A continuation of The Skunk Chronicles
Disclaimer: Not a one of them belongs to me, except for the skunk and Eb.
Dedication: This story is dedicated with great gratitude to two people. Brenda, who got me hooked on Mag 7 and who gives me terrific evil ideas, and DC Priestess, who always spots the weak points in my stories Thank you for your marvelous beta work, Beth and the idea about the doll clothing - oh my!!! (Oh, did I say she was a great beta - nah - not really, I'm lying, honest. Don't try to steal her from me! Okay? ARRRGGGGG!!!! Don't steal her!! I have dibs!)
No skunks were harmed in the making of this story.
My name is Nathan, Nathan Jackson. I was a slave before the war. I learned healing helping the army surgeons when I was a stretcher-bearer for the Union Army. Now I do such as I can in the healing line in Four Corners and I also help keep the peace.
Today Buck Ezra and me were eating breakfast over at the hotel. I know Ez will sleep in if he gets a chance, but once or twice a week we have breakfast together. Buck comes because he was out chasing the ladies all night and Ezra because he was chasing Lady Luck all night and me because I've been tending to someone sick or hurt.
I know that people think me and Ezra don't take to each other, and it's true that we do argue some, but that's just our way. Ezra, well, he's smart, smarter and faster than lightening when he gets going, but he wasn't raised in a real family. His Maw is a nice lady, but she raised him to con and lie and steal, so sometimes I guess I try to give Ezra some of the direction he never got as a child and when I do, then we squabble some.
But under all that slickness is a right good man, and if the truth be told, he's entertaining to watch, too. I love seeing what he'll do next because in spite of a tendency to run after a quick buck, he'll also give you the shirt off his back but sneaky like so you never know it was him.
Then there is Buck. Well, Buck now, he acts like he's just a big fun-loving ladies man, but he's got him a big heart, too. You can tell by the way that he takes care of Chris Larabee when the sorrow of that man's life puts him in one of his black moods. Not to mention the way Buck watches out for J.D. and teaches him. I love to watch old Buck flirting with Miss Inez. He's just sure he's the man of her dreams and she's sure she's going to end up shooting his backend full of buckshot. With my luck, I'll be pickin' it out, too, with them hollerin' at one another whiles I do the picking.
You can see why I like having breakfast with Ezra and Buck. They are just plain fun to watch in action.
Well on this day we're sittin' and eatin' and Josiah walks up to see us. He looks worried and sad. Now, Josiah usually is pretty steady no matter what, so I put down my fork, cause I'm concerned right off.
"Boy's have you seen Maude?" he asks.
We all get worried then. Maude is a little skunk that Josiah and I rescued awhile back. I operated on her to save her life so she can't stink up the place or have baby skunks, and she's the sweetest little creature you ever did see. She loves Josiah and Ezra and takes to the rest of us as well. Vin Tanner says we're her skunk family.
Ezra drops his fork and stands up. I've seen him look cooler in the middle of a gunfight then he looks right now. Ezra is right fond of Maude.
"Where did you last see her, Mr. Sanchez?" Ezra asks and Buck and I stand up, ready to go look. We all like that little critter
"I left her asleep at the back of the church and went to Mrs. Potter's store to fetch some supplies. When I came back, she was gone. I searched the whole church, I can't find her."
"Maybe some stranger came into the church and scared her,"said Buck.
"Maude's not scared of anything," I hear myself saying, "But if they riled her, she might have lit out."
We stand there for a bit, lookin' at one another, and then light out of the hotel dining room. One gent sitting at another table calls to us, "Trouble?"
"Yup, lost my skunk," says Josiah, and the gent doesn't laugh. Josiah is built like a bear and everyone knows how fond we all are of little Maude.
We all go over to the church. Ezra gets down on his hands and knees in the dirt and crawls into the small basement area. This just lets you know how worried he is, because Ezra generally lives to keep his clothing looking clean and crisp. You can hear him under the church calling Maude's name.
Buck and I get a ladder and check the roof area, but we don't find her there either.
