When Ma set out for the post office, Alina flipped the sign on the door over to say “CLOSED” and stayed behind, stocking shelves. She was old enough now to mind the shop during Ma’s errands, big enough to carry the seed bags out from the back, smart enough to write receipts and tally up the costs of customers’ orders, but Ma made her close up anyways. Ma was just acting scared, Alina figured, with Pa being out on a posse and all. Made no sense, to Alina, being scared just because Pa was gone. There hadn’t been a shot fired in town for over three months, not since the new sheriff had arrived. The streets were clean now, that’s what cousin Jacob said, and he was a real deputy, with a badge to prove it.
Besides, there was Pa’s rifle in the store room, if it came to it. He’d left it behind, and always kept it loaded. That was no big secret. The way Alina saw it, there wasn’t much to fear when you had a loaded gun.
Of course, Ma had probably never fired a rifle. She could knit like a fine fury, but holding a gun? Alina just couldn’t picture Ma doing that. Not that Alina had ever used a gun, either, but she figured she had the hands for it. Pa had said so, once, when Ma couldn’t hear. He’d said she had strong fingers, and he’d given her a little jackknife to skin squirrels with, if she could ever catch one. How Ma would scream if she ever learned about that!
As Alina trudged in and out of the store room, carrying canned beans and bags of corn seed out to the shelves, she felt the little knife bouncing in the pocket of her apron. After the shop got closed tonight, she was gonna go out and find a way to catch one of them squirrels. She’d have a skin to show Pa when he got home, a whole collection of skins. Maybe a groundhog or even a fox, too. He was gonna be so proud.
Alina hefted a seed bag off the store room shelf, sat it on the floor, and was wiping sweat off her forehead with one of her dirty-blonde braids when she heard the bell above the front door jingle quietly. Probably another one of these ranch-hand cowboys who’d never taken the time to learn his letters…
“Pardon me,” said Alina, stepping out of the store room, “but the sign says we’re Closed, so—” She stopped and frowned. The shop appeared to be empty. Maybe someone had started coming in before reading the sign, and then closed the door and went out again.
A silhouette stomped past outside, moving across the boardwalk that fronted all the shops along Main Street. Alina recognized cousin Jacob’s peaked hat and heavy steps.
Turning back to the storeroom, Alina’s eyes caught a hint of motion, and she noticed a pair of leather boots standing behind the shelf in the corner.
Alina walked past the cash register and popped around the shelf. A tall cowboy with a grimy face and fidgety eyes was standing there. “Excuse me, mister, but the shop’s closed while my Ma’s out. She’ll be back before much longer, but there ain’t supposed to be customers in here while we’re closed, so why not take a look in at the saloon on the corner and come back when…” She trailed off.
The cowboy was watching her talk with a strange expression on his face. He seemed to become aware of the strange lull that had fallen and crouched down beside Alina, so that he was looking up into her eyes. “Don’t worry ’bout me, little woman. I’m just havin’ a look around.” He grinned and winked. He was missing three teeth, and his breath smelled like dust and cacti.
“All the same,” said Alina, “it’s store rules that you ain’t supposed to be in here.”
“The rules is pretty important to you, eh?”
“Of course the rules are important,” said Alina, impatiently. “That’s why they’re rules!”
The cowboy cocked his head to the side and grinned again. Then he reached up and gave one of Alina’s braids a gentle tug. “I got a girl like you. Face full of freckles, smile like the sun reflectin’ off a lake. Calls me ‘Pap’; treats me like I could never do no wrong. How old are you, little woman?”
“Near to nine,” replied Alina.
The man nodded approvingly. “She’s turnin’ seven soon… Wish I could be there for it.”
“Why can’t you?”
The cowboy shook his head gently, wistfully. “That’s no story for a girl who h’aint reached nine years old yet.”
“I’m big for my age, and smart, too,” protested Alina, drawing herself up to her full height.
“Does your Pa tell you so?”
“And where is your Pa, little woman?”
“He’s on a posse,” declared Alina proudly. “Sheriff asked him to help hunt down an outlaw who was thievin’ from the ranches.” A terrible thought crossed Alina’s mind. “Say… You aren’t planning to try any thievin’ yourself, are you, mister?”
The cowboy rocked on his heels and grinned. “And what if I was? What if I was to take one of these here cans of beans”—he pulled one off the shelf—”and tuck it into my vest and just walk out without payin’? What would you do about that?”
“I’d run after you and scream!” said Alina, defiantly. “And the sheriff would arrest you and throw you in jail.
“But I thought the sheriff was out on a posse, huntin’ down an evil outlaw.”
“Then Deputy Jacob would do it. I saw him walking past only a minute ago.”
“Did you, now?” The man scratched his cheek. “Yeah, I reckon he would.” The man tossed the can of beans in the air and caught it again. “Do they feed you when you’re in jail?”
The question caught Alina off guard. “I… Well, I reckon so. Everybody’s gotta eat.”
“Then maybe I oughta get myself arrested!” said the man.
“That would make you an outlaw,” Alina pointed out.
“Better to be an outlaw than die of starvation,” the man mused. “See, truth is, I h’ain’t had a bite o’ real food to eat in near on a week, so these here beans are lookin’ mighty good.”
“All you gotta do is buy ’em,” said Alina. “Them cans are only ten cents a dozen.”
“What if I h’ain’t got ten cents?”
“I’ll put you down for credit,” said Alina, “and you can come back when you do have ten cents. Ma does that all the time.”
