It had been almost three weeks since they had married, and LaBoeuf's infection was gone and his wound almost completely healed.
He was sitting at the small table in their room eating an apple with his knife lost in his melancholy thoughts, when he heard a thudding on the stairs. Before he could get to his feet, Mattie burst through the door, her hair coming undone as a few pins clattered to the wooden floor beneath her feet.
"Mattie, what is it?" LaBoeuf asked, his brow furrowing in concern. "What's wrong?"
Triumphantly, Mattie held out two train tickets pressed between her thumb and forefinger.
"I bought us tickets for the five o'clock train tomorrow to Yell County!" She replied with pride. "I've sent a telegram to my sister, Victoria, and she will meet us at the station when we arrive."
LaBoeuf wrinkled his nose and set his half eaten apple down on the table. "Already?"
With a snort Mattie set the tickets on the table and pulled his valise out from under the bed and began pulling his clothes out of the closet and ceremoniously dumping them into the valise. "You've been out of bed for a week, and we cannot stay here forever. It's time to go home."
"Yell County is not my home, "LaBoeuf said before thinking.
Mattie spun around and stared at him, her mouth pinching. "What do you mean by that?"
Her tone was frosty, but he wasn't going to let her off the hook. "I am from Texas, Mattie, and I am a Ranger. If I am going to continue—"
"A Ranger?" she said in a deadly stern voice, he just knew she had used with her students. "You still desire to be a Ranger, and leave me to worry while you go rambling about the country getting shot at by thieves and murderers?
"Mattie—" LaBoeuf said in a warning tone.
"No. I will approve of any vocation you had mind to take up, other than Ranging or Marshalling, or any other such dangerous occupation, but—"
But LaBoeuf had already lost his temper. Slamming his knife down on the table, he stood up and faced her. "Mattie! I will not let you dictate to me what I will or will not do. I am a Texas Ranger. That is what I am, and that is what I will be. You are my wife, but you do not have any say in how I will support you, do you understand me?"
She only stared at him which infuriated him even more.
"I said, do you understand me?"
"I am not deaf, nor dumb," she said acidly, throwing a shirt into the valise. "I understand every word you say."
"Good." He replied, sitting down and taking up his knife. They were silent as Mattie finished throwing things into his valise, making as much noise as she could. She finally snapped the damn thing shut and stomped across the floor to the door which she promptly flung open and went through, slamming it shut behind her.
LaBoeuf let out a weary sigh, but before he had time to think about what had just happened, the door swung open again, and Mattie stuck her head in—"But we are going to Yell County!" She snapped, "where I will properly introduce you to the rest of my family, do you understand me?"
She did not wait for a reply, but slammed the door so hard the glass in the window panes rattled. LaBoeuf seethed in silence, taking it out on the rest of his apple with his knife. After a moment, he threw the apple across the room, swearing as he did so. It knocked over his hat and bounced under the bed where he didn't bother to retrieve it.
They did not speak for the rest of the day, and though they slept side by side that night, they did so back to back, both too proud to turn to the other and ask for forgiveness. By the following afternoon as they boarded the train to Yell County, the air between them was palpable with tension.
The train rolled north and the sun began to set. When darkness fell, Mattie fell asleep, her head gently nodding until it was resting on LaBoeuf's shoulder. They had not touched intimately since that first night due to his injury and it had been only a few nights since they had shared the same bed again. LaBoeuf had sorely missed her comforting touch, having felt it only briefly before it was torn away from him by illness and then by her anger and his own. He felt his anger drain away and in that moment he longed to make things right again—but he didn't know how, and it only fueled his worry that he had made a mistake in taking Mattie to bed and marrying her so soon. Though she was often wise beyond her years, she was so young—stubborn, and he worried that when he died, as he most surely would before her, she would be alone and would have no one to care for her. She could marry again—but he didn't even want to think about that.
Pushing the thoughts from his mind, he allowed himself to be lulled by the gentle rocking of the train and soothed by the warmth of his wife. It wasn't long before exhaustion overcame him and he fell asleep.
