This is fix fic set after the action of the film, and it also draws on elements of the novel. The title comes from the song "Long Time Traveller" by The Wailin' Jennys. I hope Mattie Ross would approve. I hope she would also beg my pardon for all the Canadian spellings.
I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake:
I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.
Song of Songs, 5:6
I was confounded by Mattie Ross the day I made her acquaintance. She confounds me still.
She has a frank manner which makes her seem little more than a plain old maid, but I know her saucy ways, and she is not half as honest as she would have the good people of Arkansas and beyond believe.
"Pleased to hear from him" indeed! I tell you, Miss Ross knows full well my age and my whereabouts, to say nothing of the starch in my cowlick. Impertinent, troublesome woman! Had Cogburn not prevented me from striping her leg as I intended to that day by the side of the river, things might have turned out different. In my opinion, it is all right to allow some rein to stretch, now and again, but it does not do to remove the bridle altogether if you intend to have yourself a manageable horse.
Miss Ross is a moral woman, and she knows that a lie of omission is a lie all the same. While it is true that I stayed by that pit of snakes until the marshals arrived, and that I did not see her again before departing for Texas, it is patently false of her to say that she heard nothing more of me. She did more than hear of me, even if she will not own to it.
In the years after my travels in the Winding Stair Mountains with that drunkard Cogburn and the irascible Miss Ross, each time I passed through Arkansas (which truthfully was more often than was strictly required by my duties) I paid a visit to Mrs. Frank Ross. I believed that I was honour-bound to pay her my respects, widowed and burdened as she was with the management of the family's land in addition to her responsibilities to family and home.
I suppose enough time has passed that I can own to the fact that I travelled those many miles simply to look in on Mattie, and that the mere thought of seeing her gladdened my heart for weeks on either end of a visit.
The first time I found myself north of Little Rock, it was nearly a year after our "great adventure," as Mattie is fond of calling it. I encountered no trouble in finding the Ross family property on the Arkansas River outside of Dardanelle, having stopped there before, on my search for Chelmsford.
The house was large and fine, but modest, with a wide porch which wrapped around three sides of the structure. Two children played in the yard, the brother and sister of whom Mattie had spoken from time to time, I presumed. I inquired after their mother, and they directed me inside. The boy, Little Frank, took my horse by his reins and led him in the direction of the horse barn.
I entered the house and found it quiet. Its appearance on the inside matched its outside – it was clear to all that the Rosses' farm was turning up a profit in its fields, but this was no ostentatious country plantation house.
I stopped at the first entranceway I found off the foyer, expecting the front parlour. Instead I found a small study whose space was dominated by a large desk.
Mattie was sat there, her dark head bent over a quill and a tidy pile of papers. The last time I had clapped eyes on her, she had been battered and snake-bitten, and I had slung her limp form over the back of that little black pony of hers so Cogburn could take her away. I regret that I was not able to look in on her when she fell ill with fever in Fort Smith, but once my own injuries had been attended to, I believed it necessary to transport my quarry to Texas with all haste. When I departed, the doctor was not certain she would keep her arm. The outcome of that was plainly obvious. I am glad her mother was with her, although I suspect Mattie would have calmly withstood the ordeal whether or not she had the hand of a loved one to hold.
Mattie was dressed in a plain black mourning dress, still the short dress of a young girl, with her sleeve pinned primly up where her arm ought to have been. She yet wore her hair in two tidy plaits which hung down by her ears. She did not look up from her work; she had not heard me enter.
"Hidy," I said, and removed my hat.
"Mr. LaBoeuf!" she exclaimed. She jumped out of her seat and was halfway across the room before she remembered herself. She stopped short before me and held out her right hand. I took it in my own and held it, wondering, as I did the night I took my leave of her and Cogburn and felt her firm little handshake for the first time, how so slight an appendage could belong to such a person.
Mattie has numerous incongruities which would be a burr under the saddle of even the most patient of saints.
"It is a great surprise to see you here, Mr. LaBoeuf," she said, removing her hand and cocking her head to examine me in that peculiar way of hers, like a little terrier. She had grown much taller, and her face had lost what little childishness it held at the time of our meeting. "Although it is rather presumptuous that you elected to pay us a visit without sending a note first. Is it Ranger policy to eschew the practice of common courtesy?"
My mouth clamped shut and I exhaled noisily through my nose. The girl was as vinegary as ever, it seemed, and unpredictable, for one corner of her mouth quirked up in amusement.
"You said once that you did not mind a little personal chaffing," she observed. "Was that not true?"
"I enjoy a well-pointed jibe as much as the next man," I replied. She must have found my glower very entertaining, for she smiled.
"I see your wound was able to knit, after all," she said.
"My – oh, yes. Indeed it did. My speech is not quite as clear as perhaps it once was, but I am happily acquainted with an excellent surgeon in Waco who was able to make the best of it."
"That is a happy acquaintance indeed," she agreed. Her eyes dropped to my mouth for the most fleeting of instances before she met my eyes once more, her gaze direct and challenging. "As you can see, I too was not unscathed by our encounter with Tom Chaney. Although I suppose he can hardly be held responsible for the kick of rifles or the unpredictability of snakes."
It was one of a scant few instances in my life when I found myself without a word to say. If any person could get along in the world in spite of losing a limb, it was Mattie Ross. Yet I was pragmatic enough to recognize that this unfortunate circumstance, in addition to her already off-putting demeanour, meant that she would have few of the prospects upon which young women depend.
Judging by the defiant angle of her chin and what I already knew of her, Mattie was pragmatic enough to recognize this, too.
"I do not draw your attention to my deformity for the sake of your pity, Mr. LaBoeuf. I do so only to commiserate with you about your own injuries," she said.
"Of course," I replied.
We regarded each other for a moment more, and then Mattie shook her head. "I am forgetting my manners. Please, come have a seat in the parlour. You will stay and take dinner with us, I hope?"
Not waiting for my reply, Mattie led the way out of the study and across the hallway to the front parlour. I wondered at her being in any position to invite guests to dinner. Surely that privilege ought to have fallen to the lady of the house.
"Have you heard anything of the Marshall, Mr. LaBoeuf?" she inquired, once we had each taken a seat in the simple parlour. "I have written him a number of letters at various locations where I understand I may be able to make contact with him, or at the very least with his acquaintances. But I have heard nothing. You may remember my attorney, Mr. Daggett of Dardanelle? He has been unable to locate the Marshall, as well."
"I know only what I have heard through the channels of gossip, I am sorry to say. Have you heard of the Fort Gibson business, with the fugitive Odus Wharton?"
"Then you know Cogburn was induced to surrender his Federal badge, and is therefore no longer a Marshall at all."
"Yes, I had heard that, and was sorry. Marshall Cogburn was a credit to his profession."
"Then you know as much as I do. The last I heard of him, he was situated in San Antonio."
"Texas!" Mattie exclaimed in a way which rankled me. I must have frowned, for she smiled and said teasingly, "I wonder, Mr. LaBoeuf, whether he has yet been reduced to drinking water from a hoofprint?"
At the dinner table that night, Mattie did not act a child. While her brother and sister ate in respectful silence, Mattie talked, informing me of the events I missed after I departed for Texas, as well as everything that had happened to her and the farm since. Her mother allowed this, speaking softly when addressed but otherwise eating her meal in smiling, beatific silence.
It was unnatural, to let a girl Mattie's age conduct herself in this fashion. I had never seen the like of it before, and I am glad to say I have not seen it since. Still, it was plain to see how these circumstances had come about. Mrs. Ross was of a sweet, feminine nature, but seemed variously unwilling and unable to take a firm hand with her children or with the business of the farm. Little Frank was still a boy, and had more than his share of the devil in him. Victoria was a fair little creature who took her mother's part, and seemed simple even for a child, in my estimation.
Aside from Mattie's glowing descriptions, I had to form my own imagining of the kind of man Frank Ross had been. In my mind's eye I saw a grown up, manly counterpart to Mattie herself, for there was no other explanation for her strangeness. By all accounts, she had been her father's right hand since the time she was able to quit her cradle and trail after him into his office.
Everyone, from the field hands and working men to her siblings and her very mother, deferred to Mattie. It was clear that she was the "man of the house." I objected to this arrangement on principle, although I said nothing. Yet it was clear that this arrangement functioned well, and that no one on the Ross property would have it another way, for the farm was lucrative and all were happy enough and well provided for. One could not say the same of every family robbed so abruptly of its head.
After the meal, Mattie toured me around the farm, walking by my side and talking about the price of cotton and the purchase of some stock which she was considering, as I smoked my pipe in the gloaming.
