A Western Christmas(9)

By: Renee Ryan and Louise M. Gouge

She soon discovered that most of the boys and girls were familiar with the tune that accompanied the song “What Child Is This?” But they were shaky on the words. Repetition would be the key to their success, besides keeping to a single verse, maybe two if they learned the first one quickly.

She sang the first two lines then had the boys and girls repeat after her. “Well-done,” she praised. “Let’s try that again.”

On the second time through, she looked over at Kate with the other children. A quick headcount told her that one of the older boys had disappeared from the group. She was just about to alert her friend to the problem when Brody Driscoll reappeared, a mischievous grin on his face.

Ellie’s heart dipped. She’d seen that look on too many young faces not to recognize that trouble lay but a heartbeat away.

Proving her gloomy forecast accurate, a frightened female screech cut through the children’s singing, which was followed by several more shrieks—also female.

Ellie sighed as the girls, still screaming at the top of their lungs, scrambled away from Brody. They hopped up on the pews, dancing from foot to foot.

The older boys howled with collective laughter.

Kate, her face drained of color, eyes filled with panic, called for Ellie’s assistance. “Come quick!”

Ellie tried not to sigh again. But really, how disappointing. Everything had been going so well up till now.

“Stay here.” She quickly rose to her feet.

With a hand gesture, she indicated Kate join her in the middle of the church. “Tell me,” she whispered.

Kate hissed two monosyllabic, oh-so-troubling words. “Dead. Mouse.”

But of course.

At least Brody hadn’t brought in a live rodent. That would have brought a whole separate set of issues, namely chasing down the scurrying creature.

Stifling a grin—because, well, boys were after all boys—Ellie bypassed the screaming girls and shoved into the gang of laughing boys, who were taking turns slapping Brody on the back.

A quick glance to the floor and, sure enough, the dead mouse lay poised on its back, claws up, head lolled to one side.

Ellie disregarded the boys pressing in around her and focused solely on Brody Driscoll. He was a good-looking kid, probably about eleven or twelve years old, with dark, wavy hair and eyes nearly the same color.

He held her gaze almost defiantly, but Ellie saw the desperation beneath the bravado, as if he was determined to get a rise out of her and yet afraid he’d get exactly that.

Face blank, eyes still locked with the boy’s, she leaned over and picked up the mouse by the tail. “I believe this belongs to you?”

Brody’s earlier boldness faltered.

“I...” He glanced at his friends, all still snickering, then, emboldened once again, jerked his chin at her. “Maybe it’s mine and maybe it isn’t.”

More snickers from the other boys. She’d expected no less.

Just as Ellie opened her mouth to respond, a deep, masculine voice cut her off. “Outside, Mr. Driscoll. And bring your rat with you.”

Ellie spun around, her gaze connecting with Caleb’s. Except he was no longer the Caleb she knew. He was big bad Sheriff Voss, the dedicated lawman who kept order in Thunder Ridge. The man nobody challenged, especially not a mischievous boy at a children’s play rehearsal.

Ellie tried to gain Caleb’s attention, to let him know she had the situation under control, but his gaze was locked with Brody’s. “I said outside, now.”

Shoulders slumped, Brody took the mouse from Ellie’s fingers and headed toward the exit, Caleb one step behind.

No. Oh, no, no. Although sweet and certainly well-meaning, Ellie could not let Caleb rescue the situation. Yet she couldn’t question his authority in front of the children, either.

A quandary to be sure, but Ellie needed the children to know she was in charge.

She trotted after Caleb and Brody, caught up with them in the vestibule. “Cale—I mean, Sheriff Voss.” She gripped his sleeve. “A quick word, if you please.”

* * *

Caleb hesitated at the warmth that spread from Ellie’s fingers, past his coat and straight into his forearm. “Now? You want to speak to me, now?”

“Yes, Caleb. Now.”

Also By Renee Ryan and Louise M. Gouge

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