Carter McCall never considered himself much of one for company until this Christmas, when the familiarity of a house full of people during the holidays was completely absent. Years past, he would make token appearances at the family gatherings at his and Eliza’s home. He’d perform the patriarchal honor of carving the turkey and would crowd in with everyone for the annual group photo. But by dessert time, he’d stow away in his bedroom, content to read or lounge in his rocking chair by the window, staring out at the Texas night sky.
Eliza passed a decade ago. One by one the kids and grandkids moved away. His brothers and sisters gamely continued the holiday traditions until he’d outlived them all. This year, there was no one and Carter felt… hollow.
The microwave dinged, announcing the bowl of reheated chili was ready. As he made his way to the kitchen he turned around the family pictures lining the walls. The smiling faces pained him, reminders of people long gone and better times long past. He opened the refrigerator and rubbed his hand over week-old chin stubble as he considered his options. He settled on a Corona.
Chilli and beer for Christmas dinner. Even at ninety, there were still a few firsts left in life.
Raising the bottle to no one in particular, he said, “Guess it’s down to me to turn out the lights.”
Outside the wind picked up. The creaking timbers of the house nearly masked the soft click of pawsteps on the porch, but Carter’s hearing was as sharp as it had been in his prime. His face reddened and he placed his bottle on the counter soundlessly.
“Damn varmints,” he said. Coyotes had plagued the ranch since his great-grandfather’s time. No matter how many traps they set or how much poisoned meat they’d left out, the coyotes persisted. Even with the last of the livestock sold off long ago, they still came slinking around.
Carter lifted the Mossburg from the mantle rack and slipped toward the door. He listened. The coyote was moving around on the porch. Carter jerked open the front door and leveled the shotgun, finger on the trigger.
It was a bitch and she was clearly very pregnant. Startled, she darted sideways and stumbled into a pile of Eliza’s hanging fern pots that had never been cleared away. The wires tangled around the coyote’s legs and she flopped on one side, struggling to worm her way free.
Carter fired high off the mark and only succeeded in splintering the railing and pickets with buckshot. The coyote surged forward, one of the pots still tangled around her neck, and scurried into the night.
Carter racked another round into the chamber and tried to get a fix on the coyote, but she was gone. He stood motionless for several minutes, frozen breath fogging the rear sight of the shotgun, straining to hear anything past the ringing in his ears. He was about to give up when he heard a distant yip. Then another.
He went back inside, grabbed a flashlight and put a leather duster jacket before trudging out into the cold. He followed the yips, more persistent now, until he found them. Three pups writhing on the frozen grass. The bitch must have whelped them on the run.
He had half a mind to let nature finish the job. It was twenty below, maximum.
“Hell’s bells, it’s Christmas,” he said. He laid the shotgun on the ground and scooped the pups up in his hands.
He crinkled his nose, clutched the squirming animals to his chest and hurried back inside. Eliza had kept an old rubber water bottle and cardboard box handy for baby birds she rescued every spring. He dug them out from a cabinet under the sink. After fixing a nest for the pups, he went back outside to get his gun.
The cougar blindsided him just as he stepped off the porch.
Must have smelled the pups. The thought passed through his mind as tumbled through the air, flashlight flying. Carter threw a protective arm across his neck and tried to scramble to his feet, but the cougar latched onto his calf and jerked him to the ground. The heavy mass of the animal pressed him down, its teeth tearing at his arm to get to his throat. He punched at the cat’s head with his free hand and tried to jab at its eye, but only succeeded in nearly getting his fingers bitten off for his trouble.
Suddenly, the cougar hissed and spun off him. Carter groaned and rolled sideways to see the big cat squared off with the coyote bitch, her mouth full of fur and meat where she’d taken a chunk out of the cougar’s hindquarters. Carter wiped blood from his eyes. He could make out his shotgun a few feet in front of him. By good fortune, his flashlight had landed with the beam like a beacon pointing the way. He scrambled across the ground on all fours, the snarls of the two animals intensifying as they locked together, tooth and claw.
He shouldered the Mossberg and swiveled around. The cougar had the coyote pinned and was savaging her stomach. He drew a bead and fired, racked a new round in the chamber, and fired again.
He’d need a doctor and a new coat, but that could wait.
He dribbled a few drops of warm milk from a rag onto his wrist. It’d cooled enough for to be safe for the pups. After some coaxing with about a half pound of jerky, mamma coyote had finally settled on the pile of towels in front of the fireplace and was gingerly licking her wounds. She’d live, but after the damage done by the cougar, she wouldn’t be nursing anytime soon.
“Suppose I’m getting company after all,” Carter said. The pup curled in his hand sucked on the milk soaked rag. “Merry Christmas, varmints.”
J.C. Towler feels it is silly to write bios in the 3rd person unless one is British Royalty, which he is not.