The Matchmaker

September 1882
Northern Arizona Territory

Change was afoot in Morrow Creek.

From the whispering Ponderosa pines crowding the hills at the edge of town, to the false-fronted buildings lining Main Street and all the way to the shadowy interior of Murphy’s saloon, things just weren’t the way they were supposed to be. The way the bachelors of the town wanted them to be. Tonight, on this frost-tinged autumn evening, they’d gathered together to address the problem.

The problem of the mysterious meddling matchmaker.

Marcus Copeland, running uncharacteristically late, made it into the meeting just as two of the barkeeps broke apart from the crowd to bar the saloon doors. With a nod for both men, Marcus slipped inside and found an empty stool in the corner. From his position at the back of the room, he heard the heavy crossbar thud into place at the doors, sealing all the members of the Morrow Creek Men’s Club inside for this, their third emergency meeting in as many weeks.

“Damnation! Somethin’ has got to be done,” old man Jeffries was saying. “It ain’t right, what that matchmaker’s been doin’. It just ain’t right.”

A round of nods and murmured voices greeted his pronouncement. Dusty boots stamped on the floor with enthusiasm, and several men raised their glasses of whiskey, lager, andmescal in a show of support for Jeffries. If their combined grumblings and disgruntled expressions were anything to judge by, every last unmarried man in the Territory felt equally beleaguered by the matchmaker’s problematic meddling.

Marcus figured he had more vital things to worry about—like the set of ledgers from his lumber mill that still needed double-checking, and the schedule for next week’s shipment that still needed to be assigned to one of his foremen. But as an upstanding member of the community, and a bachelor who’d been provoked just about as much as any other man there, he’d decided it was his duty to attend the meeting.

Whether he wanted to or not.

Near the saloon’s bar, beneath Murphy’s already-famous gilt-framed portrait of a scantily clad water nymph, another man rose. Marcus recognized him as O’Neil, the butcher. He clutched a pint of Levin’s ale in a fist roughened by years of wielding a cleaver, and raised his voice to be heard over the other men.

“Jeffries is right!” he said. “This ruckus is getting out of hand. So are these forward-thinkin’ ladies. Why just last week, Emmaline Jones turned up at my shop with—”

He paused, as though the truth of the matter were too awful to be admitted aloud.

“—with a yellow em-broi-dered butcher’s apron for me. The next day, she came back with a matching neckerchief. Seems the matchmaker told her I had a cold coming on, and would ‘precciate the gesture.”

“Was it em-broi-dered, too?” yelled someone from beside the potbellied stove.

Guffaws filled the room.

“No.” O’Neil hung his head. "But it smelled like rose petals. The fool woman wouldn’t leave ‘til I put it on. Now I ask you, how’s a man s’posed to work wearin’ a thing like that? Smellin’ like flowers?”

The men’s voices rose, loud with advice to O’Neil on the virtues of ‘smellin’ pretty.’ Marcus cracked a grin and opened the first of the two ledgers he’d brought, scanning the rows of neatly penciled entries within. It looked as though it might be a while before the Men’s Club came to any conclusions. He might as well get some work done.

“Quit yer belly-achin’,” put in the tanner who kept his shop a short ways distant from the Copeland lumber mill. “That fool matchmaker’s advice has the whole town in an uproar. It ain’t just you. Hell, just this mornin’ that little gal who just came to town gave me a pink knitted rifle cozy!”

Heads shook all around.

“Now I ask you,” the tanner went on, “who the hell ever heard of a rifle cozy? My guns ain’t cold, like a pot o’ tea. What’s a fella supposed to do with a thing like that?”

“Well,” drawled the red-haired rancher from the west side of town, crossing his arms over his tobacco-stained vest, “you can’t put it with my hand-sewed bullet carrier that Mary Jane Mayberry gave me two days ago.”

“Why not?”

“’Cause mine’s baby blue.” He paused. Spit. “Won’t match.”

Table-thumping laughter ensued. Marcus shook his head and turned another ledger page, blowing away the sawdust that clung to the paper. Compared to the rest of the bachelors in town, the matchmaker had taken things easy on him.

Sure, having his men come to work bleary-eyed and distracted from visits and letters and surprise gifts from hopeful brides-to-be hadn’t helped his lumber mill any. In fact, it was downright dangerous having inattentive workers running the saws. But Marcus had handled those problems on an individual basis, by reassigning the affected men to less hazardous jobs. Where his personal life was concerned...well, the matchmaker’s antics had left him relatively—and curiously—untouched.

“What about this?” Another man stood, holding a necktie aloft. It dangled from his fingertips like a limp, lace-frothed rattlesnake, remarkably ugly in shades of brown and green. “The matchmaker told the preacher’s daughter to make this damn thing for me. Now, if she comes to my mercantile and I’m not wearing it, she gets all weepy on me.” He shook his head. “I can’t run a business with nonsense like that going on.”

