All The Reasons Why

by G. M. Atwater


Tule Jim was the bartender, and "Tule Jim's Saloon" read the crude sign beneath the lantern at the tent door. Lil did not shrink from striding right in amongst the men, nor did anyone give her more than a casual glance. Out here in the camps, the rules of good society were lightly observed, at best, and for one of their soiled doves to show up in public company with a customer was of no event.

Buck saw Chris the moment they entered, standing over a glass with both elbows on the far end of the plank bar. Larabee's eyes narrowed under his hat brim, but Buck merely beamed his sunniest smile over his companion's lovely shoulder, and seated her at an empty card table. Not this time, ol' pard. Me and Miss Lil are just gonna have a friendly drink or two, and that's it. Leaving Lil at the table, Buck stepped up to the bar and caught the attendant's eye.

"Whiskey," he said. "Two glasses."

And as the man reached into crates set behind him, Buck leaned his length forward and said softly, "Make it your private reserve, y' hear? I'll pay for it, but I ain't givin' no lady that snakehead crap you sell the rest of the boys."

Tule Jim merely grunted, reached into another crate, and thumped a relatively reputable label on the rough pine. Satisfied, Buck turned with bottle and glasses in hand ~ and realized Lil was not even watching. She sat as he had left her, hands folded on the table, quietly staring at nothing.

A light frown creased his brow as Buck returned, setting his burden gently on the table. "Miss Lil? You all right?"

A quick and polished smile sprang to her face. "Why, I'm just fine, sugar. Oh, and I see you got the good stuff. Thanks."

Buck sat and poured for them both, but that smile, lovely though it was, had never touched her eyes. Just not right, that a pretty woman could not smile from the heart.

"You know," he said quietly. "If you don't want to be here, we can leave. I can take you right home and let you be, if you want."

Lil looked up from sipping her glass, blinked twice. "What? Oh, I don't mind, at all."

"Now, I'm serious." His tone softened as he watched her, leaning towards her to emphasize his sincerity. "I just thought maybe I could make a pretty woman smile, is all. But I know it's a nasty ol' night, and if you'd rather be home, snuggled up by a warm stove, why I don't blame you. There's times a gal just needs to shut the world outside, and that includes big ol' galoots like me."

Tuscaloosa Lil took a moment to let her mind wrap around that thought, to look at the earnestness writ large across this man's face. He was volunteering to take her home for some peace and quiet? When on earth had anyone last given a thought to what she wanted? And what was he really after? All he really needed was the correct amount in cash.

"No, thanks, I'm just fine. It's warm enough in here, and I ain't tired, yet."

"Well, then." Buck slapped both hands on the table and sat back with a huge grin. "I know just what you need. A little joy to go with the oh-be-joyful. Don't move, darlin'. I'll be right back."

He sprang up so suddenly that Lil was sure the table would go with him, and she stared after him with open-mouthed confusion. What on earth . . . ? She watched him bend his lanky form over a man slumped in a chair beside the pot-bellied stove, watched the man jerk awake and stare blearily up at the mustachioed vision towering over him. Tom Bowen, their drunken fiddle player?

Buck was talking as he reached into his pocket, dropped something into the man's lap, and then Tom Bowen smiled. Reached for the battered violin case on the floor beside him. Oh, no . . . Lil put one hand over her eyes, as Buck strode back and folded his long self back into his seat.

"There!" he said brightly. "That should help."

"Buck, Tom's been drunk for fifteen years. I've never heard him play anything but 'Dixie' and 'Battle Hymn of the Republic.' He's lucky if he can . . . "

A dissonant screech reverberated from tortured strings, and Lil clenched her teeth. Yet Buck's smile never wavered.

"Oh, no, darlin', this will be different. Y' see, I told him we needed music for the fairest dove in camp. I told him that only him and that fiddle could bring the roses back to your cheeks. Your whole happiness depends on him."

"You what?"

