CATEGORY: Challenge - Annie Greer AU
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra and OFC - Annie Greer
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, TNN, The Hallmark Station, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE: January 2004 Challenge - Offered by Helen Adams " In whatever open Universe you like, show me at least two of the guys involved in a sporting event, game or contest - anything, as long as it's physical.". -- I had to cheat a bit.
SUMMARY:  An Annie Greer story, where Ezra and Annie attend a picnic and learn to be a little bit brave.  
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
SPOILERS: to my own stories in the Annie Greer Saga
DATE: January 17, 2004, housekeeping done on July 3, 2004

Home of the Brave - Annie Greer Saga
Winner of the 2006 Mistresses Of Malarkey "Best Gen Series" Award and 'Perfect' Award
By NotTasha... not the least bit brave

"How does this look?" Annie Greer asked the boy.  Side by side, they toted a basket through the hot weather.  "The shade will be nice, don't you think?"  She had found a grassy rise, beneath a tree, near the open field and not far from the lake.  She wasn't sure of her choice.  It seemed that many of the prime spots in the park were already snatched up. Blankets dotted the grass like patchwork.

Young Ezra took on a speculative look as he regarded the selected spot.  He was a compact lad, small for his ten years, but his expression was more fitting for a grown man.  "Acceptable," he decided and smiled winningly up at his Aunt Annie.  "This will be fine."  They lowered the basket and released their hold on the handle.  Ezra took a moment to pull a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his sweating hands.

Annie sighed as she pulled a blanket from their basket, remembering the confused look the boy had given her when she'd asked him to fetch it.  "A blanket?" he’d quizzed.  "On such a hot day?"

"It's for the picnic," Annie had patiently replied.  When the boy returned her a bewildered look, she further explained.  "We'll lay it out and have our supper on the ground.  Besides, if the night turns chilly, we'll be glad to have it."

"Oh," Ezra had responded, nodding but not looking terribly convinced at the idea.

"It'll be fun," Annie had promised, a sorrow catching her – apparently the boy had never been on a picnic.  How strange, but he always was an unusual boy.   A lovely, but befuddling youth -- often cheerful and easy-going, but prone to bouts of withdrawn depression.  "It's Independence Day," she continued.  "We always have a picnic."

But it had been five years since she attended her last celebration.  Five years of sitting alone in her home as everyone in town paraded past her door to the picnic grounds.  Five years of standing on her porch and yearning toward the fireworks that she couldn’t see from her dark yard.  She'd tried not to feel lonely, but she’d always had someone to take care of her, to protect her.  First, there’d been her father and then Harry.  It was an easy way to live.  She didn't have to worry about anything. It was a perfect and pristine way to live.  And then they were gone.

As the years passed, she became used to loneliness, because it was all that was left to her.  Still, on Independence Day, she'd felt particular apart from everyone.  Gracious townsfolk remembered to call on the less-fortunates on Christmas, but no one had time for a drab, housebound widow on such an exciting day as the Fourth of July. There was too much fun to be had elsewhere.

She was such a timid little thing.  She didn't dare venture out alone.  How could she have gone to that picnic by herself?  She would have looked ridiculous!  People would have looked at her with pity.  Some might have grudgingly invited her to join them -- but she knew they wouldn't really want her.  Nobody wants a bereaved widow in their party.  So she stayed at home.  She always stayed at home.  It was easier.

But she had to change -- had to, because of a clever little southerner who needed someone.

So they'd packed the blanket, sandwiches, a jar of lemonade and jar of pickles.  "Too many pickles?" Annie had asked as she hefted the heavy jar.  She'd made them the previous year and this was the last jar in her pantry.

Ezra had shrugged, not knowing the correct amount.  It was more than the two of them could eat, but they packed the whole container nonetheless.  A last few items made their way into the basket.  Then, finding the container too heavy to be easily lifted by one, they shared the burden as they walked to the park.

Now that they’d made the trek, Annie glanced about, hopeful that she'd picked a good spot.  Always in the past, her father or Harry took that responsibility.  They were good at it.  They always found a perfect location.  Oh, she’d never paid much attention to how they made their decision.  Why should she?  Because of her lack of concern in those past years, she may have chosen poorly now.  Would they be too close to the games?  Too far from the lake?  Would they be able to see the fireworks?

She glanced up, wondering if the shady tree she'd chosen would block their view.  No one else was near this spot – it must have been deficient in some way.  She glanced at the other picnickers, all looking so confident in their locales.  She must have made the wrong decision.  Everyone else was so much better at this than she was.  Perhaps they should move toward those others – maybe closer to that crowd further up the hill.

"Oh," she suddenly exclaimed as she realized something.  "I forgot to bring something sweet for dessert."  She frowned at her lack of foresight.

"It'll be all right, Auntie Annie," Ezra told her.  "You'll see."

She decided not to pout.  It made no sense to make the boy anxious.  Quickly, they set up for the day.  There would be several hours until night fell, so they'd brought books to pass the time, but they didn't have a chance to open them when a small group strode up.  "Hello, Mrs. Greer," Mr. John Beverly stated with a smile.  He was an older gentleman, short with thinning dark hair, toting a heavy basket of his own.  The Beverlys lived down the street from Annie. Delores walked beside her husband with the blankets.  A young woman followed with a child in her arms.

