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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Star Skunk

The Great Depression impacted Americans from almost all walks of life.  It is possible that the folks in the Ozarks were more prepared to "make do" during "Hard Times," as they called it, but finding money for Christmas gifts for your parents and little brother, might make you take ill-thought-out measures.  The lessons of the Great Depression are what shaped the Greatest Generation.
I believe that it was the first winter that we spent on the little farm south of Bona that Richard and I got a hard lesson in honesty in the episode of the star skunk.  I would have been about eleven and Richard was thirteen.  My memory may not be what it once was, but I sure do remember that skunk and what happened in painful detail!
One a crisp, clear late fall Saturday, probably in November, we had nothing but morning and evening chores to do.  Richard and I decided to go exploring.  We headed across the fields south toward where Maze Creek crossed the county road about halfway to Dadeville.
It was a marvelous day—sun shining and the sky was that incomparable blue that results only from unpolluted air and is seldom seen anymore.  The weeds in the fence rows were brown.  In the woods the brown leaves had already fallen to make a thick crunchy carpet underfoot.  There was a cold breeze so we were both wearing our sheepskin coats and long underwear and Richard was wearing a knitted Ace cap pulled down over his ears.
The rolling landscape was a study in rich earth colors.  Stubble fields left from the harvest of oats and wheat were golden in the sun.  A cottontail rabbit startled a covey of quail that exploded into flight ahead of us.  We pretended to shoot at the small birds as they scattered and wheeled away.  Neither of us were old enough to carry a shotgun and we had not brought the little single-shot Remington squirrel rifle because we did not have any bullets for it.

We crawled through a barbed wire fence and topped a rise above the creek bottom.  Below there was cornfields between us and the winter-naked trees along the creek bank.  The tall yellow shocks of cut fodder scattered across the field looks for all the world like a village of Indian tepees.  We knew that there had actually been villages of Osage Indians in the area in the past because we could walk across a cornfield in almost any bend in the creek and kick up Indian arrowheads—and once in a great while a musket ball.
As we walked down the gentle slope toward the cornfield I let my imagination go and became Buffalo Bill Cody approaching a hostile Indian camp to negotiate a peace treaty.  I was just starting to pass between lines of threatening Indian braves to face Sitting Bull when I tripped over a flintrock and fell down.  The Indian village vanished.
“You clumsy tithead,” Richard probably said sarcastically, “why don’t you watch where your are going?”
“I was thinkin’,” I would have answered defensively. 
“Wool gatherin’, you mean.  I bet you have not heard a single word I was saying!”
“Did, too!  You was talkin’ about not having any money to get the folks and Rex something for Christmas.”
We climbed over a hog wire fence and headed up along the creek.  The water gurgled clear and cold over stones and across shallow riffles of gravel.
“Got to build us some more box traps and catch us more rabbits,” Richard went on.  “We can get twelve cents apiece for them at the store this time of year.”
“Take a lot of rabbits to amount to much spending money,” I answered dolefully.
“Well—at least we could buy some shells for the twenty-two.  Even a little money is better’n none atall.”  Richard scratched his head.  “What we really need to do is to go possum hunting or get us some steel traps.  Good possum hide’ll bring a dollar and a quarter.  The steel traps would be better.  Striped skunk hide is worth a dollar and a half—and a good star skunk will bring nearly twice that.”
“Got no possum dog,” I stated, “and no steel traps.  Them steel traps cost money.  Besides, skunks smell something awful.  I don’t want nothin’ to do with them!  Go to school with skunk on you, they gonna send you home to have a bath!”
We continued making our way along the creek bank, now more than two miles from home.  Across the narrow creek ground had risen to a low but steep bluff covered with scrub oak trees.  In places there were outcropping of grey limestone.  We were looking for a cave that we had heard was up that way.
I had halted and crouched down to flip over some flat rocks in the edge of the cold creek water to see if there were any crawdads this time of year; there were none that I could find.  Richard suddenly nudged me with his shoe and pointed across the creek.  “Great gawd a’mighty,” he said in an awed voice, “speakin’ of skunks, lookee over there!”
