Disclaimer: This universe was invented by others and I'm wildly grateful for their imagination. No money is being made, no infringement intended.
"Maude" was introduced in the story Spring Daze
I could tell right off it wasn't gonna be a good day when I woke up with a headache from last night's Red Eye and a goddam itty bitty polecat right on top of me, nose to nose, looking at me with little black beady eyes.
My first thought...well, my second thought after "shit" was "I'm gonna kill Buck."
Then I remembered; Buck, Vin and J.D. were doing prisoner transport to Yuma and that left me, Nathan, Josiah and Ezra in town.
Immediately I considered who else would stick a polecat in my room.
"Standish is a dead man," I thought, figuring Nathan and Josiah just weren't into these kinds of pranks.
Then I realized two things. First that Standish is too slick to use a polecat at all. It ain't his style and besides we'd made peace after the thing with the damn chicken. Second, the skunk wasn't pointing its rear end threateningly or stamping its feet or even acting rabid. It was staring at me like a dog at a bone, all quiet and calm-like, kinda like Sanchez.
Wait, Josiah has a pet skunk. A little baby girl skunk. More importantly, a little girl skunk with no stink. I didn't have to worry.
"Where's your daddy?" I asked in a low voice and looked carefully at the creature.
You know, I don't know much about skunks except to run like hell if you rile em, but I could swear the little thing was pleading with me for something. Maybe Vin's wilderness edge is wearing off on me, but I had a hunch something was up. And listening to hunches has kept me from being planted six feet under.
I picked her up slow and careful and set her down on the floor by my boarding house bed. Then I put on my boots. She stared at me with those little black eyes until I picked up my guns. Then she scampered for the door to my room, which was slightly ajar. I'd closed it last night. The little critter must have had quite a struggle getting in. She stopped at the door and looked back at me, obviously waiting for me to follow.
I hitched up my suspenders, put on my guns and followed.
It was still night out, probably 4 a.m. Not even a hint of pink showed on the horizon. The polecat headed straight for Josiah's church and my gut tightened. It had to be trouble.
I followed her at a good pace now. I'd heard of dogs getting help when their owner's were hurt or sick, but never a skunk. Maybe I was wrong, but I'd be damned if I was gonna take a chance with any of my men's safety.
Behind me I heard a horse trotting up. I turned, hand ready on my gun. It was Standish, right - he was on night patrol. "Damn," I thought, "He'd better not be making any skunk jokes. I am not in the mood."
I sighed. This was gonna be a hell of a day, I could tell.
Then, louder than I've ever heard him, Standish hauled off and yelled at me.
"What the hell are you doing with Maude?" Damn, Ezra had never spoken to me in THAT tone of voice before.
What had he said? Maude! Damn! I looked around, but no Mrs. Standish raising stinks that no skunk could compete with.
I rubbed my face wearily. "Ezra," I said, "It's a goddam skunk." Sometimes I have no idea in hell how that man's mind works. And if this little adventure turned out to be a Standish Special he'd be singing new high notes when I got through with him.
Ezra dismounted and damned if he didn't look worried now. Not about me, mind you; he's worried about the damn skunk. Hell, maybe it's professional courtesy.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Larabee," he drawls, "Josiah named her Maude and I couldn't for the world think of what you would be doing with her at this ungodly hour."
That's just great. Now he's acting like a daddy protecting his virgin daughter.
"She woke me up and wanted me to go to the church," I said, cutting him off before he can get a full wind going. Standish can talk the leg off a mule.
Now he looked even more worried. Ezra acts like he's a stone cold bastard, but he's a good man, and I reckon he'd take a bullet for any of us, though he'd rather con his way out of a fracas.
We followed Maude (what a hell of a name to give an innocent skunk) up to the church door. It's shut and I wonder how she got out. Ezra opens the door quiet as an Injun. The lights on the altar were all out and we could both see that the place is more messed up than Josiah usually leaves it.
Ezra and me trade glances and I put a finger to my lips. He nods and we silently begin to search the building, our guns already out.
Ezra finds Josiah first because he followed the skunk right to where he lay. The preacher had been hit upside the head. I can tell there's blood on his face by the glimmering illumination from the moon - DAMN, I'm starting to sound like Standish. Lord, help me.
We both kneeled by the preacher. Ezra got there first, so when he says in a relieved tight kind of voice, "He's alive!" the pain in my stomach changes and moves up to my chest where it burns in rage. I don't have time to chase the varmints that did this, though. I have to help Josiah.
Standish hates getting orders from me. Maybe that's why he volunteers, "I'll get Nathan," in quick tones and disappears out into the darkness. Or maybe because he cares about Josiah, too.
The skunk sniffs at the blood on Josiah's face and damned if she doesn't look up at me like she's worried as hell.
I took a bandana out of my pocked and wiped up the blood gently, being careful not to move him until Nathan had a chance to examine him. I could hear his breathing, a really blessed sound in these situations, and that fact that its not labored breathing is a comfort.
Nathan and Ezra come busting in so fast, I'd've shot them if I didn't expect it. They have a big board with them. Smart thinking - we can use that to carry Josiah to the clinic. He's a big man and it won't be easy.
Nathan kneels next to Josiah and pets the skunk first. "Good girl, Maude." He says gratefully, like the skunk would know what he's saying. Then he begins his examination and the skunk and Ezra and me all watch him. I reckon even the skunk feels relieved that Nathan's there. That man has saved my skin more times than I like to think. He's saved all of our lives, cut enough bullets out of us to raise him a statue, nursed us when we were sick enough to want to die, and made us drink piss water that made us wish we had. I've never met a doctor that I trust as much as I do Nathan Jackson. He has the touch for healing, and even when you feel like hell warmed over, his hand on your brow lets you know that you're going to pull through.
