The Day of the Dead

by Lady Chal

Warning: deathfic

Disclaimer: I don´t own them, (I wish I did!) and I´m not making a dime off of them, either. I´m just taking them out and playing with them for a while, since television is so danged boring without them! I´ll put them back when I´m done, I swear!

Classification: OW, Ezra/Inez, character death (several of them!)

Authors Notes: As mentioned in the disclaimer, the marvelous originals don´t belong to me. However, Nate and Ariel Standish, Ted Wilmington, Carol Dunne and offspring as well as all of the other “next generation” mentioned in the story are my own creation. It´s been a long time since I sat in Spanish class, so my apologies if I´ve gotten any details of the holiday wrong!

Summary: On the eve of a world at war, seven families gather for an annual holiday tradition, and an elderly J.D. Dunne tells them how it all began.

November 1st, 1941
"Uncle John?" J.D. Dunne awoke in confusion to a familiar pair of pale green eyes that studied him with a hint of concern.

"Ezra?" he mumbled, knowing even as he said it that it wasn't quite right. Ezra Standish had died years ago.

The gambler's face pulled into a tolerant smile. "No, Uncle John, it's Nathaniel. I came to get you for the picnic, remember?"

"Oh! …Nate!" J.D. exclaimed, snapping awake now with full clarity -- or at least as much clarity as he could muster at eighty-six and a half. "Been wondering where you been, boy. I was expecting you a half hour ago."

Nate Standish flashed the old an apologetic look, "I'm truly sorry, Uncle John. I had a bit of car trouble on the way over from Scottsdale this morning."

"Them automobiles may be fast and fancy, but I'd still rather have a good horse myself," J.D. proclaimed as he slowly pulled himself to his feet on stiff and creaking joints.

As he helped the old man down the steps of the small bungalow on the edge of Phoenix, Nate shot an aggravated glare at the gleaming red Packard parked in the drive. "Believe me, Uncle John, some days so would I."

Carol, J.D.'s grand-daughter-in-law, straightened from her task of packing blankets, picnic baskets and assorted yard implements into the trunk of Nate's car. Her two sons, Billy and Christopher, stood impatiently beside her, their arms loaded with more items which she had deemed necessary for the day's outing. Carefully placing the last blanket in the car and closing the trunk lid, she looked up at the two men.

"Are you ready, Grandpa?" she asked, fixing J.D. with a smile that was undoubtedly one of the reasons his grandson had fallen in love with her. He felt a pang at the thought of David, killed in a construction accident the year before, but this was a day for remembering and it eased him somewhat. He only hoped it would help Carol and the boys as well.

"I been ready for hours!" he proclaimed, easing himself into the front seat of the car. "I've been waitin' on all of you!"

Nate chuckled as he closed the door for J.D. "Well, by all means, let us detain you no longer."

Moving to the back door of the car, Nate gallantly swept it open for Carol and the boys with a grace that made J.D. smile. It was almost like stepping back in time, it was. There was more of that boy's grandfather in him than he knew, for it could as easily have been Ezra Standish there on the curb, handing Carol and the boys into the back seat.

Moving quickly around to the driver's side, Nate opened the door and slid behind the wheel. The big car started with a throaty roar that belied it's temperamental mechanical tendencies, and in no time at all Nate was driving them out of the city and into the vast open spaces of J.D.'s memory.

"It was good of you to take us, Nate." Carol said from the back seat. "With David gone, I wasn't sure I could find it myself, and it does mean so much to Grandpa."

Nate's green eyes danced in the rearview mirror. "It means a great deal to all of us," he said honestly, "Besides, it just wouldn't be the same without the Dunne's."

"Where are we going, Mr. Standish?"

Billy, Carol's youngest looked eagerly out the window. "Is it a party?"

Nate seemed to consider the question very seriously. "Yes, I suppose you could call it a party of sorts. It's more of a reunion, actually."

"What's a reunion?" Christopher, the more quiet and studious of the two, wondered aloud.

"It's a chance for people who haven't seen each other in a very long time to get together and remember." Carol explained.

Something in his mother's voice, told the boy that there was more to it than that, but he did not know if he should ask. As usual, it was Grandpa John who settled the matter for him.

"It's a holiday, son, All Saints Day. It´s the Mexican Day of the Dead."

"The Day of the Dead?" that tidbit, coming so close on the heels of Halloween, had sparked the boys´ ghoulish interests enough for them to issue this response in chorus.