Lil glared at him, then warily let her gaze touch on Tom Bowen, yonder with the fiddle to his chin and a look of intense concentration on his face. Carefully the ragged man plucked his strings, and just as carefully turned the tuning keys. Abruptly Tom's eyes met hers, and he smiled with broken teeth. He brought the bow up with a flourish, Lil clamped her jaw in dread . . . And a soft ripple of notes drifted from those tattered strings, pure in pitch as the whisper of angels.

Lil found herself almost holding her breath, as the tune wound softly from Tom Bowen's gnarled hands. A tune as gentle and sweet as dreams, as true as hope. The words played just as softly in her mind.

The years creep slowly by, Lorena,
The snow is on the grass again;
The sun's low down the sky, Lorena,
The frost gleams where the flowers have been.
But the heart throbs on as warmly now
As when the summer days were nigh;
Oh, the sun can never dip so low
A-down affection's cloudless sky.

A hundred months have passed, Lorena,
Since last I held that hand in mine,
And felt the pulse beat fast, Lorena,
Though mine beat faster far than thine.
A hundred months---'twas flowery May,
When up the hilly slope we climbed,
To watch the dying of the day
And hear the distant church bells chime.

And now Tom let his fiddle weep gently, bitter-sweetly, the notes trembling with purity such as no man had ever heard in that place. All the room sat silently, held by that dulcet spell:

It matters little now, Lorena,
The past is in the eternal past;
Our hearts will soon lie low, Lorena,
Life's tide is ebbing out so fast.
There is a future, oh, thank God!
Of life this is so small a part
'Tis dust to dust beneath the sod.
But there, up there, 'tis heart to heart.

+ + + + + + +

As the last notes trembled to silence, it seemed as though no one remembered to so much as breathe. Lil thought to close her mouth, then, and Tom Bowen glanced around the room. With a puckish grin, he brought bow to strings once more ~ and leaped gaily into the notes of "Camp Town Races."

Within two bars, somebody with tin lungs began to joyfully belt out the words, and someone else whistled raucous approval. Lively as jumping a creek, the fiddle soon danced into "The Arkansas Traveler, "which in turn became "Old Joe Clark." Several men took turns belting out newly-minted verses to that song, each a bit more ribald than the last. Lil found herself laughing aloud, and joined the boys in clapping along, when one spry fellow sprang up to dance an Irish jig. Buck watched her, and felt a spreading warmth that had nothing to do with whiskey. Now that is how a woman is supposed to look, with light in her eyes and laughter on her lips. If there were anything a mortal man could do, he intended to help keep that smile there, for as long as he could.

Without pausing for breath, the fiddle segued merrily into Stephen Foster's "The Soiree Polka." A touch on her sleeve startled Lil, and she looked to meet Buck's hopeful grin and outstretched hand.


"Care to dance?" he asked, and both eyebrows waggled in a clownish plea for Yes.

"Dance? Why, I can't -."

"Oh, yes, you can." He jack-knifed his long form upright, drawing her helplessly with him. "And if you can't, why, you just stand there and smile pretty, while I hop around and make the other folks laugh. C'mon!"

Tom Bowen beamed with all his rotten teeth, as he watched them, bending his bow back to the opening bars of Foster's jolly tune. Lil protested weakly, but it was in vain, as the fiddle skipped through an opening stanza. Buck gave her an awkward bow, then the music swept them both away.

No, it was no ballroom floor, with dirt and tobacco crumbs underfoot, and rain pelting the canvas overhead. The place stank of cheap liquor, wet clothes, lamp oil, and unwashed bodies. Around the walls, men with ungroomed beards and dirty overhauls kept time on the bar top and tables. Someone found two chunks of kindling to rattle as bones, while another man dashed out, then back in again, dripping and grinning over a jews-harp, which he began to twang with cheery gusto. Yet Lil felt wonderful strength in the strong hands which guided her steps, saw open laughter dancing in her companion's dark blue eyes. The fiddle bounced brightly through notes that seemed to carry her feet beyond their own power. When the end of the refrain was reached, Tom Bowen let the notes skip briefly in waiting, then sprang to repeat the tune in yet a faster tempo, and then faster still, until their feet scarcely touched the floor. Lil laughed helplessly, giddily, and prayed to God that Buck would not let go, else she would careen right through the thin walls and out into the sodden street.

