***If you would like previous chapters, click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
After several hours of searching, Cade trudged through the snow toward the church. He rapped on the door with his knuckles, the kettle swinging from his hand with defeat. Reverend Whitley opened the door and offered a hesitant smile.
“Reverend, may I come inside?”
“Of course.” The reverend stepped back, motioning with his hand to welcome Cade.
Cade gave him an appreciative nod. The warmth of the room did not go unnoticed to him. He rubbed his hands and blew a warm breath between them. Then, he cleared his throat. “I have news about Ella.”
The minister glanced toward the kettle, and his eyes clouded over.
“I found it by the brook. No sign of her, sir.”
The reverend nodded, leaning on the pew for support. “What shall we do then?”
“We need to gather men and ask them to help us search the brook.”
The reverend’s eyes glimmered with disappointment. “There’s too much snow. We can’t ask anyone to search. Besides, with as cold as its been, if she fell into the…”
“Say no more.” Cade interrupted him. “We mustn’t focus on such.”
The preacher offered him a faint smile and turned away.
Ella lifted herself from the bed, leaning wearily on the table for support. “Mrs. Naomi, might I taste a bite of whatever you’re cooking?”
“Why certainly, my dear. Snow’s finally letting up.” The older woman shifted around the room with a spoonful of the substance dangling above her hand.
“It tastes mighty find, but if the snows stopping it’s best I be getting home.”
“Now there, I ain’t sending you away all alone, my dear. We’ll get a message sent to Whippercreek. They’ll send someone to fetch you. Until then, you’re staying put, missy. No need borrowing trouble. Patience shall do you some good.”
Ella sighed. She enjoyed the older woman’s company, but her heart raced toward Whippercreek. Her father would need someone. Since her mother passed, she had taken a watchful eye to his every need. What would he do without her?
Naomi handed her a bowl. “A rider should be stopping by tomorrow. I’ll have him take our message, but you better eat. I won’t have nobody thinking I didn’t feed you well.”
Ella lifted a fork to her lips and swallowed a chunk of meat. It hit her empty stomach with force. Her desire to return to Whippercreek surprised her. Never before had she considered what awaited her in the valley. Her father, Cade, a home…her mother had felt such sentiments toward the land. A single tear filled the corner of Ella’s eye. How could she love a place so much, when it had taken someone so beloved? It made no sense, but Whippercreek belonged to her, as much as she had tried to escape it. The tear now rolled across her cheek, yet a bittersweet hope filled its stead in her heart.
It was an unspoken. No gravestone marked its finality, but the quiet whispers around town told of Ella Whitley’s death. Cade had tried to move forward, but the thought of her plagued his mind. Why hadn’t he been there?
The snow finally melted into slush. He rode through the street toward the church. Today, the men would meet to discuss plans for the mine. Everyone moved forward, as if Ella Whitley had never existed. Cade tried their tactics, but it didn’t remove the thought of her from his mind.
Dismounting, he tied the mare and moved inside.
“I’m without a job until Mr. Edgerton opens the mine. I gotta eat. What would you have me do? I can’t make it in Whippercreek without getting paid.”
“Same here. Folks don’t have means to wait for the mine to reopen.”
Ella’s father sat in the middle. His spectacles lowered as the complaints continued.
“Why even at the store, we’re not making nearly the income we used to,” said Mr. Pelkman.
The reverend sighed. “What if we collect food here at the church? Those in need can stop by once a week to get an allowance. We’ll try to keep it running until the mine reopens. Is there anyone who can afford to donate goods?”
Cade stepped forward. “I don’t have any money. I can’t afford to purchase at the store, but I’ll hunt extra if need be.”
“Thank you, Mr. Stevens. That’s a generous offer. Is there anyone else?”
The reverend paused, gazing at the men. Several of the men expressed a murmur of agreement, but before they had time to discuss the matter further the church door swung open.
“A letter for Reverend Whitley from a Miss Ella Whitley!”