He was woken suddenly by the shrieking whistle of the train and the conductor bellowing as he passed through the car, "Yell County! Next stop, Yell County"
Rubbing his sore neck, LaBoeuf looked down and found Mattie staring at him. She quickly turned away and began to gather her coat and hat. The pinched lines around her mouth were back and doubt again reared its ugly head within LaBoeuf's chest.
"I'll collect the luggage," he muttered, getting to his feet. He did not look back.
As LaBoeuf stepped off the train into the bright sunlight and set down their luggage. Spurned automatically by the manners his mother had beaten into him, he turned to help Mattie off the train to find her passing right by him.
"Mattie!" A voice called over the din of the crowded station. "Mattie, over here!"
LaBoeuf brushed off the hurt he felt at being dismissed and looked up to see a pretty woman waving her hand in the air. Mattie was soon by her side he could only assume it was her sister. He picked up the luggage and walked through the slush and snow over to the two women.
"I've missed you," he heard Mattie say as he approached, her voice warm with feeling, and it made his insides ache to hear it.
"But you are here now," Victoria replied with a smile that lit up her face. "And you have brought us a new member of our family," she said turning to LaBoeuf.
LaBoeuf tipped his hat and gave her a polite smile. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am."
"I think I was but a child the last time I saw you," Victoria replied, her eyes twinkling merrily. "You were as handsome then, as you are now."
"Victoria!" Mattie admonished as they walked towards the waiting covered buggy.
"Oh, pooh," She scoffed with a toss of her fur covered head. "Samuel will be pleased to have another man to talk to, poor dear. He's been surrounded by too many women folk for so long!"
"What of Frank?" Mattie asked?
"Frank is still a boy," Victoria replied. "And he is like you—more interested in sums and The Bible than horses and rifles."
They loaded their luggage up into the back of the buggy and LaBoeuf shook Samuel's hand, and the man gave him an easy grin. There was something about the man that made LaBoeuf like him instantly.
Mattie and Victoria sat in the back, while Samuel and LaBoeuf sat in the front speaking of horses, and farming, and of what it was like being a Texas Ranger. Samuel seemed slightly in awe of him, which made him feel both proud and fatherly.
Through the swells of their conversation, LaBoeuf heard Victoria chatting away behind him, Mattie quiet as a mouse. LaBoeuf supposed this was normal, because she seemed completely at ease with her sister. When she was with him, it was he that struggled to be heard over her.
Mattie and her sister; they were as different as night and day. Victoria was bright, blonde, and very much the type of woman LaBoeuf had always thought he would want as a wife. Mattie in turn was dark, sober, but in some ways more beautiful than her sister. While Victoria burned with an energy that shone like sunlight, Mattie was more of an ember, her fire deep within, waiting to be unleashed when her passion was kindled. Having been many times the man who had kindled that ember, LaBoeuf felt a deep sorrow at the idea of it being extinguished—and that he might be the one to extinguish it.
Melancholy, he grew silent and withdrawn. Samuel wisely said nothing but turned his eyes back to the road in front of him.
It wasn't much longer before they pulled up to a white washed farmhouse surrounded by bare willows, with a red barn and pasture in the back. The small stream that ran by was mostly frozen with dead pussy willows lining the banks.
It was just as LaBoeuf remembered, but also changed somehow. It was more alive, even in the dead of winter, than he recalled from his first time here so long ago. Perhaps it was because he now knew Mattie so well that he could see her in this place. He could see the house where she grew up surrounded by those who loved and despaired over her.
Brought out of his thoughts by the slamming of a wooden screen door, he looked up to see Mrs. Ross hurrying towards them, her hands stretched out in front of her. Thinking she was going to Mattie, he was taken by surprise when it was he that she came to first, grasping his hands and pulling him down from the buggy.
"Oh, Mr. LaBoeuf," she said breathlessly, her eyes sparkling with joy. "My son-in-law. Why I never thought I would see my Mattie married—let alone to a Texas Ranger!"