And then . . . and then the last notes fell into shining stillness, and a softer tune whispered. Foster again, "Ah, May the Red Rose Live Always." Breathless though she was, Buck merely smiled and drew her forward again, into the gentle, four-beat measures of a waltz. No, he was no elegant blade in a frock coat, with the grace of a gentleman and the airs of an aristocrat. He was merely a long, tall cowboy with a leprechaun's look of mischief on his face, and big feet he just barely managed to keep out of her way. Yet he was gentleman enough to step back, when a hand touched his shoulder, and a young miner asked a question with smiling eyes. Lil danced with that man, and with another, and another, until a laughing fellow returned her at last to Buck's care.

Lil headed for her seat finally, as the fiddle galloped off with the crowd's off-key bellowing of "The Shanghai Chicken." The sheer volume of the voices surprised her, and she realized the room had become thoroughly packed with dripping miners, as the magic of the fiddle reached out into the stormy darkness. Even some of the other girls had found their way in, and chose willing partners for a rollicking dance.

De Shanghai chicken, when you put him in de pit,
He'll eat a loaf of bread up, but he can't fight a bit
De Shanghai fiddle is a funny little thing
And ebry time you tune him up he goes ching ching.

Oh! de Shanghai!
Don't bet your money on de Shanghai,
Take de little chicken in de middle ob de ring
But don't bet your money on de Shanghai.

"Look what you've started!" she laughed, as Buck handed her into her chair.

Eyes twinkling, he replied, "Yeah, ain't it great? Now, you just set right there and look purty. I'm gonna fetch us both a beer."

Breathing deeply, Lil sighed and reached again for a deeper breath. Good heavens, whatever had she gotten herself into? The canvas walls shuddered as much with the leather-lunged joy of the men inside, as it did to the wet cuffing of the wind without, or the discontented grumbling of the thunder no one heeded. Buck now had to shoulder his way up to the plank bar, waving the bartender down. As she watched, she noted his black-clad companion nursing a slow drink at the far end, and she swore she saw the man wink broadly at his tall friend. Yet Buck merely raised his twin beers in salute, and turned with both held high, as he maneuvered back to the table.

"What was that about?" she asked, as he set their drinks down.

"What's that?" The most guileless look in the world met hers.

"Your friend, there."

"Oh, nothin'. He just thinks he knows everything." Buck slumped into his chair, and hoisted his beer in mute salutation. "Which he don't."

Tom Bowen was at the top of his form, tonight. Since the day the bottle claimed him, he had not played so true, and it seemed as if fiddle and man were woven of the same magic strand. His broken teeth shone with glee, as his scrawny arms plied the bow with delicate fingers, the fiddle tight to his chin. His beady eyes gleamed joyfully, and one winked merrily as they met hers.

"See?" said Buck, leaning towards her in conspiratorial delight. "It's your doin', not mine!"

"Me? I didn't do nothing!"

"Yes, you did. You brought sunshine to a dreary day, pretty lady. Whoops! Drink up, looks like it's our turn, again!"

And the fiddle called again, gay notes guiding her feet, once more.

+ + + + + + +

The rain seemed to have stopped, when at last Lil called for rest. The merry stink of that tent saloon nearly stifled her, and the sweat - none of this glowing nonsense, but plain old sweat - fairly ran beneath her dress. Buck gallantly held open the dripping tent fly, as she stepped into the welcome chill of the night. The muddy earth squashed greasily underfoot, but the rich spice of wet desert air filled her lungs like a tonic.

"My, don't that smell nice?" mused Buck.

Behind them, Tule Jim's Saloon continued its uproarious celebration unabated, but the damp, fragrant hush of the streets soothed their flushed faces. Lil's ears fairly rang from the racket, and she smiled to think when the last time might have been, that such a jubilee broke out in Tin Cup. Well, it surely beat hell out of sitting around cursing mud and leaky tents.

