Lucy Hawley stretched on her tips of her toes and extended her fingers to push an errant can of baking soda back onto the shelf.
The ladder she was on shook beneath her unsteady grip. She grabbed for the shelf to help stabilize her position, but missed. The rest of the baking soda cans spilled to the floor.
“Lucy? What is going on back there?”
She cringed, then scrambled down from the ladder. Clarence Hutson, her employer, wouldn’t be pleased by her accident.
“I knocked a few things over, sir. It won’t take more than a moment to restore them.” She bent and started picking up the cans. “I’m nearly finished with the stocking.”
He rounded the corner of the shelf. “Sweet mercy, Lucy. How did this happen?”
“The ladder isn’t the most stable item in the store, sir.”
Mr. Hutson put his hands on his hips. “But you’re certainly the clumsiest. Get this mess picked up before we close. Hurry up, now.”
“Of course, sir.” She moved up the ladder again with an armload of cans.
The tap of his soles moving away gave her some relief. Mr. Hutson wasn’t mean on purpose. He liked things done neatly and efficiently. Although she’d been certain she could do a good job when he hired her, she hadn’t reached his standards. Yet.
Four months did seemed like an excessive amount of time to learn proper stocking techniques. Although it often felt like he made her rearrange the items just to keep her busy and amuse himself.
“Four rows by four, Lucy,” he called from the front of the store. “Labels forward. All at the same angle.”
“Yes, sir.” She gritted her teeth.
“Perfect little soldiers.”
She mouthed the words as he called them out.
Mr. Hutson took his shelving and stocking seriously. She didn’t really need the money, but hard work was supposed to be good for one’s character. Hers ought to be glistening with a good sweat by the time she was laid to rest. The work didn’t make her happy, but the customers were good people and it was nice to see their faces every day. That made a great deal of difference.
What she wanted—long for—was a home of her own. Not the rented house where she lived with her father. And she wanted a dedicated, hardworking husband. A garden. No, two. One with flowers and one for vegetables. A place where she could work for herself and her family. At present, the house where they lived barely had a postage stamp sized yard.
Saving her money wouldn’t buy her a husband, but it would put her closer to the dream of her own home and the gardens. Fate would have to show her some kindness in regards to a husband.
She organized the shelf, managing to keep everything tidy and get down the ladder without knocking anything else askew. Lucy dusted off her hands, then lifted the ladder to take to the front.
She pushed the long end of the ladder around the corner. It wobbled in her grip and the front rose up as she struggled to control it.
Something clattered to the floor.
“Oh, no.” She set the ladder aside. “Mr. Hutson, I’m so—”
The man rubbing his temple wasn’t her employer.
He looked startled as their gazes met, then his went to the floor.
A gleaming Colt Peacemaker lay there.
“Oh goodness. I’m sorry. Are you all right, sir?” If she’d damaged his weapon, in addition to his head, it was likely an apology wouldn’t fix the situation.
“I’m fine. This is supposed to be—it’s a…” He gave up whatever he was trying to say. “I’m leaving.” His words were as stiff as his back.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you. Please don’t go on my account. I can help you find anything you need. Or Mr. Hutson could help if I’ve offended you too much.” She didn’t see the owner, but he couldn’t have gone far. He’d be appalled when he learned she’d nearly knocked out one of his customers.
“Thank you, but I don’t need—”
She retrieved his pistol. “Assistance?”
His face was scruffy. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, but his hair was growing in patchy. He wasn’t quite handsome—too gawky for her taste. His nose was sharp and straight, his cheekbones sharper and his lower jaw jutting. His clothing was wrinkled and a bit dusty. No jacket or vest, only his once-white shirt and dark braces with black trousers. Unmistakable dirty stains on the knees, as though he’d kneeled in the dirt. A faded red handkerchief looped around his neck. Most of all, he looked tired. A bit out of sorts. Also, familiar. He’d been in once or twice. Mr. Hutson had helped him previously.
The pistol felt ten times heavier in her hand.
“Are you planning to rob us?” Like the men who’d burst into the Beltane bank days ago. She pulled the gun closer to her body.
His eyes widened. They were almost tobacco brown. Strikingly bright, intelligent eyes. They hardened.
“Give me the gun.” He lunged for it.
Lucy stepped back. “No.” If he was a robber, he was doing a poor job of it.
“Don’t make me hurt you.” He balled his hands into fists.
Tall, though on the thin side, he could easily overpower her. Nevertheless, she didn’t worry.
“I don’t think you’re sure of your task here, sir. Was your intention to rob us?”
He sneered. “I fully intend to. Now give me the gun.”
Pity for his failure assaulted her. Whatever this man was, he wasn’t a thief. At least not a good one. He seemed desperately in need of help. If she alerted Mr. Hutson, he’d run for a deputy. The last thing the poor man in front of her needed was trouble with the law. “You don’t need a weapon. I can’t give you the store money. Mr. Hutson will fire me for certain if I do, but suppose I gave you a little of my own? To get you on your way?”
He scowled. “I’m not asking for a handout. I want the money in the cash register, lady.”
“I could shoot you, you know. You might die suffering.” Her hands shook, but if he turned violent, she could do it.
“You don’t have the nerve.” He squared his shoulders and lifted his chin. “Give me the gun and fetch the money. In one of those flour sacks.”
“My employer will return any moment.”
“Then you had best hurry.” He seemed to gather his courage as though he’d forgotten who held the gun.
She moved toward the counter. “Don’t fuss. You’ll get the money. There’s no need to cause trouble for me.” She laid the gun next to the register, the barrel pointed at the would-be robber. “I’ll give you whatever I have in my pocket. That sounds fair, don’t you think?”
“That’s not my intent here,” he snapped.
“I’m offering you a little money in order to keep you from making a big mistake.”
A loud thud came from the back room—no doubt Mr. Hutson dragging up more crates so she could restock another shelf.
He turned toward the sound. A sheen of sweat stood out on his forehead—over the growing knot where she’d hit him. “Fine. Give it to me. Make it quick.”
Mr. Hutson had paid her that morning. She fished a five dollar gold piece out of her pocket. It had taken her three weeks to earn it, but she’d gladly give it up if it meant she didn’t have to tell Mr. Hutson he’d been robbed. “Here. Now you’d best go. When you leave, I’m going to scream as though you’ve murdered me.”
He leaned forward, then yanked it from her hand. “You have every right.” He pocketed the money, then grabbed his Peacemaker.
Before he reached the doorway, she let out a screech sure to bring Mr. Hutson running.
“Good luck,” she whispered as the door shut behind the thief.
The moment Mr. Hutson burst into the front, she pretended to swoon and dropped onto the stool behind the counter.