Nobody Loses All the Time
by J Brooks
Notes: This came from a challenge to write a story inspired by a poem -- without mentioning the poem in the story. I've always loved this particular poem. And who suits its spirit of dogged optimism -- in the face of all evidence to the contrary -- than El Buck?
"Knew you wouldn't let me down Ol' Dawg."
"Oh, this one's gonna cost you, Buck."
"Anything you say. Deal's a deal."
"You'll take all my patrols?"
"Every last one of `em."
"For a WEEK."
With a last resentful look at his longtime friend, Chris Larabee swung into the saddle and grabbed the lead line of the horse that would carry the prisoner to trial in Salt Fork.
The prisoner, Emmet Pibb, fraud suspect and jailhouse convert, beamed
benevolently back at him, hands folded reverently over his handcuffs.
"Hallelujah, brother," said Emmet, sketching a backward sign of the cross, with the wrong hand. "Would you like to discuss your personal relationship with Christ?"
"No," Larabee snapped, yanking the reins and turning both horses toward the edge of town. It was going to be a very long day.
"Shut the hell up!"
"Perhaps a hymn would uplift your spirits?"
"TWO weeks, Buck! You're taking all my patrols for the next TWO weeks! You hear me?"
Buck made an expansive gesture that could mean either "I agree" or "I am swatting a fly," and watched the pair plod out of sight. The beginnings of a particularly dreary hymn floated back to him on the breeze.
Whistling jauntily, Wilmington turned to put the next phase of the plan in motion.
"JD! Buddy! Pal!"
"Forget it, Buck!"
"Now, JD. You don't even know what I was gonna say."
"Wild guess. You want me to take the patrol you just swapped with Chris."
"Well whadaya know. Great minds do think alike. It's fate, that's what it is. You might want to turn in now, get yerself all rested up for the overnight shift."
"Forget it, Buck. I have dawn patrol."
"JD, you can't expect me to work my magic if I have to leave in the middle of the evening to patrol the town. That ain't at all the kind of night I have planned. C'mon, I'll take your next two patrols for this one."
JD Dunne stood, hands on hips, and studied his best friend for a moment, trying to figure out how badly Buck wanted this favor. Wilmington fidgeted. A slow, evil smile spread across the kid's face.
"What's it worth to you?"
"JD!" Buck took a step back in dismay. "What kind of a question is that? What kind of a friend makes a friend pay for a favor?"
JD snorted. "Last time I asked you to swap a patrol with me, you made me cover your bar tab for a whole weekend AND promise not to wear my hat for the rest of the month!"
Buck paused for a moment, smiling dreamily. That was a good month. He turned his attention back to the matter at hand. "I'll take THREE of your patrols for the one."
"Four! Four patrols!"
"Buy you beer? Buy you dinner? Buy you a new hat? What? What's it
The preacher, pacing uneasily in front of the church entrance, glanced up at Buck's boisterous call. He nodded a distracted greeting and turned his attention back to the building.
Undeterred, Buck threw an arm around Josiah's shoulders. "'Siah, don't the Bible say somethin' about how it's our Christian duty to love one another?"
Josiah Sanchez edged warily away from the encircling arm. "Yeees..."
"Then wouldn't you say it's your Christian duty to help me spread a little of that love tonight?"
Josiah rolled his eyes. "You need a favor."
"You know that purty little songbird puttin' on her show tonight?"
"Oh Brother Buck, I believe your reach may exceed your grasp on that one. That's a woman who's used to the finer things."
"Exactly right. And what could be finer than a night with Buck?" He patted the preacher on the chest. "So I'm gonna need you to give me your ticket to the show."
"Thought you bought two tickets already?"
"Gave one to JD. But he needs one for Casey too."
"So tell him to buy another."
"Give him yours."
"Now if I give him my ticket, how'm I supposed to expose the lovely
lady to my charms?"
"If you're going to the show to meet the lady, why'd you buy two
tickets in the first place?"
Buck shuffled his feet.
"You weren't planning on bringing a date along while you tried to pick up a date, were you?"
"See, that's not important right now, Josiah. What's important is that I need to get another ticket for JD so he'll take the night patrol I swapped with Chris so I could go to the show tonight and woo the songbird. So c'mon Josiah. Do me this one little favor?"
Slowly, Josiah turned to face the ladies' man, a speculative gleam lighting his eyes.
"A favor, eh?"
Vin Tanner looked up from the apple he was slicing on the front steps of the jail and studied the antsy ladies' man from under the wide brim of his hat.
"You know anything about skunks, Junior?" Buck asked, shooting a nervous glance over his shoulder toward the church.
