A continuation of The Skunk Chronicles
Disclaimer: The Mag 7 aren't mine. Please don't sue me - all I have is a hubby with a heart condition and two fat dogs. Maude the skunk belongs to me POV - Vin (who is amazingly talkative when he doesn't have to actually open his mouth).
Name's Vin Tanner, from Texas. I used to be a buffalo hunter and then they kilt off most of the buffalo. So then I became a bounty hunter. That didn't work out too good neither. Now I'm riding with six men to keep the peace in a little bitty town called Four Corners.
I never got any schoolin' like white folks do, cause Ma died when I was five and I went to an orphanage. They was too busy beating us into line at the orphanage to teach us more than being good at ducking. I lit out and spent time out West. I lived with the Kiowa and got to know the Commanche. I can speak their tongue, do the Indian sign language and know some Spanish, but I can't read much. Mrs. Travis is helping me with my letters.
Anyhow, I guess I'm trying to say that I ain't too used to what they call polite society. I am used to Indians, and I think they are more decent than most white folks, but I ain't used to having a lot of friends, especially white folks.
And now I do. I got six of em. It makes me kinda proud to ride with em, and it's strange to me at the same time. Like coming to a new type of country you ain't seen before. The water's fresh and clean and the huntin's good, but you ain't used to the trees and flowers there, or the way the sky looks, or the mountains all around. You like em, but you have to learn new ways and new trails.
That's what its like having friends. I used to watch my own back. Ain't used to six men doing the same. It's nice, but it can make you soft.
Like before, when I got sick, I doctored myself like any wild creature. I'd find a place to be quiet like and some provisions and herbs and then sweat it out. I can recall a time or two I snarled at a wolf to take his cave to hide in. One time, the wolf, and me we shared. So when I'm sick or wounded, I reckon I try to grit it out and not bring it to anyone's mind. I don't want to show weakness. Blood on the trail brings predators. Sickness shows weakness that can get you preyed on by human predators.
Damn, iffin Chris heard me thinking so much; he'd shoot me for jawin' too much.
Anyhow, influenza came through the prison at Yuma right when Ezra, J.D. and me done prisoner transport for Judge Travis and we all got sick as hell. By the time we reached Four Corners again, we was all feelin' poorly. And each one of us didn't say a thing. We're all stubborn as mules, even J.D., who is young and usually bright-eyed and bushy tailed. We know iffin we say we're sick, old Nathan is going to shanghai the lot of us and stick us up in his clinic and fuss over us like mama hen over her chicks. That part ain't too bad, but the damn medicines he mixes up taste like boiled sk..., well, they taste real bad. Ezra says that the illness leaves your body in self-defense. And some medicine men feel evil spirits cause sickness. Iffin that's true, Nathan's potions would drive em out for sure. Anyways, you have to be damn desperate to drink the stuff and I wasn't that desperate yet, just miserable.
I looked over at Ezra, still astride Chaucer and he's sweatin, even though it ain't that hot, and J.D. is hunkered down in the saddle likes he's really tired. He looks clammy skinned.
Ez and J.D. look at me and I can see we all have the same idea. Grab a bottle of whiskey, hide from Nathan and sleep till we feel better. I reckon they're both lone wolves, too.
First though, we gotta care for the horses. After all, they did the walkin and damned if Nathan don't catch us in the livery. You can see him practically sniffen the air like a cougar on the scent and his eyes narrow up as he watches us. J.D. shoulders slump; he know we're gonna be drinking piss water soon. Ezra's got his poker face on, but then he starts a coughin.
"Aw, Hell," I say. Next thing you know, Nathan's herding us all upstairs to his clinic like we was sheep.
I guess it won't be too bad. My throat feels like I swallowed a cactus and that cat piss Nathan makes does help. Nathan always feeds us up good, too. Nathan's a good man. I just hate being beholden.
Nathan's got cots now for "multiple recipients of his tender mercies and miraculous foul elixirs." Ezra sure has a gift for fancy words.
Bed's really soft. Spoils me something fierce. I generally sleep on blankets in the wagon where I can keep watch on my friends with no walls to hem me in.
This time, Nathan's done put a passel of honey in the tea. Still doesn't taste exactly good, but not like cat piss and it does help my throat.
So I lay in Nathan's clinic. Nathan put me by the window, J.D.'s in the bed in the middle and Ezra's up against the wall. I can't help but smile a bit even though I'm miserable. Nathan knows that even sick, J.D. wants to be in the middle of things. He knows I'll be hankering for the sky and he knows that Ezra always wants his back to the wall so he can see what's a coming without worrying on his backside. It's a good poker habit.
Well, we are all pretty sick. The honey flavored swill helps a lot, but you kin tell this is the kind of fever that kills. Nathan won't let anyone visit us for a few days till at least the worst part of the fever is down, so's not to infect anyone else. He watches over us and makes the boys leave trays of food outside the door. I bet he's got Chris madder than a hornet, but he looks so tired and worried himself that I bet Chris and the other are worried as hell.
