“Ella Whitley, you open this door! I’m not gonna’ take no for an answer.” Cade pounded once more on the wood frame. Silence filled the seconds afterwards, only causing tension to build inside his heart. “Will you open this door? What I have to say can’t wait…”
Silence, once again, echoed in response. The sounds of night insects filled the void.
Cade stepped away and glared at the door’s darkened frame. He dare not push past the obstruction. But what of his vow to tell Ella the truth? If he didn’t tonight, he likely never would regain the courage.
With a sigh, Cade headed down the hillside, past the tall grasses, and into town. Someone had to know Ella’s whereabouts. A melody played from the saloon, stirring with it a mix of laughter and chaos. Cade doubted anyone inside knew the preacher’s daughter, so he marched onward, past the darkened window of Pelkman’s store.
A somber place, the shadows leered from its windows. Cade hurried his pace. A murderer walked free. The longer he searched, the more desperate he felt. Behind him, a door creaked. Cade spun, lurching for his revolver without thought. The wide eyes of Mr. Pelkman’s son greeted him.
“It’s just me,” the boy said, raising his hands to show innocence. “I had to lock up.” He wiggled a key in his hands.
Cade shook his head. “I’m sorry. I just…” He stopped midsentence. If anyone in this town knew Ella’s whereabouts, the boy would. “Have you seen Miss Whitley?”
The youngster’s pupils widened. “I ain’t supposed to tell.”
“What ain’t you supposed to tell me?” Cade said with worry and frustration seeping into his tone.
The boy sighed, glancing about as if Cade had trapped him.
“Well, speak up?” Cade urged.
The youngster bit his bottom lip. “I ain’t supposed to tell you, but Miss Whitley headed east this afternoon. She’s on a stage for Boston.”
Cade kicked his boot against the wood plank and spun in frustration. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he said, “Why didn’t you warn me? You could’ve said something.”
The child swallowed. “She wished it to be that way.”
Dusting his hat against his thigh, Cade shook his head. “Well we don’t always get what we want.” He replaced the hat with a sense of definitiveness and narrowed his eyes toward the boy. “She had no right.”
The child lowered his eyes to the wooden planks. “When people lose somebody, sometimes they need a fresh start.” Tears began to form in the corner of his eyes.
Cade softened. The boy didn’t deserve his wrath. “You’re right, but Miss Whitley belongs here. If she needed a fresh start, I’d have given her that. Fetch my horse and saddle. Make haste, son. There’s no time to waste.”
“All right, everybody out!” The driver hollered as they lurched to a stop.
The third of many stops on their journey east. Three other travelers had joined Ella inside the cramped quarters. She stretched her stiff legs and made way to their shared dipper of water. The journey had not been a pleasant one. Every hour she lived with regrets.
Should she have told Cade her decision? Would he despise her when he discovered her whereabouts? The questions raced through her mind with unending sorrow. She had endured the past few weeks as if weaving through a dream. The pain had caused her to feel nothing, and so for the first time, she understood the heartache she had caused.
“Two minutes, folks.” The driver called out to them again.
Ella dusted her skirt and glanced at the surrounding landscape. The mountains now lay more distant than she could ever remember them. Will I ever return there? The lingering thought brought forth a longing deep within her. Though unexpected, she welcomed the feeling.
“Two minutes! Times up…” The warning rang through the air.
Ella hurried to the driver’s side. “I need my trunk.”
The man glanced at her with curiosity before untying the baggage and dropping it to the dust. Without further discussion, he turned in his seat. “Get up!” he hissed with a slap from the reins.
The stage lurched forward, and Ella coughed as the dust left her in the middle of a worn road.
Cade had ridden hard since yesterday evening and had yet to approach the stage’s dust. How far did he dare travel? The thought caused him to spur his mare forward with increasing speed. He couldn’t afford to lose Ella. Not now… Not this way…
The stage would travel at slower speeds, but every fifteen miles fresh horses awaited it. Meanwhile, his mare tired underneath him, and he couldn’t stop to purchase another. The watering holes would have a warrant posted for him. At this rate, he would never reach Ella in time. Pulling up on the reins, he gazed along the worn trail with weariness. He had lost her. Lost her to the wilds of the Montana Territory, to his pride, and to his inability to protect those he loved most. The road ahead extended into never-ending rolling fields. Cade studied the trail once more, before turning his mount toward Whippercreek.
With a sigh of burdened regret, he nudged the sole of his boot into the mare.
“Cade, is that you?” A voice danced with an echo across the wind.
He thought the distant cry only a figment of a tired imagination, but turned to face its speaker just the same. At the crest of the next hill, Ella stood waving. Cade wiped his eyes and blinked to be sure. But there she stood. He spun the mare and urged her forward in greeting.
Not daring to slow, for fear Ella’s form might disappear before his eyes. He dismounted midstride and gaped at the woman, now only feet from him.
“What are you doing here?” She whispered.
Cade shook his head with disbelief. “I came after you.”
“You never would’ve caught up to us,” Ella said, squinting at him with puzzlement.
“Then, how… how are you here now?” He studied her, an untamed golden curl brushing across her face in the wind. He longed to reach forward and caress it.
Sadness filled her eyes. “After I left, I realized where I belonged. I’m so sorry I hurt you. The valley is my home. I shouldn’t have left.”
Cade reached forward and cupped her chin in his hands. Brushing his thumb across her cheek, he whispered. “Why didn’t you wait to return on the stage?”
“I paid all the money I had for a trip to Boston. I had no way home.” Her eyes filled with tears.
“Didn’t you know I’d come after you?” He searched her face, longing for her to understand how he felt.
The tears now welled, as Ella’s eyes met his.
Cade took her hands. “Pelkman’s son says you left for a new start in the east.”
Pain pinched at her cheeks. “That’s true. I may belong in the valley, but I don’t know how to live there.” She cast her head towards the soil below.
Cade tipped his eyes to study her and reached forward to bring her face back to his. “Ella, if you must restart, then let us do it together. Let me be your new beginning, your fresh start. I’m already a different man. I’ll help you find a place to belong.”
The tension in her eyes eased under the weight of his words. “I have never known anyone quite like you, Cade Stevens…” Her voice trailed off.
Cade’s bottom lip trembled. For the first time, he dared to hope those words stood true. Releasing a deep breath, he squeezed her hands. “Then, marry me, Ella. Let me offer you something new.”
Her face once again searched his. “A fresh start?”
“Yes and my love for all time.” Cade searched her eyes for an answer, his heart pattering inside his chest.
Tears poured forth from the corners. “Yes…yes, that’ll give me reason to stay,” she said, her voice shaking.
Cade leaned forward and offered Ella a kiss that sent his stomach churning. Breathless, he stepped away before his heart relinquished fully to her. “When we return to the valley, there’s one more thing I wish to tell you. If you’ll still have me afterwards, I’ll marry you tomorrow morning.”
She nodded, and Cade studied her reckless blond curls once more. With the temptation threatening him, he twisted a single strand in his hand, tucking it behind her ear. A hope stirred inside of him. After years of running, he had finally found a reason to remain…