"Know enough to stay away from `em."
"Know anything about movin' skunks from one place to another?"
Vin blinked. "Now why would anyone want to do that?"
"Josiah's got skunks in the church. Whole passel of `em just went waltzing in there this morning. He needs `em to waltz right back out."
Vin shrugged easily and made to rise -- then paused. "Why ain't Josiah askin' me himself?"
Buck fidgeted. "I kinda told him I'd take care of it."
Vin settled back down and popped another hunk of apple into his mouth. "So take care of it."
"Are you kiddin' me? I have places to go and things to do toight! What if somethin' goes wrong? The ladies purely hate the smell of skunk."
"I ain't too fond of it myself, Bucklin."
"I'll make it worth yer while. I'll take your next dawn patrol."
"I like dawn patrol."
"Not interested, but ..."
"TWO dusk patrols. All your patrols for the next week!"
"...might be somethin' we could work out."
"What? What? Name it."
"It's Nettie. She's leavin' tomorrow to meet this big-city lawyer to sell some property, and I thought it'd be a good idea if somebody went along who understood that legal mumbo-jumbo."
"Yup. Just ain't quite figured how to convince him ta go along," Vin cocked his head up and favored Buck with a sly smile. "You can be mighty convincing when you have a mind to be, can'tcha Buck?" He offered him a slice of apple to seal the deal.
Buck hesitated. There had to be a catch. Ezra might put up a token protest if asked to travel with the sharp-tongued old woman, but the sneaking respect he harbored for Nettie -- and the chance to indulge in other diversions in the big city -- should make for an easy argument.
"What ain't you tellin' me, Vin?"
"She needs ta meet this lawyer at his office."
"And where's his office?"
"Topeka?" Ezra Standish reeled backward, hands raised as if to ward off a blow. Collecting himself, he tugged at his cuffs and sneered. "Not interested."
"Now, Ez, poor old defenseless, old helpless, old tiny, old Nettie really needs your help with this contract. And you know it'd mean the world to Vin."
"Absolutely not! Under no circumstances will I return to that corn-fed hellhole!"
"It's Nettie, Ez. She's old. You gonna send a bitty old biddy off to wander through Kansas all by her lonesome?"
Ezra settled back against the saloon's outside wall and glared. "There's not a doubt in my mind that the formidable Mrs. Wells is more than a match for any man, beast or attorney on the planet. And as you well know, I have been banned from Topeka by special request of law enforcement and several prominent civic groups and business associations."
"Now, Ez, that was just a suggestion on their part. Ain't like you're against Topeka city law or somethin'. Think of Nettie, Ez. All old and feeble and alone in the middle of Kansas... What if she falls and breaks her hip? How you gonna live with yourself?"
"Go away, Mr. Wilmington," Standish craned his head around Buck to study a moon-faced young man in an expensive suit who was mincing down the street, holding a huge lace umbrella over the head of a glowering older woman.
"C'mon, Ez. Vin'd do it himself, but he don't talk lawyer talk like you do."
Ezra looked slowly from the mamma's boy to the ladies' man. Buck could almost hear the gears turning in the gambler's head. "And may I ask, why are you imposing upon me on his behalf?"
"I'm just doin' him a favor. Like friends do, y'know."
"Mm hmm. And what favor is he doing for you in return?"
Buck drew a deep breath. "If I get you to go to Topeka with Nettie, Vin'll clear the skunks out of the church. If Vin clears the skunks out of the church, Josiah'll give JD his ticket to tonight's show. If JD gets the extra ticket, he'll take the overnight patrol I traded with Chris so I'd have tonight free to meet that lady singer. Ya follow me?" He leaned forward and peered into Ezra's eyes, which had taken on a slightly glazed cast somewhere around "skunks."
Ezra licked his lips and glanced down the street again. In the distance, he could see Nathan Jackson darting down a side alley with unseemly haste, trying to avoid the umbrella-shaded matron.
"Perhaps we can work out an accommodation after all."
Buck found Nathan in his clinic, peering warily through the window to the street below.
"Did you see her?" the healer hissed, waving frantically until Buck ducked down and crab-crawled across the floor join him at the window.
"See who?" Buck whispered back.
"That nasty old bat, Helena Warberger," Nathan's eyes widened in alarm and he threw himself across the room to catch the door, which had begun to swing open. He slammed it shut and leaned against it.
"Woman's been dogging my heels for three days. Never met a body with so many imaginary aches and complaints. Talked my ear off for three hours yesterday. Sucked up my morning and half the afternoon the day before. Won't give me a moment's peace. Hounds that poor beaten-down son of hers too. Won't let him leave her side, `cept when she's here in the clinic with me."
