All The Reasons Why
There were a great many things that Buck Wilmington would rather be doing, than going for a prisoner pickup. Most of them involved cold beer, a friendly turn of the cards, and maybe a warm pair of arms, to stave off the growing bite of Autumn. However, the chance for a leisurely ride with his oldest friend, Chris Larabee, on an afternoon that really was not at all bad, soon outweighed any dissatisfaction. The desert sky arched overhead in clear, cobalt blue, and the rhythmic jolt of a good horse's gait rocked beneath him. Burly white clouds billowed behind distant peaks, and the brisk kiss of newborn October brought the blood to a man's cheek. It really didn't get much better than this.
Larabee turned his head to note the contented grin pasted on his companion's mustached face. "So," he said with a smirk. "Who is she?"
"Huh?" Buck's hat brim flipped briefly in the breeze of their trotting pace, and his grin widened. "Oh, nobody. Just a great day to be alive."
Black hat wagging slowly in rueful amusement, Chris turned his attention to the road ahead. "If you say so, Buck."
"Aw, c'mon, it don't always have to be a woman!" A long arm swung to encompass roughly three hundred square miles of sand, mesquite, and hills drawn down like rawhide on old bones. "Look around, Chris! For once, ain't nobody shootin' at us, ain't us chasin' nobody else, and it's not so damned hot the bushes are followin' the dogs around. Blue sky, fresh air, fluffy clouds over yonder - why, it's downright poetical."
Chris's white teeth flashed in silent laughter. "Buck, you really need to get out more!"
"Now, just a damn minute!" Buck's voice took on a familiar tone of aggrievement, falling into their long-established pattern of banter. "I get out plenty. Why, just last week, I -."
"Was out at Nettie Wells's, helping put shingles on the barn. I know. After JD all but dallied up and dragged you away from . . . What was her name, anyhow?"
"Chris, that ain't true." Buck touched heels to his horse, drawing along side to slap one hand to his chest. "Now, you know there's more to me than just chasin' women."
"What kinda argument is 'ha?' That don't prove nothin'. You know I'm right, don't you?" The taller man's stubborn jaw set, as he nodded firmly. "You just ain't man enough to admit it."
"Buck," Larabee sighed, and shook his head. "What I know is that, before we leave this town, I am willing to bet good money that you'll find some li'l filly to entertain you."
"Town? Since when is a mining camp a town?"
"Put up or shut up, Buck."
Buck slowed his horse to a jog, dark blue eyes narrowing as Chris's mount trotted past, then was curbed to a dancing, slower pace. He waited until the black-clad figure came even with him, again.
"How much good money? And what are we bettin' on?"
"Oh . . ." Chris pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Five dollars sounds about right. And I'm bettin' that you can't get out of this place, without first landin' in some gal's bed."
Scowling, Buck peered at his friend suspiciously. "You wanna bet that I don't win a lady's favors? Now what kinda cockamamie bet is that?"
"A sure thing, Bucklin!" Chris grinned at him, wide and evil.
"Chris!" The tall man almost sputtered, as he stared across at his conniving pal. "Have you seen the kind of women they get out in these places? Geez, I do got some discretion!"
"Bet's still on, big fella."
"Fine. Just . . . Fine!" A long arm shot out, and Buck seized Larabee's outstretched hand, sealing the wager with rather more strength than was needed. "You're gonna lose this one, pard. Count on it."
"Oh, I'm countin'. At least to five."
+ + + + + + +
Once, she dreamed. Of many things. San Francisco. Gas lights. Satin and fine parlors and men who worshiped her favors as the earthly manifestation of Venus herself. Once she convinced herself that she had those things, was those things. Once. But time and care and cold reality had long since eroded such idealism away. Even as the sparse, violent desert rains scoured the earth from the dry bones of the nearby mountains. Nowadays, she dreamed far more simply, of a quiet place, a little house, a cat to purr on her lap in the evenings. Her money was carefully hoarded, what she did not spend on dresses and dainties, and the little brown bottle that helped her sleep at night. Perhaps that smaller dream might come true, yet. But for now, the simple and brutal fact was, she made far more money by her labors of the flesh, than any "good" woman could by the sweat of her brow.
And so Tuscaloosa Lil had come to Tin Cup, a silver camp on the thin end of nowhere, right in the parched, barren lap of Apache country. From the door of her tent-cabin, she could see upon the furrowed hills the tumbled refuse of mine tailings, glory holes, high hopes and shattered dreams. The dull thump of dynamite was like an erratic heartbeat, the pulse that kept this camp alive. Tom, bless his scheming soul, had said the place would boom, that with their combined efforts they could clean house on these daydreaming miners. But a camp fever had jerked the life out him almost as fast as he could play a hand of poker, and now she worked alone.
