***Previous chapters of Whippercreek are available by clicking on the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above. Have a restful visit to the valley!***
A warm breath blew smoky air toward her. She felt a fur blanket resting on her chest. Ella pressed her hand to her forehead and tried to sit up, but the pounding had its way. She couldn’t clear her eyes.
“Where I am?” she tried to force through rigid, chapped lips.
“There, there…” A voice cooed. She felt a bony hand lift her head, and then, a sip of warm stew touched her lips. The flavor sat on her tongue and burned down her throat. The smoky smell of the broth embracing her nostrils, stilling her mind, which then, eased back to sleep.
The town had searched for the beloved preacher’s daughter, but nothing seemed to come of it. They were on day three of Ella’s absence, and Cade didn’t think he could take the fire burning inside of him much longer. The preacher had paid him a visit. In that same, matter-a-fact way, he had comforted Cade. It should’ve been the other way around, but the man seemed to be more at ease.
Cade had pondered visiting Jake’s cabin again and forcibly sobering up the drunk. Maybe with less alcohol in his system, Jake’s fear couldn’t hide behind it. Cade could shred the man limb by limb, but it wouldn’t serve any purpose. Deep inside, Cade had seen it in his eyes. Jake knew nothing of her disappearance. Torturing the poor man would only serve to satisfy the fire inside him, so Cade had set out that morning with plans to trace every inch of the valley. A woman didn’t just disappear. There had to be sign of her somewhere.
He crossed toward the brook, crunching the frozen snow under his weight. The woods lay still, silent, as if nothing had roused them for days. As Cade made his way deeper into them, he noticed the marks of an elk. He couldn’t see the creature, but the tracks lay freshly printed into the snow. He weaved through them and beyond, toward a grove of pines with a rock sitting just inside the brook’s bed. The stone rested on the outcropping from which the trees grew. Cade approached the grove, but noticed the rock seemed to change as he grew closer. He knelt above it and brushed the snow off the top with his gloved hand.
It’s stone surface transformed before him. Nothing more than a porridge pot, he grasped it by the handle and studied the etching on the side. It seemed familiar. Cade dusted the letters once more with his hand. The pot had sat at his hearth, a token of Ella Whitley’s graciousness to a stranger. He had returned it not long after, but the item belonged to her. He glanced at it and looked about his surroundings.
“Ella!” His voice echoed through the tree branches, causing the snow above to fall in clumps. If this pot sat here in the creek bed, it likely meant one thing…
Cade couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought; instead, he climbed down the embankment and searched for more signs.
Ella lifted her head and studied the woman at the fireside. The grey-haired figure bent with an arched back, throwing wood into the flames. Her shawl seemed tattered and worn. Ella couldn’t quite place her name. Had she said to call her Naomi?
Her mind had wondered between consciousness and sleep for what felt like days. Her last clear memories reached with painful awareness into each dozing hour. The water lapping at her neck. Her hand reaching frantically forward, as her final breath of air sent her plummeting under. The feeling of drowning, smothered her under the woven quilt.
She couldn’t remember how she came to be with Naomi. Ella only knew she had at some point arrived in the woman’s care after those memories at the river.
Naomi danced across the room with a well-aged gate. She landed in a rocker beside the bed, glancing at Ella with suspicion casting in her eyes.
“How did I come to be here?” Ella questioned through hoarse breaths.
“Hold still child.” The woman reached forward with wrinkled hands, and pinched Ella’s cheeks to pour a sip of thick broth down her throat.
Ella coughed, as the liquid simmered through her.
“Do you remember my name, child?”
“No.” Ella shook her head and squinted at the woman through sore eyes.
“You can call me Noami. I married a fur trader at Fort McKenzie when I was but a girl. I’m originally a member of the Piegan Tribe.”
Ella nodded in understanding. Whippercreek remained fairly isolated from other areas of Montana, but she remembered encountering the Blackfeet on her family’s journey west. “Mrs. Naomi, I don’t remember your husband. Is he away?”
“Mr. Livingston passed on a few years back, child. Just been me and the livestock since.”
“You chose not to return home?”
“Oh bless you, girl. My childhood was years ago. This is my home now.”
“But to be taken away from your family? And now to have lost your husband? You must wish for some company. Don’t you have regrets?”
“I enjoy the quiet, that is till you come along with your questions.”
Ella attempted to force a smile but grimaced instead. This woman had lost so much. How could she call this place home?
“Now child, you need your rest. We’ll talk more in the morning.”
“It’s evening then?”
“Ah, yes it is, love.” The older woman snatched a lantern off of a nearby table and bent to extinguish the candle inside.
“Of what day?” Ella caused her to pause and glance toward her.
“Goodness knows, I don’t remember the dates anymore. I found you back four days now. Reckon your folks will be wondering, but ain’t no good outside, what with the snow and all. When you’re well, I’ll see to it you get home.”
“Father shall be worried. I’ll face the snow, Mrs. Livingston. If you’ll just help me up.” Ella made an attempt to sit forward in the bed.
“Now that there is foolish talk. You’ve been out with the fever, and you think I’m going to let you walk right out of my cabin…I should think not. Why child, you probably can’t even stand. Give it a few days, and we’ll see you home when the medicines done its good.”
Ella leaned back into the bed and met the old woman’s eyes. “They’ll be worried though.”
The older woman’s eyes sagged with heaviness. “Better for them to worry than for their fears to be true, child.”
“I suppose.” Ella took a reluctant glimpse out the window. Would her father erect a grave marker in her absence? She hoped to return before he endured such sorrow. “Mrs. Livingston, about our earlier discussion, I didn’t mean to pry.”
The woman sighed good-naturedly. “There, there child. I may not have loved Mr. Livingston from the start, but we came to find love in each other.”
“Then, how can you stand to live where he was taken away?”
“Goodness, that’s a burdened question, child. I may walk in the valley of death, but thy rod and staff comfort me…” The old woman’s grey eyes turned their heavy sags upward for just a moment. “He may have died here, but he left me with hope, child. Now, no more idle chatter. Shut your eyes.”
Ella dutifully obeyed, but sleep didn’t come. Her legs felt restless, and her mind wandered to Whippercreek. Were they searching for her in the valley? She prayed for her father’s sake they hadn’t given up hope.