Whoa. I was not expecting this last chapter to be so difficult to write. I've been struggling with major writer's block for the last six months, and this fic has been the primary victim. I apologise that it's taken this long to get the final chapter out. I hope some of you are still reading. Thank you so much for the messages of encouragement along the way; they buoy me up like you wouldn't believe.
Thank you for reading. Your enjoyment has meant everything to me during the writing of this fic. Y'all are the absolute best. 3
Mattie returned home to Yell County. The fields were empty, the trees bare, and the sky like a steel grey canopy. She had been away from home only six weeks, yet in that time fall had departed and winter arrived to take its place.
It was soon apparent that although Mama was delighted to have her home, her adventure had put Little Frank's nose out of joint. He did not need to say a word; Mattie knew her brother well enough to see that he was sore about it. Not only because he held the sort of romantic ideas about guns and outlaws that all foolish young men have and was therefore envious of her adventures, but because in her absence, he had been expected to take responsibility for farm and family, and he resented her for it. It was several weeks before he graced her with anything more than a sullen grunt when asked a question.
Victoria, meanwhile, was giddy with excitement, and wanted to hear all about this Mr. LaBoeuf, whom she remembered only vaguely from his visit to Yell County years ago during his search for Tom Chaney. She asked Mattie many tiresome, silly questions about his looks and his temper, and what he said to Mattie when he asked her to be his wife. Victoria had her tell that story so many times that Mattie grew exhausted of it, and spoke sharply to her. Victoria had a tender disposition and was hurt, but Mattie could not bring herself to apologise. It would only encourage her to start in again.
Mattie had been home three days when she received a telegram. She and Little Frank were in town for supplies and Mr. Smalling, who managed the post office, near ran her down in the street to deliver it. She tucked it inside her coat and read it much later that night, when she was alone in her bedroom.
WEATHER IS FINE AND DRY
HAULING ROCKS FROM THE RIVER FOR THE HOUSE
WILL WRITE SOON
YOURS SGT LABOEUF
Mattie pored over the words with her eyes and her fingertips until she began to feel foolish for finding a piece of paper such a fascination. She folded the telegram in half and placed it inside the bible at her bedside before extinguishing her lamp. Lying back against her pillow, she saw a picture in her mind of LaBoeuf laying rocks out to make the foundation of the house. Their house.
Such a thing still seemed downright fanciful to her, but as the weeks passed and LaBoeuf began to send her letters telling her in great detail about the progress he made on the house, her fancy took shape as a real building of stone and whitewashed clapboard.
They wrote to one another as often as the speed of the postal service and their busy days would allow. Mama had Mattie and Victoria sewing from dawn to dusk all that winter, until Mattie was certain that she had enough sheets and curtains and dishtowels to outfit a whole brigade of young brides.
At Christmas, Mattie wrote Rooster a letter, informing him of her engagement and asking him to visit, and received a reply three months later. He said he always knew that LaBoeuf's ranting and raving about her "sauciness" could not be for nothing, and that he was glad "the stuffed-shirt dandy" had the starch to ask for her hand after all. Last of all he said that he was pleased she said yes, for the world did not need any more "cranky old maids" than it already had.
Mattie replied to say that she hoped he might come to Yell for the wedding, which would not be for some months yet, but she would let him know of the precise date when she was able. She received no reply.
There was a foreign restlessness in Mattie that she found difficult to abide. It was nearly intolerable through the long, dark months of winter when there was little work at hand to occupy her. At times she caught herself staring off at nothing, her mind exploring the regions of memory and far-off hopeful things which may never come to be.
Mattie was glad indeed when winter gave way to spring, and there was more work at hand than could be accomplished in a day. Her mind had precious little time to wander then.
In July, LaBoeuf wrote her to say that a spate of twisters and summer storms had done some damage to the house, but that he had quickly made up the difference and good progress was being made once again. The roof was as good as finished, and this accomplishment would provide him with an opportunity to rest, and to take the train to Arkansas to visit her, which he hoped she would not mind.
Mattie wrote back to him and said she would not mind it at all, but he only ought to come if he was certain that he could spare the time and the expense, which seemed frivolous to her. LaBoeuf responded to say that he was certainly coming, and he would arrive in the middle of August.