We all meet in front of the church. Josiah is looking right sorrowful. Little animals can get run over by a wagon or stomped by a horse so easy. Ezra doesn't even brush the dirt off his pants and he has a spider web in his hair that he ignores.
"Maybe she went over to Vin's wagon,' says Buck; "Its the closest place."
We all go over to Vin's wagon and start looking for Maude.
Pretty soon we hear a raspy voice behind us. "What the hell you boys doing in my wagon?" asks Vin Tanner. Vin sounds suspicious because he knows Buck and Ezra love practical jokes.
Buck turns and looks as woeful as an old hound dog. "Maude's missing."
Vin mutters, "Famn," as he starts in looking under his wagon and in all the places a riled-up skunk might hide. We help and come up with nothing but bandanas and ammo. Vin's got enough of both to supply a small army with bad colds.
"Where did you last see her?" Vin asks.
"At the church."
Vin turns and heads for the church. Buck hollers that he's going to check Larabee's room and we nod.
Ezra runs to the saloon, which is a place Maude visited a lot and I check the clinic and the livery below it. We all meet again at the church and Vin shakes his head. All the traffic in town has wiped out any tiny skunk tracks.
We got us a missing skunk.
Well, pretty soon everyone is looking. Larabee comes back from his patrol and hears Maude is gone and starts a looking right off. J.D. starts asking people to look for Maude and Mrs. Potter and her kids commence to searching every place they can think of. Mary Travis and Billy find out Maude is gone and look too. Yosemite starts looking and you'd think we find something, but not only is Maude missing, but there is no sign of her.
All Seven of us peacekeepers show up at the saloon, where it looks like Inez is doing spring cleaning, but instead, she's looking for Maude.
Ezra and Josiah are really looking sad. Ezra looks up at all of us and says, quiet-like, "I could offer one hundred dollars in gold as a reward." He sounds so plaintive.
I put my hand on his arm, "Ezra, I think that everyone who loves Maude is already looking for her. If we offer some kind of reward, we'll liable to attract someone who'd hold her for ransom."
Ezra looks sick, "You are correct, Mr. Jackson. I guess I'm willing to be conned and cheated if we get Maude back."
Josiah gives Ezra the only smile I've seen out of him all day.
Vin stands up and says, "I'm checking the perimeter of town. If she got that far, she'd have left tracks somewhere."
Overheard in a bar in Eagle Bend...
Names Eb and I prospect: copper and turquoise mostly, but I won't turn up my nose at gold and silver.
Well, I'll tell you right now, I ain't never going to Four Corners again. I'd druther take on a whole passel of injuns instead of them folks. They're crazy as loons.
I went there to buy supplies and decided first I'd wet my whistle at that there Sayloon. Walked up to the bar like any other honest fella and the Mexican lady bartender is damned pretty. She gives me a big old smile and asks what she can do for me. Now iffin I wasn't a gentleman, I would a told her but no. I got manners. I asked for a whiskey and got out my poke so I can pay her.
Now my poke is unusual. It's made of a polecat skin that I took years ago. No stink, mind ya, and I think it's right purty, but the lady at the bar acted liken I'd scalped me a baby.
She shrieked and raised the hair I still got on my head straight up. Scared me something fierce. Then up comes this hombre with a big handlebar mustache saying, "Miss Inez, what's wrong?" and she commences a yelling in Espanol and points at my poke liken it was covered with blood or something. I'm thinking that the purty lady is crazy and maybe he'll calm her down some. But damned iffen he doesn't look at me and the poke the same. Pulls a gun on me and says, "Where did you get that wallet, Mister?"
Damn, I've come on a bunch of crazy people, I think. Maybe someone stole a skunk wallet and they think I'm the thief.
"Hell, it's my wallet, Mister." I say.
Then this young squirt dressed like a gunslinger comes up and he turns white as a sheet and gasps, "Maude!" like I was a murdering thieven monster from Hell.
He pulls his gun too, and starts jabbering to beat the band.
