Marina Standish came running in, Josiah a few steps behind her. "Ezra! Ezra, are you all right?" Before he could stop her, she was clinging to him, embracing him.
"I'm fine." He gently pushed her away. "Madam, are you familiar with those stitchery things that girls sew? The things with mottoes and pictures to show off their stitches?"
"A sampler? Of course, sir." Inwardly, Marina shuddered. When Ezra used a cold, formal "madam" instead of her name or the warmer, softer "ma'am," she knew he was vexed with her. "I made them myself as a child."
"Be so kind as to oblige me by sewing one that says "love, honor, and obey." When I give an order, I expect it to be obeyed."
"Yes, Mr. Standish."
"I told you to stay with Josiah. You could've been killed, rushing into the saloon like that. Or they could have taken you hostage."
Marina's hazel eyes lit up. He did care, at least a little.
"Nathan will be here in a moment. Go to the back, boil some water, and find something to use for bandages."
"Yes, Mr. Standish." She went out of her way in order to kick Daniel on her way to the kitchen.
"What's she doing here?" Ezra demanded of Josiah Sanchez. "I trusted you to keep her safe."
"Don't be silly, Ezra," Buck retorted. "You never trusted anyone in your life."
Josiah traded an amused glance with Chris. "You've been married long enough to know how stubborn your wife is. Can't make her do something she doesn't want to do, or keep her from doing something she wants to do."
Buck sidled up to Ezra and said quietly, "Careful, someone will think you care what happens to your wife. You don't love her, remember?"
Ezra whispered back, "My feelings for her – or lack thereof – have nothing to do with the matter. The woman bears my name. I have a certain responsibility to her."
Buck nodded but managed to keep a straight face.
Nathan stopped at the saloon doors, peeking in to see if it was safe. When he saw it was, he came in. "Everyone all right?" the ex-slave asked them.
"Everyone on our side," Buck replied. "They weren't so lucky."
"Just sent JD to fetch you," Larabee said. "Where is he?"
"Don't know. I heard the shots and hurried over. What happened?"
Marina Standish came in, a pile of bar towels over her arm, a coffeepot in her hand. "My idiot relations came to harass Mr. Standish."
"We came to rescue you," Zeph protested.
"Rescue me? From the best husband any woman ever had? Arranging my marriage to Ezra was the only good thing Daniel and Carl ever did for me," she retorted.
"You mean you want to be married to this rat?" Frank asked her, openly confused.
"Better him than Carl," she retorted.
"What you mean? Carl's got hisself a wife," Frank protested.
"You remember when Ruth was born? Doc Chandler put Peggy on bed-rest for the last few months of her confinement, and he still nearly lost her during the birthing. He warned her against having another one, said it'd be too dangerous. But Carl can't keep his britches on, so here she is, pregnant again. Once Peggy knew she caught, I knew I had to run, and then Daniel and Carl handed me an opportunity on a silver platter," Rina said.
As she spoke, Nathan bandaged.
"What the hell you talking about, girl?" Daniel demanded.
"Do you know how much the Circle H pays in wages every year? How much we spend on hay and oats? Do you know what percentage of the ranch's earnings Gram budgets for your drunken rampages before she pulls the reins short so you don't beggar the ranch? Or did you think it was all a whim, when she let you sow your wild oats and when she ordered you to behave yourself?"
Her stepbrothers and cousins just stared at her.
"I know all that. Gram doesn't want to lose that knowledge. She's been planning to marry me off to Carl since Peggy nearly died, to make sure you idiots wouldn't run the ranch into bankruptcy after she died."
JD walked back into the saloon. "I couldn't find– Oh, there you are, Nathan."
"I'm here," the healer agreed, but he didn't look up from his patient.
"I would've married Old Nick to escape the Circle H. And then instead of Old Nick, you gave me Ezra. Gram must be furious at the two of you, but me, I'm eternally grateful." Marina didn't quite sneer, but she came close.
