Rating: Maude doesn't say any bad words, but Buck does a bit - PG
Disclaimer: For Heaven's Sake - I don't own them at all - Imitation is the highest form of flattery.
A continuation of The Skunk Chronicles
Josiah Sanchez and Ezra Standish were both partaking of the nearly mystic pleasures of the local bathhouse. Ezra had obtained an expensive French imported foaming bath salt and invited Josiah to give them a try.
Josiah was getting over a bad case of 2 by 4 upside head. During his healing time in Nathan's clinic, he'd been touched by the amount of attention he'd received from Ezra. The ministrations of the gambler had included palatable meals and, smuggled scotch, in spite of Nathan Jackson's best efforts.
Maude, the little skunk that Josiah had befriended, had amazed their leader, Chris Larabee, by waking him and getting him to follow her to the church where Josiah lay, having been attacked from behind and knocked out by murderous thieves. Josiah reckoned the Lord sure worked in wondrous ways, but the fact that Larabee hadn't shot poor little Maude was a much bigger miracle than her fetching help. Maude was a right smart little girl. He'd known that before she went to fetch Chris.
The little lady in question was overseeing their baths from atop of a barrel in the bathhouse.
The bubbles that had appeared from the foaming salts were very pleasant and the smell made Josiah wish he had a female human friend to court afterwards.
Ezra was leaned back in the tub to his left, practically lost in the bubbles, and recounting tales of ancient Roman baths and how the business deals and poetry of that age all centered on the "noble marble halls of the bath".
Josiah had already told Ezra about the spiritual properties of the Indian sweat lodge.
Ezra nodded affably, "While I will not take a stand against the ideal of the sweat lodge, Mr. Sanchez, I must say that I prefer the more plebian delights of a hot bath."
"Yup," said Josiah, laconically, "especially since after you get all sweated up, you end up jumping in a cold river." He gave a shudder and noticed Ezra reflectively do the same.
Maude listened patiently and attentively to all of this. She always listened to the sound of their voices with great interest. When he'd been in bed at Nathan's clinic, she would do the same thing when Chris and Ezra had read to him. Ezra conjectured that she merely enjoyed the sound of their voices, but Larabee had thought she was contemplating something.
Josiah didn't care. Maude was damn nice company and not many women were as good listeners. Nope, he wasn't going to look a gift skunk in the mouth.
At the beginning of their evening, Ezra had produced some fine Cuban cigars, but both men had deferred the joint pleasures of hot bath and smoking due to Maude's presence. She had sneezed when Ezra lit up and the gambler had quickly put his out.
"I do beg your pardon," he directed politely at Maude as she regally surveyed the bathhouse from where the barrel stood at the foot of the two tubs. Nearby was a lower bench holding the men's garments.
Ezra had introduced Maude to a small bit of peppermint candy as an experiment. She appeared to savor this delicacy but would immediately stop eating and appear to listen with all concentration while the two men talked.
They often would direct comments her way, just from good manners.
Maude hadn't minded each of them sharing a fine scotch, so both men nursed a drink while they enjoyed a lazy evening. Josiah felt pleased to be recovered, and even more pleased that Ezra and the skunk were both so obviously glad to be with him.
"Ezra," he toasted the gambler, "Here's to you and your exquisite taste in fine liquor and companions."
Ezra's gold tooth flashed as the younger man laughed and returned his toast, merrily, "And here's to you, Mr. Sanchez. May you continue to recover speedily and enjoy many more evenings with good companions."
Ezra took another sip of scotch and looked grim, "I am exceedingly glad you are released out of Mr. Jackson's benevolent jurisdiction, Mr. Sanchez. I only wish we had been able to catch the cowards who attacked you."
Josiah sighed regretfully, "Well, seeing as they got the drop on me, I guess only Maude could identify them and since she is that, wonder of wonder, a silent female, I guess they got away."
Maude came to attention at the sound of her name, standing on all four feet. Then suddenly the tiny head swiveled to the side and her glance became fixed on some object on the floor, out of the two bathers' line of sight. Her tail came up and formed a perfect question mark, which pointed at whatever it was she was watching.