J.D. nodded. "A day we remember our ancestors. The Mexicans believe it's a day when we can talk to them, and they will hear us."

Billy seemed a bit disappointed that the explanation did not have a more bloodthirsty bent to it. Chris, however, was intrigued.

"If it's a Mexican holiday, then why do we celebrate it?" he asked. "We're not Mexican."

J.D. nodded to their driver, "You should ask Nate that. It was his grandma Inez that started it, after all."

Nate shot the old man a quizzical frown. "I must confess I don't really know the answer to that myself. Seeing as how my grandmother did hail from Mexico, I deduced that she was the one who started our little tradition in the Standish clan, but I don't believe I ever heard how the rest of the families came to celebrate it with us."

J.D. eyed him in surprise and dismay. "Boy, you mean to tell me you're a Standish, and all these years you've never heard about how this got started? You never heard about that first Dia de los muertes?"

Nate shook his head ruefully. "No, Uncle John, I don't believe I have. When we get together, we've always talked about the Seven, and Four Corners, and the stories about the Wagon Train or the Indian Village. I don't think anyone ever mentioned how we came to be getting together and remembering in the first place."

"Well," J.D. declared with a snort. "I think it's obvious what we'll talk about this time." Since his beloved Casey had passed on four years ago, it had been left to him alone to spin the yarns of those first wild days. But without her there to prod him, to correct and refute and insist that that wasn't the way it really happened at all, it was getting harder for him to recall each detail with the startling clarity he had once possessed. He felt time like a curtain now, a sheer misty drape that concealed moments etched indelibly in his heart behind their gauzy veil. If he focused for a moment, he could still see them, still touch them, but the colors were beginning to fade, the emotions slowly wasting away so that only the bones of fact were left. But sometimes, if he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could revive them for a moment, and a touch, a taste, a sound or smell would burn as brightly in his mind as it had the day he experienced it, so many years ago. And so in preparation for the tale ahead of him, he closed his eyes and let the gentle motion of the car lull him back to a crisp fall day over forty years ago.

November 1st, 1898

When they first rode upon her, he thought that she had finally lost her mind. She had spread a blanket out upon the ground and set it with her best china and silver. From the look of the food heaped upon the blankets, she must have cooked for most of a day. There were two candles, two plates, two glasses, and a bottle of what looked like Maude's finest whiskey. Unfortunately, there were not two people to share it, only Inez, sitting alone with her picnic at Ezra's grave.

For a moment, he thought the grief had finally become too much for her. She laughed and smiled, talking softly to herself as she strung little chains of marigolds over and around the smooth marble headstone. He felt no small amount of relief when Josiah reined in beside him to take in the scene. He had little doubt that the preacher would best know how to deal with the situation. J.D. himself did not have the faintest idea of what to say to a crazy woman. --Especially one whom they all considered a friend.

Josiah, however, did not seem at all alarmed by the sight of Inez carrying on her one-sided conversation at Ezra's grave. He merely gazed upon the scene with a slow, sad smile and shook his head.

"Dia de los muertes," he said softly. "I'd nearly forgotten."

"Dio de what?" J.D. shook his head. "What are you talking about?”

“Dia de los muertes," Josiah corrected. "November 1st. It´s All Saints Day.”

J.D. frowned as he considered the date. Today was indeed the first of November, but as far as he could recall, the date held no significance that would send Inez over the edge this way –save, perhaps, the few too many ghost stories told in the saloon the night before. He looked dolefully at the scene before him. He had heard of women snapping this way. In retrospect, he realized that she´d always seemed to handle it a bit too well –considering what had happened.

They had buried Ezra last winter, after finally losing him somewhere between consumption and a card game. Chris allowed that he probably would have beaten the man who had drawn on him had he not been racked by a coughing fit at the time. Larabee himself had suffered no such ailments, yet even he had not been swift enough to prevent the events that followed. The roar of a shotgun had thundered through the room, and torn through Ezra's killer before the gambler's body had slipped completely from his chair. Only then did the shocked onlookers turn to see the wraithlike figure of Inez Standish, silhouetted in the doorway like an avenging angel, with a shotgun clenched in her trembling hands and tears spilling down her bronzed cheeks. There had been no trial. Ezra's killer had been a wanted man, and Inez was well liked. No one could bring themselves to try a woman for a death that everyone considered an act of justice.