She watched from a folding rocker at her doorway, as two men neared the dusty camp. Shimmering on the white caliche road beyond, they seemed first as phantoms, massive on towering horses whose fast-flicking hooves need not touch the mortal earth. Yet as they drew closer, the illusion vanished, and they were but two dusty men, with the look of thirst and miles pressed upon them. The taller of the two grinned under his dark moustache, touching a wide-brimmed hat as they clattered past, but his black-clad companion never looked her way. Lil took note, as they drew up near the tent marked "saloon." Not miners, these two, but rather with the look of far ranges and hard times. Lawmen? Perhaps, although she had seen no badges. No matter. Men were men, and they came to her only for one thing. Otherwise, they were of little concern to her.
+ + + + + + +
"All I did was look, Chris! You never said I couldn't look. That wasn't part of the bet."
Chris grinned across his saddle seat, as he loosened his cinch. "That's how it always starts, Buck. I know you."
"You don't know nothin'." Buck scowled as he gave his latigo one last tug, then let the stirrup drop. "Ain't nothin' says I can't smile at a pretty lady."
"Yeah, she wasn't too bad. Not bad at all, matter of fact, for a place like this."
"Chris!" Buck's glare spoke sheer murder. "The bet is for me layin' with a lady. I can look and I can smile, and I can damned well sing three rounds of 'Beautiful Dreamer,' if I feel like it. Fact is, you're still gonna owe me five bucks, when we leave."
"We'll see." Chris tried not to chuckle at the growl of frustration he heard coming from beyond his horse.
"You boys here for our prisoner?"
The deep, slow voice seemed to reverberate from some subterranean cavern, and Larabee and Buck both turned. Facing them stood a burly man in dirty canvas overhauls and three days' worth of thick, black beard. He held his arms folded across a considerable chest, scowling under the bent brim of a Welsh cap.
"We are," Chris replied.
"Good." The man abruptly stepped forward, thrusting out a meaty paw. If steam locomotives could talk, they might have a voice like his. "Name's Dan Owens. The boys 'lected me kinda the town marshal, so I been havin' to put up with the son of a bitch."
"Where you holdin' him?" Chris asked, as he returned the man's handshake. Miraculously, he got all five fingers back, uncrushed.
"Powder magazine. He can't get out, and we can't hear him."
A powder magazine it was, walls 8 feet high of cast-off railroad ties, set into the steep flanks of a nearby hill, and roofed with more ties and heavy corrugated steel. A door made of hand-hewn planks fully four inches thick scraped open on heavy iron hinges, as the "marshal" gestured towards the dark interior.
"He's in there." The man hefted a four-by-four post in his free hand. "And he won't give you no trouble."
Weighed down as he was with several yards of three-inch trace chains, neither Larabee nor Buck could imagine the prisoner would be trouble. A sullen, bewhiskered face glowered through a sheen of dirty sweat, as the captive looked up. His jaw worked, and suddenly he hawked a gob of spittle out the door.
"What a sweetheart," Buck said. "So this is what a real bad man looks like, eh?"
"Bad enough," Owens growled. "Pete's gonna be laid up at least six months, afore he can walk on that broke leg, and might be another six afore he's walkin' straight. Son of a bitch used a club just about like this one."
"So whose claim was it?" Chris asked.
The message they had received was of an assault over a disputed mining claim. Their job here would be to both bring the prisoner back to hold for a pre-trial hearing, and get a written statement from the victim.
"Ain't sure," Owens replied. "I'd say Pete's the one got his papers filed right, but reckon they'll have to sort that out in court. After we take care of this son of a bitch for tryin' to beat a good man to death."
"He don't look like much, but guess it's just as well the boys didn't lynch him."
Larabee nodded and stepped back, signaling Owens that they had seen enough. Well he knew how quick and decisive mining camp justice could be.
"Nope," rumbled Owens, as he shoved the door shut with a heavy thud. "I keep the peace around here. What they 'lected me to do."
"Judge Travis will appreciate that. First thing tomorrow, we'll take him off your hands. He got a horse?"
"No, but we got an old mule he can ride. Reckon that'll do him." Owens looked at them and grinned slyly. "No saddle, though."
Buck grimaced, and looked at Chris. "Oh, well. Guess we weren't planning on a quick trip home, anyhow."