A creek bent its way through one part of the property, its banks shaded by several stands of oak trees. We stopped there, and I emptied my pipe, tapping it against the trunk of a tree.
"This is a fine spot for fishing," Mattie said, nodding at the slow, clear water. "My father caught many fat trout here, and I have caught several myself. Do you enjoy fishing, Mr. LaBoeuf? Is there fishing in Texas?"
"'Is there fishing in Texas?'" I repeated, annoyed with her constant prodding about my home state. "I shall ask a question of you, Miss Ross, since you are so curious. Tell me, do you aim to vex me deliberately, or is it mere coincidence?"
She stared at me, her expression caught somewhere between a smile and a frown. "I thought we had made friends of one another, and that this was our game. If I am mistaken, then I apologise. If I am not mistaken, I must conclude that a year on horseback, preserving law and order in the great state of Texas, has not toughened your pride any against the occasional rub, Mr. LaBoeuf."
I sighed, convinced that she was the most difficult girl ever put into creation. She could run roughshod over every silver-tongued lawman in Arkansas.
"My pride is not the thing," I said. "Rather it is that I am not accustomed to such frank speech from children. A girl, no less."
"I am not a child," she replied. "Even you will agree that I am doing the work of a man twice my age. I do not say this to be boastful, for I bear my duties gladly, but simply to present a case for my desire to address you not as a mere child, but as myself, as your friend."
I regarded her in the blue twilight, and thought about the first time I saw her, returning in the evening to the Monarch boarding house in Fort Smith. I had been looking for her, and knew by her mother's description that I had located the right girl. I could have spoken with her that night and gotten our business underway, but I believed I would have an easier time of it if I waited and allowed my presence to intimidate her.
I did not know then that nothing short of the angry fist of God himself could intimidate Mattie Ross. I misjudged her, and truly I did not resent telling her so when I took my leave of her and Cogburn. I was unprepared for the tender feeling I had for her when she showed the first shred of weakness I had yet seen in her, the tremor in her voice when she told me she had picked the wrong man, and entreated me to remain by her side.
Mattie was the first person who had ever asked me not to leave.
She looked away from me then, out over the creek, confused or perturbed by my silence. She unconsciously moved to cross her arms, and then stood with her right arm at an awkward angle when she found once again that she could not.
"Thomas," I said. She turned back to look at me, her expression befuddled. "My name is Thomas Cavanaugh LaBoeuf. It is only in matters of business that I am called LaBoeuf. My friends call me Thomas, and so you may call me Thomas, if you wish."
I did not feel it necessary to elaborate that the only person who called me Thomas was my mother. Nor did I volunteer that my mother was, in fact, the only person I knew who could not simply be described as a business acquaintance.
"Thomas," she repeated, as though she were testing the name out to see if it met her exacting standards. "Will you be visiting us again soon, Thomas?"
I was grateful for the growing darkness around us, for the sound of her pert voice saying my name gave me a foolish thrill, and it did not please me to think that she might spot it in my face.
"I cannot be certain when I will find myself in these parts again," I admitted.
"In that case, may I write to you?"
"Certainly. My work often compels me away from my post in Ysleta, so I am afraid that I am not the most reliable of correspondents. However, if you would like to write to me there, I will do my utmost to respond to your letters without delay."
Mattie smiled and nodded decisively, her face caught in a pleased expression I expect she reserved for neatly balanced ledgers and high cotton prices and fat trout caught from her little creek.
I did not dally, as I had business to attend to the following day in Fort Smith. I quit the Ross farm that night, and rode forty minutes in the pitch dark to stay in a crowded and unreasonably priced boarding house in Dardanelle.
And so Mattie Ross and I parted once more as friends. Though some would judge me for it, we parted as equals.
I did not see her again for nearly four years.
In those days I found myself greatly occupied with local matters in my own part of the country. I rarely had need to leave Texas, or even El Paso County, and when I did take on the occasional bounty, it seemed to lead me west rather than east to Arkansas.
Mattie and I corresponded regularly. At that time I was still making my home in a room at the back of my widowed mother's house. Owing to my nomadic ways since the end of the war, and the fact that I did not have a wife, it seemed a practical arrangement. Mother had a tendency to pry into my personal business, however, and so I had Mattie address her letters care of the Ranger detachment in Ysleta. This caused no end of amusement to my fellow Rangers, who concluded that I had a sweetheart in Arkansas, and took great pains to make mention of this at every opportunity.
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, for Mattie's letters were completely devoid of sweetness. For the most part they contained detailed descriptions of the health of her cotton crop, and news of her family and town which was meaningless to me, all peppered with admonishments about the unsatisfactory quality of my grammar, spelling, penmanship, and aptitude for storytelling.
In the spring of 1883, I took up a bounty on a man by the name of Charley Pickens, who was a notorious horse thief in west Texas. Pickens had fallen in with a gang of train robbers, and was wanted for the murder of an engineer and a conductor outside Fort Stockton. The railroad offered a bounty, desiring, I presume, to appear proactive in combating the high number of robberies to which their trains were subject. The bounty was high, and Pickens had last been seen in Longview, and was believed to be heading north to Texarkana, into Arkansas.
These particulars sufficed to prompt me into action.
I will confess that the most direct route to my quarry would not, as it happened, have taken me through the northwest part of Arkansas. In fact, I had ascertained that Pickens was headed east to Memphis, and it would have behoved my mission to carry on through Little Rock directly. However, I did not believe it disastrous to my task to take a day to stop in Yell County. In defence of my course I will say here that I did ultimately catch Pickens before he reached the Tennessee state line, and so it is self-evident that I did not shirk my duties in paying a visit to Mattie.
I arrived at the Ross property at twilight. I had written Mattie to advise that I would be passing through, although I did not know when, and departed on Pickens's trail before I received any response.
The little house was much the same as when I had last seen it, although I will say that the yard was somewhat improved by a trimmed lawn and a gravel path. Overall the effect was a handsome one. It was very civilized. Lamplight shone through what I knew to be the parlour window, and suddenly I felt keenly the hours I had spent in the saddle that day, without respite for food or drink, or even to allow my horse to rest.
I dismounted and was in the process of tethering my horse to a fencepost when the front door opened, the silhouette of a woman filling the doorway. She held a kerosene table lamp aloft. Mrs. Ross.
"I thought I heard hooves on the gravel. Identify yourself; I cannot see your face for the darkness."
Swallowing a strange knot which had worked itself into my throat, I secured my horse and stepped forward into the light cast by the lamp. It was not Mrs. Ross standing in the doorway; I realised my mistake the moment the woman opened her mouth.
The woman was Mattie.
She had grown tall, nearly as tall as I, and was remarkably different. Despite the changes in her on my last visit, I reckon in my mind she had remained about the same as she was at the time of our "great adventure." But she was no longer that woman-child. She was a woman proper, tall and slim in her plainly cut dress of brown fabric which shone in the lamplight, its high lace collar tightly fastened. Her dark hair was pulled back in a tidy bundle above the nape of her neck, her part straight as an arrow, and no fringe adorned her brow. Next to some fashionable young ladies I knew at that time, she looked severe and schoolmarmish, her demeanour, as always, belying her true age.
The stern expression creasing her brow eased into a look of surprise, and then into one of delight. "Why, Mr. LaBoeuf!" she cried. How curious that this was the same creature who had once saucily greeted me with a comparison of my appearance to that of a rodeo clown, and with an obstinate refusal to be the least bit obliging.
"I was beginning to wonder whether you would arrive at all," she said, her voice taking on a scolding tone as I climbed the porch steps and stood before her. The thought of Mattie spending the span of days between my letter and my arrival scowling and cursing my impunctuality caused a smile to pull at my mouth. I stifled the urge.
"A Texas Ranger is true to his word," I said, grasping the brim of my hat and nodding to her. In reply, she raised her eyebrows and exhaled through her nose like an annoyed horse, but bit her tongue. Standing close to her, I observed that she possessed a beauty which I had not expected; her features had refined. There was still an odd, masculine coltishness about her which would repulse any decent man. But when she turned her face away from me, her profile arrested me, and I was surprised to see two small simple baubles adorning her ears.
At that moment, a young man of about twenty years of age came around the corner of the house with a lantern in hand. His dress was that of a farm hand, and he had a brown leather bridle on one shoulder.
"Evening, Miss Ross," he said, coming to a halt at the foot of the steps.
"Good evening, Jack. This is Mr. LaBoeuf, and he is our guest," she said. The young man regarded me for a moment before nodding his head. I returned the greeting.
"Jack, are the horses secured for the night?" Mattie asked.
"Good. Please see to Mr. LaBoeuf's horse. She may occupy the empty box stall on the east wall, presuming it is clean. Will you be staying the night, Mr. LaBoeuf?"
