Back then my name was Fred—just Fred.
Even then, I had a passion for the Great Game, but I was inquisitive by nature and sensitive in the extreme, and these were traits I had not yet learned to command. I was hustling along the beach at the back of the most sad-sack troop of raccoons that have ever raided in the night. What caught my attention, even as we ran, was the great beacon of the lighthouse reflecting a jagged line across the breakers. It skipped past us and lit the cap of a wave so that the froth shone aqua clear. I must have slowed down.
A paw slapped my side hard. Claws raked, but did not penetrate, my thick spring coat. I stopped and turned to find Barnaby at my side.
“Watcha staring at, Freddy-boy?”
Barnaby was a large, fat-masked raccoon with an unpleasant attitude. He was also our leader.
“I was contemplating the light on the waves,” I said.
Barnaby stared at me, searching for sarcasm.
“Ohhh!” he finally squealed. “Contemplating. How sweet.”
The other eight troop members hissed and chuckled, but they fell silent when Barnaby’s fur bristled.
“We’re dead last in the Great Game, Freddy. Tonight is the Wash.”
“I’m aware of that, Barnaby. The ribbing will be insufferable. I apologize for my slip just now. I promise to try harder.”
“Badger crap!” Barnaby shouted. “We’ve got until midnight to catch up with Fulsom and his sorry, cheating lot. We stink and you’re the stinker, Fred. There’s no more trying harder. You screw up this raid and I’ll disembowel you. Get it?”
Barnaby bared his long teeth and bunched himself up to his full size. He scared me. I wasn’t entirely certain he would not follow through on this threat. It did not matter that I wanted to beat Fulsom as badly as he, or that my belly was just as empty as his.
“Yes, sir!” I said smartly. Barnaby bristled a few moments more, then turned to the rest of the troop. He extended a claw and drew in the firm sand.
“Campsite 202. We’ve got two adults and a kid. The swag is in a big canvas bag. Pop Tarts!”
At this there was much chittering and rubbing of paws. All raccoons, including myself, love Pop Tarts.
“Raspberry. Right, Jonesy?” Barnaby looked to Jonesy, a lean, short-legged raccoon with a nervous voice.
“Oh, yeah,” Jonesy said, grinning at all of us. “Raspberry, strawberry with icing, even chocolate. And that’s just what I could get a look at. Who knows what’s at the bottom, huh?”
“Three boxes of Pop Tarts puts us up on Fulsom,” Barnaby said, “which puts us in 24th place and makes him the goat.”
“Unless his troop scores tonight too,” Frieda pointed out. Frieda was a quick-witted young raccoon with an extra ring around her tail. Her observation, while quite true, was neither appreciated nor useful. Everyone glared and Frieda backed up a pace.
“We’re gonna play this simple,” Barnaby said, “so there’s no screwups.”
I sighed inwardly. This was what he always said.
“Jonesy, Sheila, Monmouth, Frieda, and Wilson, you’re under the hidey-pine near the table. You’re the grabbers. Got it?” Barnaby scratched his ear, a nervous habit. “Primrose,” Barnaby nodded to an older female raccoon nearly his own size. “You and me will be on the other side—we’re the scarers. Fred,” Barnaby glared at me, “you’re up in the oak on lookout. You wait until dinner’s cooking and the swag is out, got it?”
“Dinner cooking, swag out,” I repeated.
“Good,” Barnaby nodded as if he had just taught a cub how to wash its dinner. “You wait for the kid to get as far from the swag as possible and then you give the Signal.”
“Kid far away. Give the Signal.”
“Right,” Barnaby said. “Do you remember the Signal?”
Now he was being insulting—everyone knew the Signal. But I was in no position to quibble, so I gave it to him—a creaking groan that ends in a rattle. The Signal has begun every raccoon raid since we first discovered the walking, talking, tool-using food source called human beings. After all these years they still think it’s the wind in the trees.
“All right, raccoons,” Barnaby barked, “tonight is the night we get the Pop Tarts, fill our bellies, and laugh in Fulsom’s face! For once, we won’t be the laughingstock of the Wash!”
It was a terrible speech, but I have to hand it to Barnaby, he gave it his all. As I looked from raccoon to raccoon I saw eyes glittering with hope, where before I had seen only resignation. This was our chance to attend the Wash and not be the butt of every joke; a chance to no longer be the puddle in which every other raccoon washed its paws; a chance to rise from the mire of miserableness and achieve a low-level mediocrity. In short, if we beat Fulsom, we would come in second to last.
“Are we Barnaby’s Buccaneers?” Barnaby urged.
