Chapter One

In her delirium, Mattie was having a nightmare that she was being chased.

She was riding Little Blackie as fast as he could go, pain, and the fear of their pursuer driving them forward.

"C'mon Little Blackie," she whispered into the panting horse's ear. "C'mon."

A few times she was brought out of the nightmare to realize that she lay inside a dark cabin smelling of smoke and stale sweat. Once she thought she caught sight of Cogburn's face, but before she could really be sure, she slipped back into the darkness of her mind, and she was standing beside her horse as he lay on the snow covered prairie, frothing at the mouth in exhaustion. Their pursuer got off his horse and walked towards them.

She put her arms out as if to push him away, but it did no good.

The figure approached, his Stetson hiding his face. He took out his gun and fired a bullet into the head of Little Blackie. The man looked up and she saw the face of Rooster Cogburn, his one eye crinkled with weariness.

"Mr. Cogburn!" she cried, but no sound came out.

He suddenly strode towards her, his face melting into that of Tom Chaney. Fear washed across her, and she tried to back away. Her legs wouldn't listen to her.

"No!" she cried. "No!"

He was almost upon her when sleep took pity on her and she woke up.

"No!" she gasped out, lurching upright in bed into the arms of a man wearing a buckskin coat. His smell of leather and sweat was familiar, and his grip gentle. As she lay against his chest, panting from her exertions, she realized that she was in a great deal of pain. Startled, it brought her out of the last cloying fingers of sleep.

She ripped herself away from the man she leaned against, and looked up into the soft green eyes of LaBoeuf.

"Miss Ross," he began softly, but Mattie spared him only a glance as she looked down at her left arm.

But where her left arm should have been there was nothing below the elbow. The sleeve of her nightgown was empty, and there was no hand resting on the bed. Not believing her eyes, she thought she might still be in the nightmare.

"Mattie." LaBoeuf was saying her name. "Mattie."

But Mattie could only stare at her empty sleeve, her heart pounding with the throb of pain in the hand and arm she could still feel, but was not there.

Gritting her teeth against the pain, she looked back up at LaBoeuf, her mouth pinched into a straight line.

"Mr. LaBoeuf," she said steadily. "My arm is gone."

"It was the snake bite." LaBoeuf replied easily, though there was a tension in his voice that betrayed his anxiety. "Cogburn saved your life. Without him, you would not be alive."

"It hurts," she grimaced. "And I can still feel my hand."

"That is what those who have had limbs removed say. That they still feel it, long after it has been removed."

She stared at him. It was absurd that she should now have only one arm, and even more absurd that she should still feel the one that was absent.

LaBoeuf's own arm was in a sling, due to his shoulder being shot through by Rooster Cogburn.

"How did you arrive at Bagby's?" Mattie asked wearily, looking around the small cabin. "And where is Mr. Cogburn?"

This time LaBoeuf would not look at her. Instead he rose, and went to the small fire in the corner of the room. He picked up a wooden spoon and stirred the pot that was cooking over the flame.

"Are you hungry?" he asked, pointedly ignoring her question. "I made gruel."

"No," Mattie replied, impatiently. "But you are not answering me. Where is Rooster Cogburn?"

LaBoeuf left the fire and went over to a table where he picked up a small tin cup and poured her a cup of water. Only after he handed it to her and sat down next to her bed, did he look up.

When she met his eyes, she realized that Mr. Cogburn was gone. Gone and most likely not coming back.

"He has left, hasn't he," she stated, .

"Mr. Cogburn left yesterday morning with no explanation. I do not know where he has gone," LaBoeuf replied with a sigh. "He sent Bagby after me, and here I am, charged with returning you to your mother. As soon as you are able, I will send you on the train back to Arkansas."

The anger that had been building up inside her, along with the pain and exhaustion she felt threatened to overwhelm her. She suddenly felt like a little girl again, and definitely not one with "true grit."

Fighting back the tears welling up in her eyes, she lay back down, and covered her face with her right arm. She did not want LaBoeuf to see her cry.

"My arm is in great pain," she said, trying to keep the tears out of her voice. "I will sleep now."

She pulled the patchwork quilt over her head, and let the silent tears fall on the place where her left arms should have been until she fell into a blissful sleep where no nightmares plagued her, and her body still whole and unmarred by pain.

The next time she woke up, LaBoeuf was crouched at the fire stirring a pot of gruel.

Gingerly she sat up, supporting herself on her right arm. Her arm was throbbing less, and she felt in great need of a bath.

Her movement must have been heard by LaBoeuf, because he spoke to her without turning around.

"Are you hungry?" he asked.

"Yes. May I ask where we are, Mr. LaBoeuf? I was under the impression we were at Bagby's Outpost, but I have not seen another soul but you since I woke up."

"We are still at Bagby's," LaBoeuf replied, spooning gruel into a small tin bowl. "He has been kind enough to lend you his bed. He is staying at the trading post until you are well enough to leave."

"I see," Mattie said. "Then I must thank him for his hospitality before we leave."

In silence LaBoeuf brought the gruel over to her, holding it out for her to take.

"Mr. LaBoeuf, I have one arm," she said flatly.

"Pardon me" LaBoeuf said quickly, a dull flush blooming around his neck. "I am not used to taking care of others."

He sat down, took a spoonful of gruel, and blew on it.

As he performed these actions, she observed him: his face was tanned and weather-beaten, and his green eyes crinkled around the edges. She could also see the yellow bruising around his face from when he was dragged around by Ned Pepper and his gang.