Star Skunks have very little white on them and are prized for their fur.

Beyond the opposite bank of the creek there was a huge grey boulder that had tumbled down the bluff.  At the base of the boulder, someone had set a steel trap.  Held firmly by one forefoot, a large coal black skunk with only one spot on its forehead was in the trap
Richard said in a low voice, “Man oh man, that’s gotta be the biggest old star skunk I ever saw!  Bet you his hide would bring three dollars—maybe more!”
I caught a whiff of the skunk’s scent and curled my lip in disgust.  “Yeah, and that sucker stinks, too!”
My brother stood with his blue eyes riveted on the hapless skunk.  I could almost see the wheels turning in his scheming mind.  “Let’s go over and have a closer look,” he suggested.
I drew back.  “Oh no you don’t, buster!  Next thing I know you’ll be tryin’ to talk me into helpin’ you take that there old skunk!  Nuthin’ doing!  It don’t belong to us.”
“Don’t be chicken, dummy!  If we did take the skunk, it wouldn’t be stealing—just poaching.  There’s a difference.  Besides, that old skunk will either chew off his foot and get away or it might die right there before someone runs that trap.  It would spoil and be wasted.  Whoever set that trap ain’t gonna come along here this time of day—it’s the middle of the afternoon.  That skunk hade means good money for Christmas that we’ll split.
I wavered just enough that Richard knew he had the advantage and he pressed it, “No one would ever know that skunk was ever in that trap.”
Had I been thinking quick enough I would have simply said, “How would you explain it to Pa?” but I didn’t.  Instead I argued, “We got no gun to shoot that skunk and we would get skunk smell all over us anyway.  It is dang hard to get rid of and, like I told you before, they send you home from school if you come in smelling like skunk; you know that!”
By that time, we had splashed across the creek at a shallow riffle and were approaching the boulder.  The pungent scent of skunk musk was heavy in the air.  The animal retreated to the far end of the chain that secured the steel trap to a steel stake at the base of the boulder.  He stood there defiantly, teeth bared, facing us.
“Wouldn’t want to shoot it even if we had the rifle,” Richard stated.  “Bullet hole would ruin the hide.”  As he surveyed the scene, a crafty look came into hi keen eyes.  “I know how we can get it,” he said confidently.  “I’ll get a long stick and twist it into his fur from up there on top of the boulder.  When I get his hind legs off the ground…”
“Now wa-ait a minute,” I cut in.  “You ain’t gonna talk me into goin’ in after that dang old skunk and get squirted with skunk stink!”
“Heck,” he snorted, “don’t you know nothin’ at all, birdbrain!  He cain’t throw that stuff with his hind legs off the ground.  You ever try to pee with your feet off the ground?  Cain’t be done.  All you got to do is run in and grab him by the tail and hold his feet off the ground until I get down to help kill him.  He cain’t squirt that stuff on you that way!”
“Bullhockey!!”  I turned to walk away.  “You AIN’T gettin’ ME to take the dirty end of the stick this time!  Get the dad-blamed skunk your own self if you want it so bad!  Don’t want nuthin’ to do with it!  Do without Christmas money!”
Richard always had a final salvo to fire.  “Jist like always,” he sneered, “you’re a chicken-hearted scaredy cat!  I’ll get the skunk and I’ll keep all the money!”
He had me over the proverbial barrel.  He knew that I could not tolerate being called a scaredy cat and he knew that I would like to have a split of the profits.  He also knew that he had won when I halted and turned slowly around.
Richard had a pocket knife.  He cut a long willow branch like we would usually use for a fishing pole and split the small end which he wedged open with a small sliver so that it would catch in the long thick fur of the skunk when it was twisted.  Moving cautiously, he edged around and climbed to the flat top of the boulder where he slid on his belly until he was directly over the skunk which was still keeping a wary eye on me.
