***Read previous chapters by clicking on the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
Ella squeezed tight to Cade’s waist, cherishing the comfort she found in his steady form. Upon father’s death, she had all but forgotten the day he escorted her home. The memory washed over her with vivid detail. So unlike any other man she’d known, Cade had shown her tenderness, and that gentleness captivated her heart. How could she have sought a home in Boston, while here, amongst Montana’s frontier, this man loved her?
Ella studied his broad shoulders as he led the mare forward. Soon, they were to marry, and she would find kindness in his arm’s for the rest of her life. At that moment, nothing else mattered. Perhaps, if she had trusted God, she wouldn’t have searched for so long…
The sound of a brook gurgled through the pines ahead and rocky slopes cast shadows over them from on high. Ella studied the formidable towers. To most, they would present ominous foreboding, but to her they whispered, “Welcome home.”
“Would you urge her forward?” She tapped Cade’s shoulder with eagerness.
Without comment, he clicked his heel into the mare, and they trotted ahead. Ella leaned into his shoulder and took in the smell of sweat and horse flesh. Something about this man, stilled her beating heart.
She closed her eyes and whispered a prayer for morning to come with haste.
Cade rode into Whippercreek with the moon rising overhead. Ella leaned on his shoulder.
“Did we make it?” She stretched and bent forward again for the answer.
He studied their surroundings. “Yes, Ella, we’re home.”
The final word danced with a strange hint of hope through him, and he wished to have held it inside for the time being. Cade stopped the mare amid the dusty street. Dismounting with a swift swing of his leg, he turned to take Ella by the waist.
“Hold it right there!” A voice pierced through the dark, and suddenly lantern’s flickered around them.
Cade lurched for his pistol, but for the first time in his life, his hand reached it too late. A gun shot rang past his ears. Ella screamed. Cade froze.
“Mr. Rivers, you can either come peaceable like, or we can set to a hanging right here.” The stranger’s voice rang past his ears raising dire alarm.
Ella’s eyes glanced toward him, and then back towards the two shadows casting orders from the dark. “You have the wrong man,” she said with a conviction that broke his heart.
“I don’t think so, miss.” One of the four silhouettes stepped forward.
Ella’s eyes widened in recognition. “Mr. Barton, I thought you had left for Bannack? You know Mr. Stevens, here. Why don’t you tell them?”
The old snake-eyed grin emerged across the man’s face. “Well, that’s exactly it, Miss Whitley. I know your—Mr. Stevens—more than you seem to even know the man.”
“I haven’t done anything to you.” Cade whispered, desperate.
The man chuckled. “Ah, but you and I both know we have secrets to keep.” Another shadow stepped from the darkness.
Cade shook his head, anger rising inside him. “Mr. Nickels is a prisoner. He had no right to be set free. You both are wanted for murder here in the valley. Mr. Barton, I suggest you turn yourself in.”
The wealthy lawyer laughed in amusement. “No, Mr. Rivers. Miss Whitley, let me introduce you to the man you chose for valley sheriff.”
Cade narrowed his eyes upon the man. With a shake of his head, he pleaded with Barton to hold his tongue. Ella must hear the truth from him.
But Mr. Barton only smiled wider. “The man before you is a wanted murderer, a criminal, on the run from justice. His real name is Cade Rivers—father, Steven Rivers, a known thief and gunhand. Cade Rivers is wanted in Bannack—”
“Stop!” Cade gritted his teeth and shut his eyes to the painful memories that flooded back.
Ella bit her lower lip and watched him with concern. “That ain’t so, is it?”
He glanced toward her in horror. The moment of truth forcing a lump into his throat. “I’m so sorry.” His voice broke under the weight of those simple words.
“No…no…” She shook her head and a tear fell with relentless abandonment past her cheek into a mess of long locks.
“Mr. Rivers, I must ask you to remove your pistol.” A man stepped forward, a dash of silver justice spotting the corner of his vest.
Cade shook his head, but removed his gun belt.
Ella dismounted the mare alone and came to the far side of the animal. There, she stood peering at him with a mix of pain and fear.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered to her once more.
To this, she turned away and sniffled tears in the shadows. Darkness separated his heart from the one woman who had ever loved him.
“Turn around, Mr. Rivers.”
Cade did as the man directed him, but his mind remained on Ella.
“Mount your horse.”
Cade again followed the orders. Men leapt upon him from the shadows, and he found them knotting a rope around his hands. From his mount, he could watch Ella. She stood with her back toward him. Her head cast towards the soil in defeated misery.
“I planned to tell you,” he said with more conviction than he felt inside.
Her head lifted slightly at his words before falling.
“I’m so sorry.” He tried again, attempting to find anything that would explain his actions.
“All right men, tonight, we celebrate.” A hoot and a holler rose from those around. Horses came from the dark, and the man with the shiny badge of justice took hold of his mare’s reins. “Get up!”
A roll of thunderous hoof beats, the ones he had only imagined in his nightmares, now perpetuated him forward. A cloud of dust rose in their wake, and behind, in the shadows of a dark night, stood Ella’s silhouette. Cade watched behind him as it faded. She did not chase them, or scream for the men to wait. Like his father, he had left her hollow, empty, and void of purpose. For once, he did not fear the hangman’s noose; instead, he despised that it came with such heartache. As the horse beneath him, rocked forward, Cade realized the distinction. Unlike his father, he cared for those he left behind.