Mama had Mattie and Victoria clean the entire house from top to bottom. Theirs was always a well-kept place, and Mattie thought they had no reason to put up a false front for LaBoeuf, but by the end of their labours she had to own that the place had never looked better. Mattie was glad for LaBoeuf to see it thus, although her gladness stopped short of pride of course.
The day LaBoeuf was to arrive, Victoria brushed Mattie's hair out and pulled it back into a knot of plaits at the back of her head, and tucked Mattie's two silver-plated combs into the arrangement. Mama insisted on cleaning and pressing Mattie's best dress, which was two years old and made from dark cranberry jacquard-woven silk. Its high collar and one long sleeve made it heavy for the warm summer weather, but Mama would not be swayed. She also gave Mattie her favourite garnet earrings to wear. Once Victoria had laced her into her new whalebone corset and buttoned the dress for her, even Mattie thought the effect was handsome, although she did not say it.
Little Frank hitched their cart mule Jake to the wagon and drove into town in the middle of the afternoon to fetch LaBoeuf from the train station.
Mattie waited on the front porch, for it permitted a breeze and was therefore not as stifling as the parlour. She sat with her spine as straight as a fencepost, sweat pooling under her corset. She longed for a thunderstorm, or a light dress better suited to the heat, or better, a swim in the nearby fishing hole.
Two hours passed in this fashion with Mattie annoyed at the pressing heat and at her own idleness, for Mama would not allow her anywhere near the kitchen while she and Victoria cooked, for fear that she would soil her dress.
Finally, she spotted Jake's dark head come through the trees way down the road, doggedly pulling the cart behind him. Mattie stood and went to the porch railing, peering as the cart drew closer, the figures up on the bench becoming clear. Little Frank drove, and there beside him in all his outlandish Texas trappings sat LaBoeuf.
Mattie's heart leaped into her chest for joy at the sight of him, and she nearly gave way to the urge she felt to fly down the steps and run to him. But she held fast and stood stock still on the porch, her hand gripping the railing as she watched them approach.
Little Frank halted the cart in the yard, and LaBoeuf hopped off the bench with a ringing of spurs. Little Frank got down and began to lead Jake around to the barn but Mattie hardly noticed, so intent was she on LaBoeuf as he approached. He stopped at the bottom of the steps and removed his hat. Looking up at her, he nodded his head.
"Ma'am," he said.
Mattie frowned at him and was about to ask him if he had left his wits on the train when she heard a sharp intake of breath and turned to see her mother and Victoria standing behind her.
"Oh, Mr. LaBoeuf!" Mama exclaimed as he came up the stairs. "It is such a pleasure to see you again at last! I hope you are not altogether too exhausted from your long journey."
LaBoeuf took Mama's hand and pressed a kiss to the back of it before doing the same for Victoria, who beamed.
"No, ma'am, I am not altogether too exhausted," he replied, smiling. "The journey is long but the trains are very comfortable nowadays." He turned and gave Mattie a cordial nod. "Mattie."
"Mr. LaBoeuf," she responded, nodding. Mama bade them all into the house then, saying that supper was just ready and so they might as well eat right away as the food on trains is never wholesome or satisfying and so Mr. LaBoeuf must have a powerful hunger.
Mattie eyed LaBoeuf as they went inside. She hardly expected him to dash up the front steps and sweep her into his arms like the romantic hero in some trash novel. She would not have wanted that. But to have scarcely a greeting for her at all seemed peculiar. Perhaps he was wary of being too familiar with her in the presence of her mother. Yet he had not shied away when they were all together in Texarkana. So what reason for his aloofness?
All through supper he seemed to avoid her eyes, conversing mostly with Mama about how busy he had been with his new bail bond work in Ysleta. Mattie could not figure him. Ignoring her entirely seemed beyond the requirements of cordiality, and needlessly prudish even for LaBoeuf. Why would he not look at her? Had something happened? Had he changed his mind? Had he come here to tell her that he had been mistaken, and did not want to marry her after all?
Mattie hardly swallowed a bite, so anxious was she, and so intent on silently cursing him did she become.
After the meal, Mama suggested – with a sly smile in Mattie's direction – that they take a walk so LaBoeuf might see the cotton fields in bloom. They did so, walking across the barnyard without speaking, as the dusky twilight descended around them.
