The sound of metal and wood crashing to the print shop’s floor made Mark’s back stiffen. His hands stilled above the printing press he was working with, and he took several deep breaths. His chest sank. They’d almost made it through the workday without a catastrophe. It would be best to wait a moment before he reacted. He didn’t even want to look. If he did, he’d see the same thing he saw yesterday and the day before that.
When his pulse decreased a bit, he trusted himself to turn around. As expected, Amos, a huge man, was on his hands and knees picking up the type letters scattered across the floor. Mark assessed the situation. It appeared that Amos had tried to carry two type cases of letters at once. Hundreds of slugs were now mixed together—uppercase, lowercase, and different font sizes.
This wasn’t the same as yesterday. It was much worse. It had taken Mark a few hours twice this week to get them back into their compartments. Tonight, he’d be lucky to get to bed at all. It wasn’t a good idea to have Amos help clean up. He didn’t notice the differences in size and mixed the sets together, making typesetting frustrating. Maybe it wasn’t worth it to try to publish the Creede Candle every week. Mark could do this on his own if he only put it out once a month and on special occasions, leaving him plenty of time for business orders. The real question was if he wanted to keep Amos.
“Oh, my.” A woman’s voice with a thick Scottish accent raised Mark’s attention to the front of the store. “I was just stepping in to buy a newspaper. They’re all out at the mercantile.” She kicked her foot out to scoot some fallen letters over, so she could come inside.
Mark hadn’t heard the door open. He supposed that he’d been trying to calm his mind at the time. “I’m sorry, Mrs. . . .” Mark didn’t recognize her face. There weren’t a lot of women in Creede although there were more every week, and he tried to put names to faces. He didn’t know her. He picked up a copy of the recent edition from the desk and looked to see how he might get to the door without damaging the expensive little letters scattered about.
“Call me Mama M, please,” she answered. “It seems that you could use some more help, Mr. Carroll. Now, I know a bonny lass who would be just right for you—er, your paper,” she added with a nod of confidence.
Mark had known many women who had set type at the newspaper in Boulder where he’d worked before. He’d tried his best to avoid their company. Most were only interested in newspapers until they could get married. He disliked sitting in a parlor with a simpering miss or waltzing with a girl whose father thought a dance constituted an engagement. It wasn’t that he avoided marriage on purpose—just often.
He hadn’t imagined many women in the west could read and spell. In this job, she’d also have to do it backward to set the type. Mama M was right. He needed help he could count on. He’d have to hang out a sign today.
“That’s grand. I’ll send her over.” Mama M said as she gingerly stepped back toward the door.
Wait—how did she know?
“You won’t be sorry. Well, it’s just right—it is. It’s brilliant, if I do say so myself. I’m quickly becoming enamored with Colorado.” Mama M chuckled softly. “Thank you, Mr. Carroll.”
Mark looked at the floor again to see if he had a pathway he could walk to deliver the paper to her. He took one small step and looked up. “If you’ll give me . . . a . . . moment.” She was gone. His gaze darted around the room, and he even looked across the room and out the windows. The door hadn’t opened because Amos was still in the way, but there was no sign of her. He scratched his head. How did she . . .?
Amos looked up from the floor. “I did it again, sir. As much as I like working with the news, I don’t think I’m right for this job. My thick fingers just can’t get a hold of the tiny slugs and turn them around. Wherever I walk, I seem to bump things off the counters. I hate to leave you without help, but I’m not right sure I’m going to stay.”
“It’s all right, Amos. That woman said she might know someone I could hire.”
“Pardon?” Amos looked around. “What woman, sir?”
Mark froze. Amos had been picking up letters practically at the woman’s feet. How had he missed her? Hadn’t he heard their conversation? Mark had seen her. He’d talked to her. She’d been right there. Mark dropped down to his hands and knees too. He swiped his arm across the floor to move the letters into a pile, making them easier to pick up. “I’ll have your pay ready for you at the bank tomorrow.”
“Do you want me to clean this up?” the young man asked.
“No. You don’t need to. Goodnight, Amos. I’ll finish up.” Mark wanted the place to himself and no chance of another mishap. He’d been working hard for weeks. Starting up a new print shop hadn’t been easy. Even though it had been running for a couple of years, now he was trying to expand to keep up with the town. He often lost sleep and meals with the extra hours he worked. That was it. He must have imagined the woman coming in. He was overworked. He wanted some help, so he’d wished it, and then he imagined it.
“Goodnight, sir,” Amos said as he closed the door behind him.
Mark sat on the floor, sorting the letters by size and case. After getting all he could see, he grabbed a broom and swept up some hidden letters from under the furniture and the printing press. When he put the broom away, he noticed that the sun was beginning to set. If he was going to get some supper, he’d better do it now. He glanced at the piles of slugs. They’d wait. He grabbed his hat and coat and walked to Hearth and Home.
Inside, the yellow light and hearty smells were welcoming. He found an empty table and sat down. He set his hat on the chair next to him and waited.
“Here you are!” Mama M said.
Mark’s chair tipped backward as his legs stretched out from his fright at the woman’s voice.
