dear to me as your safety. I fear...” He paused here and frowned, looking away from her. “I fear that something will befall you, and there will be nothing Rooster or I can do to protect you.”
“You are the one who is being ridiculous,” Mattie replied. “I am as safe as I have always been.”
“What, do you think you are safe from violence because you are virtuous, and that only those like that girl in Texarkana are in harm’s way?”
Mattie glowered at him. “You forget how I came to be involved in this business. I know full well that one has little to do with the other, and what danger I face in pursuing the man.”
“I am not sure that you do, Mattie. I think if you knew what danger you faced, you would be at home, where you ought to be.”
“It is not for you to say where I ought to be,” she replied.
“This time, it is. This is enough, now. It is enough. We are returning to Texarkana and you are boarding the next train back to Dardanelle.”
“What, turn back now when we are right on Cunningham’s heels? You will do no such thing!” Mattie snapped.
“You cannot always have your way,” LaBoeuf replied.
“Nor can you,” she returned.
“You have had your way plenty on this journey, and now I must put my foot down and refuse you. Do not be unreasonable, Mattie. You have had your adventure. Now you must listen to good counsel and do as I say.”
“It is not your place to refuse or forbid me anything!” Mattie replied, needled. “Why are you forever trying to soldier me here and there, protect me from this and that? I do not need your protection.”
“But you should want it! You should want to be protected,” he said fiercely. “It is unnatural that you do not want it.”
“Unnatural? Unnatural indeed! How dare you?”
“By God, Mattie, I tell you I have had enough!” LaBoeuf said, glowering down at her. “If you do not return to Texarkana and put yourself on the next train to Dardanelle, I will have no choice but to put you there myself by any means necessary. Do not try my patience further, girl.”
"You are very free with your threatening remarks for someone who so rarely sees them through," Mattie replied.
LaBoeuf scowled at her. "I see them through. Or is your memory so short that you have forgotten the striping I gave your leg on the bank of the Arkansas River, in the Choctaw Nation?"
That he had the audacity to bring that mortifying episode up at this moment, Mattie could scarcely believe. His pride was unforgivable. He did not care what humiliation he wrought so long as he defended his ill-founded belief that he was always in the right.
"You are a rude, awful lout, and I have no regard for you," Mattie said. "And I think it is you who suffers from a short memory. You gave me a thrashing, but you never did manage to steal a kiss from me. You never shall, either. You could not steal a kiss from a corpse, or a toad on a log. You could not steal a kiss if they were being given away, free of charge!"
LaBoeuf continued to glare at her for a moment longer, and then suddenly he moved and Mattie found herself pulled roughly to him. He kissed her right on the mouth, his whiskers scratching her skin. Stunned, she froze in place as he wrapped his arms tightly around her, holding her close to his body and bending her to him.
He released her as abruptly as he had pulled her to him, and Mattie swayed back on her feet. His eyes were bright as he looked at her, that smug expression returning to his face. Mattie felt her face burn, feeling that she had been bested.
“There,” he said. “Now what do you have to say about how I see my threats through?”
Stung, Mattie reached out her hand and slapped him across his face. It throbbed sharply where her burned palm connected with his jaw. She could not think of a thing to say, and she had no desire to look at him a moment longer, and so she turned on her heel and stomped into the bush, heedless of the darkness.
LaBoeuf did not follow her.
Mattie’s face blazed with humiliation, and anger choked at her chest. The very tar of him, to treat her that way after everything that had passed between them! She did not know why she was so shocked at his behaviour; after all, he had done little since their meeting except doubt her abilities and try to rid himself of her.
Her steps slowed as she ducked around the fallen trunk of a tree. Some sharp sensation tugged in her chest as she thought of LaBoeuf’s eagerness to be shot of her. It was not only her pride which was hurting, she realised.
She stopped walking. She was being silly, tearing off into the woods to sulk like a child. This sort of behaviour was well beneath her, and it would not do. She would simply return to their little camp and behave as though no quarrel had taken place. There was nothing for it.
A shriek suddenly pierced the air, so high in pitch that it alarmed the ears to hear it. It continued, rising and falling through the trees like the screech of some unholy banshee. Mattie shuddered as a chill ran up her spine. It was the scream of a rabbit caught in the clutches of some other beast. She could not tell which direction the horrible noises came from.
It ceased as abruptly as it had begun, and the woods fell silent. Pulling her coat tighter around her, Mattie turned and began to walk in the direction she had come. She walked for quite some time, her legs growing tired as she picked her way through the dark brush. Eventually she saw a firelight glimmering through the trees. She walked towards it, nearly stumbling over the uneven ground. She came through the trees, expecting to see LaBoeuf and Rooster, but she did not.
Instead, sitting by his meagre fire, slowly pulling a dead rabbit’s pelt from its body, was Albert Cunningham.
Chapter 9: a life of wickedness
I stole a line from Ruby Thewes of the Civil War film Cold Mountain (which, if you are enjoying this fic, may I heartily recommend the novel by Charles Frazier?) and put it in the mouth of Rooster Cogburn. Ruby Thewes is what would happen if Rooster and Mattie procreated and their daughter was allowed to raise herself in the hills of Appalachia. Picture it. Anyway, it's the line about "sweethearts" - you'll know it when you get to it - and I understand it's a take on a regionalism that Rooster may have been familiar with, so it seemed fitting.
Warning: This chapter contains quite a lot of graphic violence, as well as sexual violence much like what was in the prologue of this story. If you have any triggers with respect to such topics, please use your discretion when reading. Thanks.
Mattie froze in place, stunned. She had been so occupied with losing her temper that she had not given a thought to the danger of wandering the woods where they knew Cunningham to be hiding. And now here he was, at last, right in front of her.
Cunningham looked up from his work and clapped eyes on her, and Mattie knew it was too late to flee back into the woods.
“Who are you?” he asked, slowly rising to his feet. There were tufts of bloody rabbit fur on his hands and the sleeves of his shabby coat, and in one hand he clutched a hunting knife. His face was thinner than when last she saw him, and the clothes he wore hung loosely on his bony frame. His shirt was unbuttoned at the throat, and there Mattie could see he wore a grimy neckerchief which was stained brown with old blood. His skin was sallow, and dark circles rimmed his blue eyes. Altogether, he did not look well.
“My name is Mattie Ross,” she replied.
He stared blankly at her; he did not seem to recognize her at all. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
Mattie swallowed. Her first thought was to tell him exactly who she was and what she was doing here, but she was unarmed. She glanced at the knife in his hand, and then back up at his face.
“I am on a coon hunt in these woods, and I have become separated from my party and am lost,” Mattie replied.
“Coon hunt?” Cunningham repeated, frowning. “Then your dogs will find you.”
“We have no dogs. It is only myself and my party.”
“That is strange, hunting coon with no dogs,” Cunningham said. He waved his knife vaguely in her direction. “I have little in the way of supplies, here, so do not ask me for food.”
He sat down heavily on the log behind him, and continued with his work – removing the rabbit’s pelt.
Mattie stared at him. She wanted to explain to him the rudeness of having nothing whatsoever to offer a guest, but she did not. The knife, and the blood on his hands, hands which had already nearly throttled her to death, stopped her from speaking. She felt the urge to put her hand to her throat, although the bruises had finally disappeared. Instead she made a fist, the burn across her palm stinging as she did so.
Cunningham removed the rest of the rabbit’s pelt, and went about preparing it for a makeshift spit he had spanned over the flames. He paused and looked up at her. She had not moved.
“You need not stand there like a scarecrow,” Cunningham said. “Sit down by the fire.”
Mattie stepped forward and sat on a low stump across from him. The fire was meagre, but it provided light and warmth enough to pierce the dark night around them. Mattie looked up at Cunningham. He secured the rabbit on the spit, and then stood, seeming to search for something.
“Do you see a bottle lying about?” he asked, peering down at the ground around him.
“I suppose you mean a bottle of liquor,” Mattie replied.
“I do. It was prescribed to me by a bona fide medical doctor,” he said earnestly.
Mattie did not reply to this. Instead she watched as he moved away from the fire, kicking at the carpet of leaves and sticks on the forest floor, muttering to himself.
Her mind raced as she kept her eyes trained on Cunningham. She had stormed away from LaBoeuf and Rooster in a temper, but surely they would expect her return, would they not? When she did not come back in short order, certainly they would search for her.
Apprehension settled coldly in her stomach, and she fought against the feeling of panic which loomed over her. Certainly they would search for her.
Cunningham had become a mere moving shadow in the gloom beyond the light of the fire, the only signifier of his presence the sound of his footsteps in the underbrush. Mattie glanced down at the fire then, and saw his bloodied knife resting against a rock. She did not dare hesitate. Before Cunningham could spy her, she reached over and snatched up the knife, sliding it gingerly into her sleeve.
Cunningham did not even seem to notice, so occupied was he with locating his bottle of moonshine.
Mattie’s heart pounded in her chest. Surely he would notice his knife had disappeared. The moment he returned to the fire, he would know. What would she do then, if he pounced on her? She swallowed.
Cunningham meandered back to the fire, a sour expression on his face. He gave the log a kick before sitting down again. He scratched fitfully at the stubble on his face, and looked up at her. His brows drew together in a glower which he slowly lifted to direct at her. Mattie met his eyes, holding tight to the last of her nerve.
He stood again, and came around the fire, stopping at her side. He stared down at her for a moment longer, and then he bent over. He was so close to her she could smelly the filthy, stale liquor smell of him. She held her breath and began to slide the knife from her sleeve.
But Cunningham straightened before she could move. He brought his hand up, and in it was a half-empty bottle of liquor. He shook it, sloshing the murky contents about.
“It was right there next to you, in the leaves. You ought to have said something,” he said. He returned to his seat on the far side of the fire.
Mattie found she did not have the breath to say a single word. Instead she continued to watch him while trying to slow her racing heart.
Cunningham took a healthy swig from the bottle. When he finished, he swiped his arm over his face, wiping his mouth on his dirty coat sleeve. He eyed her for a moment, and then his brow creased as his gaze dropped to her short arm. He fixed on it, a strange expression crossing his face. He raised his eyes to meet hers, and Mattie shivered to see the dark look there.
“How did you get like that?” he asked. It was the same question he had asked her before, when they first met. Mattie’s eyes searched his face for some hint of his intentions. She still could not tell if he recognized her or not. When she did not immediately answer, he frowned at her. “I want to know how you came to lose that arm,” he said, more insistently.
Mattie’s eyes narrowed. “I do not see what business my arm is of yours,” she replied.
He smiled, but it did not reach his eyes. “I do not see why you should be so shy. I am only curious.”
“If you are only curious, then you will not mind it if I tell you nothing of how I came to lose my arm, and if I also say that asking such questions is impertinent indeed.”
“You are a wrathy thing,” Cunningham observed. His tone of voice was calm, but there was something strange and eager in his look that Mattie did not like. “Shame no one ever took the tar out of you, proper like. Your pa should have. You might have been a sweet, meek little cherry, then.”
Mattie sneered at him, repulsed. “Someone ought to have taken the tar out of you. Then perhaps you might not have fallen to a life of wickedness.”
Cunningham did not respond. He stared at her, his eyes searching her face. Suddenly he smiled, and exhaled an odd kind of laugh. Mattie could see in his smile that he might have been handsome, if not for the awful rest of him.
“A life of wickedness?” he asked. “What makes you think I live a life of wickedness?”
Mattie paused a moment, sensing her mistake. She raised her eyebrows in what she hoped was an honest look. “When I said that yours was a life of wickedness, I was referring to your drinking.”
“You are a teetotaller,” Cunningham said, and then fell silent, distracted by adjusting the rabbit over the flames. What little fat there was in the skimpy creature dripped off and sizzled in the fire. The sight of it did not whet Mattie’s appetite. If anything, it turned her stomach.
“I am very hungry and do not wish to share this,” he said then, sitting back on his log. “I have not eaten in some days, for I have no money.”
Mattie thought of the young woman back in Texarkana. It seemed he had enough money for that. Or perhaps he did not, and that was why they had fallen to quarrelling.
Cunningham looked up at her. “That is a sour expression you have. You ought not to scowl at people so. One day some person may take offense to your sauce.”
Mattie thought of LaBoeuf and felt her heart sink. Whether he and Rooster were troubling themselves to search for her did not matter. Cunningham could turn on her at any moment and kill her, long before they arrived. He seemed docile enough now, but she did not trust it, and she supposed herself to be next to useless at placating him.
“The face God gave me is the one I must live with, as must everyone else,” Mattie replied.
“You still have not told me about your arm. Were you born with that deformity?”
“I lost my arm when I was fourteen years old,” she said, fed up with his rude questions. “I shot the man who killed my father in Fort Smith, and the Sharps-Carbine I used kicked me back into a pit, where I was bitten by a rattlesnake. The wound festered and the arm had to be removed. Does that satisfy your curiosity, which you ought to know is indecent and impertinent?”
“Your father is dead?” he asked.
“Yes, he is.”
Cunningham went quite still, staring down into the fire with a frown on his face. He lifted his eyes to look at her. “And are you from these parts here?”
“I am,” she lied. “I live outside Texarkana.”
“What was your father doing in Fort Smith?”
“He would go there sometimes for trade,” she replied.
“That is a peculiar place to go for trade when you are already near Texarkana,” Cunningham observed.
“My father was a peculiar man,” Mattie said simply.
Cunningham stared at her for several more moments, seeming to give great consideration to her words. Finally he looked away, grabbing a stick to poke the embers of the fire.
“You may pass the night here if you like. It will be easier for you to find your way back to your party in the daylight,” Cunningham said.
Mattie considered the options before her as she watched Cunningham through the smoke. Rooster and LaBoeuf may well be searching for her, she thought, but it was dark and she did not know how far she had wandered. It could take hours to pick up her trail if they started off in the wrong direction. With only a hunting knife at her disposal, she did not think herself capable of disarming him. She could get up and leave, she supposed, but she did not know where she was, and what was much worse, she would be letting Cunningham escape. She did not care to stay in his company, but she did not know what else to do. She would have to “sit tight” and await the moment when she might take his gun and overpower him that way. That was the only sensible course of action.
Neither of them spoke any as Cunningham tended the fire and cooked his supper. When the rabbit was cooked, he ate it right off the spit. He ate ravenously, as though he had not eaten in weeks, and soon his food was all but gone and his face and hands were a greasy mess. He held the spit out to her.
“You may have what’s left, if you like,” he said.
Mattie eyed the carcass. He had picked the bones clean and there was hardly anything left to have. “I am not hungry,” she replied.
“You suit yourself.” Cunningham stood then, and tossed the leavings of his supper off into the woods. Mattie frowned. The man obviously knew little about how to manage a proper camp. He was liable to attract wolves and bears and every manner of troublesome wild creature that way.
Cunningham then settled down with his head leaning back against a log, and his bottle of spirits clutched in the crook of his elbow. He closed his eyes and did not speak, but he did not sleep either, for he took regular swigs from the bottle.
Mattie sighed, and propped her shoulders against the log behind her, her feet towards the fire. She wrapped herself more snugly in her coat, shivering against the cold. The fire provided precious little warmth, but she was unwilling to get up and fetch more wood. She would simply have to suffer it until Cunningham fell asleep and she could take his gun.
“You are too old to be out on coon hunts. You ought to be at home,” Cunningham said eventually, without opening his eyes.
“What I ought to be doing is no business of yours,” Mattie replied.
“You would not be in this unhappy situation, lost as you are, if you had stayed home where you belong.”
Mattie said nothing, although she could not help but agree with the basic truth of what he said.
Cunningham fell silent, and Mattie awaited the sound of his snores, or some other sign that he was asleep. As she waited, she turned her predicament over once again in her mind. She could not help but think of what LaBoeuf had said, about what price she might have to pay for her vengeance. It would be something; that much was certain. But what would it be? She thought of the farm, of the winter garden and the cold weather crops. She thought of Mama, Little Frank, and Victoria. She thought of Rooster. She thought of LaBoeuf.
What would God take from her, if she took Cunningham’s life? What toll would there be for this errand, undertaken to retrieve her one hundred dollars, yes, but also to avenge the trespassing of her land, and the wounding of her body, her dignity?
Mattie closed her eyes against the ugly visions that troubled her. There was nothing for it now. She was too far from home to entertain such fears. If she had to defend herself against Cunningham, she would do so by any means necessary. And if God would take something from her in kind, then that was His will. She was as subject to it as any other creature.
But if anything happened to those people and places she held dear, she knew it would be on her head until Judgment Day.
It was cold, and the ground hard, and Mattie longed for her bedroll and the large fire Rooster always insisted upon. She longed also for the silent comfort of the nearness of her friends.
With that thought she must have fallen asleep, for it was the last thing she remembered when she stirred sometime later. She was confused for a moment before she recalled where she was. She blinked blearily to adjust her eyes to the deep blue pre-dawn light, and jolted when she realised Cunningham was kneeling right next to her.
His hand came down and clamped firmly on her throat, as if he had been waiting for the precise moment she awoke. Grimly, she realised he probably had.
“I see now,” he said in a low voice. “I see what you are and why you have come. You think you can get at me, make me turn myself over to the law.”
Mattie’s thought was that taking him alive was about the last thing she wanted right now, but she held her peace.
“You are not lost,” he continued. “You are not on a coon hunt at all. You are here to bedevil me.”
“I do not know what you are talking about,” Mattie replied hoarsely. “I am here for the reasons I told you, and I have nothing to do with the law.”
“You are nothing but a foolish girl,” he continued. “Do you not know your scripture? God gave man dominion over all living things. That includes women.”
“I suppose that is how some might interpret that passage,” Mattie replied.
“That is the only way to interpret that passage,” he said, shaking his head. It was difficult to see his expression in the dimness; he was a dark outline against the trees and the sky. “I find I am tired, very tired indeed of this business. I would shoot you dead, for that would be hardly any trouble at all, except that I do not have much shot to waste. I could leave your body to rot in these woods and no one would find you for weeks.”
The dying fire hissed and popped, and Mattie felt smoke in the back of her throat. She swallowed dryly against the pressure of his hand.
“You think I do not know who you are?” he asked, easing one knee between hers and kneeling there, pinning her in place. “I know I am being pursued, and I know you are the one who follows me. I remember you. I remember it all. I guess you thought I was a fool, but I’m no fool. You are the homely cotton farming girl from Arkansas. You are the one who tried to cut my throat. You do not think I would forget such a thing as that, do you?”
He squeezed her throat then, and Mattie squirmed as the edges of her vision turned black. He released his grip just as suddenly, and Mattie coughed and gasped for air.
Without removing his hand, Cunningham moved again, digging a sharp kneecap into the flesh of her thigh. Mattie winced and squirmed, but it was impossible to move.
“Did you think you would catch me?” he asked, his voice hushed. “You are not the first. I have been hounded by others, but none has caught me. I have dug too many graves to be caught by a one-armed harridan who don’t know her place.”
He pulled at her coat, yanking the buttons free. Mattie’s thoughts raced, terrified, but she tried to keep a rein on it. If she panicked, she would be lost.
“You may scream and cry if you like,” he said congenially. “There is no one around to hear you.”
Mattie nearly told him that a former Federal Marshall and a Texas Ranger were in fact around to hear her, but she stopped herself. There was no wind; the woods were utterly still. Even if they were far away and not searching for her, it was possible they would still hear her if she was loud enough.
Mattie had never been one to scream or cry when she was small. Victoria had been much better at it, and had often, due to Little Frank’s torturous ministrations, been able to produce a sound from her little body that rivalled passing locomotives.
As Cunningham continued to pull ineptly at her clothes, Mattie took as deep a breath as she could, and forced a sound that matched Victoria’s best efforts.