"Oh, but what's that?" Now Buck sniffed like a hound dog, nose pointed off into the dark.

A delicious, warm fragrance touched her senses now, too, and she said, "Baking, I think."

"Mm, let's see where. C'mon!"

Sighing patiently, she followed his squishing footsteps towards the nearest restaurant tent. The delightful aroma grew stronger as they approached, and Buck loped ahead to hold open the tent flaps. Inside, the long tables stood silent and empty, and a lone man in the back looked up from a giant cast iron stove.

"Sorry, folks, don't got nothin' but a bit of leftover stew, until mornin'."

"Yeah, but what smells so good?" Flipping off his hat, Buck slumped onto the end of a bench and turned on his most disarming smile. "We come all the way over here, just 'cause we smelled you makin' magic in that oven of yours."

The man chuckled, and wiped his hands on a grimy apron. "Well, I just made some pies for tomorrow. Reckon that was it. But they're still too hot to cut."

"Aw, you can cut just one, can't you? For the lady. You know how women love sweets, now, don't you?"

Lil looked past Buck's shoulder at the cook, having known Fresno Joe since the man first hauled that monstrous great stove over the mountain behind a 6-mule team. She saw the mirth in the cook's eyes, and could only grin and shake her head in return.

"I'll pay ya extra, if you'll do it," Buck announced, and commenced digging for pockets under his coat.

"Oh, hell." Fresno Joe waved one be-floured hand. "Won't cost extra. Hope apple suits you, on account of they were the first ones out, so I might be able to get a couple decent slices."

Dried apple pie might not be the same as fresh apples, but Lil had to admit, Joe knew his craft. Everything sort of oozed over the plate, as promised almost too hot to eat. But the crust flaked at a touch, and the rich blend of fruit, sweet, and cinnamon caressed her tongue. Buck visibly agreed, as the tall man forked up a bite, then closed his eyes to chew blissfully.

"Mm, this is where Chris and me shoulda come to eat. Hey, mister! This here is the best pie in the Territory. I ain't kiddin' ya!"

"Why you doin' this, Buck?" Lil asked suddenly.

Buck blinked, his mouth full of pie, and swallowed. "Doin' what?"

"This." She waved her fork at her plate, the room, the whole camp of Tin Cup. "It don't take all this hooraw to get next to a gal like me. Why you doin' it?"

Lil watched closely for his response, all too wise in the ways and wiliness of men. Yet the look softening his face seemed as sincere as a babe's, puzzled, baffled, even a little hurt.

"Why, I just wanted to see you smile, Lil." His voice came soft as a brush of spring breeze. "That's all. You looked like you needed somethin' to smile about."

Then he laid down his fork, and his brow furrowed gently. "You tired? I'll take you home, soon as you finish your pie. I'll just walk you home, and say good night. All right?"

Suddenly, Lil could not meet that man's gaze. Could not accept the honesty reflected there as real, nor the gentleness of his tone as genuine. Why would any man trouble himself about her, save for how she could best pleasure him? Lil remained strong by never letting what men thought or felt touch her, by relying on herself, alone, for her own happiness or comfort. It was discomfiting to think that another, a stranger, could possibly look beyond the most basic courtesies.

Yet she heard herself saying, "No hurry. This is awfully good pie."

They ate in silence, and along with sweet apples, Buck swallowed a sad, sinking feeling. He'd done all he could think of. She'd at least been happy for a little while. Reckon that was all either of them could hope for, though. A body had to take their joys and pleasures whenever they found them, as it could all be snatched away, in a twinkling. One day, sickness or hurt or the treachery of strangers might snuff it all, and the most one should hope for is that the days they were given would not be all dark.

"You looked real pretty in there," he said, in one last effort to cheer her. "Why, you shine like a daisy in the sunlight, when you laugh."

Lil's shoulders shook, and a most unladylike snort escaped her. "Lord, you just don't ever quit, do you?"

"What? I mean it, darn it!"

Still chuckling, Lil said, "Ain't you got a gal back home, to waste all that charm on?"