That had been in December. December the twenty-seventh. It was a date he would not soon forget, for it had brought the fact of his own mortality home in a way that nothing else could. He had seen plenty of death in the twenty odd years since he had jumped off that stage as a green adventure seeking kid, but somehow it had never really touched him. He had been invincible. Together, they all had been invincible. But that cold winter day, as he had looked down in shock at the pale and still body of the man they had all considered a friend; he realized they had never been invincible, only lucky. And luck, as Ezra had often reminded him, was fickle lady bound to run out on you when you least expected.

It could have easily been himself lying there in the pool of dark and drying blood, and Casey instead of Inez standing there holding that shotgun and shaking as if her world was going to come apart. He had somehow expected her to crack then, to scream and sob and wail with the force of her grief. They all had. But Inez was made of sterner stuff. She had wiped her eyes, turned to Chris and quietly asked him to fetch the others: Vin and Buck to carry Ezra upstairs, Nathan to help her prepare the body, and Josiah to help her pray over it. Chris had been sent to order the coffin and J.D. himself to wire Maude. They had thought she might grieve at the funeral, but she remained dry-eyed as the casket was lowered into the ground, and she stayed so in the days that followed.

"It takes time to face it." Josiah had said. "It will be a year at least. The anniversaries will be the hardest."

That had been December the 27th, he would expect for her to go a bit wild then, --but this was November.

He frowned and tracked more anniversaries through his head. Ezra and Inez had met in the winter time, had married in the summer, and --if Buck's "expertise" on the matters of love was anywhere near accurate-- had become intimate that long ago spring when Maude had returned to town with trouble snarling at her heels like the hounds of hell. Their love had been declared on a crisp April night that remained as vivid in J.D.'s memory as the day of Ezra's death. He could recall each line of anguish in the gambler's face as Ezra had handed Buck the small white fold of linen.

“Give this to her.”

“ What am I supposed to tell her?”

“Tell her… Tell her I said... Te amo.”

He could still feel himself standing there between Vin and Buck, gazing at the handkerchief unfolded in Buck's palm to reveal a slim gold wedding band. And if he listened very hard, he could still hear the distant hoof beats of Ezra's gelding fading away into the darkness for what each of them had believed to be for good. It hadn't, thank goodness, but for all the years that Ezra and Inez had been able to have together, he could find no reason for her to pick this beautiful fall day to come apart.

"I don't get it," he said at last. "What does the date have to do with Inez going crazy?"

Josiah sighed. "She's not crazy. She's celebrating. November 1st is All Saints Day, the Mexican Day of the Dead."

J.D. frowned. "That still don't explain what she´s doing having a picnic in a grave yard.”

Nathan had ridden up to them by this time, delayed somewhat by the necessity of towing the rather recalcitrant mule he had borrowed to pack medical supplies to the Indian Village. He had heard enough of their conversation, however, to gather an explanation to JD´s confusion.

“It´s tradition,” Nathan stated calmly, pulling his horse to a stop beside them. “It´s their way of honoring their ancestors and their loved ones who have passed on before them. They believe that on this day the spirits return to this place and they can visit an´ catch 'em up on all that's been happening since they died."

J.D. squinted at the preacher. "That right, Josiah?"

Josiah Sanchez shrugged. "Well, not entirely, but I 'spect it's as close as most of us will come to understanding it."

They watched as she drew a slim square object from her basket and propped it against the stone. They all immediately recognized the small ambrotype in its worn, leather case that had graced the back of the bar for so many years. Even from a distance, J.D. could almost make out the bright, hand tinted green of the gambler´s frock coat. She stroked her fingers lovingly across the surface of the glass and then reached back into her basket for a stiff and heavy piece of cardboard, of slightly larger size. J.D. recognized it as the studio portrait of the handsome young man which she had flashed to all of them so proudly only the week before. She gazed at the portrait for a moment, and then placed it beside the picture of her husband.

"Must be extra hard for her with Miguel visiting Maude in St. Louis," Nathan observed. "This day is usually shared with family."

"Yeah, well folks talkin´ in town about her goin' crazy won't make it any easier." J.D. muttered. "What are we gonna do?"

"The only thing we can do." Josiah said, urging his horse forward. "We join her."

The burly preacher unlaced his bedroll from behind his saddle and fished about in his saddlebags, bringing out a stub of candle. "Could use a few more of these," he observed. “--And some brandy. Ezra always did like brandy."

Nathan nodded towards the mule which stomped irritably at the end of its tether. "I gotta take old Jack back to the livery. I'll fetch them." he promised. Turning his mount and tugging at the mule, he headed towards town to retrieve the items.

Josiah tossed the blanket roll over his shoulder and cast J.D. an expectant look. "Coming brother?"

