Wild Rippling Water by snarkypants
Mattie awoke with a start in the blue pre-dawn. Without Victoria thrashing beside her in their bed she slept more soundly and did not wake quite as early as was her wont, making her feel oddly out of sorts.
She sighed and sank back onto her pillow.
She was not one to lie abed and doze while shadows shifted across the room, but these few minutes before dawn were an exception. She had enough time to collect her thoughts and plan what she must accomplish.
Thank God that the cotton was planted and seedlings were up.
Collect eggs from the henhouse.
Milk the cows, feed and turn out the horses, and slop the hogs, because Mr. Harper would not be able to come by this morning.
Try and get her mama up and out of bed, which would be easier said than done.
Weed the kitchen garden; it was looking raggedy last night when she collected the spinach for Mr. LaBoeuf's supper.
Transplant the broccoli, celery and fennel shoots from the cold frame.
Find time to go to Mr. Fisher's bakery for bread because they were nearly out and she could not keep up with the baking (which often required two hands) in addition to all of her other tasks around the farm. If things continued thus for much longer, what with Victoria and Frank gone and Mama ill, Mattie would have to hire out the laundering.
Plan something for supper that she could cook largely unaided in case Mr. LaBoeuf…
She had thought for years that she remembered precisely what LaBoeuf had looked like, but her memory had failed her in many particulars. While she had remembered his smug grin and his cowlick she had lost the finer details, such as the dimple in his chin and the vivid summer blue of his eyes. Accustomed as she was to the muted palette of the Rosses his brightness drew the eye; she would have to watch herself to make sure she was not staring at the poor man.
Her Grandmother Ross had used to say, "A dimple in the chin, the devil within," but over the years Mattie had found this to be unreliable at best. And really, with so many men wearing beards, it was often difficult to say for certain…
She realized that she was stroking her throat with the bound end of her braid, like a paintbrush, and she blushed even though no one was there to see.
It was time for her to be up anyway; she tossed the end of her braid over her shoulder and got out of bed.
She washed her face and cleaned her teeth and then began the struggle to button herself into her Emancipation Waist; she could not begin to imagine the trial of hooking herself into a corset alone and one-handed. Her gowns and blouses were all made to button up the front, which afforded her a measure of autonomy she would not have otherwise.
Mattie dressed herself in a simple gown of flower-sprigged cotton with a high neck. It was several years old, and had in fact once been a church dress, made for a bustle, but Mattie had Mama take in the excess fabric as soon as it was old and worn enough to be used as a work dress. As long as she could dress herself and her clothes were not so very unfashionable as to elicit comment she was content.
If only she could deal with her hair on her own grooming might be much simpler. What a pity modern decency meant that a woman could not cut her hair into a short cap of curls like the women of ancient Greece had, if the statues were accurate.
Her twice-slept-on braid must suffice for one more day; she smoothed it as best she could with a brush before she pinned it up. She still resembled a porcupine, though, with strands and ends waving all over her head.
She emptied her night-jar into the privy, rinsed it with a solution of chloride of lime and set it in the sunshine to dry.
When she went in to wake her, she found that Mama was still poorly, and Mattie had to take several deep breaths to suppress her impatience. "Mama, I will need you today."
"I will try, Mattie," her mother said in a wispy voice. She covered her eyes with the crook of her elbow, which often augured ill, and Mattie left the room, closing the door behind her.
Mattie went out to the barn to tend to the animals, and from there went to her quick, cold breakfast of rolled oats, milk and dried peaches.
Midmorning found her in the garden, when she looked up from her trowel to see little Lydia Daggett standing in the yard. "Lydia, for heaven's sake, did you walk all the way out here on your own?"
"No, Miss Mattie, Jonas came part of the way with me, but I wanted to come the rest of the way all by myself. Mama sent me to ask you and Missus Ross over to supper tonight," she said, the gaps where her front teeth once sat causing her to lisp a little.
"We may have company tonight, Lydia, but thank you."
The child's round face fell. "But Mama invited your gentleman friend, too."
Mattie paused. "Oh. Well, then, I can accept for myself, but my Mama is unwell."
Lydia nodded as if this was expected. "Is he your beau?" she asked, wrinkling her nose in the sunlight.