“Awwww!” The men nearest him aimed non-sympathetic jabs at his ribs. One grabbed the necktie and slung it over the merchant’s shoulders, then stepped back as though to study the effect. “I declare!” he exclaimed in a piercing falsetto voice. “You look just like a picture in Godey’s.”

They all laughed, good-naturedly slapping their friend on the back. The necktie was passed to a cowhand, who whirled it overhead like a lasso. At the sight of it, Marcus shuddered. A man had to draw the line somewhere. Ugly neckties—with lace of all things—seemed like a good place to start.

The worst he’d personally received had been a tentative invitation to a “moonlit stroll with a lady admirer” in one of the matchmaker’s personal advertisements. Printed in Adam Crabtree’s Pioneer Press at irregular intervals, the advertisements were read with groans and expressions of resignation by the beleaguered men—and eager giggles by the women. Of all the marriage-minded weapons in the matchmaker’s arsenal, the advertisements were among the most powerful.

“Irene Posy wrote po-e-try about me,” a bearded railroad man in the corner said. "And put it in the newspaper!”

“Alma Avondale follows me all the way to my mine claim every blasted morning, chattering on about the dance at the Chautauqua next month,” another man complained. “She thinks I’d make a right fine partner for the quadrille, if I’d shine up my boots.”

The miner’s drinking companions huffed in indignation. Not a man among them would admit to getting gussied up for a mere female. Not in public, at least.

The shared complaints continued. Feeling increasingly fortunate, Marcus spent the next several minutes rechecking figures. Conversations swirled around him, punctuated with gulps of whiskey and streams of tobacco juice hitting—and missing—the spittoons. Growing warm in the mishmash of bodies filling the room, he peeled off his suit coat and laid it beneath his stack of ledgers. He loosened his starched collar, then went on working.

“That’s nothing.” A calm, authoritative voice broke into the mêlée, and Marcus glanced up to see that the saloon’s owner, Morrow Creek newcomer Jack Murphy, had spoken.

“I won’t give names, because the lady has a reputation to protect,” he went on in his faint Irishman’s brogue, spreading his hands to encourage quiet in the room. "But this morning, a lady claimed the matchmaker had sent her to find her one true love...here, inside my saloon.”

A shocked silence fell over the men. For several moments, they contemplated this unthinkable piece of information. Even Marcus put down his pencil, frowning. If a woman would invade the sanctity of the saloon, what next? Females in britches? Ladies wearing face paint and powder and French perfume? Women who would take it in their heads to kiss a man first, without being courted?

Actually, upon reflection Marcus decided he liked the sound of that last notion. Quite a bit. But the rest...clearly, something had to be done.

The mysterious Morrow Creek matchmaker, whoever she was, had to be stopped. But how?

“Inside your saloon?” Old man Jeffries mopped his brow with a suspiciously doodad-embellished handkerchief, clearly done in by this new turn of events. “Inside?”

Jack nodded, looking somber. It was true, then. No place was safe any longer.

“Now, we all know there’s no easy way out of this,” Jack went on. Several men nodded. The creak of chairs shifting beneath bulky bodies as the men strained to see, and urgent whispers for quiet, were the only sounds in the room. "But between the lot of us, we ought to be able to come up with something.”

“I already tried sayin’ I wasn’t keen on gettin’ hitched,” the sad-faced man beside Marcus said. “Leastwise, not to a woman who’s not my own choosin’. But them gals get all fired up by the matchmaker. They don’t pay no mind to reason.”

Someone at the end of the bar laughed. “What woman does?”

A hum of agreement swelled upward, reaching to the raw-timber rafters that delineated the saloon space downstairs from whatever occupied the building’s top floor. Thoughtfully, Marcus lifted his gaze, wondering if he could interest Jack Murphy in the purchase of a punched-tin ceiling from the lumber mill’s assortment of building supplies. At three cents a linear foot, the profit on the new ceiling would be....

Another voice interrupted his musings. “Now hold on. I reckon these womenfolk can be reasoned with,” said Daniel McCabe, the town blacksmith. “That’s what I did.”

He raised his burly arm, chugged down an impressive quantity of mescal, then wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his plain white shirt. Tipping his chair back on two legs, he regarded the gathering with a self-satisfied smile. “That’s all it takes.”

“You don’t say, McCabe.” The butcher squinted, appearing to consider the notion. With a suddenly skeptical twist of his lips, he turned to Daniel again. “That made the ladies the matchmaker loosed on you quit comin’ around and pestering you?”

“Hell, no.” Daniel’s grin widened. "But now they come round with things I want to have. A pair of new tongs from the mercantile, a bottle of lager on a hot day, a hank of sausage from your butcher shop—” He ticked off the items on his fingers, stopping only when interrupted by increasingly loud laughter.

