***You are on chapter 11 of Whippercreek. If you wish to read a previous chapter, click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
Ella woke the next morning earlier than usual. A chill ran through the cabin, reminding her to stoke the fire. She grabbed their largest kettle and hurried outside toward the creek. Snow slushed forward under her weight. The brook had swollen with the Sabbath’s storm, and she could hear it’s rushing gurgle before it came into view.
It saddened her that the interaction with her father had not been more satisfying. She hadn’t settled for Cade Stevens, but she wanted to know more about the man. She needed her father’s approval, and she needed time to discuss Cade’s sentiments on God. Her father’s abrupt interaction yesterday had settled the matter far too quickly.
Her eyes couldn’t adjust to the snow’s brightness. She squinted as she approached a grove of pines beside the thundering water. The snow dappled their limbs. Ella glanced at the trees, chunks of melting snow falling from above. It was something worth enjoying. She weaved in and out of the winter marbled woods, her feet sinking into the wet mire, as her heart raced with the wonder of the diamond shaped specs. She stuck out her tongue and caught a falling clump in her mouth. A childish laughter escaped her. But just then, the ground gave way to rushing water. The kettle swung from its hinges, throwing her off balance, and tossing her into the current. She sputtered and flailed with her arms, a deep, drenching cold piercing into her coat.
The water rushed her body upward. She felt it penetrate under her clothes and skin. She had never learned to swim and the current carried her with a desire all its own. Gulps of icy water forced down her throat. A piercing, ringing tore through her ears. She reached the surface again and screamed, before it tossed her recklessly back under. The world swirled about, gushing water past her ears, and dragging her deeper into its abyss. A twig brushed with brutal force against her arm. She felt the water turn its raging back towards the surface, forcing her upward. Coming into the crisp air, she flailed forward for an icy breath, which burned her lungs. The water tossed her backwards, bobbing her with relentless victory. Her head slipped under again, just as her hands caught onto a limb. She tugged on it with numb fingers, pulling herself forward out of the water for a breath. With her last ounce of strength, she slid her hands across the bark. Shreds of worn wood tore through her fingertips. The branch slid forward, and she prayed it would hold for a few more seconds in its muddy mire. Cringing with pain, she forced her arms, now drained of all strength to pull her to safety. She landed with exhaustion onto icy snow-mixed dirt. The snow suffocated her face, as world slipped like the brook’s mud into darkness.
“Mr. Stevens, you better get out here!” Cade heard Mr. Pelkman’s voice calling through the night. He had just finished hanging meat to dry from a catch and planned on boiling a portion of it for dinner. His hunger, yearned for a bite, but the frantic tone in the store owner’s voice beckoned him.
He dodged out of the shack into the moonlight.
“Miss Whitley’s gone missing! The preacher hasn’t seen her since this morning. We got to find that girl. Anything could have become of her!”
Cade’s mind raced. Had she left the valley? No–Ella wasn’t so fool-hardy. She wouldn’t have gone without leaving notice. A fear shuddered through him. Ella had always been respectable. She wouldn’t be so late coming home without cause. If anything had happened to her, Cade would never forgive himself.
“Mr. Pelkman, I’m riding out to Jake Slater’s place. Could you give me directions?”
The store owner hastily directed Cade to the cabin. Cade didn’t saddle his horse. He could ride well bareback, and he didn’t have time to waste. The cabin sat in a grove of trees by the brook, a smoke stack rising from its roof. It was not the type of home Cade suspected the man would own.
He strutted to the edge of the porch, letting his spurs do the talking. The chinks sounded across the hardwood, and immediately, a shadow stirred from inside. Cade leaned against the wood beams. His gun pointed toward the door.
A slurred voice rose from inside. “Whater yer want?”
Cade tapped his boot against the wood porch.
The voice echoed again from inside. “How come–yer wakin’ a man up at this ‘our?” The door creaked on its hinges, and Slater’s silhouette came into view.
Prepared for this, Cade yelled from the shadows of his position. “Don’t move. My gun’s on you. Put your hands where I can see them.”
The drunken man dropped his own pistol and held his hands in the air. Cade rushed over to him and searched his holster and pockets for any remaining weaponry.
“It’s you. Whater yer doin’ ‘ere?” Jake muttered.
Cade spun him back towards the house and marched him inside. He sat the man on a quilt covered bed and began his interrogation.
“Where’s Ella Whitley?”
“I don’t know what that blastin’ female gone and done. Far as I, see ain’t none of my–” He started to dose off.
Cade slapped him across the face. “I asked you a question. Where’s Ella Whitley?”
Jake sighed. “Can’t yer leave a man to get some rest?”
“Answer the question.” Cade growled.
“That female gone and done got herself in trouble, didn’t she?” Jake’s eyes fluttered, and he smacked his thigh, as if the entire event had been pleasurable.
Cade cocked his pistol. “I’m asking you, where is she?”
Jake slunk over and laughed. “You lost her…didn’t ya?”
Cade fired at the man’s toes, causing Jake to skitter and jump to the side.
“Now, I’m not playing games. You either tell me what you’ve gone and done, or I’ll find out real quick. Your move.”
Jake blinked several times, before opening his eyes wide, and leaning in towards Cade. “I don’t know what’s happened to yer female. She might have gone and left ya’, but she’s not round here.”
Cade cocked the pistol once more and aimed it square behind Jake’s ear. “Have you seen Ella Whitley today?”
Jake leaned away from him, frantic. “Okay, okay now, I ain’t seen that girl. Believe me. I ain’t seen her since you came to town threatenin’ me. Nobody wants me around no more. They ain’t gonna trust poor old Jake Slater with Cade Stevens in town. It just don’t seem right, so I stopped comin’. I don’t want to be blamed for that girl. I ain’t seen her, and if I had, I’d be telling you. Now, you gotta believe me.”
Cade released the hammer and placed the weapon back in his holster. He yanked Jake from the bed, holding him by his shirt. “You worthless scoundrel! If you see Miss Whitley, you’re to come tell me her whereabouts. If I find out you do anything less, I’ll place a bullet between your eyes. Do you hear me?”
“I understand. I understand,” Jake muttered, waving his hands.
Cade threw him back onto the bed, and strode out of the cabin to his waiting mount.