"I shall, if it is not too great an inconvenience."
"Excellent. Thank you, Jack. You may go."
The young man gave a nod and unhitched my horse, leading her back around the house in the direction of the barn. The authority with which Mattie dispatched the man amused and aggravated me in equal measures.
"You are left without a chaperon in the company of these working men you employ?" I said.
"Of course, Mr. LaBoeuf." She smiled at what she apparently thought to be my foolishness. "You can hardly expect my mother to shadow me on every task and errand. I am perfectly able to defend my own honour. It is only Jack and Yarnell here most of the year, and in any case, I have found few men eager to offend my dignity," she said briskly, giving a pointed little shrug which drew my gaze to her amputated arm.
Before I could speak, she turned and gestured at the entrance to the house. "Please, it is silly for us to reacquaint ourselves on the porch. Come inside. Unfortunately we had our dinner already, but if you are hungry, we have bread and cheese, and some cake, and coffee, of course."
Mattie led me inside the still house, into the empty parlour where we had sat once before, on my last visit.
"Where is your mother?" I asked, my eyes on her back as she placed the lamp on a polished wood table.
"Mama has retired for the evening. Her constitution is such that she does not keep late hours." She turned around and gestured for me to sit on the modest settee.
I hesitated. It was not appropriate to spend time in private with an unmarried girl Mattie's age. Then, this was the very same girl with whom I had spent several nights by a campfire with only a drunkard and three horses to act as chaperon. Propriety hardly seemed to enter into her calculations. I took the seat she offered, mindful of my spurs and the furniture's polished cherry wood legs.
Mattie sat next to me on the settee, and I shifted to ensure a satisfactory distance remained between us. I would never be so conceited as to pretend that I am without moral flaws, but I am certainly not the sort of man to sully a good young woman's reputation, regardless of how available she makes herself to dishonour. One must not merely be good, but must also maintain the appearance of being good.
"Tell me," she said, turning towards me with a quizzical look, "how goes your search for this outlaw? Have you located him?"
"I have a solid reckoning of his whereabouts, although he remains at large. I plan to apprehend him the day after tomorrow, or tomorrow if I am able to make good time."
"Then you know where he is?"
"I believe that he is in this state, with an idea of heading to Tennessee," I replied. I pulled my pipe from my breast pocket and set about filling and lighting it. I was perturbed by Mattie's questions, and hoped that she would quit her probing. I did not care to admit to going a day out of my way to visit her when my quarry was headed in the opposite direction.
"I would say good luck to you, except you do not need luck on your side," she said.
"You are correct. Luck has no part in it. If I catch a man, it is due to my own efforts and the will of God. I do not believe in luck."
"Nor do I," Mattie agreed. "A person must make the best of things as God has laid them. She must depend on her wits and hard work, not on good fortune."
"That is true," I replied, drawing on my pipe and observing her through the cloud of smoke which billowed out of me. "You are much less silly-headed than many girls your age."
"I can only guess if that is true, for I am not acquainted with many girls my own age, being rather more occupied with running the farm and looking after Mama, Little Frank, and Victoria."
"Then you must take my word for it that you are not a fanciful girl."
"I suppose I am not. Although there are times when I..." she trailed off abruptly, a circumspect expression creasing her brow as she glanced at me.
"You will think me silly now, Mr. LaBoeuf," she said, with a decisive shake of her head. It was strange to see her embarrassed; I did not previously think her capable of it.
"It is my view that we are friends," I said. "Do you agree?"
"It is also my view that if you cannot extend a confidence to an old trail pardner, then you can scarcely consider yourselves true friends. Do you agree?"
"I suppose," she replied.
"Then tell me what it is you are thinking."
Mattie looked down at the pale hand which rested alone in her lap, apparently considering my words. After a pause of some considerable length, she lifted her head and regarded me squarely.
"I am not given to flights of fancy. But still I must confess that I often dream of the times we had together with the Marshall, Mr. LaBoeuf. I wish sometimes that we could live it again, although perhaps with a measure less peril." She smiled a sudden smile of such brilliance that I was certain for a moment that the tender muscles which formed that expression corresponded to some muscle in my own breast, as if connected by a length of thread. I found I wanted to return her smile. Instead, I champed down on my pipe.
"Is it not adventuresome enough for you, being a girl doing the work of a man?"
Still smiling, she looked back down at her lap. "It is foolish hubris to long for danger and adventures. And yet I do. I suppose that is simply my cross to bear. But we idid/i have an adventure, did we not, Mr. LaBoeuf? Thomas?"
"Yes, we did. But your adventuring days are behind you. I expect there are not many young men about who would tolerate such behaviour from a wife." I felt a foreign shock of regret when the smile dropped from her face and her eyes narrowed.
"I judge you very silly yourself if you think there are many young men about at all," she replied. "I judge you sillier still if you think I would tolerate such lordly behaviour from a husband. I have no interest in young men who want a woman to be a pretty ornament for their arm, or a housekeeper to clean up after them when they cannot be bothered to clean up after themselves."
"You will have trouble enticing any man to offer for you if you insist on making pronouncements such as this," I said mildly.
"You must think me slow-witted!" she replied, in a tone like bullets of hail on a tin roof. "I know this, of course. I have no expectation of making a match with any man, and precious little interest in the business, either. I shall leave such games to my sister."
"You are resigned to being an old maid, then?" I do not know why I continued to needle her on this subject. I suppose her blithe acceptance offended me. It should not have surprised me; it was very like her to make believe that she had no need of a man's protection.
"Yes, I am, and I am all the better for it. I have other matters to occupy my attention," she replied. Her face was devoid of grief or sadness or any kind of resigned suffering. She was matter-of-fact, and regarded me as though I had made some very foolish blunder of intellect for which I ought to be pitied.
"I see," I said simply.
"And you, Mr. LaBoeuf? Thomas? Is there no yellow rose in Texas whom you might honour with the title of Mrs. LaBoeuf?"
I regarded her, pausing to weigh my reply. The hour was late and the household was asleep. Pugnacious as she was in her sarcastic attempts to offend me, I would not be drawn into a quarrel.
"My life is not suited for matrimony at this time," I replied. "When the life of a Ranger tires me, I will settle. At that time I will have no trouble in securing a wife, I assure you."
"How happy for you that Texas boasts such obliging ladies," she said flatly. She turned away from me, running a hand over her skirt as if brushing away some imperfection perceived only by her. I examined the taut line of her neck, where wisps of dark hair had come loose to curl against her skin. The delicate nape distracted me, and I was struck suddenly with an image of myself years before when I was close to her age. I was younger than she when I ran away to Shreveport to join up in the war, eager to prove myself great and manly, with precious little appreciation of the horrors men visit upon one another. I was foolish and ignorant. Mattie was neither.
"It was not my intention to come here and offend you," I said. She turned and regarded me, and I saw the saucy reply forming on her lips. I spoke before she could. "The farm is looking very fine. You have managed it as well as any man could have done. Although I did not have the privilege of his acquaintance, and so cannot presume to speak on his behalf, I have little doubt that your father would be proud of what you have done here, Mattie. I am certain your mother must be."
Mattie was silent for a moment, scrutinizing me with a solemn expression on her face. Then she grimaced, and gave a little shrug of her shoulders. "Mama is happy that we have food for our table and a snug house to shelter us, and that Little Frank and Victoria can attend school and have new shoes when they need them. As for her pride in my efforts, she would rather I devoted myself to being a young lady."
Having always been a single-minded sort, I had never understood what a person meant when he said that he felt a conflict within his own heart. But in that moment, I understood fully. The greater part of me was in full agreement with her mother, and wanted to tell Mattie so for her own good. The rest of me balked at the very thought of Mattie transforming herself into anything except the puzzling creature she was. She was as aggravating a woman as God could ever have created.
The trouble with Mattie Ross was that the parts of her which most rankled were also the parts which were best.
"Your mother only wants what is most conducive to your future happiness," I said.
Mattie nodded, and silence fell between us for a moment before she cleared her throat delicately and glanced at me. "It is getting very late. We should retire."
She stood and lifted the lamp from its place on the table, leading me out of the parlour and into the foyer. She stopped at the base of the staircase and pointed me in the direction of the guest bedroom down the hallway before passing the lamp into my keeping.
"Goodnight, Mr. LaBoeuf. Thomas," she said. She said it that way nearly every time, as though she was always reconsidering the formality of her words. She seemed uncertain how to address me, an inconsistency which puzzled me. I had heretofore believed that Mattie Ross was never uncertain about anything. Acting on some strange impulse which arose in that moment, I caught her hand in mine and brought it to my mouth, quickly kissing the tender skin on the back of it.
