Surprise, surprise - no one gets shot, hurt, swears or kidnapped. This story is definitely bland.
This is a sequel to Spring Daze, and is a continuation of The Skunk Chronicles
Dedication: I would like to dedicate this to my dear friend and partner in crime, Brenda Branson, who introduced me to the Magnificent Seven and who always patiently puts up with all my story ideas.
Ezra Standish sat placidly playing solitaire in the Standish Tavern in the early part of the afternoon. Inez was the only other person present. He could hear her behind him humming a little tune as she cleaned, and while he kept his traditional pokerface on, inside the dapper gambler smiled.
In a life dedicated to monetary gain and personal survival, Ezra Standish had rarely experienced what he had since coming to the dusty, trouble-ridden town of Four Corners. Yet here, out in the uncivilized West he had found a home. The saloon, even with its miasma of personal failure against his mother's machinations, was dearly familiar to him. Inez was like a dear sister to be protected and teased. And he had six brothers now. Six men that he would willingly die for and even more suprisingly, six men he would live for.
And in that spirit of fraternity, he would also tease the living daylights out of them, particularly one Chris Larabee, gunfighter extraordinaire, with a glare that could kill a man and guns that could finish the job before the poor bastard even knew he was dead.
He and three of his more nefarious brethren in arms had recently teased Mr. Larabee to the point that he had decided they were in need of religious renewal and had baptized them against their will by total immersion until they promised not to do anything to him regarding chickens again.
Things had gotten quiet after the truce had been called. Ezra was hoping to branch out into other species in the animal kingdom if necessary, but Chris had been exceedingly and regretfully mild tempered (at least for Larabee). So Ezra had merely confined himself to enjoying his friends, trading wit with them, gambling with passing strangers too foolish to realize his professional abilities as a gambler, and patrolling the town and its perimeter for rascals and criminals (himself not included).
The stage had arrived today, with several packages. He had restocked his severely (in his eyes) deplenished wardrobe via a skilled tailor who had shipped his finished product to him and had also received several books and out of state newspapers.
Those books assured the seven men of many pleasant evenings, as all seven had learned to enjoy reading aloud to each other. He had noted that Vin's reading lessons had improved to the point that the tracker had even hesitatingly shared a few verses with them, verses that Ezra knew without a doubt were written by said tracker. Even now in recognition of that fact, a book of poetry was sitting on his wardrobe shelf, waiting for this evening, when he hoped to present it to Mr. Tanner in appreciation and added inspiration for his muse.
He hoped sincerely Vin would accept his little offering. He still blamed himself for treating the tracker so poorly the day he had come to him for help in writing out a poem. After he had come out of his drunken haze, he recalled the hurt look in Vin Tanner's clear eyes and had been truly sorrowful over causing a budding poet pain. He had apologized later in private, but also had resolved to now support Vin in all his literary efforts as well as to be more solicitous of all the seven's mutual welfare.
They were the family he had always wanted. A strange and exotic family, true, but a family worth everything to a lonely man.
The doors of the saloon were shoved open and he stopped his domestic ruminations. Josiah Sanchez entered the saloon and ambled quickly over to his table.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Sanchez," he greeted the oldest of the Seven. "Would you care to join me in a libation?"
"Much obliged, Ezra, but I can't. I have to go on patrol and there's women and kids in the church doing some kind of choir rehearsal. Could you watch Maude for me?"
Herein he looked hopefully down at the gambler and took a small and dainty skunk from his voluminous pockets.
Ezra was sipping a whiskey at that moment and in an attempt not to spit out the treasured fluid, accidentally managed to snort it painfully up his nostrils instead.
After he recovered and wiped his face with a fine linen handkerchief, he looked up Josiah. The preacher was not laughing at Ezra; he looked a little worried and a little hurt.
"Mistah Standish, did I just hear you inform me that you named a skunk after my muthah?" Ezra asked, a little plaintively.
Josiah hesitated, "Ezra, I meant no offense," he began.
Ezra held up one hand in a preemptory fashion and froze Josiah with a look of steel.
"Mistah Sanchez, if this poor innocent and maligned skunk is not offended, then neither am I," he said. "I'd be glad to take care of your small protégé for you."
Josiah frowned for a moment.
