***You have reached chapter 4/5 of Whippercreek. If you would like to choose an alternate chapter, click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
Ella heard the stranger’s voice rise with anger. He was a likeable character, but there was something dangerous about this man. Something in how he talked. Something hidden behind his chiseled features. She couldn’t place it, but it gave her chills.
“Perhaps you’re correct,” she said. “But I’d like to ask a question of you.” She paused for a moment. He looked away from her but offered no further response, so she continued. “What brings you to Whippercreek, Mister Stevens?”
Ella looked sideways at him, suspecting there was much more to this man. A sweat broke on his brow. He wrestled with the top of his collar, tugging at it, attempting to loosen its hold around his neck. What type of person couldn’t answer such a simple question? “Are you an outlaw, Mister Stevens?” She said, raising her eyebrows.
He laughed as if the question was absurd. “Of course not.”
“Why won’t you tell me why you’ve come to these parts? We don’t have strangers pass through Whippercreek, Mister Stevens. This is a place you come to with a reason. What’s yours?”
A hesitant expression lingered on his face. She must have been close to unveiling the truth. He stuttered and stumbled the start of his response. Then, with an uneasy edge to his voice, he said, “I’m not an outlaw, Miss Whitley…I’m a vigilante.” He swallowed hard.
“A vigilante?” She stepped back. His secret was not as she had expected. Never had she met a vigilante before. Men came and told stories of the vigilantes, but never had one entered the valley. She slanted her eyes at him in a skeptical manner. Could she trust such a man?
He laughed at her reaction. “Are you more afraid of vigilantes than outlaws, Miss Whitley?”
“Certainly not.” She shook her head and forced a smiled. Never had she thought about such men, and she didn’t know what to make of Cade Stevens.
“Then, is it that your town has a sheriff?” He pressed.
“No.” She shook her head.
“Then, why did you step back from me just now?”
Ella sighed. “Vigilantes kill men without due process, without a trial. They bring unnecessary violence to Montana. I’ve heard about places like Bannack. Men strung from trees. Have you ever killed a man, Mister Stevens?” Her voice fell in fear as she asked the question. She watched the stranger’s face contort.
“I don’t have to answer that,” he said.
“You do if you want to stay here in Whippercreek.” A chill ran down her spine. She watched his eyes panic. There was definitely something this man was keeping from her. “You need me to defend you when the other men come with Jake Slater. They’ll run you out of town if I don’t intervene. Now, as to my question, have you ever killed a man, Mister Stevens?”
Cade listened to her turn on him. How had he gotten caught up in such an interrogation? “You wouldn’t betray me to those men,” he said, lowering his gaze at her. His expression taut. He was a hard man and would not be toyed with by this girl.
“Perhaps, but you’re just a stranger to me, Mister Stevens. I need to know if I can trust you. We certainly don’t need any more riffraff in this town.” She returned his gaze, as if she was daring him to ride out. There was no kindness extended to him in her eyes. He was a stranger to her, no more, no less.
“Miss Whitley, I must remain in Whippercreek. You may not understand that, but I ask you to offer me the same reprieve I’ve given you.” His voice was firm. He wasn’t yielding to her. He would fight for his right to stay in this valley.
She turned away from him, as his words meant nothing. What kind of woman would betray him to the likes of Slater? He half expected her to turn and apologize for her manners, but she did neither. Seconds passed, as she gazed towards the mountains with no respect for him. Cade sighed. If this valley hadn’t been his only option, he’d ride on and leave the stubborn woman to her town.
But he needed to remain. There was nowhere else to go. “Miss Whitley, I think you’re trying awfully hard to run me out, and my patience is wearing thin. I won’t be turned away from this town, and I’m not a man to be trifled with. I wouldn’t have rescued you if I’d known this is how you treat such men. But seeing as you’re a woman and haven’t been raised amongst civilized folk, I’m going to excuse your behavior. I expect you’ll let me remain in this valley, because I’ll fight for my right to be here. Whatever it takes. You understand? I’ll do what has to be done, but I’m not leaving until it’s on my own terms.” She looked towards him, acknowledging him for the first time, but her eyes were wide and fear was evident in them.
Cade hated what he saw there. He had no choice. “I may need to stay through the winter, but I promise there will be no bloodshed unless it is in self-defense.” He hoped his answer settled the matter. “I won’t be answering anymore of your questions. We’re strangers to each other, and that’s how it should be. You’re going to back me if anyone comes. Do you hear me?”
She took a step back. “There’s no need for vigilantes here, especially you’re kind.” She emphasized the second phrase with immense contempt.
Miss Whitley could assume things about him, but she didn’t know anything for certain. It wasn’t the assumptions, but the fear in her eyes that bothered him. A woman had never looked on him in such a way. He needed to give her good reason for his presence. There had to be something to persuade her. “Miss Whitley, you said yourself you don’t have a sheriff. It seems to me there’s a greater need than you realize. What would have happened if I hadn’t stumbled upon you and Jake Slater today?”
Silence. That was good, he thought. This woman had never been silent.
“I don’t need paid. Let me help myself and you. You won’t have to worry about Jake Slater anymore. I’ll help make this a decent town. Tell the men what I did for you. Speak to whomever you need. Don’t send me away. Whippercreek will be my home, and I will protect it as such.”
