Jim closed the side door, shutting out the tempest that tried to rip the handle from his hand. He fumbled with the latch, his back to the steamy kitchen, and hoped he could pretend to not hear the single word Laura uttered like an epithet.
Courage summoned, Jim wiped his boots and turned to face the woman he loved. His you-can’t-resist-this smile pulling at his reddened cheeks, he took his time removing the snowy coat, making sure to puff out his hard-hewn chest and biceps. Maybe if Laura could be distracted by the glory of muscles straining against the flannel shirt, she would forget about George.
“You’re dripping,” Laura said, wooden spoon pointed at Jim’s coat and Jim immediately recalled Sister Mary Josephine in seventh grade algebra with her metal-edged ruler. He’d honed his sterling smile on the sharp nun and had gotten out of many detentions. Jim hung the coat on the hook beside the door and shoved a plastic bucket underneath to contain the dribbles of melting snow. He knew he could charm Laura out of being mad at him, he was not sure he could do the same for George.
A man needs to keep himself occupied to survive a winter in the Tetons. Some men took up wood carving or watercolor painting, some took up drinking. Jim collected animals. His days were spent exploring the mountains, in summer on horseback checking on cows, in winter he followed animal tracks, mostly mountain lions, just to see if he could catch up to them. He carried a pistol but with five dogs he never used it. That pack of braying hellions was all the protection he needed.
Sometimes he came across an animal that was hurt or a baby animal with no mother around. These were the pieces of his collection. Many a kit came home with him, hunters taking no mercy on a mother fox or lion. Laura drew the line at bears and Jim agreed there was no re-homing a bear cub once it could fend for itself. He’d re-homed lion cubs to some place down in Florida that took in big cats, the owner being even more colorful than the hibiscus she had planted everywhere.
And then Jim found George. Rather, George found Jim. The tiny creature had somehow gotten through the pack of dogs unscathed, chittering and shivering as it waddled onto his boot and pulled at his pant leg. Jim had an affinity for daredevils. “Hey, little man,” Jim said to the masked face looking up at him, “that was a pretty ballsy move you did there.” Jim picked the ragamuffin up and watched it curl into his palm. He noticed the loose skin and thin fur, this baby had been alone for too long and would die soon without care.
When Jim arrived home earlier than usual, Laura knew something was up. She waited for him to put the horses away and when he spent an hour doing a ten minute job, she knew they had another “guest” as Jim liked to call his rescues. Laura gathered the late season tomatoes and carried the pail and shovel to the barn. Pausing inside the door to let her eyes adjust to the dimness, she heard the does bleating and saw one of the hounds dive into the hay bales after a mouse. It wasn’t alive for long; Laura heard the dog crunch the little bones and swallow. As her pupils grew larger, she was relieved to see it was Wilbur who ate the mouse, Wilbur’s stomach could handle anything so there was no worry of cleaning up dog vomit at midnight. Then she saw Jim leaning over a box, a half-torn hay bale beside him, and strands of the yellow grass mixed with the gray on his head. Laura set the pail and shovel down along the barn wall, Jim was too distracted to complain about her not putting things were they belonged, and peered into the box. The creature looked like a damp ball of dryer lint, and paws the size of rose thorns grasped Jim’s rancher fingers even as it slept.
“I don’t know if he will make it, Laura.”
“It is awfully small,” Laura agreed. She was the daughter of a rancher and inherited a sensibility about how to keep cucumbers sweet on the vine and ensure every animal contributed to the farm. No freeloaders. She loved her husband’s sensitive nature and more than once she was the one to dispatch the chicken that turned out to be a rooster. Also more than once she watched her husband spend several nights trying to keep an animal alive that she wouldn’t have wasted an hour on. Most of the time she was right and the animal ended up dying despite Jim’s ministrations. Laura looked down at the lackluster fur sagging on the tiny, bony rib-cage and knew this would be another one of those times.
Jim padded more hay around the little body. “Honey, I think it needs to come into the house to be able to stay warm tonight.” It sounded like a statement but they both knew Jim was asking to break the rule of no wild animals in the house. Laura looked into his soft eyes, preparing to harden her own to defend the rule that had probably saved their home and their marriage, and saw the welling of a tear. Was Jim actually about to cry over this almost-dead creature? She looked at the pitiful thing, confident it wouldn’t live another twenty-four hours and nodded her head.