She carried on shouting and crying out and making as much noise as possible for several moments, until Cunningham abruptly drew back and hit her across the cheekbone with his closed fist.
“Enough of that,” he hissed, as Mattie reeled from the harsh blow. He hit her again, and bright spots of colour mixed with patches of blackness swirled behind her eyelids as she closed them, trying to make the world stop spinning. The crack must have gotten her nose as well, for she felt blood slide down and pool at the back of her throat. She coughed, and turned her head to spit the blood out.
“Now see what you have done,” Cunningham said. He allowed her a moment, and then shifted his weight so he was lying on top of her, holding her down by the shoulder of her short arm. He paused and stared down at her, and she stared back up at him. She flexed the fingers of her hand, and felt the dirty steel blade of his knife under her wrist.
Just tell me when, Lord, she thought. Present me with a moment and I will do what I must.
“I suppose you want a kiss first,” Cunningham said. He tilted his head curiously at her. “Sometimes they are easier if I do that, although I do not like it myself.”
Revolted, Mattie did not reply. Crushing the breath out of her with his whole weight, he put his face near hers. The reek of spirits was putrid, and Mattie knew that although his strength was greater than hers, his intoxication gave her an advantage. Seizing her opportunity, she eased the knife out of her sleeve and, gripping it as firmly as she could in her shaking hand, stabbed it into him at the first point she found, right between his ribs.
Cunningham jerked and cried out, and Mattie pulled the knife back, feeling hot blood spill over her hand. In confusion, Cunningham reeled back and, kneeling over her, hit her again. But Mattie was ready and she rolled with the force of it, knocking Cunningham off of her.
She hopped to her feet, backing away from him and holding the knife out in front of her.
“What is this now?” he moaned, clutching his side and rolling in the leaves. “Why would you do me such harm? Where did you find this weapon?”
“It is your own knife,” Mattie replied, her voice wavering harshly as her heart pounded. “I took it off you hours ago, and you would have noticed had you not been so fixated on finding your bottle of spirits!”
Cunningham struggled to his knees, still holding his side. His hands were covered in blood. “Damn you. I should have strangled you while you slept.”
“Yes, you should have, but you did not,” Mattie replied.
Cunningham moaned in pain, sitting back on his heels. He coughed, making a wet, rattling sound, and spat a mouthful of blood on the ground. “You put a hole in my goddamn lung,” he groaned.
Mattie did not reply, instead casting her eyes about for his gun. She had not yet seen it, but she knew he must have one. He had shot that poor horse with it, and he had mentioned having one, besides.
Cunningham was crouching in the dirt and muttering to himself. Mattie could not hear much of what he was saying and it seemed to be nonsense, but then he raised his voice.
“Ma always said if I had to do it I ought to go for weak ones, but here you are, standing over me. How can this be?”
Mattie stared at him, her mouth agape. “I knew your mother was helping you to evade capture, but I never -”
“Quiet!” Cunningham barked, pointing a bloodied finger at her. “Don’t you say a word about my ma!”
“You think that you killed because your victims were weak?” Mattie asked. He only strangled out a cough in reply. “You have it backwards! You killed because you are weak in character, and ugly inside, and because you are greedy. They died because they were unfortunate enough to make your acquaintance. I have escaped you twice because you are so foolish that you cannot stay sober long enough to kill me properly!”
“Damn you,” he mumbled, slowly getting to his feet. His knees shook as he did so, but he managed to stand. Mattie gripped the knife tighter.
“If you take but one step closer to me, I will see that this time I cut your throat much deeper,” Mattie said.
Cunningham ignored her warning, lurching towards her. Mattie stood her ground, holding the knife out before her. He clutched his bleeding side with one hand and made to grab her with the other. She jerked her hand, catching the sleeve of his forearm, and took a large step away from him.
“Damn the day I ever set foot in Arkansas!” he hissed. He bent over a moment, holding his forearm with his bloodied hand. When he straightened, Mattie could see that the whole side of his shirt was stained dark with blood. She took another large step back, still holding her knife up.
“I warned you once and I will not warn you again,” Mattie said. “Where are you hiding your gun?”
Before Cunningham could say a word, there was a snapping sound from in the woods, as though someone had stepped on a dry branch. Mattie and Cunningham both went still.
“Who is that, there?” Cunningham said, peering off into the trees. His voice carried through the still dawn, echoing.
There was a pause, and then the sound of a voice nearby.
“I am a Texas Ranger, and if your name is Cunningham, I have come to apprehend you and take you back to Texarkana.”
Mattie could not help herself – her heart jumped in her chest and tears of relief sprang to her eyes.
“Best to give yourself up, son. We got you surrounded, and can shoot from cover.” It was a second voice, Rooster Cogburn’s, from another direction.
“If you release that young woman there unharmed, it will go all the better for you,” called LaBoeuf.
“I am here!” Mattie called. “It is our man, Cunningham, and he has a gun although I do not know where it is!”
Cunningham lunged towards her, and Mattie held up her knife. “I said I will cut your throat if you come near me,” she said firmly.
The man held up his bloodied hands in a placating motion, and backed away a step, stumbling as he did so. His expression took on a look of despair, and suddenly he reached behind him into the waist of his trousers and produced a pistol. He pointed it at her for a moment, and then pulled the trigger. Mattie yelped in surprise and ducked, but the bullet went astray, to the side of her head someplace. Cunningham turned and fired two shots off into the woods in the direction from which LaBoeuf’s voice had come.
“Mr. LaBoeuf!” Mattie cried, her eyes searching the woods for any sign of him.
There was another shot, and she felt the hot spray of blood hit the side of her face, followed by the sound of a heavy collapsing thump on the forest floor. Mattie spun about to look.
There, sprawled on the ground but two feet from her, was Cunningham. Cautiously, Mattie took a step closer and peered at him. A circle of blood was spreading into the dirt all around his head, and his pistol was still clutched in his hand.
The man had shot himself.
Mattie barely had a moment to comprehend the horrible sight before someone called her name and she felt hands on her shoulders, turning her about. Stunned, she found herself looking up into LaBoeuf’s worried face.
“You are not injured? He did not harm you? Thank the Lord,” LaBoeuf said, his fingers digging urgently into her shoulders. Mattie attempted to form a reply, but LaBoeuf pulled her into his chest, holding her tightly to him. Mattie froze in the band of his arms, her face pressed into his shoulder, unable to move. After a moment, LaBoeuf’s hold loosened and he pulled back to look at her. One hand came up and brushed her hair from her face, and he had the strangest look in his eyes as he regarded her. “If anything had happened to you, I do not know -”
“LaBoeuf! Where the hell are you, you shitpoke? You were supposed to send the signal!” It was Rooster, his voice echoing out from somewhere nearby.
“Ah, yes,” LaBoeuf said, abruptly letting Mattie go and lifting his revolver to look at it. “I did neglect to send the signal. We are here, Cogburn! Mattie is fine.”
LaBoeuf replaced his revolver in its holster, and turned to regard her once more. “I am sorry I did not follow you. It is unforgivable that I let you go off into the woods, alone and unprotected. Even worse that I was so foolish as to attempt to force you from this place. I ought to have known... I am responsible for what has happened to you.”
“I do not see how that is so,” Mattie replied. “Your decision not to follow me had no bearing on my stumbling upon Cunningham. That was providence of a kind, I suppose.”
LaBoeuf’s eyes searched her face. “Ever stoic and impassive, even standing here, battered once again, this villain’s blood on your skin. Do you not know fear? When it became clear that you were not coming back to me, I knew it. I knew fear.”
Mattie gaped at him, rendered speechless by the distress in his voice. Her mouth gone dry, she swallowed. “Mr. LaBoeuf, I -”
Rooster emerged from the woods then, coming from a different direction than LaBoeuf had, and he groaned an inarticulate sound of complaint. “Never had you pegged for a poet, LaBoeuf,” he said, chuckling to himself as though he had made a very funny joke. “Never had you pegged for one to be taken in by poetry, neither, sis.”
“I have not been ‘taken in,’” Mattie replied, embarrassed. She stood apart from LaBoeuf, swaying slightly on her feet.
“Cogburn, you could sooner catch a weasel asleep than see Mattie Ross ‘taken in’ by any man,” LaBoeuf interjected, sounding perturbed.
“Hmph,” said Rooster. He wandered over to Cunningham’s side and looked down at the still body. “You ever want to get three feet up a bull’s ass, just you listen to the things sweethearts say to one another.”
“Sweethearts?” Mattie repeated. “Sweethearts, indeed!” She glanced at LaBoeuf, and noticed for the first time that the upper arm of his coat was torn and bloodied. “Mr. LaBoeuf!” she cried. “You are shot!”
“What? Oh, so I am,” he replied distractedly, glancing down at himself. “I suspect one of these days I will injure that arm beyond repair.”
Rooster came to stand beside them, one of his pistols in his hand. He cocked his head and peered at Mattie. He let out a low whistle. “Looks like he got you good. That face of yours is going to be black and blue, make no mistake.”
Mattie sighed, and turned to meet LaBoeuf’s eyes, which were trained once more on her face. The fear had gone from his expression, and he was looking at her with something like admiration.
“How did you fight him off?” he asked.
“I took his knife hours ago and hid it in my sleeve. He did not notice. He woke me some time ago with what I suppose were wicked intentions, and when he had me pinned, I stuck the knife between his ribs,” she explained. Her head throbbed, and for the first time she became properly aware of the new bruises and aches on her body.
“You are a good man to have in a tight spot,” Rooster said, smiling wryly.
LaBoeuf cleared his throat. “I will fetch Alma. She is most anxious to see that you are all right.” With that, he turned and walked off into the bush.
“Have a seat there, little sis,” Rooster said, pointing at one of the stumps near the fire. Mattie did so without complaint, for she was exhausted and unsteady on her feet. She watched as Rooster returned to Cunningham’s body and bent down to examine him. He removed the pistol from the dead man’s hand. Mattie turned away.
“When we figured you weren’t returning to the camp last night,” Rooster said, “we set about looking for you. Couldn’t find no trace in the darkness. It’s plum good luck that we heard your yelping some time ago and followed the sound of it here.”
“I hoped you would hear me, or else I would not have given him the satisfaction,” Mattie replied, casting a disgruntled look at Cunningham’s corpse. “As it is, I feel very foolish now for having run off in such a fashion.”
“Worked out in the end,” Rooster said. “You flushed Cunningham out, even if you did not mean to. Anyhow, it’s done and there’s nothing else for it. If it helps you, the whole affair had him in quite a state.” Rooster jerked his chin in the direction LaBoeuf had gone, and then turned back to looking through Cunningham’s pockets.
Mattie frowned. That did not help her at all.
LaBoeuf emerged from the woods a few minutes later, leading the three horses behind him. The two men then stood discussing how best to get them and their new “cargo” back to Texarkana.
Mattie sat in stunned silence, almost as though she could not hear a word they said. Some strange feeling had come over her, and she became aware that she wanted nothing more in the world at that moment than to see her mother.
She looked up to see her two companions standing before her, watching her with similar expressions of concern on their faces. With some amusement she realised that she had gotten her wish – they were getting along all right, at least for the moment.
“Here, little sis,” Rooster said, taking a bottle of liquor from his coat pocket. He held it out to her. “You’ve had yourself a powerful scare, now. A swig of this will put you back on your feet.”
LaBoeuf threw Rooster an exasperated sort of glance, and then looked back at her. “We know how you feel about it, but I do not believe anyone would think ill of you if your nerves have been rattled. Under these circumstances I think you could consider it a medical application of spirits.”
Mattie took a deep breath and stood, shaking her head in refusal. “My nerves can take a bit of rattling. Shall we depart?”
LaBoeuf nodded, and helped her onto Alma without another word about it. Mattie did not reject the help; she was too tired to bother with it. She looked down at him as he tightened Alma’s girth and adjusted the stirrups.
“Mr. LaBoeuf?” she asked.
He paused his work and looked up at her, his hand resting on her knee. “Yes?”
“Cunningham took his own life.”
“He did,” LaBoeuf agreed.
“And I am alive.”
“What do you think I will have to give up for this? Do you think it will be something so dear as before? Dearer, perhaps?”
LaBoeuf looked at her, a furrow in his brow. He did not seem to know what to say to her. Finally, he cleared his throat. “Mattie, it is not always... That is, did Cunningham hit you with anything harder than his fist? It is not like you to ask me these kinds of questions. Rather I am used to having them answered by you, whether anyone has asked them, or not.”
He was making fun of a kind, she supposed, but she did not feel compelled to laugh. She continued to look at him, and he frowned.
“We had better get you back into town,” he said. He must have realised then where his hand rested, for he abruptly removed it and, giving the straps on the saddle a final tug, turned away.
Mattie watched as LaBoeuf and Rooster tied Cunningham’s body to Sal’s back. The horse laid her ears back and showed the whites of her eyes. She tossed her head and LaBoeuf spoke softly to her, petting her forelock. Eventually the only way Sal would walk on was with LaBoeuf’s spare shirt tied over her eyes. Rooster led the way out of the forest, back the way they had come, and Mattie rode at LaBoeuf’s side as he walked next to Sal.
They did not talk much at all on the way back, exhausted as they were to find themselves at their journey’s end. They rode into Texarkana in the blue light of dawn.
Chapter 10: any different than you are
The people of Texarkana were still asleep when they rode into the outskirts of the town.
Mattie was glad, for it meant there were fewer folks around to gawk at them. She owned that they made for a strange sight – two haggard men and an injured young woman, plus the bloodied body of a fugitive slung over the back of a horse besides – but truly there was no excuse for losing your grip on your manners.
They found a boarding house with vacant rooms, and as Rooster was the only uninjured member of their party, he left Mattie and LaBoeuf there to secure lodging while he took Cunningham’s body to the Sheriff. The lady of the house, a married woman by the name of McNabb, received them with some wariness, but ultimately took the money LaBoeuf offered her, and led them up the stairs to their rooms.
Their rooms were all together on the second storey, and Mrs. McNabb left Mattie and LaBoeuf in the hallway, muttering something about tending the breakfast before hastily disappearing down the stairs.
“You are certain you do not need the doctor?” LaBoeuf asked as they stood in the dim corridor. He and Rooster had both suggested that they find a physician for her when they arrived in town, but she did not care for the idea, and had thus far resisted their entreaties.
“No, I do not need the doctor,” Mattie replied. “In any case, you are the one who has been shot. Look at the state of your arm! We ought to call the doctor for that.”
“I have had worse wounds,” LaBoeuf said.
“You are silly not to have a doctor examine you, but if you insist on being stubborn, will you at least let me tend to it? If it heals poorly and festers, I will feel responsible.”
“I do not think it is so bad as all that,” LaBoeuf replied.
“You cannot know that until we get a look at it. You allowed me to bandage that shoulder wound Cogburn dealt you in the Winding Stairs, all those years ago. This is not so different.”
“All right,” LaBoeuf acquiesced. His tiredness was visible, and he seemed unwilling to argue further. He unlocked the door to his room and entered. He went to the little table under the window, and gingerly began to remove his coat. Mattie was tempted to help him, but she thought better of it, for it might be too much for his pride, and she was determined to bandage his wound at the very least.
While LaBoeuf struggled out of his coat, Mattie took the chipped china pitcher from the washstand and went downstairs to the large kitchen at the back of the house, where she found the reservoir in the stove full of hot water. She filled the pitcher and carried it carefully against her chest up the narrow back staircase to LaBoeuf’s room. She set it down on the hallway floor to open the door, and stopped short at the sight of LaBoeuf standing in the morning sunlight, his shirt unbuttoned and half off, his injured arm and most of his upper body exposed.
Mattie cleared her throat, and LaBoeuf turned around to meet her eyes. She did not know what thoughts her expression reflected, but his face reddened, and he turned away, sitting down in one of the straight back wooden chairs. Mattie picked up the pitcher and closed the door behind her, walking across the room to pour fresh water into the tin basin on the table next to him.
She pulled the other chair close to his, and sat down. LaBoeuf had managed to peel his torn shirt away from the wound, but some threads remained stuck to the blood. The bullet had torn through his buckskin coat and his shirt, grazing the skin. A long, shallow cut crossed his upper arm, wide enough that Mattie did not suppose there was much purpose in stitching it together to knit the pulpy wound. Better to let it scab over. In any case, it would certainly scar.
Mattie dampened a cloth and squeezed the excess water from it. She pressed it gently to the wound to loosen the bits of thread which remained, caught as the cut began to scab over.
LaBoeuf let out a low hiss from between his teeth. Mattie continued to hold the cloth down, examining his frowning profile.
“It is not so bad,” she said. “It will heal fine. I think it will leave quite a scar, however.”
“As I said, I have had worse, and scars are no matter to me,” he replied.
Mattie’s eyes dropped to his bare chest. In the flesh of his shoulder was a round, brownish pink scar, which she guessed was from Rooster’s errant rifle shot five years previous. The skin of his chest and shoulders was scattered here and there with small pale freckles, and dusted with light auburn hair which caught the bright sunlight streaming in through the window. His skin was considerably darker on his neck and his forearms, from the days spent on horseback in what she imagined was the unforgiving Texas sun. Sitting so close to him, she was aware of how dirty her clothes and her face must be, not to mention the fresh bruises on her.
She felt a prickle of awareness and looked up to see LaBoeuf watching her, a queer expression on his face. Tiny motes of dust swayed in the shaft of morning sunlight beyond his head. Mattie felt her face flame, and she looked back down, removing the cloth from his wound and rinsing it in the water. As gently as she could, she began to pick out the stubborn little threads stuck in the cut.
“We ought to get you some iodine,” Mattie said. She cleared her throat; her voice sounded strangely dry.
“No iodine,” LaBoeuf grimaced. “I reckon you take real pleasure in tormenting me, woman.”
“I do no such thing,” she replied, finding herself somewhat offended at the thought. She did what was necessary; her intention was not to be cruel or malicious, and she certainly took no enjoyment in the notion of dabbing his wounds with that stinging stuff.
“I will have to take you at your word, for your actions say otherwise,” LaBoeuf said. Annoyed, Mattie glanced up to find that he was smiling at her. It was not his usual smug grin, but rather a real smile which spoke of fondness and good humour, tinged as it was with his current discomfort.
Mattie pulled the last of the threads from his cut before pressing the cloth once more to his wound as fresh blood seeped from it. LaBoeuf looked down at his hands, which rested in his lap.
“I ought to apologise to you for what happened between us last night. My behaviour towards you was brutish and wrong. I allowed my temper to get the better of me,” LaBoeuf said. He frowned. “I reckon you know better than most how guilty I am of that fault.”
Mattie looked at his profile, and thought of how angry she had been, and how upon slapping him, the burn across her palm had ached. “I am scarcely any better,” she replied softly. “I am quick to anger over most things. At times I have wished that I were more peaceable and docile, like my mother. I do not know where my temper came from, for my father was always good-humoured like her.”
LaBoeuf reached up and placed his hand over hers where it was still pressed against his upper arm. “Please do not wish yourself any different than you are,” he said.
Mattie looked way, embarrassed.
LaBoeuf cleared his throat. “An explanation for my behaviour is owed to you.”
Mattie opened her mouth to tell him it was not necessary, but he interrupted her.
