***If you wish to select a previous chapter, click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
Cade rested on the cot inside his cabin, or at least, the cabin given to him by Ella. He didn’t know when or if he would speak to her again. Despite his misgivings, he longed to see her. The town didn’t need a sheriff any longer, nor had it ever really needed one from the beginning. Cade didn’t belong in the valley. Was it time to leave?
A hard-pressed sigh forced from his throat.
“Uh ya—in there, Mr. Stevens?” A rough half-slurred voice pierced through the reverie that he’d felt for days.
“Who’s asking?” Cade growled, that old sense of self-preservation, setting the hairs on his arm.
“I ain’t just spewing my mouth. It’s me, Mr. Stevens. I been meanin’ to speak with you.”
The inkling of fear erased with sudden recognition. What purpose did Jake Slater have with him?
Marching toward the opening, Cade flung it forward. His eyes glared toward the man with suspicion.
“Now I ain’t sayin’ I knows what I don’t know, but you ever heard the name Brandon Nickels?” Slater leaned against the wood frame, as if he had come to discuss business.
“What do you need, Mr. Slater?” Cade adjusted his hat, sliding his finger across the brim to straighten it.
“Now ain’t that the way with ya.” Slater patted his pant leg with a shake of his head. “Always spitin’ me for something I ain’t even done.”
Cade bit his bottom lip and shook his head with frustration, willing everything in him not to flatten the man. “What’s this about?”
“Well, I’m a tryin’ to get to it.” The man rolled his eyes.
“Then, say what you’re meaning to. I ain’t got time for the likes of you.” Cade growled, his eyes clouding with anger.
“You want to hear what’s I gots to say, or you gonna stand their hollerin’ at me?” Jake raised his eyebrows with self-righteous indignation.
“All right, Mr. Slater. You have my ear,” Cade said with a sigh.
“Nows this Brandon Nickels, he came by the saloon when I was in there, and he sat with that lawyer fella’—”
“I thought you stopped coming to town.” Cade interrupted his eyes casting suspicion on the man.
“Well, I ain’t rightly stopped comin’ in the late evenings, you see.”
Cade spat towards his boots. “All right, very well then, continue.”
Slater sighed. “That there lawyer fella’ met with Mr. Nickels, and they had an exchange of money or sorts.”
“What lawyer fella’?”
“The one that owns a share of Mr. Edgerton’s mine.” Slater’s voice rose at Cade’s ignorance.
Cade’s eyes narrowed. “I see.”
“Well, the money kind of traded hands, and I heard him whisper to Mr. Nickels to take care of the mine. Make sure it was, what do you say, um—ill-repaired or some such.”
“Are you certain?” Cade glared at the man, unsure whether to believe his story. “Did anyone else hear this?”
“No sir, I was ’bouts the only one in the place.” Slater muttered with a shrug.
“Well, why would Mr. Barton want harm for the mine? He owns a share.” Cade cast his eyes toward the rocky soil in thought.
Slater licked his lips. “I ain’t rightly knowin’ some such, but I’m telling ya what I heard and saw that night. I don’t want no men’s lives hangin’ over my head. Just thought it best you know.”
“Thank you, Mr. Slater. I appreciate it. I truly do.” Cade offered the man a nod and watched as he moseyed away from town. If the man spoke the truth, Ella’s father died from that money exchange. He had to find her…
“Ella, Ella!” Cade pounded his fists on the door behind the church. No answer extended from inside. “I know you hear me. I must speak with you, and I ain’t leavin’ until I do so.”
Silence greeted him again.
“Ella Whitley, you get out here, or I’m bound to come in after ya. Now which way will you have it?” Cade leaned against the door, meaning every bitter word.
It sprung with a creak from the hinges. A face peered out towards him. “What do you want?” She muttered. Her eyes brimmed with red.
“Can I speak with you?” Cade’s voice softened, seeing her in such a state.
Ella sighed and opened the door wide; turning to the table she picked a bonnet, and tied it beneath her chin. “Where do you wish to speak, Mr. Stevens?”
Cade glared with sorrow at her lips as his surname escaped. “Maybe down the hillside aways. I think you’ll want to hear what I’ve got to say.”
“Unlikely,” she said with stoic reserve.
Cade didn’t refute her; instead, he swung the door behind them and followed her down the hillside.
“Is this far enough?” she said with a hint of hope lighting her voice.
“That it is.” He sighed, wishing to hear that light tone remain on her lips.
She wrapped the skirt of her dress around her legs and tucked her knees in close, finding a seat amongst the wildflowers.
Cade paced behind her. He wanted to sit and take her hand in his, but some invisible obstruction kept him at bay. “I’m sorry,” he said, without forethought.
She plucked the head off of one of the flowers and tossed it to the ground. “I’ve had time to think over things. It wasn’t your fault.” But even as she spoke, her voice sounded flat, reserved, insincere…
“Well, I’ve heard a rumor,” he managed.
Her eyes rose to his face, searching for meaning.
“Brandon Nickels.” Cade’s voice cracked. Only once had Ella looked upon him the way she did now. The desperation pleaded from her eyes.
“Nickels?” She whispered.
“Yes, Jake Slater says Mr. Barton paid Brandon Nickels to make certain the mine didn’t reopen.”
Her brows furrowed. “Mr. Slater doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The man’s out of his mind.”
Cade licked his lower lip. His next words needed to be precise. “You once told me Jake’s story. I think the man had good reason to approach me. Someone may have intentionally damaged the beams.”
“No, it was an accident.” Ella’s eyes watered.
