Wearing his bandit mask, Jesse James stole our hearts

When we looked at the baby raccoon, two intense black eyes looked at us

When we looked at the baby raccoon, two intense black eyes looked at us

“Holy cow, there’s 20 pounds of dynamite,” a guy said as I carried a massive, snarling raccoon into the veterinarian’s exam room. Well, it was actually 40 pounds of dynamite. You want to talk about a brawl …!

Baby Jesse James came to us months before in a cardboard box. The first thing I saw when I peeked in was a little black ball of a nose; next was a pair of intense black eyes, peering out of an equally black “Lone Ranger” mask. The little fellow was the size of a softball.

He was a sweet baby and a great buddy through his teenage months. He loved people, but his greatest affection was for our resident assassin, a panther-size Siamese cat, who hated him. Jesse would waddle up to the cat, pay no attention to the slashing claws that had lacerated many a dog, and throw a bear hug on the hissing creature. One time while clasped together, they rolled off the four-foot porch with the cat landing on the bottom.

Jesse always wanted to go with us in the car. We usually couldn’t take him, so we would hang him in a tree (we lived in the forest near Sturgis, S.D.) and race away before he could get down.

We didn’t cage Jesse after he was a month or so old, but let him run free; he had his own little house on the porch where he could come and go as he pleased. We knew that when he grew up he would go wild and wanted him to be prepared.

We locked up our own house because we feared he would get in and damage something. One day we returned to find a door left open, and fearing the worst went inside.

There was Jesse, sitting in a pile of the baby’s toys, playing with a little firetruck. Nothing else had been touched. After that, he came in whenever he wished, always on the lookout for a snack or his beloved cat.

Summer wore on and the ravenous raccoon grew at a rapid pace; when autumn arrived, he was pushing 20 pounds. As the days shortened he would stay away for longer and longer periods, until, finally, he was gone for good. Or so we thought.

One dark evening shortly after Thanksgiving, we heard a scratching at the glass door, and there was a huge raccoon. Was it Jesse? We were not sure because this animal was so much bigger than our masked friend. He came in and we offered him a bit of breakfast cereal, which he crammed into his mouth. Yes, it was our boy, and when I petted him, I withdrew a bloody hand. We turned him over and saw the poor creature had been ripped open from end to end. No guts were protruding, but it was severe and needed treatment were he to live.

We locked him in his little house and the next morning raced to our veterinarian, Charlie Meiner. Jesse and I walked through the waiting area and directly into the treatment room.

“Holy cow, there’s 20 pounds of dynamite,” a guy said as Jesse, now alarmed, started to fight. Once in the room, we slapped him on the scale and he turned out to be 40 pounds of fat, clawing, snapping dynamite.

Onto the table he went, off of the table he leaped onto a countertop of jars and bottles that crashed down, glass and cue-tips exploding in every direction.

The masked miscreant fell writhing to the floor, Charlie and I trying to corner him. Charlie was wearing heavy gloves, yet Jesse bit him hard enough to make his fingers ache. We finally wedged Jesse into a corner and Charlie plunged in a syringe.

Jesse relaxed and fell into a deep slumber while the vet went to work with needle and thread. It took more than 100 stitches to put Jesse back together. Charley figured a coyote probably got him.

The stitchery done, Charlie pumped Jesse full of antibiotics and pain meds, and while he was at it, shot him up with assorted vaccinations against future diseases.

Shall I pick him up in the morning, I asked, figuring they would want to keep an eye on him through the night.

“Lord, no.” Charlie said. “My girls don’t want that animal in here a second longer than he has to be. Take him home, and you better drive fast before he wakes up.”

I raced the 20 miles home and was able to lock Jesse in his house before he regained full consciousness.

We kept him there for several weeks, feeding him heavily all the while. When he was released, his wounds had healed beautifully — he was jolly and friendly and fatter than ever — and then he left us. Never to return.

I like to think he lived a long life and was daddy to generations of little masked bandits. I wonder at the bond that grew between wild Jesse James and us — when he was hurt, he knew where to come for help.

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