With thanks to my dear jenbachand, who read this over for me.
Wild Rippling Water by snarkypants
The room to which Mrs. Floyd led him was the same one where Mattie Ross had slept years before. Grandma Turner was not now in evidence, but there remained a lingering scent of camphor oil in the room.
It had taken him six bits to be rid of Grandma Turner for the duration of his interview with Mattie Ross. The old woman had protested at first, insisting that the girl needed her nearby for the sake of propriety, but she changed her tune when he withdrew his coin purse. As soon as the coins were in her knurled arthritic hands she was out of the bed and down the stairs with a speed that surprised him, leaving him alone with the girl.
The old woman's mercenary turn had been disturbing. On one hand, it made his work easier, but what if he had been the sort of man to take advantage?
Mattie Ross was fortunate, indeed, that he did not pursue his thought of stealing a kiss. No one would have blamed him for stealing more than a kiss, since she had removed herself from the safety of her family, and had behaved with unfeminine willfulness withal.
He had set out to scare her, to intimidate her into compliance, first with his presence and, that failing, with his words. Neither had worked. The girl's saucy manner might easily have provoked a lesser man, a man without LaBoeuf's scruples, into ungentlemanly behavior.
"Have you been here before, Mr. LaBoeuf?" Mrs. Floyd asked, looking at him with a narrowed eye.
"I have, ma'am. About five years ago."
She smiled beneficently, mystery solved. "Oh, I never forget a face," she said. "I may not be handy with names, but once I have seen a face it is locked in my memory forever. What brings you back to Fort Smith?"
"I am testifying before Judge Parker's court."
"You are the Texas Ranger, yes, I remember now. You were here about the business with that poor girl and her father."
"'Poor girl,'" he echoed. "Do you mean Mattie Ross?"
"Oh, yes, that was her name."
"Last I heard about her was that she was expected to recover."
"She did recover, but the doctor had to take her arm, the poor little thing. I saw her as they put her on the train for home, and I declare you have never seen anything so pitiful in your life before. We gathered up half the town to bid her farewell."
The Mattie Ross he had known would not have liked that. He could picture her easily, stone-faced and glaring at the ostensible well-wishers.
"Do you hear any more of her?"
Mrs. Floyd's eyes lit up, and her smile became even more cloying. "Well, sir, I do not hear much from Dardanelle, but I can tell you that your Miss Ross is at home and unmarried still."
"That is not what—" he began, but Mrs. Floyd was off and running.
"I swan that is precisely what that poor girl needs: a good, Christian man who will take her on despite her defects." Her face creased with some garish swell of emotion. "Oh, God bless you, sir."
He cleared his throat. "Thank you, ma'am," he said, and moved toward the door, hoping she would take the hint.
She did, but as he was closing the door she stuck her head back into the room. "If you would like paper and ink to write her they are in the parlor downstairs. I will just add a dime to your keep."
Monarch Boarding House
Fort Smith, Arkansas
April 13th, 1885
May I call on you and your family on the afternoon of Thursday, the 16th of April? I am in Fort Smith on business, and at its conclusion, if welcome, would take the train the short distance to Dardanelle happily to renew my acquaintance.
G. J. LaBoeuf
The return letter arrived the following evening, written in a delicate, spidery hand, with the loops pulled so thin as to be almost invisible.
April 14th, 1885
You are indeed most welcome to call on us Thursday. We will expect you at some time after four in the afternoon. If you are not too greatly detained by travel, you are cordially invited to join us for supper, which will be ready at six that evening.
Once in Dardanelle LaBoeuf installed himself in a respectable-looking boarding house not far from the station. The proprietress, Mrs. Hayden was neither as garrulous nor as parsimonious as Mrs. Floyd at the Monarch had been, and her maid brought him a bowl of hot water and a small looking glass without requiring him to explain why he wished to look as well as he might.
When he had chosen the Monarch back in Fort Smith he forgotten both the sparse quality of Mrs. Floyd's bill of fare and the landlady's innate officiousness, else he might have chosen another boarding house. His only excuse was that when he disembarked the train, groggy and fatigued with the day's travel, the familiarity of the house had been a spur moving him onwards, so to speak.
Of course, if he had chosen another boarding house he would not have heard more about the girl Mattie… or Miss Ross, as he supposed he should now call her.