It was not quite a question, yet J.D. made no move to dismount.

For a moment, he wondered if his two companions had gone as crazy as Inez. "Day of the Dead?" he said, his voice a mixture of skepticism and nerves. "You really believe Ezra's ghost is in there?"

He was not at all sure if he believed in these things, but his mother had filled him with enough of her Irish superstitions to make him question the wisdom of encountering such a spirit, even a friendly one.

Josiah merely smiled and shook his head with a jaded sigh. "The only ghosts we'll find are the ones we bring with us."

Inez had greeted them with a glad smile. "Josiah! J.D.! I'm so glad you could come."

"Inez." J.D. nodded to her, his hat in hand, a bit unsure of what to say or do next.

"I'm sorry we're tardy in paying our respects." Josiah said quietly. "I'm afraid the days have plumb slipped away from me." &nb sp;"De nada," Inez said with a smile. "I am simply glad you remembered. …As is Ezra."

Unrolling his own blanket on the ground, Josiah sat cross legged upon it and bid J.D. to do the same. Taking the stub of candle he had brought with him, Josiah lit it from one of the tapers Inez had brought and placed it beside the stone.

"Hello, brother." he said softly, resting a hand upon the marble. "I have missed your wit and vocabulary. The place has not been nearly so lively since you left us."

They talked then, remembering Ezra's penchant for big words and clever schemes, becoming so lost in conversation and Inez's food that they did not notice the four riders who approached and tied their horses at the cemetery gate. The men approached solemnly, hats in one hand, offerings in the other.

Nathan had brought the candles, as promised, and they each took one and lit it until a small ring of fire encircled the grave. Buck produced a bottle of whiskey, and Vin, a bag containing seven shot glasses. It was Chris, however, who provided what they considered to be the most inspired gift of all. With a spark of deviltry lighting his dark green eyes, he extracted a brand new deck of cards from his black duster and tossed them down upon the blanket.

"I couldn't think of anything Ezra would enjoy more than a good poker game."

"Deal me in." Buck said pouring a whiskey and balancing it carefully upon the white marble of Ezra's stone. "Maybe this time I can finally beat him."

They had whiled away that long afternoon as they had so many others: with cards and whiskey, food and friends. They had dealt Ezra into every hand, with Inez holding his cards as closely as she had held his heart, so it somehow came to no surprise to them when Ezra still managed to win his share --once with an ace high flush in spades. They had all laughed a bit nervously then, for it seemed as if the gambler was with them indeed.

The following year, Mary, Billy and Casey had joined them and Miguel was there to play his father's hand and uphold the Standish family honor. Mary and Billy had spent a few quiet moments of their own at Stephen Travis's grave, and upon her return to the group stretched out in the shade of the cottonwood she had shared with Inez a look of quiet peace and understanding that only those who have loved, lost, and accepted can truly comprehend. It had taken J.D. himself nearly fifty years to fully appreciate it, but by the time Mary herself slept under the dry desert grass, along with Chris and Vin, Buck and Josiah, Nathan and finally even his own sweet Casey, Inez's picnic had become a tradition of sorts.

Every year as the cottonwood ripened and shed its bright golden leaves, Tanners and Jacksons, Standishes and Larabees, Wilmingtons, Dunnes and even the odd Travis or two would gather beneath the wide welcoming branches to share a meal, a story, or a game of cards as they remembered old friends who were slowly slipping away.

And now he was the last of them.

He was the last of the seven hard-fighting men who had banded together to save a town and had wound up saving themselves instead. The town of Four Corners was long gone now. It had faded away during the Depression years until it amounted to little more than dust and rubble at the bottom of the hill. It lived, along with the seven, only in his own memories. That, J.D. realized, was why he'd been so determined to come here this one last time and bring Carol and the boys. The deeds of seven men would live only as long as there was someone to remember them, and J.D. suspected his time for remembering was nearly over. It would not be long now, he could feel it.

"Don't worry Grandpa, I'll remember." Chris's solemn voice startled J.D. from his reverie, pulling him back across the years to the present.

"Me too," Billy added with heartfelt promise.

J.D. felt a flush begin to creep into his cheeks as he gazed at the ring of people gathered about his place of honor in the wooden folding chair beneath the cottonwood. So deep had he been in his memories, he had not realized he had voiced his worries. From the looks on the faces of those around him, however, he had little to worry about. Caleb and Cissy Jackson sat quietly holding hands with misty eyes. Alvin and Jim Tanner leaned on either side of the cottonwood's trunk with thoughtful expression playing behind the screens of their blue eyes. Their mother, Mabel, was quietly dabbing at her cheeks with the starched white handkerchief pulled from her purse. Even the normally ebullient Ted Wilmington meditated somberly on the tale.

