***You have reached chapter 7 of Whippercreek. If you would like to choose an alternate chapter, click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
A horse neighed in the distance. The sound of hoof beats and wagon wheels rolled into his sleep. Cade heard a man’s laughter and felt the grip of someone’s hands around his shoulders. They had come to hang him. Cade lurched awake and lifted his pistol into the nearest face. But upon opening his eyes, only Mr. Pelkman stood above him.
The shopkeeper gasped and frantically waved his hands about. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot, Stevens! It’s me! Remember? We were introduced yesterday in town.”
Cade flipped the pistol into its holster. “Why’d you wake me?” he said. He attempted to grasp his breath and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
The clerk stumbled over his words. “I didn’t mean to bother you, Mr. Stevens. It’s Sunday, and we’re just now holdin’ services.” The wiry man pointed up the hillside towards the church, as if that justified the act of waking Cade. “I thought I might invite you inside.”
Cade dusted his hat on his pant leg and placed it on his head as he stood. “I prefer the outdoors, thank you though.” The clerk nodded and headed up the hill. Ever-so-often, he glanced back in Cade’s direction with a nervous eye. Cade swallowed hard. He could’ve shot the man. A sick feeling settled into his stomach.
His hands shifted the holster around his waist. Cade needed to clear his thoughts. Leading the mare past the church’s cemetery, he headed for the brook. He’d noticed it on his way into town. It’d be the perfect place. He needed to think. Last night, he’d all but committed to making this town his home. He knew deep down such a thing couldn’t happen, and this morning’s incident had proven it. Cade Stevens was not a real man. That name belonged to someone long dead. His past would find him, and he needed prepare for the inevitable. No ties to this town, even to a girl named Ella Whitley. Cade was a dangerous man, and he didn’t want trouble for her.
Ella mouthed the words to each hymn during the service, but she didn’t sing aloud. Her mind was elsewhere. The old hotel was in ruins, and a visitor hadn’t come to these parts in years. She hadn’t even thought about shelter for the town’s new sheriff, but this morning she saw her foolishness.
Montana fell briskly cold on late fall evenings, and Cade had slept outside the church with a horse blanket. He must have frozen to death. This morning, the frost covered his hair. She would’ve woken him and invited him inside, but it seemed improper. So the thought sat on her mind the entire service.
About halfway through the preaching, Ella glanced out the window and saw the graveyard standing against the beauty of the mountains. The stones belonged to Abigale’s family. The woman’s cabin had sat empty since the infant’s burial. Nothing more than a shack, but it had a small paddock. The worn wooden structure would serve his needs. It wouldn’t be filled with pleasantries or fancy trinkets, but Ella had a feeling Cade would prefer the meager homestead to such things anyways.
The service dismissed with a prayer, and Ella rushed outside to the home she never thought she’d reenter. The cabin was musty and dark. She tied back the leather curtains and began dusting the small space. By the time she finished, this cabin would be a home. She washed the quilt, cleaned up the soot, and started a pot of stew over the fire. Despite the remnants of sorrow, she felt satisfaction in the day’s work.
Cade washed the dust off his clothes in the river. He placed them over a fire to dry. The wind whipped a chill through his innards. He rubbed his hands together for warmth and set his mind to thinking.
It was perfectly clear. Whatever madness had overcome him, Whippercreek was not his home. Yesterday, Ella cornered him without asking a single question, and she’d gotten him to think on things. Things like settling down in a small Montana town, but such things weren’t possible. She had trapped him again, a lone woman in a town full of rough men. He sympathized with her, but he couldn’t let her sway his heart. Cade didn’t have a home, and she had no business prying.
He whiffed deeply the smell of burning pine. His fire had grown and now brought warmth to his hands. Leaves danced around the flames until one fell into the brook and rushed east, weaving between rocks, as it made its escape. Life used to be simple. Cade had roamed between towns. He had stayed in each until someone discovered his father’s name. A fast drawl and a smooth talker, the men were always afraid to confront him. He decided when it was time to leave. No one had ever forced him out.
Cade dressed quickly, placed his hat on top of his head, and traced the curved brim with his hand to make certain it sat straight. He couldn’t remain in Whippercreek, but for now, it was his town. Like every other town he’d passed through. He buckled his chaps. No one was going to mess with him. He placed his gun in his holster. Years ago, he had told himself fear would never govern his actions again. It was time to free himself of the sentiment. He was a man others feared. They cowered before him. They always had…an old tension line formed in his cheek. He pulled his pistol, leaned just to the right, and snapped a twig off a distant tree in the blink of an eye. The twig made a crack as it split from the trunk. His lips remained taut, but Cade’s eyes lit with an old fire. He had always found satisfaction at the end of his pistol grip.
Ella had never seen a man draw his gun so fast. She hesitated and huddled behind a boulder. He looked different in the morning light. His clothes were clean, and the dirt smudges were gone from his face. They were replaced with steel grey eyes, a morning shadow, and a scar she hadn’t noticed before.
He turned and faced the boulder. She dodged further behind it and hoped he hadn’t noticed her spying.
“You there, step out from behind those rocks?” His voice held a gravel, which sent chills down her spine
Ella hesitated. She knew so little about him. Perhaps she hadn’t seen him in the correct light. She’d never witnessed a man aim his gun with such deadly force.
“I said step out here!” His voice growled.
“Are you coming out or do I have to come back there and get you?” He repeated with the same rough edge.
Ella peaked from behind the rock with a sheepish smile. She was scared. Scared of a stranger, who looked different in the morning light. Different from the man she had known yesterday evening.
“It’s me.” She held her hands toward him, hoping to notice a change in his eyes.
The tension lines on his face disappeared for a brief moment. “Ella?”
“Cade, it’s just me.” She repeated.
He shook his head and re-holstered the weapon. She expected him to bridge the distance between them, but instead, he turned and scuffed dust at the fire with his boot.
“Cade, may I speak with you?”
He continued dowsing the flame.
“Cade…” she persisted. He glanced in her direction. “I didn’t mean to pry. You’re the sheriff. You certainly have reason to come here and fire your weapon.” The excuse sounded hallow even to her own ears.
Cade licked his lips and wiped a hand across his mouth. “Ella, just leave me.”
Her eyes widened. She rubbed the inside of her arm. “Of course…I wanted to tell you there’s a place you can stay tonight. A homestead. It’s not much, but you need some sort of shelter. It’s behind the store, just past the dead pine that’s still standing.”
He looked at her, a sorrow bigger than the valley filling his eyes. “I appreciate that…”
Ella offered a faint smile and turned to leave, but words forced their way to her throat. “And Cade, if there’s something hurting you, something deep down that you can’t share with a soul, God’s listening.”