“Please,” he entreated. “Let me speak. Truthfully I never doubted your abilities – you have proven your capability many times over, too many times for me to hesitate in trusting you for even a moment. That was not the trouble. The trouble was that I was acquainted with Cunningham’s history, and it caused me to fear for you. He is a drunkard and a thief and a murderer, yes, but he is also... That is, I knew what sort of victims he tended towards, and what unspeakable things he had done to them. I wanted your company, but the idea of exposing you to such danger – I felt I was being selfish in allowing you to come along in the first place. At times I would convince myself that my worry was for naught, only for us to stumble across the grisly remains of his violence again and again. When I thought of what he would do to you if I was not vigilant, if I could not... Mattie, he nearly killed you once. I could not stand the thought of it. Do you see?”
Their eyes met, and Mattie found that she could not say what she typically would have said, which was that she could look after herself and that his worries were foolish. She supposed they were not foolish. She was as capable as anyone, and Cunningham had nearly killed her. Had his errant bullets been luckier for him, he might have killed LaBoeuf, and Rooster as well.
“I do see,” she replied softly.
LaBoeuf opened his mouth, about to say something more, when there was a knock on the door. It opened before either of them could answer, and Rooster appeared in the doorway.
“Hm,” Rooster said, casting a shrewd eye over them both. “Do we know yet whether he will live, or must we begin making arrangements for a funeral?”
“He will live,” Mattie replied. “It is a minor wound and Mr. LaBoeuf has survived much more dire injuries in the past, as you well know.”
“What did the Sheriff have to say?” LaBoeuf asked.
Rooster came around and sat down on the end of the brass bed. He took out his pouch of tobacco and his papers, and began to roll himself a cigarette.
“Well,” he said, “the Sheriff reckons we got the man what killed that whore in town, and that he’s the same fella who’s wanted in every county from here to Tennessee, and all over Texas besides. He granted me this in spite of the mess Cunningham made of his face when he dispatched himself. He tells me he’ll vouch for all this to our jurisdictions. We’ll have to send some telegrams and the like to sort it all out, but it shouldn’t be much trouble to collect on our rewards.”
“That is some good news,” Mattie said, awkwardly trying to tie a bandage around LaBoeuf’s arm with her one hand. LaBoeuf lifted his other hand and held the bandage in place so she could fasten it.
“I see you managed to get us some rooms,” Rooster said.
“Your room is across the hall, next to Mattie’s,” LaBoeuf said. Mattie patted his arm to indicate that she was finished, and with a nod of thanks he slowly began pulling his shirt back on.
“Good,” Rooster replied, giving LaBoeuf an arch look.
“I propose that we get some rest, and send our telegrams this afternoon,” LaBoeuf said, ignoring him. “Perhaps you can send one to your mother, Mattie, letting her know that you are all right. Once we get the matter of the reward settled, we can all be on our respective ways.”
Of course they would be parting very soon. Mattie found she did not like to think of it.
She suddenly felt exhausted. She did not even care to take a meal; she wanted nothing more than to bathe and scrub off the dirty, itchy sensation which plagued her, and to climb into a clean, warm bed.
“I think I will go get that rest now,” Mattie announced, standing up. Without waiting for a reply, she left LaBoeuf’s room and went to her own, grabbing her saddlebag from where it had been abandoned in the hallway. After locking the door behind her, she stripped off her filthy clothes and filled the basin in her room with clean, cold water. It was no hot bath, but it would have to do for now. After washing the dirt and dried blood from herself as best she could, she changed into her nightgown and drew the curtains at the window.
Mattie climbed into the narrow brass bed, and fell immediately to sleep. When she slept, she did not dream.
Mattie slept very late that day, much later than she had planned. The moment she opened her eyes and saw her little room flooded with afternoon sunshine in spite of the drawn curtains, she knew she had slept too long. The only time she had ever slept so long was when she was laid up after having her arm cut off in Fort Smith. It surprised her, then, that she was not well-rested. She stood at the washstand and stared sluggishly into the chipped mirror, her head swimming. She rubbed at her eyes and splashed her face with the cold water, hoping it would enliven her.
She shook her head. Such were the profits of indolence!
Mattie wore her calico dress, as she would not need to ride that day, and because all of her other clothes, including her coat, were dirty and bloodied. When she went downstairs, she located Mrs. McNabb in the kitchen and inquired as to whether she might have her things cleaned. The woman asked about the circumstances that had brought Mattie to Texarkana in the company of two lawmen, and Mattie recounted the woman with the shortest and least sensational version of the tale she could manage. Mrs. McNabb seemed to soften towards her then.
“I was not sure what sort of folks you were at first, the state you were in,” the lady explained. “But now I see that you are good, upstanding people and we all ought to be thankful you caught that man and were not killed yourselves. You must miss your home and your mama terribly.”
“I do. I am sure I have worried her terribly and I look forward to returning home,” Mattie replied.
“Bless you. I have a grown daughter myself, and she lives far away. I miss her,” Mrs. McNabb said with a sigh. “I will wash and press your things for you, dear. There will be no charge for that.”
“That is not necessary,” Mattie said, shaking her head. “I can pay you what you usually charge for these services.”
“It is my pleasure, dear. I will collect your things from your room,” Mrs. McNabb replied, and Mattie could see the woman would not be moved, and so she thanked her. “You are most welcome. Now, breakfast is long since over and I have already served up luncheon, but I would be happy to make you something to eat if you like.”
“I find I am not hungry but I thank you all the same.”
“Certainly. I believe you will find your friends on the side porch, if you are looking for them.”
Mattie left her then, and departed the kitchen. Mattie did indeed find Rooster and LaBoeuf on the side porch, where they sat smoking in mutual silence. They did not seem tired at all. In fact they were both downright chipper, owing, Mattie supposed, to the anticipated increase in their incomes. They greeted her loudly and made a great, mortifying fuss over her blackened eye, with Rooster suggesting that she ought to consider a career as a “prize fighter.” They were in such good spirits that Mattie wondered if they had been drinking. It would not surprise her to find that they had.
Together they made a trip to the post office to send their telegrams off to San Antonio, El Paso, and Dardanelle, respectively. Mattie had little money left, and so she made hers very short, simply asking Mama to wire the money for a train ticket home.
Afterwards they wandered about the town a while, taking in what sights there were to see. Mattie tired of it quickly, and yearned to return to the boarding house where she might rest. When Rooster suggested stopping at a tavern to “wet his whistle” and LaBoeuf agreed, Mattie excused herself and walked back to the boarding house alone.
As she walked she wondered at the lack of satisfaction she felt, now that their aim had been met and Cunningham thwarted. She was glad the man would never harm another, but the sense of triumph she had anticipated was absent. She could not figure it.
When she arrived at the boarding house, Mrs. McNabb was kind enough to serve her an early supper in the kitchen. Mattie found herself uninterested in her food, although there was nothing deficient about Mrs. McNabb’s cooking. She cleaned her plate out of a hatred for wastefulness only, and then climbed the stairs to her room. It was still light out when she pulled the curtains to and climbed under the faded quilt on the bed.
Mattie was awoken some hours later by the sound of a heavy thump and low voices on the stairs. She rose from her bed and walked to the door, shivering at how cold the floorboards were beneath her bare feet. Winter was on its way, and no mistake.
She opened the door a crack to peer out. The hallway was dark but for the flickering of a lamp being held in someone’s hand as they ascended the staircase. Briefly Mattie wondered if it was Cunningham’s spirit come to perturb her. She squinted as the light moved along the whitewashed wall, and up the last stairs came LaBoeuf, the lamp in one hand and his other arm supporting a wobbling Rooster.
“Mr. LaBoeuf,” she whispered, not wanting to disturb the other sleeping guests. “Do you require assistance?”
LaBoeuf stopped short and looked up. He seemed surprised to see her standing there, and stared at her for a moment before looking carefully away. It was then that Mattie remembered that she was wearing only her nightgown. She might have been embarrassed except that he had seen her in it before, and she was much too tired to entertain such self-indulgent worries anyhow.
“Have you been drinking?” she asked as she took a step forward out of her room.
With a wince, LaBoeuf nodded and said that he himself was not drunk, but Rooster was “well over the bay.” Mattie raised an eyebrow at him. She did not begrudge anyone a little celebrating now and then, but the form that their celebration tended to take was not something she cared for.
“I do not see what is so pleasurable about drinking until you are insensible, but no matter,” she said, moving to support Rooster’s other side. “Let us get him into his bed at least.”
Awkwardly, they managed to open Rooster’s door and deposit him into his bed without dropping him or the lamp on the floor. The only thanks the man offered was a snore.
They went out, closing the door behind them. Once they were in the hall, LaBoeuf stopped and held the lamp aloft. He tilted his head, peering at her. “Still healing, I see,” he said.
“Indeed,” Mattie replied. “I expect it will be some time before all my bumps and bruises are mended. How is your arm?”
“As good as can be expected,” he said. “I was fortunate to receive such attentive care.”
Mattie smiled. “I am glad. Gladder still that you did not injure your gun hand,” she said, nodding at the hand which held the lamp. “I would hate to see you out of work on account of an injury.”
“As would I,” he replied, smiling back at her. For a moment they stood there in the warm circle of lamplight, their eyes meeting. The moment passed, and Mattie looked away.
“Well,” LaBoeuf said. “Goodnight, Mattie.”
“Goodnight, Mr. LaBoeuf.”
They went into their rooms and closed their doors. Mattie slipped back into bed and curled up on her side, tucking her cold feet close to her.
She dreamed of a campfire in the woods, of a bitter wind, and of smoke rising against the sky. At times she had a companion with her, an indistinct figure whose identity seemed to shift, and at times she was utterly alone. When she awoke in the morning, her head was throbbing.
Mattie met LaBoeuf in the hallway on his way down for breakfast. Rooster was still asleep.
“Are you sure you are quite all right?” LaBoeuf asked as they descended the stair and entered the dining room. “That eye of yours does look painful.”
“It is only a bruise, and I am fine,” Mattie replied, taking a seat. “Our adventure has merely worn me out. It is nothing another night of sleep in a proper bed cannot cure.”
LaBoeuf nodded and let her be while they ate. Rooster appeared after they had finished, and the three of them set out to the post office to see whether there were any replies to their telegrams. Their trip was not in vain – each of them had received a response.
LaBoeuf’s contained a congratulations on his capture of Cunningham, and a guarantee that he could collect the entirety of the offered reward upon his return to El Paso.
Mattie’s was from Little Frank. He advised that Mama had taken to her bed the moment they returned home from Little Rock and found Mattie gone, and that she had scarcely been up since. He went on to say that money for a train ticket and fare for Alma was forthcoming, and that Mattie was to take the first train back to Dardanelle the following day. It contained no clue as to how the farm had fared in Mattie’s absence, much to her dismay and annoyance. Leave it to her feckless brother to neglect the important details.
Rooster’s telegram indicated a rejection of his claim on the reward money offered in San Antonio, and nothing more.
“Well,” LaBoeuf said, puffing out his chest as they stood on the board sidewalk outside the post office, “that just about makes the whole affair worthwhile.”
“Hm,” Rooster replied, crumpling up his telegram and shoving it into his pocket. He took out his tobacco and began rolling himself a cigarette.
“You would think Little Frank might have told me whether they had started laying out the winter garden, at the very least,” Mattie complained. She folded the telegram and the money order which had accompanied it, and tucked them into the bodice of her calico dress.
LaBoeuf looked out over the busy street, grinning that smug grin of his. “I suggest we find a way to celebrate,” he said.
“You are the only one with anything to celebrate,” Mattie replied. “And I thought you two did your celebrating last night. Or was that merely a preamble to your celebrations?”
“Here is what I think about the matter,” LaBoeuf began, ignoring her. “I think that I ought to split my reward with the two of you. It is a sizeable reward and I do not mind parting with two thirds of it.”
Mattie narrowed her eyes at him, and wondered whether he had injured his head without her knowledge.
“That is mighty generous of you, pard,” Rooster said, “but there ain’t no need. Your reward paid out, mine didn’t. Happens sometimes in this game.”
“Yes, but it was you who suggested we split up and surround Cunningham’s camp when we found him,” LaBoeuf reasoned. “Anyhow, the information you obtained in Hot Springs – that Cunningham was headed to Arkadelphia – why, if you had not shared that information, we might have headed toward Pine Bluff instead and never found the man!”
“I do not want a third of the reward,” Mattie added. “I only want my one hundred dollars back. You two may split the remainder down the middle, or however you choose.”
“Are you quite certain about that?” LaBoeuf asked, surprised. “As I said, it is a sizeable reward. Are you sure you do not at least want to recoup what you have spent getting here, and what you will spend getting home?”
“Whatever you may think of me, I am not greedy. I want my one hundred dollars and that is all,” she replied.
“All right, if that is how you will have it,” LaBoeuf said. “We will split all but one hundred dollars of it down the middle, Cogburn, and I will not hear another word about it. I will send it to you when I return to El Paso.”
“Hm,” Rooster grumbled. He turned and fixed his gaze on Mattie. “You ought to get down to the train station and buy that ticket. Do as your ma says for once.”
With that, Rooster turned and ambled down the sidewalk, either back to the boarding house or to find a place to drink, Mattie supposed.
“You have offended his pride,” Mattie said to LaBoeuf. He sighed.
“I suspect he needs cash money more than he needs pride just now,” LaBoeuf replied. “Once he got a few drinks in him last night, he happened to tell me that he has no place to return to in San Antonio.”
“I see,” Mattie said, frowning. “It is good of you to offer him a share of the reward money.”
“Yes, well,” LaBoeuf replied vaguely, his cheeks reddening. “Shall we go down to the station and get you your ticket? I am happy to accompany you, for I need to buy one for myself as well. No sense in tarrying here in town once our business is concluded.”
Mattie swallowed, looking at him. She could not worry her mother a moment longer than was necessary. Yes, it was time to return home. Yet the thought of returning home to her family and her farm held a curious emptiness it never had before. She wondered whether LaBoeuf truly meant what he had said about getting a letter from her now and then.
“Come, let us get this errand out of the way,” LaBoeuf said. “Once we have done this, we can indulge ourselves and be idle all afternoon. Or we can find some work to do, as I am sure that would please you more.”
“Yes,” Mattie replied, smiling, “perhaps Mrs. McNabb has some washing or mending or other odd jobs we could do. Idle hands are the devil’s plaything.”
“You are most surprising when you choose to enjoy a joke, Mattie Ross,” LaBoeuf said, smiling in kind. They walked to the depot, enjoying the crisp October day. Once they had obtained their tickets at the station and arranged for the transport of their horses, they returned to the boarding house and agreed to look in on the animals themselves.
The stable at the boarding house was small, but clean and warm. They found Sal and Alma happy indeed to be idle. LaBoeuf noted that both horses seemed downright apprehensive at the sight of them entering the stable.
“Do not worry,” LaBoeuf said to Sal, giving her neck a firm pat, “we are not here to ask anything of you, for once.”
They groomed the horses in a comfortable silence. When they were nearly done, LaBoeuf cleared his throat.
“There is a theatre here in town that I am told is very lively,” he said. “Have you ever been to the theatre?”
“The school will put on a pageant at Christmas and we will sometimes have a speaker or a poet come through town, but we do not have a theatre company,” Mattie replied, using a stiff brush to pull some stubborn knots out of Alma’s tail.
“Well, it would be a shame to miss an opportunity to see a proper theatre company when you have one close by. Would you do me the pleasure of allowing me to escort you to the theatre this evening?”
Mattie was glad that she was bent over, for LaBoeuf could not see what must have been her alarmed expression. She schooled her face as best she could and straightened up, looking at him over Alma’s back. He stood on the other side of the wall dividing the two stalls, his good arm resting upon its edge.
“The theatre here? But Mr. LaBoeuf, your arm -”
“My arm can stand the light work of applauding.”
“Well, all right,” Mattie replied, a strange nervous feeling settling in her stomach. “Only I do not have any fine clothes.”
“I do not have any fine clothes, either,” said LaBoeuf in a cheerful tone. “So you will not be alone in that.”
He turned away then, returning to grooming Sal’s long mane, and began to whistle a tune. Mattie stared at the back of his buckskin vest. It took every ounce of restraint she possessed not to ask him what rodeo clowns typically wore to the theatre.
Rooster did not appear that evening, and so they ate supper with the other boarders. Mrs. McNabb commented that their strange friend was losing the value of his “board” with every meal he missed. Mattie could not help but agree that Rooster was foolish with what little money he possessed, but out of loyalty she merely shrugged, and said nothing more about it. Nor did LaBoeuf.
After supper they cleaned up as best they could and walked to the theatre, which was only a few blocks away. Mattie was pleased to discover as they went that they were not the only plain folks attending that night; plenty of others wore their Sunday best, but nothing fancy.
LaBoeuf bought them each a penny ticket which allowed them a spot on the landing below the balcony. Their view of the stage was obstructed by the bottom of the balcony, but they could hear every word of the performance. They stood there amongst the other ordinary folks, right at the front. Mattie rested her hand on the polished brass railing and leaned over to see the tops of all the fine ladies’ and gentlemen’s heads.
Between the crush of bodies and the gas footlights, it was hot and close inside the theatre. Mattie’s supper did not seem to agree with her, turning about inside her throughout the show, which was amusing enough, if rather silly. LaBoeuf seemed to enjoy it tremendously, letting loose numerous hearty guffaws throughout the performance. He stood very close to her, his arm brushing against hers regularly.
At one point during the performance, the people next to them shifted, jostling one another as a man made to leave. Mattie jumped when she felt LaBoeuf’s arm loop around her waist, pulling her into his side, out of the way. He did not immediately remove his arm, nor did he apologise.
“Mr. LaBoeuf,” she muttered, poking her elbow into his ribs. He turned and looked at her in surprise, as though he had not expected to find her there. His face reddened and his arm dropped from her waist.
“Pardon me,” he said, his voice gruff.
When the show ended, they joined the stream of people leaving the theatre, and Mattie got a better look at some of the ladies in their fine clothes and furs. Some even wore jewelled rings and pendants, and strings of real pearls. Mattie felt very plain next to them in her brown calico and the simple knot Mrs. McNabb had helped her pull her hair into. But she did not feel ashamed. Looking at a finely dressed young woman about her age on the arm of a pomaded older gentleman, Mattie guessed that the she did not know anything about balancing a ledger or bartering for a good cotton price. If that girl ever lost all her pretty things, she would be in real trouble, and Mattie would not. That was good enough for her.
The hot lights and the numerous people seemed to amplify the smell of perfume and shoe polish and cigar smoke, and Mattie was glad when they finally made it outside into the fresh night air, although it did not much help the peculiar feeling in her stomach. They headed down the sidewalk, back in the direction of the boarding house.
“I would take your arm, but I am afraid mine is not up to the task just yet,” LaBoeuf said, sounding chagrined.
“Do not be foolish,” Mattie replied. “I do not need your arm to guide my steps; I am hardly feeble.”
“I have something I wish to speak to you about, but perhaps it would be best to wait until we are back at the boarding house and can have some privacy,” LaBoeuf said then, an odd sort of frown on his face.
“All right,” Mattie replied. She hoped he would not need much time, for she suddenly felt weary again. Supposing it was from the hot theatre and the late hour, Mattie’s thought was that she wanted nothing more than to be in her bed.
They walked back to the boarding house mostly in silence, which Mattie accounted to be rather strange. On her part, she was tired and could find nothing useful to speak about. LaBoeuf had never refrained from talking on account of fatigue or superfluity, yet something held his tongue now as they strolled down the board sidewalks, the cool evening around them lit only by the occasional lamp burning low in a parlour window.
As they turned the corner onto the street which housed their accommodations, LaBoeuf paused, reaching out and grasping Mattie’s sleeve to stop her as well. She turned and looked at him, puzzled.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“Perhaps we should speak here, before we encounter Rooster, or the other boarders,” he replied vaguely, looking down the sidewalk at the boarding house with an uncharacteristically uncertain expression on his face. He seemed to be speaking to himself, rather than to her.