She gaped at me, her dark eyes round with surprise. Colour flooded her face, and she pulled her hand away and glanced down in a beguiling expression of annoyance and, it seemed, embarrassment.
"Goodnight, Mattie," I said, and left her standing at the foot of the stairs.
I departed for Tennessee late the following morning, after breakfast with the family and a very cordial visit with Mrs. Ross. We sat in the parlour, exchanging news, and Mattie joined us. She was unusually quiet, looking out the window with a pensive expression I did not recognize, only speaking when a response was directly requested of her.
More than once I attempted to catch her eye, but on the rare occasion that I succeeded, a little line would crease the skin between her eyebrows, and she would look away.
When I returned to Texas with Pickens to deliver him to justice, I found that my mother had taken up the notion that it was time I acquired a wife. I do not know what the genesis of this notion was, only that she became as relentless as a bird dog about it. When I was not engaged with my duties, I found myself attending the crowded and silly parties my mother's friends held in Ysleta and El Paso.
My fellow Rangers found this all to be most entertaining, of course, and took to implying that my "sweetheart" in Arkansas must be married or otherwise unsuitable. This offended me. I had not minded their ribbing in the past, but such affronts were more than I could reasonably be expected to bear.
I did not care for any of this foolishness. If I had wanted to marry, I could have done so with ease.
I mention this merely to illustrate the nature of my life in Ysleta at this time. None of it had anything to do with my next visit to Arkansas, which took place only a few months later, in summer. That Mattie's letters had become increasingly sporadic in frequency and vague in content had nothing to do with my choice to return to Arkansas, either. In fact I had business in Little Rock. The nature of this business is of no significance. It was many years ago now; I am sure I do not recall what it was.
It was fine weather for wayfaring, although it did become very hot in the middle of the day, at which times I would dismount and find a shady spot along the road to rest my horse. Travelling by night was ideal, as the weather was clear and the moon bright. Every step my horse took relieved the anxiety I had felt in my mind of late, and I made excellent time from Texas to Yell County.
When I arrived at the Rosses' farm in the middle of one hazy afternoon, there was a man mounting a horse in the yard. The horse was a fine one, and the man was dressed for visiting. He tipped his hat to me as we passed one another; I judged him to be about my own age, perhaps younger.
Pondering the presence of this stranger, I walked my horse up to the house and, seeing none of the family around, dismounted and tied her to one of the porch rails. I was about to ascend the stairs and knock on the front door when I heard the crunch of gravel beneath a boot.
Mattie appeared from around the house at that moment, dressed in a blue summer dress made of some kind of linen, I guessed, and sprigged with a pattern of tiny white flowers. It had a fashionable white lace collar and a cuff for her one sleeve, and her hair and face were obscured by a straw bonnet which she pushed back off her head with a swipe of her hand. Her face bore a flushed, sour expression. She did not seem to have seen me standing there.
"Hidy," I said. She noticed me then, stopping short and squinting at me unattractively in the bright sunlight. A strange sensation overtook me, as though I suddenly could not draw a proper breath. I cleared my throat.
"Mr. LaBoeuf," she said, picking up her stride once more before coming to a stop in front of me. "What brings you all the way to Yell County?"
"Business," I replied.
"How interesting that your business so often demands your presence in this part of Arkansas," she said, a canny look in her eyes which I did not like. "I hope you will stay for dinner at least."
"I will, if there is room for me at the table."
Her expression softened. "There is always room at our table for old friends," she replied. "Please, take a seat on the porch and I will fetch you some lemonade. I must go help Mama."
I followed her up the steps and seated myself as she disappeared into the house. She returned with lemonade before leaving me to my own devices. The porch was indeed a pleasant spot to wait, although the lemonade lacked sweetness and the weather was very hot.
At dinner, Mattie attempted to engage me once again in discussions regarding the price of cotton and tobacco and corn, and whether there might be good money in thoroughbred horses, but Mrs. Ross interrupted her, advising Mattie not to bore "poor Mr. LaBoeuf" with such things.
Mattie Ross is a great many things. A bore is not one of them. But she fell silent at her mother's words, all the same.
"Has Mattie told you our family's good news, Mr. LaBoeuf?" Mrs. Ross asked, paused with her fork hovering over her plate as she caught my eye.
I glanced over at Mattie to find her painstakingly cutting her food with the side of her fork, her attention focused on the task.
"No, I do not believe she has," I replied.
"Mattie, how silly!" Mrs. Ross exclaimed with a girlish giggle. "Well, it is my joy to inform you, then, that my youngest, Victoria, is to be married in the spring."
"My congratulations," I said, nodding to Mrs. Ross and then to Victoria, who sat down the table, beaming giddily at me.
"There are few things more comforting to a mother than to see a beloved daughter set up in a home of her own," Mrs. Ross continued. She smiled at Victoria, and then at Mattie, who said nothing.
The evening was a cool reprieve from the heat of the day, and Mrs. Ross suggested that Mattie and I take a walk. I suspected what the woman's game was, but I did not mind. Mattie and I were both freer to talk in just our own company.
We walked through the farm yard and by the barn, stopping at a paddock where several handsome horses rested. Seeing Mattie, they approached the fence, and she produced several sections of carrot from a hidden pocket in her dress, feeding the beasts in silence. When the horses discovered that all of the carrot was gone, they slowly began to meander away.
"Your sister seems very young to be engaged," I observed, breaking the odd silence which had descended in the presence of the horses.
Mattie gave a shake of her head. "She is fifteen years old. My mother insists that she wait until the spring, when she will be sixteen. It is not unusual. Although Victoria may find herself waiting longer than she expects, if that layabout beau of hers does not manage to erect even a small shanty on the back forty of his father's land." She said this with a knowing smirk.
"And your brother?" I asked.
"Little Frank?" Mattie looked at me incredulously and made a dismissive noise between her teeth. "Little Frank will not be able to settle down until he gets this railroad nonsense out of his head and sees that what we have here would provide plenty for a family. Anyway, he is only seventeen. He is barely a man; he has time."
"What about you, Mattie Ross? You are nineteen, are you not?"
"And what saucy remark do you have about your own prospects?"
She looked away, and did not reply. After a moment, she cleared her throat. "Tell me, have you heard any news of the Marshall? It has been a trial, attempting to locate him."
"Cogburn is no longer a Marshall," I pointed out.
"I know that. But Marshall is the title I am accustomed to, and I owe him the respect, even if his former employers do not agree," she replied.
"What is your fascination with the whereabouts of Rooster Cogburn?" I demanded, annoyed with her silliness.
"Rooster Cogburn is the very best of men, second only to my dear departed father in my estimation. I only wish to know how he does."
I wondered where I fell in her hierarchy of manhood. Somewhere below the hairy, half-wild boars rooting acorns in the woods beyond the horse paddocks, I surmised.
"You are always ready with a grandiose reply of some kind or another. I would someday like to see you lack for words. That would be a sight to behold," I observed, by and by.
"That is big talk from a man who takes such obvious pleasure in the sound of his own voice."
The sensible response to such a speech would have been offense, but for some reason which I reckon was the product of the loveliness of the late summer evening and my gladness at having her close by, I laughed instead. I must have taken Mattie by surprise, for when I finished she was watching me with no small amount of concern in her expression.
My mirth departed as swiftly as it had arrived. I looked at her serious face as she regarded me, her one hand resting on the weathered grey fencepost.
I loved her. I do not know what prompted that revelation, but I knew in that instant that I had a regard for her the like of which I had never held for any other woman. She was not the sort of woman I would have expected to capture my attention, sour and headstrong as her disposition was. Yet she had captured it, all the same. I reckoned that was why her sauciness annoyed me so.
"Who was that man?" I asked, my voice filling the silence between us before I intended it to.
Mattie was bemused. "What man?"
"The man I passed in the yard when I arrived."
"Oh, that was Mr. Calhoun," she said. She paused here and frowned out at the growing darkness. "You see, now that my sister is engaged, my mother is determined that I will not be an old maid. I do not why she bothers about it now, for she did not seem to care before... She has allowed some gentlemen callers to visit, although the word 'gentleman' hardly applies to Mr. Calhoun."
"Callers?" I asked, a measure of apprehension entering my mind.
"A few widowers in Dardanelle with five or six children apiece, and a faulty view that a plain spinster with a malady such as mine should be grateful to keep house for them," she said, the shoulder above her truncated arm giving a slight shrug. She said these words blandly, without self-pity. At times I have believed Mattie incapable of pity for herself or anyone else.
But I have with me always the memory of our time together in the Winding Stair Mountains, when she took my part even against her man Cogburn, and attempted in her way to care for me and my injuries. This after my strenuous objections to her very presence there, not to mention the thrashing I had given her.