“That’s kind of you, little woman,” grinned the cowboy. “Most folk wouldn’t give credit to a man like me.”
“Why not?” asked Alina.
“Wouldn’t trust me to come up with the money,” said the man.
“It ain’t hard to earn ten cents,” said Alina. “Ma gives me ten cents a week for helping with the laundry and weeding the garden.”
The man placed the can of beans back on the shelf. “There’s the trick of it, though, little woman. Most folk wouldn’t give me work to do, neither.”
Alina wrinkled her forehead. “But if you can’t work, then how’re you supposed to earn money to buy food?”
“Don’t seem fair, does it?”
“Why won’t people give you work?”
The man leaned towards her and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper: “‘Cause I broke a rule, once.”
Alina’s eyes opened wide. “Are you an outlaw already?”
The man held his hands out innocently. “Do I look like an outlaw, little woman?”
Alina pondered this for a moment. “Not to me, you don’t,” she admitted.
“I don’t feel like one, neither, and don’t much want to be one, but they tell me I am one, anyways,” said the cowboy.
“Can’t you ever change folks’ minds?”
“Only one way to do that,” said the outlaw, “and that’s for a judge to declare me a regular citizen again. But that ain’t likely to happen.”
“You ever met Judge Gordon?”
Alina nodded. Judge Gordon was a fat man with beady eyes and a bald head who always treated her like she was still a toddler.
“Well Judge Gordon hates my guts. He’s hated me ever since he saw me kiss a girl he fancied… And then I married her, too. He ain’t never gonna forgive me for that.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I’m gonna head out east, find a different judge to turn myself in to so I can get a fair trial, where Judge Gordon can’t interfere. Only problem is…”
“What?” asked Alina.
“I h’ain’t got enough food to get me there, and no horse to help me carry it, even if I did. If I had a gun I could hunt along the way, but if nobody’s gonna sell me a can o’ beans, then for darn sure nobody’s gonna sell me a rifle.”
Deputy Jacob’s silhouette passed across the front windows again. Alina saw that the outlaw had noticed, too.
“Is he out there looking for you?” asked Alina.
“Your Pa’s right,” nodded the cowboy, “you are a smart little woman.”
“What’ll happen if he catches you in here?”
“He’ll lock me up, like you said, probably say I was thievin’ from your shop and tryin’ to kidnap you.”
“But you aren’t doing either of those things! I saw you put those beans back myself.”
“That’s justice for you,” shrugged the outlaw. “That’s the rules, when you’ve got a man like Judge Gordon in charge. I reckon he’ll prob’ly want to tie the noose himself.” He let loose a haggard sigh.
Alina made up her mind. “Wait right here, mister.” She went back into the store room, climbed onto a barrel, reached up to the top shelf, and wrapped her fingers around the butt of Pa’s rifle. She clutched it carefully to her chest. It felt much bigger and clumsier than she had imagined.
The outlaw was standing beside the cash register when she returned, glancing over his shoulder through the front windows. “Hey, now,” he said. Whatcha gote there?”
“This’ll help you get out east,” said Alina, handing him the rifle. “And when you’re a free man, you can bring it back. Like you’re buying it on credit.”
“Bless your heart, little woman,” said the cowboy. “This world needs a million more generous, forgiving souls like yours, I reckon.”
Alina blushed. “Oh, and in case you need to skin any of them animals you catch while you’re hunting…” She dug the little jackknife out of her apron pocket and pressed it into his hand. “Here. My Pa gave me that, but I haven’t caught any squirrels yet, anyways, and I can always save up and buy another one.”
“Thank you, darlin’,” said the man, gently, tucking the knife into his pocket.
“Quick, now,” said Alina, “you can come out the back way before cousin Jacob comes around again and sees you.” She turned to lead the way through the store room but stopped in midstep upon hearing the bell above the shop door jingle again. She spun and saw Jacob standing in the doorway, arms folded across his broad chest, a grim smile on his round, clean-shaven face. His tall hat was cocked back on his head, and his long blond hair spilled out from under it.
“There you are,” growled Jacob. “Knew you had to be along here someplace. Musta been some neat trick you pulled, doublin’ back and shakin’ a whole posse off your trail.”
The outlaw kept his back turned so the rifle was hidden from the Jacob’s sight. “Not such a tough job, when the posse’s bein’ weighed down by a fool like Gordon.”
Jacob shook his head slowly. “You shouldn’t’ve come back here, Holden. Just another poor decision to add to your long list of mistakes.” He noticed Alina standing in the door of the store room, then. “Come on over here, Alina. Your Ma would have a fit if she saw you standin’ so close to a filthy outlaw.”
Alina looked up and saw the desperation in the outlaw’s eyes. He gave her a slight, reassuring nod, and she cautiously stepped forward to join Jacob.
Just as she started to move, the outlaw whirled, raised the rifle to his shoulder, and shot Jacob straight through the stomach. Jacob toppled over against a shelf, sending it and its contents crashing to the floor.
The outlaw winked at Alina, tipped his hat, and sprinted out the front door, shouting “Yeehaw!” as he went. Alina stood paralyzed in shock as she watched the outlaw spring onto cousin Jacob’s horse and go galloping off down Main Street.
Alina was vaguely aware of yelling and screaming breaking out in the street, and footsteps thundering across the boardwalk. Ma rushed in, dress flapping behind her. The sight of Ma broke Alina out of her paralysis and she slumped back against the counter, bumping the cash register. It dinged, and the money drawer slid open.
It was empty of all but ten cents.