“We are!” we shouted.
“Will we get the Pop Tarts?” Barnaby yelled.
“We will!” we chorused.
“Will we screw up?” he howled.
“No!” we thundered.
Then we were off, hustling across the wind-swept beach and into the trees.
As Barnaby sprang past me, he growled: “Blow this and I’ll open you up.”
* * *
Gnarly Man Oak is a venerable tree whose roots command the soil between campsites 201 and 202 and whose branches overarch both. He’s a creaking, sly-humored fellow and an old friend of mine. As I scampered up his knotty hide, he rustled at me. Then he bent his branches to the wind and bobbed.
It was full dark now and I knew the humans could see nothing beyond the glow of their fires. As I reached the branch that overhangs 202 I slowed down. One false step and I would ruin the raid. I placed my paws carefully, making sure of every step. I saw the bright tongues of the fires from 201, 202, and 203. For some reason my tail ached, but I ignored it and concentrated. The complex aroma of humans—the tang of their skin, the stink of the fuel in their camp stoves, the peppery whiff of their food—made my whiskers quiver. Gnarly Man Oak chuckled beneath my paws as I crept along—he loved a good night raid. I ignored another jolt of discomfort from my tail. Nerves, I thought.
I whipped around and nearly fell. There was Frieda right behind me. She must have been yanking at my tail for some time.
“What?” I hissed as quietly as possible. “What are you doing up here? You’re supposed to be a grabber.
“I wanted to go with you,” she whispered.
I didn’t know what to say to that. I looked at her clever black eyes.
“Barnaby will kill you.”
“Not if we get the Pop Tarts.”
There was no time to argue. I needed to get into position as quickly as possible. “Come on then.”
As we crept along I scanned the campsite. Three humans, just as Jonesy said, two adults and one child. Pickup truck, tent, fire in fire pit—Ranger Gonzales would be pleased about that—picnic table, stove, pot, stew with . . . I sniffed . . . onions, carrots, greens, fish—wonderful! It needs tarragon, I thought, or even a splash of mustard. And crab, it definitely needed crab.
Frieda pulled my tail again.
“I’m casing the site,” I whispered, starting forward again. I had to keep my focus!
The man was behind the truck. The woman was cooking and talking to the boy at the table. And then I saw it—the swag. We were almost directly over a huge canvas bag stuffed with food. I counted three boxes of Pop Tarts, two loaves of bread and . . . could it be? It was Frieda’s vigorous tail-pulling that confirmed what my eyes were telling me. Peeping from beneath the bread was the top of a small white bag with part of its label showing. “Chesa,” was all I could see, but that was enough. I knew the rest. Pepperidge Farm Chesapeake cookies—dark chocolate and pecan—raccoon gold, raccoon manna, the end of the raccoon rainbow. That little bag alone might mean 23rd place or even, I hardly dared think it, 22nd place.
I looked at Frieda. Her eyes sparkled in her mask and her tongue poked out of her mouth.
Dinner cooking, swag out, I thought. Now I just need the kid to move away.
Movement caught my eye. Under the hidey-pine, eight eyes reflected the firelight. The grabbers were in place and no more than six feet from the swag. I looked across the campsite, but Barnaby and Primrose were not there yet.
I started creeping along the branch again, no easy task with Gnarly Man Oak bouncing his branch in every gust of wind. There was a comfortable crook directly above the center of the campsite. Frieda would not be so comfortable, but there was no helping that, the crook commanded the best view of the clearing, and besides, she had decided to come with me against Barnaby’s orders.
Just as I reached the crook there was a loud bang that made me jump. The man had slammed the pickup’s back door. I heard scrabbling behind me and looked around to see Frieda clinging to the branch. She gave me a weak grin. I glared at her.
The man walked around the truck carrying a guitar—a Martin HD-28 Standard Dreadnought Acoustic to be exact. Let me point out that I pride myself on being well-versed in the obscure field of human contraptions. I know a Ford Ranger from a Dodge Caravan and where the windows are located on each. I can tell you about each advancement in tent technology, from canvas to nylon to vinyl laminated polyester. Believe me, we raccoons applaud these “advancements.” Compared to the old Sears & Roebuck canvas fortress, these new tents part like peanut butter beneath our claws. On the other hand, these so-called “bear containers” for keeping food safe are a pain in our collective fuzzy butts. Confidentially, the Ursine 26 model has a design flaw that allows the lock to be compromised with a bit of expert jimmying.
But I digress. My point is that I've seen a lot of guitars, but this was something special.
