***You have reached chapter 6 of Whippercreek. If you would like to choose an alternate chapter, click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
Poor Mr. Stevens had been courteous, and Ella tore him apart. So the man liked Whippercreek, he didn’t deserve her reprisal. Mr. Stevens knew nothing of her past, and she came across bitter. But she wasn’t, or at least she tried not to be…
She suspected Mr. Stevens wouldn’t have anything to do with the church after such treatment. It had never been her intention, but Ella sparked flames with any man she encountered. She didn’t seem fit to be a preacher’s daughter. The more she learned about herself, the more failures she saw, and yet her father seemed to see none of them.
It broke her.
She had never quite found her place.
The doubts plagued her, but she remembered a time before them. A time when her place in the world appeared evident. Her mother had lived with joy. Ella strove to find such contentment, yet the deep-seated pain inside wouldn’t leave. It left an indelible mark on her being.
These thoughts often pounded away at her. Hopelessness. It fought to take over her life. She could only remove its grip with prayer. Ella bowed her head. Through tears, she whispered. She couldn’t control the past. It left a gaping scar, but her future remained undetermined.
Ella Whitley rushed down the hillside towards him, but the rocky slope made it difficult. “Mr. Stevens! Mr. Stevens, please wait! I must speak with you!” She waved a free arm and hoped he would notice.
He continued several steps into the tall grasses. She stumbled over the rocky soil and cried out again. What if her pain had smoldered wounds too deep?
Ella stopped running and observed him. Her eyes haunted by the pain.
But just then, he turned halfway and rested his boot on a log. Impatience appeared across his face. “Miss Whitley.” He tipped his hat.
She hesitated. Yesterday, the words formed in her mind, but it was much different to speak them in person. She bit her lip. “Would you call me Ella?” A long pause followed. Ella’s eyes widened, until she felt if she continued gazing at him, they would fill with tears. She looked sideways, but settled for resting her gaze at her feet. The silence prolonged. Ella dared to take a glimpse at him.
He squinted at her with those eyes, but no reply came from his lips.
She shook her head. “Mr. Stevens, I must apologize to you. I haven’t been kind, and there’s no excuse for the way I’ve acted. Could we begin anew?” Her words sounded breathless.
“Am I speaking with the same Miss Ella Whitley?” He spat in the dirt and glanced sideways at her. “Have you lost your mind?”
She shook her head, hoping her silence would reveal her sincerity.
He sighed and stroked the stubbles of hair on his upper lip. “I’ll abide by it.” The words came out stiff. He was gentleman, but she’d have to win his approval over time.
Cade scuffed his boot against the rock and shrugged with his eyebrows.
Ella forced her legs into motion. She reached his side and extended her hand. “Well hello, my name’s Ella. I’ve heard you’re the new sheriff in town. Do you prefer Cade or Mr. Stevens? Why don’t I introduce you to some folks?”
The corner of his mouth tilted to one side. He sighed but said nothing. Ella appreciated his indifference for the first time. It made the entire encounter more bearable, and seemed to be the answer to prayer she needed.
Cade spent the day meeting Mr. Pelkman, the local store owner, Mr. Edgerton, owner and operator of the mine, and an array of other characters. All the town residents were men. It perplexed him. Women didn’t come to the west in droves, but a town usually had more than one.
Ella led ahead and chattered away about the town, but he disregarded her most recent topic. Eventually, she glanced at him.
“Are there any other women in this town?” He scowled at her.
To his surprise, she laughed. “There are a few women in the saloon, but otherwise, I’m the only one. Most women move on. This town isn’t fit for civilized folk. Some died trying to make it, like Miss Abigale. But anyway you look at it, I’m what’s left.”
“She was a logger’s wife. Rough around the edges, but soft inside. She gave up on living. That’s the way most go.”
“And you? Why have you stayed in Whippercreek?”
Ella sighed. Her eyes grew distant. “I can’t find enough courage to go, but one day I’ll pack my bags. And I’ll breathe air from the other side of those mountains. I just need God to give me the will.”
Cade licked his top lip and took a slow step forward. There was much more to Ella Whitley than he had noticed.
“Did your Ma raise you out here?”
“My Pa mostly…”
Her voice dropped off, a hint of sorrow in its tone. He wondered how long things had been this way, but her abruptness warned him not to pry.
Darkness crept it’s head over the night sky.
“May we continue our discussion another day?” Cade said.
She nodded. A silence still overcoming her.
“Ella, I’ll escort you home.” Cade knew when to offer polite courtesies.
“I’ll make it fine,” Ella said and picked up her skirts to take several rushed steps ahead of him.
Cade shook his head and grabbed for her elbow. The force spun her off balance, and he steadied her in his arms. She pulled away with alarm.
“I’m sorry,” Cade said. He watched her expression. “I didn’t mean any harm.”
Cade held his hand out, bridging the distance between them. He watched her eyes. His concern genuine. He wouldn’t force her to walk with him, but he wanted her to know she was safe in his presence.
“May I?” He offered his elbow. “It’s the least I can do. Did the town accept my offer to sheriff?”
“They did.” She glanced up into his eyes with hesitation.
Cade released a breath. Things changed so fast. He gazed back into those distrustful eyes. “Since there’s only one woman in this town, the way I see it, I’m sworn to protect her.” He tipped the brim of his hat toward her and winked. He knew his actions would be enough to turn her cheeks a flaming red, and he grinned when it had its affect. Her bashfulness softened her. “You’re safe with me. You know that, don’t you?” He didn’t know if he spoke the final words for her comfort or his reassurance. Either way, she took his extended hand, and they began walking out of town.
Ella Whitley had lived in the wilds of Montana for a long time, yet there was something very feminine about her. He didn’t see it upon their first meeting, but it now warmed his heart after years of independent rough-living. They walked together in silence until they reached the hill. Cade relinquished her elbow and said a polite goodnight.
He hadn’t wanted to set roots here, but this afternoon changed things. Ella Whitley made him long for home in ways he’d never really thought possible. He unwrapped his saddle blanket and laid in the grass, gazing up at the stars. Cade wondered if the men looking for him had heard of Whippercreek. This town brought back good memories, and he wasn’t ready to leave. But when the town had a girl like Ella Whitley, what man would ever want to leave a place like that?