The silence between them lasted so long that Mattie felt acute agony begin to tear at some place deep in her breast. It became hard to draw a breath, and her eyes stung. She did not know what to think of this awkwardness between them, nor did she know what she might have done to cause it, nor what she might do to repair it. It bewildered her entirely.
They walked up the path that went past the barn, towards the paddocks where the horses grazed in the cool summer gloaming. As they passed the rear door to the barn, LaBoeuf paused and looked back at the house. Suddenly he grabbed her hand and pulled her after him into the barn, and before she knew what was happening, he had tumbled her back into a heap of hay which Little Frank had pitched down from the hayloft that morning. LaBoeuf lay right on top of her, and his hat was tipped back on his head so that he looked a complete fool. He grinned that smug grin of his, and Mattie wanted to smack him.
"Hidy," he said and, without waiting for her reply, dropped his head and kissed her soundly on the mouth, his whiskers scratching her.
"You are a scoundrel!" she scolded the moment he paused long enough for her to catch her breath. "You had me thinking... Well, never mind what you had me thinking! I ought to box your ears."
"I apologise," he replied, not looking the least bit sorry. "Would it help you know that I think you look very lovely tonight?"
Mattie glowered at him. She had never known him to be playful or deliberately silly in this way, and she found it rather alarming.
"I have missed you," he said. "Your letters were a source of great delight to me, but as they contained more news of the well-being of your crops and your ledger, and less of the degree of your longing for my company, I must say they do not compare to being at your side."
Embarrassed, Mattie could feel her cheeks redden, and she frowned and let her gaze slide away from his.
"Ah! I did not know whether any delicate feminine modesty lived in you, but there is my answer."
Mattie's frown deepened. "It is not 'delicate feminine modesty.' I am merely suspicious of grandiose flattery."
"Is it grandiose flattery to say that I missed you? You grow stingier with your sugar all the time. But you will simply have to accept that on occasion I will like to say that I enjoy your company and am very fond of you." He regarded her expectantly, a smile quirking his mouth. "Have you no similar endearment for me, or has my behaviour today shut me out of your affections indefinitely?"
"Your behaviour today has made me wonder whether I ought to commit you to an asylum for the mentally deranged rather than marry you," Mattie sniffed.
"Ah, but I see that marriage is still a card on the table. That is a great relief to me," LaBoeuf replied. He leaned his weight off of her, propping himself up on one elbow. "How do you do, Miss Mattie Modesty?"
Mattie shifted, trying to put some space between them. The closeness of him after so many months apart was making her feel rather silly. "I do very fine, when I am not being harangued by presumptuous popinjays with sawdust for brains."
LaBoeuf smiled at her. It seemed her sharp words no longer affected him, or that they had some opposite, unintended effect. He lifted his free hand and brushed his thumb against her eyebrow before resting it beneath her eye and cupping her cheek in his palm.
"When I say I missed you, it is not flattery. It is God's honest truth," he said. "But I see you are put out that I did not favour you with my attention the moment I arrived. May I attempt to make amends for this transgression?"
Mattie shrugged and looked away, uninterested in his foolishness. LaBoeuf turned her face back towards his and leaned down, pressing a kiss to her cheekbone, her forehead, and her nose, before kissing her lips. He lingered there for some time, sliding an arm under her shoulders to pull her very close. When finally his embrace loosened, Mattie blinked and let her head fall back into the hay. She swallowed hard around the lump in her throat.
LaBoeuf leaned his forehead against hers. "Tell me you did miss me," he said, his voice low and gruff.
"I did miss you," Mattie whispered. She did not look away from his gaze, although she felt some strange urge to glance to the side, or cover her face. "I should like to have you this close to me always."
LaBoeuf closed his eyes, a pained expression crossing his face. He sighed raggedly. "Mattie, I have something to confess to you."
Mattie watched him closely, a measure of her earlier anxiety returning. She swallowed. "What is it? Tell me."
"I promised you and your mother I would have that house finished by the end of the summer so that we could be married and I could take you back with me," he said, looking away from her.
"Yes, I remember, of course."
"The house will not be finished by the end of summer, Mattie," he replied.