“Mr. LaBoeuf, please. I am very tired,” Mattie said. Her throat felt dry and tight, and she swallowed.
LaBoeuf turned and looked at her, as though he had only just remembered her presence. He frowned. “Are you well? You are very pale.”
Mattie’s vision blurred and her temples throbbed. She pressed her fingers to her eyes as pain radiated down her neck, settling into what felt like every joint and muscle in her body. She shivered so hard that her teeth rattled.
“Something is wrong,” she murmured, and her voice sounded high and weak, almost childish to her ears. She swallowed as a stomach-turning wave of nausea swamped her. “I feel all-overish.”
LaBoeuf’s eyes examined her face. “Mattie? Are you all right?”
Mattie could not summon the breath to say a word, for another tide of sickness rolled through her, and her knees shook as she struggled to stay on her feet. LaBoeuf reached out to steady her, one arm sliding around her shoulders while he held the other hand to her forehead.
“Holy God, you are on fire,” he said, and abruptly stooped and slid his other arm under her knees, scooping her into his arms as though she weighed less than a bundle of sticks.
Mattie’s head lolled against LaBoeuf’s shoulder. She stared up at the dark, starry sky, and tried to speak, but her tongue felt thick and clumsy, and she could do little more than sigh as the perimeter of her sight shimmered and darkened, a noise like the engine of a train rushing in her ears.
There was a heavy thump, and the warmth of reflected gaslights on her face, and the sound of raised voices. She felt the softness of a bed beneath her, but it did nothing to alleviate the fiery pain which shot up and down her limbs. She moaned, and a hand brushed the side of her face.
“It is all right, Mattie. Be still. The doctor is coming.” It was LaBoeuf.
“You listen to him, little sister. For once he is in the right. You keep thrashing about like that and you are likely to put my other eye out.” It was Rooster’s voice. Mattie was confused; she did not think she was thrashing about at all, but the aching was so dreadful that she thought she might soon start.
LaBoeuf and Rooster spoke to one another in lowered voices, but Mattie could still hear them.
“What do you suppose it is? I have seen plenty of smallpox and yellow fever in my day, but this I do not recognize,” said LaBoeuf.
“Hm,” replied Rooster. “I have seen something like it, but not since the war. And I am not about to pull up her skirts to confirm it, neither.”
“Pull up her skirts!” exclaimed LaBoeuf, sounding extremely offended. “I will not hesitate to call you out if you take advantage of her in this condition!”
“You damn stuffed-shirt fool! I mean I expect the doctor will find she has a bite from a louse on her leg or her neck or someplace. Looks like typhus.”
“Stop,” Mattie whispered, struggling to sit up. Their silly discussion was too loud and foolish for her to tolerate in her current state.
“Whoa, sis,” said Rooster, pushing gently on her shoulders to lay her back down. “You just take it easy, there. Doc’s gonna be here soon.”
They both were quiet then, and Mattie closed her eyes, trying to soothe the ceaseless pounding in her head. Her stomach churned. She breathed slowly and steadily in an attempt to settle it, but nothing seemed to work, and suddenly she felt she was going to be sick. She rolled herself over and, sticking her head over the edge of the bed, threw up.
This time, the blackness which encroached on her vision was successful, and she felt consciousness slip away from her.
Chapter 11: the content of my heart
Mattie’s fever felt like being trapped in a great, rambling house. The house was warm and comfortable, familiar and strange at once, a grand waiting room where nothing was expected of a body, and where one could dwell forever, dull and quiet and unperturbed. She wandered its many rooms day and night, searching. She did not know for what she searched. At times it seemed to her that there were figures in the rooms, but they were indistinct, and when she tried to follow them, they disappeared. One, she was certain, was her father, and she wanted badly to go to him.
Another figure she could not identify until she recognized the bright ringing of his spurs as he walked. It was LaBoeuf. She wanted to go to him as well, but she had a notion that he would try to lead her out of the house and she was not certain she wanted to go. And so she wandered the endless, cavernous halls and corridors for what felt like days or perhaps weeks, the light that shone in through the windows growing ever dimmer as she moved, until one day she began to hear voices. Perhaps they were from the figures, or perhaps they came from some farther place. She could not find their source.
“Do not fear, Mattie. We have sent for your mother. She will come as soon as she is able. She is coming, I swear to you, and we are watching over you until she arrives.”
“Whoa there, girl. Come on, hush now. You just hold on, baby sister. Ain’t no piddly fever gonna lick you.”
“Oh, Mattie. I despair over you. Look what has happened. I do not understand why you cannot be easy, why you must involve yourself in these ugly affairs rather than letting the lawmen do their duty. I wish your father was here. He would know what to say to you to make you understand, darling girl.”
“Mattie, your mother is in hysterics. In your fever you talk aloud, and what you have said has upset her very badly. I do not know whether you can hear me now, but come back to us. You must come back to us. If you can battle this, you must do it. If you do not or cannot, I am not certain your mother will survive the grief. That is no bombast. And as for me, Mattie... God damn that bastard Cunningham. God damn him.”
There was something blessedly cool on her forehead, and something warm gripping her fingers like a vice. The sensations drew her gradually out of the house. Mattie became aware of a small, dark room, and a bed. There was candlelight and a heap of quilts on the floor, dampness and the smell of coal oil and vinegar. A woman was weeping. People spoke constantly in low voices, and Mattie wished they would be quiet, for her head swam and ached endlessly. There was a stranger in a dark coat who prodded her arm and touched her face.
Mattie. Mattie. Come back to us. Mattie. You must come back to us.
The haze began to withdraw like fog dissipating at the break of day. Mattie opened her eyes. They felt swollen and ill-used, and the sunlight in the room stabbed her head with pain. She squinted to shield her eyes. A shadow moved in the room, and she saw that a man stood at the window, looking outside. She blinked in an effort to force her eyes to focus. The man was LaBoeuf. He leaned on the windowsill. He wore only his fringed trousers and suspenders, and a faded chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
Mattie was lying on her back, and she tried to shift and open her mouth to speak. Her whole body was stiff and aching, her joints aflame, and she must have unwittingly uttered some sound, for LaBoeuf turned abruptly to look at her. He was at her bedside in an instant, and he seemed astonished.
“Praise God, we thought you were lost,” he said. His voice was hoarse. Now that he stood closer, Mattie could see that he was dishevelled and exhausted, his face peppered with stubble and dark circles under his eyes. His hair was not even combed.
Mattie swallowed and tried again to speak, but her mouth was too dry. She frowned, maddened, and LaBoeuf seemed to return to himself. He leaned down and slid an arm under her back, careful not to pull on her loose hair, and settled her up against the pillows. He tucked the quilt about her waist, and went to the bedside table, where he poured water into a tin cup. Mattie tried to take it from him when he brought it near, but she found she could scarcely lift her arm. With more care than she would ever have expected of him, he held the cup to her lips and helped her drink, not spilling a drop.
“Hurts,” Mattie managed to squeak, once he removed the cup.
“Ah,” LaBoeuf said, and retrieved a small brown glass bottle and a teaspoon from the table. He measured out some of its syrupy yellow contents, and helped her to swallow it. It was bitter, tasting of pine needles and some sharp, burning liquor. Mattie grimaced. “It is morphine suspended in some sort of distillation, I believe. It is the doctor’s own concoction and he thinks it may help, but I do not know.”
Mattie leaned back into the pillows, exhausted by these small efforts. She watched as he sat down in a wooden chair at her bedside, his knee pressing against the coverlet.
“Your mother is here,” LaBoeuf said. “We sent a telegram when you fell ill. We would have sent you home on the train, but they would not have you, and the doctor advised against it. We have all been shut up here this entire time, in fact, as a precaution, but no one else has taken ill.”
“What is it?” Mattie asked, her voice scarcely a whisper.
“Typhus,” LaBoeuf replied. His expression was drawn and sober as he looked at her. “It seems you likely caught it from that devil Cunningham. The coroner found signs of it on his body.”
“You have been delirious with fever for nearly a week now,” he said. He looked at his hands, which were clasped in his lap. “The doctor gave us little reason to hope for your recovery. He reckoned your previous injury, in addition to what rigours you have undergone these past weeks, had weakened your constitution too much. He instructed your mother to commence planning your funeral. We all... Well, she was inconsolable, as you can imagine.”
He fell silent, and fixed his gaze down. Mattie examined his downturned head, his uncombed cowlick sticking up. Finally he cleared his throat sharply and looked at her, the strangest expression on his face. Mattie did not know what to make of his bright, tired eyes and flushed face.
“I reckon you must be like a cat, with nine lives,” he said. Mattie frowned, for she was no great admirer of those tricky beasts. LaBoeuf smiled. “I never would have thought I would be saying such a foolish thing, but it heartens me greatly to see that sour expression on your face once again.”
“Mama,” she rasped, “where is she?”
LaBoeuf reached for the tin cup and helped her drink once more. “She is resting. She was up most of last night with you, and when your fever worsened in the wee hours of this morning she became somewhat hysterical. The doctor gave her something to induce sleep.”
“Poor Mama,” Mattie said.
“She is a sweet and gentle lady, and you ought not to worry her so,” LaBoeuf replied. His tone was rather sharp, Mattie thought, and she gave him a reproachful look. “You are too cavalier with your own life at times. You forget that there are people who depend on you. Who love you.”
“I did not contract typhus deliberately,” she replied slowly.
“I know it,” he said. He regarded her with a frown on his face which was more sad than annoyed. Mattie would have liked to needle him and raise his ire, but her head swam dizzily and she found her eyes wanting to close again already. LaBoeuf reached over and placed his hand against her forehead. It felt wonderfully cool and surprisingly soft. “Your fever has broken, at least,” he said.
Almost of its own volition, Mattie’s hand lifted from the bed and she weakly grasped his wrist and held the palm of his hand against her cheek. She held his surprised gaze for a moment, until he looked down and pulled his hand away.
“Your fever has broken, but perhaps not your delirium,” he said. He reached for a book on the bedside table. “Here, I will read aloud to you until you fall asleep. It is The Prince and the Pauper, by Mr. Twain. Have you read it?”
Mattie shook her head, and LaBoeuf nodded, clearing his throat. He opened the book and flipped ahead several pages.
“‘In the ancient city of London,’” he read, “‘on a certain autumn day in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, a boy was born to a poor family of the name of Canty, who did not want him...’”
Mattie closed her eyes and settled back against the pillows, and let LaBoeuf’s low voice lull her into a deep and untroubled sleep.
When Mattie awoke again, hours had passed. The room had dimmed considerably, but there was a fire in the little stove, and a lamp lit so that it threw sharp shadows against the wall. There was the sound of a throat being cleared, and Mattie turned her head to find Rooster in the chair at her bedside, smoking a cigarette and nursing a bottle of whiskey.
“You awake there, sis?”
“I am,” she replied. She gave consideration to sitting up, but her body felt as limp as a wet dishrag, and the mere thought of the ordeal was enough to overwhelm her. Instead, she rolled stiffly onto her side and watched him.
“Anything you need?”
“I am all right,” Mattie said. “Where is my mother?”
“She is downstairs, taking some supper. She has been tending you much of the day. Once Mr. LaBoeuf shared the good news that you were awake and talking sense, we were able to convince him that he needed some rest himself.” Here Rooster paused and regarded her in the lamplight for a protracted moment. Mattie thought he was waiting for her to speak, but finally he cleared his throat and said, “LaBoeuf has been your most stalwart watchman. He has hardly left your side since you came down with this fever.”
Mattie did not know what to say to this, nor what to make of the thoughtful expression on Rooster’s face.
“I suppose catching a fever and rapping on Death’s door is one way to give him some encouragement,” Rooster continued. “It appeals to the thwarted dime novel hero in him.”
To hear LaBoeuf’s character so reduced at this moment annoyed Mattie, and she scowled at Rooster. “Mr. LaBoeuf may be vain and arrogant, but he is a good man and a true friend, and you have no call to mock him.”
“That is not what you have called him in the past, if I recall, but I reckon it is possible for an opinion to be changed. Especially a woman’s.” Rooster stubbed the butt of his cigarette in a china saucer on the table. It was full of such leavings. “Your mother is considerably impressed by him. Perhaps she is searching for a husband, if you are not.”
“If you are only here to harangue me, I will ask you to leave,” Mattie said. “I do not mind your company when you are congenial, but if you are in an argumentative mood I would rather you left. I am too tired for this.”
Rooster stared at her, a surprising degree of contrition creeping into his expression. He leaned back in his chair, looking down at the bottle clasped in his hands, and did not say anything for several moments.
“Doc says you’re likely to make a full recovery,” he said eventually. “We was all mighty relieved to hear it.”
“I am sorry to have worried you all,” Mattie replied. “It was not my desire to do so.”
“I weren’t much worried, myself. Saw plenty of typhus in the war and knew you weren’t the type to succumb to it so easy. You’re made of tougher stuff than that.”
“Death comes for us all, regardless of whether we are made of ‘tough stuff’ or not.”
“Reckon that’s true,” Rooster said. He cleared his throat. “Glad you’re on the mend, anyhow.”
Mattie was about to respond when there came a tentative knock at the door. Mattie croaked out a greeting, and the door opened to reveal her mother.
“Oh!” Mama said, one hand flying to her mouth while the other gripped the door knob. “Oh, I could hardly believe it, but here you are – awake at last!”
“I’ll leave you,” Rooster said. He stood and took his hat off the bureau, nodding at them both before departing.
Mama closed the door behind him and turned around. She stood in the middle of the room, holding her handkerchief to her mouth and looking lost. She stared at Mattie with a careworn expression. Finally she sighed and came to sit in the chair Rooster had vacated, and wrapped one arm around her own waist, as though she had to hold herself together.
“Oh, Mattie!” Mama sighed after a moment. “How you worry me, leaving home like that! I do not know what I should do with you.”
“There was no other reasonable course,” Mattie replied.
“No, I do not suppose it occurred to you that it might be best to stay at home and allow the authorities to deal with a violent fugitive as they saw fit,” Mama replied, shaking her head ruefully.
“It was suggested to me by Mr. LaBoeuf,” said Mattie.
“Yes, I am well aware that Mr. LaBoeuf was unaccommodating of your attempts to follow him,” Mama said. “I do not hold the man responsible. I am certain that nothing short of tying you up and locking you in the cellar would have prevented you from following him, and I can only guess what damage you would have done him had he attempted such a thing.”
Mattie owned that this was likely true, and did not disagree. She watched in silence as Mama’s soft brown eyes examined Mattie’s face. After a moment, she reached out and cupped Mattie’s cheek.
“I am so glad that you are all right,” she said, her voice rough and tearful. “If anything more dire or permanent had befallen you, if you were taken from me, I do not think I would be able to bear it.”
“We can bear any loss so long as we have the Lord near,” Mattie replied.
“No,” Mama said. There was a quiet steeliness in her voice that took Mattie aback. Mama shook her head. “No, I would not have borne it. Not after everything we have lost, after what we have withstood. Mattie, you do not have a beloved daughter. You cannot understand... No. No, I would not have borne it, Mattie, whatever you may think.”
Mama’s hand wrapped around Mattie’s, and she squeezed. Mattie went to cover Mama’s hand with her own, stopping short when she recalled with a pang that she had only one. She swallowed.
“I am sorry to have worried you, Mama,” Mattie said honestly.
Mama sighed. “It is not the first time. I suppose I ought to be accustomed to your wildness by now.”
“Wildness!” Mattie protested. “I am not wild. I am the opposite of wild, in fact.”
“Your friends tell me you fought this fugitive man off with nothing but a hunter’s knife. That is not wild?” Mama asked, a hint of a smile in her tone.
“Not at all,” Mattie replied. “I think it is very civilized, in fact.”
“Perhaps one man’s wild is another man’s civilized,” Mama said, smiling. A sly look entered her expression.
“Perhaps,” Mattie replied. She frowned, eyeing her mother suspiciously. It seemed she was making a joke of some kind, although Mattie was not sure what it was.
“You will have to ask your friend Mr. LaBoeuf what his opinion is, when next you see him.” With a soft laugh, Mama stood and pressed a kiss to Mattie’s forehead. “You may tell me about all of your adventures later. For now you must rest,” she said. She turned and left the room, closing the door behind her.
Mattie did not fall asleep right away. She stared up at the beadboard ceiling for some time, trying to determine what Mama had found so amusing.
A day passed before Mattie was able to consume anything more than weak clear tea. Two more days passed before she was able to convince Mama that she be allowed out of bed. It was another day yet before she was permitted downstairs to eat with the new boarders who had taken rooms once the doctor declared that there was no longer a risk of Mattie infecting anyone. Mama helped her down the staircase, for when Mattie tried to walk unassisted, her legs quaked beneath her. She had lost weight, and was weak as a newborn foal. It was a hateful feeling. She was not able to stay downstairs longer than the duration of the meal. Exhaustion quickly overwhelmed her, and rest was her only recourse.
Mattie pushed herself to get well as quickly as she could, for the great expense she and Mama garnered at the boarding house the longer they malingered weighed heavily on her mind. They did all right at home, but they did not have the money for such trifling things as two week sojourns in boarding houses.
When she nearly swooned one afternoon forcing herself to walk without help to the privy outside, Mama scolded her gently before admitting that she had been working off much of their room and board by helping Mrs. McNabb in the kitchen. The two widows had become fast friends.
Slowly, Mattie got well and regained her old strength. LaBoeuf made a point of coming to visit her each afternoon, when he would read to her from novels he borrowed from Mrs. McNabb and some of the other boarders. Mattie did not know what he and Rooster did with themselves all day except take up space in the local taverns, she supposed, and she did not understand why they had not yet gone home. One afternoon Mattie told LaBoeuf that he need not bother with the reading anymore, for she was well enough to hold up a book and read on her own, at least.
LaBoeuf stared at her over the top of Treasure Island for a long moment. “That is not why I come here and read to you,” he said finally, and then continued with the story as though she had not interrupted him.
Rooster also visited her regularly. He would sit by her bedside and smoke cigarettes and tell her long, meandering tales which may have happened in his life, or someone else’s. He would talk until his cigarette burned down, say, “well,” and then stand up and leave the room without another word.
One morning a full three weeks after she fell ill, Mattie washed and dressed herself in her brown calico dress, which was a full inch too large for her now, allowed Mama to pull her hair back into a handsome knot at the nape of her neck, and then walked downstairs to the dining room for breakfast without any assistance.
As she passed through the foyer, she caught sight of two figures outside on the wide front porch. It was Rooster and LaBoeuf, smoking in the early morning light. Mattie paused there, watching them, and she felt pleased that they truly had put their differences aside and become “pards.” She approached and, opening the screen door, caught the end of what Rooster had been saying.
“-wouldn’t think it, lookin’ at her, but if you come on too strong, she’ll spook on you, and make no mistake.”
LaBoeuf nodded, but did not reply immediately, and so Mattie interjected. “Are you considering the acquisition of a new horse, Mr. LaBoeuf?” she asked. “You cannot be talking about Sal. Never have I met a steadier horse with a lesser tendency toward spooking.”
Rooster and LaBoeuf both turned and looked at her, apparently surprised to see her standing there.
“By God, girl,” Rooster said, “nearly strangled and beaten and shot to death and on Death’s door from typhus besides, and here you are looking as hale as can be.”
“It is a true pleasure indeed to see you back to your old self,” LaBoeuf added.
“I was just going to come up there and say farewell,” Rooster continued.
“Farewell?” Mattie asked. “Are you heading somewhere?”
“It is time I moved on,” he replied. “Money’s run out.”
