"What's that?" Buck Wilmington asked as he took a long, appreciative whiff of the air around him.
"Dunno," J.D. Dunne answered as he drew a similar deep breath.
"I thought Inez was …." Chris Larabee started but was interrupted as he paused to contemplate what date it was, though he was distracted from that musing by the amazing aroma.
"With Missus Travis, in Santa Fe," Nathan Jackson finished Chris' initial thought for him, taking a double sniff as he turned toward where the pleasing scent was coming from.
"S'pose ta be," Vin Tanner offered quietly as he walked through the threshold, just now noticing in the air what the others already had.
"Brothers," Josiah Sanchez called to his fellow lawmen, but his timing was decidedly off. Whatever was happening that was sending such mouth-watering smells their way had to be - as Ezra Standish would put it if he were here, which he wasn't, having been summoned to Denver for a visit with his mother – of a nefarious nature since the woman who ran the place had closed it down for the five days she would be traveling with Mary and her young son, Billy Travis.
Buck and J.D. had their weapons drawn.
"Chris," Vin said, telling their leader with the tone of his voice rather than any wasted words that letting Buck and J.D. go ahead and investigate, guns drawn, was probably not the best idea.
"Fellas," Chris beseeched, but it was too late: Buck and J.D. were already through the bar and heading for the kitchen. The other four followed quickly, not wanting any rash action taken, especially not until they could get a taste of whatever was cooking. They reached the kitchen only to hear the silky southern accent of their seventh.
"Ah do b'lieve this would be a first … shot in the prime of life simply for makin' a meal."
"Ezra! Dang it, I coulda shot you," J.D. complained loudly as he pulled his gun up.
"What're you doin' here, hoss? Thought you were in Denver." Buck's tone was no more pleased with finding Ezra than J.D.'s had been; neither man would have been happy with accidentally shooting a friend.
"Ah was. For one long day. Unfortunately, whereas Ah was of the impression that this would be a pleasant reunion of mother and son after so long a separation … Mother had other ideas," Ezra finished, eyebrow raised, a crooked, discomfited grin presented.
His eyes said more than his words, and did not exhibit any similar humor, embarrassed or otherwise.
Ezra Standish was well-known for his poker face, for his ability to hide what he was truly feeling whether at the card table or when he faced a bad guy as a member of the law of Four Corners, but right now, in front of these people who mattered to him, and who continued to show in ways large and small that he mattered to them, these people – these friends of his - could see the disappointment of a son whose mother had lured him to Denver under false pretenses. They had all been fooled this time, as Maude Standish had made no effort to con or otherwise humiliate the card sharp, his friends, or any of the townsfolk in Four Corners during her three most recent visits. Save for maybe Chris Larabee, who, if anyone had remembered back to those visits, would have observed the tall blond remain sternly quiet as the whirlwind that was Ezra's mother, even still, managed to whip the town into a frenzy before heading out of the dusty desert village. Most of the seven were sure that Maude had finally accepted that Ezra would not be fooled into any of her schemes, and he hadn't been this time. It had been an expensive lesson, the cost of getting to and from Denver – this time – but a good … and final one.
Before any one of his associates could offer condolences, which he really did not need to hear however well-intentioned, Ezra asked, "Did you fail to see the note on the door?" He emphasized his question with a point of the wooden spoon he wielded toward the saloon's entrance.
"We didn't notice it straight away," Josiah said.
"What you're sayin' is that these gentlemen barged on through and failed to see it at all," Ezra noted as he stirred the slowly simmering contents of the pot on the stove. "That is how Ah am seein' this veritable stampede to the kitchen."
"That pretty much describes what we saw pullin' up the rear," Chris said. He glared at Buck and J.D. Both men looked chagrined as they put their weapons away.
"Ezra, what exactly do you think you're doin' in Inez' kitchen?" Buck challenged as he neared the stove to get a better look.
"While in Denver, Ah made a purchase for the kitchen. As Mistah Simmons has fresh beef available to our town for the next while, and the restaurant is now under new management and chargin' exorbitant prices for any meal that includes red meat, Ah took it upon mahself on behalf of us all to enter into an arrangement to order meat directly from the source."
"Where ya gonna store it, Ez?" Chris asked, knowing that it would require a special – and secure – place.
