***You have reached chapter 2 of Whippercreek. If you would like to choose an alternate chapter, click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
“Is that there Abigale and Jack’s youngun’?” The pointed question came from the shadows. Its owner had a rough voice, which carried to her ears with evident disdain.
Ella mustered her most pleasant smile and turned to face the inquisitor, only to catch the eye of Jake Slater. He smiled at the hint of disgust on her face. She avoided the foul-mouthed man whenever possible. He had taken an unpleasant liking to her, and she hadn’t been able to ward him off.
She threw her hands forward, blocking his view and took one swift step back. It was too late. He caught her by the arm and spun her towards him.
“Release me.” She commanded him with a steady voice, all the while gripping the infant’s body at her side.
“I ain’t dun’ talkin’ to you.” He pitched his voice playfully at her irritation, twisting her wrist until she couldn’t back away further. Then, Slater leaned in and brushed her hair with his hand. The pungent smell of whiskey stifled her nostrils.
She glanced towards the church, looking for aide. “Say your peace, so I may go.” Her voice quivered. Ella wrenched on her elbow, but he held fast.
Alcohol placed Slater in a delirium. He laughed maniacally at her panic and would turn on her in a moment. “Don’t be in such a hurry, Miss Ella. You gots no business being around this youngun’. That baby’s a plague on this town.”
Ella yanked on her arm to rid herself of him. “I can think of worse characters,” she said. Her eyes narrowed. She wanted to cry out in pain.
“Why you!” Slater lifted his hand to strike her face.
Ella turned and hunched away from the blow to come, just as her father stepped outside the church.
“Ella!” He said. “Jake Slater, take your hands off my daughter!”
Jake froze. He rolled his eyes and released her arm. The saloon door swung open, and he stepped inside with one final glance towards her father. Apparently, he did not want to face her father’s wrath and knew he would not be followed into the establishment. Immense relief rushed through her body. With a new sense of purpose, she scurried past the building and up the hill.
Her father rushed towards her. “Ella, are you okay?” Her father’s breathless voice echoed.
“I’m fine Pa, but the baby, she passed on this morning.” Ella extended the bundle in her arms toward him. Her words settled fresh onto her heart and spurred tears. The wind brushed each drop until the tears sat cold, before running across her cheeks with the same cool indifference she felt inside. Nothing would ever change Montana. This land had taken everything, and it always would tear those she loved from her.
Her father glanced towards the ground. She wasn’t certain whether it was due to shame or deep thought. There was a bleak silence, as if something needed to be said that couldn’t be spoken. Then, with hesitation, he spoke. “I will handle Jake Slater.”
Ella attempted to smile. There was an angry gravel in his voice, but there wasn’t much her father could do to the man. She appreciated his attempts, but a stern talking only caused Jake to avoid the church, not Ella.
With minor pause, her father picked up speaking in a more chipper tone. “ I want you to know, taking care of this little one was the right thing. Your mother would’ve been proud to have such a daughter.” He rested his hand on her shoulder.
She felt the weight of his words. “Pa, I…”
He hushed her. “You don’t need to say a thing. We’ll bury the baby in the church’s cemetery beside her parents. I’ll take care of her from here.” With that, she was relieved of her burden. Her father marched towards the church, leaving her to rest on the hillside alone.
She turned her back to the building and sat quietly in the tall yellow grasses, listening to the wind pass through them like waves. Her Ma loved the sound of the territory’s wilds, the beauty of the mountains, and the ripple of the creek as it stirred down the hillside towards their valley. She once told Ella this was the closest she’d ever come to understanding God’s power, but with the might of the wilds, came the terror of the untamed countryside too. Ella sighed. She inherited her mother’s love for the outdoors, but she despised this merciless territory.
The wind blew across her face, and she closed her eyes to its touch. A rim of tears pushed through the darkness onto her cheek, drying cold in the breeze. Her parents planned to make this land their home–a plan cut short by her Ma’s death. She’d grown bitter towards this place and held fast to faint memories. Memories which included the east, promises made by a mother who’d left her, and a hope for something bigger than what this land offered.
A deep breath of rich earth tingled his senses like nothing he’d felt in days. Circling around the jagged loose rocks, Cade looked down upon the valley below. A meadow of Montana grass blew in the breeze. The sound of a small stream and the smell of yellow cottonwood rose to him. A town rested just at the base of the cliff. He dismounted the bay and knelt with the horse’s reins loose, leaning over the ledge. This valley was a place a man could lose himself. Wild enough to only hold a handful of residents and distant enough from his past, that the locals wouldn’t be gunning for him.
The rocky slope dropped to the town’s edge, where a mine seemed in operating condition. Men ambled from one of three buildings in the center. Makeshift houses surrounded these, and a church stood above the other buildings on a grassy hillside with a cemetery lying just east. It appeared the perfect, desolate place to escape the bounty on his head. With any luck, the town had never heard of Cade Rivers.
He gradually stood, adjusted the leather saddle, and slid his boot into the stirrup. Clicking his tongue, he leaned back as the horse began to slide down the rocky trail. About halfway, he began to hear voices below. Not surprisingly, most seemed to be the shouts of loud men and the cackling of an old woman from the structure in the center. Cade proceeded to click his tongue and urged the mare to make the final stretch.
She slid on her haunches, until the mountain eased into hillside, where the path smoothed. The mine jutted out on his right, but the exterior seemed quiet at the moment. He pushed the mare forward past its entrance, before halting her behind a pile of brush.
Stones accumulated on the trail could make a horse go lame. He couldn’t afford another mount, and she remained his only route of escape. It was the most minute details that could get a man strung up. Cade dismounted and removed the dirt with the tip of his knife. A pebble dislodged from the hoof. He leaned onto one knee and brushed the hoof once more with the palm of his hand. But just then, a twig cracked from somewhere nearby. He dropped the hoof, swiveled his head towards the sound, and clutched the base of his pistol ready to draw. An elk trotted out of the woods, gazed at him, and took off into the brush. It had been so long since he’d felt the peace of home. Even the sounds of nature caused him to lurch for his gun. Heat rose past his cheeks and into the tips of his ears.
He hated the paranoia, the fear, the shame of it all. Cade had never been prone to such sentiments. He’d seen the worst of his fears as a child. It was a memory tainted with displeasure and one which seemed to haunt him wherever he went. He took a deep breath to calm himself and returned to the task with a renewed sense of purpose.
Halfway through plucking dirt from the final hoof, a new sound caused him to pause. Glancing up, he noticed the church staring down on him from the hillside. It seemed much larger now. The sound grew from it, taking over the valley. Not all too different from a saloon girl’s singing but much prettier, without the rough edge of a voice tainted with liquor, it carried across the grasses into the valley and echoed through the peaks above. Rupturing the stillness of nature for a moment, the sound absorbed everything around him, until he dropped the hoof, leaned over the saddle, and stared at the wood-framed structure in amazement. Within seconds, the voice left him in his reverie, disappearing behind the tall grasses leading up to the church. He took in the sounds of the grasses’ waves, wondering what creature could sing such a lullaby that nature itself stopped to listen.