“Oh,” Mattie breathed, the brightness of the morning dimming considerably in her eyes as she contemplated saying goodbye to her friend. At least this time he was allowing her to say her goodbye, rather than sneaking off when she was delirious with fever.
LaBoeuf cleared his throat. “I will leave you to it. Cogburn, it has been an honour and a pleasure.”
“An honour and a pleasure, pard,” Cogburn replied, grasping the brim of his hat.
With that, LaBoeuf turned and went inside, leaving them alone on the porch.
“I suppose I should not be surprised that you are leaving,” Mattie said. “We have been here for weeks. Now that I am well again I am sure Mama and I will return home shortly. I do not know why Mr. LaBoeuf remains here. I am sure he too will be returning home soon.”
“Maybe not so soon,” Rooster replied, removing a bottle of spirits from his coat and taking a considerable swig. “Well, whatever you do, only do what you think is right. Folks like to say otherwise, but the truth is, don’t matter what anyone thinks of you. Only opinion that matters is yours, and the Almighty’s. No need to do a thing or not do a thing just ‘cause some fool-headed son-of-a-bitch says you ought to, or ought not to.”
“Marshal Cogburn,” Mattie scolded. She frowned, unsure what had brought this on. She did not know what he was talking about at all.
“Hm,” he said, eyeing her. “Reckon you’ll be all right. Ain’t steered yourself wrong so far. He better just hope you want to steer in his direction.”
“Perhaps you ought to wait until you are sober to depart,” Mattie suggested, baffled by his words. “It seems foolhardy to ride off alone, in strange country, in your current disposition.”
Rooster gave a gruff cough. “You look after yourself, you hear? And your Mama, too. She is a good woman. You ought not to worry her like you do, gadding about all adventuresome,” Rooster said.
“Mr. LaBoeuf has already taken the liberty of scolding me on this topic, so you need not trouble yourself. But what about you? Who do you worry when you ‘gad about all adventuresome’?”
“Hm,” Rooster replied, a ghost of a smile tugging at his mouth. He did not seem eager to respond to this, and there was a long pause before Mattie spoke again.
“Will you write to me, at least?”
Rooster regarded her for a moment, and then nodded. “I doubt any letter I write will be up to snuff as far as you’re concerned, but if you would like a letter all the same...”
“I would,” Mattie replied. “Do not be a stranger, Rooster. I will always like to know how you are faring, wherever you are.”
He eyed Mattie for a moment longer, and she thought he might have something more to say. Instead, he turned abruptly from her and walked down the stairs to where Whiskey Jack stood, his head hung low. Rooster mounted, and without a wave or a farewell, he trotted off down the street, heading west.
When Mattie went back inside, she found LaBoeuf standing at the bottom of the staircase, examining the band of his hat with a frown on his face. His head was tilted down, and his cowlick was sticking straight up. Mattie wondered whether he ever bothered to attempt to wrangle the thing, or whether it was simply so stubborn that it would not be combed.
Mattie closed the large oak front door behind her, and LaBoeuf looked up.
“He has gone, although I do not know how far he will get, given the state he is in,” Mattie said.
“That is Rooster Cogburn for you,” LaBoeuf replied. “I expect he is more accustomed to riding while intoxicated than riding while sober.”
“I reckon you are right about that,” Mattie sighed. They regarded each other in silence for a moment, and then LaBoeuf cleared his throat.
“Mattie, there is something...” he trailed off here, a look of frustration on his face. Mattie stared at him, trying to uproot the problem. His eyes met hers, and he swallowed. “Tomorrow is Sunday,” he said.
“It is,” Mattie replied.
“Are you planning to attend a service?”
“I am,” she nodded. “Mama tells me there is a Presbyterian church on the next street that looks as though it will suit me. I do not think Mama will come. She does not favour a strange congregation. I do not see why it should matter, but that is her way. Why do you ask?”
“May I accompany you?”
Mattie looked at him sharply. “Mr. LaBoeuf, I did not know you were a Presbyterian.”
“Well,” he paused, frowning, “I am not a Presbyterian, but it has been a long time since I have attended a service of any denomination, and I would like to attend with you, if you do not mind my company.”
“I suppose I do not mind it.”
“All right,” he said, looking tremendously relieved. Clasping his hat in one hand, he held his injured arm out to her. “Shall we go eat?”
Mattie peered sceptically at the proffered limb. “How is your injury?”
“If it is still injured,” he said, tucking her arm into his and leading her towards the dining room, “I do not feel it.”
After breakfast the following morning, Mattie cleaned up, and then met LaBoeuf on the porch. When she came out the door, she found him leaning a shoulder against one of the whitewashed posts holding the porch roof up, smoking his pipe. When she appeared, he straightened up and tapped the ashes out of his pipe.
“You look very handsome this morning,” he said.
His regard made her self-conscious, and she smoothed her hand over her hair, which Mama had pulled back into a tidy knot at the back of her head. She had no hat, or else she would have worn it.
“I would not know if I was or was not,” Mattie said finally in reply, not knowing what else to say.
LaBoeuf nodded, and they departed, walking down the street in silence. Mattie noticed that although he was dressed in his usual ostentatious buckskin, he had left his gun belt and his spurs behind, and so cut a slightly less conspicuous figure as they walked to the church.
They arrived in plenty of time and found seats near the front of the church. Mattie was pleased to find herself at a Presbyterian service after so many weeks of going without, and quietly thanked God for seeing her through her recent trials.
LaBoeuf, meanwhile, fidgeted and sighed with regularity during the service, and Mattie wondered why he had bothered to come along at all. Perhaps he worried that she would swoon on the sidewalk once more. The thought annoyed her.
“Did you enjoy the service?” he asked as they left the church once the service had ended.
“Yes, very much,” she replied. “It is pleasant to once more be in a civilized place where such things are available. Did you enjoy it?”
“It was all right,” he said. He cleared his throat sharply, and began talking of the weather, placing her arm once more into the crook of his. They walked down the sidewalk that way. LaBoeuf did not seem to be in any great hurry to return to the boarding house, for his steps were leisurely. It made Mattie impatient.
Eventually they arrived back at the boarding house. Mattie extracted her arm from LaBoeuf’s and was about to go inside to scold Mama for not coming along when LaBoeuf grasped her gently by the wrist and stopped her.
“Mattie,” he said, his voice taut and quiet. “Mattie – may I speak with you a moment, here, in private?”
“All right,” she replied. LaBoeuf walked to the end of the porch and leaned on the railing, looking down at the dried brown lilac bushes which lined one side of the house. Mattie waited for him to speak, but he said nothing for some time.
Finally Mattie grew impatient and she cleared her throat. LaBoeuf turned around to look at her, his hat in his hands.
“I am going to retire from the Rangers,” he said. He spoke the words in such a strange voice, with such a sombre frown on his face, that Mattie guessed that he had only recently come to this decision, and that this was likely the first time he had said it aloud.
“But your work means a great deal to you,” Mattie replied, unsure whether he was in a mood to be congratulated or consoled. She did not think herself adequately equipped for either.
“Yes, it does mean a great deal to me,” he said, meeting her eyes. “You understand that.”
“Of course I do.”
“Of course you do,” he repeated. He looked away from her, out over the street, still frowning. “My mother always desired for me to become a lawyer, but I did not think I had the temperament for it. I wanted to be more than a cog in the machine of justice. I wanted to be at the very head of it, I guess you could say.”
Mattie regarded him, thinking what a good lawyer he would have made, with his thorough knowledge of the law and his capability for high sentence. “Although I have only borne witness to two endeavours of yours,” she said, “if you have conducted yourself in the rest of your undertakings with the seriousness and commitment to duty which I have seen in you, then I think you have fulfilled your ambitions tenfold.”
LaBoeuf met her eyes and fixed her with a look Mattie could only describe as tender. She felt a strange shock in the pit of her stomach at the sight of it, and she swallowed.
“A former colleague of mine with the Rangers has started up a bail bonds business in Ysleta,” LaBoeuf continued, “and before I left to pursue Cunningham, he asked me to join him. I think I will take him up on his offer when I return.”
“That is serendipitous,” Mattie said. “I am sure that new occupation will suit you very well.”
“Thank you. I believe it will, too.” LaBoeuf abruptly reached and clutched her hand in his for a moment before releasing it and turning away from her. He cleared his throat. “I own a piece of land south of Ysleta whose western limit is the Rio Grande. There is a small pecan grove there, and some pasture land along the river. I have not yet built a house on it, but I think one day it will make a fine little farm.”
Although Mattie had never been to El Paso or any place similar to it, she could almost picture the place LaBoeuf described. She imagined barren, dusty land, and then the green shade of a stand of pecan trees, like a little oasis. “I am sure you are right about that. Do you plan to build a house and live there soon?”
LaBoeuf turned back to face her. “I do. Only I do not relish the thought of living there alone.”
He paused here with great significance, and Mattie stared at him.
“Being so adept at managing a cotton farm, I wonder whether you would like to try your hand at pecans,” he continued.
Mattie frowned. “I do not understand you.”
“I am asking if you will come to Texas with me, as my wife,” he said.
Mattie gaped at him, her throat abruptly gone dry. “I do not... That is, I am not... What do you mean by this?”
LaBoeuf tilted his head at her, his brows drawn together in exasperation. “Mattie, why do you think I have lingered here? I was expected back at my post weeks ago,” he said. “But I could not leave your side until I knew you were well. When I realised how essential your health and your happiness have become to my own, there was only one conclusion I could reasonably draw, which was that I love you most sincerely, and that I want you to be my wife.”
“Oh,” Mattie replied, the word a mere exhalation of breath. She did not know what to say to him.
“We would not marry right away,” he continued. “You must return home with your mother, and we will make the necessary arrangements in due course. As I said, I do not yet have a house built on that land, and I would not expect you to tolerate my current accommodations, which are modest, and suitable only for a bachelor who is seldom at home. Naturally I would have a house for you to live in before we could marry.”
Mattie stared at him, reeling with the implications of what he was asking. He meant for her to leave Yell County, leave the Arkansas River and her wide cotton fields, leave her barn and her corncrib, leave her house with Papa’s desk, leave Mama and Little Frank and Victoria. He wanted her to quit her home and go live with him in a far-flung place where the land and the customs and the people were strange to her. He would be the only familiar thing. Looking at his imploring face, Mattie’s thought was that he was not nearly familiar enough for all that.
“But what of my mother?” she stammered. “Who will look after her, if I am not there to do it?”
“Your mother would not want to deny you happiness for the sake of some imagined duty, would she?”
“’Imagined duty’? Duty to one’s parents is no fever dream, Mr. LaBoeuf.”
“Of course not, but you are not her only child. Surely your sister and your brother share in the responsibility for your mother, young as they are. Anyhow, your mother is hardly feeble,” he replied.
“I will grant you that that is true. But you and I would exhaust one another with our bickering! There would never be peace,” Mattie said.
“I swear to you we will have peace, if only you will let me win from time to time.”
“Let you win? Such phrasing implies that you are not capable of winning on your own merit. I see you have less faith in your mulishness than I do.”
“I have great faith in the mulishness on both our parts,” LaBoeuf replied, in a tone that implied that his foolish words were endlessly reasonable. “I do not see this as a point against us. Rather it is one of several reasons why we would make an ideal match. If you paired either one of us with some gentler, less gritty person, we would trample the poor creature.”
Mattie was exasperated at his persistence. He would not see reason, and so she pressed on in the most candid way she knew how. “Perhaps there is some strange similarity in our temperaments, but I do not think I would be much good to you as a wife. You must want children to carry on your name. I cannot cradle a baby with but one arm.”
LaBoeuf appeared stricken by this remark, and stared at her in bewilderment for a moment before speaking. “Mattie, do you think that you are deficient, or that I find you so?”
Mattie looked down, unsure how to answer. She did not think herself to be deficient, but she knew herself to be incomplete in a way that she had come to believe excluded her from the realm of courtship. Even before losing her arm, her looks and demeanour invited little attention, and in the intervening years, she had learned that her injury only solidified her unsuitability as a wife. What she had told LaBoeuf before had been the truth – she did not mind, for she found the majority of young men to be foolhardy creatures, and never wanted to find herself hitched to one as to a lazy mule for the rest of her life.
“There is little purpose in pussyfooting around the thing,” she said slowly, meeting his inquiring gaze. “I get along all right at home, but I would not be able to do everything a wife must do in order to keep house. As I said, I cannot cradle a baby with but one arm. My sewing is extremely slow and not particularly artful. I cannot mend your clothing or make you new things. We will have to get store-bought clothes, which is a foolish waste.”
“I can mend my own things, and yours as well.”
“Now you are being ridiculous, and mocking me also. What kind of woman allows her husband to go around in clothes he has mended himself?”
“I did not know there was a law in place against such things,” LaBoeuf replied, cocking his head. “Certainly there is no such law in Texas. Does such a law exist in Yell County?”
Mattie did not care to acknowledge his sarcastic remarks. “Yell County is my home. I do not wish to pull up stakes and find myself living on the bald, dusty plains in Texas.”
“You know little of Texas. It is not so bad as all that, as Cogburn might have you believe. I think you would like it.”
“You do not know that. What if we married in haste and went to live in Texas, and I detested it altogether? What is your smart answer for that, I wonder?”
LaBoeuf huffed a frustrated breath. “What if the sky falls down on our heads tomorrow? You are looking for trouble where there is none yet to be found.”
“I am attempting to treat the question practically. You have lost your wits altogether, I fear. I do not know what has prompted you to lose them when they have been dependable enough in the past.”
“You prompted me to lose them,” LaBoeuf said, taking a step closer to her and clasping her upper arms in his hands. He looked down at her, an expression on his face which surprised her with its intensity. Suddenly he pulled her close and kissed her, his hands pressing her stays into the flesh of her back in a most distracting manner.
Mattie tolerated him for a moment, and then pushed him away. His face was flushed and she feared hers was, as well. “Mr. LaBoeuf, it is Sunday,” she scolded him.
LaBoeuf cleared his throat and had the decency at least to look contrite as he stepped back to put a respectable distance between them.
They regarded one another in silence for a moment, and Mattie felt a pang in her chest at his hopeful expression. She had a sudden reckoning of what he must have looked like when he went off to fight in the war when he was barely 15 years old.
“Mr. LaBoeuf, can we not proceed from this moment as friends, as though this discussion never came between us?”
LaBoeuf did not reply immediately, and in his face Mattie could see his frustration and his sadness. She wanted to look away but could not, would not. She would not be cowardly. Not even now, when she felt a foreign weakness urging her to run from him.
“You cannot always have your way in every little thing, Mattie,” he said. “You may feel nothing for me and tell me so, and you may refuse my offer. But you cannot stop me from voicing the content of my heart to you. You cannot stop me from feeling what I feel, from loving you. You do not have to agree to what I have asked you, but you cannot stop that, whatever your answer is.”
“I believe that my answer is no, Mr. LaBoeuf,” she said softly.
His eyes searched hers for a moment, and then he shook his head. “Do not say that. I know that once you have chosen a course there will be no moving you from it, so I must ask that you do not say no. Not yet. Think the thing over, and speak to your mother. Please, Mattie. Just do not say no, outright.”
LaBoeuf entreated her with such sincerity that Mattie found she could not say no. She nodded silently at him, wondering at her own lack of starch. The trouble was his eyes. If only he would not look at her so, she could be as firm as she ought to be.
She left him standing there on the porch with a promise that she would consider his offer. She frowned at the feeling in the pit of her stomach; it was as though she had swallowed a brick. She did not know whether her promise had been a lie or not.
As she opened the door and went inside, she could feel his eyes on her back as surely as a touch.
Chapter 12: love is the reason
Mattie sat on the end of her brass bed, staring out the window. The sun was going down, and the room had grown cold. The bare branches of the tree outside scraped against the clapboard siding, and the sound felt lonely to her. She frowned. The sound was the result of the wind – it expressed no feeling. The tree did not have senses or emotions. Nor did the wind.
She stood and struck a match against the bedside table, and lit the lamp. She was replacing its delicate glass top when there was a soft knock on the door.
“Yes, Mama,” Mattie replied.
The door opened, and her mother entered, closing the door behind her. Her dark, delicate brows were drawn together in a frown, and she looked pale.
“Are you all right, Mattie? You have not taken sick again, have you? Only you have been up here for hours, and I began to worry that perhaps -”
“I am all right. Or I am not ill, at least,” Mattie replied. She saw the pained relief that crossed her mother’s face. Mattie cleared her throat. “Mr. LaBoeuf has asked me to marry him.”
“Oh, Mattie!” Mama exclaimed, clutching her handkerchief to her bosom. Her expression came alive with delight, two spots of pink appearing high on her cheekbones. “He said the other night that he might wish to speak to me, and I admit I wondered what he had planned.”
“He might have asked your permission first, as that is the proper way of things,” Mattie griped.
Mama tilted her head at her. “I believe Mr. LaBoeuf is familiar enough with your character that he knew that yours is the only permission he truly needs. Not mine.”
Mattie nodded, not having a response to this. Silence fell between them and Mattie found she could not meet her mother’s eyes.
“Marriage can be a solace in hard times,” Mama said, after a long pause. “A husband and wife can lean on one another in a way that one cannot do with other acquaintances.”
“That may be true enough for some, but as for me, the Lord is my solace,” Mattie replied.
Mama looked at her with a sad, anxious expression in her eyes. “Mattie, there is scarcely a day that goes by that I do not think of your Papa, and miss him. Nor is there a day that goes by that I am not grateful for the time we had together, those happy years, few as they turned out to be, and for you, and Frank, and Victoria.” Mama paused and looked away, shaking her head. “Consider Mr. LaBoeuf’s offer with care. I know you are proud and headstrong, and God strike me down, I would not have you another way, for you have been like a rock to me. Only I do not wish for you to regret him. My true desire is for you to be as happy as I have been.”
To this, Mattie found she had no response. With a sigh, she sat back down on the edge of the bed, her hand holding the brass bedpost.
“Your Papa would approve of him, though, that is for certain,” Mama continued.
“Truly, do you think so?”
“Why, of course! Mr. LaBoeuf has an honourable occupation, although it is dangerous, and by all appearances he is dutiful and cordial. There is no reason I can see for your Papa or myself to disapprove.”
Mattie’s thought was that Papa had been too lenient and kindly in his judgments of others generally, but she did not say so. “Mr. LaBoeuf tells me he plans to retire from the Rangers and take part in a bail bonds business with an acquaintance of his in Ysleta. He owns a good piece of land there with a pecan grove. He desires for me to oversee it.”
Mama’s gaze was soft, and she tilted her head. “There are not many men who would be so obliging to their wife’s peculiar ways as to ensure an occupation for her as part of their proposal.”
“My ways are not peculiar,” Mattie replied sullenly. “Rather I think they are very reasonable.”
“I know you do. But I think you will find that most men will not see it as you do.”
“I care little for what most men see or do not see.”
“Mattie, please,” Mama entreated her. “Do not be stubborn. You know that if you wish never to marry any man, I will not harangue you, and you will always have a place at home. I would not have you marry any old ragamuffin who came asking for you only because he came asking. Yet... Mr. LaBoeuf, he has told you that he has an affection for you?”
“He tells me he loves me sincerely, and that he has only stayed here and not returned home out of an interest in my well-being,” Mattie replied.
“Oh, Mattie,” Mama sighed. “You will do what you think is best, but my girl, do not casually dismiss what is being offered to you because you fear compromise.”
“I do not fear compromise,” Mattie said, confused as to Mama’s meaning. She shook her head. “Be it what it would, I think perhaps our adventures have simply harrowed up some desire of his to settle and have a family. He would be just as content if not more so with some other person, a woman from Texas. His head will be turned soon enough.”