"You are not plain, Mattie," I said. She looked at me askance, and then down at the fencepost before her, where her thumb worried at the head of a nail.
"If I am plain, it is of no consequence to me. I have little tolerance for nonsense, Mr. LaBoeuf, and no wish to be courted by any man," she said.
I stepped forward and touched her arm, and she looked at me. Grasping her sleeve, I pulled her close to me and, before she could spring free of my embrace (as women are wont to do, flighty as they are,) I kissed her.
Mattie smelled to me of ink and paper, and plain lye soap, and carrots, and the dusty, sweet scent of hay.
I expected her to sigh and melt and hold to me, the way a woman ought to when she is being kissed. Rather, she stood stalwart in my arms with her good arm clamped to her side, her spine as stiff as a gun barrel. At first I fancied it was the maidenly delicacy of a spinster which made her so still, but then she tilted her head curiously towards mine and it struck me that I was not the first man to steal a kiss from her.
I do not think any man in my position could judge me wrong for becoming perturbed. I pulled away and looked down into her face. She stared up at me without speaking, her eyes as dark and inscrutable as the mouth of a cave.
"I see I have finally rendered you silent," I said.
One dark eyebrow was raised at my words. "If I am silent, no one has rendered me so but my own self," she replied.
I stepped back, my annoyance escalating with each moment that she continued to stare at me with serene regard. "I am not the first man to have kissed you."
"I am unmarried, but I am not entirely ignorant of the ways of the world, Mr. LaBoeuf," she said, a note of derision colouring her tone.
"What do you mean by this?" I demanded.
"I mean that, like most young women, I have attended socials and dances and church bazaars, and mixed with young men. I have done nothing for which I ought to feel ashamed. The opposite is so, in fact – in town I am already looked upon as an old maid."
"But you have allowed men to take liberties?"
If she had not still been standing in the circle of my arms, I might have missed the angry flush of red which crawled up her neck and into her face.
"Although I hardly owe you any accounting of what I have or have not allowed, you compel me to defend myself. I can only repeat that I have done nothing for which I ought to feel ashamed. Please release me now, Mr. LaBoeuf."
I did so reluctantly, for the warmth which I felt through the layers of fabric and female frippery had made my hands somewhat bold and curious. My face suddenly felt hot, and I stepped away from her.
"It seems I must once again apologise for unintentionally offending you, Mattie. Your anger was not the outcome I desired of this meeting, I assure you," I said. I tripped over my words, and frowned in frustration. My speech felt as clumsy as when I had bitten through my tongue.
Mattie scrutinized me. Her face was blank, but I could see her keen wit attempting to figure me. "I do not understand what you are about," she said.
"If you insist that I do away with all pretence and make my intentions plain, it would seem that I am attempting to court you," I replied.
At this, I truly did seem to have rendered her silent. She stared at me, her eyes wide and dark and her mouth open in apparent shock. Her brows drew together in a frown as she examined me, and I wanted to kiss her again.
"You are making me the object of your fun," she said finally, after a long pause.
I might have laughed, except that her expression was solemn, and I expected that teasing was no way to gentle her.
"I am doing no such thing, on my honour as a Texas Ranger," I replied. Mattie did not seem to know what to say to this, and so I asked a question which had been troubling me. "Mattie, do you have any intention of accepting any of these callers your mother has been throwing in your path? This Mr. Calhoun?"
Mattie looked back out over the field, at the horses, and shook her head. "I cannot imagine a worse fate than being shackled to Mr. Calhoun for the rest of my life. He is overbearing and smug and arrogant, and he chews tobacco. As I discovered today, I do not care for men who chew tobacco."
"What about men who smoke tobacco?"
"That is a dirty habit as well, but not half as dirty as chewing the stuff."
"And what about these other callers?"
"I would rather go to my grave a spinster than marry any one of them."
"And is there another? A man for whom you have some feeling?"
"Why are you asking me these things, Mr. LaBoeuf?"
"Only to determine whether there is room for me to throw my hat into the ring."
"Your hat?" she echoed.
"Yes," I replied. Perhaps it was imprudent, but I saw no advantage in being coy. "Mattie, I have decided that I want you to be my wife, and return to Texas with me."
"But why?" she asked. My patience began to grow thin, for her misunderstanding seemed deliberate. What a question! Why indeed.
"Because I am a grown man and it is time I took a wife. I cannot roam the wilderness on the trail of outlaws all my days. Besides, if you have no other compelling offer, I do not see why you should refuse me. Marriage would suit us both."
"Your offer lacks poetry," she replied, looking out over the paddock again, her brows drawn together in contemplation, "but I would rather we considered the matter in the most pragmatic light than find ourselves swept up in foolish romanticism."
"Indeed. I agree on that score. I need an obedient and dutiful wife who comprehends the responsibilities of marriage, not a silly girl who will only bring me grief at every turn. So what do you say?"
Mattie's eyes met mine and she examined me for one long, silent moment. Her thoughts were utterly inscrutable to me, and I began to feel uncertain of her enthusiasm.
"Well," she said, measuring her words most carefully, "I guess I will have to think on it. No, I cannot give you my word right now. I must think on it."
"Think on it, then. I will return for your answer as soon as I am able. In the meantime, we can continue on as we have done, writing to one another and so forth, I hope."
Glancing at me with puzzling wariness, she nodded tightly.
"May I kiss you, Miss Ross, as a token of our agreement?"
She looked over at the house, and then back at me. "All right," she replied, nodding. "You may."
I pulled her close to me once again, and as I leaned to kiss her, she turned her face away and presented her cheek to me. I did not think such a rebuff was necessary, but I did appreciate her modesty, and so I made no objection and kissed her soft cheek instead.
Mattie allowed me to hold her hand in mine as we walked back to the house, disentangling herself when we reached the front door. Once inside, she did not speak again of our discussion.
My business in Arkansas concluded, I returned once more to Texas. I looked forward to Mattie's reply, and informed my mother that I expected she would soon have the daughter-in-law she so desired. I did not think it would take long for Mattie to answer, her circumstances being what they were.
I was to be disappointed in that regard, for Mattie did not write me any more letters. Not one line did I receive from her. I sent three letters before my pride got the better of me and I ceased correspondence. Her silence puzzled me. I understood some modest restraint, but this was unacceptable. What is a man to think, making a proposal to a woman and allowing her the liberty of time to consider his offer, only to receive contemptuous silence in return?
I resolved to cease my pursuit of her. If she wished to quit her mule-headed ways and be reasonable, she knew where I could be found.
The decision not to write Mattie again was simple. Banishing her from my thoughts was another matter altogether. I do not believe I was so sorry a creature as to be truly "lovesick" but that is what my fellow Rangers liked to call it. I had never been an idle sort, but I made doubly sure to keep myself occupied with work. A tight rein does not permit the mind to wander.
However, some thoughts of her were inevitable. I missed her newsy letters, filled with long stories whose contexts were a mystery to any person not a resident of Yell County. She used to include clippings from newspapers and periodicals which she seemed to think I might enjoy; they were strange items about hail stones the size of a man's head and ducklings born with three legs. I had thought that she was mistaking my interests for that of Cogburn (what with his penchant for rambling, impossibly tall tales,) but now I missed them, as well as the little commentaries she would make about them in her letters.
I simply missed Mattie, and the passage of time did nothing to ease this.
It was during the following winter that I was introduced to Miss Sadie Mayfield of Ysleta. Her mother was a friend of my mother's, as they belonged to the same ladies' societies. Sadie was the middle daughter in a family of seven sisters, and, at 26 years of age, was the only one left unmarried.
By this time, my mother's pestering had become sincerely bothersome. After the war, my three older brothers had not returned to Louisiana, where we were raised, instead scattering themselves around the land. They settled in California, the Dakota Territory, and Colorado, respectively, and had all elected to stay and raise families in those places. When I joined the Rangers and was posted to Ysleta, my widowed mother sold all her Louisiana property and moved west. The separation from her children and grandchildren brought her low, I reckoned, and that was the reason for her interest in my marriage. To placate her, I agreed to call on Miss Mayfield, and I admit that I looked on our outing as a chore.
It was not. In fact, until the Sunday afternoon I took Miss Mayfield for a drive in my mother's smart black carriage, I cannot recall a more pleasant time spent in such lovely company. No sweeter, kinder woman than Sadie ever lived, I am sure.
Sadie had a delicate, bird-like figure, a fair complexion, light brown hair, and grey eyes. She enjoyed the stories of my adventures very much, listening attentively and expressing the appropriate horror at the bloody things I had witnessed. She was especially fond of the tale of my rescue of Mattie from the clutches of Tom Chaney and the Lucky Ned Pepper gang. She found my bravery impressive, and told me so, smiling prettily with her hands folded in her lap. I asked if she would like to go driving again, and she said she would.