"No ma'am, I don't."

"Feller your age ought to have a wife and a passel of kids somewhere."

Buck sighed, and the humor eased from his face. Softly he replied, "Well, Lil, I don't reckon I'm the kind of man that a good woman takes to."

"I find that hard to believe."

"Believe." There were shadows in his eyes, now, sadness behind the deep blue, as he gave her a wistful smile. "Now, you clean your plate, darlin'. Make the cook happy."

+ + + + + + +

They walked the muddy street in silence, the strains of revelry still drifting through the darkness, through the walls of Tule Jim's Saloon. Out front, a black silhouette stood against the glowing canvas, and the red tip of a cigar glowed briefly. Tall form, flat-brimmed hat, long overcoat.

"That your friend?"

"Mm-hm," Buck replied absently. "He ain't real handy at doin' fiestas."

"Oh, I thought he looked pretty happy, in there."

Buck had to think about that, as they walked. Funny, he'd forgotten to notice where Chris was, or what he had been doing, in there. Vaguely he recalled seeing Chris kind of standing there, grinning over his drink, so maybe that qualified as having a good time. Whatever. He'd better have saved five dollars for morning, is all Buck cared about.

Her tent was now at hand, dimly glowing from the single lamp she had left lit. They paused there, and Lil clutched her woolen cape closer.

"Well . . ." she said, and then couldn't believe she'd wasted breath on something so pointless.

Buck took off his hat, turned it in his hands, a tall shadow in the darkness. "Thanks, Miss Lil. Dancin' with you was somethin' mighty special."

Lil smiled, caught a brief whiff of damp canvas, from his coat. She reached out, pressed a hand on the layers of material over his chest.

"You're somethin' else, too, Buck. Is that your real name?"

"Yes 'm. Bucklin, actually."

"Well . . ." She paused, gently tested a hidden key, to one of the many doors in her heart. "My real name is Elizabeth."

"Elizabeth." His soft voice caressed the word. "That's a right pretty name."

His boots shifted in the mud, and suddenly, irrationally, she did not want him to leave, yet. Did not want the easy warmth of him to walk away, leaving a space where the cold breeze could blow through and grip her in clammy, invisible hands.

"I had . . . I had fun, too," she said. Odd, to realize how seldom she said those words and meant them.

"Well, good." Although shadows hid his face, the smile was audible in his voice. "After all, that was the whole idea. You and me havin' fun."

Lil giggled, then heard herself saying, "You want to come in, now?"

"No." And suddenly his tone became somber. "I never meant like that. I just enjoyed your company, tonight. I was happy makin' a pretty woman happy."

Which he had done. This night, Lil has laughed as she'd not since poor Tom died, or even a good while before. She has done things just for the delight of doing, danced just for the joy of dancing, and laughed, just because she felt like it. Things she had not done or felt or thought in a very long time. Fun. Honest-to-God fun, and all because one tall, galloping clown of a man with a little boy's grin thought she needed an excuse to smile. Just once, she decided to do something that had nothing to do with money or survival, at all.

"And you did." Lil laid both hands on his chest now, leaning lightly into his strength, his kindness. "Please, come in. Just for a little while."

Lil felt him hesitate, could not know the reason for it, but she added, "Not like that. This is just you and me."

And so Buck stayed. He stayed to help her with her damp cape, and pull off her wet shoes, and to pull the combs from her brown hair. Stayed to take the brush from her hand and stroke the long tresses to gleaming, while Lil sat with her eyes blissfully closed. When last had a man's touch been so delightful, so pleasing, so thoroughly selfless?

And when at last she turned in his arms, he stayed to unlace her corset, to laugh when she complained how his feet would probably hang off the end of her bed. He stayed to nibble kisses down her cheek and neck that tickled, God help her, his moustache tickling like anything, and she squealed with laughter, pushing him back. Grinning broadly, Buck held up clawed hands and waggled his fingers.

"Oh-ho, she's ticklish, is she? I wonder where else she's ticklish?"