"Those three aren't too bad," Nathan interrupted. "This one and this one, we should get to my place right away."
"Josiah, would you mind assisting Nathan in transporting these miscreants? I'll join you there presently. I need to have a word in private with my wife."
oOo oOo oOo
Ezra didn't say a word until they reached their home. Then he slammed the door. "You used me."
"Yes, sir," she admitted meekly. She hadn't seen him this upset since she had lied to him about consummating their marriage.
"I ought to beat you senseless."
Marina did not reply. She went to the cabinet where he stored the brandy, poured him a cup, and handed to him without a word.
He took it and downed half at one gulp. "Well, no excuses, no explanations?"
"Trying to resist a beating just means more blows, and harder," she said sullenly.
Her tone disturbed him as he realized she was speaking from memory. "I ought to beat you senseless," he repeated, a little more calmly. "I won't, but I should."
"I married you for two reasons," Marina told him, regaining her composure as she realized he wasn't going to hit her. "To save an innocent man from being killed, and to escape the Henshaws. You've known that since that first day. Why should it matter whether I was trying to escape all the Henshaws or matrimony to Carl in particular?"
Ezra sipped the brandy. Logically, it ought not make a difference to him. But it did. He repeated, not quite as angrily, "You used me."
"We used each other. I escaped the Henshaws and you escaped a bullet. I admit I got more out of the deal than you did," Rina conceded. "But then, you were buying a pig in a poke, and I wasn't."
He raised a dark eyebrow.
"I knew you were a gentleman." He didn't respond, so she continued. "You helped me up when I fell. Daniel or Zeph would've just laughed at me, and Carl would've cussed me out as a clumsy fool."
"So on the basis of a little consideration you decided I should be your husband?"
"Not just that. I knew you were smart and after living with the Henshaws, I was tired of dumb."
"How could you possibly have ascertained my intelligence based on our brief acquaintance?" he demanded.
"Jake said you were a cardsharp. A professional gambler can't afford to be stupid, or he won't survive. And you were too well-dressed not to be successful."
Green eyes glared at her. "I want a divorce."
"The judge won't grant you one, and I have no grounds to ask for one," Marina replied calmly. "Everyday when I look at you, I think – I know – that I'm the luckiest woman in the Territory. I have a husband who's handsome and well-spoken, a prosperous businessman, strong enough to protect me from my enemies."
"All you wanted was protection from the Henshaws," he accused her.
"Carl would have shot you," Rina reminded him. "But if I'd been forced to marry him, I probably would've shot myself, so you saved my life as much as I saved yours. I know I'm not as pretty as Mary Travis, or as well educated as you are. And I'm not as elegant or sophisticated as the ladies in San Francisco or New Orleans. I'd do anything to make you happy." She dropped the coaxing tone and stated resolutely, "Anything except give you a divorce."
"Madam, you could out-stubborn three mules."
"Gram Henshaw was a good teacher," Marina retorted.
Ezra refilled his brandy glass. He said nothing for a moment, nor did she. "Speaking of Henshaws, what do you recommend we do with your relations? It appears likely that most of them will live."
"For once, madam, we are in complete agreement." Ezra sipped his brandy.
"As much as I would love to see them rot in jail, if you had them arrested and tried, the others would simply come after them. It might be safer to send them home with their tails between their legs," she suggested.
Ezra nodded; he had suspected as much.
oOo oOo oOo
Ezra entered Nathan's makeshift clinic without knocking. "Are they going to live?"
"Should," Nathan said. "Dug the bullets out. If the wounds don't get too infected, they'll be all right."
Nathan had had to cut Bill's pants off to get to the wound. Ezra picked up the bloodstained trousers and picked Bill's pockets. He rifled through his wallet and removed the money. The gambler turned to face Daniel. "Where's your wallet?"
"A see-ducer and a thief," Daniel spit the accusation out at him. Nonetheless, Chris and Josiah's presence made him cooperative. "In my boot."