"You likely are not aware, but to the back of the storeroom there is a small door that leads to a below-ground chamber. Ah b'lieve this was previously used regularly for storin' meats, when meat was more readily available." Ezra's eyes glanced briefly to Vin. They had discussed the decimation of the buffalo herds by hunters and how the diet of the people of the frontier had changed because of it. Ranchers were slowly building their herds, and beef was becoming more readily available, though for some reason the new owners of the only fancy restaurant in town saw this as an opportunity to over-price their meals rather than pass on the savings of such abundance to the town. "Mistah Simmons will cure the meat appropriately for storin' for future use, and with proper plannin', the lovely and talented Señorita Recillos and Ah can offer occasional meals made from that meat and, with luck, from fresh, uncured beef as it is available."
"Inez … and you?" Nathan asked.
"Indeed, Mistah Jackson, when put to task you will find, Ah assure you, that mah culinary skills are comparable and, on occasion superior to, anything that Inez or the new chef de cuisine at the restaurant can offer." J.D. looked like he was trying hard to figure out what Ezra just said.
"Don't hurt yourself, son. All Ez's sayin' is that he can cook," Josiah clarified.
"Smells like it," Vin said with a smile.
"Sure does," Buck agreed, now close enough to reach his hand into the pot. Ezra slapped said hand hard with the spoon when the tall gunman tried.
"Ow!" the ladies' man screeched. Ezra took a handy cloth and wiped the spoon before dipping it into the pot once more and giving his creation a good stir. Buck 'mmm'd' as he licked the evidence away from his hand.
"Serves ya right. Ain'tcha got no manners?" J.D. asked as he laughed at Buck laving his sore knuckles.
"More'n you," the tall gunman responded as he reached over and toppled J.D.'s hat from his head.
"None of that near an open flame, gentlemen," Ezra chastised, followed by, "and when Ah said gentlemen, Ah really meant children," taking his spoon in a threatening manner and pointing it at once to Buck, and then to J.D. The two boys calmed down quickly with the verbal warning and physical threat … and the icy glare from Chris.
"Whatcha makin'?" Vin asked.
"Mistah Tanner, Ah am glad that you asked. This is spaghetti alla Bolognese, a delectable dish from the Bologna region of Italy, in the north," Ezra explained. He turned to Josiah and asked, "Would you mind gettin' some dishes and eating utensils and setting the table?"
"Happy to," Josiah said. Nathan joined him.
"Oh, and wine glasses from the bar would be appropriate," Ezra said. Josiah nodded as he headed to the bar. "J.D., would you please grab the bread over there," Ezra asked as he waved the spoon toward the counter behind him, "and Buck, go fetch some napkins, please." To Vin and Chris, who were anxiously waiting to hear more about their meal, Ezra continued, loud enough for all of his companions to hear, "It is a substantial sauce made with ground beef, onion, garlic, carrots and celery, tomatoes, of course, as well as two wonderful Italian herbs, basil and parsley, as well as salt and pepper. Unfortunately, Mrs. Potter has neither of those herbs in her garden just now, so Ah took advantage of mah unfortunate location in Colorado and picked up some dried pasta, herbs and several bulbs of garlic, as well as carrots and celery. Mrs. Potter has furnished the most glorious tomatoes. Ah knew that Ah would have to use the vegetables quickly, so Ah have some more dishes planned until Inez returns. Since she is able to procure the spices more familiar to her Mexican roots, Ah decided on something a little more exotic for our locale."
"So your big purchase from Denver was vegetables and herbs?" Chris asked.
"Ah, no, no. The major purchase was a meat grinder, so that Ah could mince the meat into a finer consistency for a Bolognese sauce."
"Couldn't use the one at the restaurant?" Vin questioned.
"No, Mistah Tanner, Ah could not. Not with the amount of beef that Ah hope we will be enjoyin' over the next couple of months. Mistah Brown at the restaurant might become suspicious."
"What's the difference if he does?" J.D. asked.
"Because, J.D., Ah would like for him to wonder about why he is not gettin' the business that the previous proprietor was," Ezra explained. The southern chef took one piece of the spaghetti in the boiling pot and threw it against the wall, while he placed another in his mouth. He watched the one thin piece cling to the wall while he chewed the other. A nod of the head alerted everyone to get ready for a tasty meal.
"Kinda mean, ain't it, Ez?" Vin asked.
"Why?" Nathan asked. "Ain't right that the man thinks it's fine to raise prices just because he's new in town. Thinkin' I might be scarce there myself," the healer added. Ezra was pleased to have Nathan on his side on this one, in spite of the fact that meat never was a big part of the former slave's diet.
As Ezra chatted, he strained the spaghetti and placed it in a large, shallow bowl. Then, he poured the steaming Bolognese sauce over the spaghetti. "Mistah Larabee, would you please?" he asked as he handed the large bowl to the tall blond. Chris took the bowl and leaned in for a sniff. He offered a wide smile as he turned and headed for the dinner table. Ezra grinned at the reaction. "Mistah Tanner, there are two bottles of wine that are opened behind the bar. Would you appropriate them on your way to the table?"