“Okay,” he hissed, “get ready!”  He reached down slowly with the willow pole.
I advanced a couple of cautious paces and the trapped skunk shrank back and hissed at me, baring its teeth threateningly again.  Richard got the split end of the stick into the thick fur back by the animal’s tail and twisted.  It worked—sort of.  The stick caught in the fur and Richard lifted the animal’s hindquarters off the ground.  “GOT HIM!” he yelled triumphantly.
I lunged for the skunk, my clodhopper work shoes scrabbling against the rocky and frozen ground.  The skunk squirmed violently and, just before my hand closed on his tail, the stick slipped loose.  I had one fleeting glimpse as he hit the ground, tail upraised.  I saw a pink spot appear just under the base of his tail, then a squirt of yellow musk caught me squarely in the eyes.
It smarted and it blinded me.  I howled and scrambled backward away from the enraged skunk.  On all fours I lunged for the creek and soused my head into the icy water.  The odor of skunk musk on me, my sheepskin coat, and knitted wool hat was overpowering.  After repeated dousing with the cold water, the burning sensation in my eyes lessened and I could begin to see again, although quite blurrily at first.  The snarling skunk was crouched at the base of the boulder facing me.  Atop the boulder Richard was rolling around howling with laughter.
“HOO-EE,” he chortled.  “That is the funniest thing I ever did see!  He got you smack between the eyes!”
My temper exploded.  I was more enraged than the skunk at that point.  I came up off the creek bank and my hand closed on a rounded glacial flintrock about the size of a large orange.  My rage was directed equally at my gleeful brother and at the hapless skunk as I charged.
Fortunately for Richard, the skunk was the nearer the two.  Throwing practice in corncob fights, throwing rocks at birds and cans, and schoolyard baseball had strengthened my arm and honed my aim.  The rock caught the skunk squarely on the white spot on its forehead.  It went down kicking feebly, its skull crushed.
I was miserably cold from the icy water of the creek and stinking to high heaven of skunk musk.  I stalked indignantly to the trap, released the spring with my foot, then—grabbing the heavy carcass by the tail—heaved the dead skunk onto the boulder.  It landed directly on Richard, smearing his heavy sheepskin coat with skunk blood and musk.
“There!  THERE’S your stinkin’ old skunk!  I killed it.  YOU carry it!  I should have done that to start with instead of listening to your harebrained schemes!”  My voice was bitter, to say the least.
Richard stopped laughing and cursed when the skunk hit him.  He rolled it back off the boulder and jumped down angrily.  I did not run, but simply squared off with clenched fists and glanced out of the corner of my eye for any handy throwing rocks.
The attack did not develop.  Perhaps he felt a twinge of remorse.  What was done was done and could not be undone by a fight.  He shrugged and turned back to the skunk.
The animal I had killed was obviously a prize pelt.  It was huge and , although now rumpled, the fur was thick, deep, and glossy.
We decided that we would have to take the animal home to skin it since we had only Richard’s pocket knife and, although well practiced in skinning rabbits and squirrels, neither of us had yet skinned either a skunk or a possum.  Since the skunk Carcass weighted several pounds and we were both now emitting a strong odor of skunk must (we stunk, it what we did) we each took a hind leg and set off on the long hike home.
It was nearly sundown as we approached the farm.  Our father was out splitting wood for the cook stove—a chore Richard should have been doing—when we came up across the south pasture.  The odor of skunk no doubt preceded us on the evening breeze because Dad put down his axe, turned, and waited impassively as we came up the path from the barn.
All of a sudden my happy thoughts about the money we would get for the skunk hide vanished on the chill breeze and I suddenly was overcome by a feeling of guilt.  The skunk was not really ours.  We slowed but marched up and halted uncertainly before the keen gaze of our father.  It seemed that his blue eye could look right inside you.
“Where did you get that big skunk, boys?”  His tone was quite neutral but I shriveled inside.