"That is an impertinent question, Lydia," Mattie said, tugging on an especially tenacious strand of bindweed.
"Oh," Lydia said. She remained where she stood, switching her short skirts back and forth expectantly. Her boots were covered with a patina of dust from her walk. "Papa says he is not your beau, but Mama thinks he is."
Mattie exhaled through her nose and released the weed. "He is not my beau. Would you like some lemonade before you set out for home?"
"Oh, yes, please," Lydia said, nodding and setting her bright pigtails to bobbing.
Dardanelle, Ark, April 17th 1885
To: Captain McMurry, Ranger Coy. B, Wichita Falls, Tex
Requesting particulars Pete Babbitt
Possible sighting Ark
After sending his telegram LaBoeuf amused himself for a time by walking quayside along Front Street and watching the ferry as it went back and forth, carrying wagons and livestock and people. He had grown up in a river town, and even though the Guadalupe River was not quite the trade route the Arkansas River was he felt at home.
He made his way to the sheriff's office and introduced himself to the deputy in charge as a fellow lawman. He enquired about Stephen Babcock, who seemed to have steered clear of the law while in Dardanelle.
Although Deputy MacDonald had looked askance at LaBoeuf at first (due very possibly to his buckskins, but he would not tell Mattie that), after a few minutes of swapping 'war stories' the two men were largely at ease with each other. LaBoeuf spent a pleasant morning with the deputy drinking coffee, each man good-naturedly one-upping the other's tales of criminal idiocy.
"How long you in town for, LaBoeuf?" MacDonald asked; he was a young, gangly fellow with black hair and a lazy eye.
"Not long; I am awaiting a telegram from my captain before I set out, so possibly tomorrow or Sunday."
MacDonald nodded. "Well. If you hear a set-to tonight I do hope you will come to our aid here. They are bringing Dick Wallace in from Danville today, and I fear there will be a mob."
"Who is Dick Wallace?"
"A local boy; he got liquored up and stabbed his best friend to death while they were out coon hunting, but he does not seem to remember it. The dead man, Harry Fogarty, had just gotten married, so the townsfolk are pretty riled about it. We have been keeping him in Danville, waiting for tempers to settle, but the judge wants him back in Dardanelle now."
LaBoeuf shook his head. "That is a hard thing; it could turn ugly, then."
"We do not mean to let the mob hang him. He deserves a day in court. I feel badly for Wallace. He does not seem to care whether he lives or dies; he is just that tore up about it."
"Could it be an act, to garner sympathy?"
"If it is an act, it is a good one. He was either insensible or weeping every time I saw him." MacDonald sucked on one of his teeth, shaking his head.
"Well, I do not know what my day holds, but if I am in town I will keep an ear out."
"That will be appreciated, sir."
"The Texas Rangers do have a reputation to uphold, Deputy."
From outside LaBoeuf heard a child's piping voice, calling, "Is Mr. LaBoeuf there?"
MacDonald looked up and called out, "He is here."
A boy thundered into the office. He was about ten years old, with a shock of gingery-blond hair. "My Mama wants you to come to supper tonight."
"I am busy tonight, Jonas," MacDonald drawled, "But you tell Mrs. Daggett I said thank you."
The child stopped, nonplussed. "My Mama said to ask Mr. LaBoeuf, not you," he said.
"I know it," MacDonald said, grinning.
"Are you him?" Jonas asked LaBoeuf.
"Yes, I am. And I accept the gracious invitation."
The boy sighed, clearly considering himself much put-upon. "Be there at six." With this, he turned and stomped out.
"Be where at six?" LaBoeuf called after him.
"At our house," Jonas called back, as if there could be no other answer to this question.
"How about that," MacDonald said. "I lived here my whole life and I never rated supper at Lawyer Daggett's."
"I did not expect it myself. I have some acquaintance with the Ross family, but they are not able to entertain much company at present."
MacDonald nodded, but then his eyes narrowed and he scowled a bit. "Here, now, you are not sparking Miss Victoria, are you? That would not go down so well around here."
"I am not sparking Miss Victoria; of that you may be certain," LaBoeuf said.
"Well, then," MacDonald said, somewhat mollified. "That girl is a daisy."
