True Grit | Study Guide

Charles Portis

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True Grit | Chapter 3 | Summary



Mattie negotiates a deal with Colonel Stonehill. She demands Stonehill pay her $300 for her father's horse, Judy, which Chaney store while it was in Stonehill's care. Stonehill balks and makes counteroffers. After Mattie threatens to bring in Lawyer Daggett, she walks away with a promise of $325 for Judy and a gray horse. As soon as Lawyer Daggett sends a letter promising not to sue Stonehill, Mattie can collect the money. Mattie naps in Stonehill's barn and finds she is coming down with a cold.

After her nap Mattie attends the murder trial of Odus Wharton, at which Rooster Cogburn testifies. Mattie gets her first glimpse of Rooster, who reminds her of Grover Cleveland; he is tall and fat and "old" (in his 40s, which no longer seems old to Mattie as she narrates). The prosecuting attorney, Barlow, questions Cogburn about the shooting deaths of Aaron Wharton and C.C. Wharton. Barlow argues that Cogburn shot them lawfully in the course of marshal business, but the defense attorney, Goudy, cross-examines Rooster, casting doubt on Barlow's case. Goudy points out Rooster has killed 23 men in his four years of service as a marshal. Goudy's cross-examination indicates Rooster might have moved the body of Aaron Wharton.

After the testimony Mattie approaches Rooster. She offers him $50 for the capture of Chaney. Rooster is skeptical but agrees to give her supper and to "make medicine" (talk things over). That evening Mattie finds he lives in the back of a grocery store run by Chen Lee. After supper Chen and Rooster play cards. Finally Mattie asks Rooster about her proposition. Rooster says his price is $100, not $50, and he still wants to think it over.

Mattie is initially afraid to walk back to the boardinghouse in the dark. Rooster refuses to accompany her. She falls asleep at Chen's. Later a drunken Rooster wakes her up. He serves a rat a "writ" for stealing corn: "It is rat writ. It is a writ for a rat and this is lawful service of said writ." Rooster shoots the rat.

Rooster offers to trade a small ladies' gun for Mattie's father's pistol, an old "Colt's dragoon." Mattie refuses and walks back to the boardinghouse.


Mattie drives a hard bargain, selling Stonehill livestock he does not want at the price she sets. She ends up giving him more animals than she originally offered, but she may have overvalued Judy at the outset as a bargaining strategy. However, Mattie does not bargain just for the pleasure of it. In Chapter 2, when Yarnell points out the mortician is charging too much, Mattie declines to haggle. What has changed in Chapter 3? Mattie now needs a "road stake," a sum of money to set her up for her journey. She did not arrive in Fort Smith already knowing she herself would chase Chaney. However, when the sheriff reveals in Chapter 2 that no one is chasing Chaney, Mattie realizes she has to intervene. This lack of concern about outlaws on the run is confirmed for her in Chapter 2 when the deputy shows her the long "list of indicted outlaws that were then on the loose in the Indian Territory."

Mattie makes some casual remarks about politics that reveal the depth of Portis's historical knowledge and also give a careful reader a clue to Mattie's age and attitudes. She notes Rooster's resemblance to Grover Cleveland, who was the 22nd and 24th president of the United States, serving one term in 1885–89 and a second in 1893–97. Mattie is telling her story after Cleveland's second term, because she refers in the past tense to his handling of "the Panic of '93." Cleveland lost public support for his handling of the economic crisis of 1893, but Mattie tells readers her family remained staunchly Democrat, staying so "up to and including Governor Alfred Smith, and not only because of Joe Robinson." Al Smith, governor of New York and a Democrat, ran for president in 1928. Because Smith was a Catholic, he chose a Protestant running mate who would help his popularity in the South. Joe Robinson, whom Mattie mentions, was a U.S. Senator from Arkansas; thus, she would expect readers to think she was supporting Smith "only because of Joe Robinson."

These election details matter because they situate Mattie in the post-Reconstruction South. Mattie and her family are among the Southern whites who saw Reconstruction as the time when anti-slavery Republicans lorded it over the South. "[Reconstruction leader] Thad Stevens and his Republican gang would have starved us all out if they could," says Mattie. The "us" she refers to are the white Southerners still loyal to the principles of the defeated Confederacy. Thus, in 1928 Mattie supports Democrat Al Smith for president.

Mattie's story begins in 1878, just after the Reconstruction's gains in racial equity began to unravel. She sees herself as part of a certain racial order, with white people at the top and intermarriage as a threat. Creek Indians are "good Indians," Mattie notes, but not a "half-breed" like Odus Wharton: "a Creek-white like [Odus] or a Creek-Negro is something else again." Portis's sense for the history of this period shows Mattie is not unusual in holding these attitudes in Arkansas in 1878.

Mattie is also sure she knows a man's moral character when she sees it. She is a good judge of men's actions, but she also thinks she can see that moral character on a man's face. She says about Odus, "If there ever was a man with black murder in his countenance it was Odus Wharton." He has "a face hardened in sin" with "mean and close-set eyes." Likewise, Chaney literally wears his moral stain on his face in the form of a black mark. Therefore, it is striking Mattie initially mistakes another man for Rooster. Not knowing what Rooster looks like, she first "pick[s] out a younger and slighter man with a badge on his shirt," and is surprised when Rooster turns out to be "an old one-eyed jasper that was built along the lines of Grover Cleveland." (Cleveland was fat.) Mattie will continue to be surprised by Rooster. She might well know evil when she sees it, but Rooster will turn out to have both more good and outlaw in him than she knew.

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