LaBoeuf heard Victoria let out a giggle that was quickly smothered by a hand to her mouth. He had no doubt it was probably Mattie's. Though taken unawares, LaBoeuf never one for being speechless; he tipped his hat to her and said, "You are very kind ma'am. I am pleased to find you in better health than the last time we spoke."
Her mouth tightened slightly as a cloud of pain passed over her eyes. "Yes, that was a very…trying time for me," she said.
"I am sorry for your loss," he murmured, unsure what else to say. She gave him a pat on the hand and sad little smile.
"Thank you, you are very kind," she replied softly.
"Yes, thank you, Mr. LaBoeuf!" Victoria exclaimed a little too cheerfully as Samuel helped her down from the buggy. "It was so long ago, but we do miss father, don't we, Mattie?"
Mattie, who was right behind Victoria, faltered a little, her face turning as gray as the clouds in the sky above her. LaBoeuf instantly grasped her hand to steady her and help her down from the buggy. She didn't look at him, but went instantly to her mother and wrapped herself in her arms, the empty sleeve of her coat swinging with the movement. It was a constant reminder of loss—the loss of a father and the loss of childhood. Victoria gently laid her head on her mother's shoulder.
Feeling the intruder, LaBoeuf turned from the family and looked out over snow covered barn and the dead field where the cotton Mattie was always so proud of would grow come spring. As much as he loved his home state of Texas, he had to admit it was beautiful here. Very beautiful.
"Where is Frank?" Mattie asked, bringing LaBoeuf's attention back to the present.
"In the barn, dear, the last place he wishes to be," her mother replied with a smile. "He'd much rather have his nose in a book. Don't you worry; he'll be in for supper later." She turned to LaBoeuf and took his hand. "Now let's get you inside. You must be frozen to the bone, poor man!"
Ignoring Mattie's eye roll, he let himself be led inside to the warm comfort of the Ross home.
The afternoon was spent drinking coffee around the kitchen table while the fire in the hearth burned brightly. LaBoeuf talked with Mrs. Ross about his childhood and working as a Texas Ranger, while Mattie boiled water and added enough coffee beans to make a dark brew, just the way he liked it, LaBoeuf noticed. She didn't look at him when she set his mug down with clatter, and LaBoeuf's heart sank. She must still be angry with him.
Samuel joined them while Mattie hovered over the stove. LaBoeuf wished she would come sit next to him, but her back was stiff and straight, and he knew if he tried to touch her, she would only pull away. Outside it began to snow again and at last Frank came, stamping snow from his boots. He was no longer the "little Frankie" LaBoeuf remembered peeking out from behind his mothers skirts all those years ago, but had grown into a tall young man with broad shoulders, and hair the same color as Mattie's.
LaBoeuf stood up to shake his hand, and was glad to feel it was strong and warm. He had Mattie's brown eyes, but while hers were usually solemn, his sparkled with humor.
"It is good to meet you, sir," he said in a respectful voice. "I am glad my sister has a husband such as you to take care of her. We always thought she'd be alo—"
"Frank! Shut up!" Mattie interrupted harshly causing Frank to step back in shock. Mattie's eyes flashed in anger and resentment as she glared at everyone in the room. "I don't need a husband to look after me. I can take care of myself, and all of you, as I always have! You should remember that!"
And with that, she grabbed her coat, and flinging the door open stalked out into the snow.
Ignoring the stunned silence that her family seemed to be paralyzed by, LaBoeuf, cursing under his breath, strode out after her.
"Mattie!" he called, stomping through the blowing snow, trying to keep her coat in sight as she went towards the barn. "Mattie!"
She refused to look back, but opened the barn and went inside. He followed her.
He found her with her head against the horse called Scout, which he recalled from the time she had run off to bring back a little boy to his mother and find justice for a woman no one else had the courage to do justice for.
"Mattie," he said softly, "Mattie, look at me."
He placed his hands on her stiff shoulders and forcefully turned her to face him, but did not meet his eyes. He tilted her chin up and she reluctantly caught his gaze.
"You regret marrying me," she said flatly. "I saw it in your face the day I bought the train tickets."
"I—" But LaBoeuf didn't know what to say. Had he been so transparent?
