Mattie Ross is a proper, pious and prosperous citizen of the town of Dardanelle in Yell County, Arkansas. She is a respected figure in its financial community, and may be an officer of one of its banks, perhaps even its owner. She is a pillar of her church, and still lives on the farm where she grew up, although not in the same house. In 1928, Mattie, who is in her mid-sixties, takes up her pen and paper to write a true account of events that took over a two-week period when she was fourteen years old. She appears to expect publication, and it might not be her first time.
When her father Frank was on a business trip in Fort Smith with his hired man Tom Chaney, he was robbed and murdered by Chaney, who fled to the wild Indian Territory across the river. When Mattie arrived to settle his affairs and bring his body back home, she was informed the the local police did not have jurisdiction in the pursuit of Chaney. That was a matter for the marshals of the federal court of Judge Isaac Smith.
After she has obtained several opinions of the qualities of Smith's marshals, she settles upon one Reuben J. Rooster Cogburn, who is regarded as the toughest. Cogburn is a one-eyed, hard-drinking tough who has killed twenty-three men in the course of the past four years. Mattie approaches him with the facts of the case, and offers him a sizable reward in addition to the regular salary and expenses he will receive from the court. She is also determined to go along on the manhunt, to ensure that her interests are properly represented.
They are joined by Texas Ranger Sergeant LaBeouf, who has been pursuing Tom Chaney for the best part of four months on a Waco, Texas murder warrant issued in the name of Theron Chelmsford. Mattie is so unimpressed by the vain, ambitious LaBeouf that fifty years later, she neglects or forgets to tell us his first name.
They believe that Chaney may have joined the outlaw gang of Lucky Ned Pepper. Ned and Cogburn have unfinished business, Cogburn having shot him in the his lower lip a year before. The gang consists of the Parmelee brothers, Harold and Farrell, an older man named Haze, and a boy named Billy, who is on his first adventure since leaving home.
It also includes Pepper's lieutenant, known as the Original Greaser Bob. Even luckier than his boss, Bob might actually be immortal.
One snowy night, while the two of them and LaBeouf are waiting in ambush for the gang above a squatters' shack near the freezing bodies of rustlers Emmett Quincy and Moon Garrett, Rooster recounts some of the story of his life to a sleepy Mattie. One of his tales is about being pursued by a posse of seven men for armed robbery. When he grew tired of the game, he turned his horse Bo to face his pursuers, took the reins in his teeth, and rode at them with his two Navy sixes blazing. "I guess," he muses, "they was all married men who loved their families as they scattered and run for home." Mattie accuses him of stretching the blanket, but Cogburn insists that every word is true.
Mattie Ross does not regard herself as an avenging Sword of the Lord. She believes that people make free choices, and God's will did not enter into Tom Chaney's choices or her own. Mattie's God has bigger accounts to reconcile, and all of us will answer to him for our actions one day. Mattie has come to this place to facilitate human justice - not just revenge - and even when she shoots Tom Chaney with her dead father's big cavalry pistol, it is because he has left her no other option.
She does not whitewash her companions or demonize their opponents. While she does not censor their words or their actions, she is very candid about those of which she disapproves, and there are many. She cites scripture to enforce her arguments, but she does not quote it. Mattie believes that we are all good Christians, and we know our Bible.
Some critics have likened her to Hucklberry Finn, but Mattie Ross is nothing like that easy-going scoundrel. Others have called her "Captain Ahab's little sister", but she's not that either.
Mattie Ross is a strict, proud, just woman who always displayed True Grit.
I like her.