LaBoeuf did not care to inform the deputy that his 'daisy' had run off with another man; that would come out soon enough, small towns being what they were. The business with Dick Wallace must have drawn everyone's attention for the time being.
"How might I find Lawyer Daggett's place?"
"We are on First Street now; get on Second Street and head downriver. If you pass the First Baptist Church you have gone too far. It is a great, white clapboard house, and he has his shingle out front."
LaBoeuf extended his hand to the deputy. "Thank you, Deputy MacDonald; I will listen for trouble tonight, and I will help you if I can."
"I could not ask for more," MacDonald said.
In the end, Mattie decided to hitch up her little runabout gig to drive Lydia home, and then drop by Mr. Fisher's bakery while she was in town.
It was a fine day for driving. The sky looked like rain, which would put any farmer in a good mood provided it was the right time of year. The air was still and growing oppressive, so riding behind a trotting horse was an excellent way to cool off, and if it did rain Mattie could put the top up.
Mattie's horse Opal, a flea-bitten grey mare, was good-natured and docile, so Mattie did not have to struggle to keep the vehicle going at a safe, easy pace. Since she had only the one hand to hold the reins and steer she was very cautious, more for Lydia's safety than her own; she had been tipped into the ditch more times than she cared to recount back when she was learning to drive.
From the time Mattie poured her a glass of lemonade until they were in town Lydia kept up an endless stream of chatter, about her older brother Jonas, Baby Francis, the kittens living in the barn, and her mama's new ball gown from Memphis. She chirpily admired Opal, Mattie's straw bonnet, and the bounciness of the springs on the runabout. Lydia was an amiable companion, but not a restful one.
When they drove in view of a well-set-up man wearing buckskins and fringes and a large, outlandishly blocked hat, Lydia commented, loudly enough to be heard all the way over in Russellville, "That is a strange man."
"That is my friend, Mr. LaBoeuf. He is not strange at all."
Lydia regarded LaBoeuf with worried eyes. "He is dressed strangely," she said.
Mattie bit her lip against a smile. "That is how people dress in his state."
"Oh," Lydia said.
"Many people think that I look strange, Lydia."
The girl scrunched up her face, more with genuine confusion than loyalty. "Why?"
"Because I only have one arm," Mattie said.
"Oh. But that is just how you are, Miss Mattie," Lydia said.
"That is true."
Lydia nodded sagely, trying to square up all of this new information.
They overtook LaBoeuf, who was walking in the same direction, and Mattie reined Opal to a halt. "Good afternoon, Mr. LaBoeuf," Mattie said.
"Good day, ladies," he said, touching the brim of his hat.
"He looks nicer up close," Lydia said in a stage whisper from the corner of her mouth.
"Mr. LaBoeuf, this little chatterbox is Miss Lydia Daggett," Mattie said.
"How are you, Miss Lydia? I believe I met your brother earlier."
"I am well, thank you," Lydia said, like the well-brought-up child she often forgot to be, folding her little hands in her lap.
"Can I drop you somewhere, Mr. LaBoeuf? I am taking Lydia home and then I must visit the bakery, but after that I am free."
"Well, I was on my way to scout out Daggett's house so I will be sure to find it in good time tonight."
"Do you care to join us, then?" Mattie asked.
"I would like that," he said, and climbed up, angling his body so he did not crowd Lydia. This also meant that he had to brace his arm on the back of the seat, which Mattie pretended not to notice for the present.
She liked particularly that he did not reach for the reins, which is what her brother would have done.
Mattie clucked to Opal, and said "Drive on," and the horse resumed her progress.
"Miss Mattie said that you are not her beau," Lydia said.
"Lydia—" Mattie began, blushing furiously.
LaBoeuf cleared his throat. "That is a thing for grownups to talk about."
"Oh," Lydia said, as unembarrassed as only a child could be. "Well, she is nice," she said, obviously determined to put in a good word.
"Thank you, Lydia," Mattie said in a tight voice.
Lydia's innate sense of fair play demanded that she continue: "But she only has one arm."
"I had noticed as much," LaBoeuf said gravely. "What is your mother planning to serve for supper, Miss Lydia?"
"I do not know," she said. "But there is mince pie." She grinned widely at him.