"Oh," Mattie breathed. Disappointment choked her. She had hoped it would be finished in the next month, so that they might be married and be settled enough to have Christmas in their new home. But she felt certain that he had done his utmost, and so she did not want to offend him by showing her feelings.
"But the trouble is that I cannot wait for that damned house to be finished," he said, clasping her hand in his.
"Mr. LaBoeuf!" she scolded, appalled at his language. "I would like for the house to be finished, too, but there is hardly a need for that kind of-"
"Mattie, marry me tomorrow. Or the day after, if you prefer. But marry me and come home with me on that train next Tuesday."
"Well!" Mattie said. "That is -"
"Do you think your mother would object? I will speak to her. I will assure her that my room is a very fine one in a respectable boarding house, and that our house will be completed with the utmost haste, and -"
"Mr. LaBoeuf, you are the one who made the stipulation that our house be completed before we could marry. My mother will be overjoyed, I am certain, to see me married immediately."
"Do you object?" he asked earnestly. "I understand if you do not wish to marry and go to live in a boarding house and not have all of your things around you, but-"
"I would marry you if you had only the clothes on your back and an empty shanty on the bald prairie. However, I will deny these words should you ever repeat them to anyone."
LaBoeuf smiled at her, looking exceedingly pleased. "Now, why is it back to 'Mr. LaBoeuf' when in your letters you felt free to call me Emery?"
Mattie stared at him, finding herself without the means to respond. She gaped for a moment, and then swallowed, collecting herself. "Well," she said, "in my letters I found I was at liberty to – that is, it is rather different when I am looking right at you."
LaBoeuf's smile grew wider. "I would kiss you again, but then I fear I would want to keep you here for much longer than your mother would think appropriate."
He got to his feet then, and Mattie felt rather foolish, left lying on her back in a heap of hay. LaBoeuf reached out his hand and took hers, drawing her to her feet.
Mattie stood still as LaBoeuf brushed off the back of her skirt and picked every bit of hay from her hair.
"Your mother is a good sport," he said, "but I expect even she would not like to know that we have been in this pile of hay, here."
"Putting it that way makes the thing sound as though you have taken liberties with me, when in truth you have enjoyed very few," Mattie replied.
LaBoeuf guffawed. "That is the truth, and if your mother suspects anything, that is what I will tell her. She knows you well, so she will believe me."
Mattie felt herself blush, and said nothing, a smile playing about her mouth. When LaBoeuf was satisfied that she looked presentable once again, he took her hand in his.
"Tell me truly – do you mind it if we marry now and return to Texas, to an unfinished house?"
"Have I said that I mind it?" Mattie asked.
"You have not," LaBoeuf replied.
"And have you ever known me to lie, or to play false to protect a man's pride?"
LaBoeuf's whiskers twitched, and he shook his head. "That I have certainly not known you to do."
"Well," Mattie said, "there you are. You need not worry on it a moment longer."
"Shall we go see what your mother thinks of it, then?"
Mattie did not reply. She merely squeezed his hand, and they walked back to the house together with hands clasped, the gloaming deepening into night all around them.
They were married that Monday, two days after LaBoeuf arrived in Yell County.
Mattie wore a brand new dress which her mother had made for her by a seamstress months earlier at a terrible expense. Mattie had never worn anything but homemade before, and she was almost afraid to wear it for fear of doing it some damage. It was made of dove grey satin with braided black velvet trim. The left sleeve was cut short and sewn neatly shut for her arm, and the other sleeve was cut close and darted, flattering the slenderness of her wrist and hand. It was trimmed with black braid and white lace, as was the high collar. The bodice was fitted with darts, coming to a low point at her waist, and Victoria had to lace her tightly into her new whalebone corset so the dress would fall properly. The overskirt dropped straight from her waist and gathered over a modest bustle in the back. The rest of the skirt fell to the floor with a row of small flounces which Victoria declared "very fashionable." Mattie did not know whether the dress was fashionable, not having an interest in such things. She only knew that it was very beautiful and fine, and that it looked like a dress that could not possibly belong to her.
They were married in town, in the church her father had helped to build many years earlier when he was only a young man. Little Frank drove them there in the cart, all of them in their Sunday best. LaBoeuf was staying at the hotel in town, and walked to the church to meet them. Mattie stood waiting in the vestibule with Mama while a handful of neighbours and friends of Mama's filed into the church, most greeting Mattie with curious looks that bordered on insulting.