Buck grabbed, Lil squealed and sprang away, and he followed, the two of them suddenly chasing each other like a pair of fool kids. Around the bed they romped, and then right over the top of it, mattress bouncing underfoot, and she feared the entire frame would collapse under his buoyant leap. At last, she let him catch her, he scooping her up in his arms, a dizzying spin around and then softly to the bed, where he laid her down as gently as a babe.

"You make me smile," she whispered, and reached up to draw him to her.

Somewhere in the back of Buck's mind, he heard a small voice saying, Oh, well, there goes five bucks. But what he holds in his arms is worth that small loss, just to see the light in her soft eyes, just to hear the gentle laughter of a happy woman chuckling deep in her throat.

Outside, the rain once again whispered down . . .

+ + + + + + +

Larabee got precious little sleep that night, but then, he did not really expect otherwise. Through the thin canvas walls, he heard every snore, every gurgle, every fart of the slumbering miners who shared these lodgings. He was awake when Buck tiptoed in, but lay still, listening with hidden mirth as the scoundrel stealthily slipped out of his boots and coat. Five dollars, pard, he thought.

Naturally, the deepest sleep came just before sunup, and Chris was dragged from rest with deepest reluctance, by the growing bustle of miners awakening for work. Some coughed and spat, some groaned and cursed, while others began loudly carrying on conversations that were nauseatingly cheerful for the hour.

Buck, meanwhile, never moved, his lanky form a still, silent lump on the narrow cot, folded awkwardly under his blankets. Larabee eyed him fondly, pondering how that man could sleep anywhere and through anything. Long as he'd known Buck, it had always been that way. Idly hoisting a boot in one hand, his better angels counseled kindness.

Naturally, Chris Larabee ignored them.


Buck shot bolt upright on impact, hand scrabbling under his pillow for the pistol stowed there, even as his bleary eyes focused on his partner's malicious grin. Scowling, Buck grabbed the boot which had just struck him, and flung it ineffectually back at its owner.

"What the hell you do that for?"

Shrugging, Chris pulled the boot onto his foot. "Seemed like a good idea at the time."

"You coulda let me sleep another hour, and it wouldn't have hurt my feelings, at all." Buck reached down for his coat and vest, pawed for the pockets. "What time is it, anyhow?"

"Time for you to pay me five dollars, I reckon." Larabee smiled, as he swept his coat around his shoulders.

"Aww, hell." Flopping back on his cot, Buck threw one arm over his eyes. "You got a one-track mind, you know that?"

"No, I'd say you do, pard. Pay up."

Cloth rustled, as Larabee stood, and Buck raised his arm to glare up at his friend impotently. "You mind waitin' until I have coffee, at least? I ain't got the change on me, right now."

"No problem. I might even let you buy me breakfast."

Chris waited, while Buck groaned and cursed and finally crawled into his own boots, coat and hat. A familiar ritual, this, and he wondered how big a hangover Buck really had. His old friend had a good capacity for liquor, but he had been running at a pretty high head of steam, last night. No telling what that woman had kept at her place, either. Larabee shook his head, trying not to smile.

"Well, hurry up. We got us a prisoner to move."

"I know, I know." Buck jammed his hat on, and scowled at Chris. "On a mule, no less."

"Well, if your head's as big as I think it is, this morning, you'll be in just the right temper to keep him in line. C'mon, big fella. Day's a-wastin'."

Larabee clapped a hand on Buck's shoulder, brief warmth washing through him as he propelled his lanky friend towards the door. He probably should not have made that bet. Hell, it was like taking candy from a baby. But, he had to admit, it was just too damned fun, sometimes, to take advantage of Buck's failings.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm goin'.

Once outside, Chris drew alongside, and cast Buck a crooked grin. "So, was she worth it?"

He knew the look he would get, that wide, smug Buck Wilmington smile, and he was not disappointed. Both hands at his waistband as they walked, Buck nodded firmly.

"Oh, yeah. She was worth it. Definitely worth it. Say, I know a better place to eat breakfast."