LaBoeuf grinned back. "I do hope that there might be a goose, with lots of sauce," he said. "Since Miss Mattie so enjoys serving sauce for a gander."
Mattie sniffed at him, and LaBoeuf laughed.
"I believe it will rain today," Mattie said. "When was the last time you saw rain in that sere state of yours, Mr. LaBoeuf?"
"To which state do you now refer: my home state or my unmarried state?" he teased her over the top of Lydia's head.
"I refer to your home state, of course. I would hardly presume to comment on your unmarried state, as I am resident there myself," she said primly.
LaBoeuf appeared about to retort when Mattie halted the gig in front of a large, fine white house, built in the Greek pillared style of some of the fine old houses LaBoeuf had seen in Virginia.
"We are home," Lydia sang, and began to scramble from the gig, but LaBoeuf beat her to the ground and handed her down.
"There you go, miss," he said.
"Good-bye, Miss Mattie, good-bye, Mr. LaBoeuf. I think you are not so strange after all," Lydia said.
He touched his hat brim and climbed back into the gig, returning his arm to the seat back. "Do all young girls today have such pert opinions, or is it just the ones from Dardanelle?"
Mattie looked over her shoulder at his arm and back up at his face. He returned her glance, all innocence, and she cleared her throat loudly, looking back at his arm. "Unless you want it all over town that we are sweethearts you should move your arm, sir," she snapped.
"Yes, ma'am." He complied, albeit more slowly than she would have liked. "I do beg your pardon; this shoulder still pains me when rain is coming on," he said. He shrugged and rotated the shoulder, wincing a bit.
"Oh, I am sorry," Mattie said, contrite. "I did not think..."
"Do not trouble yourself; only a cad would put his comfort before a lady's reputation."
Well. Did she not feel just like a fussy old maid now? Mattie chirruped at Opal to get her going again, turning easily at the corner to return back in the direction of the bakery.
"I did not expect a man of Mr. Daggett's age to have such a young family," LaBoeuf said.
"I have heard him say that an attorney should not marry until his practice is well-established."
He nodded. "That is what I call prudent." He looked past the horse to the street ahead. "I have put off marriage for similar reasons, but I believe the time has come for me to press forward."
She looked her confusion at him before returning her attention to the horse. "Oh?"
"I do not doubt you; I have simply not thought about a subject that has so little to do with me."
He shrugged and continued. "I have always lived within my means. The prizes I have taken enabled me to save funds sufficient to purchase land and build a modest, comfortable house."
"How nice for you," she said with some asperity, hoping that he might take her hint.
"My habits, interests and demeanor are conducive to a satisfying family life."
He carried on, seemingly oblivious to her discomfort. "This peripatetic lifestyle is grown wearisome. My company rides into one sorry, dusty little encampment and before we have even met the populace we pull stakes and move further west, to wherever the rails go." He shook his head. "And it does surely stick in my craw to ride at Jay Gould's say-so, protecting his millions; if I wanted to be a Pinkerton I would have become one."
"So you would abandon your steadfast fellow Rangers for a woman?"
"Not just any woman; I am far too particular for that. I have little doubt, though, that I will find a sensible, respectable woman for my wife, my helpmeet and my dearest friend."
"Beauty must figure into your equation somewhere, of course, Mr. LaBoeuf," she said mockingly.
"Yes, that is true; I must find her beautiful," he said, nodding his agreement. "You make an excellent point."
It was a tiny, deadly little sting, like a fishhook in the fingertip. There was no way to pull it out, though; she must push it through.
She swallowed. "Well. I wish you happy."
"I aim to be," he said in a mild tone of voice.
"What occupation would you take up, if you left the Rangers?"
"I do not know." This did not seem to concern him. "That would depend on where I settled, I suppose. They want lawmen out west, places like Silver City and Tucson and Reno."
"This could well be your last trip through Arkansas for some time, then," she said.
"That is possible; if I went west I would have no reason to come any further east than San Antone, and that only rarely."
"Well." She risked a quick look over at him. "In that case I am very glad you decided to pay a visit."
His smile was bright with the warmth of friendship, and she could not help it; she glowed. "So am I," he said.
A/N: Thanks to jenbachand, my beta! You rawk!