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A Living Fire

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Mattie had no mourning period for her arm.


Her mother, whom Mattie loved constantly and tolerated on most occasions, was prone to fits of wailing as she sewed the sleeves of Mattie’s dresses half-length; but the girl herself took the view that what was done was done, tears or no. She missed the convenience of her hand, of course, but she also missed the presence of her father and the company of the men she had journeyed with once. It was the way of things.


Rooster Cogburn never collected the remainder of his fee, and, for a time, Mattie kept the fifty dollars set aside in the third drawer of her and her sister’s dresser, wrapped up in brown paper and knotted string. After her sixteenth birthday, though, with the clarity of her cynicism, she took that money and hired with it three farm hands to keep her father’s land from falling into disrepair, and a young maid for her mother. Mattie certainly did not intend on living in that wooden poke for the remainder of her life; Victoria, very much her mother’s girl, was not taking well to schooling, and Little Frank had grand dreams of law-enforcement or bounty hunting, no doubt a side effect of Mattie’s stories of her adventures. She found his idealism rather immature; for sure she had never left out a sorrowful detail of those lively times. Boys will be, she supposed.


Her lawyer wrote to her that she might consider selling Frank Ross’ cotton farm, and Mattie replied that she would not, and her lawyer wrote her a short epistle that noted their correspondence was costing him in paper and ink that would be better served on clients who heeded his advice.


She kept the farm, which turned over small profit, and that she put the spare of her money in mining and the Western Union; and by the time she was eighteen, Mattie had enough fortune to make young men blush. She was a diligent daughter, and set up a monthly allowance for her mother, and went into Dardanelle proper to buy a leather carrying case and a sturdy pair of boots (she had worn the same for four years, and they had been water-and-dust-soaked for plenty of winters by now). Mattie Ross packed her unfancy clothes and a hardback Bible and her father’s pistol, and moved out of that shack of a house entirely without fanfare.


(Prior to her windfall, she did not trade the California gold piece stolen from her father and returned to her by Marshall Cogburn. She kept it in a vase on the bedroom mantle of her new home – which was made of timber painted mint-green on the outside, and had a privy indoors – though it was merely a memento and nothing so frivolous as a token of luck that she put to her lips every morning.)


There was such a dearth of refined pastimes for a single young woman in the boundless West. Mattie was not a particular cook, before or after her handicap, and she kept no wanton company. She had so little time for the companionship of ladies. Ladies seemed to her flighty creatures, gossiping things with misplaced pity and an insistence that she find a man to keep her and guard her modest fortune. Mattie found such things wearying. Men were good sometimes for talking of money matters, and she had always bought strong horses from men, but there was little else to keep her interest there.


In truth, Mattie had been wooed, once.


His name was Luther Warrington, and he introduced himself as a one-time associate of her father’s. He was in the cotton trade, he said, trotting a little to keep her pace through Little Rock’s yellowed streets. Mattie knew there was some urban legend around her, the half-orphaned girl with one arm and some questionable history, but it was not unreasonable that a man from her youth should recognize her. She kept her hair the same. Always pulled back.


This Warrington took to escorting her whenever she left her property. He was some decades older, but she was not unfond of him. His hair, speckled, though once a sun-flecked blonde, was twisted up in a cowlick on his crown. She would not like to say he reminded her of the ranger LaBoeuf. She had heard nothing from that brazen gentleman, and knew not even if he had survived his wounds. The blow to his head was quite something, and she wondered, if he lived, if his tongue had ever fully knit. These sorts of things she wondered as she took tea with Warrington.


He courted her very persistently, though not without finesse, and seemed unhindered by her plain looks, which would never quite mature with age. “You are a young woman, not a cheap wine,” Warrington said languidly. She appreciated his attitude, though not so much his expression as he threw out these vague compliments; the face and air of a man tossing a meat-stripped bone to a loyal, starved dog.


After he proposed, he sat at Mattie’s evening table for the first time – his knees angled aside, as her table was designed for a lone diner – and informed her of his plans regarding her investments, rearranging her stocks, sale of the farm and so on and so forth. “You have done mighty well, for a little lady,” he told her, patting the back of her hand. It was the first time he had touched her skin. He looked at great pains to do so.


