Grace Bidwell pushed her way through the busy mercantile store in the bustling town of Bozeman, certain that it would be the most beneficial place to post a Hired Help sign for everyone to see. She had no choice in the matter—if Bidwell Farms was to remain in operation, then she must have help. Otherwise they'd lose the small potato farm. On her way to find Eli, the store owner, several men moved aside to allow her room, grinning at her like young schoolboys. She felt her face burn with their obvious stares and the tipping of their hats, mindful that other ladies in the store also turned to look at her. But she marched past, giving a brief nod to the ladies, most of whom she didn't really know. Grace hadn't much time to entertain or be involved with the ladies' social circle, or anything else for that matter, since her father had fallen ill.
The mercantile was filled with everything anyone could need, from farm implements and pots and pans to ready-to-wear clothing, fabric, and household staples. Grace savored the mingling smells of the various items—neatly stacked or in barrels—and the scent of burning wood from the stove.
On her way to the counter, she couldn't help but notice a band of three grubby children standing near the glass case and peering at the delectable candy displayed inside. They looked to be ranging in age from four to eleven, if she had to guess, but since she had no children of her own—a huge void that pained her sorely—she wasn't the best judge of ages. The smallest one, a petite girl, wore a faded, dirty plaid dress, her hair a mat of tangled, golden curls.
Grace held her reticule tightly, along with the notice she'd written, and watched the children. The middle child, a slightly older girl, didn't look much better. Her worn dress barely covered her calves and her shoes revealed cracked leather and dried mud around the edges. The boy—maybe the girls' older brother yanked on their arms in frustration while tucking a package beneath his thin arm. "Come on! We've got to leave now." His dark hair covered most of his eyes and was badly in need of a haircut, and his pants, supported by suspenders, were extremely short. He wore no socks with his brogans.
"Please, can't we get at least one peppermint stick to share?" the littlest one whined.
The older girl shrugged her thin shoulders. "Sarah, you already know that we don't have any money left, so not unless you intend to stay and sweep the floor for the owner of this establishment," she said wryly, pulling her arm from the boy's grip.
"Maybe next time, Sarah, I promise—but not today." The boy clamped his jaw tight, dropping Sarah's arm.
"You have your package now, so you kids run along," the clerk said, and shooed them in the direction of the door, nearly pushing Grace to the side and sending her rocking in her sturdy pumps.
Grace quickly steadied herself and felt compelled to step in. "Please, let me buy the children each a stick of peppermint." The three stood motionless, staring at her with large, disbelieving eyes.
The clerk paused, turning toward her. "Mrs. Bidwell, I...uh, didn't see you there. I'm sorry—"
His weak apology was completely dismissed by Grace, who reached into her reticule and handed him a few coins. Turning, she smiled at the children.
"We can't let you do that," the young lad protested through narrowed eyes. From his shoulder bones poking up through his shirt, it looked as though he could stand to gain some weight.
"Why not?" the youngest one asked innocently.
He looked over at her. "Because, we don't take money from strangers."
"Well then." Grace drew in a quick breath. "My name is Grace Bidwell, so now we're not strangers. It's only a small gift for you to enjoy this sparkling, spring day. Tell your mama I meant no harm."
"We ain't got no mama," he huffed, casting his expressionless eyes away from Grace.
"I'm sorry." Grace nearly took it upon herself to correct the lad's grammar but thought better of it.
The clerk returned, handing them each a stick of candy. With a nod to Grace, he went back to his work.