by Charles Portis
Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn
Rooster is a deputy marshal for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. May not sound like much of a job description, but consider this: through most of the nineteenth century, western lands were Indian Territory and not under regular U.S. law. The only people with jurisdiction in tens of thousands of square miles were U.S. Marshals—and there weren't too many of those. Fugitives from U.S. states would flee to the Territory, where U.S. police couldn't legally arrest them and where they'd have a good chance of hiding out from any lawmen. (Want to know more about all this? Check out the U.S. Marshal Museum website.)
So, if you're a marshal, your job is basically to try to keep order in one of the most lawless regions the U.S. has ever known—and you're pitting yourself against desperate, violent criminals. It was a dangerous job. As rather dramatic Colonel Stonehill tells Mattie:
The marshal travels about friendless and alone in that criminal nation. Every man's hand is against him there save in large part for that of the Indian who has been cruelly imposed on by those felonious intruders from the states. (3.20)
No wonder Rooster comes off so mean.
Lean, Mean, and Cocky
Marshals were some of the toughest guys out there, and Rooster just might be the worst of the bunch. The Sheriff tells Mattie, "The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking. He loves to pull cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners alive. […] He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string" (2.37).
Got that? Rooster isn't just mean, but he might even be corrupt. There's a hint here that, in contrast to L.T. Quinn, Rooster will plant evidence and abuse a prisoner. Before becoming a marshal he robbed a bank, explaining himself to Mattie that he thought he was "doing a good service. You can't rob a thief, can you? I never robbed no citizens. I've never taken a man's watch" (6.269). And he even got his job as a marshal when he shot a man he was working for. When the man tries to bring him to justice, Rooster runs into his old friend Potter who hooks him up with the marshal's gig.
In Chapter Two we learn that Rooster kills a total of twenty-three men in his four years as a marshal, a figure which increases by the end of the novel. It is never clear whether these killings are justified, or whether Rooster just enjoys killing people. He is a hard drinking, quick tempered, and super-duper gritty, at home sleeping on the ground in the outdoors, but not so good at indoor life.
In fact, about the only thing that separates Rooster from the criminals he seeks is his badge.
Salt, Pepper, Coffee, and Candy
Well—that's not quite all. In fact, when you dig down deep, it turns out that Rooster has a sweet, chewy core. Take a look at what he brings along as "grub" for the big chase:
a sack of salt and a sack of red pepper and a sack of taffy—all this in his jacket pockets—and then some ground coffee beans […] (6.59)
Maybe it's just us, but we think there's some symbolism going on here. Let's examine:
Salt and Pepper
Rooster is one salty dog, er bird: he's coarse, rough, witty, and—yes—flavorful. Just take a look at this fun threat he throws out at some poor kid he runs across: "See that you mend your ways, boy, or I will come back some dark night and cut off your head and let the crows peck your eyeballs out." (6.25)
He doesn't just tell the kid to beat it—he gives specific and, let's admit it, hilarious details about what he plans to do. The salt in Rooster's bag foreshadows an awful salt-related incident. When Rooster is rushing Mattie to a doctor after her arm is broken and snake-bitten, he slashes Mattie's pony Little Blackie with a knife and rubs salt in the wound to make the horse run himself literally to death.
This incident definitely shows us that Rooster values Mattie and her life, but it also shows us that he goes straight for the most drastic means to accomplish his goals. Another man might have found a way to save Mattie without hurting Little Blackie, or at least have tried out some other options. Not Rooster. We can admire his results, but we also have to question his methods.
Taffy is sugar candy, boiled down and then pulled until it's soft. (It's also a fun winter project—here's a recipe. Pro tip: don't try making it in the middle of summer.) And guess what? Underneath all that salt and pepper, Rooster has a soft, sweet side—which only Mattie gets to see.
When Mattie first tries to hire Rooster to go after Tom Chaney, he tells her, "I don't believe you have fifty dollars, baby sister, but if you are hungry I will give you supper and we will talk it over and make medicine. How does that suit you?" (3.285).
Cute, right? We also find it very sweet when he threatens to shoot LaBoeuf if he doesn't stop whipping Mattie with a switch. (Er, well, sweet for Mattie—not so sweet for LaBoeuf.) Rooster's sweet side provides a sharp contrast to the grittier aspect of his personality. It helps make what could be a very unsympathetic character into one we just can't help liking.
Well, you wouldn't go off into the wilderness without your Diet Coke, would you? Right. You need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, after all.
After this look at Rooster's personality, you can understand why he never married. Sure, he does have relationships, and even a child, but he's not much for fatherhood: "She took my boy with her too," he says about a divorced woman who he has an affair with. "He never did like me anyhow. I guess I did speak awful rough to him but I didn't mean nothing by it. You would not want to see a clumsier child than Horace. I bet he broke forty cups" (6.259).
Aw. That's some real fatherly feeling there, isn't it?
Okay, not exactly. But he does seem to feel something for Mattie, although it's never quite clear whether what he feels is a fatherly feeling or something else. And she likes him, too. He may be a mean, one-eyed killing machine—but he's a mean, one-eyed killing machine who shows true grit and who helps her avenge her father.