She noticed that he was wearing one of but two suits he seemed to own. The shoulders were a little snow-capped with age and flecks of dead skin.


Mattie revoked her acceptance of his marriage offer. She inquired around the local tailors and tradesman, but no man had ever taken his business. Warrington left Little Rock two mornings after.


That week, she sat by candlelight, and took out an inkwell and nib, and penned a letter to Rooster Cogburn. Her writing desk was an old vanity table that she had unpinned the mirror of, the drawers stacked with papers and files, a cotton-wrapped address book that had few entries other than her lawyer, J. Daggett, and a handful of charcoal stubs, along with a pocket-knife, that she kept for sketching now and then. She had seen more endless and memorable vistas than her current horizon, a desiccated patch of plain land that seemed neglected by God, untouched by any nature more civilized than the hardy cacti and tufts of dry sprouting weeds, snuffled at by the damp noses of cougars; ultimately rejected. Still, she had a porch she could sit on and a rocking chair inherited from her grandmamma on her mother’s side, and would sketch the sunsets without any particular romance.


She wrote to Marshall Cogburn, and she hesitated. She had not hesitated to shoot a man, but her one hand hovered this time.


The candlelight flickered under her breath, as though impatient.


She put pen to paper and told Cogburn of all the things since they had parted ways. She chastised him his lack of farewell and told him she found his failure to leave even a care-of address both egregious and ungentlemanly. He had never been much a gentleman, of course. She noted this. Mattie briefly mentioned Warrington, though he only merited a single sentence. Her writing was not as straight as it was once, for she had nothing to steady her paper with. Words loped off to the side somewhat, chasing the page’s thick edge before retreating back to regroup.


She transcribed a short, humorous (she hoped) anecdote about her last visit to her family, and Little Frank’s insistence on showing her his sharp-shooting: he had lined up a string of old glass jam jars and a beer bottle he had found out by the barn, set them to attention on the fence down by the bigger paddock, and waved her impatiently aside to keep clear of his peripherals, as he said. The jars were a good fifty feet off, and dimly caught the sunlight as though each ray were a firefly darting about a pair of hands. The stupid boy – and she explained that she meant this with all fondness – closed both his eyes as he shot, and lost four bullets, and lodged a fifth in the fence, which groaned unappreciatively.


Her brother would never be a lawman, she concluded tritely.


And then what Mattie Ross wrote was this:


It seems to me, Marshall Cogburn, that I have not yet come across a man such as yourself who possessed that rare quality I once called ‘true grit’. It was said of you, but such a phrase is meaningless until proven, and you far and beyond proved to me the strength of your character. I have dreamt, in all honesty, of being held aloft in your arms, though I cannot recall the landscapes through which we passed nor words you might have spake, and being carried thus was like being lifted by angels. It makes me, and you perhaps, laugh to compare your roughness to that of a heavenly body, but you have saved my life and the only creature otherwise to do so is God; so I cannot make any other conclusion.


People tell me I am still young, but I fear I will never feel again that quality of grit unless either I run my hand through the unhewn desert, or I put a palm upon your cheek or breast.


It did not seem these words had any connection to the polite small talk before it, and nor did Mattie acknowledge she had written anything so giddy in the remainder of her letter. She signed it off, her signature just as lop-sided as the rest of it all, and folded the letter sharply, neat as a steamed collar, and found a brown envelope in her dresser, and tucked it inside.


She had no address for Rooster Cogburn.


The letter remained, for all her days, perpetually unsent.


Mattie ploughed into her twenties with the gusto of a punctual steam engine. After twenty-one, she abruptly considered herself a woman in the eyes of society, and bristled at being called a girl. After a half decade of living alone and finding only frustration at the skills in which her sex should excel, she took into her employ a half-native handyman. He was a quiet auburn soul who tended her horse – a mare she nevertheless named Bo – and kept the house free enough from dust, and laid out her few clothes on her cotton bedspread once they had been washed and wrung and pressed weekly by a small business run by a matron and her three daughters in Danville. He cooked her evening meals; rustic fare but pleasant enough, and never burnt. She invited him to her table regularly, every Friday, though she could not abide his distant looks as she spoke Grace. He called her Missy until she corrected him, and then he mostly acknowledged her with nods. He had a family of which she knew nothing, and returned to them at the week’s end, and Mattie got into the habit of riding into the town for tea and some indulgent sweet pastry.