Mama frowned. “Mr. LaBoeuf does not seem the kind of man who casts idle proposals of marriage all about the country. He is an honourable man. If he has told you he cares for you and wishes to be wedded to you, I imagine he is very intent on you in particular.”
Mattie looked down at the floor. It was true enough, she supposed. She doubted LaBoeuf travelled the country offering empty promises to every woman he met. Rather she suspected he liked to believe he left a trail of pining hearts in his wake. She bit her cheek to kill the smile the thought conjured.
“You have told me of Mr. LaBoeuf’s proposal, and his feelings, and your practical objections. But you have not told me of your feelings. Do you feel nothing at all for him?”
Sharply, Mattie looked up to meet Mama’s calm, steady gaze. She swallowed.
In truth, “nothing” was not how she could most accurately describe her feelings for LaBoeuf. What she felt for him was not within a mile of “nothing.”
“I cannot give you instruction in this, Mattie,” Mama said gently. “You must choose for yourself. Only remember that having someone love you and take you as you are is a rare and precious thing in this world.”
Mama came forward and bent to kiss Mattie on top of her head. She turned and walked to the door.
“Consider his offer with care,” she said again, her hand resting on the door knob. “You have always had a strong will of your own, my dear, and it has served you well. Do not let this be the moment when you lead yourself astray.”
Mama left then, closing the door behind her, leaving Mattie alone. The lamplight flickered, warping her shadow where it was cast on the far wall.
Mattie stared straight ahead at the window where LaBoeuf had been standing when she awoke from her fever.
She did not know what to do, and such a state of indecision was foreign to her.
If she refused him, he would leave. His pride would not allow him to stay in her presence under such circumstances, she knew. It was likely that he would not care to write to her or get a letter from her, either. If she did not agree to marry him, she would never see him again. It was as good as certain. He would return to Texas and perhaps find another woman to marry.
Mattie’s hand clutched the bedpost, and she swallowed the lump that rose in her throat. Feeling lightheaded, she attempted to compose herself. That was no reason to marry. One ought to marry for security, and for practicality, not out of fear.
Mattie frowned. What was it she feared? Becoming estranged from a person whom she had grown to respect and even admire, after a fashion, she supposed. Also the fear that she would, as Mama suggested, regret him. Fear that he would ride back to Texas and never think of her again. She knew if he left, she would think of him, and that such thoughts would pain her.
She did not need his shelter or his help. What other good reason was there to marry a person and bind yourself to him for the whole of your life?
Love, said a small voice from deep inside her. Love is the reason.
Even as she castigated herself for being foolish, she knew. She knew that the fear and sorrow she felt at the thought of being parted from LaBoeuf came from her love for him. Love was the reason for it all.
It gave her an uncanny feeling to unearth this truth within herself. It was strange and familiar at once, brand new but old as well, as old as anything. It was obscured from view, hidden away, but it had been there all along. It was necessary, like her very bones.
Love was the reason for it all.
This was not something many people would understand about her. Most thought her hard and cold and strange, an unnatural girl who shed no tears over her father’s death and who cared only for money and cotton and the unyielding word of the Lord. She knew people thought this; they had said as much to her, and much harsher words, she reckoned, behind her back.
They did not understand. Mattie had loved her father more than any person, and so she could not rest until his killer met justice at her own hand. Her determination, her doggedness and fearlessness – it all stemmed from the love she had for Papa.
If it had not been for the fierce love that burned inside her, she would not have pursued Tom Chaney, or met Rooster and LaBoeuf, or had her arm cut off to save her life. She did not regret a moment of it, or a moment since. Every time she moved to grab something with a hand that was no longer there, she felt an emptiness inside which was filled right away with the knowledge that she had not let her father’s murder go unchecked. She remembered that she did right by him.
If no one understood this about her, she did not mind it. It was only that her ways made her seem untouchably heartless. The rude boarder in Hot Springs had not been the first to tell her she was a “spinster in the making.” No one could see the more tender part of her, except perhaps Mama.
Except perhaps LaBoeuf, it seemed.
The thought of him made her chest ache. Perhaps she was strange or unnatural, she did not know, but she was by no means cold or hard. She was by no means heartless. And cotton and money and her church were not the only things she cared for, not by far.
What if she had spurned LaBoeuf’s silly pride too badly in trying to refuse him? What if he would never speak to her again? What if he did depart for Texas and find some handsome woman, some warmer woman with a sweeter disposition with whom he could “settle down”?
What if he had already gone?
Mattie stood, her head pounding. She turned and caught sight of herself in the small looking glass on the washstand. The forlorn expression she spied there made her almost unrecognizable.
Shaking herself, Mattie turned and extinguished the lamp on the bureau. She threw open the door, slamming it closed behind her before hurrying down the stairs. She sped through the foyer, passing the parlour full of guests visiting and drinking their after supper tea and coffee.
“Why, Miss Ross!” someone exclaimed as she passed. Mattie did not answer. Where would he be? Not with the other guests in the parlour. It was twilight; he was likely on the porch, smoking his pipe.
Mattie opened the front door, and stepped out into the cool October night.
There he was.
LaBoeuf sat on one of the porch chairs in a square of diffused light thrown by the oil lamps in the parlour, his elbows leaning on his knees and his head bowed. He was smoking his pipe, and Mattie’s thought was that he looked very much like he had the moment she first laid eyes on him, only considerably less smug.
She closed the door behind her, and cleared her throat. “Good evening, Mr. LaBoeuf.”
LaBoeuf turned and was on his feet in an instant, his pipe abandoned and his hat in his hands. His look was pensive.
“I have spoken with my mother,” Mattie said.
“I see,” he said. He seemed wary of her, and it pained her to think that she had the power to wound him, and that he was prepared for her to do so. “And what did she have to say?”
“She sees no reason to object to it.”
LaBoeuf nodded, his eyes searching hers. “All right. What do you have to say?”
Mattie looked down at the toes of her shoes, poking out from beneath the hem of her skirt. “I say... Will you command my obedience and order me about like a servant?”
LaBoeuf regarded her, befuddled. “No, I will not,” he replied.
“Will you run around town, gambling and drinking and carousing?”
“I will not.”
“Will you be cruel and neglectful?”
“I will not.”
“Will you use harsh and vulgar words when speaking to me, or use a switch when you do not like what I have to say?”
“I will not.”
“Will you wallow in filth and expect me to delight in cleaning up after you?”
“I will not.”
“Will you attend church with me every Sunday, come rain or shine?”
LaBoeuf’s whiskers twitched, and he seemed to be holding back a smile. “I most certainly will.”
“Well, in that case... All right.”
LaBoeuf’s mirth disappeared and he stepped forward, dropping his hat to the floor and taking her hand in his. “You agree to it? Truly?”
“I agree to it, Mr. LaBoeuf,” Mattie replied.
He clasped her hand between his for a moment, and then pulled her to his chest. Mattie was stunned for a moment at his abruptness, but she relaxed, letting him hold her. His arms were not tight; she could have pulled away at any moment. She laid her head against his chest, where she could feel his heart beating under her cheek. He smelled of leather and saddle soap and pipe smoke, and Mattie found she liked the curious combination. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.
“That is quite the sigh,” LaBoeuf said softly, his low voice rumbling through her. Mattie shivered and opened her eyes.
“This seems untoward,” she replied.
“It would only be untoward if we had not first made our acquaintance in a boarding house bedroom,” LaBoeuf reasoned. “Anyhow, I have long since learned that what is untoward is of little consequence to you. Or to me, now that I think on it.”
Mattie leaned back to look at him. “Are you implying that I am a woman of loose morals?”
LaBoeuf laughed, and pulled her close again. His chin rested on her head. “There is nothing loose whatsoever about your morals, Mattie Ross.”
They stood that way for some time, and Mattie felt a sweet sense of peaceful relief fill her chest. She blew out another deep breath. He had not gone. He would not quit her and go to Texas and marry someone else. He would be with her all the time, now, until God chose to part them.
“When you fell ill, I thought perhaps the Lord had other plans for you and I would never have the opportunity to hold you in this way,” he said, after some time. He paused again, and then cleared his throat. “I have decided that it is all right if you do not love me as I love you. I believe that, with time, you will come to feel a similar fondness for me.”
Mattie leaned back to examine his face. He had a look of resignation about him, and she could not help the smile that stole across her own face.
“Rooster Cogburn was right; you are a silly old fool,” she said. “I already feel a ‘similar fondness’ for you, or else I would not have consented to marry you. Do you think I would marry for any other reason? I can get by perfectly well on my own in every other way; I have no need for a husband generally.”
LaBoeuf frowned at her. “If you believe you have no need for a husband, I wonder that you have consented to this at all.”
Mattie paused, trying to find the right words. Everything she thought of seemed foolish and sentimental. Yet it was true, also. Could romantic words at times be pragmatic by virtue of the fact that they contained the bald truth? She steeled herself. “Mr. LaBoeuf, I consent to this because I am fond of your company, and because when I was faced with the prospect of returning home and perhaps never seeing you again, the sadness such thoughts placed in my heart would not be dislodged. That is, I mean to say that I love you already, and you will not have to wait any length of time for me to become fond of you.”
“All right, then,” he said, his eyes soft as he regarded her. He reached up and brushed a loose strand of hair out of her eyes. “I would like very much if you would call me by the name my family most often uses for me, now that we are to be married.”
“Which of your names is that?” Mattie asked. “Do your nieces and nephews call you Uncle Virgil?”
LaBoeuf exhaled a laugh. “Virgil is my first given name, but it belonged to my father’s brother, and so I was always called Emery from when I was small.”
“Then you would like for me to call you Emery?”
“I would, yes.”
“All right. Emery.”
His cheeks reddened, and he cleared his throat before taking her hand in both of his. “It is silly to be so pleased, but there is nothing for it. May I beg a kiss of you?” he said.
Mattie felt her face heat. He was so stiff and formal; the boys at home tended to thrust a kiss upon you whether you wanted one or not. Indeed, he had been guilty of such behaviour himself.
“You are not going to simply steal a kiss?” Mattie asked. “You have already stolen more than one from me.”
LaBoeuf had the decency to look chagrined. “I thought perhaps things might go easier for me if I asked rather than took.”
“That was wise of you,” Mattie replied. She took a step closer to him. “You may have a kiss, if you like.”
As LaBoeuf leaned in to take his kiss, Mattie ducked her head and craned to land a peck on his warm, stubble-roughened cheek.
“There,” she said, rocking back on her heels. “Now we are very nearly square.”
LaBoeuf smiled at her, his expression delighted and surprised, and then leaned in once more, pressing a kiss to her lips. One of his arms slid around her waist, pulling her close, and the other cradled her shoulders. She rested her hand against his buckskin-covered back, and marvelled at the strange quiver which ran along every nerve of her body, leaving goose pimpled skin and a shiver in its wake.
“You are cold,” LaBoeuf said, pulling back enough to look at her. He released her and unbuttoned his coat.
“I am not cold,” Mattie replied. “I am merely happy, I think.”
“Happiness has the same effect on you as a draft,” LaBoeuf said, his eyebrows raised. “That is very peculiar, but then I reckon I should not be surprised.”
Mattie blushed, frowning at him. LaBoeuf held his coat open.
“Come here,” he said. “Then if you stop shivering I will know that you are neither cold nor happy.”
Feeling rather unlike herself, Mattie stepped forward, allowing him to envelop her in the warmth of his coat, where he held her very close. She laid her head on his chest, and again she could feel the steady beat of his heart beneath her cheek.
“Would you like to go and share the happy news with your mother?” LaBoeuf asked.
Mattie shook her head. “I think I would like to stand here with you just a little longer, Emery.”
LaBoeuf laid his cheek against her head and tightened his arms around her.
“If that is what you would like,” he said, “then I will be the last man to prevent you from having your way.”
The following day passed in a haze as Mattie and her mother prepared to return home to Yell County. At breakfast, LaBoeuf explained that he expected it would take several months at least to build an adequate house on his land in El Paso. He was quite insistent that Mattie not come out to Texas until he had a “respectable home” for her to live in, and Mama seemed to agree. Mattie did not much care, as they had spent the majority of their acquaintance either in boarding houses or sleeping on the hard ground, but she acquiesced. It was agreed that LaBoeuf would come to Arkansas when the house was completed, and that they would marry there. As for their more immediate plans, Mattie and Mama were on the train to Arkansas the next morning, and LaBoeuf would be headed in the opposite direction in the afternoon.
It all happened very fast.
After breakfast, Mama discreetly took her leave, and Mattie and LaBoeuf retired to the side porch, out of the way of the comings and goings of the front of the boarding house. They sat on the bench there, and LaBoeuf smoked his pipe.
There seemed to be no reason to speak, and so Mattie thought about what the coming months and weeks would hold, as well as their life together once they were married. A nervous knot began to form in her stomach as she contemplated it all. She was not one to dwell on events too far in the future to be worth worrying about. It was, after all, a waste of time and energy to fret over things which had not yet come to pass. But she could not help it. El Paso was a long way from Yell County. What did she know of life in El Paso? Could she be happy in such a place, even having LaBoeuf close by to cheer her? Could she be happy living so far away from Mama and Little Frank and Victoria?
“If we are to be married, there ought to be honesty between us,” Mattie said, turning to look at LaBoeuf after a long silence.
“There ought to be, yes,” LaBoeuf agreed. “What troubles you?”
“Although I am not one to shirk the challenges God presents me with, I admit to you now that the thought of leaving Arkansas and my family and all that is familiar and dear to me behind forever gives me pause.”
“Forever?” LaBoeuf’s mouth gaped for a moment in an expression of disbelief. “By God, Mattie, I do not plan to spirit you away to Texas and keep you as my prisoner! We shall visit your family as often as you like, and indeed they can visit us. It will not be long before the railroads will connect those two places, and then it will be no trouble at all. I know how dear your family is to you; I would not deprive you of their company.”
“Oh,” Mattie replied, suddenly feeling foolish. She frowned and looked away from him.
“I think you will like El Paso,” he said. “I know you are loyal to your own homeland, and that is all right, but I believe you will see that El Paso possesses fine qualities that will suit you very well. And I will do all that I can do make you at ease there, to increase your happiness.”
“I know you will,” Mattie said. She did not like to think of leaving him the next day, but she did not like to think of leaving Mama and her siblings behind at some moment in the future, either. Perhaps it was best not to think of it at all.
They fell silent again for several moments before LaBoeuf cleared his throat. “Cogburn warned me off you that morning, by the bank of that little creek. Do you remember? He doubted my intentions, and thought you had no interest in being pursued,” he said, frowning. “In earnest, I had myself convinced of the same. I do not know what changed Cogburn’s mind, but by the time you recovered from the fever here, he had turned right around on the subject and was giving me all manner of unsolicited advice.”
Mattie grimaced. “He did the same to me, just before we arrived in Texarkana the first time. He suggested I give you some ‘encouragement’ before your head was turned by another.”
“Well,” LaBoeuf guffawed, “although I would not have resented some encouragement from you, having my head turned is unlikely, regardless of the circumstances.”
“Is it?” Mattie asked, turning to look at him.
LaBoeuf regarded her for a moment, his eyes soft on her. When he spoke, his voice was soft as well. “You do not doubt yourself a moment in any other matter, yet here I see you pause. You doubt the appeal you hold for me?”
Embarrassed, Mattie looked away and shrugged her shoulders. LaBoeuf picked up her hand from where it lay on the bench, at her side. He rubbed his thumb over her knuckles, gently pressing each of the fine bones of her hand as though they were piano keys.
“Doubt some other thing, Mattie,” he said, his voice gruff. “Do not doubt that.” He enfolded her hand in his, and cleared his throat. “Anyhow, Cogburn seemed to think I planned to ‘fill your head with romantical ideas,’ as he put it, and then skedaddle with your good reputation in my saddlebag. Rooster Cogburn, lecturing me on a lady’s honour! I reckon he does not know you or me half so well as he thinks he does. But he certainly has a peculiar regard for you. He treated me as a father might treat a suitor for his daughter, in his own way.”
Mattie smiled at the picture he painted. It faded, though, as she thought of Rooster riding out for who-knew-where, just him and Whiskey Jack and whatever liquor he ‘confiscated’ on his way. She considered voicing her concern, but then she recalled LaBoeuf’s strange remarks about her and Rooster being ‘bosom friends’ on the trail. She glanced at him, and then thought of what Mama had said, about a man and wife being a solace for one another.
“I worry for him,” Mattie said finally. “He is the most alone person I have ever encountered. He did not seem to know entirely where he was headed, or why, or how, or if there would be anyone there to greet him when he arrives. If he arrives.”
“He provided me with an address where I might send his portion of the reward when I return to El Paso, but I do not know. It would not surprise me if he failed to collect it.”
“If the address comes to nothing, do you think we might try to find him? I want to ensure that he receives the funds to which he is entitled, and I would like to invite him to our wedding, whenever it shall be. He ought to know he is welcome.”
LaBoeuf turned and gave her a long look, frowning slightly. “I see his regard for you does not go unreciprocated.”
“No, it does not,” Mattie agreed. “Do you mind it?”
LaBoeuf did not reply right away, continuing to look at her. Finally he cleared his throat and looked away. “No, I suppose I do not mind it. Although I do not think he is altogether deserving of your admiration.”
Mattie smiled. “Well, I do not know about that. But I do know that the admiration I have for Rooster Cogburn bears little resemblance to the admiration I have for you.”
That seemed to placate LaBoeuf, for his face reddened and he cleared his throat, and had soon changed the subject of conversation to the scheduling of the trains in the morning, and no more was said about Rooster Cogburn.
In the afternoon, Mama and Mattie prepared for the journey home and looked after some errands in town. Mama insisted on having Mattie sit for a photographer, which in Mattie’s opinion was a costly waste of time. She did not think she looked her best, either, for although her bruises had healed, she was still scrawny from being ill. But Mama would not have it another way.
Supper was a quiet affair, for there were not many guests staying at the boarding house that night. After coffee with Mama and Mrs. McNabb in the parlour, Mattie stood with LaBoeuf outside as he smoked his pipe.
It was curiously quiet between them. Mattie supposed that everything useful had already been said. In any case, she found she enjoyed simply being near him as the night deepened and turned cold, and their breath turned to plumes of steam in the air. When he finished his pipe he took her hand and kissed her cheek, and said it was foolish for her to be out in the cold so soon after being ill. They went inside, and everyone went up to bed.
Nothing was said about their parting the next day, and Mattie was glad. To anticipate the pain of leaving his side was akin to wallowing in it, and that was not something Mattie would do.
In the morning, Mattie and Mama said their goodbyes to Mrs. McNabb, and then they all travelled to the train depot together. Mrs. McNabb’s stable boy had gone ahead with the horses, and LaBoeuf looked after Mattie’s luggage as well as Mama’s. They did not have much in the way of baggage and could have managed themselves, but LaBoeuf was insistent, and said he did not mind. When they arrived on the platform, a porter whisked it all away, and Mama delicately said that she would leave them, and disappeared down the length of the great iron machine to find their seats.
“Here,” LaBoeuf said, reaching into his pocket and placing two small packages in the palm of Mattie’s hand. They were wrapped in crisp brown paper.
“It is not appropriate for a man to give gifts to an unmarried young woman,” Mattie murmured, eyeing the contents of her hand speculatively.
“Under the circumstances, I think some minor adjustments to courtship rituals are all right,” he replied. He pointed at the smaller of the two packages. “Open that one first, if you please.”