“Well…uh…I killed it with a rock,” I said.  “We are gonna get us a lot of money for the hide.”
Dad knelt and looked closely at the skunk.  “’Pears to me that skunk has had his foot in a steel-trap.  You boys got you some steel traps?”
Suddenly our crime seemed enormous.  I shivered, but not from the evening cold, and looked sidewise at Richard.  He stood looking stoically straight ahead as he answered for us, “No, Pa.  We ain’t got no steel traps.”
“Where did you find that skunk?”
Richard answered again, “Well…uh…way over there up Maze Creek toward the cave spring.”
Dad sat back on his haunches and reached for his sack of Bull Durham.  He was silent while he extracted a wheat straw brown cigarette paper and started rolling a smoke.  We just stood in silence, still holding the skunk by the back legs and wishing that we could sink right into the ground.  We were both anticipating the whipping that was sure to come.
Before our father could say any more, our mother came from the house.  “Oh my good Lord!  PEE-YEW!  Just look at the two of you!  We will have to bury your clothes and you won’t have any winter coats!  You get to the smokehouse right now and get those smelly clothes off!”
Never mind that right now, Evy,” Dad said evenly as he rose to stand over us.  He scratched a match on the seat of his overalls and his blue eyes were steely and squinted as he lighted his cigarette and blew smoke over our drooping heads.  “Boys,” he said, “I ain’t aiming to raise me no thieves nor liars.  Now I know that you ain’t lied to me but that there trap belonged to someone and so does the skunk that it caught.  Conrad, you said you kilt it—you can turn right around and march right back and put that skunk right where you found it.”
I did not protest.  I well knew the import of that implacable tone of voice.  My instinct was to protest that it was all Richard’s idea and his fault but I also knew there was no point in that.  I had thrown the rock and I actually took the skunk out of the trap.  I simply turned to go and tugged at the skunk carcass.
Richard stopped me by hanging onto his leg of the skunk.  “It wasn’t just him, Pa.  I…well…I reckon it was my idea in the first place.  He didn’t want to take the skunk; didn’t really want nothin’ to do with it but I talked him into it, I reckon.”
Some long time later I recalled that at that point there was a subtle change of expression on Dad’s face.  The thundercloud softened and I think it may have been pride—pride that we had stood up and each took a share of the blame.
“It’s heavy, {Pa,” Richard continued.  “I’ll help him carry it back.”
As we turned to go, Mother protested, “It will be dark soon, Ernest, and it is a long way over there.  Supper is almost ready and we have to get the boys cleaned up!”
“Boys big enough to kill a skunk and take it out of a trap are big enough to walk in the dark,” Dad said evenly.  “And never you mind supper.  They’ll it it cold or go to bed without when we get them cleaned up and some of that stink off them.”
He looked keenly at the two of us.  “Now let this be a lesson to you boys.  Stealin’ don’t pay.  Furthermore, even if you kept that skunk and sold that hide it would not half pay for those sheepskin coats you have ruined.  Now git—and don’t stop short ‘cause I may be behind you watching.”  He turned abruptly and went back to splitting wood while we trudged off across the pasture dragging the heavy skunk between us.
It was very dark and cold when enough time had elapsed for us to get to the trap and back.  Mother had a steaming washtub of hot water by the kitchen stove and was waiting with strong laundry soap and the juice of canned tomatoes for the skunk odor.  Dad buried the sheepskin coats.  I do not recall how he got replacements, but I know that we never went to school cold.
I realize that my account of the episode of the stark skunk leaves a question.  Did we lug that heavy carcass the more than two miles back to the trap on Maze Creek in the dark?  Well, there are a lot of open pastures in the rolling hills where we could have seen (until it got totally dark) if our father was following us.  There were also areas of woodland, underbrush, and ditches where the soil was loose and might be easy to dig.  We were gone long enough to get there and back, but I reckon Richard and I are the only ones who might know what finally happened to that danged skunk—only after more than fifty years our memories sometimes fail us.

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