That was sixteen months ago. George not only lived for another twenty-four hours, he became head mischief-maker, surpassing the three children in this effort. He could open locked doors, slide windows, and squeeze his ample girth through the tiniest holes. The rules according to George are, there are no rules.
A baby raccoon is a manageable creature, Jim argued, especially with several children to keep it occupied. When George learned to open the door to his crate and wander the house at night, Jim responded by putting locks on the cabinets and doing a bedtime sweep of the house to clean and put away every item. This very action made George more palatable to Laura because she no longer was the only adult to notice dirty dishes and schoolbooks left out. When George learned to open the front door and partake of nocturnal strolls to explore inside the neighbor’s house, Jim put locks on every portal to rival any urban home security.
To keep them both out of trouble, Jim began taking George along whenever he left the house. George would climb into Jim’s coat or into the saddle bags when Jim rode out to move the cows. He scampered around the workshop while Jim repaired saddles and fence posts. After George began working the chop saw and lost the tip of his tail, Jim unplugged all power tools when not in use. He even took George deer hunting.
Jim had imagined the two of them hunkered down behind the big log where the trees met the grass. They would lean against it and read and nap and enjoy a snack while waiting for the deer to come. Jim knew exactly when and how the deer moved through this thousand acres. He fed George a snack and covered him with an old coat and watched the fat raccoon fall asleep, twitching and snoring among the corduroy folds. Perfect timing, Jim thought, because the deer would start moving out to feed very soon. Unlike having a dog along, the deer would not run if they saw George but Jim didn’t want to have his attention diverted from lining up a shot by a playful raccoon.
Jim heard the rustle of branches and the crack of twigs breaking and sunk a little lower behind the log. He reached for the binoculars behind his back and trained the lenses on the woods. The glare of gray sky prevented him from seeing deep into the woods but his ears told him what his eyes could not; a single buck was about to step into the light and Jim bet it was a big one. He replaced the ‘nocs, reached for his rifle, and got into position, all while keeping his eyes fixed to the place where the dark and light meet. There it was. Jim laser-focused all his senses on the buck, waiting for it to step into the open grass. This moment was what Jim loved, really, not going for a trophy. Hell, the horns would be sawed into dog chews, not stuck on a wall. He loved boiling off the extraneous of life, his mind quieting to just this moment, this position, the scent of the moss under the log, the sun trying to break through the clouds, feeling his breath move through his body and slowly, so slowly bringing his eye to the scope and his finger near the trigger.
A message got through the laser-focus to Jim. There was something heavy on his thigh as he crouched, his rifle barrel balanced on the log. Sharp nails pierced the canvas hunting pants and Jim’s breath whooshed out. Jim didn’t move but he saw the deer look toward him. Dammit, George! He lay frozen, controlling his breath as the raccoon began climbing up his body to investigate this toy that Jim held. Perhaps the deer sensed the raccoon and decided all was safe because he turned his huge antlers back to the grass and nibbled as he walked one step, then two. Just a few more strides and Jim would take his shot. Jim was very proud, almost boastful, of his ability to puncture the lung and heart of his kills without ruining the shoulder meat. The deer, while maybe not as proud would no doubt appreciate these shots because they died very fast. Rarely did Jim have a deer run more than fifty yards before it collapsed and died. Jim was happy to provide meat for his family without having the animal suffer. The kids wouldn’t eat beef now, having become attached to the cattle as they wandered around the house, so venison and turkey were even more necessary.
The needle claws dug into his hip and Jim felt the full weight of the raccoon, all nineteen pounds, pulling at his coat as George continued the climb up Jim’s body. George reached Jim’s cheek and sniffed at his beard to see if Jim had eaten anything good. Jim kept his muscles locked into position as the fluffy blob stood on his shoulder and began to reach his little black paws around the stock of the rifle. “No,” Jim whispered, his eye still on the scope. One more step and the buck would have to angle around a rock. He waited for the perfect shot. Just another second and it would come.
Inquisitive and tenacious, the raccoon had rarely heeded the word, “No,” and did not choose to regard it now. The man was very interested in this stick and George wanted to know why. He positioned his body on the man’s shoulder, pulling at the stock of the rifle and when that did not work, George pressed his back leg against the man’s hairy cheek and grasped the man’s finger with both front paws.