"Yep," Larabee agreed amiably. Too amiably. "You might want to sort of stock up on entertainment, before we go."
Unable to even think of a suitable reply, Buck could only growl and stalk away.
+ + + + + + +
Public lodgings in Tin Cup consisted of two choices, the Traveler's Rest and the Overland hotels. Both were notably delusional in their claims of stature, being no more than two immense wall tents, divided into tiny rooms by hanging canvas partitions. Inside the Traveler's Rest, Buck looked at his narrow cot, then at the one Chris dropped his saddlebags and bedroll on, and sighed. The place stank of old shoes, musty canvas, and somebody's truly dreadful cigars.
Hearing him, Chris looked up. "You know, I thought I saw a wagon parked out behind that gal's tent. I bet she's brought in a real bed and all the fixin's, to pretty up that place."
"Go to hell, Larabee." Busying himself with unrolling his blankets on the cot, Buck tried to pretend he didn't hear Chris chuckling, behind him. Sometimes he liked it better when the man did not have a sense of humor. "I'm thinkin' I might just sleep with my horse."
"Suit yourself. I saw sheet lightning over on the mountains, though. Figure this way, I'm at least eight inches off the ground, when your fluffy clouds start pourin' through here."
A deep rumble thumped through the twilight, through the soles of their boots, and the two looked at each other.
"Thunder? Or dynamite?"
Chris cocked his head, but no further sound followed. "Reckon that's the sound of prosperity."
"Well, speakin' of prosperity, what say we get this feller Pete's statement, then go see if anyone in this dog-town knows how to cook?"
+ + + + + + +
Tuscaloosa Lil saw them again, the tall one walking in a long, loping stride, the other wrapped close in a flapping black duster, as a cold gust whirled from the darkening hills. They were here, she had learned, for the brutal bastard who had beaten poor Pete Laws senseless. Pete was a good man, whom she'd caught staring at her with hungry eyes, and who, in an effort to salve his guilt, had twice shown her a daguerreotype of his wife and three children, back home in California. She had little doubt that these two men would see the assailant safely and firmly to his date with Yuma.
The dull flicker of lightning caught her eye, glimmering sullenly in the fat, black clouds that now decapitated the ragged peaks. Evening came on fast and drearily, as cloud shadows leached the desert's pastels to gray. Another rush of wind swept past, sharp and clammy with the scent of distant rain. Perhaps the rain would stay up there, tonight, to sputter amongst the pinions and aggravate mountain cats. Or perhaps not. No matter to her, so long as the whole camp didn't blow down flat.
Scuffling footsteps caught her attention, and youthful laughter. Lil turned to see the approach of two of the youngest men in the camp. They were newcomers from Arkansas or Missouri, barely there a week, eager to crack the hard shell of the desert and draw forth its riches. Neither appeared a day over eighteen, especially now, as they jostled each other and giggled and
scuffled. Realizing that she saw them, they straightened. One elbowed the other and both fell into another fit of shoving and giggling.
Lil smiled broadly. "Good evening, boys. My, you sure are full of piss and vinegar tonight."
One turned ruddy in the lamplight, and stumbled as his pal shoved him forward. He snatched off his hat, yet although his mouth worked, no sound came out.
"You gotta talk, idjit!" his pal hissed, then faced her with a wide smile. "Evenin', miss. Lijah, here, ain't never had him a real woman."
Poor Lijah scowled and his complexion deepened, as he clutched his hat. Lil recognized that look, and her smile became sincere.
"Come, sugar, let me see you." Lil stepped forward, reached out to raise his chin, so that she looked up into his eyes. Honest blue, scared and hopeful, flickering with a man's hunger, and as innocent as a yearling colt's. Ah, she knew what to do. That heady rush of youth, the high sap of young manhood. Some days, she would rather have a dozen of these fumbling, hasty kids, than one heaving, hirsute, booze-soaked man who couldn't even look her in the face.
"Why, you are just the finest thing, Lije. Won't you come in? I think you and me can have us a real nice visit. Where you from, Lijah?"
+ + + + + + +
The wind stiffened while they ate, buffeting the canvas walls of Lee's Chop House, setting the hanging lanterns to gently swaying. A low rumble bumped beneath the quiet tones of men's talk, the first voice of the storm creeping off the mountain.
"Sounds like we might be glad of them bunks, after all," Buck sighed.