What with the woman a yellin' in Espanol and Mr. Mustache and the kid a jawin', I lost the sense of what they were going on about.
Kid pulls back his vest and he's the damn sheriff. I kin see it ain't my day.
Next thing, a real big fella and a black man come in and as soon as they see the wallet, they get real quiet-like and I figure I might as well kiss my ass goodbye.
"Now lookit here, gents. I don't know what you all think I done, but I made this here wallet myself." I say.
Well, that didn't do no good at all. . Iffen anything, it seems to rile them up even more. Then, God save me, a fancy looking fella comes in with a man all dressed in black. The fancy fella turns white, then he glares at me and I figure I can't gonna have time to kiss nuthin.
There's murder in his eyes and my God, to make things worse, the man in black starts a glarin', too, and he's scarier than the fancy fella. The man in black looks like he's a measuring me for a neck-tie party.
Then the doors swing open and a fella in a buffalo coat with long hair comes in. He walks up to me and by this time I figure I'm dead anyway, so what the hell.
He says, "Kin I see your poke, Mister?"
Well normally I wouldn't, but what with the glarin and the guns and the woman a yelling, I figure I ain't gonna live long enough to buy me a whiskey so I hand him my poke.
He feels of it gingerly and solemn as a judge and then hands it back.
"Tain't Maude," he pronounces, "It's too old."
That fella must be one of them there magicians because the whole lot of em stop glaring at me and the woman and the squirt stops yelling. Iffin he runs for office, I'll vote for him.
The Mexican lady smiles at me again, and gives me a whiskey on the house and the big mustached fella pats my shoulder, and says, "Sorry, Pard," and grins at me.
Then they all take off. I throw that whiskey back faster than a rattlesnake strikes and head out of town and make my way to Eagle Bend. Ain't no way in hell I'm staying in Four Corners. They's all crazy, I tell ya.
Meanwhile, in a small comfortable home at the end of town, Grandma Olson had two little children staying with her while their Maw brought yet another sibling into the world. Grandma was blind as a bat, but always willing to do for people.
"Well, Children, did you say a prayer for your Mother," she asked.
"Yes, Granny." Two excited voices responded. "We found a kitten, too. Can we keep it?"
"Well, it probably belongs to someone, but you two can take care of the poor thing while you are visiting and if no one asks after it, you can take it home with you."
After struggling fruitlessly, the "kitty" forlornly surveyed her new surroundings. The small humans who had kidnapped her were definitely very young and unmannered but too young to bite. She would bide her time and escape later to find her own dear humans. They needed her.
J. D. Dunne had spent hours tracking around Four Corners looking for the little skunk. Finally he started to check the town perimeter. Vin had already searched the whole perimeter twice, but maybe Maude was trying to come home. It wouldn't hurt to try.
"I wonder if she got thirsty." He mused to himself and went to the pond.
To his joy, he spotted a familiar black and white furred body in the rocks by the water's edge.
"Maude!" he yelled in triumph and ran towards her in delight. Then two things occurred to the young man. One was that Maude didn't look happy to see him and the other that Maude only had one stripe and this skunk had two.
Buck's head went up. "That was J.D.," the big ladies man said worriedly.
He and Ezra ceased their third inspection of the saloon area and raced toward the pond just outside town.
They were relieved when a bedraggled J.D. came into view in the distance. Then the wind shifted.
"Good Lord!" said Ezra; pulling out a scented handkerchief and holding it to his face while exchanging nonplused looks with Buck.
"I think J.D. found himself a skunk." Muttered Buck morosely. Now they could hear J.D. up ahead swearing diligently.
"Unfortunately, it was not Our Skunk," said Ezra meaningfully.
The next two hours were not happy ones for J.D. Unable to use the bath house (the owner pulled out a double barrel shotgun and expressed dissatisfaction with their custom), Buck and Ezra were forced to borrow Mrs. Potter's big wash tub and found that the chemical warfare visited upon their youngest comrade was impervious to soap.
After rapid consultations with Josiah and Nathan, the four men reconvened out back of Mrs. Potter's.