"Mr. Beverly," Annie called as she and Ezra stood to greet them.  "How are you and Mrs. Beverly this fine day?"

"Right as rain," Mr. Beverly replied.  "You remember our daughter, Maggie, don't you?  She's visiting from up north.  Maggie, do you remember Annie Greer?"

"Of course.  Maggie, how good to see you again.  It's been so long," Annie greeted the dark-haired young woman warmly, though she hardly knew her.  They may have gone to the same school as children, but they were only familiar with one another.

"Yes, Annie," Maggie returned. "I'm happy we found you." She was a pretty, petite girl, with rosy cheeks and a lovely smile.  "It's so nice to find a friendly face."

"Maggie, this is my nephew, Ezra," Annie introduced, laying one hand on the young southerner's shoulder.  It had become easier to tell the lie as time went on -- easier because she had come to believe it, to wish it true.

"Pleased to meet you, ma'am," Ezra greeted, taking her hand.

"What a little gentleman," Maggie cried with a laugh as she shook the boy's hand, then swung her young child to the ground.  "This is Johnny," she explained.  "He's come to see his grandparents."

"He's named for me," Mr. Beverly stated, proudly.

"That's why we have to call him Johnny, so his grandpa doesn't get too puffed up," Delores added with a wry smile.

The Beverlys set up their blanket beside Annie's and the two young women chatted amicably, while the old people stretched out on their blanket and eventually napped.  Ezra played with the baby -- a busy toddler about two years old.  Maggie had lost her husband, too, so the women found a sad common ground as they talked.

Annie's corner of the world became more crowded as neighbors and friends found them, and set up their picnics nearby.  Emma Chan came with her grown daughter, Lisa.  They brought a small feast with them, along with a box that they kept secret.   The mystery drove Ezra crazy.  He kept turning his head toward the wooden crate that Emma used as a chair, trying to decipher the mysterious Chinese characters on the label.  Emma, when she stood to take a walk, gave guard duty to her daughter and foiled the hovering youth's plan of attack.  She smiled at his cross expression, telling him to be patient  -- that good things happened to those that waited.

Ezra would have nothing to do with waiting.  "But Mrs. Chan," he stated, a whine creeping into his voice.  "A little peek would hurt no one and would allow me to prepare for whatever you had in store for us.  Patience is not one of my assets.  I prefer to know now and get it over with."

The Chinese woman laughed and shook her head, uttering  "Patience… patience."

Beneath the shady tree, friends congregated.  The park filled.  From time to time, Annie would look about, surprised by the group that had gathered around her.  She kept looking, eager to find one particular gentleman in the mix, but that lawman was nowhere in sight.  She let out a dissatisfied breath, knowing that the police officers of the town had duties to perform and not everyone could have a free day on this holiday.  Still, it seemed silly that Aaron Costello had to work elsewhere when nearly the entire town was here.  It would have been nice to see him.

Unconsciously, she brought her hands to her cheeks, wondering if she blushed.  Ezra gave her a concerned look when he saw her worried expression. "Are you feeling all right, Aunt Annie?" he asked.  "Is it too hot for you?"

To cover her actions, Annie picked up her fan.  "Just a little," she said truthfully.

"You should step back into the shade," the boy decided, noting that the sun had changed enough to expose the spot where she was currently sitting.  The child offered his hand to help his aunt stand.  Once she was settled a few feet back, Ezra asked quietly,  "May I go see those boys?"  He indicated a small cluster of children pushing sticks into the lake.

"Of course,” Annie replied with a smile, glad that Ezra might have some little friends. "Have fun and be good."

Ezra gave her a sly smile for that comment.  When he started to walk away, Johnny waddled after, crying out plaintively.  Ezra extended a hand and the toddler gleefully caught up with him.  The older boy smiled down on the younger one and then turned toward the blankets.  "I'll be careful with him," Ezra promised Maggie.  "I'll keep a close eye on him.  I won't let him get wet."

The woman smiled and thanked Ezra, and the boys walked hand-in-hand toward the other children and the lakeside.  Annie paid little attention to the rest of the ladies’ conversation; Fanning themselves in the heat, Emma, Lisa, Delores and the other women twittered away.  The men huddled together and laughed in their deep voices.  Annie gazed after 'her boy.'

There was a pause in activity at the lakeside as Ezra and little Johnny met up with the others.  The boys seemed to be summing them up.  They said little to the newcomers, returning to their boats.

Annie smiled, watching Ezra help his small charge pick a good piece of wood and then send it sailing.  He had such a serious expression, Annie thought, as she observed her 'nephew'.  He looks as if this is the most important thing in the world.  The wood floated further away, while Johnny pointed and babbled.  Ezra picked up another piece of wood and held it out, describing something to the little boy.  Johnny watched Ezra’s every move in fascination.

Some of the boys started wrestling -- a good-natured fight, but Ezra was sure to keep little Johnny out of it.  The two moved a few steps away and continued to build boats out of bits of debris.  The southerner fashioned a tiny sloop out of discarded paper, a stick and a bit of wood.  Johnny jumped about in delight.

