***You have reached chapter 3 of Whippercreek. If you would like to choose an alternate chapter, click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
“I won’t sing on Sunday, so why do you insist on having me practice?”
Ella’s father leaned over and clasped her hand in his. “My dear, when are you going to stop grieving over your mother and start choosing to serve where God’s placed you?”
“He didn’t place us here. You chose to live in this territory, Pa. I want to go back east. I’ve always wanted to since Ma passed.”
Her father grimaced and gently patted her hand before stepping back. With sadness in his voice, he said, “Dear Ella, the east is not all you remember it to be. We keep grand memories of our childhoods stored away, but your home is here. If you went back east, you’d discover that soon enough. Now, why don’t you think about singing for the church Sunday?”
She stared back into her Pa’s eyes, and all she saw there was pain. The pain she found in her own heart. She hadn’t meant to burden him with this too. “I can’t sing Sunday, Pa. I’ll be here as always, but I won’t sing.” She pressed her hand into the piano bench and turned her back on her father to escape out the heavy wooden doors, into town.
Her response wasn’t fair. Her father had only seen the best in Montana since their arrival. He desperately wanted this to be her home. He wanted her to embrace it with all the love her dear mother had, but she could not. Home was a place of peace– a place of safety and rest. Montana was none of these.
She wasn’t afraid to sing before the church, but to do so, she’d have to embrace the people and the land. Eight years ago their wagon had rolled into this valley. She had peered from the back, pointed enthusiastically to the surrounding mountains, and lunged out of the wagon with all the naivety of childhood. Her mother had laughed, encouraged her enthusiasm, and together they embraced six short months of innocence.
The bittersweet memories disappeared as she suddenly noticed her location–the Whippercreek saloon. The doors still swung from a recent entrant. She paused for only a moment, then rushed forward, hoping Jake Slater hadn’t caught glimpse of her from inside. Continuing to glance backward, Ella failed to notice a man standing just ahead and landed in his rough arms with all the grace she’d never learned out west.
She back pedaled. “I’m so, so sorry. I wasn’t looking where…” Recognizing Jake Slater mid-sentence, she abruptly stopped. Ella had never owed him an apology and wasn’t going to begin now.
“Miss Ella, before you go get heapin’ mad at me again. I wanted to apologize for my treatment of you earlier last week. See my mind wasn’t in its right state, and I…”
“Jake Slater, a man’s mind is never in its right state on whiskey.” She snapped back at him. “You can apologize all you want to, but you’re governed by strong drink. Now, if you’d pardon me.” She stepped to one side prepared to move past.
But Jake quickly followed suit.
“Mr. Slater, I don’t think you’re hearing me. I wish not to engage in further discussion with you.” She stepped toward him, attempting to force him away.
Instead, he stepped toward her, firmly taking hold of her shoulders.
“Let me by.” She commanded him, a quiver of fear in her voice. She didn’t know what to expect from the man anymore. He no longer pursued her with a drunken attempt to woo; instead, he came at her hot and angry. A dangerous drunk, and it sent chills down her spine.
He roughly shook her. “I am tryin’ to apologize to you girl. Ain’t you hearin’ me?”
“Let me go.” She demanded, to which he wrapped his arm roughly around her neck, dragging her down the street. She kicked and screamed, biting his arm, fighting him, but to no avail.
“I ain’t never seen a woman so brass,” he said with a hoot. “You, Miss Ella, are certainly one of kind. One of a kind of a woman.” He laughed, a belly-up, gut-wrenching kind of a laugh, slipped a bottle out from his jacket, took one long swig, and continued down the street.
She screamed, pulled at his arm with all of her might, and beat him with her fists. Nothing seemed to arouse the beast who held her in his clutches.
Cade Rivers entered the town with his mare walking on loose rein. He tied her to a post outside the last building and ambled down the street. It was time to examine the people of this town, to gain the lay of the land, and to find if Cade Rivers had a bounty on his head in this valley too. He lifted a scarf over his face and moved with confidence past the buildings. The exterior of each seemed roughly hewn together. One building he found was a hotel. It appeared desolate from a quick glance through the windows. The other a store, with only a shopkeeper inside, who offered a nod of greeting, and the last building a saloon.
It seemed lively and busy. Of all places in the valley, the saloon was the most dangerous to him. A place where men could find their thirsts, including the bloodlust of an outlaw’s life. He needed to know if anyone placed a price on his head. Hand on the butt of his pistol, he swung the door and stepped through.
Glasses chinked. A woman sat on a man’s lap cackling as he offered her another shot of whiskey. Cade shook his head and made his way to the rear. He sat at a table facing the door. He watched and waited. No one seemed to take much notice of him, other than to offer him a beverage. He gladly accepted water and sipped it with patience. A wanted man needn’t rush time. Minutes passed with the population of the saloon shifting but no one seemed to acknowledge or recognize Cade. This was good. He headed back outside and began unsaddling the mare. For now, they were safe. The horse sighed and shook off a cloud of dust. They both needed rest.
