A Down-Home Country Christmas

BOOK: A Down-Home Country Christmas
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A Down-Home Country Christmas

A Whisper Horse Novella

 

 

By

Nancy Herkness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Car Press

 
 
A Down-Home Country Christmas

© Copyright 2014 Nancy Herkness

 

All Rights Reserved

 

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

 

Welcome to Sanctuary, West Virginia!

 

 

Holly Snedegar and Robbie McGraw made their original appearance as secondary characters in my first Whisper Horse novel,
Take Me Home.
Holly’s struggle to escape from an abusive marriage plays a significant part in the plotline of that book, and many readers felt she deserved to have a happy ending of her own. So here it is! Her name cued my Muse to make it a Christmas story, especially since Holly has two young children, and we all know how magical the holiday season is for kids.

For those who have read my three Whisper Horse novels already, go to the Author’s Note at the end of this novella if you’d like to know where Holly and Robbie’s story fits in chronologically with the series.

If you haven’t yet read the series, you might want to hold off on reading the Epilogue to this novella since it shows you the future of the characters from prior stories. You can catch up by reading the three full-length Whisper Horse novels, which are, in order:

 

Take Me Home

Country Roads

The Place I Belong

 

And now, enjoy the holidays in the mountains of West Virginia!

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

“Mama, wake up! There’s something big sleeping in the gazebo.”

The bed shook under Holly. She opened her eyes to see her daughters Brianna and Kayleigh sitting on either side of her, dressed in their princess pajamas. She could see them in the light spilling into the dark room from the hallway. She glanced at the clock and groaned inwardly. It was 6:12 a.m.

“Big? In the gazebo?” Holly struggled up onto her elbows as her younger daughter Kayleigh bounced on the bed again, her long braid flopping over her shoulder. Holly stretched out and flicked on the bedside light.

“I saw it when Snowball meowed to go out.” Brianna’s brown eyes were wide with apprehension. She tended to take life more seriously than her nine-year-old sister. “I think it’s a bear.”

“A bear!” Holly bolted upright. It was December, so bears were supposed to be hibernating in their cozy dens in the Appalachian Mountains surrounding Sanctuary. If one was in the midst of the closely set houses of her neighborhood instead, there was something seriously wrong with the poor creature, and it would be dangerous. “You didn’t let Snowball out, did you?”

Brianna shook her head. “No, ma’am.”

Holly wriggled out from under the patchwork quilt and scooted off the bed. “Let’s get the binoculars.”

Pulling on her robe, she jogged down the hall to the closet, groping around on the top shelf to find the worn leather strap of her father’s old binoculars case. She tugged at it, almost clonking herself on the head as the heavy case slid to the edge and tipped off the shelf.

The two girls trailed behind her as she trotted past the Christmas tree, setting several ornaments tinkling as she brushed against a branch. She halted at the sliding door that looked over her patio and the backyard where the wooden gazebo nestled amid drifts of snow, icicles dangling from the eaves of its black shingled roof. The exterior lights on her house threw deep shadows in a line of tracks churned through the snow. They came from the neighbor’s backyard and proceeded right up the snow-covered steps of the gazebo. Her girls were right; something big, dark, and furry was hunkered down in their otherwise empty summertime shelter.

This was one of those times when being a single parent was tough. Had her ex-husband Frank still been around, she would gladly have sent him out to handle the bear. Maybe it would have done her a favor and eaten him.

Now she had to deal with the fearsome creature alone. She lifted the glasses to her eyes and twisted the dial, bringing the animal’s blurred outline into focus. Thank goodness she had installed safety lighting after Frank’s abrupt departure. At least she could see in the pre-dawn darkness.

A quick scan of the dark shape and she dropped the binoculars to hang around her neck, slumping against the chilly glass in relief. “It’s a donkey,” she said, grateful the animal’s head was in the opening so she could see its long ears and spikey mane.

“A donkey! Let’s go see it!” Kayleigh raced toward the kitchen where their coats and boots hung in the mudroom by the back door.

Tension tightened Holly’s shoulders. She almost wished it had been a bear; then she could have called the police and stayed indoors without embarrassment.

However, there was no excuse for not handling the donkey on her own, even though donkeys had big teeth just like the horse that had hurt her when she was eight years old. The adults had shown her how to balance a horse treat on her flattened palm. They’d told her the horse was gentle and wouldn’t hurt her. Then it tore a chunk out of her thumb and stomped its foot on the side of her sneaker, breaking her little toe and betraying her trust in both the horse and the adults. After that she decided a dog was as big an animal as she wanted to go near.