“Play something, Daddy!” cried the child.
The man sat down on a log, bending his long torso around the Sitka spruce and rosewood body. He stroked the strings the way I might pet a cub and sound belled. Then both hands were moving and I suddenly understood what all the wailing campfire sing-alongs, all the tinny car radio caterwauling, were meant to be. The music transported me in memory to a pond I had fished with my mother when I was a cub. Waves of sound lapped the gentle sand in my mind. Notes darted out like silvery hatchlings or sparkled like the drops of water on my mother’s nose.
There was a pause, and I came to myself, still bobbing on the branch over Campsite 202. Now it was the man’s hands that captivated me. They moved independently yet in communion, reminding me of the mid-air mating dance of swallows. You must understand that we raccoons pride ourselves on our dexterity. But this man with his guitar was something different. His hands were performing an homage to agility, a paean to nimbleness, an ode to the opposable thumb.
Now the music turned vibrant and thrilling, putting me in mind of the Great Game, reminding me of the legendary heroes: Ten Trout Charlie, Burning Steak Bertha and crazy old Six Pack Sha-we, may he rest in peace.
Vaguely I was aware of the child wandering away from the fire and a simultaneous pain in my tail. But the music swooped and I imagined myself dropping from the trees as Burning Bertha had done, landing on a lit grill, snarling at the humans, purloining the largest, juiciest, sizzlingest steak and—
“Fred!” Frieda shouted directly in my ear.
She had stopped pulling my tail and crawled up onto my back to get my attention so that now we were both precariously balanced in the branch’s crook. I looked down and saw that the boy had wandered to the far side of the clearing. Hidden in a bush not two paces from him I could see Barnaby and Primrose, the scarers, in place and ready.
My mind felt sluggish as a muddy creek, the guitar notes still tugging at my attention. Dinner cooking, swag out, kid away, I thought, but what was I supposed to do? Suddenly I heard the eerie groaning of the Signal right in my ear. It was Frieda.
The boy stopped, the man ceased playing, and at last my mind was free. My voice joined Frieda’s, and the two of us rattled away like a couple of old tree branches complaining of age. Gnarly Man Oak took up the cry, thrilling to the call of the raid, shaking his leaves at the wind.
Barnaby and Rosebud shambled from the bushes, bunched fearsomely, their eyes shining red in the firelight. They screamed at the child, bearing their terrible teeth. The boy turned and his own scream rose shrill above the raccoons’.
Frieda and I clutched the bobbing branch and watched it all unfold fantastically according to plan. The man dropped his guitar, leaped across the clearing, and picked up the boy. He backed away from the scarers.
“Get away! Go away now!”
But Barnaby and Primrose stalked forward, hissing ferociously.
The man handed the child off to the woman and stepped in front of them.
Meanwhile the grabbers had surrounded the canvas bag. They managed to yank it off of the bench, but it was heavier than it looked, and it landed squarely on Jonesy’s tail. Jonesy didn’t make a sound as they pulled the bag off of him and started dragging it toward the underbrush.
At that moment I looked down and saw the neck of the guitar in the fire. “No!” I squealed, startling Frieda just as the wind kicked and Gnarly Man Oak gave our branch a tremendous bounce.
“Oh, no,” I heard Frieda whisper as she slid off my back. I grabbed for her, got a paw-full of fur, and then she grabbed for me and we both fell. On the way down my tail slapped the head of the woman who, still clutching the child, had backed up under our branch. We landed fortuitously short of the fire, but the woman turned around with a shriek.
“The food! They’ve got the food!”
I’m ashamed to say I did not even pause to assess how Frieda fared. I bolted for the bushes and ran right into the man’s leg as he sprinted toward the picnic table. I bounced at an angle and kept running. Suddenly, Jonesy was in my path, running hard with a box of chocolate Pop Tarts clenched in his teeth. We collided, I sprawling one way, he another, and the Pop Tarts yet a third direction. “No you don’t, you little thieves!” the man yelled. With a cry of anguish for his lost swag, Jonesy fled into the darkness. I too plunged into the dense undergrowth where I knew the humans could not follow.
And I kept running. I scampered between campgrounds, slowing through the bushes and accelerating when I came to open ground. “FAILURE!” The word screamed in my head, chasing me through the night like a hungry mountain lion. “FAILURE! FAILURE! FAILURE!”
I sprinted straight through every odd-numbered site from 109 through 89 which were closed for repair; skirted 35 where three dogs snuffled in their sleep; and barreled across 19, surprising six fishermen and causing one of them to drop his beer and his dinner of fried trout in the campfire. Then I was charging up the hill toward the lighthouse, the shouts of the angry fisherman, the laughter of his fellows, and the smell of trout, following me.
