Rina Standish looked up from her sewing. She heard a horse rushing up to the house. Her husband threw the door open and hurried in.
"What's wrong?" she asked. Ezra never came home at this time of day. And he always walked the few blocks from the saloon. He never rode.
"Trouble," he said, as he proceeded to their bedroom.
She followed him, saw him grab his pistols, and hurried back to the kitchen. When he came out, a sixgun on each hip and spare ammunition in his belt, she was cutting up yesterday's chicken.
"Don't bother waiting dinner for me; I may not be home until tomorrow," Ezra warned her.
"Can Mr. Larabee wait for two minutes?"
"Can you wait a moment, and I'll pack you something for later. You'll need to eat something eventually. "
It was closer to five minutes, but she packed cold chicken, fruit, bread, and cheese for his saddlebag, and filled an extra canteen of water at the well. "Take care of yourself,"she said.
His green eyes twinkled. Anyone else would have considered the advice unnecessary. "I always do."
"Getting too dark to follow the trail," Vin Tanner announced The bounty hunter had pale blue eyes and long brown hair.
" Let's stop and make camp," Chris Larabee ordered. "We'll start fresh first thing in the morning."
Gratefully, the other five stopped, dismounted, and began setting up camp. Only Vin had been able to see the trail in the dim light; the rest had been ready to quit half an hour ago.
"What you got there, Ezra?" Nathan asked a few minutes later.
Silently, the dark-haired gambler held up the drumstick for him to see before he continued eating.
JD looked at the beans heating over the fire, then at Ezra's chicken. "Don't s'pose you've got enough to share?"
Ezra raised an eyebrow at the impertinent question. He said nothing, but ate a little more slowly, clearly savoring his dinner.
Buck said, "Y'know, JD, Miss Nellie's a fine cook. I'll bet she taught Casey."
"So iffen you married her, you could eat as well as Ezra," Buck suggested, trading an amused glance with the others.
As they ate, the other five shot envious glances at Ezra, knowing it would be a waste of time to ask him to share. Larabee, as usual, was quiet. Nathan, Buck, and JD chatted quietly about non-consequentials.
"Y'know, Ezra, you're damned lucky," Buck said after Ezra finished his chicken.
Ezra merely looked at him as he chewed his apple.
"Your wife ain't the prettiest woman in town," Buck continued tactlessly, "but she's a fine cook, she fusses over you enough to pack you a picnic when we're going after a pair of desperadoes, and she's too dumb to know what a louse you are."
The others chuckled.
"Oh, she knows," Josiah said. "She likes him anyway."
Ignoring their laughter, Ezra wondered just why it was Marina seemed so fond of him. Lord knew, he'd done nothing to warrant her affection or devotion.
Granted, he was handsome. He had a certain undeniable charm, a raffish gallantry. Definitely he possessed an urbane sophistication she would not have seen amongst the Henshaws. On second thought, perhaps it wasn't so extraordinary that she admired him.
Josiah sat down next to Ezra. In a quiet voice, he remarked, "You're thinking about Marina."
"I have always made it a point never to stay where I wasn't wanted. Marina does not possess the same sensibilities."
"You never stayed where you weren't wanted because half the time you left one step ahead of the sheriff," Josiah reminded him.
Ezra refused to dignify that comment with a response, especially as it happened to be true.
"I know you two ain't in love with each other, but for what it's worth, she does like you."
"The sentiment is not mutual," Ezra muttered.
"She ain't a bad woman," Josiah pointed out.
"Mrs. Standish has many admirable traits. Nonetheless, I prefer life as a bachelor. However, Judge Travis has made it clear that he will countenance neither an annulment nor a divorce, and he will use his influence to make sure no other judge in the territory obliges me in altering my marital status." Ezra sighed. "I could venture out of his jurisdiction, and seek a divorce in San Francisco or Texas, but the judge would surely make his displeasure known if I returned without her." He could simply stay in California or Texas, rather than let Judge Travis run his life. But after all the time and trouble he'd had saving up to buy the saloon, he didn't want to pull up roots. He'd never had roots before, had never settled anywhere, man or boy, for longer than a few months.
A thought occurred to him. "She's spoken favorably of you, Josiah. I would not stand in your way if you –"
Josiah held up his hands to ward off the very notion. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife."
Ezra pondered the thought of going to San Francisco. Certainly, it possessed a more sophisticated milieu than Four Corners. He could probably obtain a divorce there. Even after arranging alimony for Marina, he'd still have some money left. He could sell the saloon and buy a new establishment in San Francisco.
But leaving Four Corners meant leaving six men he'd never expected to befriend, six men he'd never expected to regard as brothers. Nor had he anticipated his duties as peacekeeper being anything other than an occasional nuisance.
Thinking of San Francisco bought Lee Pong to mind. Now there was a sweet girl ... perhaps he could look her up whilst he was in town. Suddenly a thought struck him, with all the force of a thunderclap. "Josiah, you worked amongst 'the heathen Chinee.' What do you know of Chinese marriage customs?"
"Not much. Why?"
"It seems to me I've read that in China the groom pays a purchase-price for the bride, sort of a reverse dowry. I was just wondering if, under Chinese law, Lee Pong could be considered my wife. Bigamy, I believe, is grounds for annulment," Ezra said.
"The judge might have trouble believing Lee Pong is your wife, 'specially considering it took you two or three weeks to remember her. 'Sides, he's more likely to toss you in jail for bigamy than give you an annulment."
Ezra mulled over that idea. That wasn't an impossibility, especially given Judge Travis' personal feelings toward him. Of a certainty, the judge would point out that Chinese custom had no bearing on American law. Perhaps it would be better not to mention it at all, rather than be laughed out of the judge's office.
Josiah reminded him, "The Good Book says a virtuous wife is more precious than rubies. 'The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her.' Be grateful for what you got."
"But – "
"When you're playing cards, you can't win every hand," Josiah interrupted. "Can't you just accept that this is one game you're not going to win?"
Larabee had not been joking about starting first thing in the morning. He roused the men before dawn. Ezra was not the only one to complain about the early hour, but he was the loudest. They were back in the saddle as soon as there was enough light for them to follow the trail.
It took them only half an hour to find their quarry. The end of their hunt was anti-climatic. Seven against two was hardly a fair fight, especially when the seven were Larabee's riders. It was nine o'clock by the time they returned to Four Corners and deposited the pair in the jail.
At a quarter past nine, Ezra opened his front door. He was startled to see the Winchester on the parlor table. He looked around, and saw Marina asleep in the chair. She was dressed in her best nightgown, the lace-trimmed one she always wore when she tried to entice him into making their marriage bed more than just a piece of furniture for sleeping. A book lay on the floor where it had fallen out of her hand. The pewter candlestick holder was covered with melted wax. She must have fallen asleep and let it burn itself out.
"I thought I told you not to wait up for me." He thought about waking her up and asking her to make him a proper breakfast. He didn't think she'd mind, not as eager to wait on him and cook for him as she always seemed. He bent over, kissed her cheek gently, picked her up, and carried her to bed.