Disclaimer: True Grit belongs to Charles Portis, the Coen Brothers, and all their affiliates. I'm only borrowing…for now….
Most women were ridiculous, obsessed with pretense and frippery, but once in a while, an exception proved they were the fairer sex in all ways. Lucky Ned Pepper had never given much thought to others' opinions, but he supposed that, for the aforementioned reason, any thought he did give tended to drift toward women's opinions over men's.
Strange, since most women did not care for outlaws, even the ones whom Ned respected. Knowing men like the one sometimes known as Tom Chaney, he didn't wonder why.
He looked down at the girl, her face partially covered by his boot. She was awfully young to be out here. Sniffing – the remnants of a head cold – he wondered what her story was.
He held on to her as the scrambled up the hill after dealing with Cogburn, more to steady her than to control. She didn't run, only stopped to grab her slightly too-large hat that had fallen.
"May I have some bacon?" she asked as she reached his camp, not at all rattled despite being surrounded by outlaws.
"You can help yourself," he said, spreading his arms wide as if in welcome. "Have yourself some of the coffee."
"I do not drink coffee, I am fourteen," she said. Her superior smile was apparent even in her voice.
Fourteen? A child still. "Well we do not have buttermilk and we do not have bread," he said, more as a challenge than anything else, and immediately felt ashamed. "We are poorly supplied."
"I will ring your scrawny neck!" Chaney snarled from behind him, hindered by his wounded side.
"You let that go," Ned said. And he meant it. The wound was minor, and the last thing he needed was Tom to kill the most interesting character he'd met in a long while. He turned to her, knowing it would be more truthful than Chaney. "What happened?"
Ned observed her in silence as she told her story about murdering Toms and dead fathers and federal marshals. Mattie cut a dramatic figure, her back to the plains in one of the most desolate mountain ranges in the country. She wore a large coat, likely not her own, cinched with a belt, and carried that ridiculously treacherous gun. Her pigtails were the only thing that belied her age, and even then, a lot less than those on most girls. Her hat sat perched on her head, making her seem a lot older.
An image of an Indian squaw from long ago surfaced in Ned's mind, a woman he had left behind and hadn't thought of for years. She too had worn her hair in pigtails and contained more grit in her thin, borderline-malnourished body than most men Ned had known or met since.
Originally, it had shocked him to find a young girl in the wilderness with only a one-eyed fat marshal as dubious protection. Now, hearing it in her own words, it all made sense. The squaw would have ventured into the wilderness to avenge her father's death, too.
"If I had killed Chaney, I would not be in this mess. My revolver misfired."
He laughed slightly. "It will do it. It will embarrass you every time. Most girls like to play pretties, but you like guns, do ya?"
"I do not care a thing for guns. If I did, I would have one that worked."
Chaney interrupted, disputing her story, and Ned knew instantly he was lying without caring to ask himself why.
"How can you sit there and tell such a big story?"
"That pit is a hundred feet deep and I will throw you in it," Chaney retorted, sounding more like a child than ever when faced with the light of truth.
Chaney rambled on as Ned frowned, reaching for his spyglass. Was Rooster over the hill now? Surely he would not leave the girl.
There he was. Time to answer another question. "Was that Rooster that waylaid us the night before last?"
"That was Marshall Cogburn and myself."
"You and Cogburn. Quite the posse," he said, more to himself than her. No wonder she chose Cogburn – she was as merciless as he, albeit in different ways.
He returned Cogburn's shot, still thinking. He would not kill Mattie unless he had to, and it didn't look like he would. She would not be swayed from her goal of avenging her father's death, and after the journey he knew she must have taken, he could not blame her. Turning Tom in rubbed him wrong, but then, Tom would kill a fourteen-year-old child. Ned knew he would do it. He could leave the girl here and count on Cogburn fearing the wrath of the law for leaving a fourteen-year-old child out here – surely someone knew she was out here.
But leaving Miss Ross out here alone as he rode off felt wrong even to him. Ned Pepper was no angel, but he was no Satan, either.
He sat across from her once more, tilting his spyglass side to side, even as he acknowledged the doctor's concern at leaving. What to do with Mattie Ross? He stalled, asking about Quincy and the kid, and believed her when she said it was "a terrible thing to see." He had a feeling she didn't use that wording often.
"Please let us move, Ned. The marshall is gone." He barely heard him.
"You need a good lawyer?" Mattie asked.
He grinned in dry humor. "I need a good judge." He meant it. The day he faced a judge, he knew he would face judgement day not long after. He would be lying if he said it wasn't warranted. Death was an old friend, anyway.
"What happened to Coke Hayes, the old fellow who fell of his horse?" he asked.
She confirmed that Coke was dead in a manner considerably more pitiless than when she told about Quincy and Moon. It was a good shot by Cogburn – Ned couldn't deny it, although he cursed Rooster's seemingly incapability of letting an outlaw live for trial.
"Your friend Rooster does not collect many prisoners," was all he said. Mattie's reaction surprised him.
"He is not my friend." Her tone was colder than a witch's nose. "He has abandoned me to a congress of louts."
Her unfailing honesty made him smile and wonder what "civilized" folk thought when she called them out on their falsehoods. "You do not varnish your opinion."
Her silence wiped the smile. He was not a man to care much for others' opinions. He would have finished himself off in one fashion or another if he had. As he looked at her, however, he felt a foreign feeling.
Her question of needing a good lawyer let him know that she didn't despise him as she did Chaney, but he knew that her opinion of him would never be as high as his was of her. She thought he was a bad man. And he actually cared.
It was not the wisest decision to make, but standing up and looking away from Mattie Ross, he knew what he had to do.
He stressed the value of Mattie's life to Tom. He had full confidence in her abilities to survive if it was at all possible, even though he knew Tom was crazy. But Ned knew this was his only chance to give things a shot of being right, without letting his gang lose faith in him.
They never liked Tom much, anyway.
He left the two, Miss Ross and Tom Chaney. Maybe Mattie would kill him. Probably Rooster would come back. Without a doubt, however, Ned would send a horse later that night just in case.
Facing Reuben Cogburn was a relief at first. He was initially quite sure things would go well, both for his remaining gang and Mattie, now that Cogburn was here. Surely he would give them the road.
"I aim to kill you, Ned, in about one minute…"
Those words signaled the end, despite the odds. Your friend Rooster does not take many prisoners. His own words spat back at him, in physical form.
He took a deep breath, squaring his shoulders. As the final judgement weighed in, he found peace. He faced all his mistakes. He gave up regrets a long time ago. Most of all, Mattie would be okay. Tom, due to his own fault, would not.
When the mysterious bullet hit that prefaced his final fall to the ground, so similar to the night before last yet not, he knew it was from Mattie's direction. It never occurred to him that she could not possibly make that shot, because she seemed as capable as anyone, yet he hoped it was another, Deputy Potter perhaps, not her that fired – surely it had to be….
He never cared much for opinions, murderer and thief that he was, but he supposed that he held Mattie Ross's in the highest. And as Death extended his hand, he hoped that, years from now, years he wouldn't see, she would look back on today and think that maybe he had not been a hero, but he had not been so bad.
This is the hardest piece of fanfiction I have ever written. Barry Pepper's performance as Ned spoke volumes, but as for the exact nature of those volumes, it was hard to flesh out. I adore True Grit, from the characters to the plot to the setting, and all I can hope is that I gave one of the most interesting minor characters created the spotlight that he deserves, if only for a few pages. Please review – I really want to know if I got his voice right. A simple "yes" or "no" would even be nice, although elaboration is preferred.