When LaBoeuf arrived, he did so with little announcement, for he did not wear his spurs with the big noisy rowels. Instead he was dressed in a smart brown suit and a hat with a brim so modest it looked peculiar on him. He greeted Mama and apologised for being late. Mama assured him that it was no matter, and said she would go in to make sure all was ready. She disappeared into the chapel proper, leaving them alone. LaBoeuf cleared his throat, and looked her up and down like he was buying a horse.
"Well," he said. "You look downright womanly."
"I am a woman," Mattie replied, smoothing her hand self-consciously over her skirt.
Uncomfortable under his unwavering gaze, Mattie tipped her chin at him. "I did not know you owned clothing not made of buckskin and adorned with fringe. I hardly recognize you."
LaBoeuf gave her a sour look as his cheeks reddened, and then he frowned. "I will own that this suit is not comfortable. I do not feel like myself."
Mattie felt sorry for him, and ceased her teasing. It was almost comical, the two of them dressed up in their fine clothes for which they felt no affinity.
"What are you smirking about, now?" LaBoeuf asked.
"I am thinking about how silly we both are," she admitted. "But you look very nice in your fine suit."
"You look handsome as well," he replied. His eyes were warm as he looked at her, and Mattie felt some ridiculous sensation clutch at her chest, making it difficult to draw a proper breath. The tightness of her corset was no help in that respect, either.
Mama returned then, and bade them into the chapel.
Although the ceremony was a solemn procedure and not overlong, Mattie had a difficult time concentrating on a word the preacher said. All she could do was look at LaBoeuf and ponder the smug expression he had worn the first moment she clapped eyes on him, and its difference from the serious look which dressed his face now. He looked like an anxious boy.
It was over quickly, Mattie hardly able to absorb the solemn vows she promised before the preacher concluded the thing and pronounced them married. LaBoeuf kissed her once, quickly, taking her hand in his.
LaBoeuf signed the register first, then watched as Mattie signed. He reached over her shoulder and held the book in place with his left hand while Mattie carefully wrote her name with her right.
"Mattie Emmeline Ross LaBoeuf," he read aloud when she had finished and stood. He glanced at her. "How do you like that?"
"I like it all right," she replied, and LaBoeuf smiled, and said no more.
They went back to the farm then for a luncheon to which several neighbours had been invited. Many more came than Mattie expected. She supposed they came to see whether it was true that Mattie Ross was well and truly a married woman, or whether folks in town had been telling tall tales again.
All who came brought food with them, cold fried chicken and biscuits and pickles and tongue sandwiches. There was lemonade and sweet tea from the ice house. A neighbour, Oakley Batchelor, who had been friends with Mattie's father, brought watermelons so ripe their rinds split open in the hot sun with a sound like a piece of muslin being torn in half. They ate at tables set outside in the shade of the house, and Mattie was glad that it was a mild day with a breeze, for otherwise the heat would have made her dress intolerable.
Everyone idled there for hours, eating and sharing news in leisure. Mattie supposed it was all right, although it was a Monday, and no day for resting. She sat by Victoria, who stuck much closer to her than was comfortable in the heat. But Mattie allowed it. Soon, they would not be close anymore, nor ever again. Not like when they were girls.
Night fell, and fireflies began to gather from the fishing hole to fly dozily around everyone's heads. The small children began to fall asleep in their mothers' laps, and the older children shuffled restlessly. The party was over.
LaBoeuf had had their tickets changed, so that instead of returning to El Paso, they were to venture south to Pineville. Mattie was to be introduced to LaBoeuf's family. He told her he had written them all about her months ago and they were most anxious to meet her. Mattie looked forward to the trip, for she had never been to Louisiana, and was curious about a place that could produce such a person as her Mr. LaBoeuf.
They were to leave in the morning, first thing.
When the guests had all driven off in wagons and carts or sleepily on foot, Mattie helped Mama and Victoria clean up while LaBoeuf showed Little Frank how to whittle a wooden pipe out on the porch.
It did not take long to tidy the place, and soon everything was as it had been. Standing in the kitchen, Mama sighed and glanced at Mattie.