+ + + + + + +

Lil saw them, as they prepared to ride out. Their captive sat hunched miserably, bareback on an old gray mule, and she noted that someone had tied a gag in his mouth. Likely he had already made his many displeasures just a little too clearly known. The black-clad one talked briefly with burly Dan Owens, then shook hands before mounting up. Buck held the mule's lead rope, and she came to her doorway, as she saw them turn their animals up the boggy street.

Clean-washed blue sky smiled overhead, this morning, the clouds drawn back to ragged white tatters along the distant mountains. Only the chill air and squelching mud were left, to testify to the storms of night. She drew a shawl closely, as a whisper of a breeze brought the rich, wet spice of rain-soaked desert. Their hoof beats pattered wetly as they neared her, and Lil felt a smile warming her face. Buck had seen her, and a broad grin immediately stretched his moustache. He spoke briefly to his companion, handed the mule's lead rope over, and nudged his horse into a quick jog towards her.

"Good mornin', Miss Lil," he called cheerfully, and doffed his wide hat in a grand, sweeping motion.

Chuckling, Lil stepped carefully to meet him, drawing back her skirts as his horse spattered to a halt. She had to admit, he was a fine-looking man. And my, he did have knowing ways.

Echoes of shared intimacy warmed the smiles they exchanged, as she said, "Good morning to you. I'm glad to see you're takin' care of that trash."

"Oh, yeah. Got a mouth on him like you wouldn't believe, too."

"Oh, I'd believe. Well, you just be careful. I'd hate to hear of somethin' happenin' to you, on account of him."

"Now, don't you fret, darlin'. Ol' Buck can take care of himself. I just want you to be sure and take care of my Miss Lil, y' hear?"

She had to laugh, at that gently possessive choice of words. "Always do, Buck. I always do."

"All right, then." He paused, raised his eyebrows. "You know, you could always come back with me."

"Buck." Lil reached to clasp his fingers, smiling even as she leveled a stern look up into that boyish face. "That's sweet, but we both live in the real world."

"Yeah, well . . ." The wide shoulders shrugged, and he winked. "Never hurts to ask, now does it?"

"Nope, it sure doesn't. Now, you best get movin', your friend's waitin' on you."

Glancing over his shoulder, Buck nodded. "Yep, reckon so. Well, then . . ."

Larabee watched as Buck leaned from his saddle ~ foolishly so, until it seemed he would spill right off in the mud ~ but his long legs held his seat securely as he kissed the woman on the mouth. Then kissed her again, soft and lingering. She was smiling, as he straightened and swept his hat back on. Damned Don Juan with a stupid grin, forever with the theatrics and lovely gestures. Chris shook his head, as Buck touched his hat brim to the woman with a rakish smile, and wheeled his big gray into trot to join him.

Buck saw his friend's look, as he took the mule's lead rope, and demanded, "What?"

"I don't know how you do it, Buck." Larabee touched his horse into motion. "I am continually amazed that there are actually women in the world who fall for your act."

"Hey, who said it's an act? I'm tellin' ya, Chris, it's that animal magnetism."

"Well, at least the animal part is close."

"Huh!" Buck winked at him, and refused to be baited. "What are you complainin' about? You got five bucks out of the deal."

"Easiest five bucks I ever made, too!" Chris grinned wickedly, and spurred the pace up to a trot.

Behind them, Tuscaloosa Lil walked towards breakfast with a light heart. Last night, she had slept without ever touching that little brown bottle on the dresser, without the thought of it even crossing her mind. In her head, in her heart, she held Buck's parting words like a small, warm toddy for the soul.

"Remember to smile sometimes, pretty woman. Remember to smile."

Not so hard to do, when a body could think on at least one fine thing. For Lil's part, it was the memory of a man who had made love to her, made love for her, with his laughing eyes open . . .

~ ~ FINIS ~ ~

This was just a little light-hearted exploration into my own ideas on why, despite Buck's blatantly buffoonish attempts to woe the ladies, and all his friends' cheerful ridicule of the same, he so often really DOES get the girl. I think it is simply because . . . that big, loving heart is for real.