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The Christmas Child

By Linda Goodnight

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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

In twenty years of Dumpster diving, Popbottle Jones had found his share of surprises in other people's trash. But nothing prepared him for what he discovered one chilly November dawn.

Agile as a monkey at seventy-two, Popbottle hopped over the side of the giant bin located downwind of Redemption's municipal building and dropped lightly onto a mound of battered cardboard boxes. The usual garbage and old-food smells rose to greet him, odors he'd trained his nose to ignore in pursuit of more profitable treasures. After all, he and his business partner, GI Jack, were in the recycling business.

From one corner of the dimly lit bin came a scratching sound. His heart sank. Rats or kittens, he suspected. Rats he shooed. The kittens, though, troubled him. He'd never leave domestic creatures to be scooped into a compactor and bulldozed at a landfill.

Gingerly picking his way through the mess, Popbottle directed his steps and his miner's lamp toward the sound. His stomach plummeted. Not rats. Not kittens, though two eyes stared out. Blue eyes. Frightened eyes. The eyes of a child.

Taking a bullet would have been easier, cleaner, quicker. Dying slowly wasted a lot of time.

Kade McKendrick dropped one hand to the golden retriever sitting patiently beside him along the riverbank and tried to relax.

Even now, when he'd been shipped off to Redemption, Oklahoma, for R & R, he wielded a fishing rod like a weapon, fingers tight on the reel's trigger. He'd become too paranoid to go anywhere unarmed.

Memories swamped him. Faces swam up from the muddy red river to accuse. Kade shifted his gaze to the far bank where straggling pale brown weeds poked up from the early winter landscape, hopeless sprouts with nothing in their future but more of the same. Feathery frost tipped the dead grass, shiny in the breaking dawn.

"Might as well give it up, Sheba." Kade reeled in the ten-pound test line, mocking his ambitious tackle. The clerk at the bait and tackle warned him that fish weren't biting this time of year.

He slammed the metal tackle box, startling the dog and a red-tailed hawk still napping on a nearby branch. The bird took flight, wings flapping like billows over the calm, cold waters. Sheba looked on, quivering with intense longing. Together, man and dog watched the hawk soar with lazy grace toward the rising sun. Other than a rare car passing on the bridge, all was quiet and peaceful here on the predawn river. The place drew him like a two-ton magnet in those dark hours when sleep, the vicious tease, evaded him.

Kade sniffed. His nose was cold, but the morning air, with crisp, clean sharpness, invigorated more than chilled. He picked up the scent of someone's fireplace, a cozy home, he surmised, with two-point-five kids, a Betty

Crocker mom and a dad who rose early to feed the fire with fragrant hickory wood.

His lip curled, cynic that he was. Happy ever after was a Hallmark movie.

He, too, had risen early, but not for a cozy fire and a loving family. Although gritty-eyed with fatigue, he hadn't slept a full eight hours in months. But the shrink said he was making progress.

Kade huffed, breath a gray cloud. The shrink probably didn't wake up when his dog barked.

Gathering his gear, Kade started toward his car, a red Mazda Miata parked at an angle near the edge of the Redemption River Bridge. Sheba padded softly at his side, a loyal, undemanding companion who never complained about the nocturnal ramblings.

His great-aunt, on the other hand…

Ida June rose early and she'd be waiting for his return, spouting sluggard quotes, her favorite being, "The field of the sluggard is overtaken by weeds." There were no weeds in Aunt Ida June's fields. One positive aspect of visiting his feisty great-aunt was that she kept him too busy all day to think. Days were all right. Nights were killing him.

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