A great sermon today,” Riley confided on the ride home.
“Mm-hm.” Andi laid her head back and closed her eyes. “Mother’s Sunday dinner was good, too. I reckon you won’t have room for any of that gingerbread you wanted earlier this morning.”
“You falling asleep?” Riley asked.
“All you want to do recently is sleep,” Riley said. Anxiety seeped into his voice. “It’s unlike you, and I’m getting concerned.”
“You don’t have to.” Andi’s eyes flew open, and she sat up straight. “It’s nothing. Caring for a baby is new to me—”
“And so is caring for a raccoon at the same time,” Riley cut in.
Andi’s gaze fell. “Maybe.” What was he getting at?
“That pet is like the lamb all over again,” Riley said.
From the corner of her eye, Andi could see her husband shake his head. “He’s not. He’s a lot of fun. Unlike Jasper, he’s hardly any trouble at all. He’s never gone after the chickens, and he knows my voice. I enjoy playing with him.”
“I still say it’s too much.” Riley took a breath. “And so does your mother.”
“Mother?” Andi looked up. “What do you mean?”
“She pulled me aside after the meal today, while you were chatting with Chad. She wants to know why you were so languid and unlike yourself. I told her.”
“Told her what?”
“About Gingerbread, and Jared, and the housework. She agreed it was too much for a new mother to take on all at once.”
Andi sighed. “It’ll only be for a week or so more, Riley. Just ’til Gingerbread can take care of himself.”
“No, Andi, I think he’s old enough to look after himself now. I’m looking after you.”
Andi slumped in her seat and stayed quiet the rest of the way home.
Riley pulled Ranger to a stop in the Memory Creek driveway and took Jared while Andi jumped down. Then he handed over the baby and leaped to the ground. “What’s up with Tucker?” He glanced toward the house. The dog was barking at the door.
The dog bounced and barked, ignoring her. “I’ll see what’s up,” Andi said. She made her way toward the house and opened the door. A flash of black and brown caught her eye. Gingerbread! What’s he doing in the house?
“For sure I don’t know,” Andi answered. “Tucker! Come here, boy.”
A moment later, her question was answered. The kitchen was a mess. Flour and the coffee leftover from breakfast covered the floor. Andi’s pan of fresh-baked gingerbread lay in crumbs, both on tabletop and floor. Worse, as she watched, Gingerbread waddled up onto the table and began to help himself to her large pan of eggs. “Oh, no. No, no, no!” Andi glanced behind her shoulder. Riley was coming inside. What will he say when he sees this? There was no way to hide the evidence of Gingerbread’s morning adventures.
Andi’s moans sent Gingerbread running. Egg in hand, he dropped from the table, to the chair, and out the door. Riley stepped inside. He barely missed tripping over the brown and black streak. The raccoon shot between Riley’s legs and out the door just as the screen door slammed shut. strode over. “What on earth?” Riley stopped short. He jerked his thumb behind his shoulder. “Is that what I think it is? A thieving raccoon with one of our eggs?”
When Andi nodded, Riley set his jaw. “That’s it. I’m sorry, but this is the last straw. The raccoon is going.”
“Oh, please, Riley, no.” Andi caught his arm. “It’s my fault, really. I left the window open. I guess I didn’t shut his stall door all the way, either. He must’ve left the barn and gotten curious, so he climbed in. I can clean it up—”
“No. That raccoon is nothing but trouble. My mind is made up.”
“What—what are you going to do with him?”
“I’m gonna take him where he belongs—back to the wild.” With that, Riley left the house. Tucker followed at his heels.
Andi bit her lip and stood at the window. She held Jared and watched as Riley hitched Ranger and Buster to the wagon, then entered the barn. He came out a moment later with Gingerbread in his arms. ’Bye, Gingerbread. Andi’s throat tightened. I’m gonna miss you.
Riley dumped Gingerbread into the wagon bed and climbed onto the spring seat. He flicked the reins. It wasn’t long before they’d disappeared over a rise.
Later that day, Andi went out to spend a few minutes with Shasta. Riley had rocked Jared to sleep, and she had spare time on her hands. At last! After throwing on a sweater, Andi made her way to the barn. A thick overcast of gray clouds had gathered in the sky. More rain. Inwardly, Andi groaned. She’d already seen more than enough of rain over the last few weeks. In California, we don’t get snow. We get rain.