In an unimaginable instant, Jim went from holding his right finger against the hair-trigger of his rifle to fighting a raccoon’s paw from pulling the trigger. Jim released his left hand from the rifle barrel and grabbed the raccoon by the scruff of his neck, tossing the squealing George several feet across the log. The monstrous buck raised his head in shock at the ruckus and darted back into the dark woods. George came running back and jumped in front of Jim, bellowing his anger at being thwarted while his black paws reached for the rifle.
Jim rode home, George banished to the back of the saddle instead of riding inside Jim’s coat as the gray sky won and a cold rain started to soak the raccoon. Arriving home, Jim did not tell Laura of the missed buck, saying only that he thought George did not like hunting.
Thanksgiving was held at the ranch that year and Jim looked forward to having his many sisters and brothers at the ranch for a few days. His family was an active group and Jim picked out three projects that he knew could get completed with so many competent hands to direct during their time together. The weather was cooperating and the days would be clear and mild, perfect for repairing the barn roof and running a new water line. He purchased the wood to frame up a new workshop and was excited to be able to get what would be a week-long project done in a day or two.
The many families of his siblings began showing up two days before Thanksgiving. His sister with the new baby chose the room farthest from the living area in the hopes it would be quieter so the baby could sleep (it wouldn’t but no one can tell new parents anything, Jim remembered). His brother with teenage sons brought a camper for the boys to sleep in. Jim’s parents were given a first-floor bedroom with a bathroom adjoining and Laura put a night light in the bathroom so his dad could easily find his way at night.
The night before Thanksgiving was Jim’s favorite. Everyone had arrived by then and the dinner was purposefully simple. It gave more time for everyone to sit around the living room and visit and have a proper cocktail hour, if desired, from the ornate wooden bar Jim made one winter when he was into wood carving. Board games littered the carpet as the cousins played and the adults relaxed after a long day of building the walls of the shed. George scampered on the floor with the kids, stealing playing pieces off the boards and getting petted. It was idyllic and Jim smiled around at his family, all twenty-seven of them, sprawled in this room as the scent of the lasagna began to waft out of the kitchen.
Jim stood to check on the lasagna and pull the salad out of the fridge, Laura having joined the kids on the floor in a game of Old Maid. He stepped over the sprawling bodies and noticed George was not among them. Strange, Jim thought, that George would leave all that fun and attention. He took two more steps when the idyllic family life was broken.
“What the hell?” Jim turned and saw George and his oldest brother in a tug-of-war over a high ball cocktail glass. George had both paws on the glass and was pulling it, Tanner had a disbelieving look on his face as he refused to release his drink.
“George!” Jim admonished the raccoon and stepped over to grab him. George, knowing his window of opportunity was closing fast, reached one paw into Tanner’s cocktail and grabbed a piece of ice and the olive from the drink, then scuttled off under the table.
Tanner hollered, “Are you kidding me?” He stared at his drink and then dunked his fingers into it. “There is frickin’ ‘coon fur in my cocktail, Jim.”
Laura had been indulgent in letting George have run of the house until the Thanksgiving fiasco. Jim swore George would be his responsibility and the next few months were uneventful but a rancher can’t always have a pet raccoon with him, especially when he is chairing the local rancher’s committee meeting. It seemed like every time Jim left George behind, some kind of trouble occurred. To be honest, trouble occurred wherever George was, Jim just didn’t tell Laura about it. Like when George set off the car alarm from the inside while Jim was in the bank, or the time George jumped from the saddle onto the back of a young molly Jim was trailing and sent the poor mule into hysterics, almost causing his own horse to bolt.
Jim remembered all this, then readjusted the bucket under his dripping coat and took a deep breath. What would it be now? He crossed the kitchen to his wife and wrapped her in a bear hug, nuzzling his still-icy whiskers into her neck. Jim took in the scent of fresh tomato sauce and garlic bread. Laura was so good to him, he thought. Jim whispered into her ear, “Did you have something you wanted to tell me, Beautiful?”
Laura was obviously distracted by Jim’s attentions. She turned in his arms and pressed her rear into him while she stirred the sauce, wriggling her hips a bit more than necessary. Jim smiled, he knew he wasn’t in trouble any longer. Yes! Got away with it again, Jim-o. “Dinner smells amazing, dear,” he said, “and I have plans for dessert.” Jim squeezed his wife a little tighter.
“Oh, I had plans for dessert, too. But you, my dearest Jim, aren’t getting any,” Laura gave him a knowing wink. “George ate your half of the key lime pie.”