"I don't need you, Mr. LaBoeuf," she said stiffly pulling away from him, but he wouldn't let her go.
"Mattie," he said forcefully, "It isn't what you think. I have doubts, yes, but it is because I am so much older than you, I will surely leave you alone and uncared for—"
"I can take care of myself!" she cried out. "Why is it that no one thinks I can care for myself?"
"Of course you can, but I never, ever want you to have to," LaBoeuf said, his voice cracking. "I want you to live a good life with a man that can give you everything and be there for you until you are old and gray, and I—" he faltered, looking at his feet. "I will almost surely die before you and that it something I cannot bare to think of. Mattie, you are my wife, but I fear that I was selfish in marrying you. I fear that I will only bring you greater sorrow."
Instantly her hand was on her hip and she looked as formidable as he had ever known her to be.
"That is the worst excuse to doubt marrying me, Mr. LaBeouf! I would—will never marry another, even if he were the King of—of—it hardly matters!" She sputtered angrily.
LaBeouf shook his head in frustration. "Mattie, Christ almighty—"
"Do not take the Lord's name in vain," she interrupted in that haughty voice she always took on when he swore or used the name of God in any context other than prayer or citing scripture—"And fifteen years!" she exclaimed, throwing her hand up in the air. "I am not a child, Mr. LaBoeuf! I love you more than anything! More than my own being!" She pressed her fist against her chest, over her heart. "A few years with you would mean more to me than a lifetime with a lesser man, because they are all lesser men in comparison to you. I have only known three men in my life worth the ground they trod; Rooster Cogburn, my father, and you."
For not the first time in his life she had rendered him speechless—and he wasn't even upset to be grouped in the same category as Rooster Cogburn.
"And—" she continued, her face took on a pained expression as she closed her eyes before finishing, "—I would even be willing—no, be glad to live in Texas," She opened her eyes and looked directly into his, "if that would make you happy. For that is what I want more than anything. For you to be happy, because you have made me the happiest I have ever known, and I would die before I let you go again."
He took her hand in his, bringing it to his mouth where he gently kissed her knuckles. She stepped closer to him pressed her forehead against his.
"I would die," she repeated.
LaBoeuf's shoulders sagged. "But Mattie, I know nothing but of finding criminals and bringing them to justice," he whispered shamefaced "If I cannot be a Ranger, I fear I do not have any means to support you."
His words hung in the air between them, LaBeouf raw with vulnerability.
"But, Mr. LaBoeuf," she said softly," I know a great deal about working land. I could teach you and we could work together to create the life we wish. And perhaps—there might be a place, a town somewhere that needs a Sheriff. Would you mind ever so much if life got—a little less exciting?"
LaBoeuf laughed softly and pulled her close. "Oh, Mattie, my darling Mattie," he murmured. "I do not mind in the least. Forgive me for my stubbornness and my pride."
"Only if you forgive me mine," Mattie mumbled into his shoulder. "I have behaved very badly towards you."
"No more than I have towards you. But promise me one thing."
She looked up at him, a serious expression on her face.
"Promise me we will never go to bed angry, for of all the curses you have thrown at me, I admit that one hurt the worst."
"Never again," Mattie promised, flinging her arm around his neck.
He lifted her slight body off the ground and buried his face in her hair. She smelled of the winter snow and the coffee she had made earlier—and of home—for it didn't really matter where he lived as long as she was there beside him. His heart belonged to her and wherever she went he would always follow, for she was his home.
Mattie, her heart bursting with hope and happiness, looked out over his shoulder into the falling snow where the oil lamps burned brightly in the windows, beckoning them into the warmth and safety of the house.
Unable to keep it inside any longer, she smiled.
LaBoeuf's head turned slightly toward her. "Are you smiling, Mrs. LaBoeuf?" he asked in a teasing tone.
"No, my Texas jaybird, not at all."
She turned towards him until their lips brushed together. She felt the warmth of his breath and then she kissed him, grasping the fringe of his leather coat. After a moment she broke away and smiled up at him with all the love she had.
"Not at all."