“Sweetie, we don’t know if it’s a nice donkey or a mean donkey.” Holly lifted the binoculars again to examine her nemesis. At least it was wearing a halter, so if she got close enough she could grab it. A fist of panic closed around her throat at the thought of putting her hand near those teeth.

“Mama, we have to catch it,” Brianna said, her voice tight with worry. “It might try to cross the highway and get hit by a car.”

Holly sighed. She was enough of a country girl to know you didn’t leave valuable livestock wandering loose. The fact that her two daughters were soft-hearted animal lovers just added to the necessity of corralling the lost donkey. She lowered the binoculars and tried to ignore the flutter of nerves making her stomach lurch. “Right. I’ll just get dressed and go out and grab it.”

She sent the girls off to gather carrots and a rope, and put their school clothes on. Heading back to her bedroom, she yanked on jeans, a sweatshirt, and some warm socks before she went to the mudroom to add boots and a jacket. As she pulled her gloves on, she noticed her hands were trembling.

Her sister Claire would be able to handle this. She knew a lot more about horse-like animals than Holly did. Like Brianna, Claire believed in whisper horses. She honestly thought they were special creatures you could tell your problems to, and who would help you carry the burden—although Claire’s horse Willow had sure helped Brianna through the ugliness with Frank, so maybe it wasn’t a crazy idea after all.

Truth be told, sometimes Holly wished she had a whisper horse to talk to. Parenting alone was such a juggling act; she had days where she didn’t think she could keep all the balls in the air for another second. Glancing at the kitchen clock, she calculated she had forty-nine spare minutes to get the donkey situation wrapped up before she had to get herself and the girls ready to go to school. Thank goodness her daughters had awakened her so early. She couldn’t afford to lose her job as the school receptionist, and coming in late would be a large black mark against her.

“Here are the rope and the carrots, Mama,” Brianna said.

“Thanks, sweetie.” Holly was embarrassed by the quaver in her voice and made a show of dropping the baby carrots into one pocket before she tied the end of the rope in a loop she hoped she would be able to slip over the donkey’s head.

“Once you catch it, can we come out to the gazebo?” Kayleigh asked, reappearing in the pink corduroys and sparkly princess sweater she’d chosen for today’s school outfit.

“If it’s a nice donkey, you can.” Taking a deep breath, Holly slid open the door. “Okay, I’m going out to catch the donkey now.” She swallowed hard and stepped outside, pushing the door shut behind her without taking her eyes off the dark shape in the gazebo.

The snow was a thin layer close to the house but within a few feet Holly was sinking in up to the top of her knee-high boots. She cast a quick glance behind her to see her girls with their faces and hands pressed to the glass of the slider as they watched her from the warmth and safety of the house.

Turning back to the gazebo, she squared her shoulders. She wanted to show her daughters a strong, courageous woman instead of the scared, submissive coward Frank had brainwashed her into thinking she was. If she could stand up to her abusive ex-husband, she could face a tame donkey.

She was halfway to the gazebo when the donkey swiveled its head around to watch her, its long, fuzzy ears tipped forward. Fear crawled up her spine, and she gave a little stutter step before she forced herself to keep going.

As she got closer, the donkey stretched its neck out to sniff in her direction. Even through her dread, she had to admit it was a pretty thing, with a white nose, dark eyeliner around big liquid eyes, and huge ears outlined in deep brown with white hair inside. But it still had sharp teeth and crushing hooves.

She stopped at the bottom of the steps, shifting the rope to her left hand and rummaging around in her pocket for a carrot with her right.

“Nice little donkey,” she said. Her voice cracked, so she cleared her throat. “Are you hungry? I have a treat for you.” She held out the carrot on her palm, exactly the way she’d been told was safe, but wasn’t.

Putting her foot on the first step, she bent forward with her hand outstretched to offer the carrot. The iced-over snow crackled beneath her boot. “I’m here to help you.”

Her heart began to pound and her hand shook so hard she was afraid the carrot would roll off, as the donkey pushed out its lips to nibble the treat off the flat of her glove. She forced herself not to pull away as the donkey crunched the treat between its giant, square teeth.

Holly took another carrot out of her pocket and held it out while she slid her other foot up to the next step. One more and she would be able to grab the halter.

