"Mister Tompkins, sir?" The young clerk cleared his throat and waited for the older man to turn around. The tired look in the storeowner's eyes was daunting. "I was wondering… since this is Christmas Eve-"
"You want to get home early, Jonas?"
The clerk brightened, smiling with hope. "I've finished all the sweeping and stocked the shelves." He rushed on. "I've even organized the storeroom and-"
Tompkins waved dismissively. "Yes, yes… that's all well and good but-" The bell above the door jingled and Tompkins was momentarily distracted. "Fine, go on home." He watched the clerk disappear into the back room. "At least one of us has to work."
The admonition was lost when the back door closed and locked behind the young man.
"Huh," Tompkins sniffed, "that's the work ethic of young folks these days. Runnin' off whenever they get a chance."
A movement between the shelves caught his attention: a young boy, no higher than the third shelf quietly made his way around, looking at one item and then another.
Tompkins narrowed his gaze, watching to make sure the child's hands didn't make light with any of the items in the display. "You, uh, need something, son?"
The boy turned to look at him, his motions slow, hesitant. "Just… just lookin' for somethin' for my Mama."
Tompkins huffed out a breath. "Kinda waited for the last minute, ain't ya, son?"
The boy nodded, a stilted movement as he pulled at one of his jacket cuffs. "We were busy until now, sir… but my Pa said it was the time for it."
Looking up at the fancy clock on the wall, Tompkins sighed. "Yep, I'd say it is." He skirted around the counter. "Well, I'm startin' to close up… so look fast."
The boy turned back to the shelf almost immediately and Tompkins headed for the door, turning the sigh from OPEN to CLOSED.
Raising his hand, Tompkins wiped at the glass window pane with the cuff of his sleeve. He shook his head back and forth as he sighed. "Eyesore." The simple word summed up his feelings. There, at the end of town by the livery, was one of those long Conestoga wagons.
He was no stranger to them. He'd come west in one himself, but, he reminded himself, he'd found himself a place to live when he'd decided to settle. He hadn't forced his family to live like vagabonds in a wagon when they'd come to a town.
Something shifted on a shelf behind him and he'd turned, catching his own reflection in the window. His expression was sharp and narrowed. The same measuring eye he'd turned on the wagon seemed to remind him that when he'd settled he'd had no family. He'd been all alone and was still alone.
The boy was still making his way through the store, his eyes roving over each item on the shelf as though he had money enough to spend. The wear and cut of his clothes told a different story. They were old and made for someone older and broader in the chest. A brother perhaps? Or, Tompkins sniffed, charity.
The clock on the back wall chimed the hour and Tompkins looked up. "Boy?"
The child turned around and looked up at him. "Yes, sir?"
"You found what you're lookin' for?"
"No, sir." There was a moment of hesitation. "You've got a heap of nice things here in the store, not sure what would suit her best."
"Well then," Tompkins looked at the display of wares on his counter, "maybe some perfume?"
The boy wrinkled his nose. "She don't really like that."
He tried not to sniff at the boy's words. More likely than not the boy's mother did want perfume, but he doubted they could afford it. Still, he was willing to play along for a minute or two; he had nothing else to do.
Approaching the counter the boy rose up on the toes of his shoes and looked up into the glass display on the counter. "How 'bout them ribbons?"
Tompkins raised an eyebrow and looked down at the child. 'Figures,' he thought, 'one of the cheapest things in the display.' "You think your Mama would like some ribbon for a dress?"
The boy took a second to consider the words and then shook his head. "Maybe just for her hair." He swallowed and looked up at Tompkins. "I'll take a yard of that red ribbon there, please."
Trying to ignore the dirt under the boy's nails, Tompkins lifted the spool of ribbon and considered the price written in pencil on the side. "That'll be ten cents, son."
The child dug his hands into his pockets and started pulling out all manner of items: a piece of string, a stone, a few coins, a stray button, and another few coins. All totaled it was nearly eight cents.
His expression sank, his smile nearly melting from his face. "It ain't enough, is it?"
Shaking his head, Tompkins rolled the ribbon up and set it back in the case. "Nope, sorry, son. Maybe you can go ask your Pa for some money, huh?"
The boy hung his head. "Pa's got other things on his mind. He's waitin' for the preacher man to come over, that's why he sent me here."
"The preacher?" Tompkins couldn't seem to understand what he was hearing. "Son, you do know this is Christmas Eve? The preacher is busy… he's got services and-"
"I know, sir, but he's comin' over to see my Mama… she's real sick, been that way for awhile." There was a little hitch in the boy's voice. "That's why we stopped here in Rock Creek, couldn't continue on West with the rest of the folks in the Wagon Train when she took ill. Doc's done all he can and well, Pa said Ma should look real pretty tonight cause…" The weight of it all seemed to hit him all at once, his shoulders hunching over as he stared at the floor. "I'm real sorry I wasted your time, sir."
He turned toward the door and in the empty quiet of the store Tompkins thought he heard a soft sound. A heartbreaking sob.
William Tompkins had been many things in his life… including a hard hearted son-of-a-… but there were times few and far between when he felt something more than hunger pains and anger burning deep inside his body. Today it was common human decency.
"Hey, boy." Tompkins touched the edge of the ribbon with his fingers and waited for the boy to turn around and look at him.
Turning on his heel, his worn shoes silent on the hard wood floor the child looked up at him. "Yeah?"
Lifting the end of the ribbon he cleared his throat. "How much did you say you wanted?"
The boy took a small hesitating step toward the counter, looking up and over at the length of red ribbon. "I wanted enough… enough for her to make a bow for her hair."
He put away the ribbon he'd been holding, taking out a fancier one from behind the counter. Weighing the scissors in his hand he measured out a length well over a yard of ribbon from Paris, France. "Think this'll do?"
The boy stared wide-eyed at the lustrous length, reaching his hand out toward it tentatively and then thinking better of it he held back. "I don't have enough money." Tears threatened to fall from his eyes at the thought.
"I forgot," the words seemed to burst from his lips before he could reconsider them, "we're having a sale." Coiling the ribbon around his finger he set it in the boy's outstretched hand. "I think you have enough for this."
The boy burrowed into his coat pocket and dropped the handful of coins and a loose thread or two into Tompkin's hand. "Thanks, Mister."
Tompkins could only nod and watch the child run out of the store and head down the street. There was skip in his step and Tompkins wondered how long it would remain there. The preacher the boy spoke of wasn't one to make calls at this time of the year, unless… scrubbing at his chin Tompkins let the full weight of the boy's predicament settle on his shoulders. Maybe the gift would lift his mother's spirits… maybe they'd have one last memory to smile about before…
The storekeeper made quick work of closing up the store, putting out the fire in the stove and bundling up against the cold in his thick coat before he reached for the door to head on home. He knew the evening air would be bitterly cold, but he was warm inside and knew the chill of the wind would do little to dampen his spirits. Tonight, he'd lifted a child's spirits and in the process done the same to his own, all with a little bit of ribbon.