The conversation around Annie became nothing more than a buzz as she watched her boy interact with the baby at the water’s edge.  Ezra was explaining something in depth to the tot.  Johnny nodded enthusiastically and seemed to be prattling on about something as he watched the older boy cobble together a little boat out of bits of garbage.  Ezra handed the handmade craft to the toddler and motioned the boy to the water’s edge.  As Johnny crouched down by the lake, Ezra grabbed onto the back of Johnny's shirt to secure him.

Johnny launched the craft.  It floated out a few feet and the little boy clapped his hands gleefully.  It was a terrific boat!  But it slowed in the water, then, regrettably, rapidly took on water and sank.  The toddler let out a heart-rending cry as the paper sail disappeared beneath the water.  Maggie, who’d been watching just as intensely as Annie, let out a sigh as her boy wailed.  Johnny pointed to the spot where the boat had disappeared, looking to Ezra as if the older boy might be capable of solving any problem.  Ezra squatted down on his heels, looking disappointed at his failure, but he spoke quietly to the boy and soon the little one was laughing.

Annie met Maggie’s eyes and the two women smiled at each other.  The disaster was averted as the next boat proved to be more seaworthy.  The other boys moved off -- after new adventures -- leaving Ezra and the little boy behind.  Ezra gazed after them, but made no move to follow -- staying instead by the lake with Johnny.

Suddenly, not far from Annie, a man shouted, “Attention everyone.” Mr. Henderson, the town’s mayor, stood in the clearing and waved to the gathered throng.  He announced that the games were about to begin.

Ezra came back toward his aunt, patiently walking with the little boy, smiling brightly.  "He didn't get wet," Ezra told the mother.  "I made sure of that."  Maggie thanked him, and Ezra dipped his head, embarrassed by her compliments.  "Well," he said.  "We were just having a bit of fun.  I didn't do anything in particular for him."

"I know how much work it is to keep this boy entertained," Maggie returned.  "He's such an active little one.  Always getting into everything.  Wanting to know how everything works."  She regarded her son and the way he looked up at the older boy.  "Looks like you've made yourself a friend for life."

Ezra nodded at this comment, but his expression seemed to say that he had no comprehension of such an idea.  Johnny smiled up at him before letting go of Ezra's hand to return to his mother.

A finish line was set up on the field, near Annie’s blanket and spectators drew closer.   On the field, two of the town’s police officers, Mr. Banks and Mr. Whitman, brought out armloads of potato sacks.  They dumped them on the ground and gestured to the crowd.  Soon boys and girls came running to meet them.

Ezra sat down beside his aunt, ready to observe what was about to happen.  They watched as the kids grabbed sacks from the pile and lined up.  The big, burly Campbell boys shoved their way into the center of the pack, wanting what they figured was the ‘best’ position.

“You can join them, Ezra,” Annie stated, leaning close to her boy.

Ezra’s gaze flicked to meet hers, and then returned to the children as they found a place at the starting line.  “I’m not sure how it’s done,” he answered simply, watching as the children stepped into the bags.  "I have no intention of making a fool of myself," he continued quietly.

"Oh, everyone will look a little silly at this," Annie told him.

With a scowl, the boy stated, "Then I'll want no part of it.  I have no intention of showing everyone how inept I am at a simple game."

Annie didn't know what to say at first.   How had this child been raised? Was he never allowed to fail?  Then how could he learn anything?

“It’s easy,” Annie told him.  “It’s a sack race.  You won't have any trouble understanding.  Just get into the bag and hold it up to your waist with your hands.  When Mr. Henderson says 'Go', you hop to the finish.”  Still seeing a dissatisfied expression on the child, she added, "I know it's hard to try things when you don't really know how, but sometimes one needs to be a little brave."

Ezra lifted his head at this comment, and gazed back at her with his intense green eyes.  He seemed to come to a decision, because he nodded, then stood and walked out onto the field toward Mr. Banks.

“Hey, Ezra.  I was wondering where you were," Banks stated as he handed Ezra a bag.  "I figured you show up for a contest."  He was one of the men who regularly played poker with the young cardsharp, a rotund and cheerful man who always seemed to be sweating.  “I bet you’re as good at this as you are at cards,” Banks said as he mopped his brow.  “I’m afraid that the prize won’t be matchsticks this time,” he laughed.  “But you may win a ribbon and something sweet.”

Ezra raised his eyes to meet the officer's.  “There’s prizes?” he asked quietly.

"Wonderful treats and ribbon awards."  Banks extended handed a burlap bag.  “Give it a try, boy.  You can't win anything if you don't get in the game.”

Taking the sack carefully, Ezra examined it for a moment, wrinkling his nose at its condition.  He threw Annie a pleading look, apparently distressed about the condition of his bag.

She smiled and shook her head at him -- no, he couldn't back out of it now.

Ezra slung the bag over one arm and hurried toward the other kids.  Annie stood to watch him go.  The line was thick now, leaving no easy space for him.  The children were all chatting loudly, giggling excitedly, waiting for the race to start.  In a few moments, they were off in a hopping confusion.  Ezra tripped up immediately, landing with an ‘ooof’ as the other children charged off chaotically.  He staggered back to his feet, tangled up in the bag.  He sighed exasperatedly as he tried to hop and keep his balance, falling more than once.  He’d only made it partway down the field when the winners crossed the finish line: Billy and Rob Campbell won first and second, followed by Jimmy Turcotte.  The crowd applauded as ribbons were handed out and the winners were given cakes baked by local women.  First Place Billy received a ginger cake, and his brother made off with a sponge cake.  They greedily dug in as they left the field.

