Morrow Creek Marshal(3)

By: Lisa Plumley



Deeply unsettled, Marielle faltered. On her way to silently but pointedly confront Etta, Marielle missed the next step. She could have sworn the rascal at the front row table actually quirked his lips in amusement at her mistake—but a moment later, she had larger problems to deal with. Literally. Because as she stumbled, Marielle accidentally veered in the direction of a drunken stageside cowboy who wasted no time in grabbing her.

“Yee-haw!” he whooped, clutching a fistful of spangles. “Lookee here, boys! I done lassoed myself a dance hall girl!”

More annoyed with Etta than with the cowboy—who really couldn’t be expected to behave himself under the influence of that much mescal—Marielle attempted to dance away. Her exuberant admirer held fast, almost toppling her off the stage.

All right, then. The time for being accommodating was over.

Nearby, the piano player helpfully kicked into a new song, obviously noticing Marielle’s predicament and trying to distract the cowboy into releasing her. Likewise, the other dancers around her sashayed into a new routine. They stepped in unison, twirling their fans. They gave winsome smiles. Their high-buttoned shoes flashed beneath their swirling skirts, providing ample entertainment with color and movement...but the cowboy held fast, even as Marielle gave a determined yank away from him.

Fine. Fed up with being patient, she flashed him a direct, beguiling smile. Seeing it, the cowboy started. His face eased.

Any second now, he’d let her go, Marielle knew. The grabby types always did. Most of the time, they meant well. Some of the time, they even expected her to be flattered by their ham-handed attentions. Typically, when Marielle appeared to return their ardor, the ranch hands, cowboys and other small-time miscreants who tried to manhandle her came to their senses and behaved like gentlemen instead. Given the possibility of genuinely earning her attention, those men customarily gave up their groping.

Just as she’d known it would, the power of her smile worked its magic. The cowboy blinked. He grinned. He started to let go...

...And an instant later, all tarnation broke loose.

The drifter from the next table stood. Sternly, he said something to the cowboy. Marielle had the impression he’d been speaking to the man before then, but she hadn’t heard him above the piano music. The cowboy shook his head in refusal. Then belligerently, with his fellow cowpunchers’ encouragement, the cowboy shouted something back. Prudently seizing the opportunity provided by his distractedness, Marielle pulled away again.

Before she could free herself, the drifter’s demeanor changed. He looked...fearsome. That was the only word for it.

Taken aback by the change, she gawked. Several other saloon patrons stood and shouted, rapidly choosing sides in the developing melee. Marielle had a moment to examine the newly disorderly saloon, belatedly realize that most of Morrow Creek’s unofficial town leaders—including Daniel McCabe, Adam Corwin, Griffin Turner and others, weren’t in attendance—and worry that things might go terribly wrong. Then the stranger pulled back his arm, grabbed the cowboy and punched him. With authority.

* * *

Dylan Coyle wasn’t sure where he found the authority to deliver a sobering sockdolager to the grabby knuck who’d been manhandling the watchful, dark-haired dance hall girl. He wasn’t part of Morrow Creek’s self-appointed slate of local honchos. He had no duty to fulfill. In fact, he’d deliberately chosen not to embroil himself in a position of authority while in town.

Folks tended to want to rely on him, Dylan knew. But he was a wandering man. He wanted no part of putting down roots—especially not in a town like Morrow Creek. As a community full of like-minded homesteaders, traders, workers and families, it was as wholesome as apple dumplings and as cozy as flannel sheets. It was the wrong kind of place for a no-strings type like him. That hadn’t always been the case, but it was now.

In fact, now that he was done with the job he’d taken on in Morrow Creek—working as a security man for the mysterious proprietress of the Morrow Creek Mutual Society—Dylan was on his way out of town. He’d only stopped in Jack Murphy’s saloon for a parting whiskey before catching the next train farther west.

But there were some things a good man couldn’t put up with. Allowing a pie-eyed cowpuncher to inconvenience a woman was one of them. Letting that same knuck upset Dylan’s glass of good whiskey as he’d stumbled toward the stage was another. Now, Dylan realized with a frown, every time he put on his favorite broad, flat-brimmed black hat, he’d smell like a distillery.

“Just remember,” Dylan told the cowboy as the liquored-up fool swayed in his grasp, “I asked you nicely to let go. Now I’m going to ask you nicely to apologize to the lady. If you don’t—”

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