Shrugging, Daniel hooked his arms in the braces holding up his soot-smudged pants. “You fellas just have to know how to handle a female, is all.”

Only a few stools down from Daniel, Marcus accepted his customary evening meal—good ale, a plate of Murphy’s tinned beans with bacon, and a hunk of brown bread—and counted out the coppers to pay for it. He began to eat, automatically scanning the day’s recorded timber yield.

It was low, probably because of the slow-downs caused by the matchmaker’s giggling, gaggling feminine disciples. They’d caused his men such distraction that both yields andprofits were down. For now, the problem was small. But if it grew any more troublesome, Marcus’s planned expansion of his lumber mill would be delayed.

Concerned by the realization, Marcus turned his attention to the conversation again. This was taking much too long to resolve. Wasn’t anyone here capable of handling a passel of women?

“Why don’t we speak to the matchmaker in her own language?” Marcus suggested, setting his beans and bread aside. “We can take out a personal advertisement of our own. Tell her the men of Morrow Creek want their lives back.”

“And,” O’Neil added, “that they’ll do their courtin’ on their own terms. With the women theychoose.”

Marcus nodded. Obviously, all this group needed was leadership. It was as true here as it was in his lumber mill all day long.

“Won’t work.” With a terse snap of his wrist, Jack Murphy finished wiping down the bar and flicked the wet cloth into the corner bucket. He spread his hands on the newly clean surface and leaned forward. "Adam Crabtree won’t take personal advertisements from anybody but the matchmaker’s private courier. Nobody knows who that is.”

“Lord,” the tanner groused. “She’s got us sewn up tighter than Copeland’s hold on his wallet.”

Chortles abounded as heads turned toward Marcus. He laughed, too, as agreeable to the joke as anyone else. It was true that he kept a firm grasp on his money. He’d worked hard for it. There was no crime in wanting to secure a good future.

Especially after the things he’d gone through to get there.

All the same, Marcus wasn’t so far off the mark that he couldn’t appreciate the humor in a man who accounted for every last pine shaving at the lumber mill. A man who couldn’t resist locking the door of his house when his neighbors did not. A man who’d stocked his pantry with enough tinned peaches, Arbuckle’s coffee, and bags of dried beans to last until he turned gray, and who never finished a meal without tucking away a portion of it for later...just in case.

A man like him.

“I’d say we’ve got the clue we need, then,” he said, thinking back on what had been said about the matchmaker’s personal advertisements—and the Pioneer Press editor’s involvement in them. The man was known to be a radical thinker, espousing all sorts of eccentric ideas. “It sounds to me as though Adam Crabtree must be involved somehow.”

“Or his daughters!” someone piped up. “Those three are something else, again. Why, that Sarah Crabtree knows just about everyone in town, seeing as how she teaches all our children down at the schoolhouse. I’d say she’d have some definite ideas about who should be matched up.”

“Now, hold on,” interrupted Daniel McCabe, standing up so that his intimidating bulk loomed over the speaker. “I know Sarah, and there’s no way in hell she—”

“You’re right!” O’Neil said, breaking in before Daniel could finish. “There’s something ‘spicious about those Crabtree sisters. All three of ‘em spinsters and busybodies and privy to half the town’s secrets, between ‘em. ‘Specially that Grace Crabtree, with all her highfalutin’ ‘ladies’ clubs’ and such. She must know every old biddy in Morrow Creek.”

The men around him nodded vigorously. The buzz of conversation rose louder, enlivened by this new development. Jack Murphy weighed in with his opinion on Grace Crabtree, and Daniel McCabe rose again in defense of her sister Sarah. Talk turned to the third and youngest sister, Molly Crabtree. Amidst it all, Marcus worked on the ledgers and finished his beans and ale. Absent-mindedly, he wrapped the remaining half of brown bread in his handkerchief and tucked the bundle into his coat pocket.

Suddenly, the tanner’s voice came again: “You’re a thinking kind of man, Copeland. How ‘bout that for a plan?”

Marcus blinked, unable to recall the multiple directions the conversation had taken after his suggestion that Adam Crabtree might be linked to the mysterious matchmaker.

“Yeah, Copeland. You’re the one who thought up this idea,” O’Neil said. “’Tis only fair you take on Molly.”

“Molly?”

“Molly Crabtree,” O’Neil explained. Inexplicably, his face reddened, as though the mere mention of the woman’s name brought a blush to his face. Curious. “You must’ve seen her. Her little bakery shop—”

Titters erupted throughout the room, and were quickly stifled.

“—is just down the street from your place.”