Nate Standish cocked his head slightly to gaze upon his grandparents´ graves. "You know, the first time I came here, my grandmother brought me. It was her last visit up here as I recall. I knew it was important to her --that it was somehow important to all of us--but I never really knew why we celebrated it until now."

Behind him, Rafe Larabee nodded. "It does explain a lot." he flashed Nate a grin, "especially the poker games. It always seemed an odd thing to be doing up here. I should have figured your granddaddy and mine would have had something to do with it."

"Well, speaking of cards, it's about high time we got up a game. We sure wouldn't want to disappoint old Ezra." Ted Wilmington boomed as he pulled out a new deck of cards. "Did anybody bring chips?"

Jimmy Tanner grinned and reached for the Tanner family picnic basket. "Does a Wilmington chase women?"

Nate rolled his eyes as he took the deck from Ted, “I think the answer is obvious."

With an almost united sigh and tolerant smiles, the women took their cue and moved off to pack up what remained of the food. J.D. watched for a moment with mild appreciation as Nate expertly cut and shuffled the deck, moving the cards through their paces with a skill gifted from birthright and honed by practice. He was nowhere near as good as Ezra had been, J.D. thought, but then he did not need to be. His livelihood was made from other means than pasteboards and dice. Still, compared to the others, Nate Standish's card skills were a sight to behold.

"Shall I deal you in, Uncle John?" Nate asked when he judged the deck to be sufficiently limber and began expertly flipping cards to each of the men.

"No." J.D. sighed wearily and pulled himself to his feet. He was feeling rather tired all of a sudden. "I believe I'll go sit with Casey for a spell." He smiled at his great-grandsons. "I believe I'll leave it to Chris to uphold the honor of the Dunne family. It's about time he picked up the finer points of the game."

"Really?" the boy looked awe struck, much as Miguel had the first time he'd sat in with the seven and played his father's hand.

"Really," J.D. said firmly. "You just stick with the fellas there. They'll show you what to do."

"Absolutely," Nate enthused, patting a spot beside him for the boy to sit. "Stick with me, kid. I'll show you how the game is played." Nate continued dealing the cards as he talked; "Now the first rule of poker is--"

"The first rule of poker is never to play with a Standish." Cal Jackson broke in. "They're real cardsharps and they always cheat."

J.D. grinned as he shuffled away from Nathaniel's indignant protest and the good natured banter that followed. Some things never changed. Easing himself down against the stone he would soon share with his beloved Casey, he looked past the weathered stones of the cemetery to the tumbled down structures that had once been a town.

“The only ghosts you'll find are the ones you bring with you.”

Josiah's long ago words echoed once more in his head as J.D. leaned back against the sun-warmed marble. Wary as he'd been of the whole prospect, he hadn't sensed them that day as strongly as he did now. He could feel them in the soft creak and sway of the cottonwood above him; he could hear their voices in the boys´ soft laughter as Nate won another hand of poker. If he closed his eyes, he could swear that the rattle of the women packing up plates and picnic baskets was the faint clatter of a wagon on its way back to town, and the dry desert wind brushing his cheek was actually Casey's hand. He could feel them close to him once again, closer than they had been in almost fifty years. And so, when Nate approached him again as the day was closing, to tell him it was time to go, it was not the young man's clipped Arizona twang he heard, but the lazy Carolina drawl of a friend long passed.

"Time for us to depart, Mr. Dunne."

He looked up in surprise, and indeed it was Ezra standing there, his pale green eyes sparking with mild annoyance. "We've been waiting on you for the better part of the day."

"Ezra?" he asked, not believing his eyes --or for that matter-- his body, which scrambled up from the warm, dusty ground more like a kid of twenty than an old man of eighty six.

"Indeed, Mr. Dunne," Ezra sighed. “Were you expecting some other persona to escort you to the Elysian Fields?"

J.D. grinned. It was definitely Ezra. He followed the gambler past the neatly trimmed graves, past the playing children, past the small knot of men and women who were busy loading picnic baskets and blankets, rakes and clippers back into their cars, past the gates of the cemetery where five men waited on horseback.