My connection with Sadie grew, and I became very fond of her. I began attending church with her family, and dining with them regularly. They were all fine people, and their company was most enjoyable. Mr. Mayfield, Sadie's father, was especially gracious and obliging, and very respectful of the Texas Rangers.
Months passed. Still I heard nothing from Mattie, not even a rejection. Only silence.
I often found myself wondering whether she had accepted the advances of that Mr. Calhoun, or any of those callers of whom she had spoken. Each time I thought on this, I concluded that she had shown only disdain for those men, and did not care for any of them. Surely she would not marry one of them. I reassured myself of this almost weekly. Surely she could not.
But what if her mother's insistence made an impression on her? What if some young man finally succeeded in turning her head?
I was bedevilled by these thoughts. Despite my efforts, Mattie felt like True North, the ultimate point around which my world was arranged. It was unnerving, and I did not like it. I resented it completely.
One Sunday in the spring of 1884, Mr. Mayfield requested a parley of me as I departed the family home after another evening in their company. In short he expressed the esteem he and his wife held for me, and proceeded to inquire whether I planned to ask Sadie to be my wife, or whether I simply planned on accompanying them to church every Sunday for the remainder of my natural life.
I can allow that it was a reasonable question for a loving father to ask, but I was taken aback. It was silly of me to be surprised. I must have known what I was implying by my very presence, and yet I had not truthfully given a single thought to making Sadie my wife.
I put the man's mind at ease as best I could, and advised that I had some minor business to look after, but once it was dealt with, I would return and he and I would have the discussion he desired.
Almost before I knew what I was doing with myself, I packed for the road and made for Arkansas. Mattie Ross could forget her manners and ignore my letters, but she could not ignore my person standing in her midst.
Spring had brought high waters with it, and it made for slow going. It took me longer than I might have liked to reach my destination, but the slow pace allowed me plenty of time to think over my position.
This is what I decided: I would not be turned away. I had pursued tougher quarry in my time than a one-armed little spinster with a razor tongue. I simply would not allow Mattie to turn me away. I would return to Texas with her as my wife.
It was evening when I turned my horse onto the road which led to the Rosses' farm. The trees were covered with tiny spring buds, but it was a cool, damp night, and darkness was quickly falling. When I arrived at the house, I spotted a lamp burning on the side porch.
There sat Mattie, curled up on a wooden bench, a wool blanket draped about her. She had a book open in her lap, and did not seem to have seen or heard me. I rode closer, and stopped in the yard. I dismounted, and my spurs must have made a sound across the still evening, for as I was tying my horse to the porch rail, she appeared above me, her face pale in the blue light of evening.
"You are alive, after all," I said. "I did wonder. It is a cold night to be outside, reading."
Mattie made no answer to this, and I came up the steps to stand before her. She stood in the middle of the wide porch, her book forgotten on the bench. She was dressed in a plain brown dress, and she clutched the red wool blanket around her shoulders. Her dark hair was pulled back in one long plait which had been let down from its knot. She eyed me warily, her mouth pressed into a thin line.
"In the past you have greeted me with warmth and friendship," I said. "Yet I offer you my hand and you treat me like a stranger. Worse, a trespasser."
Still she said nothing. Instead she shook her head and turned her face away.
"I do not understand what I have done that could deserve such treatment," I continued.
"I am sorry that I did not write you. That was rude of me, and wrong," she said. Her voice and her manner were stiff.
"I have come back only to see you, despite the silence you have subjected me to over the winter, and now you greet me coldly. I am in the right and yet you treat me this way. Why is this?" I asked.
"I am not Penelope, idly awaiting the return of Odysseus. You may do as you please, as I do," she replied, turning haughty in that superior-minded way of hers as she narrowed her eyes at me.
"I do not understand you. Is this some womanly trick intended to increase my admiration for you? If so, I must tell you that it is not working."
"It is no trick! I did not write to you because I did not know how to reply to your question. I know perfectly well that I should have written and told you so, but the words escaped me."
"Haw!" I scoffed. "The words escaped you, indeed. I find that very hard to believe."
"Whether you believe it or not bears little with me," she replied.
"Tell me now what you found so impossible to put in a letter," I said.
Mattie hesitated a moment, watching me, and then seemed to steel herself in anticipation of unpleasantness. "I cannot accept your proposal. That is what I could not say."
I stared at her in silence. My throat suddenly felt tight. "You have received another offer," I said, swallowing the ache.
"I have not, nor am I likely to. Even if I do, I doubt I will take it."
"I do not understand."
"You are looking at the thing in the wrong light. We would not make a good match," she explained. "We would only quarrel. I would not be much of a wife to you."
"That is foolish," I replied, stepping closer to her and taking hold of her hand. "I have no doubt that you will make as kind, as sweet, as obedient and as good a wife as any other."
She looked stricken at this, rather than comforted, but she did not withdraw her hand. "That is flattery. You would find yourself disappointed in every way, and would regret choosing me. Surely there must be some more suitable match for you."
"I can think of no better match for me than you, Mattie," I replied.
Her eyes were sad as she regarded me without speaking. It hurt me to see the feeling in her expression. I did not understand what conflict she foresaw. Everything would be different once we were married. I would take care of her; she would never want for anything. What would there be to quarrel about?
I said as much to her, but again my words failed to ease her worries. Gently I pulled her to me and she went, pressing her face to my breast. I rested my chin on her head and she laid her hand on my chest, her palm covering the silver star over my heart.
We stood that way for several long moments, holding each other, and my thought was that if Mrs. Ross chose this moment to come outside looking for her daughter, Mattie would have little say in the question of our marriage, after all.
Eventually, Mattie pulled back and her eyes met mine. She regarded me for a moment, and then sighed. I felt her breath up through my hands where they touched her, and into my whole body like a chill.
"Mr. LaBoeuf, please. In my heart I do not believe I could make you happ -" she began to say. I kissed her, stopping her words short.
Her fingernails dug into the worn leather of my vest as I held her tightly to me. Her warmth, and the strange, frantic sound she made in her throat, excited me, sending a shiver through my body, the like of which I had never felt before.
Abruptly, Mattie pushed me away and stepped back, holding the back of her hand over her mouth. She turned from me.
"I do not understand you. Why do you shy away? Why do you not have a single kind word for me?" I asked.
"Go back to your Texas misses if you have a need to flirt and talk nonsense with a silly girl whose vanity needs flattery the way a houseplant needs water," she said, her voice flat and cold.
"What do you know of Texas misses?" I said, my patience with her caprice wearing thin. "You have scarcely seen anything outside of Arkansas in your life. You would not know a proper young lady if she came up and slapped you across your saucy mouth."
Mattie turned and gaped at me, her face flushed a dark, angry scarlet. Rarely had my words had such an effect on her, and I wondered at it. While she was flustered, I pushed forward.
"Mattie, there is a woman in Ysleta. I have been paying visits to her and her family for quite some time, and it has been made plain to me that I am expected to request her hand or move along," I told her, thinking that certainly this would make her see reason. I have been told that nothing produces a show of affection in a woman like jealousy.
Her eyes lifted to mine and she scrutinized me as though she were trying to uproot a lie. Of course she found none, and after a moment, she cleared her throat. "Well. I offer you my congratulations, and I wish you every happiness," she said, each word slow and deliberate in its delivery.
I wanted to take hold of her shoulders and shake her until her teeth rattled and she showed even an ounce of softness towards me. Instead, I spoke. "That is all you have to say to me?"
Her eyes slid away from mine and she turned away, looking out over the yard. "Yes. What else could I have to say to you?"
I wanted her to bend. I wanted her damp eyes and her tearful voice. I wanted her to plead with me to stay by her side, as she had done once before, many years earlier, for a far different purpose. If she had given me this one small favour, I would have stayed. Damn her, I would have stayed, and married her the moment she would have me, and taken her back to Texas, or remained by her side there, if that was what she wished. I would have done anything she asked of me, if she had humbled herself enough to ask it.
But she would not.
Mattie stood before me, her eyes dry and her mouth drawn into a firm line. Her expression was stony, and in that instant I knew I would find only further affronts to my pride in her company. I could not – would not – stand it. What self-respecting man would?
I turned from her, and left her standing on the porch. I felt her penetrating stare on my back every step my horse took, until we rounded the bend in the road and the weight of it slid off my shoulders like a heavy yoke. I turned my horse to the southwest, and began my journey back to Ysleta, where I would marry Miss Sadie Mayfield.
I did not see Mattie again.