He dressed himself in his spare shirt. This, like his neckerchief, was freshly laundered; he had learned that laundry was one service that Mrs. Floyd provided well, although it came dear, and the knowing look she gave him almost convinced him to give up the enterprise. He buttoned up his waistcoat and gave a cursory shine to his badge of office.
After giving the jacket of his court suit a good shaking out he decided that it was still up to standards. It smelled of cigar smoke, but such things were to be expected when travelling. If he were at home (or what passed for home these days), he would have taken a brush to the dark brown corduroy, but as with the smoke this could not be helped.
The short walk to the Ross house was pleasant, especially after being cooped up in either a train or a courtroom for several days. It was just warm enough that he did not miss his buckskins and flannels, just cool enough that he did not break a sweat.
He was unaccustomed to journeying without a horse, and every so often on this trip he had caught himself wondering how Pablo fared in the train's livestock car or at the town's livery stable, before he remembered that the gelding was in the troop herd in Texas, unaware of either LaBoeuf's absence or concern.
The turning of the road amidst a small grove of pecan trees was just as he had remembered it. The house, too, with its tidy outbuildings and garden, was much the same. A well-appointed buggy sat near the barn, with a pair of well-matched bays harnessed to it.
The last time he had been here, Mattie's younger brother had met him out front, chattering about horses and looking with wide, impressed eyes at his gun rig and the Sharps Carbine on his saddle. Her younger sister had hidden herself behind the front door as he spoke with Mrs. Ross, peeping out at him with one eye. Neither child was now in evidence; he walked up to the door in silence.
Mattie opened the door with a pleasing eagerness, but then she just stared at him, as though he had materialized from the ether. He removed his hat and she blinked a few times, as though not quite trusting her eyes.
"Good heavens, it is Mr. LaBoeuf," she finally said, weakly at that.
"'Good heavens'?" he echoed, feeling a prickling of the annoyance she had engendered in him years ago. "I am not given to dropping in without warning, Miss Ross; I assure you, I was invited."
She shook her head, and tried to smile at him. "Of course you are. Is it Thursday? Forgive my manners; we have had some upheaval here in the past few days, and I was supposing… well, I thought to see my brother or my sister at the doorstep, not you, a friend."
He accepted the apology with a curt nod, and took her in with a shock of his own. His eye went to the left sleeve of her blouse: nonexistent from the elbow down, the truncated sleeve sewn shut so as not to waste fabric on an empty forearm. His heart made a sick little thump in his chest. The gossipy Mrs. Floyd had the right of it.
He realized that he had been somehow expecting to see the same young girl he had last seen in the Winding Stair Mountains, still whole and still wearing her childish short skirts and braids. He could not account for it, but all of a sudden he felt ancient.
She was no prettier than she had been as a girl, but there was brilliancy to her complexion that somehow offset her stern bearing. She bore not one superfluous scrap of ornament on her person. Mattie had grown tall and slender, and the color and cut of her simple ash-grey gown suited her angular frame and haughty face far better than would the doll-like excesses of flounces and ringlets worn by fashionable young women.
"It would be wrong for me to turn you back when you have come so far out of your way," she was saying, "but you may not wish to remain, and I would not begrudge you for it at all."
"Begrudge me… what, exactly? What has happened?"
She brought her thin hand to her forehead and pressed with her fingertips. "There is some, ah, difficulty with my sister and as a result there is some difficulty with my brother and therefore with my mother. As a result of all these, the family supper that was promised you may be little more than the 'dinner of herbs,' but I will do my best." She paused to take a breath and she smiled at him. "Please forgive my grumbling. It does me good to see you so well, Mr. LaBoeuf."
"Can I be of some assistance?" he asked, more from politeness than anything else.
"I very much doubt it, but thank you for asking." She paused. "This is your last chance to withdraw, Mr. LaBoeuf."
"I am made of sterner stuff than that, Miss Ross."
"I do remember it; 'ever stalwart,' indeed." She offered him her hand to shake, and he took it. "Please come in."
She admitted him into a darkened parlor where an agitated Mrs. Ross sat in state; she was now but a frail rendering of the woman he had met five years ago. The shades were drawn and the lamps were lit, giving everything the aspect of twilight, and it took his eyes a few moments to adjust. An older man, bald but for a luxurious sweep of silvery moustaches, sat nearest Mrs. Ross; he rose when Mattie and LaBoeuf entered the room.