Marcus squinted, trying to recall what lay on the path between his modest house and the lumber mill he’d put into operation only two short years ago. He envisioned nothing. Most days, his walk to his office was filled with thoughts of the day to come—work crews to be assigned, timber to be felled, shipments to be hauled to the railway. He wasn’t some kind of layabout, with time to gawk at the scenery he passed.

“I don’t recall seeing her,” he said. “I don’t have time to—”

“Come on, Copeland,” someone called from near the bar. “You must’ve seen her.”

“She’s a female.” More laughter. “Remember those?”

“About so high—” One of the billiards players who frequented the newly opened saloon held his hand at chest height. “—with a fancy hat, a sweet swoosh of skirts, and a veryimportant difference in the fit of her shirtwaist.”

Everyone laughed. Irritated, Marcus slapped the second of his ledgers closed. He knew what a woman was! Hell, he’d done his share of warming up the long nights with someone soft and biddable and more than able to fill out the ‘fit of her shirtwaist.’ Granted, he hadn’t had time for any of that for a while now...but that didn’t mean he needed his friends and neighbors making him look the fool.

“Maybe we can draw a picture,” teased the mercantile owner, “so Marcus here can locate the lady and find out if she’s the matchmaker or not.”

Ahhh. So that was what the ‘taking on’ referred to by O’Neil was. The Morrow Creek Men’s Club expected him to find a way to discover if the bakery-owning Crabtree sister was the matchmaker. Marcus frowned, raising his hand to forestall further discussion.

It didn’t work.

“A picture! That’s what he needs.” Agreement was reached all ‘round. Jack Murphy winked and produced a finger’s width of chalk from behind the bar, then tossed it to the man most likely to be able to render a recognizable likeness—Deputy Winston, from the sheriff’s office. Hunkering down beside a nearby table, Winston examined the scarred wood surface, wearing the same expression he did while indulging in his favorite hobby: copying the images from the jailhouse’s collection of wanted posters.

He drew. In no time flat, he straightened, revealing a bumpy, chalky likeness of a woman wearing a frothy dress, disproportionately huge bosoms, and an even huger bonnet. “There you go, Copeland. Have at ‘er.”

Tight-featured, Marcus stood. For one long, silent moment, he stared down at the bawdy caricature. “Very well,” he said at last. “I’ll find out if Miss Crabtree is the matchmaker.”

“And stop her!”

“Of course.”

“Then we’re all in agreement,” Jack said from his place at the bar. “We find this matchmaker, we find whatever it takes to prove that she’s behind the shenanigans, and we stop her. Marcus with Miss Molly, Daniel with Miss Sarah, and me—” He hesitated, seeming pained by the announcement. “—with Miss Grace. All members in agreement?”

“Hell, yes!” cried the men. Hooting, stamping, clanking their glasses together in glee, they fell into clumps of four or five men each, ready to celebrate the impending downfall of the meddlesome matchmaker who had wrecked their peaceable lives.

“One more thing,” Marcus said, raising his voice to be heard over the din. “The next man who treats a woman’s likeness and reputation this way—” He thumped the chalk drawing on the table, bringing his gaze to bear on the roomful of men. “—will have me to answer to.”

A hush fell over the celebrants. Quickly, the deputy stepped forward and rubbed away the image with his shirtsleeve. “Sorry,” he muttered. “No offense meant, Copeland. I thought you didn’t even know the gal.”

“I don’t.” But I will soon. Marcus slung his suit coat over his arm and gathered his ledgers. "But I won’t stand by and see a lady hurt. By anyone. For any reason.”

He gave the crowd another warning gaze, then turned his back on them and headed for the barred doors. The two barkeeps hurried forward to remove the barrier designed to ensure the Morrow Creek Men’s Club’s privacy. Wearing jointly chagrined expressions, they waved Marcus through.

Outside he paused, listening as the doors were barred shut again and the revelry resumed. Shaking his head, Marcus followed the moonlit path toward his house at the edge of town.

Cool, pine-scented air filled his lungs and restored his good humor. Before he’d walked very far, he was fairly chomping at the bit to locate Miss Molly Crabtree tomorrow. If she was the matchmaker, stopping her activities would improve work at his lumber mill and fulfill his promise to the Men’s Club, both. All he needed was a little ingenuity. A lot of patience. And a plan.

A plan to restore peace. A plan to set things right again, the way they should be. With a little effort, he decided, it shouldn’t be all that difficult.

After all, Molly Crabtree was a woman. A woman engaged, oddly enough, in trade, but a woman nonetheless. How much trouble could she possibly be?

Whistling, Marcus went forward, feeling more than ready to meet the task that awaited him.

(end of excerpt)

From the book THE MATCHMAKER by Lisa Plumley
Imprint and Series: Harlequin Historicals - Publication Date 09/03
ISBN 0373292740 - Copyright © 2003 by Lisa Plumley
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A
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