Andi had wanted to travel into the Sierras with her brothers. Seeing mounds of glistening, beautiful snow was a special treat—and so much better than seeing buckets of gray, listless raindrops. Andi entered the barn…and stopped dead in her tracks. All thoughts of snow and rain flew from her head. “Gingerbread? Is that you? It can’t be…”
But when the raccoon stood and covered his eyes (another trick Andi had taught him), there was no doubt about it. Her raccoon had come back. What will Riley say about this? Andi knelt and rubbed at her pet’s head. The raccoon dug his paws into her long, dark braid. “Hey, now, quit it.” Andi gently pushed his paws away. “What am I going to do with you?” The raccoon pulled away and covered his eyes again, as if to say, “I’m sorry, but I just had to come back.” Andi laughed. “C’mon. We have to take you up to the house. Riley needs to know you’re back.” From behind her came the sound of dog’s feet treading on the barn floor. A moment later, Tucker was at her side, yipping.
Gingerbread startled at this new threat. Then he reacted as only a frightened raccoon could. He snarled and bared his teeth.
“Whoa, hold it!” Andi reached for her pet. A second later, she felt searing pain rip through her arm. “Ouch! Don’t bite me.”
Gingerbread paid her no mind. He launched himself at Tucker. The two wrestled on the ground for a barely half a minute before the raccoon took its leave. He ran from the barn and practically vanished into thin air. “Tucker! Bad dog.” Andi rubbed at the bite mark on her arm. Blood oozed. She bit her lip. Tucker whimpered and stepped forward. “Did the raccoon bite you too?”
Andi looked him over and found a bitemark much like her own on the dog’s left ear. Not good. If Riley hears about this, he won’t let Gingerbread come back. He’ll take him into the wild and make sure he never comes back.
Andi looked into Tucker’s dark eyes. “Not a word about this, hear?” The dog whimpered again. “If Riley hears that Gingerbread bit me and you, he’ll be madder than a peeled rattler.” She shuddered. “That wouldn’t do. I want Gingerbread to come back, and if he does, I want to keep him. Riley would not allow it if he knew about our bites.”
Her conscience pricked her. Deep down, she knew it wasn’t right to keep this secret from Riley. It’ll only be for a little while, she argued. Only until I’m certain that Gingerbread isn’t coming back. It’s not like it’s major or anything—although Riley would say it is. She looked again at the mark on her arm. It was not a pretty sight. I better wash it off and pull my dress and sweater sleeves over it. It’ll hide it…for now.
The next few days came and went. Gingerbread did not come back, and Andi mentioned not a word about her bite to Riley. She did, however, tell him that Gingerbread had returned but had been scared off again by Tucker.
“That raccoon likes it here, you know,” she said cautiously. “Maybe he’ll still come back.” After that, she threw herself into preparations for Christmas and kept her secret buried.
Mother visited on Wednesday with more ornaments for Andi’s tree. She also brought recipe books and a box of candles. They spent the day cooking, singing, and decking the house out in bright colors and Christmas cheer.
When Riley came in that evening, he was greeted with the sweet aroma of baked goods and spices. Glittering glass ornaments, hard cookies strung on ribbons, strings of cranberries and popcorn, and wax candles littered the sitting room tree from top to bottom.
That night, Andi went to bed without a care in the world. It’d been such a fun day, and her belly was warm with fresh cookies and the swirl of excitement. Only one more week until Christmas! She smiled and snuggled deeper into the covers. I can’t wait.
“Andi? Andi, wake up!”
Andi stirred. Who was calling her? And why? Leave me alone! Let me sleep! Her dream was so pleasant…
“Andi!” This time, the voice was followed by a firm yet gentle shake on Andi’s shoulder.
Andi’s eyes snapped open. Riley’s anxious face loomed above her. He was dressed in shirt and trousers, and he held his hat in his hand. “What’s going on?” Andi mumbled groggily. She blinked and rose up on her elbows. “Why’d you wake me?”
“Something is disturbing the livestock,” Riley answered. “Especially the chickens. I have to go and see what’s up.”
“Okay.” Andi fell back against the pillows. She yawned. “So…why’d you wake me?”