"Mama, you remember Mr. LaBoeuf, of course."
Mrs. Ross nodded, and murmured, "Mr. LaBoeuf," and LaBoeuf dipped his head toward her.
"Mr. Daggett, allow me to introduce to you Mr. LaBoeuf of the Texas Rangers," Mattie said. "Mr. LaBoeuf, Mr. Daggett, our attorney and a dear family friend." After a fleeting assessing look and a nod the men shook hands.
"Please do be seated," she said, and Daggett took his seat without pause. This, then, was how the house was run: Mattie in charge. "Can I get you something to drink?"
"I am comfortable, thank you," LaBoeuf said, sitting at the other end of the settee from Daggett, his hat in his lap.
Mattie took up the other parlor chair by the stove.
"Please do not keep me in suspense, Mr. LaBoeuf; I must know what news you have," Mrs. Ross said.
"I would not willfully keep you in suspense, ma'am, but I do not know what you are talking about."
He saw Daggett and Mattie exchange a glance and then she took a deep breath and spoke. "Mr. LaBoeuf, my younger sister Victoria has eloped with a man of… uncertain character."
"There must be some misunderstanding, Mattie," Mrs. Ross piped in a tremulous voice. "Victoria is a good girl; she would not purposely cause me such worry."
"Mama, there is no misunderstanding; she wrote the letter herself." Mattie's voice was gentle but firm.
"Perhaps she was compelled away from home, and here is good Mr. LaBoeuf to bring her home again."
He could not school his features quickly enough to conceal his dismay; the look Mattie turned on him was both amused and pitying, as if to say, "Do you see what you have gotten yourself into?"
"You must read the letter, Mr. LaBoeuf; you can assess its credibility," Mrs. Ross said. She began to look about her for the letter, which served only to increase her agitation when she could not lay hands on it at once. "Oh! Oh! Where is it?"
"I have it, Mama," Mattie said, pulling it from her pocket.
"Oh, Mattie! Do you not see how vexed I am?" The older woman was nearly in tears, wringing her hands together.
"Yes, Mama, I do see. I am sorry." Her tone was softer than LaBoeuf had ever heard it, and she exchanged another of those odd glances with Daggett. She rose to pass the letter to LaBoeuf, and he rose to accept it.
He read it with some difficulty; the room was dark and Victoria's handwriting was uneven, with numerous inkblots marring the page.
Mama sence you & Mattie will not let us Marry Stephen and I are Gone Away into
Indin Territory where You Cannot Find Us. Good-bye. Yr Daughter Victoria
He looked back up again, to see Mrs. Ross's eager eyes following his every move. It was uncharitable of him to compare her expression to a big-eyed spaniel awaiting a treat, but the resemblance did occur to him. "Mrs. Ross—" he began.
"Do you not see?" she said. "She must have been coerced."
LaBoeuf looked to Mattie for guidance, and she shrugged. "Ma'am, I see no clear indication of coercion here," he said. "It is possible—" he began again, only to be cut off once more.
Mrs. Ross burst into tears. "You are all so inclined to believe the worst." For such a fragile thing she was on her feet and out the door before LaBoeuf could even do her the courtesy of rising.
Mattie gave them both a pained look before following her mother.
LaBoeuf just stood there for a moment, feeling awkwardly as though he ought to apologize for something, but for what, and to whom?
Daggett, who had also risen to his feet, looked at LaBoeuf as they seated themselves once more. "Do not be alarmed; Mrs. Ross will be better now. Mattie will give her a medicine for her nerves, and she will sleep."
As the 'formal call' appeared to be over, LaBoeuf set his hat on the floor by his feet. "How long has all this been going on?"
"With Victoria, you mean? Mattie discovered the letter yesterday morning."
"They are for Indian Territory? I wish them joy of it; the Nations do not permit elopers to remain there."
Daggett nodded, looking at LaBoeuf with a growing respect. "Those are my thoughts exactly."
"Where is the brother?"
"Frank is on the trail after them, with naught but a horse and a pistol and ten dollars cash; that is but one of the things we are keeping dark from Mrs. Ross."
"Mattie—Miss Ross, I mean—I am surprised that she did not go."
"She meant to, but… if I may be blunt, her deformity makes it impossible for her to mount up without some assistance, which I believe is a blessing in disguise. She would have taken the gig but I finally convinced her that Babcock is unlikely to take the main roads. She could pass them by and never know it."
