***If you wish to read previous chapters, click the teal “Wednesdays in Whippercreek” above.***
Ella didn’t wish the barrier to exist between them, but Cade endangered them both with his desire for revenge. The night she happened upon him in the church, he seemed like that man from the woods, with a gun. No care in the world for his fellow humans, and especially no care for the God she loved. Cade had a hidden side. A side full of hate and something frightful. Until he shared those parts of him, the distance needed to remain. She couldn’t know him without understanding the whole of the man.
Entering the house, Ella prepared to cook chicken over the fire. Her father had known how to season the meat just right. Otherwise, she had no formal training and had learned by trial.
She lay the breasts into a pan, listening for the lard to sizzle. As it began to brown, Ella set the table. A meager home, theirs would not impress. With a sigh, Ella whisked a pot from the top cupboard. It shifted the pans above with a clink of metal. She leaned forward to quiet the disturbance. But her chair toppled into the pans, causing an avalanche of metal.
The door behind her creaked, and she spun toward the intruder with pot raised. Her father and their guest gazed with amusement. She offered a sheepish smile in return.
“There, there, we’ll set this right in just a moment,” her father said, coming to her aide.
“Let me help.” Cade reached for a pan, just as she also touched it. His eyes met hers. They beckoned with questions.
“Thank you, Mr. Stevens, I shall take care of the meal from here,” she said, turning with a handful of pans back towards the cupboard.
“Let me take some of those,” Cade said, without waiting for her response.
Her father nodded at them both, absorbing the interaction with slight amusement. “It seems you two have matters well-taken care of here. I’ll just step behind the curtain to change.”
As soon as his back turned to them, Cade whispered in her ear. “What have I done? Is my apology not accepted?”
“None of the above.” Ella forced a smile toward him, before stepping on a chair to thrust the pots back into the cupboard.
“Then, why?” Cade asked, his eyes darting toward the curtain where her father hid.
She heaved a sigh. “I’m not at leave to say.” And offered the pots one final shove.
The metal groaned rebelliously and fell skitter-scatter back toward the floor. Ella’s chair wobbled off balance, tossing her with them. Cade lunged forward and caught her.
She looked into his steel grays, returning his tense expression.
“Oh dear, are you two all right?” Her father came into the open room, studying the chaos.
“Just fine, thanks to Mr. Stevens.” Ella offered the man a reluctant smile, and he released her to the floor. This dinner appeared to be a disaster already.
“A splendid meal, Miss Whitley. I haven’t had finer in all my born days.”
“Now that is a lie,” she said, laughing.
Cade shook his head. “No, I mean it.”
Ella blushed under his words. “My father has taught me one dish. Everything else I cook is guess work. Without my mother, I’ve never really learned to cook.”
Cade dusted his bristled upper lip. “Well, that’s where you’re wrong. I’ve had your stew and now a fine chicken. Both were excellent. A person teaching you, doesn’t make you a good cook. It’s like my pistol. I learned to shoot without anyone’s help. I’m not too bad a shot.” Ella frowned under his words. Would she never trust him?
“I beg your pardon. I shouldn’t have discussed my weapon at your table.” Cade cleared his throat and stood. “It was a mighty fine dinner, ma’am. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I best get headed home,” he said, sweeping his hat to his head.
The reverend patted his shoulder. “It was a pleasure to have you, my boy. Now, don’t forget about the mine inspection. It’s just a few weeks away. We shall have a thriving town again.”
Cade glanced beyond him towards Ella. He just had to speak to her. “I hope I am not entirely out of line, but I noticed Miss Whitley hasn’t sung in the service yet. I believe she ought. Perhaps, she might entertain me this afternoon. I would love to sit in on such an occasion.”
Ella’s father glanced toward her with surprise.
“Miss Whitley, shall you do me the honor?” Cade forced.
Ella rolled her eyes. “It’s fine, Pa. I probably should sing for the church, but practice will wait until later in the week.”
Cade’s heart twisted into a knot. “Will you invite me to listen in?”
“Of course.” Ella offered him a smile, but it seemed forced.
“Sing that line once more.” Ella’s father commanded.
Cade sat in the pew, chewing on a strand of grass. How would he ever speak with her alone?
Ella sung through the line and glanced toward her father with a spark in her eyes.
“Now, one final critique.” The reverend made his way to her side and clasped her cheekbones between his hands. “You must smile, my dear.”
“It’s nerves, that’s all.”