The hill was a struggle, its dirt loose and sandy, its grade steep. Tree roots emerged like the coils of serpents from a sandy sea, which I used to help pull myself along. Upwards I climbed, my tongue lolling, my body burning, the word “FAILURE!” pushing me relentlessly on.
I emerged at last beneath a wild rose. The bush barely stirred at my arrival, nodding sleepily, her night-breath faintly perfumed, her lavender flowers sagging.
I lay, panting. To my left was the expanse of concrete on which men had planted their lighthouse. Just then the great lamp pinned me with its blinding lidless wink. I felt exposed. I put my paws over my eyes.
I had let them down, my fellow raccoons. I had snatched away their hope and doomed them to another round of humiliation at the Wash. It seemed to me then that the Great Game was a cruel exercise and for the first time in my life I thought to hate it and to hate my life as a raccoon.
The light passed by, leaving me in the blessed and perfumed darkness. I got up and started down the road, away from the lighthouse, toward . . . I had no idea where I was going . . . toward whatever was away from the lighthouse.
The moon was low but still visible through the trees. To my left the road was a black slab. To my right the slope dropped quickly down to the campgrounds and beyond to the ocean. Mosquitoes whined overhead, droning their one-noted song of lust. I trotted past a row of ferns, fronds drooping to the ground. The wind gusted and the fronds rotated from the stalks, their tips describing a scallop shell pattern in the dirt. I heard the click of a claw on the pavement behind me.
I turned, growling, preparing to defend myself against Barnaby or worse—mountain lions had been known to take a raccoon, even in the open—only to find Frieda. She froze, her eyes wide in her mask.
“You scared me,” I said.
“You scared me!” she answered.
I thought you were Barnaby,” I said.
She sniffed at that, then lay down and rested her face on her front paws. But her intelligent eyes watched me and I began to feel uncomfortable.
“Where are you going?” she finally asked.
“That way.” I pointed down the road with my tail.
“I was worried about you. It wasn’t your fault, you know.”
“Yes, it was. I saw that guitar burning and I got upset and knocked you off the branch.”
“I wasn’t supposed to be up there in the first place,” Frieda said, looking miserable. “I didn’t follow orders.”
“Well, that’s true. But if it hadn’t been for you the Signal never would have been given. I got lost in the music.”
Frieda closed her eyes. She spoke, but too softly for me to hear.
“What did you say?”
“I said I got lost in the music too.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. It had never occurred to me that another raccoon might be interested in anything other than crayfish and night raids and Pop Tarts.
Frieda sighed and gave me a queer look. “Anyway, Gnarly Man Oak was laughing his leaves off, so I imagine we can blame him as much anyone else for the raid going bad.”
“Um. How mad is Barnaby?”
“Mad enough to rip out your guts and hang them from a tree. He said—
“Wait a minute, if you hung around to listen to Barnaby, how’d you catch up to me?
“There’s a culvert behind campsite 123, it’s half the distance and half as steep. I’ve actually been waiting for you.”
That irked me because I like to think I know the territory as well as any raccoon. “What in the world made you think I would come up here? And while we’re at it, why did you follow me?”
“I wanted to apologize, Fred, for messing up the raid. I just guessed you’d be here because you come up here a lot.”
“How would you know . . . ?”
Frieda looked away which is as close to a blush as a raccoon gets. I got it then. I admit it took me forever to figure it out, but you must understand that I was Freddy the Fool, the biggest screw-up in the biggest bunch of screw-ups on the entire coast. It had not occurred to me that such an intelligent and attractive raccoon as Frieda might find me interesting. It flustered me.
“Let’s go!” I said. I turned around and started trotting down the road. I felt ridiculous, but when I glanced over my shoulder Frieda was trotting behind me. That made me feel better until I realized that sooner or later she was going to ask where we were going and I had no idea.
“Where are we going?”
I rounded a curve in the gently sloping road.
“Shh.” I swept my tail to the left and Frieda quickly joined me.
“Where are we . . . oh.”
There was a truck parked on the side of the road.
“What are you—
Frieda sniffed. Her eyes sparkled. “Ham sandwich!”
I grinned. “With onions and Dijon. Let’s go.”
Wary of the rear-view mirrors, I steered us a bit down the slope, padding along until we were parallel with the truck. We snuck up and peered over the lip of the road. The truck was clear in the moonlight. It was medium-sized, with a square cargo-shell—old, clean, dented, and without advertising. Its passenger door was open and a pair of feet stuck out of from the seat. Light snoring. The engine was quiet and cool so the driver had been asleep for some time.
