Morrow Creek Marshal(2)

By: Lisa Plumley

Atop her head, her feathered and spangled headpiece bobbed with her movements, secured to her dark, upswept hair with multiple pins. Around her skipping feet, her costume’s fancifully adorned skirts swirled. Her ensemble was of her own design, made for free movement and utmost prettification. It provided flash, flattery and—unlike ordinary dresses—necessary if minimal modesty during high-stepping kick routines.

Thanks to her skill with a needle and thread, Marielle augmented her income from dancing quite conveniently. Along with supplying costumes to her hardworking fellow dancers, she also took in ordinary mending, tailoring and other seamstress’s work for her neighbors. Between the two—her dancing and her sewing—she’d amassed a sizable nest egg...which was undoubtedly providential, given that Marielle had begun feeling a little less excited than usual by the prospect of stepping onstage.

Just once, Marielle imagined, she’d have liked to have gone home at the end of a late evening not smelling of cheroots, Old Orchard and Levin’s ale. She’d have liked to have had a more amenable schedule—one that didn’t bring her to work at a time when most women were settling around the hearth with their families. She’d have liked to have had a family of her own, for that matter, with children to care for.

She’d have liked not to be required to notice—and deal with—the one dance hall girl in their troupe who was inevitably behaving foolishly.

This time, it was Etta, a girl who was newly arrived from cattle country. Unfortunately, she appeared to have about as much gracefulness and common sense as a dolled-up heifer from her hometown. Plainly unaware of the need to retain a certain sensible distance from the saloon’s customers, Etta was flirting with one of them instead. Even as their current dance reached its finale, Etta broke routine to pout and pose and toss pantomime kisses at the man while bawdily tossing her skirts.

Seeing those shenanigans, Marielle groaned inwardly. It was true that they needed another dancer in their troupe. Jobyna was getting married soon to her beau, Gordon “Snub” Sterling, so she wouldn’t be performing anymore. That meant replacing her was a necessity. All the same, Marielle had recommended against allowing giggly Etta to try out tonight. She knew a calamity in the making when she saw it. Softhearted Jack Murphy had seen things differently. So had his wife, infamous suffragist Grace Murphy, who believed every woman deserved a chance to shine.

Currently, Etta was shining in the direction of a particularly disreputable-looking saloongoer. Dark haired, shadow bearded and broad shouldered, the man in Etta’s sights packed eight feet of manliness in a six-foot package. He was brawny, relaxed and curiously uninterested in the glass of whiskey Harry had poured him. He was also, Marielle couldn’t help noticing, wearing a gun belt with his clean and pressed dark clothes. Overall, the man had trouble written all over his attentive expression...only Etta was too dense to realize it.

Given a saloon full of potential husbands—because doubtless that’s how foolish Etta saw those men who watched her dance with their tongues all but lolling—their troupe’s giggly cattle country upstart had singled out the worst possible choice. He looked, to Marielle’s dismay, like a typical territorial drifter—albeit, an absurdly handsome one—ready to pick up and pull foot with no notice and no cares for anyone he left behind.

But if she were honest...didn’t all men look that way to her?

There wasn’t a man alive who could be counted on, Marielle knew. Not the ones who wooed her with raw gold nugget tips. Not the ones who shyly stared at the saloon’s sawdust-covered floor rather than meet her measuring gaze. Not the ones who proposed debauchery and ruination and an end to her wonderings about exactly what went on between cajoling men and the unwise women who loved them during a single scandalous evening at the nearby Lorndorff Hotel. Not even the ones who were related to her.

Marielle had never lacked for opportunities to give away her heart. She’d simply refused to accept any of them. Only a very reckless woman would have allowed herself to believe a man was the answer to her prayers—at least not those involving heavy equipment, exacting machinery or ornery animals...and maybe not even then. Only a woman like silly, still flirting Etta would have risked her potential employment with the company for the sake of trying to catch the eye of a wandering gunslinger.

Even as Marielle danced closer to Etta, trying to gain her cohort’s attention without breaking rhythm, the drifter proved his fickleness by letting his gaze meander away from seductive, overpainted Etta...directly to Marielle. Confidently, the stranger watched her dance. His dark-eyed gaze took in her swooshing skirts, her self-assured steps and her lace-adorned bosom, each in turn, then traveled up to her face. Shockingly, his attention lingered there. It was almost as though he truly saw her. Not her flashy costume, not her titillating movements, not her fan or her lightly painted lips or her spangled hips. Just...her.

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