Josiah and Ezra exchanged glances.
Josiah noted that while Ezra's jacket with its derringer rigging was out of reach, his other guns were next to the tub. Ezra had his priorities right, that was for sure. The smaller man leaned down and grabbed his pistol and carefully made his way to the end of his tub, one hand clutching the tub rim and the other the gun.
Josiah began to silently move for his guns as well, when Ezra's protective stance relaxed.
"Mr. WILMINGTON," he grated with his delightful drawl, "Put my pants down. NOW."
From somewhere on the floor near the pants, Josiah heard a familiar and exasperated voice say "Damn!"
Josiah sat back down in the tub with a grin. Buck and Ezra had been teasing one another about their respective wardrobes before Buck, J.D. and Vin had left on prisoner transport. Josiah recalled that Ezra had maintained that clothes make the man, while Buck had felt that Ezra depended too much on appearance.
Apparently, the ladies' man planned on driving home that point by stealing his fellow peacekeeper's britches.
"Nice to have you back, Buck" the preacher said merrily to the yet unseen scoundrel.
"Nice to see you, too," said the voice from the foot of the tub.
"You can get up, Mr. Wilmington, " said Ezra.
"Not till you call off your watch skunk," was the cautious reply.
Josiah and Ezra both busted out laughing.
Maude, upon hearing their merriment, sensed the danger was over. She sniffed contemptuously at Buck, who now carefully came to his feet.
His eyes fixed on the now peaceful skunk; Buck looked only slightly embarrassed. Indeed the humor of the situation wasn't lost on the big man. He grinned.
"Ezra, why in tarnation are you hanging around with a skunk? Cause he beat you at poker?"
"SHE, Mr. Wilmington, is an esteemed member of our peacekeeping force. While you were away in the wilds on your prisoner transport expedition, she alerted our own Mr. Larabee that Mr. Sanchez had been bushwhacked in his own domicile."
Buck stared at the skunk. She turned and gave him another suspicious look, sniffed pointedly and then sat.
Buck looked at Josiah for confirmation of this tale.
"Yup," Josiah said, "Little Maude here found Chris and fetched him. I nearly had my skull stove in."
"Well, I'll be damned," was Buck's comeback and he gave the skunk in question a grateful look.
She refused to address him, however, and pointedly would only direct her attention to her two mentors.
"Buck, I'm afraid you've gone and offended little Maude. She's real protective of her friends and she thought you were trying to hurt me or Ezra."
"Maude?!" exclaimed Buck. Josiah figured that her name just dawned on the big scoundrel. Maude flicked her tail disagreeably at him.
"I'm afraid Mr. Wilmington's animal magnetism doesn't extend to lady skunks," observed Ezra as he now grabbed a towel and began to dry off. He grinned and his gold tooth glinted in the dim light.
Josiah decided he was done too and noticed how deftly Ezra was there for him with a fresh towel. He knew the boy was being extra watchful of a mean old preacher, and he sure appreciated it. He'd had a few dizzy spells since leaving the clinic and had frankly worried that he'd fall on either Ezra or Maude, but so far all had been well.
Ezra had watched over him like a doting son without in any way hovering or being irritating. Unused to such ministrations, Josiah was deeply touched by the younger man's devotion.
By the time Josiah was finished dressing, Ezra had dressed and emptied both tubs, cleaning them and making them ready for the next occupants. While Ezra often loudly proclaimed that he didn't hold with menial labor, he was big on courtesy. Josiah reckoned being thoughtful of the next person to use the tub was Ezra's idea of courtesy.
Buck watched all this without comment, his brow furrowed in thought. Josiah realized he was upset that Maude wasn't taking to him. He smiled to himself, leave it to Buck to get worried because a skunk had rejected him.
Josiah gently picked up the lady in question. She hummed and chirped at him in contentment. He put her in the front of his shirt, so that she was able to see what was going on from under his chin. He often put her there when he went for walks, although never on patrol for fear she'd fall from the horse. He could tell she felt safer with him and that Buck, goodhearted man that he was, didn't like to think she was scared of him.