Handing him back the other package, Mattie used her thumb to work the brown paper aside. Small, finicky jobs were the hardest to manage with only one hand, but she did not want to call attention to it by requesting his assistance. The paper fell away, and in her palm was left a silver-plated thimble with wee filigreed thistles around the base of the cup.
“I gather that, these days, some fashionable young men will bestow a gold ring on their intended as a token of their engagement, but as I am neither fashionable nor young, I hoped you might not expect such a thing from me, and would not mind a more traditional conveyance of my intentions,” LaBoeuf explained. His voice was gruff, and he looked away from her, out over the milling crowds on the platform.
Mattie did not know what to say. She had never received such a gift before. It was simple and practical, and its beauty and worth lay in those qualities. She knew that every time she held it or used it, or even spied it on her bureau, she would think of him. Swallowing, she shook her head. She still did not know how to graciously accept a compliment. But then, LaBoeuf knew that about her already, and much better than most.
“I do not know what to say,” Mattie said earnestly, looking up at him. “I wish I had a poetic spirit so that I might adequately express myself to you, but my oratorical skills lay more in the region of the pragmatic. So I will say simply that it is a lovely thing, and that I will cherish it always.”
Although his expression remained serious, Mattie could tell that he was pleased. He went all red in the cheeks and cleared his throat. He returned the second package to her. “The frivolity of this gift will, I hope, make amends for the lack of it in the other.”
Mattie worked the second package open, and discovered two silver-plated combs, each one about the size of her thumb from knuckle to fingertip. On the end of each was a posey of delicate filigreed flowers.
“I am told that the flowers are forget-me-nots, but I do not know,” LaBoeuf said.
Mattie turned the little combs over in her palm. She never expected to have such fine things to call her own, and she certainly did not expect a man to buy them for her. The delight she felt was foreign, and almost certainly wicked.
“Forget-me-nots are said to signify true love,” Mattie mused, glancing up at him.
“Do they? Well,” he replied. His eyes were steady on hers, and his tone implied that he knew that already. Mattie blushed and looked away. “Would you like me to put them in your hair?”
“Oh, no!” she replied, closing her fingers protectively over her treasures. “I want them right where I can see them for the journey home. You never know what kind of riff-raff you will encounter on a long train ride.”
LaBoeuf huffed out a short kind of laugh and smiled at her. “As you wish.”
“I have something for you, as well,” Mattie said, remembering the tintype tucked in the inner pocket of her coat. She placed his gifts safely there and extracted the photograph, handing it to LaBoeuf in its neat black paper sleeve.
He removed the photograph and examined it, his expression revealing nothing to her. Abruptly she felt foolish.
“It was Mama’s notion to have it taken,” Mattie said, looking out over the platform at the other travellers who were milling about. “As for myself I think it rather silly.”
LaBoeuf’s gaze met hers, his blue eyes bright in the afternoon sun. She could feel the heat rise in her face, and it only served to embarrass her further.
“It is not silly. It is not silly in the least. I will keep it with me always,” he said. His voice was gruff, and he cleared his throat. He seemed about to say something more, but was interrupted by Mama’s voice calling her from down the platform.
Mattie looked over her shoulder and saw her mother waving to her, a hesitant and careworn expression on her face, visible even from a distance.
“It seems the train is boarding,” LaBoeuf said. “Do you have everything you will require for your journey?”
“Yes. My only concern is for Alma. She has never been on a train before.”
“Would you like me to speak to the porter?” LaBoeuf asked.
“No, that is all right. While you were dealing with the luggage, I told the ticket agent and the conductor that Alma is to arrive in the same condition in which I left her in their care, or the railroad will be in my debt for her full value,” Mattie replied.
LaBoeuf’s whiskers twitched as though he were trying to hold back a smile. “I ought to have known that you would already have seen to it.”
The engineer blew the whistle then, and the train gave a great groan and released a plume of steam into the air.
“All right, then,” LaBoeuf said, the smile dropping from his face. He reached down and took Mattie’s hand in his, and began walking down the platform to where Mama waited. “You will write to me, will you not? You need not be concerned that frequent letters are any kind of exceptional burden, for our mail service is good enough. You need not even await a reply – send as many letters as you like.”
“I will write to you,” Mattie replied.
“Good,” he said as they came to a stop in front of Mama.
“I am terribly sorry, but the porter has told me that we will be departing very shortly,” Mama said, her tone fretful.
“It is all right, Mama. Go find your seat and I will join you,” Mattie replied.
“Goodbye, Mr. LaBoeuf,” Mama said. LaBoeuf helped her onto the train with his free hand, and she favoured him with a warm smile before disappearing into the great iron beast.
“Would you like me to see you onto the train?” LaBoeuf asked.
“No. I will find my seat all right,” Mattie replied.
They stood watching each other a moment, neither knowing what to say. The train let out a shrill whistle, and the porter leaned his head out of the train and informed Mattie that she must board.
LaBoeuf frowned. His hand grasped her elbow and pulled her close, the other cupping the nape of her neck. He leaned his forehead against hers for a moment, and then said, “Troublesome woman. I shall miss you, I fear, but I will build that house as quickly as I am able.”
“I know you will,” Mattie replied. She breathed in the tobacco and buckskin and fresh air scent of him, and swallowed.
He pressed a scratchy kiss to her temple, and released her. “Go on now,” he said.
Mattie turned from him, not wanting to meet his eyes. She felt the gentle press of his hand when he briefly touched the small of her back as she boarded the train.
Inside the compartment, she saw Mama and went to her. Mama moved aside and let Mattie have the seat nearest the window.
Although Mattie knew she would see LaBoeuf again, her heart was heavy at the sight of him standing alone on the platform, eyeing the train with a frown on his face. It was bearable, but when the train shuddered and gave a lurch as it began to pull out of the station, she felt tears prick at her eyes. She pressed her palm against the sooty window, and she knew he saw it, for his shoulders drooped and gave a little shake of his head.
The train lurched again and began to pull away, and LaBoeuf took two steps forward and laid his hand on the window for the briefest of moments before removing it as the train gathered speed. They would have been touching if not for the glass.
Mattie craned her head and watched him standing there on the edge of the platform with his hand still raised in farewell, until the train rounded a curve and he disappeared.
Chapter 13: close to me always
Whoa. I was not expecting this last chapter to be so difficult to write. I've been struggling with major writer's block for the last six months, and this fic has been the primary victim. I apologise that it's taken this long to get the final chapter out. I hope some of you are still reading. Thank you so much for the messages of encouragement along the way; they buoy me up like you wouldn't believe.
Thank you for reading. Your enjoyment has meant everything to me during the writing of this fic.
Extra special thanks to ishie for holding my hand literally every step of the way. Could not do this without your support and encouragement, bb. <3
Mattie returned home to Yell County. The fields were empty, the trees bare, and the sky like a steel grey canopy. She had been away from home only six weeks, yet in that time fall had departed and winter arrived to take its place.
It was soon apparent that although Mama was delighted to have her home, her adventure had put Little Frank’s nose out of joint. He did not need to say a word; Mattie knew her brother well enough to see that he was sore about it. Not only because he held the sort of romantic ideas about guns and outlaws that all foolish young men have and was therefore envious of her adventures, but because in her absence, he had been expected to take responsibility for farm and family, and he resented her for it. It was several weeks before he graced her with anything more than a sullen grunt when asked a question.
Victoria, meanwhile, was giddy with excitement, and wanted to hear all about this Mr. LaBoeuf, whom she remembered only vaguely from his visit to Yell County years ago during his search for Tom Chaney. She asked Mattie many tiresome, silly questions about his looks and his temper, and what he said to Mattie when he asked her to be his wife. Victoria had her tell that story so many times that Mattie grew exhausted of it, and spoke sharply to her. Victoria had a tender disposition and was hurt, but Mattie could not bring herself to apologise. It would only encourage her to start in again.
Mattie had been home three days when she received a telegram. She and Little Frank were in town for supplies and Mr. Smalling, who managed the post office, near ran her down in the street to deliver it. She tucked it inside her coat and read it much later that night, when she was alone in her bedroom.
WEATHER IS FINE AND DRY
HAULING ROCKS FROM THE RIVER FOR THE HOUSE
WILL WRITE SOON
YOURS SGT LABOEUF
Mattie pored over the words with her eyes and her fingertips until she began to feel foolish for finding a piece of paper such a fascination. She folded the telegram in half and placed it inside the bible at her bedside before extinguishing her lamp. Lying back against her pillow, she saw a picture in her mind of LaBoeuf laying rocks out to make the foundation of the house. Their house.
Such a thing still seemed downright fanciful to her, but as the weeks passed and LaBoeuf began to send her letters telling her in great detail about the progress he made on the house, her fancy took shape as a real building of stone and whitewashed clapboard.
They wrote to one another as often as the speed of the postal service and their busy days would allow. Mama had Mattie and Victoria sewing from dawn to dusk all that winter, until Mattie was certain that she had enough sheets and curtains and dishtowels to outfit a whole brigade of young brides.
At Christmas, Mattie wrote Rooster a letter, informing him of her engagement and asking him to visit, and received a reply three months later. He said he always knew that LaBoeuf’s ranting and raving about her “sauciness” could not be for nothing, and that he was glad “the stuffed-shirt dandy” had the starch to ask for her hand after all. Last of all he said that he was pleased she said yes, for the world did not need any more “cranky old maids” than it already had.
Mattie replied to say that she hoped he might come to Yell for the wedding, which would not be for some months yet, but she would let him know of the precise date when she was able. She received no reply.
There was a foreign restlessness in Mattie that she found difficult to abide. It was nearly intolerable through the long, dark months of winter when there was little work at hand to occupy her. At times she caught herself staring off at nothing, her mind exploring the regions of memory and far-off hopeful things which may never come to be.
Mattie was glad indeed when winter gave way to spring, and there was more work at hand than could be accomplished in a day. Her mind had precious little time to wander then.
In July, LaBoeuf wrote her to say that a spate of twisters and summer storms had done some damage to the house, but that he had quickly made up the difference and good progress was being made once again. The roof was as good as finished, and this accomplishment would provide him with an opportunity to rest, and to take the train to Arkansas to visit her, which he hoped she would not mind.
Mattie wrote back to him and said she would not mind it at all, but he only ought to come if he was certain that he could spare the time and the expense, which seemed frivolous to her. LaBoeuf responded to say that he was certainly coming, and he would arrive in the middle of August.
Mama had Mattie and Victoria clean the entire house from top to bottom. Theirs was always a well-kept place, and Mattie thought they had no reason to put up a false front for LaBoeuf, but by the end of their labours she had to own that the place had never looked better. Mattie was glad for LaBoeuf to see it thus, although her gladness stopped short of pride of course.
The day LaBoeuf was to arrive, Victoria brushed Mattie’s hair out and pulled it back into a knot of plaits at the back of her head, and tucked Mattie’s two silver-plated combs into the arrangement. Mama insisted on cleaning and pressing Mattie’s best dress, which was two years old and made from dark cranberry jacquard-woven silk. Its high collar and one long sleeve made it heavy for the warm summer weather, but Mama would not be swayed. She also gave Mattie her favourite garnet earrings to wear. Once Victoria had laced her into her new whalebone corset and buttoned the dress for her, even Mattie thought the effect was handsome, although she did not say it.
Little Frank hitched their cart mule Jake to the wagon and drove into town in the middle of the afternoon to fetch LaBoeuf from the train station.
Mattie waited on the front porch, for it permitted a breeze and was therefore not as stifling as the parlour. She sat with her spine as straight as a fencepost, sweat pooling under her corset. She longed for a thunderstorm, or a light dress better suited to the heat, or better, a swim in the nearby fishing hole.
Two hours passed in this fashion with Mattie annoyed at the pressing heat and at her own idleness, for Mama would not allow her anywhere near the kitchen while she and Victoria cooked, for fear that she would soil her dress.
Finally, she spotted Jake’s dark head come through the trees way down the road, doggedly pulling the cart behind him. Mattie stood and went to the porch railing, peering as the cart drew closer, the figures up on the bench becoming clear. Little Frank drove, and there beside him in all his outlandish Texas trappings sat LaBoeuf.
Mattie’s heart leaped into her chest for joy at the sight of him, and she nearly gave way to the urge she felt to fly down the steps and run to him. But she held fast and stood stock still on the porch, her hand gripping the railing as she watched them approach.
Little Frank halted the cart in the yard, and LaBoeuf hopped off the bench with a ringing of spurs. Little Frank got down and began to lead Jake around to the barn but Mattie hardly noticed, so intent was she on LaBoeuf as he approached. He stopped at the bottom of the steps and removed his hat. Looking up at her, he nodded his head.
“Ma’am,” he said.
Mattie frowned at him and was about to ask him if he had left his wits on the train when she heard a sharp intake of breath and turned to see her mother and Victoria standing behind her.
“Oh, Mr. LaBoeuf!” Mama exclaimed as he came up the stairs. “It is such a pleasure to see you again at last! I hope you are not altogether too exhausted from your long journey.”
LaBoeuf took Mama’s hand and pressed a kiss to the back of it before doing the same for Victoria, who beamed.
“No, ma’am, I am not altogether too exhausted,” he replied, smiling. “The journey is long but the trains are very comfortable nowadays.” He turned and gave Mattie a cordial nod. “Mattie.”
“Mr. LaBoeuf,” she responded, nodding. Mama bade them all into the house then, saying that supper was just ready and so they might as well eat right away as the food on trains is never wholesome or satisfying and so Mr. LaBoeuf must have a powerful hunger.
Mattie eyed LaBoeuf as they went inside. She hardly expected him to dash up the front steps and sweep her into his arms like the romantic hero in some trash novel. She would not have wanted that. But to have scarcely a greeting for her at all seemed peculiar. Perhaps he was wary of being too familiar with her in the presence of her mother. Yet he had not shied away when they were all together in Texarkana. So what reason for his aloofness?
All through supper he seemed to avoid her eyes, conversing mostly with Mama about how busy he had been with his new bail bond work in Ysleta. Mattie could not figure him. Ignoring her entirely seemed beyond the requirements of cordiality, and needlessly prudish even for LaBoeuf. Why would he not look at her? Had something happened? Had he changed his mind? Had he come here to tell her that he had been mistaken, and did not want to marry her after all?
Mattie hardly swallowed a bite, so anxious was she, and so intent on silently cursing him did she become.
After the meal, Mama suggested – with a sly smile in Mattie’s direction – that they take a walk so LaBoeuf might see the cotton fields in bloom. They did so, walking across the barnyard without speaking, as the dusky twilight descended around them.
The silence between them lasted so long that Mattie felt acute agony begin to tear at some place deep in her breast. It became hard to draw a breath, and her eyes stung. She did not know what to think of this awkwardness between them, nor did she know what she might have done to cause it, nor what she might do to repair it. It bewildered her entirely.
They walked up the path that went past the barn, towards the paddocks where the horses grazed in the cool summer gloaming. As they passed the rear door to the barn, LaBoeuf paused and looked back at the house. Suddenly he grabbed her hand and pulled her after him into the barn, and before she knew what was happening, he had tumbled her back into a heap of hay which Little Frank had pitched down from the hayloft that morning. LaBoeuf lay right on top of her, and his hat was tipped back on his head so that he looked a complete fool. He grinned that smug grin of his, and Mattie wanted to smack him.
“Hidy,” he said and, without waiting for her reply, dropped his head and kissed her soundly on the mouth, his whiskers scratching her.
“You are a scoundrel!” she scolded the moment he paused long enough for her to catch her breath. “You had me thinking... Well, never mind what you had me thinking! I ought to box your ears.”
“I apologise,” he replied, not looking the least bit sorry. “Would it help you know that I think you look very lovely tonight?”
Mattie glowered at him. She had never known him to be playful or deliberately silly in this way, and she found it rather alarming.
“I have missed you,” he said. “Your letters were a source of great delight to me, but as they contained more news of the well-being of your crops and your ledger, and less of the degree of your longing for my company, I must say they do not compare to being at your side.”
Embarrassed, Mattie could feel her cheeks redden, and she frowned and let her gaze slide away from his.
“Ah! I did not know whether any delicate feminine modesty lived in you, but there is my answer.”
Mattie’s frown deepened. “It is not ‘delicate feminine modesty.’ I am merely suspicious of grandiose flattery.”
“Is it grandiose flattery to say that I missed you? You grow stingier with your sugar all the time. But you will simply have to accept that on occasion I will like to say that I enjoy your company and am very fond of you.” He regarded her expectantly, a smile quirking his mouth. “Have you no similar endearment for me, or has my behaviour today shut me out of your affections indefinitely?”
“Your behaviour today has made me wonder whether I ought to commit you to an asylum for the mentally deranged rather than marry you,” Mattie sniffed.
“Ah, but I see that marriage is still a card on the table. That is a great relief to me,” LaBoeuf replied. He leaned his weight off of her, propping himself up on one elbow. “How do you do, Miss Mattie Modesty?”
Mattie shifted, trying to put some space between them. The closeness of him after so many months apart was making her feel rather silly. “I do very fine, when I am not being harangued by presumptuous popinjays with sawdust for brains.”
LaBoeuf smiled at her. It seemed her sharp words no longer affected him, or that they had some opposite, unintended effect. He lifted his free hand and brushed his thumb against her eyebrow before resting it beneath her eye and cupping her cheek in his palm.
“When I say I missed you, it is not flattery. It is God’s honest truth,” he said. “But I see you are put out that I did not favour you with my attention the moment I arrived. May I attempt to make amends for this transgression?”
Mattie shrugged and looked away, uninterested in his foolishness. LaBoeuf turned her face back towards his and leaned down, pressing a kiss to her cheekbone, her forehead, and her nose, before kissing her lips. He lingered there for some time, sliding an arm under her shoulders to pull her very close. When finally his embrace loosened, Mattie blinked and let her head fall back into the hay. She swallowed hard around the lump in her throat.
LaBoeuf leaned his forehead against hers. “Tell me you did miss me,” he said, his voice low and gruff.
“I did miss you,” Mattie whispered. She did not look away from his gaze, although she felt some strange urge to glance to the side, or cover her face. “I should like to have you this close to me always.”
LaBoeuf closed his eyes, a pained expression crossing his face. He sighed raggedly. “Mattie, I have something to confess to you.”
Mattie watched him closely, a measure of her earlier anxiety returning. She swallowed. “What is it? Tell me.”
“I promised you and your mother I would have that house finished by the end of the summer so that we could be married and I could take you back with me,” he said, looking away from her.
“Yes, I remember, of course.”
“The house will not be finished by the end of summer, Mattie,” he replied.
“Oh,” Mattie breathed. Disappointment choked her. She had hoped it would be finished in the next month, so that they might be married and be settled enough to have Christmas in their new home. But she felt certain that he had done his utmost, and so she did not want to offend him by showing her feelings.
“But the trouble is that I cannot wait for that damned house to be finished,” he said, clasping her hand in his.
“Mr. LaBoeuf!” she scolded, appalled at his language. “I would like for the house to be finished, too, but there is hardly a need for that kind of-”
“Mattie, marry me tomorrow. Or the day after, if you prefer. But marry me and come home with me on that train next Tuesday.”
“Well!” Mattie said. “That is -”
“Do you think your mother would object? I will speak to her. I will assure her that my room is a very fine one in a respectable boarding house, and that our house will be completed with the utmost haste, and -”
“Mr. LaBoeuf, you are the one who made the stipulation that our house be completed before we could marry. My mother will be overjoyed, I am certain, to see me married immediately.”
“Do you object?” he asked earnestly. “I understand if you do not wish to marry and go to live in a boarding house and not have all of your things around you, but-”
“I would marry you if you had only the clothes on your back and an empty shanty on the bald prairie. However, I will deny these words should you ever repeat them to anyone.”