Daniel pulled his boots off. With obvious repugnance, Ezra removed the money. He counted it swiftly and then combined it with Bill's money. He laid half down on the table. "That is for Mr. Jackson's services. The Good Book says the laborer is worthy of his hire. The rest is to replace my mirror." Looking at Nathan, he asked, "Are they fit to travel?"
"Will be in a day or two," the healer allowed.
Ezra turned to face his in-laws. "Listen very carefully, because I'm only going to say this once. And I shall attempt to limit myself to words of one or two syllables, to facilitate your comprehension."
Josiah tried to hide a smile.
"Once you and your relations are fit to travel, I want you gone – out of this town, out of this county. It is my sincerest wish – one which my wife echoes, I might add – to never have the displeasure of seeing your faces again. Until you're fit to travel, Sheriff Dunne can keep you in the jail for disturbing the peace. Once you and your kinfolk can leave town without bleeding all over the road, I shall drop the charges. In return, I expect you to stay away. You will leave me alone. You will leave Mrs. Standish alone. Is that clear?"
Daniel just stared at him, his eyes filled with hate.
"In the saloon, this hombre said 'Gram said kill him and fetch Rina back.' That makes it attempted murder and attempted kidnapping," Larabee pointed out. "That's a matter for Judge Travis."
"As much as the thought of them languishing in the territorial prison fills me with delight, Mrs. Standish is concerned that the rest of the accursed clan may come to rescue them and harass us if they do not return to Franklin County. She recommended – how did she phrase it? – oh, yes, I believe her exact words were to 'send them home with their tails between their legs.'"
"Rina wouldn't say nothin' like that," Bill protested. "Rina wouldn't say boo to a goose."
Ezra raised an eyebrow at Bill's assessment of Marina's character.
Josiah chuckled. "For kinfolk, they don't know her very well, do they?"
"They're her step-father's nephews, hardly a close relation. A little less than kin, and far less than kind, to paraphrase the Bard. If I may have your full attention, gentlemen," he sneered the obviously inaccurate word, "this is what's going to happen. I shall file formal charges with Sheriff Dunne for disturbing the peace and vandalism. This will give him a valid and legal excuse to keep the lot of you in our local hoosegow until you're able to leave town. Once you're fit to travel, I shall drop those charges upon your word never to return. Then, when you reach the county line, I will file charges for attempted murder and abduction. If you ever return here, a warrant will be waiting for your arrest. As you've seen, I have friends here. A local jury will not be kind to the men who shot up the best saloon in town."
"Go to hell," Daniel Henshaw replied.
"You ain't going anywhere for a while," Nathan told him. "You got time to think over Ezra's offer. It's the best deal you're likely to get."
"Judge Travis, he's not known as a forgiving man," Larabee told them.
"And he likes Mrs. Standish," Josiah added. The judge had spoken to him privately when Marina had first come to town, asking him to keep an eye on her and to inform him if Ezra mistreated or neglected her. "His daughter-in-law's real friendly with Mrs. Standish."
Bill Henshaw moaned in pain. Daniel merely swore.
"I trust you'll be able to cope with these miscreants?" Ezra asked them.
"They ain't strong enough to give us any trouble," Josiah assured him.
"Then if you will excuse me, I should be getting back to the saloon. Thank you for your assistance, gentleman. Never doubt for a second that Mrs. Standish and I do not appreciate your efforts on her behalf." He touched his hat as he headed out the door and then added as an afterthought, "Next time you drop by the saloon, the drinks are on me."
"Did Ezra just say thank you?" Nathan asked them.
Larabee lifted an eyebrow. "And offer to buy us drinks?"
"The judge was right." Both the gunslinger and the healer turned to look at the ex-preacher. "He said marriage to a good woman would be the making of that man."
(The End of this story - there's more of Ezra and Rina's marital misadventures a-coming.)