Just as he was about to untie the mare and take her to the tall grass he’d seen in front of the church, he heard a scream rupture through the town. It unnerved him. He ducked behind the mare and grabbed for his pistol. Peering out, he saw a woman being dragged towards him by a large man. He hesitated. It could be a family feud, or worse, the man might be her husband. Intervening would provide unwanted attention and more enemies. But he already had enough on his conscience, and allowing this woman to suffer, wouldn’t ride well. He lurched from behind the mare, pistol pointing steady into the man’s spine.
The stranger froze.
“I think you ought to release the lady. Men shouldn’t use their strength against a woman. Perhaps, whatever your argument, we could come to a peaceable solution.” Often confident and almost cocky with his words, Cade stumbled over these phrases with an immense lack of eloquence. He wasn’t exactly sure what situation he’d interrupted, so the entire confrontation felt like a trap, baited and set.
The stranger waved his free hand in an animated way as he answered. “Now look here, I ain’t gots no quarrels with you, mister. I just need to get this here woman’s attitude in check a bit.” He spat as he spoke. A foul smell of alcohol emanating from the his breath.
Even with the tension pounding in Cade’s head, anger rose through his emotions. “I said let her go–mister.”
At that, the large man dropped her to the ground.
She coughed and gasped, reaching for her neck with her hands.
“Turn around,” ordered Cade.
The man did as he was told.
“Look me in the eyes.” Cade watched as he caved to his every whim. “I don’t care how drunk you are. You ought to never lay a finger to this woman again. Do you hear me?”
The man nodded, his red-glazed eyes shifting.
“Don’t make me use this pistol. Get out of here.” The last words Cade spat with immense contempt. Where intimidation had failed him just weeks prior, it worked here to perfection.
The man turned and rushed down the street, into the saloon where he belonged.
Re-holstering his pistol, Cade looked towards the woman. She was a frail form and seemed to be recovering her breath. He gazed upon her with kindness and offered his hand to help her rise.
Ella glanced into the eyes of her hero. A stranger. How long had it been since a stranger had ridden through their valley?…She couldn’t remember.
Those eyes. Something about them. Something masked deep within.
She took his hand, keeping a skeptical watch on the rough-carved face of a man she’d never seen before in Whippercreek.
“Who are you?” The woman forced through a still raspy voice.
It was the last question he’d expected from this stranger.
“I’m no one of much account.” Cade shook his head, looking beyond her into the distance for a way out of the conversation.
“You didn’t answer my question. Don’t I have a right to know who came to my aide?” She tilted her head and stared at him, evidently puzzled by his refusal to reveal an identity.
“I could say the same for you,” he said with a smirk. He was pleased to have such quick wit.
She nodded and exchanged his smile with a slight laugh. “I’m Ella, Ella Whitley. My father’s the preacher here in town.” She paused. Her silence once again asked for an answer. She was persistent.
“I’m–I’m a –Cade.”
She again laughed. “So it’s Cade, now is it? Do you have a last name?” She raised her eyebrows in anticipation.
“Cade–um, Cade Stevens, Miss Whitley.” He grimaced even as the sound of his lie came from his lips. He hadn’t spoken his father’s name in years. Why did he choose to use it now?
She smiled again. “Well, Mister Stevens, thank you for the assistance.”
His mind felt jumbled. This was not how his time in the valley was supposed to start. He was going to stay withdrawn. No one was supposed to meet him. Telling lies always caught a man. Fifteen years ago he had watched Steven Rivers weave his last lie. It caught his father. Now Cade had woven his own, and the bait was set. Panic rose through him. Would this be the end?
“Mister Stevens, did you hear me?”
He shook his head to rid of himself of the fog and wiped his forehead. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Are you okay?”
He smiled at her again with as much put on confidence as he could muster. “Just fine, ma’am.” As the words echoed out of his mouth, he noticed a dark mark on her neck. “May I ask you a question?”
“The man I confronted, is he your husband?” Cade didn’t need to know. He ought to leave the girl without further discussion. A wandering stranger was the only reputation he needed in town. The longer they talked, the more he feared she’d discover about his past.
Miss Whitley, though, seemed to detect none of these apprehensions; instead, she folded her hands in front of her and sighed. “He’s a local prospector. His name is Jake Slater, and he is not my kin. He does whatever he pleases, and when he’s drunk, as he was today, he can become violent. I should have been more careful.” She shrugged her shoulders as if the situation itself was her fault.
Unable to restrain his tongue, Cade shook his head. “You shouldn’t have to be more careful Miss Whitley. A man is responsible for his own actions. Being drunk is no excuse for how he treated you.”