Ezra returned the bag to Mr. Banks.  The policeman gave the boy a thump on the back.  “That was a good try, Ezra,” he said confidently.

The boy shrugged.  "It was miserable," he muttered.

"Aw," Banks said.  "Can't be perfect at something when you're new at it.  I’m sure your aunt is proud of you."  Banks nodded toward Annie, but Ezra didn't raise his head to look at her.

Immediately, the next race was called – a potato race.  The children were given spoons and spuds – needing to carry a tuber across the finish line using the utensil to balance it.  Ezra lined up with his props, and gave it his best try, but he’d ended up with an ungainly potato that he couldn’t quite keep in the spoon as he ran with the other children.

With a sad heart, Annie watched as Ezra picked his potato up for the third time while the winners were announced.  Two of the Campbell boys were eliminated for cheating, using their thumbs to anchor their spuds, but Rob made second place.

“Good job, Ezra,” Mr. Beverly commented as the southerner returned.

“Yes, good try,” Emma Chan added, smiling sweetly.  “You made a good try.”

Ezra nodded absently, saying, “Yes, sir.  Yes, ma’am.  But I failed horribly.”  He sat down with a grunt, his disappointment evident.  After a quick glance at the faces around him, he added with a certain hopefulness,  “But perhaps I’ll win the next contest.”

Next was a relay.  Ezra stood at the announcement and tried to find partners, but teams of three were quickly chosen, leaving out the young southerner. Annie wished Aaron were there.   The tall and wise lawman could talk to Ezra – make him feel better.  What could she, a silly widow, do for the boy with the solemn expression?

Ezra, finding no one to team with, sat down near his aunt.  “I prefer to watch this particular game,” he told the adults around him.   "Besides, I'm rather overheated from the previous engagements and require some rest."

She lay one hand on the boy’s shoulder, wishing she could hold him – but such couldn’t be allowed in front of so many other children.  She knew that she was a ridiculous widow, but at least she was wise enough to know how things worked in the world of adolescents.

"You're doing great," Annie said softly.  "It's hard when you've never done it before."

Ezra nodded curtly, not looking up at her.

"And those Campbell boys," Annie started, "They just say awful things to hurt people.  You know that they're just being mean.  That what they say is nonsense."

Ezra looked at her sharply, surprised that she'd heard the exchange.  "Not to worry," he returned.  "I don't pay them any mind."  He gave her a cheerful smile, but there was still sadness to his eyes.

At that moment, Johnny pulled free of his mother’s lap and toddled across the blankets to sit down with a THUMP beside the young gambler.  He began chattering away, excited about something, trying to tell Ezra all about it. The diversion was apparently welcome, because Ezra turned his attention on the child, leaving Annie to wait for a better opportunity.

There is something so lonely about that boy, Annie thought.  Something so alone.

Annie wished it didn’t have to be like this – but Ezra knew few of the children in town.  He played marbles with some of the boys in their neighborhood, but they were mostly older than him and obviously not interested in having such a small child on their team in a competition.  He looked younger than his years -- appearing small and fragile -- but acted too old.  He fit in with no one.

Seeming unconcerned, Ezra played with Johnny, getting him interested in the race that was about to commence.  After repeated instructions, Henderson called 'Go' and children bolted across the field – back-and-forth they ran as members switched off in the race.  

Ezra paid little attention, as he quietly listened to Johnny’s rambling.  The tot, when given an audience -- any sort of audience -- could talk non-stop.

“Everyone!” Henderson’s voice boomed as he raised his hands.  “Time to choose partners!  It’s the three-legged race.”

Ezra patted Johnny's head and stood.  Anxiously, he glanced about, searching for someone that might be his partner – but old friendships won out.  Every child in sight already had someone in mind.  They matched up quicker than one might think possible.  The pairs made their way to the start line, and waited for Mr. Banks and Mr. Whitman to tie their ‘middle’ legs together.  Ezra let out a low breath and was about to sit down again, when a shape came running down the hill at them.

“Partner!” the man shouted as he reached down and scooped up the startled boy.  Aaron Costello gave Annie a quick grin as he slung the boy over his shoulder without breaking his stride, and darted with him toward the starting line.

Ezra, facing backward, gave Annie a stunned look that broke into a wide grin as Officer Costello bounced him about.

Annie watched, her hands clasped before her, as Aaron dumped Ezra to his feet.  Mr. Banks and Mr. Henderson approached the pair.  They spoke in low voices, undistinguishable at that distance, but their body language relayed enough for Annie to understand what was going on.  There was a problem.  Aaron was a tall, powerful-looking man, towering over the line of children. Mayor Henderson seemed to be protesting, but Banks was making placating gestures at him as he wiped his sweaty face with a handkerchief.  While the mayor fumed, Whitman slipped in behind them and did a quick job of tying Aaron and Ezra’s legs together.  Mr. Whitman grinned at Ezra as he worked.  Banks finally gestured to the final work – apparently declaring to Mayor Henderson that since they were ready to go, they’d might as well let them play.

