***Previous chapters are available. Click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above for a selection.***
“Did you hear about the new man in town, Mr. Stevens?” Pelkman said.
“What man?” Cade demanded, snatching a file from the store clerk’s hand.
“They say he rode in on horseback the other day in full fancy duds, like he was from far back east. Nobody knows rightly why he’s visiting, but I ‘spect we’ll know his purpose here soon.”
Strangers don’t come to Whippercreek, Cade recalled Ella’s words with a shudder. Has someone finally found me?
“Why Mr. Stevens, Mr. Pelkman, a good morning to you!” Ella called, interrupting his thoughts. “Have you heard word of the dance?”
“There’s to be a spring social just before the mine inspection.”
Cade dropped the horse’s hoof and took off his gloves, smacking them in his hands.
“Pa says it’ll bring some life back to town, keep people’s spirits up until the mine reopens, maybe even open our eyes to the plight of some of our neighbors.”
“A splendid idea!” Pelkman chimed in.
“I rather think our time might be best spent at the mine than at a social,” Cade said.
Ella glowered at him.
He swallowed a lump in his throat, casting his eyes toward the rocky soil below. “I just meant there’s more important business to tend, that’s all.” Cade spat off to the side. He knew his indifference rubbed Ella raw, but the gathering meant a chance for the new stranger to cast eyes on him. He could imagine meeting the man’s gaze and attempting to force his way through the crowd to escape. Cade rubbed at his neck. His breathing seemed forced.
Ella sighed. “Mr. Edgerton has the mine near ready.” She slowed her words and studied him. “We shall have an evening social, and the inspection the following week. There’s nothing to be done until then. Everyone shall plan to attend.”
Cade nodded, his heart pattering at an alarming rate. Everyone, including a stranger who could identify him.
“Mr. Edgerton, we hear you have for yourself a visitor?”
The man laughed, his belly shaking.
“Reverend Whitley, yes indeed, I do. Business plans. Business plans, my man. There is much to do in the next few weeks.”
Ella studied the mine owner. The man, never full of himself or bitter about the disaster, had staked his own funds to help the town recover. A gracious act, Ella appreciated Edgerton’s heart. He loved Whippercreek, and something about such an attitude reminded her deeply of her mother’s passion for the valley.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll retrieve our guest presently.”
Ella smoothed her skirts over the ornate walnut sofa. A striped golden fabric from Europe covered the cushion and told of the owner’s wealth. Edgerton’s mansion lay just due east of town in a grove of pines. A road winded its way from the main up the steep hills toward it.
They rarely visited the man’s home due to the distance, so Ella always marveled at the interior rooms. Her father, cross-legged, sipped upon a glass of tea, waiting to meet Edgerton’s guest. Ella turned her gaze out the window, gazing down the slope toward town. Any guest knew immediately why the wealthy man had chosen the slope.
The brook, full of spring waters, graced its way past the main house, the mountains lay snow-capped in the distance, and a rim of smoke, from the speck of houses below, danced upward toward them. The water glistened, and on this particular morning, could be heard throughout the main part of the house, rushing its way down the hillside toward town. Along with its rhythm, the birds sang high in the hills.
The sounds of nature so gravitating that it appeared to hum her father to sleep. She chuckled at the observation.
Edgerton made his way back into the room and huffed at the sight of the preacher. “Reverend.” He whispered.
Her father jolted upward, managing to stammer, “Yes, of course,” as his tea spilled across his lap.
“Reverend, this hear is Mr. Barton.” Edgerton stepped back, red-faced and extended his hand toward the stranger.
The social came with the first blossoms of spring. The saloon had transformed overnight. Dusted and cleaned, the bottles of whiskey removed from the shelves, table linens, covering the worn furnishings. Food in abundance spread across the serving area.
Mr. Edgerton stood in the rear. A round-robust man, he laughed heartily, filling the room with an air of richness. Ella’s father stood beside him in deep discussion. A cup of punch rested in his hands.
Cade took in the room with unease. From further conversations with Mr. Pelkman he had been assured the stranger would arrive at tonight’s event. Cade couldn’t take chances. So why had he come? The question plagued him. Between Ella’s constant inquiries to Mr. Pelkman’s exuberance for such affairs, he didn’t want to set off alarms by not being present. But no, it was more than that. He couldn’t stand their discussion of the new man. Waiting to meet such a foe seemed daunting. Either way, it would happen unexpectedly. He just needed to be prepared, so why not this evening? Why not have it all in the open? He had saddled his horse with enough food and water for the next several days. If something were to happen, let it happen tonight.
The thought of meeting such a stranger sent chills down his spine. Perhaps, the man wouldn’t be a stranger at all. Perhaps, they had met before. What should he do then? He couldn’t answer such riveting doubts; instead, he had determined to attend the affair just long enough to gather a glimpse of the man. After such occurrence, Cade would slip out the back. No one would be the wiser.
“Mr. Stevens, Mr. Stevens!” Pelkman called.
Cade cringed at the sound of his father’s name. He wore a pistol at his side. Without thought, his right hand rested on it, prepared for whatever might come.
“Isn’t this a marvelous event?” Pelkman said.
Cade eased his hand off the weapon. “It is indeed.”
“Come, you must try the punch.” Pelkman led the way between a crowd of jovial faces.
Cade’s chest tightened. He accepted a glass. Holding it between two fingers, he sipped, while staring toward the crowd that had cornered them. Each face weighed against his memories. All–returned innocent of charge. Cade released a breath and tried to calm himself. He took another swallow of punch, but chocked on the tangy substance, Pelkman patting his back.
“Cade,” Ella’s voice rang through the crowd.
He forced his eyes to turn toward her. She wore a white dress with ruffles. Lace covered the bodice, and a soft blue ribbon tapered from her waist to the ground. Mr. Pelkman smacked Cade one final time, thrusting him toward her.
“I have someone I’d like you to meet.”
Cade froze, a sickening feeling filling his gut. A man stepped out from behind her. A cynical smile gracing his face. Brown hair and spectacles slid just above a moustache. Cade swallowed.