"'Bout time you showed up, kid." Buck Wilmington grinned as he tossed J.D. the reins to a bay gelding he hadn't seen in more years than Buck. "Casey said she'd skin us if we didn't bring you back this time."

"Casey?" J.D. repeated, wonder in his voice.

Buck nodded. "She's been waiting on you, we all have."

"We're burnin' daylight," Vin observed, casting an eye at the fading sky.

Chris nodded in agreement. "Let's head on back to town."

They gathered their reins, and J.D. glanced down the hillside to see not the scattered ruins of tumbled down buildings, but the vibrant motion of the town that had lived for so long only in his memory. It was real. He thought. It was true. He was finally going home.

And yet, something made him cast a look back, over his shoulder at the grave yard. The children had stopped playing, he noticed. The women had abandoned their packing, and all were gathered in a small, silent group around the form of a bent old man that he dimly realized had once been himself. Nathaniel knelt on one side, Carol on the other and gathered all about in solemn reflection were Tanners and Wilmingtons, Jacksons and Larabees. He noticed that Ezra too, glanced back in their direction, his green gaze softening as Nate deftly picked up the old man's body and carried it to the car.

"He's a fine boy, Ezra." J.D. said softly, sensing the gambler's regret at the grandson he had never had the opportunity to meet.

"They all are." Josiah said, "They're your finest legacy."

"You mean our finest legacy." Nathan corrected. "I don't recall 'em ever leavin' you out, Josiah."

"True enough, brother." the preacher conceded.

"Are we gonna sit here yappin´ all day or are we gonna ride?" J.D. demanded, suddenly eager to be off.

"That's a fine way to talk, Kid, considerin' we been waitin' on you." Buck chastised.

At the end of the line of horses, Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner exchanged a bemused look. "Some things never change," Chris said. Then, putting spurs to his big black gelding, he tore off down the hill to town with six riders trailing in his wake.

November 1st, 1945

The blue Ford coupe rolled to a stop at the bottom of the hillside, a puff of dust rising faintly from its tracks. A petite brown haired woman stepped out from the passenger side and gazed silently up the hill to the cemetery with its lone cottonwood blowing gently in the wind. She turned back to her husband, fixing him with a bemused expression.

"I don't understand, Nathaniel. A picnic here?" she asked in lovely French accented English.

"It's not just a picnic, Ariel," Nate explained, handing her the picnic basket and blanket from the back seat before going to the trunk for the rake and trimmers he'd purchased at the hardware store on the edge of town. "It's a holiday, a special holiday in my family."

"A holiday where American's picnic in grave yards?" she asked with a frown.

"No." he said taking her arm to lead her up the hill. "It's actually a Mexican holiday: The Day of the Dead. It´s a day to remember our ancestors."

Ariel cocked a questioning eyebrow at her husband. "But you are not Mexican?" she frowned, still having trouble understanding her husband's strange tradition.

Nate smiled, "I am, after a fashion." he admitted, "my grandmother was. She was the one who first brought me here. She came every year to visit grandfather ...and the others." his voice trailed off as they reached the top of the hill to see the cemetery, slightly overgrown save for a new granite headstone that gleamed in the morning sun.

Setting the basket, blanket and tools beneath the cottonwood, he led her down the row of weathered headstones, silently reading them off as they passed. Travis, Standish, Wilmington, Sanchez, Jackson, Larabee, Tanner, and Dunne ending at last in front of the new stone that stood out starkly against the others. It was a military stone, he saw, a bronze medallion embedded in it, along with the man's rank and division number. However, Nate barely noticed these. It was the name alone that captured his attention.

JUNE 6, 1922 -JUNE 6, 1944

"Normandy." Nate muttered, along with a soft expletive. "Hell of a way to celebrate your birthday, Vin."

"You knew him?" Ariel asked tentatively, taking his arm.

Nate nodded, "Yeah," he said huskily, "I knew him." Rising, he looked down the long line of overgrown graves. It was clear no one had been here to tend them in quite a while. He wondered how many seasons had passed since families had gathered here to visit and remember as he had done that last time before the war. Probably not since then, he realized. Cal Jackson had gone into the Navy, the Tanner boys in the Marines. Rafe Larabee, only months past his four year hitch, had been recalled to active duty and gone off to the Philippines to fight the Japs with his old outfit, the Second Marines. Ted Wilmington had flown off to drop bombs on the Jerry's with the Army Air Corps. Nate himself had been recruited by the OSS, and was lucky enough to survive his own small excursions into France. Carol, he'd heard, had moved to Tucson to take a factory job. She was remarried now, and he doubted she'd have the time to bring the boys all this way just for one dusty old family tradition.