My marriage was a happy one. It was entirely satisfactory in every regard excepting that we did not have children, which was a disappointment to both of us, and to my mother. Sadie, who was possessed of a docile temperament, would simply lift her shoulders and say that God had not seen fit to bless us, and we must accept it.
We had many fine years together. The first part of our marriage we spent living with my mother, until she passed away. Sadie tirelessly attended to her during the protracted illness which led to her death. My mother was not the warmest of women, and could be a difficult patient at times, but you would never have known it, the way Sadie doted on her without complaint.
Sadie and I rarely disagreed on any matter, and when we did, she ultimately deferred to me. In that way she was the perfect wife. She gave her opinions with care, and only when asked. My word was the final one, and when I spoke it, she would smile and say, "Of course, dear," with a nod. I could not account for the lonesome lack of satisfaction and the sense of disappointment I felt each time this happened. Was Sadie not what every man longed for, an obedient and admiring wife upon whom one could depend? Of course she was.
After my mother's passing, we bought land outside of Ysleta, on the bare plains. I built Sadie a fine sturdy house there in the shelter of a low hill, with a wide board porch which wrapped around the entire house, and a front room with space for her mother's piano. On fine nights I would sit on the porch and smoke my pipe, and Sadie would play for me. We were very happy.
Several outbreaks of smallpox troubled the area over the years. Sadie fell ill in the winter of 1898. I do not understand why it is that I was spared when she was not. I reckon it is useless to think too much on such things when we here on earth can never truly discern any answer. But it troubled me, all the same. Sadie had such goodness in her. How could she be allowed to suffer so when, every day, rough men of the wickedest kind walked the world, unharassed by care?
In a moment of weakness, I expressed this to Sadie. She smiled gently at me, and suggested I read the Book of Job, and pray for patience.
I did as she asked as her health began to decline. A delirious fever took firm hold of her, and the doctor came. He held her thin wrist in his hand and looked down at his watch, frowning and giving a shake of his head. He believed there was nothing for it.
I became desperate. I prayed and begged and threatened. Still Sadie drifted further away from me, her body scarred by the disease and her mind trapped in a haze.
The doctor told me it would not be long. I did not leave her bedside.
I woke late one night to her hand ghosting lightly across my hair. I raised my head. She was awake and lucid, watching me as I slept in a chair beside her, collapsed forward onto the bed. I lifted myself somewhat blearily, scarcely able to believe that her mind was present.
"Hello, dear," she said, smiling. Her eyes shone.
I held her hand in mine and pressed a kiss to her palm. "You do not need to fear. I am watching over you," I said.
"I know you are. Bless you. Soon I will be watching over you." She blinked, her thin brows drawing together in a frown as her eyes examined my face with uncharacteristic intensity. "I always knew I loved you better than you loved me, Thomas. Papa near had to throttle a proposal out of you... But I did not mind. Loving you made me happy, whether or not you had the same measure of affection for me."
I did not know what to say to this. I felt as though this was a stranger who stared up at me from that bed, a stranger's dark eyes and pale face, a stranger's thin hand clasped in mine. I tried to deny it, tried to express the depth of my fondness for her, but she only hushed me and smiled, an odd expression in her eyes which spoke more of pity than of love.
Sadie departed this life shortly thereafter, leaving me a widower.
I admit I fell into a decline then, and understood for the first time the attraction Rooster Cogburn had felt for the bottom of a whiskey bottle. I was troubled by the fanciful idea that I had made mistakes in the past which I could not repair, and that Sadie's death was a punishment which had been meted out to me. I had never doubted myself so thoroughly before. Eventually I gave up drinking and made certain that I was never idle. The thoughts soon passed away, and only troubled me some nights when my mind became agitated and I could not sleep.
Years passed. Many, many years whose exact contents remain obscure to me. Toward the end of the Great War, I was made to give up my post with the Rangers on account of what they called my advanced age. Looking back I can scarcely account for the years which had gone by almost without my notice.
There was not much to occupy my time in that house by myself. I missed my work, but my eyesight and my hearing had declined some, so I knew I was more trouble to the Rangers than I was worth by then. I had to accept that my days as a lawman, of tracking and shooting and riding, were now behind me.
One day I received a package from one of my nephews in California. Inside its brown paper wrappings was a book and a letter inquiring after my health, and asking whether I knew that an Arkansas spinster had written stories which included me.
I could have striped Mattie Ross's leg for that book of hers. I stayed up all night reading it, although my doctor says I ought not to, stiff and arthritic as I've become. But I could not set aside that book of tall tales simply for rest! I may be old now, but I am still a Texas Ranger, and can stand a little late reading.
I scoffed at the way she painted me. Never have I been so insulted. "A vain and cocky devil" indeed! I am not ashamed to say that for three days and three nights I fumed at her impudence, wearing thin the green carpet in the front room. It was as though she had brushed me aside altogether, erasing all but the most basic hint of my presence in her life. She wrote nothing of the thoughts and regrets she must have had about me. I knew she must have had regrets.
I could not bear to think that she might not have regrets.
Finally I decided that I would not stand for such libel, and I wrote a letter to her publisher in Little Rock, identifying myself and my complaints, and questioning their morals as individuals and as a company for publishing such a pack of defamatory lies.
I received no reply.
The book was somewhat popular in these parts for a short while, and I reckon it did not take any great effort of intellect for folks in town to determine that I was the Mr. LaBoeuf of whom Miss Ross had written. There was a stir of interest and I got some attention. It was not the sort of attention one desires. I began to feel like an attraction in one of those wild west shows which used to be popular. A curiosity. Those people had no respect for me, and so I did not think it wrong of me to scare them off my property by firing shots from the front porch.
A man does what he must to protect his dignity.
Some months went by and the interest died down. Soon it was just me and my three-legged old bird dog Cody, and my horse, Jessie, again. The three of us and the small flock of skinny chickens I kept out back. We got along well enough without company, although sometimes the neighbour women would call and leave pies or loaves of bread on the porch. I do not know why; I was hardly in need of anyone's charity. One of those ladies did make a very fine pecan pie, however, which reminded me of my Grandmother LaBoeuf's, and of the humid summer nights when my brothers and I would sleep on the upstairs porch in her home outside Pineville, Louisiana, listening to the frogs and crickets sing. I was grateful for those pecan pies.
One evening in spring, I was resting on the couch in the front room when Cody began to bark. I scolded him, as the sudden noise gave me a start. I guess I had been falling asleep. It happens as one ages; at times you find yourself half-asleep before you know what has happened. Anyhow, Cody would not quit, and finally I heard what he did – the rumble of an automobile engine and the slam of a door. Had one of the neighbour women come to call? If so, I was not about to go to the trouble of standing up.
There was a sharp knock on my front door. I began looking about for the old stick I use for walking. Usually the ladies do not knock when they call; they just leave what they have brought on the step.
Cody continued to bark and abruptly left my side, skittering out into the front hallway. I got myself to my feet and went after him, my stiff knees giving me pains. It is awful to feel old and slow, and I did not like to be bothered by busybodies in this state.
I came around the corner to find my front door open, a woman standing there. Cody was at her feet, wagging vigorously. Turncoat. I ought to have shot him for disloyalty and general uselessness.
The lady was greeting him politely, not with foolish enthusiasm the way some do. People will make real fools of themselves around a dog. She looked up and saw me standing there.
My eyes are not what they used to be, and so I stared uncomprehendingly for a moment at the silhouette which stood in the doorway.
"Who is that?" I inquired finally. "You ought to announce yourself. It is impertinent to simply let yourself into a man's home. Why, in these parts you are likely to be shot, and no one would blame me. Who are you?"
"It is I, Mattie Ross. Did you not receive my letter, Mr. LaBoeuf?"
I stared, scarcely understanding her. I could not believe it. I could not believe that Mattie stood right there before me.
She had grown old. But then, so had I. I had become a straggly thing, for grooming was a labourious process, and I was much thinner and smaller in stature than I had been in my younger days. Mattie, however, was well-dressed in a smart blue dress and brown jacket with a hat to match. She looked staid for the times, but that is all right; there is no need for older folks to try to match their young counterparts as far as fashion goes. But the young girl I had once held in my arms was certainly gone. In her place was a handsome, mature woman who filled the space around her with her formidable bearing without saying a word.
"I – I received no letter," I stammered. I could not help it. I was baffled.
"You should sit," she said. She closed the door behind her and walked into the front room, gesturing at the place where I had sat only moments before, as though this was her house and I was the guest.
Galling as it was, I had no choice but to follow, for my breath was short and I felt unwell. I sat down in my usual spot, and Mattie seated herself in a chair right across from me.
We regarded one another in silence for a moment, and then Mattie cleared her throat. "I gather that you read my little book," she said.