Henderson scowled, not happy with the adult in the line-up, but he figured it wasn’t worth fighting with the local law.  Annie’s attention rested on the boy.  Ezra was beaming, glancing up to Aaron with obvious admiration.  The tall officer, clamped one hand on Ezra’s shoulder, and smiled down on him.  They looked ridiculous together.  Ezra seemed to come only halfway up Aaron’s frame – one small boy and one large man – their legs were of such different lengths, it seemed impossible that they’d be able to walk at all.

Annie stood to better see the action. Her hands still clutched as she waited for what would happen next.

The racers were ordered to “Get Ready… Get set!”  At the call, “Go!” Aaron grabbed Ezra under his armpits and simply walked across the field -- his huge stride eating up the field.  Ezra clung to him like a leech.  Behind them, the children struggled with each other – trying to walk as one.

“Fee Fie Foe Fum!” Aaron growled as he made his way forward.  “Here comes the giant!”  The children squealed and Ezra laughed, wrapping his arms around Aaron’s waist as he was easily carried along.  The openhearted laughter was music to Annie’s ears – she heard it so rarely from that boy.

Annie laughed, watching the spectacle, glad that she had a ‘front row’ view.  Mr. Costello did look like a giant among all those children!  As he came closer, far in the lead, he turned to her and smiled.  Annie couldn’t help but look into his lovely dark eyes – so full of mirth and life  -- so dark brown, they looked like chocolate.  She could gaze into them forever.  Oh!  She held her hands up to her mouth, as if her expression might betray her thoughts.

The team was within a foot of winning when they jerked to a stop . “OH! The agony!” Aaron shouted, overacting as he clutched his unbound side.  “A stitch!  I got a stitch in my side!”  Ezra just clung to him, looking anxiously behind them as the other teams started to catch up with them once more.

Little Johnny stood, waving his hands at Ezra finding his new friend was so near.  He wobbled across the blanket and onto the field.  Ezra, spotting the child's imminent danger as another pair of contestants stumbled closer, shouted, "Johnny!  Johnny, look out!"  He twisted in Aaron's grip, trying to reach down and grab the little boy.

Aaron, spotting Johnny, bent down and swept up the toddler, easily placing him on his shoulders.  The Pollack girls, laughing to the point where the almost couldn’t walk, ambled past them, crossing the finish line first.  Then came Jimmy Turcotte with his friend Freddy. Aaron Costello took one final step, carrying the boys along with him, fitting them into third place.  

Emma and Lisa Chan, Mr. and Mrs. Beverly, Maggie and Annie Greer and all her neighbors cheered loudly as the winners' names were called.  Ezra grinned as he was handed his yellow ribbon, hardly noticing that his leg was being untied.  Aaron received one as well, but presented his to Johnny.  The tot looked at the big man in awe, then flailed the ribbon about gleefully.

Once they all returned to Annie's blanket, Ezra stood before the tall lawman, bowed his head and uttered, "Thank you, Mr. Costello.  That was fun."  He fiddled with the ribbon, then lifted his head to smile at the officer.

"Hey," Aaron returned.  "It was fun for me, too.  I had a grand time.  Why don’t you show Mrs. Beverly that ribbon of yours?  She seems keen to see it.  I want to take a look at those gingersnaps we won."

Preciously, Ezra brought the ribbon around for each of their party to see.  Johnny followed with his.  When he reached Annie, Ezra handed the prize to his aunt.  "See what we won?" he asked quietly.

Annie gently held the piece of yellow ribbon.  She adjusted her glasses to better read the writing, stitched in black -- 3 Leg - 3rd Place.  "It's quite fine, Ezra."

The boy admitted, "Mr. Costello really did all the work.  I was just carried.  I did nothing."

Annie smiled sadly at Ezra's suddenly dour expression.  "Sometimes," she stated sagely, "One needs a little help."

Ezra stepped closer to his aunt to assure that only she heard, "But I always take care of myself."

Annie held out her hands, capturing the boy's shoulders, wishing that this child understood.  "It's okay to let someone carry you every now and again," she said softly.

"I couldn't have done it without you," Aaron added as he stuffed a little cookie into his mouth.  He chewed noisily and crumbs stuck in his mustache.  He added, "And I think you deserve an award just for keeping Johnny from getting trampled.  Those girls would have flattened him like a pancake."

"Ezra, would you like me to pin it on your shirt?"  Annie asked.  When she received a quiet nod in return, she removed a hairpin from her hair and used it to secure the prize to Ezra's shirt.  Johnny came next, holding out his ribbon for similar treatment.  Annie laughed, finding another pin and securing the second ribbon.  Johnny toddled off, excited to show off to his mother.

Aaron claimed a portion of the blanket for himself, and declared that he required more than a normal share of the cookies because he had worked so hard.  He was indulged, and Annie passed him the box several times.  Everyone pulled out their suppers.  Aaron, not bringing his own picnic lunch, sampled a little bit from everyone’s basket – declaring Annie’s home-cured pickles the best of everything.  After the baskets had been emptied and the cookies finished, Aaron lit a cigar and leaned back.  He smiled serenely.  Annie sat not far from him, trying to look composed.