Finally, he figures we're out of danger and he lets Chris, Buck and Josiah visit. I don't think he was entirely happy about it, but keeping em all away for much longer would involve putting em in a jail cell or an awful lot of rope, and then there'd be no one to watch the town, so I figure he's doing the best he can.
He makes them all wash up with carbolic water and soap when they come in. "Don't grouse, or you can't see them." I hear him say in that no-nonsense voice of his. Buck starts a fussing, "You'd think we was courting!" he complains and I grin. "Well, now, I do have carbolized rose water," says Nathan, and you can hear that smile in his voice, warm as the sun. "If you want, I can have you wash up with that, and you're doing the same thing when you leave. Keeping clean helps fight the disease and I don't need to be nursin' anyone else."
I fall asleep listening to Buck's outraged reply. That goes to show just how bad the fever was. Buck could wake up the dead when he fusses and here I snooze.
I wake up a bit later and I know without opening my eyes that Chris is sitting next to me. "'Ey, cowboy," I say. I ain't spoken much and my voice is even more raspy than usual.
"'Ey, Tanner," he says back. Now you gotta understand, me and Chris we talk in code. Saves a lot of time and drives the others crazy. "Hey," can mean anything from "Glad to see you," to "You fucking idiot." A grunt can mean anything from "Let's ride," to "It's your turn to cook" when we're on the trail.
So I know what he's really saying underneath that "'Ey, Tanner," business is, "You damn fool. You scared me half to death."
I smile, which is silent for "Fuck you, Cowboy." It's sort of a ritual comeback now, like when the chiefs in a tribe are doing magic.
"Thirsty?" he asks and I nod a bit. He lifts up my head like I was a little bitty baby. Water tastes like heaven. It has a sprig of mint it and it makes me think of meadows in bloom with water rushin' nearby.
"Fancy," I say.
"Mrs. Porter brought it over. Reckon she sets a store by the lot of you," says Chris.
I smile. We all look out for Mrs. Potter. Woman with no husband and two littleuns to care for has a lot on her hands. I've seen Ezra help her with the books and inventory on the sly, and me and Buck and J.D. have helped her with repairs and hard lifting before. She's mighty generous with supplies and I always end up with more than I ordered, like stick candy and bandanas.
Josiah comes up and I see he's got Maude with him. Maude ain't Ez's Ma; she a little skunk. At first I thought Ez was being disrespectful, but Ez told me that the name was Josiah's idea. And they both seem to set store by her. She's a lady skunk, pure and simple.
Now Josiah fishes her out of his serape and sits her down on the floor. She's independent and likes to make her own way. Chris trades smiles with Josiah, Buck, Nathan and me and I expect Maude to scamper over to Ezra, cause you kin tell he's one of her favorites. But to my surprise, she sniffs the air and heads straight for J.D. who is sickest. Buck's seated next to J.D.'s bed and he watches as she gets up on the foot of the bed and walks the length of J.D.'s body. J.D. cracks one eye open and smiles, even though he looks like hell.
"Hey, Maude," he says, weak-like, and Maude nuzzles him on the nose real gentle, like she knows he's the sickest and then she curls up against his chest. J.D. smiles to beat the band, nestles up to Maude for all the world like he's a five-year old with a new puppy and he drops right off to sleep.
I grin; can't help it. J.D. is the kid brother of the group. Buck smiles down at them like a proud big brother and pats Maude once, real soft, so's not to disturb her.
"Reckon Nathan's got himself a nurse," I say, and we all start smiling, except Ez who has slept through the whole thing, and J.D. who is out like a light.
I'm weak as hell, but Chris is fussing over me and Buck and Josiah's lookin' in and now little Maude -well it makes me feel like the room's bigger and brighter, like they brought a summer day in with their smiles. I don't feel closed in no more neither.
Never had anyone care for me but Ma. Now I reckon I'm roped and hog-tied into a skunk totin' family. Guess Siah's our Pa, Chris is the big brother with all the bossing. J.D.'s our little brother, me and Bucklin and Ezra are all in the middle and Maude's our guardian angel skunk.
Chris gives me some soup broth in a mug, so's I can drink it with both hands--I'm that weak. Maude could rip me a new one iffin I riled her.
After I get the broth down, I fall asleep. When I wake up, I hear someone cough, and open an eye. J.D. is sleeping away and I notice he looks better. I try raising my head and get the pillow scrunched up so I can see. Ezra's coughing.
A little tiny head pops up from next to J.D. Maude sniffs the air, then I can hear her body thud as her paws hit the floor. And damned if she doesn't crawl in bed with Ezra.
I hear a soft tired sigh from Ez, and then he whispers, "Little lady?" He doesn't like to call her Maude on a count of it's his own Mama's name. Maude, the skunk, not his Mama, nuzzles him like he was a giant baby skunk in need of care and I can see one white hand petting on her. Once she's gone over him, she curls up in a ball on his chest right under his chin. He gives a little sigh again, only this time its contented like, and I realize, he's stopped coughing.
