***You are about to read chapter 10 of Whippercreek. If you would like to choose an alternate chapter, please click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
Sunday came with the first flurries of winter. A bitter wind brushed across the valley. Cade wrapped his fur coat and slipped into his boots. The church wasn’t too far. If he picked up his pace, he might shelter from the largest flakes inside.
“Good morning, Mr. Stevens!” Pelkman lurched by on his wagon. His boy sat in the buckboard beside him.
“Blessings to you, Mr. Stevens!” The teenager waved his hand toward him. He seemed to be a lively one.
“Woah there!” Pelkman pulled on the reins, stopping the wagon in his path. “Our weather turns sudden like. You may want to take shelter, Mr. Stevens. By afternoon, it ain’t gonna be just flurries no more.”
“Sir, I appreciate and would heed the warning, but I promised Miss Whitley I’d make it into church this morning.” Cade hunkered down and wrapped his coat tighter around him. He held onto his hat, squinting at the store owner with gritted teeth.
“Well now,” Pelkman laughed. “Seems to me, that woman’s mighty smitten with you.”
Cade’s expression didn’t reflect Pelkman’s humor, and the store owner quickly corrected his slip of tongue.
“We’ll be glad to have you. Travel the rest of the way with us. My boy and I owe you.”
The boy straddled the bench with his gangly legs. He took one hop and swung into the wagon’s bed. Cade nodded an acknowledgment toward the boy and climbed onto the bench. Mr. Pelkman released the brake with a kick of his foot and flicked the reins to get the horses moving. The wagon swung forward with a lurch and rocked sideways with the force of the horses’ gait. Mr. Pelkman muttered on, but his words were drowned out by the wind’s howl and the wagon’s lurching. Cade preferred it that way anyhow. He held fast to the buckboard’s wood seat, as the wind snapped another cold breeze past their ears.
They pulled onto the church’s hill at a good pace. Several wagons sat cockeyed beside the building. The horses let out a snort, and Cade slid to the ground. He shook Mr. Pelkman’s hand, brushed the snow from his hair, and turned toward the door.
He grasped the handle of the wood arced structure and heaved it open. Inside a handful of congregates stood, singing a hymn. Candles lit the room. He eyed the aisle way and swallowed hard. With everyone’s back to him, he couldn’t identify Ella. The Preacher stood at the front, waving his arms like a chicken, directing the congregates. It would have amused Cade, but the man’s gaze rested firmly on him.
Cade cleared his throat, pulled on his collar, and shuffled into the nearest pew. In his embarrassment, he sat before he realized it was time to stand. He recovered quickly though, by removing his hat and fumbling with the worn hymnal. Cade sang to rid himself of unwarranted attention. The mouthed words meant nothing to him though. The entire atmosphere frustrated him.
There once had been a church like this, in the middle of a dirt covered street. To the best of his memory, inside, the candles lit every Sunday. He had sat beside his Pa, the preacher eyeing him. Cade had shifted on the seat and rolled his shoulders back. He had been proud to be his Pa’s son. Men shook their hands as they exited. It felt like nothing he could recall since that time. Days later, he had walked into that same building, a worn suit itching at him. A woman stepped into the light from behind him. He couldn’t recall her name anymore, but she had frowned at him. An aged frown that matched her marbled hair and manner. She snapped her wrist, striking his head with the back of her hand.
“Say your goodbyes and no tears. An evil man doth serve his punishment, and we shall not cry over such a man’s fate.”
She remained in the back pew. Cade had approached the casket alone. He sat beside it. The rope marks around his Pa’s neck engraved with fresh raw scars. He traced them with his fingers. The eerie feeling of his father’s lifeless body took his own breath from him. Tears started with a silence, and then forced through him with vengeance.
His Pa had left him.
Nobody in town wanted such a boy.
The silence, once engulfing the room, filled with his wails. This man had not been his Pa. The stories they told of him, weren’t those of the man Cade knew.
The woman came from behind without a word and wrapped her arms around him. He kicked his feet and screamed, but she dragged him from the church. Cade reached out from her embrace toward the casket. He never saw his Pa or the church again. Cade had pushed away from the woman with a scream that tore from inside him.
She fell down the church steps and narrowed her eyes at him. “You’re just like your Pa, you are! A no-account-child raised by a piece of worthless rubbish!”
He had braced himself and stared at the woman, a hatred fuming. He’d never felt such anger before. Without a word, he took off down the street and left that town. Her taunts had followed him ever since. Apparently a man inherits his name from the deeds of his kin. He hadn’t forgiven his father, nor could he find it in him to forgive the church for the incident that had taken him.
The memories echoed through the wall’s of this building. He shouldn’t have come. He took his hat from the seat and placed it on his head. A hand touched his forearm. He turned toward its owner. Ella smiled at him with a warmth and freshness that cooled the fire inside.