The crowd hushed. Cade couldn’t believe his ears. She was alive. Had she left them after all? His stomach churned.
Dazed. Ella’s father fumbled his thumbs over the letter and dropped it to the floor. With the help of several men, he made his way to a pew. Cade couldn’t stand to wait for the man to gather his wits. He rushed forward and snatched the letter off the floor.
I am sorrow for the grief I’ve caused you. I am well and wish to see you…Please send Cade for I fear the journey might not suit your health…
Cade placed the letter on the pulpit. He glanced toward the open rear door and ran after the messenger. Nothing would stop him from retrieving Ella Whitley.
“A rider’s coming!” Noami called. Rushing inside the house, she retrieved her gun and pointed it out the window.
Ella watched the figure approach. He had come. She touched Noami’s shoulder and rushed out the door to Cade. He dismounted before the horses stopped and ran to her, taking her in his arms.
“Ella Whitley, why if you ever leave again, I’ll…” His breath faded.
“Is my father well?” She interrupted.
“He’s fine.” Cade stepped back and released her, remembering his promise. “I was so worried about you. Why didn’t you send for us sooner?”
Ella opened her mouth to reply, but she heard Naomi clear her throat. “Oh Cade, I want you to meet, Mrs. Livingston.”
“Ma’am,” he nodded toward the stranger.
“She rescued and tended to me after the accident.”
Cade removed his hat. “I don’t know how to thank you for so kind a gesture, but please know there’s many of us–,” he glanced toward Ella, “–including me, that would have felt a hole in our lives without your kindness.”
Naomi beamed under his well placed gratitude. “Well, now that you got her. Take her home to those others, and child, don’t you forget his words. You have a place in that valley. It’s time you find it.”
Ella thanked Naomi, hugged her tightly and followed Cade to the horses.
The ride home began in silence. Then, Cade turned to her. “What did Mrs. Livingston mean?”
Ella hesitated. “I’ve tried for a long time to come to terms with my mother’s passing. But I’ve never quite gotten past how the valley took her. She developed pneumonia during a blizzard. We didn’t have a doctor readily available. I begged my father to send for him anyhow, but there was no time. After she died, I spent days wishing we had stayed east. The doctor could have come. She probably would never have had pneumonia. There were so many regrets. The bitterness. I couldn’t stand the thought of losing someone else, but slowly others passed on too. I seemed to live in a valley of the shadow of death. I grew to despise that land. Everything about it reminded me of my mother…of how she left me. I grew up alone, without an honest woman in miles. Things a mother teaches a girl, I had to figure out by myself. It just wasn’t fair, and I hated the valley for that.
“Then, you came to Whippercreek. I treated you terribly, and I could tell the moment we met you couldn’t stand being near me. I began praying. I asked God to help me treat you differently. And slowly, I changed, but a sorrow lingered in my heart.
“When Noami rescued me, she mentioned walking through the valley of death. I’ve lived in that valley, Cade. I’ve lived my whole life there, and it’s a terrible place. The valley of death is full of sorrow. That’s been Whippercreek for me. A valley where death takes all I love.” Ella glanced at him, but her eyes filled with tears… “For the first time, with Noami, I couldn’t return to Whippercreek. I missed home, and home wasn’t some city back east. It was the valley–Whippercreek. I missed it. The realization, broke me. How could that be? I’ve despised the valley. But Naomi’s words reminded me, God’s been guiding me through this valley. He shall guide me through many more. I’ve never known contentment since mother died.”
Cade bore a smile. “But you do now?”
“Yes, I suppose.”
“So do you want me to take you home?”
“If home is Whippercreek, than take me there.”
Cade grinned at her a smile wider than the sunset and wilder than Montana. “To Whippercreek.” He urged his horse forward, holding onto his hat, and glimpsing back at her to make sure she would keep pace.
She smiled, clicked her tongue to her own mount, and brushed past him with ease. Whether Cade remained in her life or not, she would be content with the One guiding her future.