A heavier rumble thumped jaggedly past the billowing walls, followed by a sharp spattering overhead. Chris looked up, briefly, and returned to his supper. Dry meat and undercooked potatoes. If this turned into a real storm, they might be stuck here an extra day until the roads dried out. Not the most cheering thought.
Buck finished first, or rather, gave up on his meal first. Pushing back his plate, he announced, "Well, that was inter'sting. Now I think I'm gonna go see what they can do to whiskey, around here."
"Only whiskey, Buck?"
The taller man glared down at his friend, wishing mightily that he could wipe away the smugness lurking behind that placid gaze. "Yeah, Chris. Only whiskey. You just keep that five bucks handy, hear?"
Damn, but Chris Larabee could be aggravating! Three-quarters of the time he stalked around scaring the fangs off poor, innocent scorpions, and then all of a sudden he comes up with a truly malicious streak of humor. It was one thing when the two of them worked towards some mischief together, as they used to do, in their younger days. But it was irritating as hell when that wicked Larabee wit was turned on him. Just because a man appreciated - hell, reveled in! - the God-given perfection of the feminine form, did not mean he lacked restraint or discrimination.
Cold moisture whipped his face, the instant Buck stuck his head outside. No more than a drizzle, but driven at shotgun force by the whirling wind. As he snugged his hat tight against a shoving gust, the canvas walls thumped behind him, and a voice inside hollered to shut the door. Thunder burst in a long, cracking roll as he ducked into the slashing wind. Damn!
Whiskey. Somewhere in this Godforsaken armpit he remembered a tent that dispensed something resembling whiskey. Damned dark street. Various tents glowed golden from lamplight within, but any signs were but black silhouettes in the damp darkness.
+ + + + + + +
One tent smelled of soap ~ a laundry, most likely. Another rumbled with men's voices, but smelled of grease and cooking, yet another so-called restaurant. Ahead of him another tent rippled in the wind, and next to it someone . . . what? Someone stood wrapped in some sort of blanket, swinging the back of an ax down with a ragged, metallic clank. A woman?
That woman. Wrapped in a hooded cape, about to take her damned leg off, as she hammered on an iron tent peg. Rain slashed past, drumming a fast tatoo on his hat brim. Good lord, a little thing like her didn't need to be out in this mess!
"Ma'am?" Buck reached up as his hat jerked dangerously loose, and raised his voice. "Miss? You need some help, there?"
The woman straightened, turned with the ax lowered and the wind whipping her skirts. A whacking boom and stabbing lightning split the blackness, and Buck saw the hair lashing wetly about her face. She frowned upwards, then turned towards him.
"The damned wind ripped three pegs out," she cried angrily. "I thought the whole damned thing was gonna come down around my head!"
"Well, darlin', you just let me take care of that li'l problem." Buck smiled warmly, as he stepped towards her, reaching for the ax.
The woman held it out to him, but stepped back warily as he took it. Firming his grip on the wet wood, Buck took the ax in one hand, steadied the tent peg with the other, and drove it home with three firm blows. He stretched and fixed the lines to the other two, sank them in the same way, then turned to face the woman with a pleased grin.
"There. All fixed up. Anything else you need?" Then seeing how her eyes narrowed in the diffused light, he added teasingly, "Windows washed? Cats rescued? Snakes killed?"
The woman laughed, then, the sound seemingly startled from her. She took the ax from him, shook her head as she let its heavy iron head rest beside her slippered toes.
"No, that's all right. Thanks."
Buck glanced nervously at that sharp blade by her feet, frowned at the trim of mud on her skirts. "You're gonna catch your death, y' know. Go on inside and get some dry things."
"Mister." The eyebrow she arched at him spoke volumes of patience. "I am a big girl, now. Thanks anyway."
"Well, now, I never said you weren't. But I just don't wanna see a lady out here in the cold, wet dark. You go on, now, and mind yourself with that ax."
The woman looked at him, pursed her lips impudently, and swung the ax to fall in a woodsman's pose across one shoulder. "I'll keep that in mind. But I ain't no lady."
With a tilt of her chin, she turned and swept away ~ well, squelched away, since the rain really was coming down harder, now. Ridiculous man, fussing over her like some dainty flower. If he thought all that fancy talk would spread any butter with her . . .
"Ah, now, who says that?"
Here he was again, suddenly galloping to a halt in front of her, one long arm sweeping aside the door of her tent. He grinned at her in the thin beams of lamp light. Like a great, gangling, oversized kid.
"Who says what? And quit lettin' the cold go in."
"Oh." Buck dropped the canvas flap, and shrugged in the fall of shadows. "I mean, who says you ain't a lady? You look like one, to me."
