***If you wish to view previous chapters, click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
“Sheriff! Hurry on out here.” A voice urged through the dark shroud of his dreams.
Cade stirred. Slipping his feet into his boots, he stood with weary unease. Thoughts of Ella raced through his mind.
“Mr. Stevens, hurry up about it.”
Cade sighed from the impatience caller’s urgent voice and shuffled through the worn interior. Tossing the flap aside, he said, “What’s this all about?”
Pelkman stood outside, tapping his feet with impatience. “Do you even know what day it is?”
Cade shrugged, coming to Pelkman’s side with a sigh.
Pelkman rolled his eyes. “Why it’s only the most important day of the year!”
Cade rubbed at sleep-ridden eyes. “What days that now?” He squinted at the store owner.
“The mine inspection! Don’t you remember man?” The older gentleman clasped his arm around Cade’s shoulder.
“The mine inspection…I forgot!” Cade pressed a hand to his forehead. “We’re late!”
Waving Pelkman forward, Cade ran toward the mine. A group of men had formed about the opening, and Ella’s father greeted him with eagerness.
“It’s almost time, son,” the reverend said, patting his shoulder. “Here, take a lantern. You’ll need one once we get inside.”
The crowd murmured with anticipation, an applause of sorts rumbling through them. Whippercreek had waited far too long for this day. Men’s livelihoods depended on their success. Cade searched the faces for Ella’s. Just when he thought she hadn’t come, there he saw her. Her eyes fixated on him.
A wisp of curly blonde hair danced in the wind. He wished he could take her with them, but then again, he was glad she would await their return in the safety of the valley’s sunshine. The most fragile smile adorned her face, and Cade longed to make it peak further into her cheeks.
“Men, form a line.” Mr. Edgerton ordered. “Waterton has waited for this day, and we-shall-reopen this mine!”
Cheers irrupted from the crowd as he emphasized each word.
Ella’s eyes shifted nervously away.
Cade turned toward the mine entrance. Why do I feel at such unease? He couldn’t explain the sudden bout of apprehension stirring his insides. Lord, protect us, he mustered, and stepped forward to follow Reverend Whitley into the heart of the mountain.
Their lantern lights faded into darkness, each man’s silhouette disappearing with the shadows. Ella gulped a breath full of air. They would return soon. Everything she loved had entered the mine, but the men had prepared for it. The mine was safe. Ready for them. They would return.
Ella studied the entrance, void of all life once more, before turning away. She would watch from the hillside. Wading through layers of tall grass, she found a quiet spot halfway toward the crest. There, she rested, tracing the layers of dried foliage with her fingers. Minutes passed that felt like hours. She stilled her hands and stared at the entrance.
A slight movement? Or was it her imagination?
Suddenly, the earth growled with a rumble deep inside. Ella pressed her hands to her brow and squinted. A loud clap filled the air, and then more rumbling as dust shook through the mine opening. Ella jumped to her feet. Cade, her father, the men she loved were inside.
She ran down the hillside, stumbling toward the mine. Screams filled the air. “Help them! Somebody, please help!”
Men rushed forward around her. She stood in a dream, staring after them. The entrance darkened by a faint cloud of dust-filled air. Ella reeled backwards with pain, falling to her knees, shaken. A mountain between her and those she loved. How could this happen again?
Cade had heard that familiar sound before. A rumble, as if the belly of the earth growled with hunger, shook the walls around him.
“Get down!” Someone hollered.
Ten men dove to the ground, their hands covering their heads. Rocks collided above them, like a river flooded with a sudden onslaught of water. Screams penetrated through the dust, and then silence…
Everything fell into darkness.
Through shallow, dust-filled breaths, Cade forced his way to a standing position. “Reverend?”
“Mr. Pelkman? Reverend?” He coughed, gasping for air.
Nothing. Silence greeted him.
He expelled a breath, the air echoing into darkness. Fumbling frantically for the lantern, Cade found remnants of its shattered glass. Please God…
“Reverend, can you hear me?”
Tears stung his eyes. Cade’s mind raced. He reached for the walls around him, touching them with fragile grace. I can’t die here. Not yet.
Finding the wall, Cade traced the fallen rocks with his hands. Then, discerning which rock held the others, he began removing the stones, piece by piece.
“Reverend, can you hear me?” A hollow cough sputtered from underneath him. Cade tossed the rocks more furiously. “Reverend, I’m coming. Please, stay there.”
Silence echoed beyond his screams. Cade relentlessly pulled stones from the pile, creating a hole for his arms. Sinking them inside, he found the reverend’s shirt coat.
“Sir, you’ll be well. Just give them a minute topside. They’ll have us out in no time.”
“Lean in here boy.” The hoarse whisper climbed toward his ears.
Cade followed the man’s pleas, and the reverend’s fingers clasped onto his own. “Son.” He coughed.
“Yes sir, I’m here,” Cade said, swallowing the torrent of tears swelling his eyes.
“You take care of my Ella, you understand?” The preacher’s hand mustered firmness.
“I will, sir.” Cade whispered, his mind unable to absorb the man’s state. “Please sir…”
The man coughed uncontrollably. “I haven’t much time, Cade. Promise me you’ll take care of my little girl.”
Cade turned his head. “I will, sir. I will.” His hands shook, as the man’s fingers slid from his grasp. “Mr. Whitley? Reverend, please, you can’t leave me. You don’t understand.”
Silence echoed his words in response.
Tears filled Cade’s eyes. He hadn’t even told Ella the truth. He couldn’t take care of her, not yet… You’ve left us too soon, sir.