It was the first Saturday in December, and Andi Carter Prescott was worn out. It was late. Riley was still not home from mending fences over at the Circle C. Jared had done nothing but whine all day, and the house was a mess.
It didn’t help any that Andi’s mind had spent the day drifting. She knew Mitch and Chad, her two older brothers, were in the snowy Sierras, finding trees, chattering like magpies, and having a terrific time.
While I’m stuck here all day with chores and a fussy baby who refuses to nap, even when he’s tired, Andi grumbled silently. She clenched her fists. It’s not fair!
She knew, she really and truly knew, that she had no right to be upset. Jared was her baby, a sweet blessing, a valuable jewel, even when he screamed his head off. Owning a house and having floors, dishes, and windows to wash were gifts, whether she realized it or not. From every angle she looked at it, Andi was blessed beyond measure.
Yet, at four o’clock—a dark four o’clock this time of year—Andi was too frustrated and weary to care.
“I wish Riley would hurry up and come on home,” she fumed. “His supper is getting cold, and it’s his turn with Jared.”
The baby had finally fallen asleep and lay in his cradle, heedless of his mama’s case of the grumps. With the blanket drawn over him, he was the perfect picture of contentment.
“I sure wish I were you,” Andi told him. She sighed and slumped. “Now that you’re asleep, I have to finish my cleaning.”
Jared did nothing more than stir slightly, his eyes glued shut.
Andi couldn’t help it. She smiled. “You’re a beautiful baby, you know that, Jared? If only you wouldn’t scrunch up your face and cry so much.”
His fist jerked.
“Yeah, you heard me.” Andi stooped and kissed his wisps of fuzzy, dark hair. “Thanks for making Mama smile.”
She jumped. What in the world? A rattling sound followed the shout. A wagon!
Hurrah! They’re here!
Andi leaped to her feet, threw on her sweater, and hurried outside. “Chad! Mitch!” she exclaimed. “Good trip?”
Chad nodded and swung down from the wagon’s high spring seat. “Sure was.” He grinned at his sister. “We found four beautiful red firs.” He jerked his thumb. “Look in the wagon bed. You get first choice.”
Andi didn’t need to be told twice. She bounded to the back of the wagon and peered inside. She gasped. “Oh, Chad.”
“I do believe this is the best batch of trees we’ve ever seen,” Mitch remarked. He slapped his hand on the trunk of one thick red fir. “Which one do you want, Sis?”
“Oh, I don’t know. That’s a difficult choice.”
“Well, choose quick,” Chad urged. “I’m starved half to death. With Mother staying in town with Melinda, Ellie and Luisa were responsible for our grub. They hardly packed enough to keep a bird alive.”
“Give me a moment, will you, Chad?” Andi returned. She bit her lip and contemplated her choices. “There’re all lovely, but I think the top one to the right is the best.”
“Good choice.” Mitch grinned. “We’ll take it on inside for you.”
The sight of a gorgeous tree for her sitting room had done quick work of curing Andi of her sour mood. Beaming, she followed her brothers inside.
They set up the tree in a nice place in the sitting room.
“How’s that?” Mitch asked.
“It’s perfect.” Andi clasped her hands. “Thank you!”
They both nodded. “No problem,” Chad said. “Now, we’d best be off. See you, Andi.”
As Chad turned, Andi reached out and caught hold of his shoulder. “Oh, and Chad?”
“Riley should’ve been here an hour ago. When you get back to the ranch, could you please send that boy on home?”
Chad smiled and ruffled her hair. “Sure thing.”
With that, Chad and Mitch made their departure.
After watching them go, Andi peeked at Jared. For a wonder, he was still asleep.
Good. Now . . . She bit her lip and glanced around the cluttered room. Then she made a decision. I can clean later. I want to decorate the tree!
Andi pulled out her boxes of tree decorations. Mother had brought her some ornaments a few days ago, and Andi been busy stringing popcorn and cranberries.
“This is gonna be the prettiest tree this side of the Sierras, just like Mitch said,” Andi told herself.
With a smile, she pulled out a delicate glass ornament and fastened on a hook. Then she surveyed her many choices of thick, bushy branches and picked her favorite one.
Just as she began to hang the ornament, the branches shook.
Andi jumped back, startled. Her ornament fell to the ground and shattered, but she hardly noticed. Her eyes were on the tree. What on earth?
More rustling and shaking. Then a dark form began to make its way down the trunk…
Andi stared, wide-eyed, at the small creature. He had now reached the floor and stood on all fours, staring up at her.
“Where…where did you come from?”
Ever since last May, after the rabid-racoon incident in the middle of the night, Andi had avoided raccoons like the plague. One never knew if a raccoon was harboring the deadly “mad dog” disease.
She relaxed. This young raccoon didn’t look scary in the least. Nor did he appear to be harboring rabies. His huge eyes stared up at her, as if in an effort to plead for help.
“Pobrecito,” she murmured in Spanish. “Poor little thing.”
Andi lowered herself beside the raccoon kit and stroked his back. The raccoon didn’t flinch or move away. It stayed still, trembling. It couldn’t have been more than six months old. Not quite ready to leave his mama.
“Did the boys bring you home? Away from your mama and brothers and sisters?”
Andi didn’t know what to do with it. The kit really was a baby, lost and alone and without his mother’s protection. She couldn’t just release it outside. It would die for sure.
At the same time, memories crashed into her mind. Memories of living on the Circle C, having to let go of each animal she brought home as a potential pet. A raccoon had once been one of those pets.
Riley is definitely different than Chad, though, she thought. Riley loves animals, each and every kind. He wanted me to keep my bunnies, and he finally relented to letting me keep Jasper last summer. I think he’d be all right with caring for a little racoon. I’ll just keep him in the barn.
Andi made up her mind. Yep, little raccoon, meet your new mama.