***If you wish to read a previous chapter, click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
A gavel knocked against the wooden table.
“Court’s in session.”
“We call Mr. Rivers to the stand.” Barton paced the room with an all too eager smile smacking across his rounded lips.
Loud laughter and murmurs filled the space. In a miner’s court, justice only mattered if it befit the community.
Cade rolled his eyes, but shuffled from his seat. In his case, they would enact justice swiftly.
“Mr. Rivers, is it not true that you stole a claim from the deceased?”
Cade sighed. He might as well wrap a rope around his own neck. “No, I didn’t steal anything from Mr. Lawson. He offered to pay me to take his claim into Virginia City. Along the way, I was robbed.”
“But you did take the man’s life?” Barton added with haste.
“Yes, I suppose.”
“You suppose or you did, Mr. Rivers?”
Cade bit his lip and sighed. “I did.” He growled at the man.
Barton smirked. “Then tell these fine individuals how that came to be?”
Cade glanced at the crowd. Angry faces peered back toward him. “Mr. Lawson was one of yours, was he not?”
The hardened eyes softened for a moment, and he received several nods in response.
“Well, I’m one of yours too.”
“Judge, please…” Barton hollered toward the man with the gavel.
“All right, that’s enough out of you, Mr. Rivers.”
“Mr. Rivers, the day you left Bannack. What happened outside the saloon?”
Cade looked toward his feet, before lifting his eyes upon the man that should have sat in his seat. “Well I’m not welcome in most towns, Mr. Barton. See out here, justice is different than what you’re accustomed to back east. A man’s name is everything, and my father…”
“Mr. Rivers, what does this have to do with the morning in question?”
Cade smacked his hand across the table. “If you would allow me to finish, I’ll get around to it!”
The judge nodded, and Cade gave him an appreciative tip of his head in return.
“My father died an outlaw.”
“Just like you, Rivers!” The crowd shouted. “String ’im!”
“Now hold on just a minute.” Cade stood and waved a chained hand for them to stop. “I have the right to trial. Let me speak. Then if you still wish to hang me, do what you must.”
The crowd gradually sat and a disgruntled mumble rippled through the room.
“Now with me carrying his name and all, I tried to stay out of the way most places. So the morning in question, I stood on the street, not inside. I had already spoken to Mr. Lawson. He didn’t believe my account of what happened to his claim, but I thought the matter settled.
“When he approached me in the street that morning, he wanted payment. But I didn’t have anything to give him. He threatened me.”
“So you killed him, Mr. Rivers!” Barton yelled the verdict as if it held Cade’s fate.
The crowd whispered again.
A man amongst them stood. “Let’s throw a rope around his neck!”
“Here, here!” Another raised his fist in agreement.
Men now stood around the room, making their way towards him.
“No, I’m not finished speakin’…wait!”
But their hands fell upon him, a rope slid about his neck. He gritted his teeth. That same sudden feeling of helplessness that he had felt watching his father’s death took over his body.
The gavel swung, but men rushed and yelled about him anyway.
With hungry appetites and an unexplainable eagerness, they threw him into the street. Cade clawed at the dirt, pulling his body away from them, but they came once more. The rope tightened about his neck, and now he lurched for it, desperately trying to open his airway. Men laughed and scoffed at his helplessness, nothing more than a dog to die in the street.
Hands jerked against his shirt, tearing it to barren threads.
“Please…” But his cry fell on death ears.
“Get him to the gallows!”
They handed the rope to a man on horseback. A sudden lurch, and it tightened about his neck once more, as the beast trotted forward.
Cade stumbled and fell, but the rider continued dragging him. Reaching for the rope with his hands, he tugged to release the pressure. “Please…” he coughed through, breathless gasps.
Then, he scrambled against the dirt street again to catch the horse and rider. Once they reached the other side, the rider tossed the rope to another man. Hands took Cade under the shoulder and brought him to stand below a wooden frame.
At this Cade shut his eyes, vanquishing the fear. He felt the rope sling backwards, and then the men came once more. They stood him on a wooden stool, and he opened his steel grey eyes to face the crowd with quiet resolve.
“Mr. Cade Rivers, do you have any final words?”
“You did not wish to hear them!” He yelled in anger.
A whisper fell through the crowd once more. Women gaped with rounded eyes, preparing to watch him die. Children stood at their feet, and Cade prayed they wouldn’t remember this day like he recalled his first hanging.
“Gentleman, please wait…” A wagon lurched to a stop just on the other side of the crowd. A woman’s hat wove through, and Ella stepped before him.
What was she doing here? Cade didn’t want her to watch him hang.
“Miss, we got a verdict to fulfill.” Barton stepped forward and smiled his snake-eyed grin towards her.
Ella nodded. “Would you give me a minute with the accused?”
The men sighed, and a hand slipped the rope from his neck. Cade rubbed the area where it had already burned a scar and shook his head toward Ella.
“I need to speak with you.” She beckoned him with sorrowful eyes.
A rough hand dragged him by the elbow toward the ground, and Cade stood next to the gallows ready for her verdict too.
“I know why you lied to me.” She swallowed. “I only wish you could have trusted me from the start.” Her eyes traced back and forth over his.
He coughed. “You deserve a better man than me.”
“You are a better man.” She patted his chain wrapped hand.
He glanced toward his feet. “It doesn’t matter now. What I did…well, it can’t be undone. The rope’s my destiny, but you should live.”
She stepped closer, and her eyes raced through him. He felt his lips quiver. This woman had met the world to him.