“You aren’t leaving? The preaching has just started. I should’ve warned you. I had to play.” She tipped her head toward the now empty seat that rested beside the piano. Cade glanced at it. The Preacher eyed him impatiently, causing the entire room to turn. Ella tugged on his elbow, as she found her seat. Cade felt the heat rise in his cheeks.
“Sorry ‘bout that.” He muttered toward the congregation and took a seat beside the preacher’s daughter. The man behind the pulpit rolled his eyes, making it apparent Cade was entirely unsuited. The church had never accepted an outlaw’s son. Why should they accept a vigilante? And if not Cade Stevens, they certainly shouldn’t welcome Cade Rivers, a murderer, into their midst.
“Pa, I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine.” Ella called her father over to the pew. The church had cleared with haste. No one wanted to be caught in the storm. This left Ella and Cade alone with her father.
The Preacher marched over to them with a frown but extended his hand toward Cade. “I’m Reverend Whitley. I hear rumor you’re the man we now call sheriff.”
Cade cleared his throat.
“Ella, you head around and get the fire going in the house. Set some lunch on.”
“But Pa, I…”
“Ella, I’m asking you to do something. Now get moving.”
Ella glanced sympathetically towards Cade, but slid past him under her father’s stern gaze. The Preacher left Cade’s side and moved on down the aisle, rearranging hymnals. He hummed a pleasurable tune as he went. “Mr. Stevens, what is it about my daughter that you find yourself willing to ruin her future over?”
The Preacher lowered his spectacles and gazed at him from across the room. “Son, it is evident to me and to this church that you have a keen eye on her. Why should you of all men think yourself fit for my girl?”
Cade shook his head. “Sir, I have made no intentions known toward your daughter, nor would I seek anything but her best.”
“Then, why do you pursue her?”
“Sir, I don’t think I like your line of questioning. Again, I have made no such intent known. Ella is simply a wonderful young lady, and if I would ever desire to court her, I would do so properly.”
The older man stopped humming and glared at Cade. “But you would admit, you hold sentiments on the matter?”
“Whether I do or not, I find it rather difficult you can perceive whether I am capable of ruining your daughter’s future. You know nothing about me, sir. I wouldn’t dream of bringing harm to your daughter.”
“But would you admit, your occupation could be hazardous to a girl?”
Cade shook his head, the tension line forming in his cheek. “I wouldn’t allow harm to come to her, if that’s what you’re asking.”
The older man dropped the hymnal he carried on the pew. A cracked resounded through the building. “Perhaps, I should be more frank. You aren’t the kind of man I want seeing my daughter, Mr. Stevens.”
“Do you mean the kind of man you want seeing your daughter, or the kind of man welcome in your church?” Cade glared at the gentleman.
The Preacher walked toward him and straightened so that he stood eye level with him. “I mean the kind of man welcome to pursue my daughter is the kind of man that feels capable of stepping foot in my church.”
Cade’s bottom lip shook. “I don’t think God is as particular as man. I think He sees a man’s heart.”
The Preacher’s eyes softened, and he nodded. “Mr. Stevens, God is willing to forgive a man, but the man’s heart is where the problem lies.”
Cade wanted to ask the Preacher what he meant, but the anger inside him held back tears.
“I’m not opposed to you, Mr. Stevens, but I’m opposed to your heart problems. There’s something inside of you that’ll burn a scar on my daughter’s soul. I don’t want that for her. You understand?”
Cade didn’t respond. He had never acknowledged a part in his past. It had all been his Pa’s fault. He had never done anything to deserve the life handed to him.
“Son, I like the man I saw the other day at the mine. The kind of man that risks his life for others. You’re the kind of man I’d want for my daughter, but I don’t care for a man building his life on vengeance. You figure out your past, you can come talk to me about courting Ella. Until then, you keep a distance.”
A silence rested.
Cade licked his top lip. “Reverend, I know the things I’ve done. There’s consequences for my actions, and I know those at depths few men ever will. Let me inspect the mine with you and the other men. I’ll show you I’m capable of protecting Ella.”
The Preacher sighed, a weary look to his eyes. “Son, until you get your own heart straight, you’ll leave parts of your pain everywhere you go. Do you want her to carry your hardships? I think if you’re truthful, you know it’ll hurt her deeper than any physical scars ever could. A relationship with God is the only thing that straightens the past. You won’t be earning favor with me by inspecting the mine. I welcome any knowledge you bring, but your past concerns me.”
Cade nodded. He hadn’t thought about God as a solution to the problems he carried. It seemed the church had been where everything had fallen apart, but maybe he had been wrong. He couldn’t deny his past carried pain. The Preacher had said words Cade couldn’t speak. He turned to the older gentleman. “I’ll think on it, sir.” Those few words were all he could muster.
“On the other hand, if you happen to come around to my way of thinking, Mr. Stevens, I could get used to the way you make her smile.”
Cade’s heart tore in two. He had never known he made Ella smile. She must have been the only human he’d ever had that affect on. How could he have been so selfish? If only his life had been another’s. He didn’t deserve a respectable woman’s gaze, let alone, her happiness.