We looked at each other. Frieda stepped beneath the door, I climbed on her back, put my paws against the cab floor and looked in. Up on the seat I could see the man’s chest rising and falling. On the floor of the cab was a wooden tray with two legs. I could tell from the smell that the ham sandwich was on the tray.
There was another smell, a hint of something good that spurred me to pull myself up into the cab. The tray was set with much more care than any picnic table I have seen. In a white bowl nestled a scoop of potato salad. On a white side plate rested a brownie. In the center, a larger white plate cradled two ham sandwiches. They were fine-looking ham sandwiches—thinly sliced ham on light rye, with Swiss, mustard, lettuce, tomato, and onions spilling out the sides, each cut neatly into four equal triangles. A bottle of beer nestled in a beer-bottle-sized cavity carved into the tray. There was a candle and some matches, a cloth napkin, a golden pocket watch, a tattered copy of Hamlet, and a lavender rose next to it. Who is this man, I thought, who makes such thoughtful arrangements for such a pedestrian meal.
The watch ticked. I looked up. The man was staring at me.
I have often wondered why I did not run at that moment. It is, after all, the honorable, not to mention rational, thing to do, when you are caught with your paws near the food of a creature ten times your weight. Perhaps it was the lack of anger or fear on the man’s face. Perhaps I had had enough of running away for one evening. Perhaps I was just curious.
I could see the man’s eyes in the moonlight, blue as a fishing pool, his hair tousled curls of brown and gray. Age was beginning to make tracks across his face.
“You planning on making off with my supper?” he asked.
I stared, fascinated, horrified, arrested. He was talking to me. Of course, I could not answer. I understand human, but I can’t speak it.
“Look here, buddy. I’m hungry too. How about we split it?”
I looked at the sandwich, looked back at him. It seemed like a good deal, but humans are tricky and can be cruel.
There was a scrabbling and Frieda’s eyes appeared behind me. She took one look, squealed, and disappeared.
The man grinned. “Invite your girlfriend too.”
“She’s not my girlfriend!” I protested.
He shrugged. “I don’t understand raccoon. Why don’t you invite her up and we’ll have dinner.” The moon glided behind a cloud dousing the man’s face in shadow.
I looked out the door. Frieda stood, poised for flight, at the edge of the slope.
“He’s invited us to supper. What do you say?”
“I say youre crazier than a deer who dates headlights.”
“Oh, come on, Frieda. Think of the stories we can tell at the Wash! Besides, I’m ravenous. We’ll keep our backs to the open door and if he makes a move, we’ll flee.”
She sighed. “The things we’ll do for a ham sandwich. OK. Help me up.”
Once Frieda was in the cab, the man pulled his legs back and sat up. Lifting the tray onto the seat, he put one sandwich, half the potato salad, and the entire brownie on the big plate. He set it on the floor in front of us. He picked up a piece of his own sandwich and started to take a bite.
We stared at him.
“Oh! Raccoons. Of course. Where are my manners.”
He wiped the potato salad bowl clean, poured the water into it, and set it beside the big plate. As a final touch he set the rose floating in the bowl.
“Well, that was kind,” Frieda said as she washed her paws.
“Indeed,” I said. And even as I washed my paws, I noticed that the man dipping his own fingers into the water glass and rubbing them together, as polite as any raccoon.
So began a meal I will never forget; not for the fare, which was simple and delicious, but for the conversation.
“I live in Humptulips,” the man began. “Weird name for a town. People joke about it, you know, ‘if they do that to the tulips, the violets are in trouble.’ Anyway, I’ve been driving a truck for twenty-some years, the last five around here, and I hate it. I hate it.”
The man was staring at his sandwich as if he’d found something particularly repulsive in it.
“Why does he do something he hates?” Frieda asked.
I tasted the potato salad. “Sometimes I hate the Great Game.”
Frieda wiped away a bit of potato from my nose. “No, you don’t.”
“I’ve been with Kate for five years,” the man went on. “We . . . she . . . she’s got clever eyes, like you,” he said, nodding at Frieda. “And she looks, oh man, sometimes she wears my shirts and they, uh . . . we broke up tonight. She said she was sick of watching me waste my life and that if I wanted to keep listening to country-western and shaking up my spleen like a milkshake and dragging in the stink of failure, then I could just go . . . jump in a lake.”
“Oh, I advise against it,” I offered.
