Skunk Borster hadn’t heard his right name in so long it was no wonder he didn’t remember it. His own mother had practically renamed the boy – “You little skunk!” “You skunk! Get out of there!” “Skunk! Don’t think I don’t know who did that!” – when he was only four years old. Most folk in the area didn’t know it wasn’t his birth name and wouldn’t have cared had they been told.
Skunk fit him like a glove and it had pleased him for forty-seven years to live down to it.
The Depression and the War had both been over for some years, but tell that to the hills. There was still no industry in these parts and the miracles of the post-war boom steered studiously away.
As most people did, Skunk Borster tended his own little garden to help keep body and soul together. Sure, he ate the vegetables, but by and large it served as bait for small meaty creatures such as raccoons. This way, Skunk didn’t even have to go hunting; the prey came within twenty feet of his back door.
He had also made a study of getting money out of other people with little or no labor on his part. He was a wonderfully charming fellow, until one made his closer acquaintance. He could get anyone to trust him once, and maybe even twice.
His wishing well was one of his more profitable schemes. Every year there was a new crop of children, each with a penny or two, who could be coaxed into dropping their coins into the magic well and waiting for their wishes to come true.
The base and the little roof over it had been part of a working well that had gone dry. Skunk moved it to the top of a little mound that had a hole in it. Another hole in the bottom allowed him to crawl in and collect the coins unwary children or spendthrift young lovers pitched in. It was a great little moneymaker, given the circumstances.
One father hadn’t been too pleased that his boy, who was none too bright through no fault of his own, had wished away a whole quarter to Skunk Borster. He crept over in the night and began to bang at the rock and concrete base with a sledgehammer. One can be only so quiet with such work and Skunk quickly discovered what was afoot. A couple of quick rounds convinced the irate parent to give up. One had grazed the man’s left leg, but no one ever mentioned it.
The well’s base had been damaged and a couple of hard winters had taken a further toll on it, but Skunk sold that to the unlearned and unwise as being the sure sign of a well that had given up a lot of wishes.
Skunk sat on his porch in the midafternoon of a humid day and wiped the sweat off his brow with his hand. He heard someone whistling happily and soon a large young man hove into view.
It was Raleigh Harden, who eleven years earlier had been the ten-year-old boy with the quarter. He was still none too bright; his birth had been long and difficult and nearly killed his mother. There may have been something about the way the blacksmith – also the local doctor in a pinch – used his tongs that affected Raleigh’s thought processes from day one. But Raleigh had his father’s largely easygoing personality and his father’s size. It was difficult to rile a Harden, but you didn’t do so casually unless your rifle was near to hand and you meant to use one end or the other for defense. And the junior was even bigger and stronger than the senior.
Skunk watched Raleigh stroll by and saw the younger man flipping a coin into the air and catching it, again and again. Then he stopped and lovingly admired it. Raleigh looked up and saw Skunk and waved.
“I got a whole silver dollar, Mister Skunk!” Raleigh yelled across the fifty or so feet separating them.
Skunk’s eyebrows twitched. “Do you now?” he called back.
“Yep! Found it! Found it laying right on the road back thataway.” And he pointed in the direction from which he had come.
“That’s a perty good piece of luck,” Skunk allowed. “I haven’t seen one of those in quite some time.”
Raleigh thought about that a moment and then ambled up toward Skunk’s cabin. “Here she is,” he said proudly. “A Nineteen and Thirty-four Silver Peace Dollar.”
He didn’t let go of the coin but held it up so it caught the light and Skunk could see it well. He displayed Lady Liberty’s head, then the eagle on the other side and back again.
“Sure enough,” Skunk agreed. “That’s what you’ve got. So what plans do you have for it?” he asked casually.
“Don’t know yet. Just found it.”
Skunk took a quick mental tour of all the ways he had separated money from lesser mortals and decided the tried and true approach would work with this idiot. He’d just have to watch out for the old man for a day or two.
“Y’know … that’d buy a hundred wishes in that magic wishing well over there,” he said, gesturing.
“I don’t know. My daddy wasn’t too happy that time I put a quarter in the well.”
“But think about it,” Skunk wheedled. “You got lots of wishes out of that, didn’t you? It was just the next year that you got the baby brother you wanted.”
“Yeah,” Raleigh admitted. “But he died three months later.”
“True, true,” Skunk commiserated. “But he went peaceful. Surely your momma and daddy wanted that, if he had to go. So they must have got in on one of your wishes, right?”
“I suppose that could be so.”
“And when your house caught fire, did you all wish that it could be repaired and you could keep living there?”
“Yeah. And we did fix it and we do live there.”
“That’s right.” Skunk smiled his best ingratiating smile. “So imagine all the good fortune and wishes you’d get with a whole silver dollar.”
Raleigh mulled it over. “You could just be right, Mister Skunk.” And he kept thinking as best he could with his tong-squeezed brain.
Skunk waited; part of the art of conning people was to let them do half the work – not to sell too hard.
“All right!” Raleigh said happily. “I’ll do ‘er.” And he led Skunk toward the wishing well.
He fondly patted the edge where his daddy had bashed it with the sledgehammer. He fingered his precious coin and closed his eyes. Then in a quick motion, he flipped the coin again, away from himself just enough that it spun prettily into the darkness. He heard it hit and roll and stop.
“Well, well,” Skunk said. “Aren’t you going to be the luckiest youngster around? First you find that silver dollar, and now you’re going to have all those wishes.” He reached up and patted Raleigh’s back. “You should run along now and start collecting on your good fortune.”
“OK, Mister Skunk.” And he sauntered down the little path and back on the road toward home.
Skunk chuckled happily. A silver dollar! Just waiting down there to be collected. Once he saw the last of Raleigh, he made a beeline for the crawlway at the bottom of the mound.
“That boy’s big enough to eat hay, but his brain hasn’t grown any! Hee! Hee! Hee!”
Skunk picked up a snake and tossed it out of his way. He squeezed the upper half of his body into the hole to look at the floor of the wishing well.
There were a couple of dozen pennies that various children had dropped down after making their wishes. And right in the middle, just visible, was Raleigh’s silver dollar. Skunk chuckled again and reached out for it.
Something sharp and heavy landed on Skunk’s head and crushed his skull. His hand fell short of the dollar coin.
Above him, Raleigh Harden looked down over the caved-in bowl of the wishing well. He dusted off his hands, his great strength having finished what his father had started eleven years before.
“I got my wish, Mister Skunk,” he called down. “I wished you was dead.”