Learning How To Play
(Little Ezra - Old West)

by MAC

Disclaimer: I don't own them, or the show they rode in on. I wrote this for fun, and no profit is made from it.
Archive: Twyla's Very Simple Magnificent Seven Page, Starwinder's, You Want Fries With That?, and The All-Ezra FanFic Archive --- all others, please ask. Some of these stories were posted originally on the Ezra's Littleverse list, and hence also on its archive.
Summary: Being a kid isn't an easy job if you never learned how.
Warnings: Ezra is a little boy, all the rest of the Seven are their adult selves.
Author's Note: Dear Reader, there stories are listed as they were written rather than in a timeline of the series itself. I am writing as the mood strikes and fitting in my small pieces helter-skelter. If the series is ever completed, I shall attempt a timeline for the stories. For now, as I publish, I shall try to note if the story doesn't follow sequentially with the preceding ones.
Completed: 14 January 2003
Feedback: gentlerainfall@yahoo.com welcomes comments

Back to: Reading Skills

Tears streaming down his face, the small green-eyed boy sank down in the back of Trip's box stall. The tall black gelding snorted and shifted, then turned in a tight circle and lowered his large head toward the tiny human curled in the back corner of his home. Snuffling softly, the big horse breathed warm moist air on the child.

Ezra, until then lost in his own world of hurt, looked up and wiped his face with one thin arm, smearing tears across his flushed skin. "Go away, Trip." He pushed himself further into the corner, seated on the straw, as the big animal took a step forward, ears pricked with the sound of the child's voice. "Please, Trip, just let me be."

The big black knew this child, it often sat upon his back when his man rode him. When no one was near, the boy would come to visit and give him bits of apple or carrot, once a piece of candy. Always before, the boy had soft words and kind hands. Now something was wrong with the boy. The horse's skin shivered as it tossed its head back and gave a snort.

The sounds of running feet and piping young voices, calling out, "Ezra! Hey, Ezra!" passed the livery's wide doorway. No one entered, though.

Ezra twisted around where he sat in the straw and leaned his forehead against the rough wood wall. It was never this hard when he played with adults. Then he knew the rules, Maude had coached him well. He knew how to act, what to say, and, of course, he knew poker. Better than most grown-ups. When he wasn't living with his mother, or traveling with her, he was usually, like now, with adults. Sometimes the adults were called relatives, and sometimes, they really were blood relations, most times not.

Sometimes, Ezra thought with a full body sigh, they weren't even folks who knew Maude and him. Like now. Maude had picked a mark who didn't want a little boy around. So, Maude dropped him. Nothing new. She'd done it before. Gave him some money, well, tossed it to him. He knew what that meant. Make his own way for a bit. But, she'd come back, she always did. Because he was good, he was better than good, he was the best. And he'd worked hard to get that way. Most grown ups were very impressed by what he could do with a pack of cards. Only, Chris wasn't.

Chris didn't like him playing with cards. So now he had to practice in secret. That was all right. Chris was nice to him, didn't beat him or lock him up or anything. Didn't expect him to do any real hard work either. Of course, Maude didn't know about Chris yet. Ezra wasn't about to let her know, either. His chin came up. Chris needed protecting from Maude. Ezra would do that for his friend. So, meanwhile Chris didn't want him to play with cards, or with grown ups for that matter. He'd said as much. Said, "Go play with those boys, Ezra. Billy Travis will make sure you can join in." Then he'd put a hand on Ezra's shoulder and pushed him toward the three boys doing something in the dirt, over by the mercantile's porch. Ezra sighed. Mrs. Travis' son had met Ezra early on in his time in Four Corners. He was a bit bigger than Ezra, but not much. Not very well educated yet, but nice enough. Ezra turned his head a bit and rubbed his face against his shoulder.

Could he help it if he'd never even heard of marbles before? And when the others stopped laughing about that, and finally explained it a bit, they'd gotten angry all over again when his dexterity had quickly given him an edge with the shooter that Billy had loaned him. Then, they got mad when he offered to place bets on the shots. One of them had shoved him hard, too, so that he fell over in the dirt. Now his jacket and pants were filthy, the boys had laughed again. Ezra sniffed hard and swallowed, bringing two dirty hands up to wipe at his face. The only time he'd ever had with children before was when he'd been left with an uncle or aunt who had family. Cousins had always seemed to favor each other and none wanted to share with a poor relation. Not one had wanted to play with him.

The black got bored when the child did not respond again and failed to offer anything good to eat, didn't try to pet or talk. Turning around again, the horse's head bobbed back over the stall door to watch the world.