Cade swallowed, the misery too much. “You once entrusted me as sheriff. I hope you’ll trust me now.”
She shook her head, a waterfall of raging tears burning red inside her eyes.
“Regardless, I can’t let this be, Ella.” His heart pained from the bitterness he saw across her face. “Your father didn’t die for nothing. If someone tampered with that mine, I won’t let this rest until I find the man.”
Silence greeted his response.
Ella stared ahead toward the mine. Cade studied her figure. He still loved her, every part of her. Brushing his hat to his pant leg, Cade nodded his head as if to settle the matter and walked in the opposite direction.
“Cade?” A voice with the lightness of a feather, danced in the wind.
He spun, hoping to catch her racing toward him, but she still sat resolute.
“What’s that Ella?” He forced through the pain in his throat.
“You be careful.” She whispered.
And as silence engulfed the hillside once more, Cade left her with a swelling in his chest.
After asking around town, Cade finally received a tip. Brandon Nickels lived several miles toward the far outskirts of the valley. Cade would find the man inside a canvas tent across from a deep ravine.
Taking the next day to travel, the tent appeared above him just as his informant described. A once white stretched canvas appeared an earth stained brown. The pinnacle sloped with a bedraggled look towards the hillside. A small creek trickled nearby, the man’s cup rested with a tin just out of the water’s reach. Cade made his way to these objects and retreated with them behind a series of boulders. Tossing the cup into the air, he raised his pistol and fired.
The bullet knocked against the metal with a crack that would awaken even the most dead of slumbers. A man shouted and the tent shook with the force of someone stirring. Cade tossed the pan into the air and fired once more.
A stranger rushed from the fabric, gun poised at the ready. Cade rested his pistol just above the edge of the boulder and fired once more. This time he aimed for the man’s hand. The bullet grazed past, and the man swung his finger in a fit of rage, as he dropped his weapon.
Cade stood, causing the man’s eyes to widen. He rushed toward the weapon, and Cade fired once more, causing the piece to dance across the ground out of the man’s reach.
“All right there, easy now. No reason to shoot me. Why I don’t even know the likes of you!” The man leaned away from him, arms raised at his chest.
“That’s right. You don’t know me, but I know you, Brandon Nickels.”
The man’s eyes shifted. “I ain’t ever seen you before in my life.”
“That’s true too. Why don’t we start by getting to know each other?”
The man licked his lips and shook his head.
Cade rushed upon him, taking him by the collar. “My name is Cade Rivers. I’m one of the men you tried to bury alive the other day at the mine. You didn’t think I’d forget, did you?”
“Ain’t so. That just ain’t so…” The stranger swallowed hard.
“What ain’t so, that I’m alive, or that you tried to have me killed?” Cade shook his chokehold on the man’s shirt.
“I don’t know what you’re speaking of…A man’s got a right to live up here alone with nobody pestering him.” The man’s black hair stood on end. His eyes danced with manic disbelief.
“Mr. Nickels, I’m gonna tell you a secret. This ain’t the first time I used my pistol on a man, and the last one ain’t alive anymore to tell about it.” Cade tossed the man to the ground and cocked his weapon, as the stranger crawled away.
Frantic, the man lifted his arms once more. “Okay, okay, I might have done something.”
Cade lowered the weapon to his side and tipped his head.
“A man paid me, said I’d make out plenty more if I got Mr. Edgerton to shut down the mine. I went in after dark, destroyed some of the support beams. It didn’t have anything to do with killin’.”
“Sure it did.” Cade kicked the toe of his boot into the dirt, tossing dust toward the man. “If men died in the mine, it would be sure to close. That’s what he paid you for.”
“Wasn’t like that for me. I just wanted the money.” The man cast his eyes toward the ground. Then, he returned his glare into Cade’s eye. “Mr. Barton had other ideas.”
“Like what?” Cade growled.
The man shook his head. “Well, he said if somebody got hurt or worse, I’d have plenty of money coming, that they’d be sure to close the mine then.”
“Why did Mr. Barton want the mine closed? Did he say that too?” Cade narrowed his eyes upon the snitch, nothing worse than a coward.
“Something about taking all the gold for himself.” The man stared at Cade with relief, as if the new knowledge might sway him into a partnership as well.
“There’s gold in the mine?”
The man cocked his head backwards and laughed. “Plenty of it.”
“And how does Mr. Barton know this?”
An amused grin settled over the man’s face, his snake-eyes glinting in the sunlight. “When Mr. Barton first bought his portion, he hired me on. I made some extra by reporting back to him. If I found anything, he would pay me twice my portion.”
Cade turned and picked up the man’s pistol. He emptied the bullets onto the ground before tucking it into his belt. “Get up.”
The man followed his orders, dusting his pant legs. “Now I told ya what ya wanted to know, and you and I’s the only one to know about that there gold. We could make a fortune.”
Cade pulled his horse over to the man and unwound a rope from his saddle. “Do I look like a man who needs the likes of you,” he spat.
“That’s right. I ain’t in need of your gold. I’m not a man who kills for such things.”
The stranger bit his bottom lip. “But you have killed a man, mister, haven’t you?”
Cade didn’t answer him. His prisoner didn’t need to know more about Whippercreek’s sheriff.
The man laughed as Cade tied his hands. “Well if you have someone, there’s not much difference between you and me, now, is there?”
Cade glanced a warning towards the man, and climbed into his saddle. Winding the rope around his horn, he nudged his mare forward. Thunder clapped across the distant mountains. In the back of his heart, he wondered if the man didn’t have a point. Who was he to inact justice?