“Absolutely,” Frieda agreed, “getting your paws wet is one thing, but—
“Never heard a screen door slam so hard,” the man said, picking up the beer.
“He’s in love,” Frieda said, eyeing me around her sandwich.
“She’s thrown him out of the den,” I pointed out.
“Sounds to me like he ran away,” she said. “He could have stood up for himself.”
“She’s right,” the man said. “Kate’s right. The guy who runs these trucks out of Aberdeen, oh, he’s a piece of work. No overtime, double shifts, no bennies, no vacation, no sick leave, nothing. He doesn’t even maintain the trucks unless they die on the highway. But it’s not worth anybody’s while to run their own fleet in these two-bit towns, and there’s always losers like me willing to shut up and drive for the minimum.”
I piped up then, forgetting that he could not understand me. “Don’t humans have a Great Game?”
Frieda snickered at that, but the man looked at me seriously. He opened the beer and poured it in the glass.
“You see this table?” he indicated the wooden tray. “I made this. Look here, a place for your beer or pop or coffee so it won’t spill. And check this out. If you take the legs off you can hook your passenger belt through these holes. Now you’ve got a secure surface while you’re driving. And the whole thing breaks down and stores flat under your seat.”
“He doesn’t sound like a loser to me,” Frieda remarked. She was washing a piece of ham in the water bowl.
“No,” I agreed. “And I should know.”
Frieda looked at me sharply. “What do you mean by that?”
I nodded out the door at the moon. “The Wash is about to start. They’ll have all heard by now. Every raccoon on the coast will be laughing at me. Worse yet, I ran away. Now I’m not only a fool, but a coward as well. You should not have followed me, Frieda.”
“Here’s the best part,” the man went on. He reached over our heads, opened the glove compartment and retrieved a stuff sack. “Kate designed this. See? Your silver, napkins, and glass all go in here—everything fits like a charm. Now me, I figured truck drivers wouldn’t go for it, but you know what? I made five of these trays and each guy who bought one wanted the whole package. I guess it’s the right combination of useful, clever, and just a touch of home.”
“You’re not a failure, Fred,” Frieda said.
“So me and Kate, we’re going into business. We were gonna build and sell these trays at truck stops and the like.”
“Frieda, I’m the worst of the worst.”
“So we gave ourselves two weeks,” the man said, “to come up with a name for our company and whatever other ideas—
“Fred, your ideas are always good. You’re fast, a good climber, you know humans, but—
“—two weeks go by and I can tell Kate’s working hard but I . . . I don’t know what I did. I got distracted.”
“—you get distracted, Fred. And I think you do it on purpose.”
“It’s on purpose. Because I’m afraid of failing—of Kate seeing me fail. And, even worse, I’m afraid of succeeding. I mean, what if these things really sell and we’re making money and Kate’s relying on me to come through—
“What do you mean, ‘on purpose,’ Frieda?”
“I mean, I think you use your smarts as a shield. You let yourself get distracted by the moon or the ocean because you’re afraid of just how good you might be if you paid attention.”
“So I show up to our meeting and she’s got these great ideas and I’ve got nothing. ‘Just give me a name,’” Kate said. “‘Just one name for our company. Because if you’ve left this all up to me, I don’t want you here.’”
“Frieda, I can’t help the way I am!”
“Yes, you can, Fred. Someday you’re going to be a legend in the game. I believe in you.”
“‘Give me a name for the company or get out of the house.’”
“Raccoonware!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, because I just couldn’t stand the two of them going on anymore. “Name your company ‘Raccoonware!’ Now, would everyone please shut up!”
For a moment there was silence. Frieda and the man stared at me. I felt odd, different, changed. I caught the elusive, friendly scent again, and though I could not identify it, I recognized what was different. Since the raid, shame had throbbed within my breast, but now my heart felt clear as a standing pool.
“Frieda, you’re right. I’m frightened to succeed. I’ll go back to the Wash tonight. I will stand up to the insults with my tail straight and my head high. And then—
“Raccoonware!” the man said. A slow smile spreading across his face. “Raccoonware! It’s so simple. I’ve been lying here thinking of stupid stuff like ‘Trucker’s Treasures’ when all along—
“And then?” Frieda prompted.
“And then I’m going to start playing the Great Game with a passion. I’ve got ideas, Frieda. And if Barnaby doesn’t like them I’ll start my own troop. We’ll recruit a bunch of young, smart raccoons like you—
“Racoonware,” the man was chuckling. “Kate will love it. Now all I need is a logo everyone can recognize.”
“Shall I help him out?” I asked Frieda.