Ezra slumped down, no longer concerned about his clothes. They would need to be cleaned so what was the point? He pillowed his head on his hands and closed his eyes.

When Ezra didn't appear at lunchtime, Chris went looking. He spotted Billy heading in to the Clarion's front office and strode over. "Billy, where's Ezra?"

Big blue eyes looked up from under straw colored bangs and the boy didn't answer at first, clearly upset.

Squatting down to eyelevel, Larabee made eye contact and tried again. "Billy? Where's Ezra?"

By now, Billy's mother, Mary Travis, the news editor and publisher of the Clarion, had come out on to the boardwalk and stood behind her son. "Billy? What's wrong?" She leaned down and lifted her son up on one hip, brushing back his hair to better see his face.

Safe in his mother's arms, the youngster met Larabee's eyes and spoke regretfully to his hero. "I'm sorry, Chris. Ezra got mad at the other boys and me, he ran away."

"Ran away?" Alarmed, Larabee stood up and looked around, casting a glance in each direction down the street. "Where?"

"I don't know. We ran after him, called his name but he musta hid or something."

"What got him to running away? What got him mad?"

Billy shook his head, he'd volunteered all he'd say. "I don't know."

Adult eyes met over the boy's head. Mary shook her head and shrugged. "I'll try to get some more out of him."

Chris nodded and turned away. He straightened his shoulders and strode over toward the saloon. Time to get some reinforcements.

JD started at one end of the livery, opening each stall door and looking inside for one small boy. Buck was checking out the boarding house, he'd started with the upstairs of the saloon. Josiah and Nathan each took a side of the street and began to knock on doors, ask everyone if anyone had seen anything, seen one small green-eyed boy. Vin went with Chris to where the boys had been playing and began to circle around looking for tracks while Larabee waited anxiously.

When JD got to Trip's box, he peered in over the gate, pushing aside the horse's large, curious head. "Easy there, big fella." Oh yeah. There in the back corner was one small shape. JD's smile turned sad and sympathetic. He remembered hiding in with the horses back at the home of the rich folks who paid his mama to be a parlor maid. It was always safe and warm in with the big animals. Unlatching the door, he slipped inside and caught the latch again so that Trip wouldn't wander. Slapping the gelding's flank, he encouraged it to step to one side so that he could get back to where the little boy lay.

Ezra was sound asleep, his tear-blotched face stuck with bits of straw and chaff, his dark chestnut hair sticking up at odd angles and points. JD dropped to his heels and laid a hand gently on the boy's shoulder. "Ez? Hey, Ezra?"

Nothing. The boy was deeply asleep. Turning the youngster toward him, JD saw the tear-paths and realized that the child had cried himself to sleep. "Aw, Ez." With quiet strength, the young man slid his arms under and around the slender, small form and lifted the sleeping child without disturbing him. The limp form was easily draped over his shoulder, wrapped in the support of his arms. Doing a quick about face, JD got them out of Trip's box stall and headed back toward Chris Larabee.

Walking slowly, JD moved them out on to the street and looked around. Even as he spotted Chris and Vin, the men saw him, and Larabee was striding rapidly down to meet him, Vin in his wake waving to the rest of the seven. "He's all right, Chris, just sleeping." JD kept his voice melodic and low.

Larabee came right up, taking in the sight of the child's sad bleary face and sleep relaxed form. He reached out and under to lift Ezra free and into his own arms. "Do you know what happened?"

"Found him this way, so no. He was tucked up in the back of Trip's stall." Hard hazel eyes opened in alarm. A horse's weight could crush a small child like Ezra. "Hey, your black likes Ez. He was leaving him alone, almost like he was protecting him." JD smiled.

Vin was beside them now. "Something to do with that kids' game. Marbles." The tracker had seen quite a bit in the prints in the dirt, but wasn't sure that it would be a good idea to go into detail with Larabee. Might backfire. Better to let the kid explain himself once he wakes up.

Chris sighed and nodded, heading over toward the boarding house where he kept a room for when he was in town. "I'll stay with him. Vin, would you see if Inez will fix up a dinner tray for us? Bring it over?"

"Sure enough," Tanner agreed and departed in his deceptively ground eating gait.

Chris Larabee sat and watched his little ward sleep. The child had slept through the transit from livery to boarding house without stirring. Don't know what's wrong but we'll get it fixed. He leaned back in his seat beside the narrow bed. Funny, he didn't remember that being a father was this complicated.

Ezra, In Between Index On to: Two Very Private People

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