Morrow Creek Marshal

By: Lisa Plumley

Chapter One

April 1885, Morrow Creek,

Northern Arizona Territory

At Jack Murphy’s popular saloon, cowboys bellied up to the bar alongside newspaper editors, mercantile owners and railway workers. Miners and lumbermen tested their luck at the gambling tables, hoping to best gullible greenhorns or visiting card sharps—or simply to suss out which men fell into which of those two categories. Music plunked out at two cents per song—but only if those bits were tipped directly into the musician’s overturned bowler, which he customarily placed atop his upright corner piano. Overlying it all came the tang of whiskey, the rich haze of cigarillo smoke and the earnest hum of business being conducted, gossip being told and men being men.

Among those men, Marielle Miller felt both comfortable and celebrated. For the past twelve of her thirty years, she’d been spending her nights in places just like Murphy’s saloon, kicking up her skirts for profit and honing her skills at dancing—and managing the men who watched her dance. Being both applauded and respected by those men was a tricky business. It was one Marielle had mastered, too. Unique among her fellow dance hall girls, Marielle excelled at making sure no one man stepped his spurred boots or battered brogans out of line—or got wrongheaded ideas about the smiles she tossed out while performing, either.

Her smiles were for show, meant to charm and entice. As near as Marielle could tell, they rightly did both of those things. But her smiles were all performance, approximately as genuine as the horsehair padding cleverly sewn into her costume to augment the curve of her hips and the swell of her bustline.

It wasn’t that Marielle didn’t enjoy dancing. She did. Especially with her current close-knit troupe and especially for a generous boss like Jack Murphy. But she didn’t particularly enjoy the artifice involved. Or the wariness, either. More than most girls, Marielle knew she could not afford to invite the attention of a scoundrel. Or any man, really. She had too many responsibilities to see to. Until those responsibilities were properly sorted, there would be no offstage flirtation for her.

That’s why, as Marielle stepped onstage in the full saloon early one ordinary Thursday evening, she began by sweeping the boisterous crowd with an assessing look. It was easy to spot the infatuated ranch hand, new to Morrow Creek, who nursed a single ale while casting lovesick glances at Jobyna Lawson, Marielle’s fellow dancer and closest friend. It was similarly simple to identify the high-rolling faro player who believed his string of luck at the gaming table would also assure him feminine company for the night. Fortunately, Jack Murphy’s faithful barkeep and cook Harry would correct that misapprehension quickly.

The dance hall girls at Murphy’s saloon weren’t disreputable. Their company wasn’t for sale, either.

They were all—like Marielle—entertainers, first and last.

Handily proving her proficiency at her profession, Marielle high-stepped across the stage in unison with her troupe, lit by blazing lamps and accompanied by rollicking piano music. She swooshed her skirts and then skipped to the side, executing a perfectly timed move—all while continuing her customary study of the saloon’s patrons, both regulars and strangers. Alertness benefitted a dancing girl, Marielle knew. More than once, she’d been forced to duck flying bottles, shimmy away from shattering chairs or retreat to the back of the house to avoid gunfire.

At Jack Murphy’s saloon, in peaceable Morrow Creek, such antics were almost unheard of. Certainly, newcomers to town sometimes tested the tranquility of the saloon—and the resolve of the townspeople to keep it that way—but those ruffians never got far. Typically, one or more of the brawnier locals stepped in before disagreements could progress to full-on brawls. When that approach failed, Sheriff Caffey and his deputy Winston were available to handle problems—at least notionally—but most of the time, the lawmen’s intervention wasn’t necessary.

It was a good thing, too. Almost everyone in town knew that Sheriff Caffey and Deputy Winston were too busy enjoying the privileges of their positions to actually work on behalf of their badges. In a less tranquil town, they would have been ousted long ago. But in Morrow Creek, the need for a lawman arrived as infrequently as snow in the low country and lasted about as long. More often than not, the members of the Morrow Creek Men’s Club found a way to deal with wrongdoers themselves.

Raising her arms and smiling more broadly, Marielle sashayed to the opposite side of the stage, her footsteps perfectly timed with her troupe’s. From her new vantage point, she surveyed the men playing cards at a nearby saloon table. As the eldest member of her company, Marielle was responsible for seeing to her fellow dancers’ safety. Even as she winked at the audience and then went on dancing, she went on watching, too.

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