With chain rattling hands, he brushed a tear off of her cheek. Then, he hesitated and twisted a rebel curl one final time. “I loved you, Ella Whitley, and I’m sorry I didn’t know you sooner.”
She shook her head, misery filling her face.
“That’s enough now.” The man at his side yanked him back.
“No…” Ella rushed forward and wrapped her arms around his neck.
Despite the man pulling at his side, Cade leaned in and touched his lips to hers. A fire that had kindled inside of him cooled with her embrace.
“Come on now…” The man pushed on Ella’s shoulder to separate them.
“Don’t touch her.” Cade lurched away from him, but the man held tight, dragging him back toward his podium.
The rope slid about his neck and tightened once more. Cade felt raw.
“Ella, go away. Run.” He urged through broken breaths.
The crowd silenced, their faces expectant. He stared toward Ella and pleaded with her to leave in those last seconds. The wind whipped across his face, and he embraced it with a mysterious calm building inside of him. If he were to die, at least he knew the end result…
But then, another woman’s voice yelled threw the crowd. All eyes searched for her. A murmur passed over the crowd.
Cade atop his perch spotted a feather, weaving past the staring eyes.
“Stop!” The voice cried again as it stepped closer. “I’m aimin’ to speak about this man and what I saw on the mornin’ y’all are all up in arms over.”
Cade stared at the peacock feather, waving from the woman’s head. Her dress, much too short for a modest lady, came to just above the knee. What could this woman have to say?
The man at Cade’s left waved her away. “All Delia, we ain’t got time for your nonsense.”
“Ain’t nonsense, and I’d like to spare this woman, here, some grief if you’ll let me.” The lady bit her bottom lip and glanced toward the crowd for approval.
“Do you know this lady?” Barton questioned Cade, his face boiling red.
“I’ve never seen her before in my life.” Cade answered honestly.
The petite woman, who might have once been beautiful, shook her head. “That’s right, but I’ve seen you, Mr. Rivers, and I ain’t gonna let you hang when I know something these good folks don’t.”
“Well Delia, let’s have it.” A man from the crowd shouted upset that she had disrupted his day’s entertainment.
The woman turned upon him and squinted her eyes threateningly.
“On the morning y’all are all concerned about, I was at work in the saloon just behind. I had a minute and took a seat by one of them windows. There, I witnessed Mr. Lawson attempt to draw his gun on Mr. Rivers. The man you’re about to hang simply pulled his gun faster, but Mr. Lawson drew on him first.”
“That ain’t so. My husband never drew down on a man in his life.” Mrs. Lawson stepped forward, waving a shaky finger towards the woman.
“Mrs. Lawson, your husband spent a lot of time where I work, and I remember after his claim went missing he said you had lost everything. Your husband, ma’am, was a desperate man. He may never have drawn on a man before, but I know what I saw that day.” The young girl studied the other woman with reserve.
The crowd hushed, and all eyes looked upon Cade Rivers.
The man that had previously lifted him to the chair, moved to slide the rope from his neck.
“Now folks, let’s not act too hastily.” Barton motioned to the crowd.
Cade came to stand beside him. “Mr. Barton, that’s something else you don’t understand about the west. Justice here is quick, but the tables turn on a dime. Sir, I’ll be needing that rope.”
Cade gestured toward the man that had previously planned to commit the hanging. Without comment, the stranger tossed it toward him.
“Mr. Barton, as sheriff of Whippercreek, you are under arrest for the murder of Reverend Whitley, Mr. Pelkman, and seven other men from the Whippercreek Valley.”
A week later, Ella stood at the rear doors of her father’s church. Her mind had filled with immense ease in the days that followed. They had returned to Whippercreek, and Mr. Barton had stood trial for her father’s murder. The verdict–guilty–but it no longer mattered. Justice had somehow righted itself, and the love she had felt for Cade returned in full.
She wore a white gown that had once graced her mother’s shoulders. With her fingers, she brushed the lace straight. Women wear white as a symbol of purity, but for her, she wore this dress as a symbol of the old made new.
The mountains stood in picturesque silence waiting to witness their day. Life had not always mimicked the splendor seen here among Montana’s frontier, but then again, maybe with time it had.
The first chord of a wedding hymn sung from inside, and the doors opened wide to unveil Cade waiting at the altar.
Her heart skipped and her foot landed at the back of aisle. This was just the start of a life, a home, a land, a valley called Whippercreek, and a love that lived on through the vows they would now share.
The day ended with the brook trickling just beyond, and the night sky darkening to unveil a host of stars.
“Ella, we can witness it all again tomorrow.” Cade watched her with amusement as she stared overhead.
“But isn’t it beautiful?” Ella turned to him and smiled with a dimple-eyed grin.
“It’s always been.”
“Yes, I just didn’t see it before.” She studied him.
And Cade held back, waiting in the shadows at the door for her to come to his side.
With a toss of her head, she picked up the skirt of her gown and hurried toward him.
“Welcome home,” he said and swept her from her feet.
With a yelp of nervous glee, he whisked her inside to the base of the bed. There, he placed her gently and without a word, moved around to the other side.
She turned to him, but he shook his head. “Turn around.”
Studying her curls, he moved his hands carefully to her head. “If I may, Mrs. Rivers…”
With silence as his only response, he wove his hands through her hair and removed the pins, until curls tumbled down her back. Ella faced him once more, and he brushed the rebel strands away from her eyes.
He would no longer run. Cade Rivers had found a home, and here, he stilled his heart upon one moment that would last a lifetime.