"I think I will say goodbye to you here," she said, her voice wavering, "so that you may get off to Louisiana in good spirits in the morning. You know I cannot manage a gracious farewell."
"I know, Mama," Mattie replied. Victoria began to cry, and attempted to say some sort of farewell of her own to Mattie, but she was impossible to understand, and so Mattie simply pulled her close and allowed her little sister to cling to her for a few minutes more.
A few of the hands had stayed up to say their goodbyes out on the porch, including old Yarnell. He shook her hand and LaBoeuf's, and said he reckoned any man who would take a stubborn, bossing thing like her on had to be crazier than a bag of cats, but good luck anyway.
Little Frank had the cart ready, then, and they made ready to depart. LaBoeuf sat up on the bench with her brother, and Mattie sat in the back with all of her bags and her trunk full of new sheets and dishtowels, as well as the wedding gifts they had received.
The cart pulled out of the yard, and Mattie raised a hand to wave to Mama and Victoria, who stood together on the porch. Victoria sobbed so loudly it carried across the yard, and then she buried her face in Mama's shoulder. Mattie dropped her hand to her lap and looked away, biting her lip. There was no need to be foolish about such things.
The ride back into town was long, and it passed almost entirely in silence except for the sound of the frogs croaking in the marshy ditches.
Little Frank dropped them at the hotel, and helped LaBoeuf unload Mattie's things onto the wide clapboard porch, where a sleepy-looking young desk clerk from the hotel with hair the colour of bright fresh straw collected them, and whisked them away upstairs.
"Well," Little Frank said, when they had finished.
"Well," Mattie replied, looking at her little brother.
"So long, then," he said. He stuck a hand out.
"So long," she repeated, taking his hand and giving it a firm squeeze. Abruptly, Little Frank yanked her forward and gave her a firm clap on the back with his free hand. "Don't give him too hard a time, you ugly old badger."
With a grin, he pulled away from her and leaped off the top step of the porch, nearly spooking poor old Jake. He clambered up onto the bench and chirruped to the mule, who took off at a speedy trot.
"Are all young men such baboons?" Mattie asked LaBoeuf, who stood by her side, looking after her brother somewhat disapprovingly.
"I'm afraid they are," he said, removing his hat. "I suppose you will only be wanting girl children."
Mattie wrinkled her nose. "Girls are no better. They are only another kind of foolish."
LaBoeuf gave a sharp bark of laughter, and they went inside and found their way to his room.
"It seems wasteful to spend the night in a hotel," Mattie said once they were inside and LaBoeuf was bent over lighting the lamp.
LaBoeuf did not look up at her, or reply right away. After a moment, he cleared his throat. "You do not wish to be alone with me the first night that we are man and wife?"
"I did not say that. I said only that the expense of a hotel seems extravagant when we might have stayed at the farm before catching our train tomorrow."
Again, LaBoeuf was quiet a moment before he spoke. "I thought you might prefer privacy tonight."
Mattie looked at him, turned away from her, and in the bend of his shoulders saw that she might wound him in some invisible place if she said the wrong thing.
"It is not that I do not want to be alone with you," she said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "I am only concerned about unnecessary expenses when we still have a house to finish. That is all."
LaBoeuf turned and carried the lamp to the bedside table. He set it there and stared at it for a long moment before turning to look at her.
"I do not know what your mother has... That is to say, if you are tired and would simply like to go to sleep tonight, I will abide by your desire," he said, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
Mattie kept her gaze fixed on his, not wanting him to think her frightened of him. "That is not necessary," she said.
A long silence passed between them, broken only when Mattie cleared her throat.
"Will this be the first time you have done this?" she asked. LaBoeuf looked at her, a dour and conflicted expression on his face. Mattie could tell he was considering a fib. "I only wish to know whether you know what you are doing. One of us ought to. I would rather you give me the truth even if you think I will not like it."
"I know what I am doing," he said slowly, his eyes not leaving hers. "I am older than you are, and it is different for a man."
"I will own that is all true enough," Mattie replied.
LaBoeuf frowned and looked away from her, scratching his chin thoughtfully with his thumb. After a moment, he cleared his throat.