Standing there among the lonely graves, he felt suddenly foolish for grasping at the past like this. The war had changed everything. No one would remember. He contemplated throwing everything back in the car and taking Ariel someplace nice. Yes, he decided, that was what he would do. It was foolish to chase the past like this.

Ariel read the swiftly changing emotions moving across her husband's face. She sensed a poignant battle going on behind his sea-green eyes. This place had been important to him once, an important part of his past and he was thinking of letting it go. She did not want him to, she realized, for she sensed it had somehow shaped this man she loved, and she wanted to know all of him.

"Tell me," she said, taking his hand and fixing him with her warmest smile, "what do we do on this 'Day of the Dead?'"

She was rewarded by the love and resolve that flickered in his eyes. "First," he said leading her back to the tree and the tools he had brought. "We work. This place is a mess!"

They worked steadily for most of the morning, clearing away the leaves and weeds from the three Standish stones, and the nearby Dunnes and Larabees. Nate took a grateful swallow of the cold lemonade Ariel offered him and nodded to the lone marker in the corner of the yard.

"I expect I'd better do Josiah's next." he mused, "It shouldn't take long."

Ariel frowned at the last name, remembering Nate's comment about his grandmother. "Was he a relative of yours?"

Nate shook his head. "No …just a friend of my grandfather's. Josiah never had any family, so we all sort of adopted him. If we don't remember him, I doubt anyone else will." he said, recalling an old man's final words on a long ago fall day.

"So remember him to me," Ariel said, kneeling next to Nate to clear away the leaves and twigs from the worn headstone.

Nate shrugged. "Not much to tell. I only barely knew him. He was an old, old man when I was just a boy. Just old man Sanchez, a man of God who lived by the gun."

Ariel blinked. "That's a bit of a contradiction, isn't it?"

Nate laughed. "To hear my dad tell it, that's what they all were --the lot of them-- one great big walking contradiction. They weren't a bit alike, but put them all together and they just fit, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle."

"Tell me about them," Ariel said, taking his hand and leading him back to the tree where she had spread their lunch.

So he did, telling her all the old stories recounted to him by his father, his grandmother and old Mr. Dunne, and for a moment Ariel thought she could almost picture them. In her mind's eye she saw Ezra, the gambler in his bright frock coats; Josiah, the preacher who lived by the gun; Nathan, the healer and Vin, the tracker and Buck, the ladies man and self appointed protector of a fool-hardy adventure seeking kid. But about them all, like a cord binding them together, was Chris Larabee, the mysterious man in black. Dark and lonely, a good man with a killer's hands and an empty soul seeking vengeance for what had been taken from him, and later, redemption from the vengeance he had taken. So caught up was she in her husband's tale of long-dead men, that she did not hear the car which coasted to a stop behind their own, or even notice until the tall imposing shadow of a man fell across their blanket.

He wore the uniform of an army Lieutenant, with a pilot's gold wings pinned to his chest. He looked tired as he stood before them, and she noticed that he leaned heavily on a cane for support.

"Nate!" Ted Wilmington exclaimed with genuine delight. "You're the last person I would have thought to find up here picnicking and sparkin' with a lovely lady."

Nate shot him a surprised grin, "Why? Who would you expect to find up here?"

"Me, of course!"

They all laughed as Nate introduced them. Using his cane to ease himself down on the blanket beside them, Ted cursed his bad knee.

"What happened?" Nate asked, nodding at the cane.

Ted grimaced, "The Jerry's and I had a little disagreement over just where I could fly my plane. I had to splash down in the channel. I busted my leg up bailing out." His gaze traveled down the row of stones to the new one that stuck out oddly on the end. "Still, I guess we're luckier than some."

"True," Nate said, following his gaze. "I guess it happened at Normandy."

Ted nodded. "I stopped by the ranch and saw his Ma. He ain't buried here, but she had 'em put the stone up anyways. Mabel said his heart would be here, even if his body wasn't."

"Is there any word on Jimmy?" Nate asked, hoping Mabel Tanner wasn't so unfortunate as to have lost both her boys.

"He's fine." Ted replied. "Mabel says he´s still in the Pacific. I expect he´ll be home in a couple months. Same with Caleb. Cissy and the kids expect him back any day."

"What about Rafe?"

Ted shook his head. "Bataan." he said softly. "They're still identifying the survivors. They don't know for sure yet."