"Mister, I look like a woman, which is all you need to know. But I say I ain't no lady. If you don't know the difference, honey, I sure do. Now, you got a reason for standin' here?"
"Uh . . ." The woman watched Buck snatch suddenly as his hat went airborne on a fierce gust, clamping it firmly back on his head. "Yeah, I got a reason. I'm makin' conversation with a pretty girl. Reason enough to me, I reckon. Matter of fact, I can't think of another thing I'd rather be doin'."
Land sakes, if she didn't know better, she would swear he was flirting. Or maybe he was, but to what purpose, God only knew.
"Mister, it's rainin'. I'm going inside. If you want to come in, you pay for the privilege. Otherwise, thank you and good night."
Lil cocked her head, watched the tall man open and close his mouth a couple times, and chuckled softly. He had no idea what he was up to, either. Likely that big, boyish smile got him in all sorts of trouble, back wherever home was.
"Good night," she repeated, and turned to her door, towards lamplight and the warmth of a small potbellied stove, and, if no one else ever showed, finally the comfort of quilts and a ladies' magazine before sleep.
She stepped inside, turned to peer out past the drumming dribble of rain from canvas. "What?"
"Lemme buy you a cup of coffee. All right?"
"Why? Uh . . . well, why not? Or whiskey, if you want. Heck, you know this place better than I do. If you ain't busy, why don't you kinda guide me around a bit? Whattaya say?"
"My time is money, mister."
"Yeah, well, looks to me like everyone in this neighborhood has run for cover. 'Cept me, who's standin' out here in the rain, tryin' real hard to get a pretty woman to join him for coffee or a drink. C'mon, what can it hurt?"
He was just a dripping silhouette out there, in a wide-brimmed hat, but she could see the grin stretching his moustache, and somehow knew just what look in his eyes would be. Like a half-grown boy, trying to impress a girl with his frog-catching prowess.
"Like I said, my time is valuable. If you want to hold my attention all night, it's gonna cost ya."
"Just one drink." Now his tone was actually wheedling, unabashedly so. "One teensy, itty-bitty lil' drink. Then I'll walk you straight back home, I promise."
Lord ha' mercy, did this long, tall Romeo in a Stetson hat really think she'd never heard that sort of sweet-talk before? Hell, she'd been charmed by the best of 'em, and he wasn't it. Still, she thought wearily, probably the night was otherwise going to be a bust.
"Please?" God, there was that grin again, visible even in near-darkness.
"All right, all right." Lil sighed and stepped further inside. If this is what it took to land a customer, why not, indeed? Maybe she'd at least get a couple laughs out of the deal. "C'mon in for a minute, whilst I get a hat and some better shoes."
+ + + + + + +
Buck actually did have a plan. He was going to make Chris Larabee squirm. He was going to make that evil-eyed, grinning son of a bitch writhe like a worm on a hook, whilst he, Buck Wilmington, had a wonderful evening with a woman ~ and never once so much as touched her garter. Oh, Chris would be watching, yes, sir, just waiting for him to throw up the sponge to his baser instincts. Which wasn't gonna happen. And afterwards, well, he could think of several interesting things a man could do with five dollars worth of winnings.
"What's your name, sugar?" The woman's voice came from beyond a tapestry divider, which Buck understood separated the business end of the tent from her own, private chamber.
He hitched his weight on a spindly chair, and tried not to look at the overstuffed bed nearby. Chris had been right about that part.
"Buck. How about you?"
"They call me Tuscaloosa Lil." The tapestry moved, and she emerged with the cape still on, but now also wearing a wide, beribboned hat, tied with a bow beneath her chin. Smiling coyly she added, "But you can call me Lil."
She was pretty, Buck had not made that up. Lovely brown eyes, wide and dewy, a sweet, lush mouth, and a full figure that moved in most interesting ways. Oh, sure, the lamplight briefly showed fine lines at the corners of those eyes, and they seemed more shadowed than should be. There was a looseness to the flesh under her chin, and a harsh glint that came and went from the big eyes. Tuscaloosa Lil was no fresh girl, and likely her corset worked harder than it once had, to hold everything in its rightful places. But every woman carried her own unique beauty, her own special ways, and Buck stood to greet her with hat in hand and a smile on his face.
"Well, Miss Lil. Shall we?"
Lil looked at the arm he offered in frank astonishment ~ Lord, it had been a while since anyone thought to do that ~ but she recovered in the next breath. "Lead on, Mister Buck."
by G. M. Atwater