Mattie Ross, of course, never rode sidesaddle; it was distractingly impractical. She would buckle a leather strap around her midriff before she mounted her horse, which kept the stump of her arm in place as she rode. Her good hand, unsurprisingly, had grown strong as a young ox over the years of arduous reliance.


Her peers were increasingly married, and she caught their discerning gazes whenever she seated herself alone at the town’s more respectable eateries. It felt rather meaningless, their ire, rather like the chattering buzz of a handful of houseflies, that could easily be flicked aside, if one were bothered. Mattie ordered tea and something French that she pronounced very thickly. She had refused coffee as a child; she had never warmed to the taste.


This weekly habit did not last far past a single spring. She found the pastries overly rich with butter. Her tastes skewed simpler.


Mattie did not attend Sunday services. She read her Bible well into the darkening hours of that solemn day, but she found a kind of distaste for church going that would not lead her to spit between the pews. It seemed little more than a social club for women, mantras of greetings and gossip, children dressed to impress, prayers to some domestic and forgiving God she neither recognized nor cared for. Her God was one of violence and absolute, inescapable truth, and she felt flayed in his constant presence; felt that the whole of her should be on show for judgment and pity and a sense of grim satisfaction that, as yet, she had not been struck down. She did not believe that God took only bad men, but she did consider the Kingdom of Heaven to be—modestly populated.


She did not think herself incapable of carnal sins. Simply put, she would not indulge in them, and that was the end of that.


Mattie taught herself to sharp cards with one palm and five fingers. She was no trick-playing dog, but she did pick up a modest gambling habit in her thirties. Her investments stayed strong throughout her life and she had a coin or two to spare. Dardanelle was a trading town, where the Arkansas River washed up all manner of mortal debris, and she knew a few saloons that tolerated both lady patrons and, with less gumption, her hand in the games.


She drank only water. The smell of cheap whiskey made her bile rise; reminded her of a younger time when her skin was cold through with night air and her back jolted from the hardness of the ground and swiftness of her ride, and Marshall Cogburn’s arm around her chest burned, and her wrist full of poison burned, and his breath, that whiskey smoke puff-puff-puffing on every jagged exhale, it burned too.


Time passed with such fickleness. There were moments as slow and lingering as the death of a wounded hare, bleeding out and dragging on across the Southwest dustbowl plains. Mattie had been bitten young by the spirit of adventure, and it had near killed her, cost her flesh and skin. She took hazard and trust hand-in-hand, and had only ventured the once because necessity and vengeance bade her. She had no further need of harsh, beige quests and gunshots and deerskin blankets and men with rough beards and rougher hands.


Still. Still, sometimes, in those limping afternoons—


On and on. Mattie’s mother passed. She was a ripe enough age, and Mattie mourned her both dutifully and lovingly. Victoria, the prettier daughter, had been married off in her mid-teens, though to Mattie’s good impression she did not make a spectacle of herself with weeping and wailing at the funeral. Little Frank, who was not so little now but nonetheless kept his babyish moniker, squeezed both his sisters’ hands, and Mattie appreciated the touch. She was not wearing gloves, and her brother’s hand was warm and sturdy. He was a good young man, and she was glad.


The minister’s diatribe lingered too long on her mother’s earthly suffering, and Mattie spoke stern words with him after.


She returned home following the wake. The man in her employ had not accompanied her, out of respect – he had not known Mattie’s mother, and the closest he had ever come to her was passing on her correspondence when the table was set for breakfast. He made Mattie supper and excused himself silently, bowing his head in respect and pressing his dry, brownish lips against her temple for just a moment. It was the second touch she had felt on her skin that day, and though she appreciated it, she felt that that was enough. That was closeness enough.


Gravestones upon the family plot were growing up like spring shoots in some greener pasture. There was, Mattie thought to herself, space aplenty yet.