The smell of sagebrush and ponderosa pine flooded the room. Ella sat with Abigale’s day old baby on her lap. The poor thing hadn’t let out a whimper. Patting her, Ella moved with careful precision to lay the child into its crib. Men in the town had a particular disliking for the infant.
Jack, the baby’s father, chopped the pine beams for Whippercreek’s mine. Just after Abigale started showing, he was crushed by the weight of a tree he’d felled. The injured man fought to live for days, but ultimately, death took him in the most untimely of manners. Abigale, too, almost died of grief from his passing, and her baby…well, the town expected a stillborn. Despite all the family’s troubles, the little girl was born with air in her lungs and a faint beat in her chest. She was weak but a fighter. Ella thought she carried her mama’s eyes but her daddy’s will. She’d fight to live, like her pa had. Abigale had not fought hard, she died during the delivery, content to pass, leaving an orphan in her bitterness.
The frontiersmen in the area blamed the family’s troubles on the child, and their superstitions kept the one or two other women at bay. It was seldom the small valley ever saw a doctor, so this left Ella alone to care for the wee little nameless babe. For hours, she sat, dipping a towel into a bucket of cow’s milk, coercing each drop into the child’s throat. If she was honest with herself, she knew it wouldn’t be enough to sustain her.
Ella had no answers for the helpless situation. No one had been there to teach her about child rearing or becoming a woman. She wasn’t married, and her memories of such women were few. With exhaustion setting in, she prayed the child would find nourishment to somehow thrive.
Three hours passed. The prayers still resonated deep in her heart, when the baby suddenly let out a weak sigh. It was the first sound she’d made, and it startled Ella after hours in the bleak shack. She slid her hand under the baby’s side, hope grasping at her for the first time. Gently, she began rocking the infant. Perhaps, it would comfort her. Perhaps, she’d know someone cared amid the darkness.
But almost immediately, Ella stopped. There was something different about the infant. She held her at arm’s length, gazing at the baby’s face. The child didn’t move. Shadows casted across her tiny expression. Ella hesitated, her heart stopping for those brief seconds, anticipating the child’s next breath.
It never came.
A sickening feeling rose from her stomach into her throat. There was nothing more to be done. She was gone.
Tears poured into her lap. This land had always been cruel. Wrapping the shawl to encircle the baby’s body, she felt the limpness. Her heart ached, and her hands shook.
This was not the first citizen she’d buried atop the hillside, and knowing Montana, it wouldn’t be Whippercreek’s last. She made her way past the family’s few belongings and stepped through the shrouded door. Outside, the canopy of crisp autumn skies met her with a brisk breeze. The sun’s rays brushed against her skin with such warmth, she was almost fooled into finding hope amidst the beauty of the morning. It was a stark contrast to her present mood and only served to stir up a deep level of bitterness she’d been trying to overcome since childhood.
“Lawson, why are ya’ here?” Cade Rivers sighed, turned, and spat in the dirt just outside of Bannack’s saloon. He leaned back against the building’s facade, propped his leg up, and continued chewing on the end of the tall grass he’d just picked from the roadside. All the while, he twisted it in his hands, glaring at the dirt, as if his mind were occupied elsewhere. It didn’t matter the man had come. There was nothing Lawson could do to Cade Rivers, not with a gun hanging within arm’s reach.
“You stole my claim, and I’m aimin’ to get back the money I’m owed for it.” Lawson fidgeted with the gun in his holster–restless.
“I don’t have your money.” Cade shrugged off the accusation and scuffed the dirt with his boot. He took his hat and brushed the dust from his chaps. Cade was not amused, nor would he entertain the man’s gossip.
“Then, who does? You offered to take my gold and came back with nothing. I have a right to answers.” Lawson demanded through gritted teeth.
“I don’t rightly know. We’ve been through this before.” Cade watched the man’s hands. Lawson’s thumb continued to brush across the butt of his pistol, but he seemed hesitant.
Even so, Cade would not hold to the man’s rumors. For Lawson to confront him publicly on such matters, could get Cade killed in this town. Lawson had cornered him. If his words tickled the wrong ears, a lynching mob would be prepared with a noose. In mining towns, they protected their own. You didn’t mess with another man’s gold, and you certainly repaid him if you lost it. He knew this. He’d known it from childhood, but in desperate need for money, he’d offered to take Lawson’s gold into Virginia City. That’s when the trouble started. A group of bandits pursued him, took the gold at gunpoint, and left him half-beaten on the roadside. Cade’s reputation seemed to follow him everywhere he went. Returning to town, even in his condition, Lawson refused to believe him. He wanted the gold or its value in money, neither of which Cade Rivers could provide.