Dusk fell, and where the day had been hot, the night turned cool.   Emma Chan finally pulled out the secret box that she’d brought, bringing relief to the anxious southerner who'd pondered over it for so long.

Of course, his excitement only grew when the contents were revealed -- fireworks.  The game field was still empty and it became the perfect place to blow off Mrs. Chan’s fireworks.    Ezra picked up a string of firecrackers, furrowing his brow as he tried to figure out what they were.  He glanced to his aunt, holding them before him in puzzlement.

Ah, poor boy, Annie thought.  He doesn’t even know what a firecracker is.  I can’t understand how a child could know so much and yet so little.

Aaron snatched the explosives from Ezra, and lit the string with his cigar.  He tossed it into the open area and Ezra jumped back as they started exploding.  His alarm lasted only a moment, quickly replaced with an ear-to-ear grin. Annie had never seen Ezra so delighted. Soon he was setting off entire strings of them and dancing about in the explosions that followed.  Little Johnny held his ears and made unhappy faces, but managed to keep from crying as he watched Ezra's glee.  He even smiled when Ezra laughed uproariously.

Aaron and the other officers played powder monkeys – claiming the task of lighting off the little ‘bombs’.  They were like overgrown boys, rushing about in their hurry to set off all Emma's fireworks before the city’s displays began.  Annie watched as vivid fountains of light and color erupted from little paper cones.  She tried not to be alarmed by Ezra’s obvious fascination with the firecrackers.  Lord, that boy could lose a finger if he wasn't careful!  Why would a child like explosions so much!  Ah, but look at him.  He’s died and gone to heaven.  Oh goodness, it’s good to see him happy.

Annie laughed, watching another fountain of color burst from a cone.  It was beautiful, it was magical, it was all so wonderful.  If she could bottle this moment, she'd save it for forever.

“For you,” Emma said, handing Annie the final cone.  Annie adjusted her glasses as she glazed at the strange characters were written across the paper.  She gave Emma a curious glance.  Chinese woman smiled.  “You like fireworks.  You light this one.”

“Oh no,” Annie instantly declared, “I can’t.  That’s man’s work.”

Emma made a sour face. “Not so.  You can, too.” Emma pointed to the strange and beautiful characters on the wrapper. “Nowhere does it say ‘not for ladies’.”

With a quick shake of the head, Annie explained, shoving it back toward Emma, “I'm not… I'm not brave enough to light it.”

Emma refused to take it.  “You don't need to be brave. Just confident.  You are confident lady.  I can see it."

"Oh no," Annie instantly protested.  "Not me.  That's not me at all."

"You light this one.  This one best of all.” Emma nodded decisively.  “This is ‘Golden Dragon with Many Lights’.”  She smiled, her eyes shining in the dimness.  “It is very lucky.  You light it.”

“But I don’t need luck," Annie returned, still trying to hand the explosive back to Emma.

“A little, maybe?” Emma replied quietly, turning her head to Ezra as the boy set off another string of firecrackers – they leapt about as they fired and Ezra leapt with them.  Aaron and the other men laughed.  Little Johnny held his ears and watched with a tender smile, safe in his mother’s arms.

The last cracker spent, Ezra approached the little boy.  His eyes bright with excitement, he spoke to the toddler, making sure he was okay.  The dark-haired tot nodded and smiled.

Annie watched her nephew, watched as he spoke to the little boy, assuring him.  Then Ezra glanced toward her.  He smiled and waved.

How long would she be able to keep that boy?  How long would he be part of her life? If only she could stop time and keep him forever. If only she could have that child for her very own. The thought excited her, filled her with hope. Maybe, just maybe, she could keep the boy. If such a thing could happen, she would never have to feel so timid and hopeless again.  It would take more courage than she currently had.

Annie smiled back at her boy, then turned to Emma.  Mrs. Chan told her, "It only takes a little bravery to do something new.  Just a very little bit."

With a confident nod, Annie turned and strode out into the field, littered with finished fireworks.  She set down the little cone where she thought would be best.  Beside her, something moved and she turned to find Aaron.  He handed her a lit punk.  “Just touch it to that fuse until it lights, and back away fast,” he told her as her hand closed on the lit stick.  He smiled warmly at her, meeting her poor dirt-brown eyes with his warm chocolate ones.  And then, after a moment, he moved away.

Looking around, Annie noticed that the whole town seemed to be focused on her.  They'd come down from their own little areas to watch their fireworks.  Little boys, grown men, women, old ladies, shopkeepers, lawyers, police officers, dairymen and dressmakers, all of them turning toward her and watching as she bent over the Chinese fireworks.

She drew in a breath as she gazed at the little fuse.  The punk in her hand smoldered slowly.  I only need to be a little bit brave, she reminded herself.  Just a little.

Trying not to tremble, she extended her hand, letting the end of the punk touch the fuse. She exhaled, ready to jerk the stick away the instant it lit.  It took a few anxious seconds, but suddenly the fuse hissed to life. She gasped and turned to dart in the opposite direction.