I better tell Nate he's got competition.
Now, I admit I'm miserly with worlds. Iffin' I can get by with a nod instead of a yup, then I will, but Ezra and J.D.--those two would drive a magpie to distraction, J.D. with his questions and Ezra with fifty ways of saying, 'yup'. Right now it seems strange for the room to be so silent with both of them here. I can hear 'em both breathe. Ezra sounds a mite rattling, and J.D. sounds like a junior grizzle bear, but they ain't talking. It damn near makes me want to say something.
Nathan comes in with more of his piss water. I'm so tired, I can't even complain, which you kin tell worries him. He looks over at Ez and J.D. and I whisper "Ez was coughin' and Maude went over and sat on him and made it stop."
Nathan smiles and feels of my forehead. Reckon he thinks I'm fevered. Then he makes me drink more piss water - I think its cow this time. I fall asleep again.
There was a time even when I was bad sick or hurt or shot up that even asleep I'd know what was going on around me and come awake like lightning if need be. But today I know I got Josiah, Buck, Chris and Nathan, not to mention Mrs. Travis who Ezra tells me packs a mean punch, and they're all watching my back. All of them would take a bullet for me, same as I would for them. It's not something I take for granted. Generally I watch their backs, but now I know I'm sick as hell and weak enough an itty baby could hog tie me and wrestle me down for branding.
So my watchfulness, which is more a part of me than my skin, its sleeping too cause I got friends watching over me.
Everyone bone in my body hurts like hell as I sleep and I dream I'm cooking on a Kiowa cook fire right along with buffalo being made into jerky, and I'm too tired to fuss or even wake up. Then a little bitty angel comes flying down from the sky where I'm turning into jerky and kisses me right on the nose.
Well, hell, now that wakes me up!
I realize I'm in bed at Nate's with a bad fever and Maude is there licking my face and nose, nuzzling me all worried and comforting like at the same time. Reckon I'm her big baby skunk right now.
And ya know? It is a comfort. My bones still ache and I'm hot and weak as a kitten, but having a little critter like Maude watching for me, well--that's mighty nice. I'm safe and in a soft bed and pretty soon Nathan will bring me a new flavor of piss to drink, Chris will bring me broth and maybe even some real food. Life is pretty good when ya got friends.
Maude sees I'm awake now and she makes a little noise, half purr, half grunt, and fusses over me. Then she snuggles up on my chest, watching over me. I reckon if someone wanting that bounty showed up, they'd have a hell of a fight. Right now, I got me a watch skunk.
Chris Larabee made his way quietly into the clinic. Ezra and J.D. were still asleep and Vin lay there, quiet as always, with Maude curled up on his chest. His hands were gently holding the little skunk and there was a grin on his face as he lay there.
"You awake, Cowboy?" Chris asked.
Maude's right eye popped open at the same time as Vin's and the gunslinger grinned.
"Damn!" he laughed, and then frowned. "Sorry, Maude," he said respectfully to the skunk. They had all fallen into the habit of not swearing or smoking when the tiny creature was present. Men didn't swear around ladies, and Maude was definitely a lady.
Chris sat on the bed next to his friend and gently ran a hand over Maude, who leaned into his touch affectionately.
"You look better, Cowboy," he said. Vin grinned wider.
"Maude's got the healing touch," said the tracker quietly, "She knows whose sickest and tends to that one special."
Chris smiled and touched Vin's forehead, but the fever was gone.
"Well," he said, "You ain't fever crazed. How does she help?"
"Ezra got to coughing bad, but she curled up on his chest and he fell asleep and the cough went away."
Chris looked down at the little skunk, who now had both eyes open and was nuzzling at his hand daintily.
"Maybe its cause she's warm," he said.
Vin smiled, "Part way, but I think she's got Nathan's healing way, too. Fever got bad again last night and she plumb chased it off."
Chris gave him another one of his rare grins.
"Vin," he said conversationally, as both men petted the obviously delighted Maude, "She rescued Josiah, and put those no-goods behind bars. I don't know why she can't be a nurse skunk, too."
Then over on the next bed, J.D. moaned fitfully.
Her nose whiskers twitching as she sniffed the air, Maude immediately stood to attention. Then she crawled off Vin, past Chris to plop down on the floorboards with a tiny thud. Chris and Vin both watched at she made her way to J.D.'s bed, where she climbed up the blanket. Soon she was nuzzling their young sheriff diligently. J.D.'s arms went around the skunk and they heard him sigh and fall into a deeper sleep.
Chris grinned at Vin, who returned the favor. "Remind me of something, Cowboy," said Larabee. Vin's eyes glistened with humor and the tracker nodded.
"Next time I'm shot up, bring Maude over. Maybe I won't have to drink as much horse piss."