"Who is this fellow? Miss Ross called him a man of 'uncertain character,' but if he has eloped with the girl I would say there is nothing 'uncertain' about it."
"Stephen P. Babcock, he called himself. He claimed to be from Memphis, but Mattie had some doubts, so I had my man of business in that city make some discreet enquiries about him, to no avail."
"You learned no ill of him, you mean?"
"I learned nothing of him at all. If he ever lived in Memphis, it was not as 'Stephen Babcock.' A man named 'Stephen Peter Babbitt' lived there a few years back, but I cannot confirm that they are the same man."
LaBoeuf leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I have heard of a 'Stinky Pete' Babbitt," he said, almost musing to himself. "His name is on the Texas adjutant general's fugitive list."
"You are certain of this?"
"Quite certain; when I draw a 'herd day' I take the fugitive list with me to read while I watch the stock. I have seen that name many times."
"What is he wanted for?"
"Stock theft. As I recall the bounty was 'small potatoes,' say two hundred."
"I will pay you another two hundred to help me catch up to him and bring my sister and brother home," Mattie said from the doorway.
He and Daggett both rose to their feet again, but she motioned for them to sit as she closed the door behind her.
"Mattie, no," Daggett said with a groan. "Your poor mother cannot take the strain of having all of you away at once."
Mattie's face creased briefly, but after a glance at Daggett she spoke as though the lawyer had said nothing. "If we do not get Babcock or Victoria but we keep Little Frank from killing him, I will pay you one hundred dollars."
"You are making the presumption that Babcock and Babbitt are the same man, which is pure conjecture at this point," LaBoeuf said. "Tell me what you know of Babcock. Is he a criminal?"
"He has lured my young sister away from the protection of her home and family; is that not sufficiently wicked?"
"It is disgraceful, but I presume the young lady is of legal age for marriage."
Mattie clamped her lips together, making a thin line of them. "She is fifteen, so she would be if Mama gives her consent. Which she does not," she added.
"What is your objection to the man?"
There was something furtive in her expression, but he could not quite identify it. Her gaze sought out Daggett's for a moment before sliding back to LaBoeuf. "He is shiftless and a Papist."
"He has Romish tendencies? Now that is criminal," LaBoeuf said, smirking at the arrogant look Mattie gave him.
"Oh, I am not opposed to Papists on principle; they are welcome to their idols and their beads, but Victoria is a Presbyterian and she cannot marry him."
Somehow that did not ring quite true to LaBoeuf, so he pushed harder. "Is that all? I find that hard to believe. Perhaps he was your beau, Miss Ross, and then threw you over for your sister. Could that account for your ardor in this?"
Her lip curled. "Far from it; I think you will allow that I am not such a fool as to be taken in by a pretty stranger with fancy clothes and fancier talk."
He shrugged, holding her gaze. "Everyone has some sort of a weakness."
"That is not my weakness; I am trying to protect my sister from an imprudent marriage."
"There are worse things, Miss Ross."
Her face colored. "I am not as ignorant as you seem to think. Marriage will be the lesser of several evils if we do not find them."
He cleared his throat. "Miss Ross… Mattie… Your sister would not be the first good girl to forget herself, not by a long shot. You may need to resign yourself to having a Catholic brother-in-law."
She looked back to Daggett, who seemed to shrug, holding his hands open, and then she took a deep breath. "Mama does not know it, but this man Babbitt left a wife in Memphis. If he and Babcock are one and the same he means to commit bigamy, or he does not intend to marry Victoria at all."
A/N: Presbyterians really were forbidden from marrying Catholics at this time.
LaBoeuf's belief that Mattie's actions could 'provoke' a man into ungentlemanly behavior was the thinking of the times, not the author's opinion (which is that no one deserves to be sexually assaulted, no matter what).
I have set this story in 1885, five years after the action of the film. This may be a controversial choice, but my thinking was this: LaBoeuf goes to war when he's 15 and sees six months of service before the surrender in 1865. For me, that put his date of birth in 1850. The book describes him as being in his 30s, so I guessed the story to be taking place in 1880. The filmmakers/crew on the Blu-ray disc variously describe the year as 1876 and 1878 (with fashions from the 1860s, oddly), and the titles to some of the featurettes indicate that the date was 1880. In the absence of a definite date, I chose my own. Neener neener neener.