As she spun about in her long dress, the toe of her shoe caught the hem.  She twisted and, with a frightened cry, she fell.  She expected a harsh thud to the ground, but Aaron’s strong arms closed on her, lifting her and turning her away from the danger.  In a second, she was on her feet again with Aaron’s arm still around her waist.  His big hand rested on her hip.  Her heart thudded – not just from fright.

“Are you okay?” he asked, his beautiful eyes meeting hers again.

“Yes, yes.” She dipped her head to break that gaze as she handed him the punk.  Once he took it, she tried to smooth out her dress.  “I’m fine. Thank you.”  Aaron, realizing his impropriety, released her immediately.   She stepped away from him, back to Ezra who looked up at her anxiously.  She had no chance to say anything to him, because the Golden Dragon with Many Lights burst into life.

Drawing the boy before her, Annie watched as the little cone sent up a tremendous shower of yellow fire.  Higher and higher, it leapt into the night.  She glanced down at Ezra as the firework illuminated him.  He was smiling widely, watching in fascination as the cone put up a magnificent display.

It crackled.  It burst.  It popped.  It shed tremendous light across the littered ground.  Spectators 'oohed and ahhed' as the Golden Dragon thrashed.  She could almost see it, flailing its tail in the bursting lights.  As it flashed, Annie wondered if she could even hope to keep Ezra.  What if… what if Maude never came back?  Or, what if Maude couldn’t find them?  She could leave town.  The sudden thought excited her.  Yes, she could pack up all her belongings and run away with the boy?  Annie pulled Ezra closer to herself, squeezing him.  What if they started over in a new town?  It would be frightening, but they could manage.  If she could keep him forever, she’d be capable of doing almost anything.

As she considered this possibility, as she thought about how much she loved the boy – she considered something else.  How would his mother feel?  How would Maude feel if she went in search of her Ezra, but couldn’t find him.  What if she lost her son forever?  Annie put herself in Maude’s place and imagined her anguish.

At that moment, Golden Dragon stopped.  It spit up a last few sparks and died into the night.  Annie stood, with Ezra held tight, wanting more.

Ezra turned to his aunt and whispered,  “That was wonderful!” he declared.  "Could there be anything better?"

At that moment, as if to answer his question, a rocket spiraled high into the sky.  The crowd turned to watch the aerial display begin -- the main entertainment for the night.  Annie sank down to her blanket, drawing Ezra into her lap and pulled the ends of the blanket up around them, wrapping the two of them in its warmth.

Around them, the others settled in. Mr. and Mrs. Beverly hugged each other beneath a warm shawl.  Emma and Lisa Chan put on coats and whispered quietly.  Maggie held her Johnny as the boy gazed in wonder at the sky.  Mr. Costello sat down nearby, watching the sky and everything around them.

Could there be anything better,' Ezra had asked.  Annie pondered on that question.  Could there?

Ezra watched the fireworks explode in the night, his mouth half-open in awe at each tremendous explosion, but Annie watched the boy, watching his every expression.  “Ezra,” she said softly.

The boy turned his head to meet her eyes. “Aunt Annie,” he sighed, “Isn’t it magnificent?" He pointed toward the sky filled with light. The bursts illuminated his enthralled expression. His yellow ribbon still graced his shirt.

“Do you know what’s even more magnificent?” Annie asked softly.

Ezra gave her an expression that seemed to say ‘nothing could be more wonderful than this.’

“You,” Annie whispered in his ear.  “I’d trade in every last one of those fireworks and the whole park and picnic – all the ribbons and cakes and prizes.  I’d trade in every last thing for you.”

The boy twisted in her lap to get a clear view of her face.  He held up his hands, to capture her head, holding it carefully between his palms.  She returned his intense green gaze, wishing she could erase all that puzzlement.

“Do you have any idea how much I love you?” she asked, watching as an almost sorrowful look crossed Ezra’s face – oh, was he that disbelieving?  "Do you know how happy I am to have you with me? You are a joy to me, Ezra."

The boy furrowed his brow, as if he couldn't quite understand her words.  She kissed him on his forehead, and carefully, she turned the boy in her lap so that he was facing forward again. Once settled, she wrapped her arms tightly around him. Ezra turned his head away from the celebration in the sky so that he could rest against her chest.  She gazed down lovingly at him.  The boy closed his eyes as she tightened her arms -- so tight that she might hang onto him forever -- and the sky exploded with light above them.

Perhaps, she thought, perhaps I can keep him.  But if I can't, I'll do everything I can for him -- to let him know that he is loved, that he his wanted -- to let him remember these days with joy.


“Mr. Dunne,” Ezra greeted as he descended the stairs from his room above the saloon.  He tugged at his heavy wool coat, making certain that the lines were as perfect as possible.

“Hey, Ez,” JD called brightly, closing the book he was reading.  “Cold enough for ya?”  the kid nodded to the window where the wind blew harsh and cold.  Within the saloon, the stove popped and warmed.

Theatrically, Ezra shuddered.  “My Lord, it's much too cold for my tastes.  I prefer warmer, more hospitable climes.  Will January never end?”

“Oh, give it a while,” JD said with a laugh.  “It’ll be too hot in a couple months.”

“Quite true,” Ezra conceded as he approached the young sheriff’s table.  “July is always just around the corner.”

“What d'ya got there?” JD asked as he nodded to the item in Ezra’s hand.