"Sure thing, Ez," Vin replied, not exactly sure what appropriate meant, but used the context of the situation as Ezra had taught him to assume its meaning. Ezra turned to enter the storage room. "You comin'?" Vin called to him.
"Ah have one more thing to get for our meal. Ah will be there presently."
When Ezra joined his compatriots at the table, he was pleasantly surprised to see everyone seated and clearly anxiously awaiting their meal. The feeling of warmth that overcame him could not be described; it was a rare day when Ezra Standish was at a loss for words.
"Would someone like to pour the wine?" he asked, figuring a procedural question would get him over the tight throat feeling. Josiah did the honors. "Please, go ahead and begin serving yourselves. Ah will come by with some Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to grate overtop of the Bolognese sauce. This cheese is typically served with this dish in Bologna, its complex flavor a perfect accompaniment with the vegetables, tomatoes, meat and herbs that have been simmerin' together to combine for an exquisite sensation on the palate."
"Ez, ya sound like you're talking about a special lady," Buck said with a wiggle of his eyebrows.
Ezra chuckled. "Buck, Ah believe that you will realize that, on occasion," he started as he placed his hand affectionately on Nathan's shoulder, "good friends, a good meal and a good glass of wine can transcend the feel of a beautiful woman in your arms."
The men all looked to Buck, the words sitting in the air, the thought something that they could each think on and consider. Hadn't they all enjoyed a fine meal and good conversation and felt like it had been one of the best ways to spend their time? The feel of treating yourself at a fine eating establishment, with the luxury of dessert and coffee, and maybe, for some, a glass of brandy to finish off a fine night? It was something to consider, for every man at the table … save Buck Wilmington, who let out the most raucous guffaw that any of them had ever seen from the ladies' man, snort and all.
"Ezra, you are somethin' else. Hoss, if you really think that, maybe you need to get out more," Buck said as he snorted again while laughing at his friend's comment.
"Very well," Ezra said with a tilt of the head. "Maybe not everyone can appreciate such an event, at least not with Buck's limited imagination and sizable … never mind."
"Don't use Buck as a measure for anything, Ezra," Chris said. "Excuse the pun," he added with an affectionate glance toward his oldest friend. "You got to forgive someone with such a blinkered focus," the tall blond said as he smiled at Buck's continued laughter. Chris often thought of Buck as a thoroughbred, but as someone who hoped to breed horses again in his life, he would never choose a stud like Buck for his stable. Oh, the mayhem a horse like that would wreak!
"Plus, he ain't tried this yet, Ez," J.D. noted. "It's really good," he added as he took his second big twirl of spaghetti on his fork. "Ain't too crazy 'bout the wine," he added as he stood from the table and headed to the kitchen; they all knew what he'd come back with a full mug of upon his return.
"The wine is divine," Josiah disagreed. The preacher concurred, however, with the youngest of their group in regards to the Italian specialty of the day. "The food, manna from heaven."
"Why, thank you, gentlemen. And Ah did not expect the wine would be to everyone's liking. It is a particularly dry wine from the south of Italy. Ah find it a refreshin' change to what we normally have available."
"It's nice," Vin said. "Might like beer better next time." Next time. Sweeter words were never spoken, Ezra thought. He watched as his friends enjoyed the meal and talked amongst themselves. It mattered little to the con man that everyone liked everything that he had procured and prepared, though it seemed that the food and the wine were a hit, young men from the east with a penchant for milk notwithstanding. He heard Vin once more. "Chris might have ta give ya some time off if yer gonna cook like this for us, Ez." Chris gave him a friendly glare from across the table. "Up ta you, pard."
"I'll think on it, Vin. Ezra, this is delicious," the former gunslinger praised sincerely.
"And healthy. And only a little meat," Nathan offered.
Buck looked up from shoveling food into his mouth. "We tokkin' 'bout me 'n' da ladies 'gain?" he asked as he chewed his food.
"Good Lord, Buck!" Ezra admonished, horrified.
"Sorry," Buck apologized. "I heard healthy and meat and … "
"We get it, Buck," Chris said, shaking his head. "Definitely like a blinkered race horse," Chris said to Ezra under his breath. The card sharp laughed. The conversation continued, sometimes serious, most times not, as they heartily took part in a repast that would with any luck become a tradition for The Magnificent Seven.
The recipe that I use for a simple Bolognese is from Giada di Laurentiis at The Food Network. Just search the internet for 'simple bolognese giada' and you should find it. It's easy-peasy and absolutely delicious.