Nate felt a chill at the thought of what their friend must have suffered at the hands of the Japanese. The military had made an effort to keep the war news upbeat, but word had still filtered through about the horror American POW's had suffered at the hands of the Japanese and their "death march."

"Well," Nate said quietly, "Don't write him off yet, if anybody could come through that, it's a Larabee."

"I told Mabel I'd come and look after the Tanner plots," Ted said, "seein's how she's getting on and wasn't up to the trip herself. I figured I'd check on the others while I was at it."

"We were sort of up to the same thing," Nate admitted. "But with an extra set of hands, the work should go faster."

The sound of a car engine struggling up the rocky hillside caught their attention and they looked to see an old Plymouth sedan –a little the worse for wear—scramble to a stop behind Ted´s convertible.

“How about three extra sets?” Ted murmured, watching as the two tow-headed boys bailed eagerly out of the car, followed a moment later by the slim, auburn haired woman who pulled herself from behind the wheel.

The former Carol Dunne hoisted a picnic basket from the back seat and made her way slowly up the hillside where the others waited. She looked shyly from Nate and Ariel to Ted, and offered an apologetic smile. “Are we too late to help? I´m afraid I got a little turned around on our way up here. I had to stop at Mabel´s and ask for directions.”

“Not at all,” Ted assured her, “We were just taking a break.”

Nate snorted. “So far, that´s about all you´ve accomplished. Ariel and I have been doing all the work.” He offered his hand to Carol. “It´s good to see you, Carol. I didn´t expect you´d make it, what with everything you´ve been up to.”

She looked a little sheepish. “Frankly, I hadn´t planned on coming up this year. Jack and I have been so busy with settling into the new house and all, but Chris and Billy wouldn´t give me any peace until I relented.” She smiled at the two boys who were busy dragging rakes and garden scythes out of the trunk of the car. “They made a promise to their grandfather, and it is tradition.”

“Well, we´re glad you came,” Ted said warmly. “Heck, with those two terrors to lend a hand, we ought to get this place finished up in an hour or so.”

His prediction wasn´t inaccurate. An hour later, Ariel found herself standing in the sight of a transformation. The graves were neat and tidy, and a small white candle burnt at each of them, along with some fresh flowers she and Carol had managed to pick.

"Now what?" she asked, her voice hushed with reverence as she stood between her husband and Ted. Billy, Christopher and Carol also stood tired and solemn at Nate´s elbow, their eyes moving up to the two men in a silent question.

She was astonished to see Ted Wilmington's face split into an irreverent grin. "Now we celebrate." he announced. He shot a sidelong glance at her husband. "I brought the whiskey, you bring a deck?"

"Always," Nate said coolly, producing a deck of cards from his pocket.

She had to admit she was taken aback at the sight of her husband and his friend as they limped among the graves, pouring shots of whiskey into a paper cup and ceremoniously pouring them over each grave. This too, she suspected was some long held tradition which she did not quite understand. Alvin Tanner, she noted with amusement, received a double. So she figured that nothing more would surprise her, when they finally made their way back to the blanket beneath the tree where she and Carol were sprawled with the boys and began methodically dealing hands of poker.

"Ariel, my dear," Nathan drawled as he dealt her cards, "Mr. Wilmington and I are about to instruct you in one of the most time honored and stimulating games of chance known to man. Now the first rule of poker is--"

"The first rule of poker is to never trust anything Nate says," Ted interrupted, "Standishes are terrible cheats."

"And the second rule," Nate added in annoyance, "is to ignore Ted. Wilmington's are notorious womanizers."

The leaves of the cottonwood stirred with ghostly laughter, and Chris Larabee grinned as he accepted the cards Ezra had dealt him.

"Some things never change."

"Nope," Vin said solemnly, looking at his hand. “Ezra still cheats, too.”

“I resent the implications of that statement, Mr. Tanner,” the gambler observed mildly. “Your own lack of skill in pasteboard manipulation is no reason to sully my honorable reputation.”

Nathan snorted. “Ezra, you never had an honorable reputation!”

They bantered back and forth, only looking up again as two more figures approached them. One was dressed in battle fatigues, tired and bloody. The other was gaunt, lean and ragged, but with a steel in his eyes that the older men recognized.

"´Bout time you boys got here." Chris said mildly as the circle opened up to admit them. "We been wondering what was keeping you."

Rafe Larabee flashed his grandfather a wicked Irish smile as he and Alvin Tanner seated themselves among the ghostly players.

"We're here now, Grandpa. Deal us in."

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