Ezra extended the book to his compatriot.  “Something to keep you occupied over these frigid months.  The Count of Monte Cristo,” Ezra explained.  “I thought you might find some appreciation of it. I have enjoyed it many times.”

JD looked skeptical.  “Looks pretty big.”  He displayed his own flimsy book to Ezra.  “I don't know if I'd like the same sorta books you like, Ez.  I like ‘em a bit easier.”

"Easy does not mean better."  With a crinkled nose, Ezra retorted, “I believe that Shootout at Shootout Town might have less literary merit than Dumas.”

“Oh, that’s not what it says,” JD said petulantly, turning his book to see the title.  “It’s Shootout at Shotgun Ranch.”

“Ah, entirely different,” Ezra returned with a grin.  He set the book down on the table before Dunne. “In any case, give it a try. "

"Nah," JD said with a shake of his head. "Thanks for the offer, Ezra, but I really don't think I'll like it. The stuff you read is too … ah… educated."  JD looked a little embarrassed.  "I'm just not the kinda person who reads 'Great Literature'."

"Ridiculous!"  Ezra scoffed.  "It's called 'Great Literature' because it's… great.  And this particular tome is great for many reasons. "Its plot is thoroughly engaging.  The protagonist is exceptional…" He paused as he noted JD's unhappy expression.  "I meant to say, 'it's a good story and you'll like the main character’." Waving his hands around to augment his description, Ezra continued, "There's plenty of action to keep you interested: impassioned fights, double-crosses, vengeance, daring escapes, mysterious strangers...” He sighed contentedly before he added one last item,  “…and a tremendous fortune.”

"Yeah?" JD responded, his interest peaked.  "Sounds all right."  He set down his own book and turned Ezra’s toward him.

"It takes a brave man to try something new," Ezra told him.  "Stretch your wings a bit, Mr. Dunne."

With a small smile, JD realized that it wouldn't hurt to attempt reading the book.   “Thanks, Ezra,” JD decided.

“No problem,” Ezra returned as he turned to go.  “Enjoy.”

"Don't know when I'll get it back to you."

"Worry not.  Take your time."

Idly, JD flipped through the pages, looking for an interesting paragraph.  The pages stopped as he thumbed them and Dunne opened the book, finding a worn bit of ribbon with black words stitched onto it.  Curiously, he pulled the frayed thing out of the pages and examined it.  “3rd Place – 3 Leg,” he read aloud.

Ezra, who was preparing himself to meet the chill outdoors, stopped dead in his tracks and spun about.  “What was that?” he queried.

JD held the ribbon aloft.  “Bookmark,” he stated.

With a silly grin, Ezra quickly closed the distance to the table and took the ribbon from JD. “So that’s where it was.  I haven't seen it in years.  I thought it was gone forever.”  The ribbon was very faded and the edges were so frayed that they seemed to be nothing more than a mess of unfinished strings.  Ezra must have been using it as a bookmark for ages, JD figured. Thoughtfully, Ezra ran one finger through the fray.

JD cocked his head, watching his friend carefully. “You know,” Dunne said curiously. “It looks a lot like one I had long time ago.  Back when I was a kid, there used to be a ribbon like that pinned up on my wall.  I had it for years and years.  Don't know what happened to it, but my mom was always fond of it.  Said I got it on a wonderful day.  She told me I won that ribbon in a race when I wasn't yet two.  I find that kinda hard to believe, though.  I mean, how does a kid that young win a three-legged race? Funny, huh?"  He nodded to the ribbon in Ezra's hands.  "What a coincidence.”

Ezra paused and gave John Dunne a piercing look.  He seemed to be examining the young man, and his careful scrutiny made the younger man uncomfortable.  “Ezra?”  JD asked.  “Everything all right?”

“Mr. Dunne,” Ezra paused and licked his lips.  “By any chance, was your mother’s name ‘Maggie’?”

His chin dropping a fraction, JD answered, “Yeah, her name was Margaret, but everyone called her Maggie.”

“And did she, by chance, call you Johnny?”

JD blushed.  “Yeah,” he conceded quietly. “Back when I was real little.  I kinda grew out of it.  I guess that’s why everyone calls me JD now.  How did you know that?”

Ezra’s smile only grew as he extended a hand.  JD shook it, not knowing why.  “Partner,” Ezra declared, grinning still.

“Yeah,” JD said with a nod, “Pards.”

Ezra laughed as he turned and headed toward the door.  “The world…” he declared as he walked, “…is a very small place.”  He looked again at the little yellow ribbon in his hand. His expression was tender and thoughtful as he carefully placed it in his pocket.  He turned back toward JD and added, “And I am glad that you’re in it.”   With that, he hunched his shoulders, drew his chin to his chest and pressed open the doors.  A cold wind took him away.

Dunne watched the gambler go, pondering Ezra’s questions and actions.  He furrowed his brow, wondering about that ribbon with the careful stitching, wondering about the cardsharp.

'Can't quite figure him out,' JD thought as he flipped the pages of the book.  'But I guess that's the way I like him.  He's usually right when he tells me I'll like something.  Don't think he's ever led me astray.'  JD smiled then, flipping to the first page of the book to give it a try.

THE END - by NotTasha
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