Ezra thoughtfully provided a screen of sheets and Buck resorted to a complete immersion in strong soap with bleaching it in. It defeated the skunk scent, but unfortunately started to bleach J.D.'s black locks until Ezra fled for a bucket of rinse water and saved the young sheriff from a future as a blonde. One blonde streak on the back of his head remained.
J. D. was disgusted with himself. If he'd been quicker, he'd have realized the skunk wasn't their skunk. Vin had told him that some skunks have only one stripe like Maude and others had two or even three. Now the boys had wasted time helping him instead of finding Maude.
And to show just how bad things were none of them had teased him even slightly. Usually he wouldn't have heard the end of it. Buck would have joshed him to death. Instead, all of them, even poor Josiah, were being very kind, a sure sign of how worried they all were about one small, big-hearted skunk.
Two days later, seven men sat around a table, looking for all the world like their lives were a bleak and bitter wasteland. Ezra Standish looked positively sorrowful for a cold-hearted, money-grubbing, gambling man. "I've asked every child in town if they've seen Maude. I can't believe someone would want to steal a little skunk, even if they disliked us. I would have bet good money a child had taken Maude away."
Vin stared thoughtfully at Ezra "You asked all the kids you know. Maybe there's some you don't know."
Vin left the saloon abruptly, leaving a disconsolate group of men behind him. He looked back at them through the doors. Josiah looked sad as hell and Ezra's morose expression caught at Vin's heart. Chris Larabee reached for a whiskey bottle and Buck snatched it from him. "You ain't getting drunk and surly, Larabee. We all liked the little lady and she wouldn't like you being mean on her account."
Chris Larabee nodded. "Sorry." He said, shortly. He stared up toward Vin and Vin could tell his friend was surprised to find himself mourning for a little dumb animal. It seemed they all had given up little Maude for dead.
Vin shook his head and went looking once more time.
Soon he found Billy Travis.
"Billy, you notice any new children in town?" he asked.
"There are two little kids at Granny Olson's." said Billy, "but she won't let them play outside. She told me though that they have a pet kitten with them".
Vin shook hands with Billy and made his way to the little home where Granny lived. Soon he was knocking on the door.
"Mrs. Olson? I hear you found yourself a kitten."
"Why yes, young lady," said Grandma cheerfully. She couldn't see well, but that long hair was a dead give away that this was a young woman.
Vin blushed. Everyone knew Granny was awful blind, but few realized that she had a slight hearing problem as well. His fellow peacekeepers would laugh themselves sick if they heard that one.
He cleared his throat and continued on.
"Josiah Sanchez lost a little pet." He said, finally deciding it would be impolite to correct the older lady.
"Oh dear," said Granny amiably. Then she turned and hollered, "Children, bring your kitty in."
There was the sound of little feet running and to Vin Tanner's intense joy two grubby angelic children showed up with a rather resigned looking Maude clutched to the smallest child's breast. The poor thing was dressed in some doll baby clothes and looking rather bedraggled.
"That your pet?" asked Granny.
"Yup, Ma'am," said Vin, relieved and one of the youngin's set Maude down.
The minute her tiny feet touched the ground, the skunk squeaked and ran for Vin, tripping on the doll dress. She gave him a supplicating glance and he moved to where she lay. He reached down and removed the offending garment and she crawled all the way up his leg before he could grab and cuddle the frantic creature to him.
"Ay, Maude. Did you miss me?"
The little skunk gave a very audible sigh and rested her head against Vin's shoulder. The message was clear to Vin. She wanted out now.
He touched his hand to his hat politely and saluted the two youngin's who waved at him and Maude from the window as they left.
He noted the skunk didn't look back once.
Maude sighed again, and Vin chuckled. "Reckon they held you captive, huh?" he asked.
Triumphantly, Vin made his way back to the saloon, gently petting Maude. She was content to rest until they neared the saloon. Once they reached the batwing doors, she craned her neck and squeaked impatiently.