Finally he says, "He's unconscious, but his spine is not hurt. We can move him to the clinic."
It took all three of us to carry him. Not that he's fat or anything, he's just made like a mountain, all strength and rocks and quiet places. He doesn't even moan when we gently get him on the board in the way that Nathan has showed us before too many times. I reckon I know more about rough doctoring than I ever wanted to, but its all been useful to us in the past and no doubt will again.
Ezra picks up Maude and puts her on top of Josiah's chest. He shoots me a look that dares me to say something, but I figure if Nathan doesn't fuss, then I won't either.
I bet we looked the funny picture. Three men straining to carry one man on a board with a little skunk along for the ride, and it seems like a good laugh now, but at the time, all I could think was that little Maude was as worried as I was. What a fearless little critter she was, to brave leaving the church and find me to help Josiah. It was a wonder.
When we had Josiah in the familiar bed in Nathan's clinic, Maude curled up right on top of his chest, like she was staying for the duration. Up until then, he hadn't made a move and that worried me. Now, to my relief, he moaned softly. Then, he reached up and put his hands on Maude and touched her really gentle-like. His eyes popped open and the first thing that came out of his mouth was "Maude?"
Ezra was kneeling next to the bed by Josiah's head. "She's right here, Josiah. She woke up Chris and brought him to you."
Josiah smiled just a bit, then moaned again in pain. "Well, praise be," he whispered, "I was worried they'd kill her. Did they hurt anyone else?"
I answered him, "No. We haven't finished checking yet. Sure did mess up your church though."
"Probably took the poor box," he said and closed his eyes. Those big hands were gently touching the skunk and she was nosing at him anxiously, fussing silently like a little mother.
Josiah smiled just a little once more and then fell asleep. Ezra, Maude and I all looked at Nathan.
He smiled at us. "He's asleep now instead of unconscious. He'll be hurting for awhile, but I think he'll be okay. Josiah's strong as a horse. A hit that would kill me or Ezra dead ain't so hard on Josiah."
When Nathan says someone will be all right, they usually are, so I gave a sigh and now ran a hand through my uncombed hair. Ezra sort of slumped, too.
He looked at me with a tired expression on his face. "I suppose we should check to make sure no one else was hurt or robbed and also determine which way the miscreants went when they fled our fair town."
Hell, Ez had spent the night on patrol and must be tired. "You can go to bed, Ezra," I said, "I'll have a look around."
To my surprise, Ezra isn't going for it, even though he's looking faded.
"No, Mr. Larabee, I must insist on accompanying you. You wouldn't let me investigate alone and run the risk of encountering these cowards and I would be remiss if I allowed you to do the same."
Damn, Ezra takes a long time to say no. Vin or Buck would have just scowled at me and told me to go to Hell. Come to think of it, maybe that's what Ezra just did.
Before he can start up jawing again, I nod to him. "Let's go then." And we both take off. First we check the church and see that Josiah was right about the poor box and his personal things. Josiah doesn't have much, and it grinds to see them stealing what little he does have. Hell, what he can put by he sends to those nuns caring for his sister, and I know he gives to those in need.
I wonder what Ezra thinks and look at his face. It's tight with rage. Then he sees me looking at him and his pokerface comes slamming down like a mask. I grinned. Ezra is as bad as I am.
After we looked around good, it became evident in the early morning light that there had been three cowards who'd gotten Josiah and that they'd ridden out of town due west. They had a good start on us. If we left to track them down, we'd be leaving Nathan alone to protect the town. And I for one didn't want to leave Josiah alone until I knew he was feeling better.
I think Ezra was relieved at my decision. He looked dusty and tired. He surprised me though, because he insisted on going back to Nathan's to check on Josiah.
When we walked into the clinic, Maude was still there curled up in a ball now, on Josiah's chest. She sat up when we entered. Nathan was asleep on the cot next to Josiah's and Josiah's color was better
"I believe it is your turn to patrol, Mr. Larabee." Ezra said while he reached out and daintily petted Maude. She rubbed back at him affectionately, but I could tell she wouldn't leave Josiah either. It made me smile.
"I reckon Josiah's got him a watch skunk." I said, "You oughta get some shuteye, Ezra."
Ezra elected to stay with Josiah and Maude though. He slept on a chair next to Josiah's bed and was there, with Maude, when I got back from patrol. Ezra had slid down the chair and his head had fallen on the pillow next to Josiah's. Both of em looked peaceful and Maude was nosing at Ezra's chin and then Josiah's cheek.
I figured that Josiah had him two watch skunks, but didn't voice the opinion. Didn't want to hurt Maude's feelings or anything. She had taken quite a shine to both men.
I sat and watched them sleeping, while Maude watched over them.
How had she known to come to me? My room at the boarding house is closest to the church from the saloon and Nathan's clinic, but it was still quite a ways for one little skunk. Did I somehow smell like Josiah to her so that she knew I would help him? She had taken quite a risk to get him attention. I could have shot her or thrown her against a wall when I woke up and killed her. And yet she braved it all for Josiah. She seemed to know that I was thinking of her. She stopped fussing over my two sleeping peacekeepers and strode purposefully down the bed toward me, and looked up.
I picked her up and sat her on my lap and began to pet her. I hadn't realized it before, but she was a purty little thing. And she had saved my friend. "Thank you, Maude," I whispered, hoping like hell Ezra couldn't hear me - he'd tease me forever if he did. She rubbed up against my hand and seemed pleased.
I leaned down and she touched her nose to mine, much like she had hours ago. "Much obliged, little one, much obliged." I whispered. I think she understood. She licked my nose.
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