"Speaking of which, Nate -- you doin' anything tonight, starting, oh, around 7 o'clock?"
"Why we doin' this again, Buckie?" Pansy hitched up the slipping strap of her satin gown and patted at her tangled hair, glancing around the crowded streets apprehensively. Like the other saloon girls, she rarely went about the streets in her work costume during daylight hours.
"Si, Buck, why we can't change our clothes?" Rosario elbowed Wilmingon none to gently in the ribs. Behind her, every saloon girl in town was straggling reluctantly behind Buck, heading for the clinic in a parade of bright satins and silks, feathers and fans.
Buck had hauled them away from their evening preparations with a series of increasingly outrageous compliments, offers and bribes.
"Just doin' a favor for a friend, ladies. You know how Nathan worries about you. Promised him I'd have every single one of you up to the clinic for a check-up before sunset tonight. And El Buck is a man of his word."
"So you'll take me on a picnic tomorrow?" Pansy hesitated, one foot on the stairs to Nathan's clinic.
"Be the highlight of my day, darlin'."
The next girl in line nudged Buck. "And you'll be getting' me them new hair ribbons?"
"To match your lovely eyes, Agnes."
"And my chocolates?"
"Next Saturday night? ALL night?"
"Lookin' forward to it, ladies!" Buck gallantly offered Pansy his arm and led the procession up to the clinic. Nathan met them at the top with a smile for the girls and an eye roll and a nod of confirmation for Buck.
Buck bounded back down the stairs, blowing kisses to the ladies waiting their turn in line. At the bottom, he broke into a few celebratory dance steps and waved a confirmation to Ezra, who was watching from the saloon entrance, grinning in anticipation.
At 7 o'clock, Nathan would intercept Mamma Warberger and Ezra would help her downtrodden son unload a little of mamma's money at the poker table.
A thought struck Buck.
"Rosario," he pulled the young woman out of her place near the back of the line.
"You promised, Buck. The book I saw in the general store, `Wuthering Heights.'"
"Rosie, Rosie -- You deserve a whole library for doin' me this favor. Now I need one more. This singer lady. They say she's from Spain. That's like Mexico, right?"
"See, I thought she might appreciate it if I whispered a few sweet nothings in her ear in Spanish. Can you think of anything you like hearin' in Spanish from a feller?"
Rosario cocked her head, considering. "The store has also a copy of `A Tale of Two Cities,' by Senor Dickens."
"It's yours. Now run a few of them sweet Spanish somethings by me."
An hour later, Buck Wilmington stepped out of the bathhouse, clothes pressed, mustache combed, skin scrubbed pink and hair slicked with juniper oil. He studied the poster tacked next to the bathhouse door, advertising the sold-out performance of Senorita Esmeralda Luisa Lupita Alonzo, the Spanish Songbird. He took a deep, appreciative breath. All was right with his word.
He had his songbird. JD had his tickets. Nathan had his patients. Ezra had his mark. Nettie had her escort. Chris had a warm saloon in Salt Fork. Josiah ... Buck frowned. What was he doing for Josiah again?
"Ey, Buck." Vin spoke up just behind him. Buck spun around expectantly and opened his mouth -- only to have his holler of greeting cut short.
"Shhh. Don't scare `em."
Vin cut his eyes down and to the left. Buck's gaze followed and he found himself staring into the beady black eyes of a small family of skunks.
Only Vin's hand on his shoulder kept Buck from bolting.
"Jesus, Vin! I just wanted the polecats out of the church! Ya didn't need to bring `em here as proof!"
"Followed me," Tanner shrugged. "Skunks're nice little critters, `cept for the smell."
Buck scowled down at the polecats. "How'd you get `em outta the church, anyway?"
"Berries. Skunks like `em."
"Well, you can just lead them skunks right on outta town. I don't want `em!"
"You talk to Ez like you said?"
"Yep. He's all packed and ready to go."
"Much obliged, Bucklin." Vin slapped a small bowl of chokecherries into his hand, patted him on the arm and ambled off.
The skunks remained. Staring fixedly at Buck with unblinking eyes.
Buck backed up a step.
The skunks took a step forward.
Buck tossed the cherries off to one side. The skunks ignored the bowl, sniffing the air appreciatively. Juniper berries. Their striped tails twitched. This Man smelled delicious.
Buck spun on his heel and ran. The skunks waddled along in his wake.
Saloon! Ha! Skunks would never follow him into a saloon! Buck burst through the swinging doors, darted between the tables, hopped the bar and darted into the small kitchen beyond.