Cade interrupted the discussion with applause. “Either way, it’s splendid, Ella. Maybe, you’re trying too much to impress. Why don’t we leave you to practice alone? That’ll help you smile, I’m sure.”
The reverend nodded in agreement. “I’ll be just inside the house when you’re finished.”
Together they both exited the building. Ella’s father made his way to the rear, but Cade lingered in the tall grasses beside the door.
Her voice echoed with that same memorizing tone through the waves of grass. Cade waited, hoping she would yet speak with him. Perhaps then, he could tell her how God had listened. Since the previous Sunday, his worries had eased. By now, the men in Bannack had surely forfeited any endeavor to find him. Between these mountains and in his heart, he had found a sanctuary.
Cade heard the door creak open. He turned and caught sight of Ella’s skirts darting around the front of the building.
“Ella, wait!” He called.
She turned to face him. A reserved expression overcame her form.
“I know why you’re scared of me.”
Her feet shifted with unease.
“I know why you’re avoiding me, but you need to hear me out.” Cade reached for her hand. She walked towards him, but held back. He relented with a sigh. “Please, sit with me in the grass. I haven’t been entirely honest with you, and we must speak.”
Ella’s eyes filled, but she followed.
He studied the grass, unwanted memories weaving through his mind. “My father died an outlaw. He didn’t amount to much of a man. When I came here, you asked why I’d come. I’m not really a vigilante, Ella.”
Her eyes widened. “Then, you’re…”
“Wait…” Cade took her chin and turned it toward him. “When I was a child, men gathered at a church and planned to hunt and hang my father. I listened through the stained glass window. I heard their accusations, every angry word. Those men, wrapped a rope around his neck. They dragged him through the streets, and I watched, like a scared child. My father’s eyes. I’ll always remember them. Never before had such fear presided in them. The town’s men led him to a tree by the jail, and their laughter…” He closed his eyes at the haunting memory. “Those men took the rest of my father’s life from him. I watched him, hanging there, the life tearin’ right out from under him.”
Tears poured from Cade’s face. “I couldn’t do anything to save him. He died, and what’s worse, somewhere deep inside, I know he had it comin’. But for a long time, I couldn’t forgive the church. I would lay awake with nightmares at night.”
“Not long after, I shook the dust off of my boots. I couldn’t stay in that place. Men came after me, seeking a fortune my father made on another man’s money. That’s where I got this scar.” Cade traced the line in his cheek with his finger.
Ella’s eyes softened.
“I grew up running from everything. Everywhere I went, my father’s name tarnished my presence in the town. I didn’t have a home. I can’t remember all the places I’ve been, but I did carry a name. And it ain’t a good one, Ella. Over time, folks forgot about my father, but by then, I had a name of my own. Sometimes, I wish I’d been born a different man. That’s not really the half of it either. There’s so many things I’ve done wrong. Things, I don’t like talking about, things I can’t bring myself to say.”
She touched his hand.
Cade gazed into her eyes. “You once told me God listens. He heard me, and took me out of the brokenness of my past.”
Ella listened to Cade’s story. It all made sense in those words, the man she found in the woods, the scar on his cheek, his past, every part of it. But she relished most in, God’s redemption of such a man. Cade continued on to tell her of the night she found him at church, and the private thoughts of his heart.
She watched the tension line form in his cheek, not a tension line at all, but a scar. A story of Cade’s past. Without thinking, she traced it with her hands.
He looked toward her. His brows furrowed, but his eyes filled with a longing. “Could you ever love a man like me?”
Ella searched his face. “I don’t know what kind of man they thought you were, but those other towns were wrong. You’re a man like no one I’ve ever met. Whatever God’s grace has done in you, it is forgiveness enough for me.”
He reached for her and lightly brushed a kiss across her lips.
She smiled at him. “Cade Stevens, I ain’t ever loved a man quite like you.”
Cade returned to his cabin that evening. A swell in his chest. It is forgiveness enough for me. All his life, he had searched for a moment, a place, a time, where someone would offer him those whispered words. And here, in a desolate valley, where he had never planned to stay, she had offered him forgiveness.
Ella’s words made him love her even more. If news from Bannack never came, he would remain in the valley. A place to call his home. A town that welcomed his presence, and a woman that loved him. Was it too good to be true?
He slid off his boots and leaned into the bed, which creaked under the weight of his frame. Cade gazed at the dark ceiling. Do not remember the sins of my youth, he whispered the prayer once more and closed his eyes.