Ezra couldn't help it, he started to grin. "After all, Muthah is lovely as this little delicate creature and a magnificent bluffer, I might add. I assume that is your reason for gifting her with Muthah's name and not because you think my Muthah is a stinker?"
Josiah broke into a huge grin. "You, Mr. Standish, are a gentleman and a scholar. I'm much obliged for you caring for little Maude." He quickly handed over a bag of food for the little skunk and departed for his patrol.
The batwing doors of the saloon were still swimming from the preacher's departure as Ezra eyed the little skunk, who appeared to look up at him with gentle interest.
He knew that Nathan had saved the little creature's life but in doing so had also rendered her incapable of the skunk's traditional form of defense.
"I want you to know," he told the little one, "that I bear you no ill will for making me lose a hand of poker to Mr. Sanchez. I also do not in anyway think you resemble my dear Mother, for while you are indeed an elegant little lady in your immaculate coat, as well as quite refined by your ladylike bearing, you are also remarkably silent, which I have never observed in my Muthah, not ever. Muthah could talk the ears off a mule."
He reached out and ran light fingers over Maude's little head and she leaned into the embrace trustingly. He frowned.
"You are also far too affectionate and trusting, my dear. But never fear, your secret is safe with me."
He played a few more cards of his interrupted game, but Maude boldly made her way between his arms and snuggled up against his immaculate vest. Ezra began to gently pet the little creature who nuzzled against him in a contented manner.
He looked down at an inquisitive nose and two little black eyes. "Indeed! You, my dear, are far more lov'in than your namesake ever was," he remarked, a little ruefully. Maude had taught him a lot about being a gambler and a conman, but Ezra often felt more like a partner in crime than a son.
He lost interest in solitaire and began to delicately rub little Maude's head. She obviously enjoyed it and Ezra smiled.
"Que estas?" he heard Inez say mildly from behind him. He turned and saw Inez giving Maude a rather doubtful look.
"Please do not be distressed," he said, certain she was worried he would scare off potential customers. "If she frightens anyone, I will take her to the privacy of my room upstairs."
Inez smiled and reached a tentative hand toward Maude. The little creature sniffed inquisitively at Inez's hand and Inez's eyes gleamed with pleasure as she began to pet and make of the tiny skunk.
"Senor Standish," she said, "you are what they call a sucker for animals and small children."
Ezra was only slightly perturbed. He still wasn't used to anyone but Maude knowing him as well as his friends here did, but he was getting used to his various weaknesses being known. He sighed a little, and felt a gentle hand touch his arm.
"You do not need to worry, Senor. I do not think it is something funny and truly, it is one of the things that I like about you."
With that, Inez gracefully returned to the back of the saloon and Ezra sat quietly, shocked to the core of his being. Inez liked him?
Maude sensed a lack of interest on his part and strode purposefully up to his chest and put a delicate paw on his brocade vest.
"I do beg your pardon," he responded absently and began to gently pet her again. It never was polite to ignore a lady, and little Maude was definitely in that category.
The batwing doors silently opened and Ezra's sixth sense told him it was either Chris Larabee without spurs or it was Vin Tanner, who moved silently as an Indian. While Nathan, Josiah, Buck and J.D. could also be silent when the situation warranted, they tended to make more noise in town than the gunslinger and the sharpshooter.
"Howdy Pard." He heard Vin's voice and was pleased he'd been right.
Vin sat down at his table and examined Maude. "That there the polecat what Josiah outbid us with?"
"Yes, Mr. Tanner," Ezra drawled, "Meet little Miss Maude."
Vin was not given to sudden movement unless necessary, but Ezra was immediately aware of the bounty hunter's sense of shock.
"You named a skunk after your Maw?" was the hoarsely whispered question.
Ezra grinned. It wasn't often that he could "get" Mr. Tanner.
"Why, Mr. Tanner. I am utterly appalled that you think I would name a skunk after my Muthah!" he said.
Vin looked at him expectantly.
"It was Mr. Sanchez' idea, and you know how he admires mah Muthah. I have only just formally made her acquaintance today. Mr. Sanchez has asked me to skunk-sit his protégé."
Vin grinned and looked at Maude speculatively. "You ain't plannin' on deviling Chris with little Miss Maude there, are ya?"