He pulled up short. There sat Inez, slicing tomatoes into a stew pot and chatting companionably with ... the songbird. Esmeralda Luisa Lupita Alonzo, her lovely face alight with laughter, leaned across Inez's rough worktable, her sleeves rolled up and her arms plunged into a vat of tomatoes, chattering away in Spanish with the saloon manager.
Both women glanced up at him, still smiling from whatever joke they shared. Buck smoothed down his hair and turned his most brilliant smile on the senoritas. Now was as good a time as any to try out the Spanish sweet talk.
He crooned out a few phrases.
The women sat frozen, staring at him.
He tried out a few more choice sayings Rosario had recommended.
A pair of enraged shrieks flew through the air, followed immediately by tomatoes.
"Senoritas?" Buck yelped, trying without success to duck salsa fixings. Still screaming, Esmeralda Luisa Lupita Alonzo fled past him, making for the main saloon.
Buck turned back to Inez, mystified.
"Was it something I said?"
Inez dumped a pot of diced tomatoes over his head.
Buck was still pawing tomato juice out of his eyes when another, even louder scream echoed out of the main saloon.
Before either he or Inez could react, the kitchen doors burst open again and a group of cowboys, the first customers of the afternoon, rushed passed them, clawing at their eyeballs and shrieking like schoolgirls.
Buck and Inez exchanged confused looks and hurried into the saloon. There, the smell hit them.
"SKUNK!" Esmeralda Luisa Lupita Alonzo shrieked, eyes screwed shut, arms held awkwardly away from her body, breathing in shallow gasps. As one, everyone still inside the saloon bolted for fresh air and the street outside.
Behind them, the skunks padded out of the saloon, took one disapproving sniff at the tomato-covered Buck -- and made a beeline back toward the church.
Dripping tomato, Buck took a long, slow look around at his world. The songbird was screaming in Spanish, none of it polite, all of it directed at him.
Ezra was holding a handkerchief to his nose and bending solicitously over the skunk-sprayed Warberger heir. The boy was groaning and retching in the dirt. Ezra sniffed delicately at his lapels and shot Buck a look that promised a long, excruciating payback.
Josiah looked from Buck to the family of skunks making their way merrily back through the open church door. He looked back at Buck and cracked his knuckles.
JD glared accusingly at Buck as the singer wheezed.
Off to the side, Vin Tanner was laughing so hard he fell off the boardwalk.
Mamma Warberger came barreling down the street, Nathan in tow. She took one look at her son, shrieked and collapsed in Nathan's arms. Her weight brought both of them down, pinning the hapless healer beneath her.
"Ugh. Nathan. Is there anything we can do about the smell?" JD wrinkled his nose and took another step away from Ezra. The gambler scowled.
"Oof," Nathan wheezed, still pinned under the motionless matron. "Ain't much to be done for skunk -- Hey, somebody want to help me up here? -- Soap don't do much good. Only thing that really cuts the smell is soaking in tomato juice..."
Slowly, every eye on the street turned to Buck Wilmington. Slowly, a wide white smile spread across his red-streaked face. He threw his arms wide.
With a desperate cry, his songbird flew into his arms, burying her face in his tomato-saturated shirt.
"Evening, folks." With a smug, tomatoey smirk, Buck swept Esmeralda Luisa Lupita Alonzo into his arms and off to his room.
And here's the poem that inspired:
nobody loses all the time
by: e.e. cummings (1923)
nobody loses all the time
i had an uncle named
Sol who was a born failure and
nearly everybody said he should have gone
into vaudeville perhaps because my Uncle Sol could
sing McCann He Was A Diver on Xmas Eve like Hell Itself which
may or may not account for the fact that my Uncle
Sol indulged in that possibly most inexcusable
of all to use a highfalootin phrase
luxuries that is or to
wit farming and be
my Uncle Sol's farm
failed because the chickens
ate the vegetables so
my Uncle Sol had a
chicken farm till the
skunks ate the chickens when
my Uncle Sol
had a skunk farm but
the skunks caught cold and
my Uncle Sol imitated the
skunks in a subtle manner
or by drowning himself in the watertank
but somebody who'd given my Uncle Sol a Victor
Victrola and records while he lived presented to
him upon the auspicious occasion of his decease a
scrumptious not to mention splendiferous funeral with
tall boys in black gloves and flowers and everything and
i remember we all cried like the Missouri
when my Uncle Sol's coffin lurched because
somebody pressed a button
(and down went
and started a worm farm)
Comments to: J Brooks