***If you would like previous chapters, click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
For years, she had tried to overlook the valley’s beauty, but now she relished in it. Her mother had noted it often. She tipped her head to gaze out toward town. What has kept my eyes so blind?
She weaved her fingers through the strand’s of grass, a Bible tucked under her arm. The singing had already begun, and she should have been at the piano. She blushed, walking the side aisle to her bench. Taking a seat, she joined in at the chorus. She took one pound at the keyboard, and her eyes floated toward the congregation. There, beside Mr. Pelkman, sat Cade. She offered him an appreciative smile and danced her fingers across the keyboard with even more enthusiasm. He had returned to church this morning. Nothing else spoke so freely to her heart.
The singing concluded, and her father took to the pulpit. This sermon reflected on the parable of the prodigal son. It felt quite perfect for her return home. She delighted in the well-worn words. How similar to her own journey! The preaching concluded with a hymn, and she glanced over to Cade. He had once told her the days couldn’t be wasted. Today, she couldn’t help but agree. She caught his eye, as he maneuvered through the crowd.
Ella smiled, warmth rising in her cheeks. But before she managed to approach his side, he turned. She froze. He hurried in the opposite direction, down the pew, and rushed out the door.
Have I chased him away by unveiling my deepest hurts?
Cade mounted his horse and galloped away from the church. He leaned forward and urged the horse to ride hard. He made a vow to Ella’s father and despite everything that promise stood. He couldn’t put Ella in danger; thus, his past haunted him even in this refuge.
He galloped the horse to the end of the hill and swerved the animal toward the brook. Cade dismounted as the horse slid to a sliding stop. Wrapping the reins around the saddle horn, he picked up a handful of pebbles. Each stone felt smoothed by the passage of time. Tossing the rocks as far as they would launch, he scuffed his boot against the largest boulder and sighed. Why can’t I be some other man?
Ella approached Cade from behind. Although it had warmed some, a chill ran through her from the breeze. She wouldn’t let him leave with such a look in his eye. She had run out the doors after him and followed as fast as her legs would carry her. Now, observing him, she noticed that same old edge.
Cade turned and flashed a pistol at her. He froze, seeing her approach, the worn line drawn in his cheek. “Stop crawling up behind me…won’t ya?” He growled.
“I’m sorry. I thought you were running from me, and I wanted to know why.”
“A man doesn’t have to give his reasons. I could have shot you. Don’t you realize that’s the second time I pointed my gun on you?”
“It wasn’t intentional, Cade.” Ella attempted to offer him a reassuring smile.
“But that’s the thing, nothing I’ve ever done has been intentional. It just happens. Someday, I might shoot you. It’ll just happen. That’s the way my life works. Stay away from me. I’m no good, Ella.”
“What’s gotten into you? I’m safer around you than almost any man in this town.”
He scuffed a rock with his boot. “I’m telling you. I’m no good, Ella.”
“Cade Stevens, you shouldn’t say such things.”
“Well, I’m not…when you disappeared, I went after Jake Slater like a mad man. I attacked him. I could see in his eyes he knew nothing about your disappearance, but I…”
“Have you ever heard Jake Slater’s story?”
He shook his head.
“Jake lost his wife five years back. Before that, he lived a respectable life. After his wife died, he began drinking. He lost everything. The man became lonely. There was nothing left for him.”
She watched Cade swallow. “But that’s not the point, Ella. What I’m trying to tell you is, I’m not a safe man. Your father asked me to stay away from you. He knows the risk my lifestyle holds. I can’t place you in such harm. I need to figure out my past. It’s not safe for you to be near me right now.”
“Oh Cade, my father meant you need to figure out your past with God. Settle things with Him. If you do that, I won’t be afraid of a future with you.”
Cade’s face drained of color. “I don’t know how to settle things with God. My past is too messed up. If you only knew… Please, trust me and keep your distance.”
“I can’t do that…” Ella studied him. “I see too good of a man hiding behind those clouded eyes. The scar on your cheek may be permanent, but the future, God can change that by healing your past.”
His eyes darkened, and his hands rose to the thin line which traced his cheekbone. Her heart broke to see his vulnerability. She didn’t know what past he carried, but nothing could be too scarred for God’s grace.
Cade could never tell Ella about the harbored pains. She didn’t know how her words pierced his heart. He traced the scar again, an old reminder that the past would find him. When he first started out after his Pa’s death, some men followed him. They tracked him down into a gulley. Their voices had sounded kind, but they sought money his Pa had supposedly left to him. Cade didn’t know of any such fortune. He told the men so, and that’s when they turned violent. The scar marred his cheek ever since, and so had Cade’s anger towards men.
One day, someone would come again, and this entire valley would turn into terror. Pain, he shouldn’t have caused would be Ella’s burden to bare. A burden so great that she would wish to see his neck swing from the end of a tree. He wouldn’t begrudge such resentment when it came. Some men deserved their end, and his would come soon.