She grinned and nodded.
I reached out and pressed my paw into the brownie. It left a deep and unmistakable imprint.
The man started laughing. “That’s it! Perfect!” He reached a long arm out and picked up the brownie plate. “Oh, man, you are good!”
“I like your style,” Frieda said to me.
“Shall we go to the Wash and take our licks?” I asked.
“Yes. And thank you for a lovely dinner, Fred.”
We said our goodbyes to the man and started to leave.
“No, no, wait! You haven’t had dessert.” He looked chagrined. “But, the thing is, I need this brownie, to bring back to Kate, because otherwise she won’t believe all this. So, I’m thinking . . .”
We watched the idea blossom in his eyes. “I’ll take the brownie,” he said, holding up a set of keys. “You take the truck.”
* * *
Driving a truck was not nearly the mysterious art I had supposed it to be. The man had pulled the seat forward as far as possible and strapped the tray onto the driver’s seat. Standing on the tray, I could just see over the dashboard. The night-bound road looked strange in the wash of the headlights. I felt like some gigantic bear, with moons for eyes, prowling the road for food.
Frieda was on the floor, supervising the brake and accelerator pedals. Fortunately, we had had no use for either as the truck bumped gently down a slight decline.
“Are we close?” Frieda yelled from the floor.
“I think so. It’s hard to tell.”
“Oh, Fred, this is so exciting.”
“I know.” I couldn’t help grinning. It had taken the man some time to convince us to take the truck.
“I’ll hitchhike back,” he said. “I’ve got to show up without the truck to convince Kate that I’m serious. I'll just tell my boss the brakes went out and I quit. C’mon, haven’t you ever wanted to drive a truck?”
What finally convinced us was the thought of bringing the truck to the Great Wash. My plan was to park at the bottom of the decline, which should put us about 100 yards up the hill from the raccoon gathering. It was not yet midnight. If we got there in time, maybe the truck would count in our troop’s score. How much was a truck worth? As far as we knew, no raccoon had ever stolen a truck before.
“Imagine their faces,” I chortled.
We hit a pothole but the truck just bounced through it and kept rolling.
“Pay attention to the road.” Frieda sounded nervous.
“Don’t worry,” I said. Even this far away I could smell the water through the open driver’s window. “This is it.” I turned the wheel slowly and the truck rolled toward the shoulder.
“All right, Frieda, apply the brakes.”
I was starting to turn the wheel back when the truck lurched forward.
“No, no, the brakes!” I yelled. But it was too late. We shot across the shoulder and hit the shallow ditch that separates road from hill.
I was flung straight up, came back down on the wheel, and tumbled onto the tray. I flattened out and dug my claws into the wood. I could see Frieda below me trying to get up off the floor.
“Get the brake!” I yelled.
“I’m trying,” she shot back.
Somehow I managed to get my paws back on the steering wheel. The headlights revealed a rush of wildly jolting shadows and branches battering the windshield. I thought I saw a stand of trees off to the left so I pulled on the wheel, hoping to ram them, hoping for anything that might slow our headlong plunge. But the wheel fought me and the trees rushed past.
“Got it!” Frieda yelled. She must have jumped on the brake then because I hit the windshield. It hurt. Then I was flung back down onto the tray as we started moving again.
“Bear scat!” Frieda yelped, pouncing on the brake again. I shot to the floor, landing square on the accelerator pedal, which flattened underneath me.
After that we had no more choice in our destiny.
I once watched a bear roll a beehive down a hill. I imagine the bees must have felt very much as Frieda and I did slamming about the cab of that runaway truck. In a matter of seconds I was bruised and bloodied.
Then we hit something hard. The truck leaned and leaned and then fell, dropping both of us on the passenger door. For one strange moment I looked up through the open driver’s window and saw stars wheeling.
But it was the truck that was turning—sliding and spinning on its side down the hill. The cargo shell boomed. Tree trunks screamed and snapped. A thousand lesser branches cracked as easily as mouse bones in a coyote’s jaws.
Then the truck plowed to a firm but gentle stop. Quiet descended. I smelled sap and mud and something else—the familiar and elusive scent I had come to associate with the truck.
“Are you all right?” I asked Frieda.
She stretched out all four legs. “I’m OK. You?”
“Nothing broken,” I replied.
Frog song cut through the quiet, and then, rising like a tide, the voices of raccoons. Lots of raccoons. Shouting at the top of their lungs.
I looked at Frieda. “What an entrance, huh?”
“If no one’s hurt,” she said grimly.