LaBoeuf smiled at her, looking exceedingly pleased. “Now, why is it back to ‘Mr. LaBoeuf’ when in your letters you felt free to call me Emery?”
Mattie stared at him, finding herself without the means to respond. She gaped for a moment, and then swallowed, collecting herself. “Well,” she said, “in my letters I found I was at liberty to – that is, it is rather different when I am looking right at you.”
LaBoeuf’s smile grew wider. “I would kiss you again, but then I fear I would want to keep you here for much longer than your mother would think appropriate.”
He got to his feet then, and Mattie felt rather foolish, left lying on her back in a heap of hay. LaBoeuf reached out his hand and took hers, drawing her to her feet. Mattie stood still as LaBoeuf brushed off the back of her skirt and picked every bit of hay from her hair.
“Your mother is a good sport,” he said, “but I expect even she would not like to know that we have been in this pile of hay, here.”
“Putting it that way makes the thing sound as though you have taken liberties with me, when in truth you have enjoyed very few,” Mattie replied.
LaBoeuf guffawed. “That is the truth, and if your mother suspects anything, that is what I will tell her. She knows you well, so she will believe me.”
Mattie felt herself blush, and said nothing, a smile playing about her mouth. When LaBoeuf was satisfied that she looked presentable once again, he took her hand in his.
“Tell me truly – do you mind it if we marry now and return to Texas, to an unfinished house?”
“Have I said that I mind it?” Mattie asked.
“You have not,” LaBoeuf replied.
“And have you ever known me to lie, or to play false to protect a man’s pride?”
LaBoeuf’s whiskers twitched, and he shook his head. “That I have certainly not known you to do.”
“Well,” Mattie said, “there you are. You need not worry on it a moment longer.”
“Shall we go see what your mother thinks of it, then?”
Mattie did not reply. She merely squeezed his hand, and they walked back to the house together with hands clasped, the gloaming deepening into night all around them.
Mattie wore a brand new dress which her mother had made for her by a seamstress months earlier at a terrible expense. Mattie had never worn anything but homemade before, and she was almost afraid to wear it for fear of doing it some damage. It was made of dove grey satin with braided black velvet trim. The left sleeve was cut short and sewn neatly shut for her arm, and the other sleeve was cut close and darted, flattering the slenderness of her wrist and hand. It was trimmed with black braid and white lace, as was the high collar. The bodice was fitted with darts, coming to a low point at her waist, and Victoria had to lace her tightly into her new whalebone corset so the dress would fall properly. The overskirt dropped straight from her waist and gathered over a modest bustle in the back. The rest of the skirt fell to the floor with a row of small flounces which Victoria declared “very fashionable.” Mattie did not know whether the dress was fashionable, not having an interest in such things. She only knew that it was very beautiful and fine, and that it looked like a dress that could not possibly belong to her.
They were married in town, in the church her father had helped to build many years earlier when he was only a young man. Little Frank drove them there in the cart, all of them in their Sunday best. LaBoeuf was staying at the hotel in town, and walked to the church to meet them. Mattie stood waiting in the vestibule with Mama while a handful of neighbours and friends of Mama’s filed into the church, most greeting Mattie with curious looks that bordered on insulting.
When LaBoeuf arrived, he did so with little announcement, for he did not wear his spurs with the big noisy rowels. Instead he was dressed in a smart brown suit and a hat with a brim so modest it looked peculiar on him. He greeted Mama and apologised for being late. Mama assured him that it was no matter, and said she would go in to make sure all was ready. She disappeared into the chapel proper, leaving them alone. LaBoeuf cleared his throat, and looked her up and down like he was buying a horse.
“Well,” he said. “You look downright womanly.”
“I am a woman,” Mattie replied, smoothing her hand self-consciously over her skirt.
Uncomfortable under his unwavering gaze, Mattie tipped her chin at him. “I did not know you owned clothing not made of buckskin and adorned with fringe. I hardly recognize you.”
LaBoeuf gave her a sour look as his cheeks reddened, and then he frowned. “I will own that this suit is not comfortable. I do not feel like myself.”
Mattie felt sorry for him, and ceased her teasing. It was almost comical, the two of them dressed up in their fine clothes for which they felt no affinity.
“What are you smirking about, now?” LaBoeuf asked.
“I am thinking about how silly we both are,” she admitted. “But you look very nice in your fine suit.”
“You look handsome as well,” he replied. His eyes were warm as he looked at her, and Mattie felt some ridiculous sensation clutch at her chest, making it difficult to draw a proper breath. The tightness of her corset was no help in that respect, either.
Mama returned then, and bade them into the chapel.
Although the ceremony was a solemn procedure and not overlong, Mattie had a difficult time concentrating on a word the preacher said. All she could do was look at LaBoeuf and ponder the smug expression he had worn the first moment she clapped eyes on him, and its difference from the serious look which dressed his face now. He looked like an anxious boy.
It was over quickly, Mattie hardly able to absorb the solemn vows she promised before the preacher concluded the thing and pronounced them married. LaBoeuf kissed her once, quickly, taking her hand in his.
LaBoeuf signed the register first, then watched as Mattie signed. He reached over her shoulder and held the book in place with his left hand while Mattie carefully wrote her name with her right.
"Mattie Emmeline Ross LaBoeuf," he read aloud when she had finished and stood. He glanced at her. "How do you like that?"
"I like it all right," she replied, and LaBoeuf smiled, and said no more.
They went back to the farm then for a luncheon to which several neighbours had been invited. Many more came than Mattie expected. She supposed they came to see whether it was true that Mattie Ross was well and truly a married woman, or whether folks in town had been telling tall tales again.
All who came brought food with them, cold fried chicken and biscuits and pickles and tongue sandwiches. There was lemonade and sweet tea from the ice house. A neighbour, Oakley Batchelor, who had been friends with Mattie’s father, brought watermelons so ripe their rinds split open in the hot sun with a sound like a piece of muslin being torn in half. They ate at tables set outside in the shade of the house, and Mattie was glad that it was a mild day with a breeze, for otherwise the heat would have made her dress intolerable.
Everyone idled there for hours, eating and sharing news in leisure. Mattie supposed it was all right, although it was a Monday, and no day for resting. She sat by Victoria, who stuck much closer to her than was comfortable in the heat. But Mattie allowed it. Soon, they would not be close anymore, nor ever again. Not like when they were girls.
Night fell, and fireflies began to gather from the fishing hole to fly dozily around everyone’s heads. The small children began to fall asleep in their mothers’ laps, and the older children shuffled restlessly. The party was over.
LaBoeuf had had their tickets changed, so that instead of returning to El Paso, they were to venture south to Pineville. Mattie was to be introduced to LaBoeuf’s family. He told her he had written them all about her months ago and they were most anxious to meet her. Mattie looked forward to the trip, for she had never been to Louisiana, and was curious about a place that could produce such a person as her Mr. LaBoeuf.
They were to leave in the morning, first thing.
When the guests had all driven off in wagons and carts or sleepily on foot, Mattie helped Mama and Victoria clean up while LaBoeuf showed Little Frank how to whittle a wooden pipe out on the porch.
It did not take long to tidy the place, and soon everything was as it had been. Standing in the kitchen, Mama sighed and glanced at Mattie.
“I think I will say goodbye to you here,” she said, her voice wavering, “so that you may get off to Louisiana in good spirits in the morning. You know I cannot manage a gracious farewell.”
“I know, Mama,” Mattie replied. Victoria began to cry, and attempted to say some sort of farewell of her own to Mattie, but she was impossible to understand, and so Mattie simply pulled her close and allowed her little sister to cling to her for a few minutes more.
A few of the hands had stayed up to say their goodbyes out on the porch, including old Yarnell. He shook her hand and LaBoeuf’s, and said he reckoned any man who would take a stubborn, bossing thing like her on had to be crazier than a bag of cats, but good luck anyway.
Little Frank had the cart ready, then, and they made ready to depart. LaBoeuf sat up on the bench with her brother, and Mattie sat in the back with all of her bags and her trunk full of new sheets and dishtowels, as well as the wedding gifts they had received.
The cart pulled out of the yard, and Mattie raised a hand to wave to Mama and Victoria, who stood together on the porch. Victoria sobbed so loudly it carried across the yard, and then she buried her face in Mama’s shoulder. Mattie dropped her hand to her lap and looked away, biting her lip. There was no need to be foolish about such things.
The ride back into town was long, and it passed almost entirely in silence except for the sound of the frogs croaking in the marshy ditches.
Little Frank dropped them at the hotel, and helped LaBoeuf unload Mattie’s things onto the wide clapboard porch, where a sleepy-looking young desk clerk from the hotel with hair the colour of bright fresh straw collected them, and whisked them away upstairs.
“Well,” Little Frank said, when they had finished.
“Well,” Mattie replied, looking at her little brother.
“So long, then,” he said. He stuck a hand out.
“So long,” she repeated, taking his hand and giving it a firm squeeze. Abruptly, Little Frank yanked her forward and gave her a firm clap on the back with his free hand. “Don’t give him too hard a time, you ugly old badger.”
With a grin, he pulled away from her and leaped off the top step of the porch, nearly spooking poor old Jake. He clambered up onto the bench and chirruped to the horse, who took off at a speedy trot.
“Are all young men such baboons?” Mattie asked LaBoeuf, who stood by her side, looking after her brother somewhat disapprovingly.
“I’m afraid they are,” he said, removing his hat. “I suppose you will only be wanting girl children.”
Mattie wrinkled her nose. “Girls are no better. They are only another kind of foolish.”
LaBoeuf gave a sharp bark of laughter, and they went inside and found their way to his room.
“It seems wasteful to spend the night in a hotel,” Mattie said once they were inside and LaBoeuf was bent over lighting the lamp.
LaBoeuf did not look up at her, or reply right away. After a moment, he cleared his throat. “You do not wish to be alone with me the first night that we are man and wife?”
“I did not say that. I said only that the expense of a hotel seems extravagant when we might have stayed at the farm before catching our train tomorrow.”
Again, LaBoeuf was quiet a moment before he spoke. “I thought you might prefer privacy tonight.”
Mattie looked at him, turned away from her, and in the bend of his shoulders saw that she might wound him in some invisible place if she said the wrong thing.
“It is not that I do not want to be alone with you,” she said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “I am only concerned about unnecessary expenses when we still have a house to finish. That is all.”
LaBoeuf turned and carried the lamp to the bedside table. He set it there and stared at it for a long moment before turning to look at her.
“I do not know what your mother has... That is to say, if you are tired and would simply like to go to sleep tonight, I will abide by your desire,” he said, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
Mattie kept her gaze fixed on his, not wanting him to think her frightened of him. “That is not necessary,” she said.
A long silence passed between them, broken only when Mattie cleared her throat.
“Will this be the first time you have done this?” she asked. LaBoeuf looked at her, a dour and conflicted expression on his face. Mattie could tell he was considering a fib. “I only wish to know whether you know what you are doing. One of us ought to. I would rather you give me the truth even if you think I will not like it.”
“I know what I am doing,” he said slowly, his eyes not leaving hers. “I am older than you are, and it is different for a man.”
“I will own that is all true enough,” Mattie replied.
LaBoeuf frowned and looked away from her, scratching his chin thoughtfully with his thumb. After a moment, he cleared his throat.
“If you are angry with me, I understand. I will not touch you if you are angry with me,” he said, catching her gaze once more. “But Mattie, I wish for you to know that I am no philanderer. I have vowed a duty and a loyalty to you which is sacred. I will never stray from your side in this lifetime or the next.”
“All right,” Mattie replied. LaBoeuf looked unconvinced. “I am not angry with you. I only want to know the truth; I do not wish to be coddled. That is all I ever want.”
LaBoeuf nodded. He regarded her with hesitation a moment longer, and then came to sit beside her on the bed. He kissed her then, his whiskers scratching her face.
He kissed her and pulled her close, his hands on her waist. He kissed her face and her jaw, her ears and down her neck, pushing her high collar aside. Mattie was still, unsure where to put her hand as he pushed her gently back against the pillows.
It was a strange and foreign thing, and at times Mattie felt the pain and the embarrassment Mama had warned her of in vague whispers, but at times she felt also a curious euphoria, a surge of affection and joy that her body and her heart had never known before.
Later, in the still darkness, Mattie looked up at the beadboard ceiling and listened to the sound of LaBoeuf’s breathing deepen. She supposed most women found such a thing foreign on their wedding nights, but she did not. She had slept near him too many times already to be bothered by it.
Mattie thought of the strange series of serendipitous events that had brought them together in this place, and she wondered what hand God had lifted to push them one way or push them another. Perhaps God had not lifted a hand at all. Perhaps they were only in this place because the world is filled with wickedness, and because both of them saw in that world a set of scales in need of balancing, by whoever was willing to see it done.
“Have you ever killed a man?” Mattie asked, her voice seeming unusually loud after the extended silence. LaBoeuf did not answer right away, and Mattie supposed him to be asleep.
“You know I have,” he said softly, after a moment. “Lucky Ned Pepper. Although I am given to understand that Cogburn winged him first.”
“Yes, but had you ever killed a man before that?” she asked.
“I had, yes, during the war and in the commission of my duties as a Ranger,” he replied. Mattie could feel him looking at her, trying to discern her expression in the dark. “Does that upset you?”
Mattie might have mocked the idea that he still thought her delicate somehow, but her mind was occupied elsewhere. “No,” she replied. “No, it is not that. Rather, it is merely... That is, do you find that you sometimes dream of them, the men you have killed?”
“No,” LaBoeuf said, sounding somewhat bewildered. “No, I do not. Do you?”
A lie presented itself to Mattie, and she turned it over in her hand, considering it. She threw it aside.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, at times I do. At times I have dreamt that it is still winter, and that I am alone on that mountaintop with Tom Chaney. At times I have dreamt that I am in those dark woods with Albert Cunningham once more, and that I am not quick enough and do not get his knife before he takes it and –”
“Mattie,” LaBoeuf whispered. His tone was of the type one uses to calm a spooked horse, and all at once Mattie felt ashamed of her fear, and wished desperately that she had not said anything, and that she could turn from him.
“It is nothing,” she said. “I am only tired from the excitement of the day.”
There was silence for a moment, and then Mattie felt LaBoeuf’s hand brush the side of her face. She looked towards him, trying to see his face in the dark. She could not.
“Do not dream of such things tonight,” he said. He reached for her then, drawing her close to him.
Mattie let herself be drawn, and said nothing, marvelling to herself that a man who had once taken a switch to her leg in order to humble her now thought her so mighty that she was above the tolls life exacts, that she had power even over the content of her dreams.
A man from the hotel hauled their baggage to the train depot, and Mattie and LaBoeuf followed once they had eaten a simple breakfast of eggs and grits, and hot black coffee for LaBoeuf.
Their train was the first to leave that morning, and they were among the first on it, seated side by side on the wooden bench seat, polished to a bright yellow shine. They watched as the railroad people ran about the platform, readying the train for departure. More passengers boarded, and soon enough the engines roared to life and it let out a long whistle. The train gave a lurch, and pulled away from the platform.
“I would like to get you a good riding horse when we return to Texas,” LaBoeuf said in a tone that implied he had given this idea a great deal of consideration. “Perhaps a gelding. I would like to give you that as a wedding gift.”
“I am not much for horses,” Mattie replied, pulling her gaze from its last glimpse of her old town to look at her new husband.
LaBoeuf gave her a look of disbelief. “You say you are not much for horses?”
“They are useful creatures, but I am not the kind of girl who is silly about them, is what I mean to say.”
“Hm,” LaBoeuf said. “Not even Alma, who you are leaving behind you now in Arkansas, who you may not ever ride or even see again, given her age? Your old trail pard, who was your most steadfast companion in your pursuit of the scoundrel Cunningham?”
Mattie looked down as she felt her throat tighten. She had gone out to the barn the previous afternoon to bring Alma two apples, and to say goodbye. She had not thought anyone had seen her going about such a softheaded errand, but now she feared LaBoeuf had.
“If you do not care a bit for horses, I can get you some other gift,” LaBoeuf suggested. “A cat, perhaps.”
Mattie turned and scowled at him. “You are not anywhere near so clever as you would like to think you are. I will take the horse.”
LaBoeuf was grinning that cocky grin at her, but he said nothing more.
“You do not mind your wife riding all over the county, making a spectacle of herself?” Mattie asked, after a time.
LaBoeuf gave her a sly look. “I do not mind so long as you do not do anything so dangerous as attempt to ride through a plum thicket. Besides, I am entrusting the pecan grove to you. How else are you to get about and oversee the place but on a horse? The grove is not small. The heat would exhaust you, were you to walk the place.”
Mattie stifled the smile that arose at his words. “A little heat does not bother me. Yell County is hardly the frozen tundra.”
“You may change your tune once you have spent a summer in El Paso,” LaBoeuf replied. “There is nothing little about our heat.”
“We will see what tune I sing at the end of summer, then.”
“We will,” LaBoeuf agreed, smiling.
“So it does not trouble you,” Mattie said, eyeing him shrewdly, “that your neighbours in El Paso will think it strange, you having a wife who oversees your pecan grove and occupies herself with business and other mannish things?”
LaBoeuf gave her an arch look. “You overestimate the value I place on the opinions of my neighbours. I know you will not believe it, but I am not one to court others’ favour. And what my wife does to occupy herself is no one’s concern but hers and my own.”
“I do not believe it, but I suppose we will have to wait and see about that as well,” Mattie replied. After a moment she sighed and continued, teasing. “I do not know how to be a wife. I have never been one before, you see.”
“I do not know how to be a husband, although I have certainly had some theories on the subject conveyed to me,” LaBoeuf replied.
“Indeed. Cogburn and I had a series of very illuminating discussions surrounding his views on the state of matrimony.”
Mattie grimaced at the thought and did not ask about Rooster’s views on the state of matrimony, being familiar enough with them already. She looked down at her lap. The cut bottom of her thimble still looked and felt foreign on her finger. LaBoeuf had cut the thimble into a ring himself the night before with the aid of some borrowed blacksmithing tool Mattie did not know the name of.
“Hm,” LaBoeuf sighed. Mattie glanced up to find him also examining her hand. “Would you rather have a gold ring? I understand that is the thing nowadays. If it would please you, I will get you one.”
“No!” Mattie protested. “I would rather have my thimble than every gold ring in the state of Texas.”
“All right.” Silence fell between them as the train rocked gently on its tracks and the piney vistas began to give way to a flatter, balder landscape outside their window. Mattie wondered if Louisiana would be how she had seen in etchings and illustrations – dark swampland and trees hung with swaths of Spanish moss. She wondered if the western parts of Texas would be the way LaBoeuf had described them, or if they would be more the distasteful place of Rooster’s recollections. She would have to discover it all for herself. Whatever it was, she hoped that it would be agreeable, and that she would not be too homesick.
“Well!” Mattie sighed and shifted in her seat as she thought of all the unknown things to come. Her chest felt buoyant and she fought the alarming urge to giggle although nothing amusing had transpired.
“Well,” LaBoeuf repeated. He regarded her, and there was a twinkle in his eye. “There is nothing for it. We will have to go full bore and negotiate the trail as it comes to us, pard.”
“I will concede that you are right about that, Mr. LaBoeuf.”
The twinkle became a smile, and Mattie felt the buoyant sensation increase until she thought she might burst if she did not at least smile back. So she did.
“Thank you, Mrs. LaBoeuf.”
Mattie felt him clasp her hand in his, giving her a gentle squeeze. She laced her fingers with his and squeezed back, and did not let go.