He looked mostly the same, though there was a weariness to him that had not existed before they had set out to find Tom Chaney.

Still watching him, she took the mouthful of the gruel he held out to her. It was hot and tasted good, which somehow surprised her. She had not thought LaBoeuf would have known how to cook well.

"Do you not have family, Mr. LaBoeuf?" she asked, curious to what his answer might be.

"No, I do not," LaBoeuf replied. "As a Ranger, I do not have the time to take on a wife."

He said this as if it did not concern him, but Mattie could detect wistfulness in his tone that she was sure he was not even aware of.

"And how are you," she said suddenly. "Your shoulder is healing? And what of your tongue?"

LaBoeuf's face reddened slightly under his tan. It was obvious the incident still galled him.

"My shoulder will heal soon, as will my tongue," he admitted. "At least that's what the doctor tells me."

Mattie nodded.

"That is good. I am glad you will not be burdened with that awful lisp for the rest of your life."

For a moment LaBoeuf looked as though he would give a scathing retort, but one glance at the empty sleeve attached to Mattie's left shoulder seemed to change his mind.

"I have to go feed the horses." He said getting to his feet. "You are well enough that we will leave soon. I need to return to Texas to inform the Rangers of Chaney's death. They might be surprised to hear that the one who took his life was a fourteen year old girl."

"I am sorry about the loss of your reward," she said stubbornly raising her chin in the air, "but I do not regret that I shot him."

"Neither do I," LaBoeuf said pointedly, and putting on his hat opened the door. "I will be back before supper."

They left Indian Territory less than a week later. LaBoeuf had purchased two horses for their ride to Fort Smith and enough supplies for one night.

Mattie was standing next to her horse wearing a red wool dress that was slightly too big for her, and her father's coat. Her pain had dulled to an ache, but she still tired easily, and she was having a difficult time adjusting to not being able to do everything for herself.

LaBoeuf fed her and one of the Choctaw girls helped her to bathe, dress, and braid her hair. She also needed help cleaning her wound from the amputation. For someone used to being independent and taking care of others, it was maddening.

As she waited for LaBoeuf to finish packing the saddlebags, her thoughts turned to Little Blackie. Her heart ached as she recalled his foaming mouth and heaving chest in the last moments of his life. He had saved her life, but had paid for it with his own.

She rested her head against the chestnut colored mane of her mare, inhaling the smell horse and leather. It was comforting and she barely noticed when LaBoeuf approached her.

"It is time to depart," he said, placing a canteen of water in her saddlebag.

His bruises had nearly gone, and though he still spoke with a slight lisp, a sparkle had returned to his eyes. This made Mattie pleased, though couldn't figure for the life of her why.

Nodding, she turned to her horse, reins in hand. Then the realization that she would not be able to mount washed over her in a wave of confused frustration. She loathed asking for LaBoeuf's help, but she couldn't see any way around it. Just as she opened her mouth to speak, she felt his presence close behind her accompanied by the warm leather smell that she had come to associate him with. Then his hands were gripping her waist and he was lifting her into the saddle.

"Oh!" she let out in surprise. It was a completely feminine sound, and she was shocked that she had uttered it. She twisted around to look at LaBoeuf and saw that he had already left her and was mounting his own horse,

She turned away to compose herself.

"I hope you can keep up," she said acidly, in her haste to recover. "I don't plan staying in this God forsaken land a day longer than I have to."

With that, she took off, leaving LaBoeuf to follow her.

They arrived in Fort Smith a little more than a day after they left Bagby's Outpost.

Mattie had ridden as far and long as she could until exhaustion and pain had overtaken her and she was slumped in her saddle, her chin resting on her chest. LaBoeuf had stopped the horses, and with gentle hands, removed her from the saddle. She had been briefly aware of the warmth of his chest and the strength of his arms, but had soon fallen asleep without the constant motion of the horse to wake her.

The next morning they had eaten a small breakfast of salt pork and cornbread before they had started again. Mattie had waited patiently for LaBoeuf to pack the bedrolls in the saddlebags, and when he approached her, she had placed her one arm on his shoulder and let him lift her into the saddle. She had ignored the feel of his breath on her cheek and the closeness of his body, though she couldn't help but be aware of it. Her heart had beaten faster, but if he had noticed, he made no indication he had done so.

By mid afternoon they had reached Fort Smith. LaBoeuf tide the horses outside the train depot and went inside to buy Mattie a ticket to Arkansas on the evening train.

As the sun set, they were standing side by side on the platform waiting for the train. She heard the sound of a distant whistle, and soon the train was pulling into the station. She reached down to pick up her suitcase, only to find that LaBoeuf had gotten there first and was already striding towards the train.

"Seven-thirty train to Yell County! All aboard!" the conductor in his blue cap called out.

Mattie quickly hurried after him. He opened the train car door for her, and taking her hand in his gloved one, helped her up onto the stairs. He then placed her suitcase beside her.

Taking a deep breath, she stuck out her hand.

"I wanted to thank you for all that you have done for me," she said sincerely. "You are a man with true grit. If you ever find yourself in Yell County, you know where our homestead is."

LaBoeuf grasped her hand and shook it, his green eyes twinkling.

"Mattie Ross, you are the bravest person I have ever met. I wish you the best."

As the train started to pull away, he tipped his hat to her. She watched him grow smaller and smaller, until he was only speck in the distance.

Then he was gone.

She found herself a seat, and watched the night sky over the prairie turn to black.

As the train rolled east, Mattie closed her eyes and fell asleep.