"Your publishers forwarded my letter on to you," I replied.
"They did. While I appreciate your opinions on the matter, I thought that describing me as an 'addlepated, unnatural old windbag' was perhaps a bit harsh, however," she replied. There was amusement in her voice, if not in her expression.
"Hmph. Well, you cannot expect me to tolerate such falsehoods."
"The only falsehood I told was saying that I knew no more of you. Surely you can see that I did that to preserve your privacy," she replied. She eyed me for a moment. "I assume you married. I had no desire to cause you trouble."
"I did marry. My wife died many years ago, however."
The hard line of her mouth softened. "I am sorry to hear that. That is a hardship."
"I was sorry to hear about Cogburn," I said. "He was a good man, all told, although he held little regard for me or for the Rangers. I would have liked to have seen him again."
"As would I," she replied, and her voice was sad. A silence fell between us.
"You ran an outfit of some kind, a savings and loans?" I inquired after a moment, groping back through the cobwebs of my mind in the hopes of landing on some useful information gathered from her stories.
"I did, yes, for many years. The farm became very successful and we began breeding thoroughbred race horses. I was able to build my business on that, and bought a building in town."
"Well, who is running the business in your absence?"
Mattie fixed me with a long look, and then cleared her throat primly. "I am too old now to be worrying myself with business. My nephew Frank has worked with me for many years, and has taken the reins, so to speak. It is a fine thing to be at leisure, I suppose, but I do feel idle without any work to occupy me."
"Hmph," I said. "I gathered also from your book of tall tales that you never married. Or, if you did, you chose to omit those details along with several others."
"You know perfectly well I would never have another," she replied, punctuating this pronouncement with an indignant little huff of her breath.
I did not respond immediately, instead staring at her in wonder. "No," I said finally, shaking my head. "I did not know perfectly well. I thought you would never have any, including myself. I came to believe you had little regard for me at all."
"Mr. LaBoeuf," she said, "Thomas, how could you believe I had little regard for you? You accompanied me on the greatest endeavour of my life, and you saved me when Chaney meant to kill me. Excepting my family, you are my oldest and dearest friend."
I was astounded by this speech. "Mattie Ross, we have not exchanged a word since the night I left you standing on that porch. Forty years have passed since then. Your silence conveyed indifference. Surely you must see that."
"I did not write to you because it is not proper to carry on a personal correspondence with a married man. You cannot possibly fault the judgement I made in such a predicament."
"You would not have found yourself in any such predicament if you had done as I wished and married me and come to Texas!" She looked at me; her mouth was set in a stern line, but her eyes contained some forlorn emotion I had not seen since the night I left her with Cogburn in the Winding Stair Mountains. My anger abandoned me as quickly as it had taken hold, and suddenly I felt hollow and old. I sighed. "Why have you come here? Why do you insist on vexing me so?"
"I thought..." she faltered here, and gave her head a little shake. "When I wrote down my recollections for the paper, and when they wanted to turn it into a book, I hoped that you might see it and write to me. When I received no word, I feared that you had been called to God before I could see you again. Before I could stand before you, honest, at last."
"Honest? What do you mean by this?"
"I mean that I returned the sentiments you expressed to me that day. I returned them long before that day, in fact, but I did not know how to respond to your proposal," she said.
"You did not know - ? Confound you, Mattie Ross! Was there something puzzling about the way in which I phrased the question?"
"I never counted on receiving a single proposal in my life," she replied, shaking her head. "Even before I lost my arm, my temperament and my interests were such that few men would ever take any serious interest in me. I knew this from a young age, and so I put the thought of marriage out of my mind altogether, and set myself to building a life of my own. I did not mind it; in truth I did not see what the purpose of marriage was, beyond the obvious. Those other men who pursued me were listless trash who wanted a housekeeper, not a wife. And you... Well, you never failed to advise me of the various ways in which I was deficient as a woman, and so when you proposed, it vexed me. I was very fond of you, Mr. LaBoeuf, very fond indeed. But I did not believe you wanted me as your wife. I believed you wanted to turn me into the wife you wanted."
Mattie fell silent, and I stared blearily down at my lap, filled abruptly with acute regret. I wanted to believe that I had only been deficient in expressing myself to her, but both of us knew better than that. She was right to fear that from me. I had loved her, sincerely, and had never stopped. But I would have scolded and shamed her and tried to fit her with a bridle which was altogether wrong for her. I would have forced her to be a different woman, and driven us both mad in the attempt. I would have forced her to be a woman like Sadie. Sadie, a woman whom I never loved as I ought to have done, as she deserved, and whom I never loved as much as I loved Mattie.
They say that the Lord works in mysterious ways. At this moment, I cursed Him roundly for His cruel and backwards sense of humour.
"I am sorry now that I did not have more faith in you," Mattie said. "I might have spared myself, at least, much regret and loneliness. Were you... Have you been happy, Mr. LaBoeuf?"
I looked up at her, at those familiar, clever brown eyes. "I was. But not as happy as I might have been."
"I am sorry," she repeated. I had never heard such contrition in her voice before. "That is my one true regret. But Mr. LaBoeuf, do you think you could be happy yet?"
"I am an old man now, Mattie. Do not torment me with false hopes," I said, and my voice sounded rasping even to my own ears.
"Your hopes are not false," she replied softly. Her expression was inscrutable. I did not dare to hope, despite her reassurances. I glanced away, and my eyes landed on the carpet bags sitting in the hallway.
"Mattie, do you mean... That is, am I to understand that you wish to stay here with me?"
"I do, if having a prickly old maid underfoot will not be too great a burden for you to bear," she replied, smiling hesitantly.
"I do not have many years left in this world," I said slowly, blinking rapidly and swallowing the lump which rose in my throat. "I want only to spend what time remains to me in your company. I no longer wish to be apart from you, for any reason of my own or that of any other man. I have... I have missed you long enough, Mattie."
She was silent for a moment, and then she stood and, leaning forward at her waist and resting her hand on my shoulder, pressed a kiss to my forehead. I reached up and grasped her forearm, gripping her as though she might be ripped away from me.
"You are the silliest of men, of that I am very sure," she said, her forehead resting against mine.
"Indeed," I replied, pained. It was not untrue, although I thought it rather uncharitable of her to say it so plainly.
"You know, I still have not forgiven you for the thrashing you gave me that morning on the bank of the river, Mr. Thomas Cavanaugh LaBoeuf."
I laughed, surprising myself. It was a dry, ill-used sound. "I am sorry to hear that. I will try to make amends, Miss Mattie Ross."
"You are not the only one with amends to make. Not by far," she replied.
She slipped her hand into mine, and did not let go for a long while.
We have told the neighbours that she is my widowed sister, come to look after me in my twilight years. I do not know whether anyone believes our little fiction. It is likely that we are simply too old for anyone to care about our comings and goings. Age renders a person, if not invisible, then at least inconsequential. For this, I am grateful. We are able to live in peace, undisturbed.
Mattie has revived the dry garden patch behind the house, and grows violets by the doorstep. The chickens are now fatter, and produce eggs. Mattie is a much better cook than I would have guessed, although perhaps my expectations have been lowered during my time as a widower. Every Sunday morning she marches me down the walk and into the black Model T her brother bought her as a gift, and she drives us into town for church. We attend First Presbyterian. I have not bothered to mention to Mattie that my mother was a Methodist and my father was a Catholic, and that I am not partial myself, for it makes her very happy to go, and she loves her Presbyterianism more than any other earthly thing.
We talk often of the old days, of Cogburn and Lucky Ned Pepper, of train robberies and rattlesnakes and snowy mountain nights around campfires. Mattie loves to tell stories, and loves to hear all those stories I did not have a chance to tell her of before; of my childhood outside Alexandria in Louisiana, the war, and of my time as a Ranger. Those wild days of lawless men and a land so vast that it seemed impenetrable. Now I look at maps and do not understand what I am seeing. The space has been filled with a spider web of lines connecting each thing to every other thing. I do not like the orderliness of it as much as I thought I would.
They call these days golden, or roaring. It is supposed to be a new modern age, but I do not see much except newness for the sake of newness, and strangeness, and it weighs on my mind. I am glad to have someone who remembers the same golden days as I do.
I do not fear the gloom that gathers as I approach the end of my life. Mattie has no fear either, but then, I do not think death was ever something she feared. She does not fear it because she has her faith. I do not fear it because I have her. Having lived most of my life in remoteness from her, I have already lived through a kind of hell, and therefore have little to fear in death. It is inevitable, in any case.
We sit together each night on the back porch, in the gloaming, watching the sun settle into the horizon, and listening to the trains as they pass through the valley, heading west.