***You have reached chapter 9 of Whippercreek. If you would like to choose an alternate chapter, please click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
From the void in the mountain, a hand pushed through into light.
Men hurried forward, cleared the new layer of stones, and found the beams still in place. A pair of dappled grays were brought from a nearby paddock. The men drove the horses toward the gap. They rolled the largest boulders onto a makeshift sled behind the mares and urged the horses forward. The hand waved limply toward them. Once the men uncovered a gap large enough for a man, they grabbed the loose hand and heaved. The face of a boy–Mr. Pelkman’s son–emerged from the darkness. Two more men followed out of the rubble. Thick rich soil covered their bodies. Ella held her breath. Where was Mister Stevens?
Her father patted her shoulder, as if the matter had closed happily, but she could not move. He had to be alive.
She gazed between the men to that gap in the mountain. It laid empty.
As if to answer her question, shaking fingertips slid toward the sky. Cade, covered in the same brown dust, followed with the assistance of several men. He leaned on his hands and coughed and sputtered, gasping in lungfuls of fresh air. She didn’t know whether to go to his side or keep her distance.
Oh, how I hoped you lived.
He kneeled with his elbows on the ground. His face covered in dirt, so it was evident when he glanced at her. The white of his eyes penetrated through the dust. He smiled. Relief casted across his face. Even with the distance between them and the dirt smudges, she could see that same mischievous look in his eye.
Cade hadn’t known whether he’d see Ella again. He never worried about leaving someone behind, but sliding into the mine made him ponder such thoughts. Confronting death forced one to handle reality .
An outlaw couldn’t claim Whippercreek as home. He had settled that score, but he also knew a man couldn’t run from his past forever. He had to carve out an existence. That meant, leaving behind the guilt. He couldn’t change what had happened. Mr. Lawson died at his hand and no amount of foolish sentiment could fix who he had become.
He had fled before. Sometimes, life didn’t leave an alternative. When Lawson died, he had been left with no choice. But here, he had found reason to live. A reason big enough to move beyond the past, at least while it allowed. A reason, bigger than the height of the mountains and wider than the snow at its peak. He found that reason in a girl named Ella Whitley.
Those blonde ringlets taunted the corners of his mind. She had a gentle way about her. A quiet unspoken love toward people. It captivated him, and Cade wanted her to see him in the same light before the rumors circulated. His past seemed to carry a tarnish, but the present was like a child’s first school slate. Untouched by his marks, and ready for whatever he pressed into it. A hope carried with that future between his hands. He could yet become the man he had always thought…the man he guessed Ella Whitley had assumed him to be.
The morning sun rose, shimmering drops of dew, as their crystals stood abreast on strands of grass. What kind of man dives into a collapsing mine to save people he doesn’t even know? She couldn’t solve the mystery of Cade Stevens. Everything about him weaved a riddle into hidden places in his past.
A sudden tap on her shoulder caused her to jump.
“Easy there, it’s just me.”
She turned and looked into Cade’s eyes. Eyes, which she recalled held a certain brazen defiance to them in the woods two days ago. They now melted with an unfamiliar softness. She tilted her head. Or, dare I say a tenderness? The unfamiliar look stirred butterflies in her stomach. Could he feel something toward me?
The thought felt as wild and foolish as her hair, blowing unrestrained in the wind. She should’ve pulled it into a bun before roaming about in the woods. A woman didn’t wear her hair thus, and she dreaded the thought of Cade thinking her but a child.
His mischievous smile exposed a hint of sun-bathed wrinkles. She felt the heat rise in her cheeks, and all thought of her appearance vanished with his boyish grin. Instead, shame lingered over such a reaction. He surely would find her too young and foolish for his attentions.
Taking the opportunity to turn away from him, she said, “I thought after yesterday you would rest. It appeared much needed.” She tipped her head slightly to peek a glance in his direction. If only my mind wouldn’t wander, perhaps turning away, he should think me preoccupied. I can’t allow him to know what one gaze, one hint of his voice does inside me. Ella picked a flower. She studied it, twisting the stem between her fingers, forcing her gaze to linger as it spun.
“I wish to spend my day’s well. I can’t afford to waste time.” His voice deep and resonating caused her heart to thud one beat less, as a shiver ran down her spine. She offered one more glance toward him. A forced smile pinned across her lips. His eyes danced with the light of her reflection, which faded as they ducked underneath a branch.
“And shall I dare ask, why you fear wasting such a day?”
Cade shifted his body weight and took his hat from his head. “My stay in the valley is only temporary. You do remember why I’ve come?”