The donkey surged to its feet, its hooves scraping and thudding on the wooden floor. Terror spiked though her and Holly jerked backwards. Her boots slipped on the icy snow coating the steps and she felt herself falling backwards, her arms pinwheeling in an unsuccessful attempt to keep her balance. As she flew through the air, she made herself go limp in an effort to not break anything.

Her back hit first, sinking through the snow and whomping against the frozen ground. Her breath whooshed out of her, and she lay gasping like a fish on the riverbank, her gaze on the star-sprinkled sky overhead.

As she battled to get oxygen back into her lungs, the stars were blocked out by a dark silhouette with long ears. She felt the tickle of warm, grassy breath and stiff whiskers on her face as the donkey snuffled at her. Horror scrabbled at her chest, and she tried to roll away from the terrifying teeth but she couldn’t move. Her body was focused on getting her lungs to function.

“Mama! Mama!” Brianna’s voice came nearer with each word. Holly could hear her crunching through the icy snow.

She tried to call out to reassure her daughter and tell her to go back inside but her diaphragm wouldn’t relax yet. The donkey lifted its head up and away from her to look at the new visitor.

The crunching stopped. “Hello, donkey,” the little girl said before her face came into Holly’s line of vision. “Mama, are you all right?”

Holly managed to move her head up and down in a nod. “Just…lost…my…breath,” she gasped.

“That happens to people at Ms. Sharon’s stable when they fall off their horses,” Brianna said. “It goes away. I’m going to catch the donkey now.”

Brianna’s arm snaked across Holly’s vision. The girl grabbed the frayed end of the rope dangling from the donkey’s halter and led it away from her mother.

“Is Mama all right? Hello, donkey.” Kayleigh’s voice came from behind her. Turning her head, Holly saw her two daughters stroking the donkey’s face and neck as the creature stood placidly with its eyes half-closed. Holly choked on a soundless laugh. So much for her being a strong, competent woman.

“I’m…fine.” She pushed herself up to a sitting position and sucked in several deep breaths.

“Can we keep it?” Kayleigh wrapped her arms around its neck. Holly wanted to tell her daughter to move away from the donkey before something bad happened, but she swallowed the words.

“No, silly,” Brianna said, ever the older sister. “Donkeys need fields and barns to live in.”

“It belongs to someone,” Holly said, wobbling to her feet. “Does the halter have any kind of tag on it?”

Brianna and Kayleigh examined the braided nylon halter and shook their heads.

“Darn.” Holly approached the animal. She tried to feel confident as she threaded the rope through the halter ring and tied it in a secure knot. “Let’s get it back in the gazebo and tie it up.” She hesitated before she added, “Then I’ll call the police to find out who’s missing their donkey.”

She just hoped Robbie McGraw was out fighting some crime or other and not at his desk. He’d seen her at her weakest during the ugly disintegration of her marriage eighteen months before—not the image she wanted him to have of her. Now she was going to look like a clinging vine again. And heaven knew, between his mother and his sisters, he’d had enough of women clinging to him.

“Won’t the donkey be cold?” Kayleigh asked.

Holly shook off her concerns about Robbie and scanned the donkey’s fuzzy gray coat. “No, it’ll be fine as long as it’s out of the snow.” She led the donkey up the steps and tied the rope to the gazebo’s railing. Gingerly giving its neck a single pat, she muttered, “Good donkey.”

“Look, Mama, it’s got a pretty black stripe over its shoulder.” Kayleigh traced the line with her finger.

“It’s a Jerusalem donkey,” Holly said, the knowledge popping up from some nearly-forgotten Bible school lesson. “The kind that carried Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.”

“And Mary rode one too,” Brianna said. “To get to Bethlehem for Jesus to be born. We learned a song about it in church school.”

“Can we ride the donkey like Mary and Jesus?” Kayleigh’s face lit up with excitement.

“Not without a saddle and a bridle,” Holly said.

After they’d settled the donkey in the gazebo, Holly made the girls come in to eat their breakfast. She left them at the table with their grits while she took the cordless phone into the living room and dialed the police station.

Holly thought of all the times she’d longed to call the police when Frank staggered through the door drunk and violent, but she’d been too ashamed to bring in outsiders to see what was going on in her marriage. Her ex had convinced her it was her fault he behaved that way.

“Well, hey there, Mrs. Snedegar,” the dispatcher said before Holly could speak. “Let me see if Captain McGraw is here.”

BOOK: A Down-Home Country Christmas
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