"If you are angry with me, I understand. I will not touch you if you are angry with me," he said, catching her gaze once more. "But Mattie, I wish for you to know that I am no philanderer. I have vowed a duty and a loyalty to you which is sacred. I will never stray from your side in this lifetime or the next."
"All right," Mattie replied. LaBoeuf looked unconvinced. "I am not angry with you. I only want to know the truth; I do not wish to be coddled. That is all I ever want."
LaBoeuf nodded. He regarded her with hesitation a moment longer, and then came to sit beside her on the bed. He kissed her then, his whiskers scratching her face.
He kissed her and pulled her close, his hands on her waist. He kissed her face and her jaw, her ears and down her neck, pushing her high collar aside. Mattie was still, unsure where to put her hand as he pushed her gently back against the pillows.
It was a strange and foreign thing, and at times Mattie felt the pain and the embarrassment Mama had warned her of in vague whispers, but at times she felt also a curious euphoria, a surge of affection and joy that her body and her heart had never known before.
Later, in the still darkness, Mattie looked up at the beadboard ceiling and listened to the sound of LaBoeuf's breathing deepen. She supposed most women found such a thing foreign on their wedding nights, but she did not. She had slept near him too many times already to be bothered by it.
Mattie thought of the strange series of serendipitous events that had brought them together in this place, and she wondered what hand God had lifted to push them one way or push them another. Perhaps God had not lifted a hand at all. Perhaps they were only in this place because the world is filled with wickedness, and because both of them saw in that world a set of scales in need of balancing, by whoever was willing to see it done.
"Have you ever killed a man?" Mattie asked, her voice seeming unusually loud after the extended silence. LaBoeuf did not answer right away, and Mattie supposed him to be asleep.
"You know I have," he said softly, after a moment. "Lucky Ned Pepper. Although I am given to understand that Cogburn winged him first."
"Yes, but had you ever killed a man before that?" she asked.
"I had, yes, during the war and in the commission of my duties as a Ranger," he replied. Mattie could feel him looking at her, trying to discern her expression in the dark. "Does that upset you?"
Mattie might have mocked the idea that he still thought her delicate somehow, but her mind was occupied elsewhere. "No," she replied. "No, it is not that. Rather, it is merely... That is, do you find that you sometimes dream of them, the men you have killed?"
"No," LaBoeuf said, sounding somewhat bewildered. "No, I do not. Do you?"
A lie presented itself to Mattie, and she turned it over in her hand, considering it. She threw it aside.
"Yes," she said. "Yes, at times I do. At times I have dreamt that it is still winter, and that I am alone on that mountaintop with Tom Chaney. At times I have dreamt that I am in those dark woods with Albert Cunningham once more, and that I am not quick enough and do not get his knife before he takes it and –"
"Mattie," LaBoeuf whispered. His tone was of the type one uses to calm a spooked horse, and all at once Mattie felt ashamed of her fear, and wished desperately that she had not said anything, and that she could turn from him.
"It is nothing," she said. "I am only tired from the excitement of the day."
There was silence for a moment, and then Mattie felt LaBoeuf's hand brush the side of her face. She looked towards him, trying to see his face in the dark. She could not.
"Do not dream of such things tonight," he said. He reached for her then, drawing her close to him.
Mattie let herself be drawn, and said nothing, marvelling to herself that a man who had once taken a switch to her leg in order to humble her now thought her so mighty that she was above the tolls life exacts, that she had power even over the content of her dreams.
The following morning, Mattie left the little town of Dardanelle, Arkansas behind.
A man from the hotel hauled their baggage to the train depot, and Mattie and LaBoeuf followed once they had eaten a simple breakfast of eggs and grits, and hot black coffee for LaBoeuf.
Their train was the first to leave that morning, and they were among the first on it, seated side by side on the wooden bench seat, polished to a bright yellow shine. They watched as the railroad people ran about the platform, readying the train for departure. More passengers boarded, and soon enough the engines roared to life and it let out a long whistle. The train gave a lurch, and pulled away from the platform.
"I would like to get you a good riding horse when we return to Texas," LaBoeuf said in a tone that implied he had given this idea a great deal of consideration. "Perhaps a gelding. I would like to give you that as a wedding gift."
"I am not much for horses," Mattie replied, pulling her gaze from its last glimpse of her old town to look at her new husband.