“Because Jared’s crying. He’s a loud little boy. You must’ve really been out cold not to have heard him.”
“All right, I get the message.” Andi crawled out of bed and pulled on her housecoat. Meanwhile, Riley slipped through the bedroom doorway and was gone. “C’mon, baby.” Andi scooped up Jared and carried him to the sitting room. “We’ll stay up until Daddy comes back.”
Now that she was fully awake, Andi heard the chaos going on outside. Wonder what’s going on? She decided to find out. Stepping up to a window, she peered out into the night. Thankfully, the moon was full, and it was easy to see outside. “Well, Jared, there’s—” Andi gasped. “There’s a raccoon chasing the chickens!” Fear gripped her. It’s Gingerbread. It has to be.
Andi didn’t waste a second. She laid Jared in his cradle then plunged her feet into her boots. She drew on her coat over the top her robe and ran outside. Riley had chased the animal into the barn. Quickly, Andi followed their footsteps. She entered the barn in time to see Riley grab a hoe. The next moment, he brought it crashing down on the raccoon on the floor. “Andi!” he yelled. “Go back to the house! Now!”
Breathing hard, Andi turned and ran. She stumbled into the house and slumped in a chair at the table. Mixed emotions swirled inside of her, making her dizzy. One was anger. Another was guilt. The last was fear. Why had Riley given her raccoon such a merciless death? She was upset with herself for feeding Gingerbread eggs, thus training him to like not only like an egg but also the chicken that provided it. Finally, she didn’t know why she felt so scared, but for some reason the niggling sensation wouldn’t leave her. She buried her head into her arms and felt hot tears stream from her eyes. Jared wailed, but she ignored him.
The door opened and closed. A strong hand rested on her shoulder and squeezed. “I’m sorry, Andi.”
She shook her head and sniffed. I didn’t think you could be so cruel, she wanted to scream, but she remained silent.
“Really, I am.” The grip on her shoulder loosened. Riley fell into the chair beside her. “I didn’t want to kill him.”
“But you did,” Andi accused. She raised her head and swiped at her tears.
“I did.” Riley nodded. “He had hydrophobia.”
Riley’s words caught Andi off-guard. She gaped at him. “What?”
“That raccoon was definitely rabid.”
“Was it . . . Gingerbread?”
Riley shrugged. “All raccoons look alike to me, but yeah, I think it was him. We haven’t had a raccoon visitor since last spring, but I wouldn’t put it past Gingerbread to return for the free food we always gave him.” He sighed.
Andi bowed her head. A shudder ran through her. The memory of Gingerbread’s teeth in her arm slammed her mind. He could have been affected even then. He had seemed more restless than usual. Her breath came in little gasps.
“Andi?” Riley rose. “Are you all right?”
Andi shook her head. No, she was not all right. A fresh burst of tears erupted. “Does hydrophobia really spread from a bite? To anything…or anyone?”
“You know it does,” Riley said. “Everybody knows that.” He squeezed her hand. “But he’s dead. He can’t pass rabies around anymore.”
Andi again shook her head. She faced her husband. “He already shared it.”
Riley gave her a puzzled look.
“He bit Tucker.”
Riley’s face drained. “When?”
“Sunday night. H-he came back. Just like I knew he would.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about Tucker?”
“B-because…” Andi hiccupped and swallowed hard. “Because he bit me too.”
Riley’s breath whooshed out.
“I’m sorry, Riley! I didn’t want you to know. I didn’t think it was anything, and I didn’t want to give Gingerbread up. If I’d known…” She bowed her head and let her tears flow, hot and stinging.
Riley gripped Andi’s shoulders. His voice was shaky. “Where did the raccoon bite you?”
Andi bit her lip and pushed up her sleeve.
Riley caught his breath. “Did he break the skin?”
Andi didn’t say anything. The world was spinning. She closed her eyes and once again saw the blood dripping from her wound…four days ago.“
Andi,” Riley repeated, louder this time. “Answer me. Did the raccoon break the skin? Did it draw blood?”
Andi opened her eyes. “Y-yes.” She cried harder. “Yes, he did.”
Riley pulled Andi close and held her tight. He drew a deep, shaky breath. His voice came out in a small yet desperate whisper, “Oh, God, please no . . .”