“I’m owed a debt, and I’m aimin’ to get it, boy. You were hired to do a job. Now you either pay for it, or I’ll see to it that you ain’t gonna’ be spending my money anywhere.”
Cade watched Lawson brace himself. The man wanted a fight. Twenty years his senior, Lawson would be no match, but Cade wasn’t going to be hung in the street over a man’s rumors. Pushing off the wall, he came to his feet. “Are you threatening me?”
There was a moment of silence between them. Lawson hesitated. Cade stepped closer, the distinct sound of his spurs chinking in the wind. Now within a hands-length, he squinted from beneath his hat directly into Lawson’s face. “Were you threatening me?” He forced the words with immense steadiness, fearlessness. This was how he’d rid of himself of the man. It always worked. Silence him–now–while he held the spade in his hand, he told himself. Cade watched the man’s face contort, the apprehension in his eyes. He liked the fear he saw there. He wanted him to turn tail and run, to never speak an accusation again. Other men had done so in his presence.
Lawson’s beady eyes blinked, as if a speck of dust had entered and could not escape. His fingers twitched, making inadvertent movements towards his gun before recoiling like a snake. A deep stifled cough came from his throat, and then, once more, his hands moved swiftly to his side for the final time.
The noise of Bannack’s crowded saloon was pierced by the echo of a bullet. Lawson looked up into Cade’s eyes, a desperate plea for help emanating. He stumbled and then folded to the dirt street. As the dust settled around him, the man’s cheekbones turned pale and a puddle of blood began to form around his chest. Saloon-goers scrambled outside, pointed to the body, and then the pistol still resting in Cade’s hand. Residents peeked out of their houses. Children dodged behind doors, but every eye turned from the body to Cade Rivers. A few braver residents ran to Lawson and checked for a pulse.
Cade glanced from the men around the body, to the crowd. They stared back at him.
“Dead.” One of the men hollered.
The town’s wide-eyed stares turned again from the body to Cade Rivers. Their eyes narrowed upon him. Hushed whispers were shared between several women. A stillness, not often roused from Bannack’s saloon followed. It rippled through the town like a wave of judgment.
Cade stood frozen. The air in his lungs seemed to no longer fill his chest. The very stillness suffocated him. Cade knew his way with a gun, but he’d never killed a man. The thought turned his mouth sour. He looked with disgust at the body laying in the street, knowing he had done the very thing to place it there. Seconds passed, as everyone, including himself absorbed the event.
The silence would have remained, but a gray-haired woman scrambled in front of the body, obstructing Cade’s view. She covered her face and mumbled unintelligible sounds. Sounds, which carried through the town, piercing Cade’s heart.
It always worked before. They’d always walked away from him. He’d never used the gun. Why this man? Why now?
It sickened him.
The woman cried for several minutes before she turned her eyes to the western sky, where the sun had just begun to set. “Why? Why did someone murder my husband? He was a good man. He hadn’t done nobody any wrongs.” She pressed her hands to her temple, as if a great headache had overcome her, before letting out one more painful cry escape. “Hang the man who murdered my husband!” she declared to the town, crumbling to the dirt of the bloodied street.
At this, Cade had been aroused from his deepest thoughts. Preservation had kicked in. He ran for his mount and gathered the reins. A handful of men stepped out from the crowd, pistols raised. One man carried a noose in hand. The town barber hollered a warning. “Cade Rivers, stop or you’ll be shot!”
Cade glanced at the men and frantically turned his horse to obscure their view of him. Ducking into the saddle, he spurred the mare out of town, hissing deep from his throat, urging the mare into her fastest gallop. They kicked up dust in their wake.
Behind her hoof beats, he could hear the frantic screams of Bannack residents. He had thrown the town into disarray. They would scramble for their own mounts and head out to find the outlaw, noose in hand. Vigilante justice had no need for fair trials, and it wouldn’t be a sheriff riding out to arrest him. The citizens of Montana Territory dealt out punishments at a hanging tree. If caught, a noose was waiting.