I had not considered that possibility. Together we climbed up the seat. My entire left side ached and Frieda was limping. We pulled ourselves out of the window and onto the side of the truck.
Below us, moon sparkled across the Wash and glittered in the eyes of hundreds of raccoons. They stopped their racket immediately and turned their masks to stare at us. We stared back.
“Was anyone hurt?” Frieda asked.
“Are you kidding?” The voice came from a branch above us. Eight junior raccoons had found a perfect roost. “We heard you coming all the way down,” one youngster said. “Everyone got clear.”
I heard Frieda sigh with relief.
“You up there!”
I looked down. A space had cleared around the truck and five raccoons had filled it. They were gray and formidable, every one, and they sat in the mud at the edge of the Wash with an authority befitting their station. They were the five judges of the Great Game.
Behind them, Barnaby crouched in the water, splay-legged, open-mouthed and gawping. His fur was ruffled and he had a gash on one haunch. The Wash had been unkind to him.
The oldest of the judges, Weekah Tegalega, fixed me with his one good eye.
“Fred, you’ve got a truck.”
“Is there a driver in there?”
“No, sir. Frieda and I drove the truck.”
Everyone all started shouting at once.
“Fred,” Weekah Tegalega said, when the noise subsided. “Is it not customary to drive a truck on its tires?”
That set everyone laughing, but the ancient judge cut them off.
“Why do you bring a truck here?”
I looked at Frieda. She smiled.
“We enter it in the Great Game,” I said, loud enough for every raccoon to hear. “No raccoon has ever brought a truck to the Game. We of Barnaby’s Buccaneers wish to make a statement. We will no longer suffer being last. We are strong and clever and ambitious. We are players in the Great Game!”
There was an uproar then which the elders waited out.
“You are just in time to be counted.” Weekah Tegalega turned to Barnaby. “Did you sanction this raid, Barnaby?”
Poor Barnaby was at a loss. He brought a hind leg up to scratch his ear, then forgot to scratch, leaving the leg in the air. He was clearly trying to decipher whether the truck was his chance for glory, or if fate had decided to make him not just a laughingstock for the night, but for all time.
“He’s going to disavow us,” Frieda whispered. I could see it too in his posture. But just as he opened his mouth, Fulsom yelled: “You’re a loser, Barnaby. Always will be.”
“Yeah, I ordered the raid,” Barnaby growled.
Fulsom stepped out from the crowd.
“I object,” he said to the elders. “It’s a truck. What kind of swag is a truck? You can’t eat it.”
“Enough,” Weekah Tegalega said. “The truck has been brought in time. The judges will decide.”
They huddled together right there in the mud. The wind had died and the moon set. A legion of stars peered down from the mask of the night. Hundreds of raccoon eyes glowed across the Wash.
I looked at Frieda. For the first time I noticed the snowy white of her muzzle and how it contrasted with her mask.
“Whatever happens,” I whispered, “I think you and I make a great team.”
She said nothing. But as she turned to look out at the judges I felt her tail wrap around mine.
Weekah Tegalega’s voice carried surprisingly in the stillness. “The Great Game was conceived to sharpen our minds and paws so that we would not go hungry. Fulsom is right. We cannot eat this hunk of metal. So while we commend the bravery and cunning of Fred and Frieda, let it be known that a truck does not count in—
Just then Jonesy came tearing around from the back of the truck with a white bag in his mouth. He skidded to a halt in front of the elders and dropped the bag in the mud. Then he ducked his head in his nervous way, backed up, stepped forward, touched the bag with his nose, and sat down.
“What is it, Jonesy?” Weekah Tegalega was irritated. “It is time to announce the winners and begin the Wash. I’m hungry. Make it quick.”
“It’s a bag of Pepperidge Farm Chesapeake cookies, is what it is,” Jonesy squeaked. He looked nervously about, glancing up at us and smirking. It was at that moment I placed the smell in the truck.
“Well, what of it, Jonesy. A bag of cookies won’t help you catch Fulsom.”
“No,” Jonesy said. “But a thousand bags will. The truck is full of them.”
What followed was the longest moment of pure silent wonder I have ever known. And then chaos.
I suppose the rest is obvious. We not only surpassed Fulsom for 24th place, but came in first. Our troop were all heroes and Barnaby was the toast of the Wash. He surprised us when, in front of the elders and all raccoons, he gave Frieda and I full credit. Not only that, but he gave every single raccoon at the Wash two bags of cookies. They were delicious.
This story was inspired by a real raccoon incidenta dazzling bait-and-switch operation that was very nearly successful.