She stared into his eyes, a reserved expression on her face. “How do I know what kind of sheriff you’ll be?”
“Men’s lives are valuable to me too. I of any man should know…”
A pause like dew over the mountains rested, as her eyes pierced deeper into his. Her feet took two small steps toward him. “Mr. Stevens, you have yourself a deal.” She extended her hand and shook, giving him permission to reside in the town. A town lost in the mountains of Montana with a brook pouring through it. A town these folks liked to call Whippercreek.
Chapter 5: A Tarnished Soul
The more Ella watched Cade Stevens, the more she thought he seemed rather rough. It wasn’t brashly displayed like Jake’s behavior. It was a certain casual indifference. Something she couldn’t quite place about the way he acted. Something so subtle, yet intense and ominous about this man.
When the others came, as she suspected they would, Cade simply said, “Speak to Miss Whitley before you take to Mr. Slater’s defense.” Then, he shrugged his shoulders as if Slater and the other men meant nothing to him. In actuality, she knew he was desperate to stay in Whippercreek, so why did he put on such a facade? It seemed strange. Cade Stevens needed this valley, but he tried to hide it.
Ella wandered into the church building. Her thoughts taken captive by the stranger. What kind of past could entangle a man so much that Whippercreek was the only place to hide?
His bay mare had seen her fair share of excitement. Cade walked the horse past the buildings toward the church. He found it entirely ironic the building was surrounded by green pastures. In his younger years, he’d attended one of these structures, so he was not unaware of its purpose. It had been years since he’d ventured through the doors, but he had fond memories there.
Memories of better times, up until the thief stole his childhood. He’d been fighting those memories his entire life, but he had learned they were best left buried.
Cade found the only solid tree on the hillside up next to the church. He tied the mare and laid in the grass with a heavy sigh. The sky above was clear. He closed his eyes, listened to the sound of the horse munching on long strands of grass, rays of sunshine peaking into his sleep, until the slumber was too deep to remember the past.
Several hours later, a song broke through his dreams. He sat up, squinted against the sun, used his hat to cover his poorly adjusted eyes. He felt the grass underneath him, saw the mare eating beside the tree, and wondered where he’d awakened. After seconds of gazing about, he remembered the valley, and his mind cleared from its fog.
Then, the song broke through again. It was the voice from the valley’s entrance. The singer was no longer muffled by the church doors. She was near. He rose to his feet, dusted his chaps, and gazed down the hillside to find her. Amidst the tall grasses, he spotted a woman, sitting with her back toward him. Her blonde hair tossed stray curls in the wind. He left the mare and approached the woman as quietly as possible, not wanting to startle her.
“Excuse me…” he said, when he felt rather close.
The singing stopped. She jumped to her feet and gazed back at him, a surprised expression on her face. He reeled away from her. It astounded him; the voice he admired was Ella Whitley’s. He recovered from the shock, only to watch her face turn into a scowl. The woman had such immense hatred for him.
“I think it’s rather rude you’d come out here to scare a woman,” she said.
His shoulders slunk back. “That was not my intent, Miss Whitley. I do apologize.” It was becoming harder to be patient with her. She had a mind of her own.
“Then, what was your intent, Mr. Stevens?” A look of annoyance dared him to give an excuse.
He hated how she seemed to corner him with her questions. “I thought your singing was rather fine, and I wanted to find the voice’s owner. I have not heard singing such as yours. Is a man permitted to pay a complement?”
A meek smile appeared on her face, and her cheeks turned a rosy red. He gazed at the woman. If it wasn’t for her attitude, he’d find her quite pretty. Even now, her blue eyes matched the sky and the loose curls of bleached hair fell at the sides of her face. She had a slight red nose with freckles scattered about and a petite frame. Few single women in the west could claim such beauty. Having lived here his whole life, he would guess by her features she was an easterner, a woman untainted by the elements of a Montana winter. Her attitude though, claimed the proud, rough turmoil only the west could build into a woman.
“I didn’t mean for you to hear me. I don’t usually sing for others.” She commented and looked toward the ground, a meek expression on her face.
“Why wouldn’t you sing? You sing well. You shouldn’t be ashamed of it.” Her behavior seemed inconsistent with the woman he knew.
She gazed past him, staring into the distance. Her eyes lost in the mountains to the east. “If you must know, it’s this place. I find it rather hard to sing here sometimes.” Her voice faded to a whisper. She swallowed hard. Tears filled her eyes.
His brow furrowed with concern. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. This valley’s beautiful. If you can’t sing here, then you must not…”
She sighed and spoke with a tinge of frustration. “Mister Stevens, beauty is vain and deceptive. You know nothing of Whippercreek, so don’t assume things about this land. It’s not all it seems, and it’s not all beautiful.” Her eyes filled again, and the tears were about to pour over. She turned her head and looked toward the church.
For the second time, Cade felt pity for the woman. How could she not see what was all around her? This place. The peace he’d always longed for…Why did she despise it?
“Mister Stevens, I’m sorry, but I must be going.” He heard her sniffle, as she turned to leave.
Cade almost stopped her, but something kept him from doing so. He watched her walk up the hillside into the church. He recalled her father was the preacher.
He didn’t consider himself all-knowing on the matter, but he’d never met a girl, who carried as much sorrow as Ella Whitley. It was beyond his understanding how someone with a life like hers could come to such a point.