"Miss your Daddy, don't ya?" Said Vin sympathetically. He'd been worried to death about the little critter, and it warmed his heart to know she was safe and apparently eager to be back with them.
He walked through the doors and there sat his friends at their usual table. Every mother's son of em looked pensive.
Ezra saw him first and his eyes lit up with delight.
"Little lady!" the charming con man cried happily, "Vin, you found her."
Buck and J.D. leaped up and whooped, while Nathan and Chris smiled broadly.
Josiah had sat with his back to the door and he turned slowly, a hopeful expression on his face.
Maude squeaked and damn near jumped out of Vin's arms onto the preacher. She crawled right up the huge man's serape, chirruping anxiously, and sniffed him excitedly. Then she stopped at his face and licked his nose.
Josiah looked like he just might cry. "Maude, I missed you." He said, then turned his head and smiled at Vin. "Much obliged, Brother."
Once Maude had inspected Josiah, she turned and made her way along the top of the table. She walked to each member of the Seven, sniffing them carefully, bestowing skunk kisses on each man and then going on to the next man seated. She stopped at J.D. and stared at the recently de-scented sheriff. She drew nearer, sniffed, then gave an audible sneeze, sat back on her haunches and rubbed her nose with her front paws.
This sign of sensory discomfort sent the entire group of peacekeepers into gales of laughter, with the exception of J.D. who looked apprehensive.
Finally Maude moved forward and proceeded to sniff J.D. quite carefully. Satisfied, she went over and gave the relieved young man a skunk kiss on the nose.
Maude seemed pleased to be back with her "baby skunks". After she had checked over each man to her satisfaction, she returned to her usual perch in Josiah's serape under his chin, not before bestowing him with further dainty licks and nuzzles. Then the little lady seemed to give a relieved sigh as she turned around and arranged herself to her satisfaction.
"Where was she?" asked Josiah softly, his big hands gently rubbing the little head as the skunk fell into a contented sleep.
"Ezra was right," said Vin, nodding to the resident gambler, "Granny Olson had two little children staying with her that were too young to realize Maude's a skunk. They thought she was stray kitten when they went to church and she couldn't get away from 'em.:" He smiled at the other men. "They didn't mean no harm, but Maude was sure glad to see me."
That evening the saloon offered free drinks and much rejoicing over the return of our little prodigal skunk. I've never seen Josiah so happy as he was this evening, knowing he had Maude back.
And Inez temporarily banned smoking (Maude just hates smoke), but no one complained. Buck was offering passing strangers a round on Miss Maude and no one dared utter a discouraging word when they saw her there with seven gunman. Hell, I was ready to pull one of my throwing knives if anyone bothered our little skunk.
When it got later, I started to worry about Inez giving away so much free beer and whisky. I walked over to where she was tending bar and she smiled at me as she poured me another free whiskey.
"Inez, can you afford this?" I asked, worried that her pleasure in Maude's return was going to come out of her own pocket. I had a little put aside, and I was willing to help Inez out. She has helped me before with medical supplies and such when I needed them.
Inez grinned and whispered in my ear. "Senor Jackson, I didn't pay for the drinks. Senor Standish gave me the money, but didn't want anyone to know he was being generous."
I couldn't help it. I threw back my head and laughed myself sick. Ezra tries so hard to seem hard and cold and here he was spending his hard-won money on rejoicing over a skunk. I just love seeing what he'll come up with next.
I turned and looked back at our usual table. Chris Larabee sat there and had Maude perched on his shoulder eating a ginger cookie. J.D. and Buck were shouldering each other playfully. Josiah watched over Maude like a Daddy who'd gotten his lost child back again. Every man there was smiling, especially Ezra, and his gold tooth was flashing to beat the band.
"Please don't tell him you know about the drinks, Senor Jackson. Senor Standish would be upset." Inez spoke in a low voice. She has big dark eyes and I could tell she was worried. Inez has seen that other side of Ezra that he can hide from everyone, but us.
"Don't worry, Miz. Inez." I say happily, "His secret is safe with me."