Ella sighed. “I actually hadn’t thought of it for some time. You seemed so at home with the men yesterday.” Other than his gun hand, nothing about Cade Stevens fit her characteristics of a vigilante. She had all but pardoned him for that former profession. It took everything in her to envision the man seeking another’s life.
“Ella, I must show you something.” Cade temporarily alleviated her from the troublesome thoughts. Her eyebrows rose, and she spun toward him once more, hiding her feelings behind curiosity. Cade smiled his handsome, mischief-filled smile and motioned for her to follow. “Yesterday after the mine collapsed, a thought began prying at me. I’ve lived in mining towns, but I’ve never heard or felt a mine collapse with so much force. And then, I got to thinking, I don’t reckon that mine collapsed at all.”
Her brow furrowed. The suggestion seemed peculiar. “But we saw it collapse before our eyes.”
“Ella, I think someone used nitroglycerine to blast that mine. It couldn’t have collapsed on its own.”
She shook her head. “Do you realize what that would mean? If what you say is true, someone tried to kill those men. I can’t imagine anyone in the valley would do such a thing. No one is so cruel.”
Cade stared at her, his eyes penetrating. “We both know a man capable.”
Ella hesitated. She glanced at his face with a sober expression. “You’re insinuating Jake Slater had something to do with this, aren’t you?” She accused, her voice wavering. As much as she disliked the man, it didn’t seem plausible.
“I don’t know for sure. Just, I think it’s worth a second thought.”
“I think you’re borrowing trouble Mister Stevens.”
Cade motioned toward the rocky trail, and Ella followed. “I’m no expert,” he said. “But see how that mountain’s face has changed. Mines collapse. The face changes with time. If the rocks were loose, maybe, but that side was sheer stone. Nothing should’ve shaken it.”
Ella noticed where a large segment of rock had fallen. “But Cade, the mine collapsed from underground. What if it caused that segment of rock to shift? We don’t have evidence of any wrong-doing. The accusation sounds rather suspicious.”
He shook his head. “I know, but it’s a hunch. I climbed the mountain yesterday. I had to look into it.”
Ella shuddered. No one climbed the rock face alone. Its sheer, jagged peak stood untested for a reason. “You shouldn’t have wondered up there. That mountains not meant for a man’s footsteps. You could’ve been killed, especially after what happened in the mine. You were hurt. Tired.” Her voice broke with a hint of the fear she felt.
“Ella, men’s lives were at stake. I had to investigate further.”
“Your life, Cade, your life was at stake. Do you not understand the dangers?”
“It’s a small penance,” he muttered under his breath.
“A small penance for what?” She declared, outraged by such sentiments.
“It doesn’t matter. All you need to know is I understand the value of a life. I owe a debt to God for one. If saving these men or some future man from dying in that mine, pays my penance, than let it be.”
Ella stared at him. Her eyes filled with a rim of tears. I don’t understand. What debt could be paid with one’s life? Only God has such powers.
As if he could read her thoughts, he continued. “Ella, I found footprints on the mountain. I assume you know the face is never climbed. Can you remember a time when a man tried to accomplish such a feat?”
She shook her head.
“Exactly. Men don’t climb such mountains, unless they have a death wish, or unless they’re hiding something. The mine collapse happened deliberately. I’ve lived in mining towns much larger than this one. I shouldn’t have woken yesterday with the ground shaking beneath me. That wasn’t a mine collapsing. It had to be some greater force. Something unnatural. An explosion, set from those peaks above. I think we should speak with Mr. Edgerton.”
“Cade, the mine’s collapsed like this before. The ground shakes. Folks around here are used to such occurrences.”
“But I’m telling you, Ella, it’s not natural. The footprints prove it. You shouldn’t feel anything if the mine’s collapsing inward.”
Ella sighed. “My father is meeting with some of the men. They’re going to inspect the mine after Mr. Edgerton has cleared it and built in more support beams. Maybe we should let them. We can keep a watch out for anything suspicious in the meantime.”
The steel gray eyes hardened with resolve. She had seen that same look the day she happened upon him at the river.
“I don’t like waiting. Introduce me to your father. I want to join them on the inspection.” A twitch flickered in his cheek. She had forced his patience.
Ella nodded. “I’ll introduce you, but you’ll have to come to church Sunday.”
Cade hesitated. He wasn’t opposed to church, but everything had gone wrong in that part of his life a long time ago. He looked into Ella’s eyes. She remained the stubborn woman from their first encounter.
“So you’ll come with me to church on Sunday?” she persisted.
He bit his bottom lip and stared at her. “On one condition.”
“If you don’t sing, I’m excused from the singing as well.” He winked and laughed.
She shook her head, but a smile crossed her face. Meanwhile, his mind clouded over with faded dark memories.