It did not seem a injustice to me. It is difficult to perform the tasks a good wife must carry out with only one hand. One would not expect a young man looking to set up housekeeping to settle on a woman who could not look after the home on her own.
Mama never reproached me for what I had done. That was well, because I did not reproach myself, and it would have pained me to quarrel with her. But the first thing she said to me upon my return home, once she had done weeping, was, "I suppose you will have to be a schoolteacher now."
Mama remarried the next year. That was only to be expected. The land had to be farmed, and my brother was too young.
Her new husband was a thin, stooped man named Mr. Eldon. He was a decent, hard-working man, if no comparison to Papa. Of the way he treated Mama and the rest of us, I have no complaints.
When I got to be sixteen, he said to me, "We'll sell the back forty this winter. It will pay for your tuition at teacher's college."
I did not tell him that I had no wish to be a schoolteacher. There were few choices open to a woman who was ill-suited to keep house. Lawyer Daggett had told me once it was a pity I could not join his profession, but that was the way of it. I had had my way once in my life, and I had paid for it. It seemed now that I would keep paying for it the rest of my life.
Even faced with the prospect of coaxing mulish children into a little learning til the end of my days, I found that it was worth it.
In October of that year, however, we received an unexpected caller.
I was laying the table when he stepped into our home, led by my little brother. "This fellow says he knows you, Mattie," he said.
"I do not—" I began, and then caught a clear look at the visitor's face. "Mr. LaBoeuf!"
I came forward to shake his hand. I saw him take a look at me and see what there was to be seen, but he only smiled, a slow, soft warmth across his face.
"Mattie," he said. "Miss Ross."
His speech was a little muffled, doubtless from the old injury to his tongue. He had shed most of his Texas trappings, but in his hand he still carried his ridiculous hat.
"What brings you here?"
"I had some business to attend to. It was not far out of my way."
"You must stay to supper," I said. "Mama will not mind."
"I would be much obliged, Miss Ross."
At table, Mr. LaBoeuf kept my brothers enthralled with a tale of tracking a desperado across half Texas. Even Mama seemed interested, though she winced at the part where he'd had to fight his way out of a brawl in the saloon with only a smashed bottle for a weapon. I remembered what the Marshal had said about the Rangers' tall tales, and smiled. I meant it only for myself, but once he slanted his gaze across the table and caught me.
I asked him whether he had forgotten to take his knife with him to the saloon or whether, in the excitement of the fight, he had simply forgotten he had it.
He only laughed.
After supper, I went outside to take in the air. I had wrapped a shawl around myself against the chill. I gazed around at the farm and thought of what it would be like next year, when I was away at teacher's college.
It was not long before a dark figure moved against the blackness and Mr. LaBoeuf came to join me.
"May I?" he asked, gesturing at his pipe.
"You may suit yourself," I said.
He lit up and puffed away for a little while. "I am glad to see you are well, Miss Ross. It was months before I heard that you had survived. I was concerned."
"Then you did not see the Marshal, later?"
"No, though he wrote me a letter. In which there were five lines and six misspellings."
I laughed. "That is the Marshal."
He smoked again in silence for a while. "I must tell you, Miss Ross, that I came on purpose to see you. To bring you something that I hope will give you pleasure."
"And what is that?"
He dug into one of his pockets, pulled out something small, and handed it to me. In the glow from his pipe, I could just see the glint of gold. "Papa's other gold piece!"
"Yes. I took it off of Tom Chaney, while I waited for assistance. I have held onto it these two years, hoping I might have a chance to bring it to you."
"You are most kind," I said, and it may be that my vision grew dim for a moment. I had not expected this. I had not paid for it.
"Miss Ross--" I heard him say. "Mattie. I also wished to ask you something."
I swallowed. "What is it?"
"I am fixing to settle down. I have saved some money, and I have been offered a share in the general store in West Redfield, Texas. I think it would be wise to take it. It is no great joy, growing old in the Rangers' life."
"I can see that," I said, thinking of the Marshal's little hovel behind the Chinese grocery.
"But if I am to do that, I have need of a--a partner. Someone with a steady head for figures and a sharp tongue for bargaining. Mattie, if you were willing to go in with me, I would be so honored."
I flushed then, and flung up my head, proud. I had never thought Mr. LaBoeuf would make a mockery of me.
"Has Texas run out of women to refuse you, that you should come courting a cripple girl like me?" I cried.
He stared, and grew flushed himself. "I see I have offended you, Mat--Miss Ross. I am sorry."
"As well you should be," I said, and turned away.
I saw Mama dart us a look when we came back into the house, but I said nothing.
"I must push on, Mrs. Eldon," Mr. LaBoeuf said. "Thank you for the supper."
"You are most welcome," Mama said, and glanced at me again.
I meant to stay there, but I did not wish to answer Mama's questions while I was still angry. So I followed Mr. LaBoeuf outside.
When he went to mount his horse, I threw Papa's gold piece at him. "If this is how you meant to pay for your foolery, I will have none of it!"
He did not respond at first, but only looked at where the piece lay glittering in the dust. "You should take that," he said. "I did not bring it to pay for the opportunity for witticism, Mattie. I brought it as a gift to a friend."
"I assure you," he went on, "that I do not hold our friendship cheap. It is a great distress to me that you cannot see it in the same light. I will leave you in peace."
He still would not look at me, but spoke with the same halting dignity that he had in the Choctaw Nation, after he had been injured in the firefight.
It did not escape me that this time I had hurt him, this man of grit.
It is not always a blessing, having the gift of a sharp tongue.
As I stood there in thought, he swung himself into his saddle. "I extend my hand," he said, and leaned a little towards me with the offer of a shake.
"Mr. LaBoeuf," I said, casting about me. It was not so easy, giving up two years of pride and loneliness. "I…"
"Very well, then," he said, going to put on his hat. I could feel his injured pride, but more than that, his disappointment. He had thought me better than I seemed. He was one of the few who ever had.
"Wait," I said, catching his wrist. "Are you…would you be willing to go on in my company this time?"
He turned back, and his eyes slowly lit. It was like riding in the dark, and then seeing a lantern slowly kindle in the distance with the promise of home. "Even though I still cannot offer you a clear way."
I felt I should be most honest with him. "I have no more sugar to give now than I did then. Perhaps less."
"That is very well," he said, "if you will at least give me that kiss at last."
And so I did. When we went back inside, I had his hand in mine, and tucked next to it Papa's gold piece, and I would have traded nothing for either of them.