LaBoeuf gave her a look of disbelief. "You say you are not much for horses?"
"They are useful creatures, but I am not the kind of girl who is silly about them, is what I mean to say."
"Hm," LaBoeuf said. "Not even Alma, who you are leaving behind you now in Arkansas, who you may not ever ride or even see again, given her age? Your old trail pard, who was your most steadfast companion in your pursuit of the scoundrel Cunningham?"
Mattie looked down as she felt her throat tighten. She had gone out to the barn the previous afternoon to bring Alma two apples, and to say goodbye. She had not thought anyone had seen her going about such a softheaded errand, but now she feared LaBoeuf had.
"If you do not care a bit for horses, I can get you some other gift," LaBoeuf suggested. "A cat, perhaps."
Mattie turned and scowled at him. "You are not anywhere near so clever as you would like to think you are. I will take the horse."
LaBoeuf was grinning that cocky grin at her, but he said nothing more.
"You do not mind your wife riding all over the county, making a spectacle of herself?" Mattie asked, after a time.
LaBoeuf gave her a sly look. "I do not mind so long as you do not do anything so dangerous as attempt to ride through a plum thicket. Besides, I am entrusting the pecan grove to you. How else are you to get about and oversee the place but on a horse? The grove is not small. The heat would exhaust you, were you to walk the place."
Mattie stifled the smile that arose at his words. "A little heat does not bother me. Yell County is hardly the frozen tundra."
"You may change your tune once you have spent a summer in El Paso," LaBoeuf replied. "There is nothing little about our heat."
"We will see what tune I sing at the end of summer, then."
"We will," LaBoeuf agreed, smiling.
"So it does not trouble you," Mattie said, eyeing him shrewdly, "that your neighbours in El Paso will think it strange, you having a wife who oversees your pecan grove and occupies herself with business and other mannish things?"
LaBoeuf gave her an arch look. "You overestimate the value I place on the opinions of my neighbours. I know you will not believe it, but I am not one to court others' favour. And what my wife does to occupy herself is no one's concern but hers and my own."
"I do not believe it, but I suppose we will have to wait and see about that as well," Mattie replied. After a moment she sighed and continued, teasing. "I do not know how to be a wife. I have never been one before, you see."
"I do not know how to be a husband, although I have certainly had some theories on the subject conveyed to me," LaBoeuf replied.
"Indeed. Cogburn and I had a series of very illuminating discussions surrounding his views on the state of matrimony."
Mattie grimaced at the thought and did not ask about Rooster's views on the state of matrimony, being familiar enough with them already. She looked down at her lap. The cut bottom of her thimble still looked and felt foreign on her finger. LaBoeuf had cut the thimble into a ring himself the night before with the aid of some borrowed blacksmithing tool Mattie did not know the name of.
"Hm," LaBoeuf sighed. Mattie glanced up to find him also examining her hand. "Would you rather have a gold ring? I understand that is the thing nowadays. If it would please you, I will get you one."
"No!" Mattie protested. "I would rather have my thimble than every gold ring in the state of Texas."
"All right." Silence fell between them as the train rocked gently on its tracks and the piney vistas began to give way to a flatter, balder landscape outside their window. Mattie wondered if Louisiana would be how she had seen in etchings and illustrations – dark swampland and trees hung with swaths of Spanish moss. She wondered if the western parts of Texas would be the way LaBoeuf had described them, or if they would be more the distasteful place of Rooster's recollections. She would have to discover it all for herself. Whatever it was, she hoped that it would be agreeable, and that she would not be too homesick.
"Well!" Mattie sighed and shifted in her seat as she thought of all the unknown things to come. Her chest felt buoyant and she fought the alarming urge to giggle although nothing amusing had transpired.
"Well," LaBoeuf repeated. He regarded her, and there was a twinkle in his eye. "There is nothing for it. We will have to go full bore and negotiate the trail as it comes to us, pard."
"I will concede that you are right about that, Mr. LaBoeuf."
The twinkle became a smile, and Mattie felt the buoyant sensation increase until she thought she might burst if she did not at least smile back. So she did.
"Thank you, Mrs. LaBoeuf."
Mattie felt him clasp her hand in his, giving her a gentle squeeze. She laced her fingers with his and squeezed back, and did not let go.