"So are you healing up good?" Buck asked and Josiah could see the man's honest concern.
"Our good Mr. Jackson released him from the clinic this afternoon," Ezra said and smiled up at Maude, who chirped at him lovingly.
Buck tried to approach the little skunk, too. Maude visibly tensed and then gave a kitten-sized growl.
Buck immediately moved back, muttering mild obscenities under his breath.
Ezra noticed this and leaned towards the ladies man and whispered conspiratorially, "Ginger cookies and chicken."
"Huh?" said Buck, looking at Ezra like the Gambler had chewed loco-weed."
"She likes fried chicken and ginger cookies," explained Ezra.
Josiah nodded, "Mostly though, she gets vegetables. Nathan says she needs them to stay healthy."
A gleam came to Buck's eye. "Needs wooing, does she?" he said.
Josiah thought that would appeal to the man to whom all women were a challenge.
Buck now took off his hat and bowed to the little skunk.
"Little Lady, don't you fret now. Uncle Buck's gonna prove to you he's a friend," the big man promised.
"Now if you boys don't mind, I'm gonna get cleaned up too. Gotta date." His eyebrows wiggled suggestively.
Josiah felt Maude settle against his chest and smiled at the tiny yet fearless little personality. Maude could hold her own. Now she'd even have the ladies man dancing attendance on her.
Leaving Buck behind, Ezra strolled back to the church with Josiah. The night sky was clear and the air was crisp. Maude's little eyes reflected back the light from the storefronts and homes. She watched everything about her with interest, sniffing the air inquisitively.
"Mr. Sanchez," asked Ezra, "Did you ever have a pet as a child?"
Josiah placed his hand gently over Maude.
"Nope, missionary kids ain't supposed to have pets," Josiah responded without bitterness.
It was rare for Ezra to ask personal questions, so he decided to ask one of his own. "What about you, Ezra?"
"No, my only pet, as it were, was Chaucer. He has been my dear friend and confidant since he was but a colt."
"Land's hard on people," observed Josiah, while he stroked the little skunk on the head. "People die easy, so do animals. But a little thing like Maude here makes a man remember that life is precious."
He looked over at Ezra, but the gambler didn't look like he was about to tease. Ezra loved Maude, too. Josiah decided he could ask.
"If any thing happens to me, Ezra, will you "
Ezra's hand was on his arm. "Never fear, Mr. Sanchez. If I'm alive, Maude will always have a home."
+ + + + + + +
To Josiah's considerable surprise, Ezra had actually cleaned the church for him while he'd been at Nathan's. His little living quarters were neat as a pin and he noted his laundry had been done, the bed turned down and fresh food near at hand.
Ezra looked hesitant, so Josiah said nothing. Ezra was as bold and sassy as a magpie most of the time, but when he did something worthwhile, he tended to get shy.
The door to the church opened and Chris Larabee entered followed by Nathan Jackson, Vin and J.D.
Maude was already acquainted with their leader, Nathan and Vin, but Josiah figured he'd better make sure she knew that J.D. was a friend.
Larabee strode forward; his eyes alight with pleasure that Josiah was better. "Missed you, Josiah. Good to see you up and about." He shook Josiah's hand and noticed Maude there gazing at him avidly from the depths of Josiah's pancho.
"Howdy, little lady," he said, and reached out his finger to Maude to let her smell his scent. She immediately chirped in recognition and rubbed against his hand.
J.D. who had only made the skunk's acquaintance in a less than amiable fashion (Josiah had pulled out Maude in the middle of a poker game that caused the others to all run like bunnies) stood next to Vin and looked astonished.
"Vin," he asked, "Is that the skunk that Josiah used in the poker game?"
"Yup," said Vin happily, "She's a purty little thing, ain't she?"
"Well " said J.D. doubtfully, "Couldn't she spray us?"
"Nope," said Larabee, still gently rubbing Maude's head, "She can't. And she's quite the skunk. Came and fetched me the other night when Josiah here got bushwhacked. Brave little girl. Fetched me and Ezra right to Josiah in time to get him patched up."