“Now, settle yourself,” she said as she sat in the other chair beside him. “Your eyes are large as saucers. You’ll scare her off before you have a chance to hire her.”
“Hire her,” he mumbled. Had he really heard that?
“Of course you heard me. You’re rightly the only one who can now. You stay put. I’ll send Rhona over to the table to take your order, and then you’ll offer her the job. The newspaper will be better. You’ll be better. We’ll all be happier.” Mama M twisted around, looking about the room. “There she is. Now, what will you say to her?”
Mark stared at Mama M. Would he really have to say something? This wasn’t real after all. He needed a hearty meal and a good and long night’s sleep to be put to rights.
Mama M folded her arms across her chest. “I’m every bit as real as you are. Yeah, I heard you think that. Practice offering her the job. I’ll go get her.”
Mama M stood to leave the table, and Mark automatically stood with her. It might be silly, but his orphanage had taught him enough that he knew he had to stand for ladies, even imaginary ones.
“Not imaginary,” she scolded with her finger shaking toward him.
When she walked away, Mark leaned on the table, his forehead resting on his hand. Now, he wasn’t sure if a good meal and a full night’s sleep would be enough for him.
Mama M was still standing in the dining room with a broad smile, watching him. His delusions were following him, and they were scolding him, too. Mark ate at the restaurants in town most evenings and bought Edwin’s sack lunch a few times a week as well. He knew all the servers who walked in and out of the kitchen delivering food to the tables. Mama M wasn’t one of them.
He hadn’t seen Rhona, and he hoped she didn’t serve him if she was working. A few months ago, she’d made it her business to inform him of every error printed in the newspaper. She’d even taken to occasionally sliding a marked-up paper under his door. He didn’t need her to point them out. They jumped off the page at him with each edition he printed. But good help was hard to find, and that was the result.
She was a beautiful woman with dark hair and bright blue eyes. Stunning. even. He couldn’t help but stare at her. As if his memory of her lovely face conjured her up, she walked from the kitchen straight to his table.
Without so much as a hello or the smile Mark liked so much even though it was on her face, she said, “Tonight, we have a roasted chicken with potatoes and carrots or fried cube steak with cream gravy and mashed potatoes. Both come with a roll. Which dinner would you like?”
“Hello,” he replied. “I’m well. Thank you for asking.” He enjoyed the way her beautiful eyes popped open even larger than they already were, sparkling with humor. He couldn’t withhold a smile on his face, pleased that he’d surprised her. He cleared his throat to avoid a chuckle and added, “I’ll have the chicken.”
Rhona returned moments later and placed the plate before him. “I brought you several extra napkins.” She placed them on the table beside him in a stack at least six inches tall. “You know what happened last time. Enjoy your dinner.” She spun on her heels and walked back to the kitchen with a little extra spring in her step.
He eyed the stack as did the customers at the tables near him. Rhona was a sassy one for sure. He didn’t mind. It showed intelligence, at least. Although the tower of napkins mocked him, he chuckled at the wit.
Yes, he knew what had happened last time. Hearth and Home provided boarding rooms for women and families, so there were always a few children staying there. Last week, he’d finished with his dinner and scooted back just as a child, walking past, dropped her bowl of pumpkin pudding in his lap. He’d yelped. The child had cried. And he’d walked out with an embarrassing stain on his pants. He was surprised that she’d remembered, however.
“How many of these does that girl think I have?” Edwin muttered as he retrieved the napkins. “Hello, Mark. How’s your dinner?”
Mark shrugged in response to the first question. “Hello, Edwin. Real good.”
“I don’t know what got into her. How’s your shop doing?”
“I’ve got plenty of work, but I had to let Amos go tonight. I’ll be looking for help again tomorrow.”
“I know I’m lucky to have family to help around here. Good luck to you.”
The dinner was delicious. Mark left his money on the table and returned to the print shop. He could face the mess with a full stomach and a better attitude.
Until he opened the door. That’s right—the mess awaited.
Before taking care of the piles of tiny letters, he found the Help Wanted sign and hung it in the window. Then he began the slow task of putting each metal slug into the little compartment that housed it.
He’d finished all but the last pile before he headed for home way after midnight. He’d moved them into a pile under the table to keep them out of the way. He was swamped with work. It might be a few days before he got back to them to finish. He’d need to hire someone soon.
As he and his horse reached the end of the Collins block, he noticed a supply wagon rumbling up Main Street. It rounded behind the Frog Knees Saloon next to the Tivoli Ballroom. He continued closer and saw men unloading crates at the back door.
Questions swamped his mind. Why would they receive a delivery at midnight? There’d been no advertisement on the side of the wagon. Who was the delivery from? What was in the crates? They sure looked heavy. He reined his horse to a stop as he considered where a good spot might be where he could watch, concealed.
A moment later, Ab Helm, the new owner of the Frog, stomped through the batwing doors. He stared at Mark as he stood on the boardwalk. Mark wondered if he’d meant it to be as intimidating as it was. Yes, he probably had. That confirmed to Mark that something illegal was indeed going on. He shook the reins, and his horse walked on.