Ezra picked up the little skunk and held her to him protectively.
"Maude is NOT a chicken" he said pointedly, "And I don't want her getting shot."
Vin's eyes were sparkling, and Ezra felt even more defensive.
"After all," he drawled, "Mr. Sanchez wouldn't take kindly to his pet getting shot full of holes."
He looked down anxiously at the innocent skunk, and then glared at Vin. No one was going to hurt this delicate little trusting creature.
Vin raised both hands in surrender. "I just wondered, Ez," he said, "The little un's got nuthin to fear from me."
When Ezra continued to glare at him, his amusement disappeared and he sat up straighter. "I promise. Ezra," he said solemnly.
Ezra immediately relaxed, nodded and let Maude go. Vin's word was one of the few things that the gambler believed in without reservation.
Vin stared at Maude, who looked up at the strangely dressed human and ambled over to his end of the table. Gently, he reached out and petted the little skunk, who accepted his touch without fear.
"She's a right purty little thing, ain't she?" the tracker murmured.
Ezra smiled, "Yes, she is quite the lady," he pronounced.
Vin and Ezra spent over an hour at the table, making over Maude, and sharing an amiable whisky.
Then three cowboys came into the saloon and stared in shock at the little skunk.
"POLECAT!" shouted one and pulled a gun.
Vin stood up, while Ezra grabbed Maude in his arms, determined to protect his small charge
"Hold on now, Pards," said Vin, "She shoots blanks."
The frozen cowpokes all paused and eyed Ezra and Maude speculatively.
"No stink?" asked one,
"Nope," said Vin
"Well, then we heard y'all had a pretty good poker game going here," said the tallest cowpoke, while his companion reholstered his weapon.
Vin looked over to see what Ezra would do. The gambler was still holding Maude quite protectively,
"Gentlemen, perhaps Mr. Tanner here would join you in a game of chance." He looked down at Maude in his arms. "I'm afraid I have other obligations this evening. I am going to retire."
With that, he gave Vin a polite salute, nodded less affably at the cowpokes and went to his room.
Vin was impressed. Ezra giving up a lucrative evening of poker to baby-sit a skunk. He smiled at the cowboys and decided to put some of Ezra's lessons in poker to good use.
"I'm up for poker, iffin ya'll are," he announced and tried to grin like he had a gold tooth.
Josiah returned from patrol in what amounted to frenzy for the big preacher. Anyone else would think he was just busy but he was worried about Maude.
He'd run across a lone horse thief and had been delayed what with chasing the thief down, then chasing the horses the man had scattered in a attempt to get away. He was six hours late what with returning the horse to their respective owners and getting the thief into a cell. All during a rather exciting night patrol, he had worried about what Ezra might think of doing with the tiny skunk and worried that he'd pull one of his practical jokes and get Maude killed.
He walked into the saloon, his hands clenched. No Ezra. Vin was sitting at Ezra's usual table with a really self-pleased look on his face while three disappointed-looking cowpokes were just leaving.
He tipped his hat to Vin and asked, "You seen Ezra?" and wondered at all the money Vin was counting.
"Ezra's in bed," Vin said laconically then smiled up at Josiah. "Don't worry about Maude. He took her with him. Didn't want no cowpokes deciding to shoot them a polecat."
Instead of this reassuring the preacher, Josiah fairly flew up the stairs. Poor little Maude. Perhaps she was frightened having been left with strange humans.
Cautiously, remember a propensity for the gambler to shoot first and ask who was entering his room later, Josiah made his way into Ezra's room.
Josiah could be silent as the night when he wanted to be, and he put all his skill to work now, more to not further torment the poor skunk than to avoid bullets from Ezra's peashooter.
When the door was open, he made his way silently into the darkened room; nearly grinding his teeth with worry over his little furry companion.
And he stopped and stared and finally grinned.
There, fully clothed, lay Ezra Standish on his elegant feather bed. And there on the fine brocade vest over the gambler's over-large heart, lay Maude, curled up in a little ball of contentment. One well-manicured hand was cupped protectively over the sleeping skunk and a little boy's look of peace was on Ezra's face.
Maude lifted her little head and Josiah could have sworn she winked at him. He shouldn't have worried. Little ladies and skunks all found a fearless protector in Four Corner's resident gambler.