"Gosh!" exclaimed J.D. and exchanged looks with Vin, who appeared surprised, but pleased.
J.D. walked up closer, and Maude's little head tilted, and her nose began to sniff the air.
Chris gave her a rare smile, "Maude," he said gently; "This here's J.D. He's a good friend of ours." With that he nodded to J.D. who advanced closer and held up his hand for Maude's inspection. Maude sniffed and appeared to decide this new human was a friend, because she accepted his touch.
Grinning with pleasure, J.D. petted the little skunk and exclaimed, "Look at that, she likes me."
"She is an extremely affectionate little lady to her friends," said Josiah.
"And a good judge of character," shot Ezra with a grin.
Chris looked up at that remark, and Josiah answered the unspoken question. "She caught Buck trying to steal Ezra's britches over at the bathhouse," said the big preacher; "She won't give him the time of day now."
Vin started to laugh and J.D. grinned as they all gently made over Josiah's little friend. Nathan Jackson's slow grin and deep chuckle caught Maude's attention and she chirruped questioningly.
"Nathan, I do believe the little lady wants you to pay attention to her," said Ezra.
Nathan was pleased, but also curious, "I wonder why she likes me and not Buck. The surgery I had to do on her hurt bad and Buck didn't do nuthin but sneak."
Josiah took Maude out and placed her in the healer's capable hands and they all watched the visible affection she showed the ex-slave.
"I reckon its because she knew you were trying to help her, and she knew Buck was being sneaky. The men who got the drop on me were sneaky too, so she decided that Buck was a danger to her family."
"She's right smart," said J.D. "I bet that sticks in Buck's craw."
"Yes indeed," responded Ezra, who had now pulled out a bottle of aged scotch with which to share with his comrades in arms.
"Mr. Wilmington never gives up when a lady is involved, and I believe we can expect him to show up with peace offerings."
By this time, all six men were gathered around the pot-bellied stove that Josiah used to heat the church. The little skunk was demanding Vin pay her attention now and the slim tracker was smiling. "I reckon we got us a mascot," he pronounced.
They all started to laugh.
Later, Buck showed up with a large paper bag.
J.D. sat up with interest. "What cha got, Buck?" he asked.
Buck walked carefully to where Maude was asleep on J.D.'s lap. "Peace offering.," he said.
Maude immediately woke up and sniffed in the direction of Buck's voice. She stood and took a defensive posture, her tail curling up and pointing at him like it had before.
Buck knelt before Vin and took a ginger cookie out of the bag and held it beseechingly toward the little skunk. "Now come on, little lady, old Buck ain't set on hurting anyone."
Unfortunately, Maude wasn't that easily won. She didn't growl, but stayed in a defensive stance, from the vantage point of the laconic trapper's lap.
Vin petted her gently, "Now, Maude," he admonished, "This here's Buck. He's one of us."
Maude accepted the caress, but still stared at Buck.
"I reckon," said Vin softly, "that she needs to see that Bucklin is our friend. Ezra, Maude here takes to you just fine. Why don't you go over to Buck and pat him on the head or shoulder so she'll know you ain't scared of him."
Ezra grinned in appreciation at Vin's humor and knowledge of animals. He sauntered over to Buck, who was clutching the ginger cookie nervously, and patted his fellow lawman's shoulder. Maude appeared to watch this with some trepidation.
"Give me the cookie, Buck," he said. Vin nodded, "Good idea, Pard."
Buck rolled his eyes in exasperation, but handed his cookie to Ezra who ate it with evident pleasure. "Excellent."
Buck now took out another cookie and handed it to Vin. Now Maude looked more interested. Buck quietly took out a third cookie and placed it carefully in his hand in front of Maude.
"Please, little lady. I didn't mean any harm," he whispered. Maude's nose quivered and she cautiously moved forward. Finally she took the cookie from Buck's hand and proceeded to devour it with gusto.
Buck grinned in relief, and waited till she was done eating, before tentatively petting her. This time, she allowed the caress.
J.D. swiped the forgotten bag and shared the cookies out
"I guess Mr. Wilmington's reputation for animal magnetism can remain intact," said Ezra.