All Soul's Passing

by Farad
October 2010: The seven end up in a ghost town, complete with legends of hauntings and ghosts and restless spirits. What brought them there and how do they feel about it? Who believes in ghosts or spirits, who's scared, who's not?
A post-"The Trial" story.

The funeral was brief but Nathan had wanted it that way. Almost all the town attended, though, more a testament to the respect the people had for their resident healer than to Obediah Jackson who hadn't been with them long enough for most of them to get to know him.

But Nathan's friends had, the six men who rode with him, as had Mary Travis, Mrs. Potter, Casey, and Judge Travis. Each had been there through the long last days, when Obediah had been mostly unconscious, as much from the laudanum to ease the pain as from the sickness that was killing him.

They were the ones who stood with him now as the cemetery emptied, Josiah's strong arm around Nathan's shoulders, Chris standing on Nathan's other side as the undertaker shoveled dirt into the grave. Vin and JD stepped up to help, picking up the spare shovels and rakes, while Ezra, Judge Travis, and Buck escorted the ladies back toward the restaurant where a reception had been arranged. The wind had calmed down, more a gentle breeze that swirled the dust and leaves around their ankles as they walked.

"Feel like I hardly knew him," Nathan said softly, wiping at his face with the back of one hand. "I should have - I should have . . . " He shook his head, and Chris shared a quick look with Josiah.

"You did everything you could," Josiah said, pulling Nathan in close. "And the two of you found each other in time for you both to come to know each other well, I think. He loved you dearly, Nathan - as much as you loved him."

Nathan nodded, his lips trembling. But he glanced to Chris and when he spoke, his words were even. "He was my father. And he was more of a man than I thought. I'm glad I had the chance to get to know him, to understand what he did and why."

Chris nodded. "You got more than most of us have," he said softly. "He was a good man, Nathan, and he did right by you."

Nathan drew a slow, deep breath and nodded, looking at the grave and the men working over it. "Reckon he did," he agreed. "Thank you, Chris."

Chris nodded and stepped away, walking slowly out of the cemetery. Josiah and Nathan stood for a while longer, Josiah murmuring to Nathan and Nathan nodding some more.

But it was Vin's eyes that Chris caught as he turned away.

The reception was quiet but warm, the food good and everyone respectful. Whatever differences there were between the polite folk of the town and its wayward peacekeepers, they did not show this afternoon.

Chris stayed as long as he could stand it, and he even managed not to be the first one to leave. But when Nathan asked to be excused, Chris took his leave as well. He didn't go directly to the saloon, taking a long walk around the town, checking on the locations of the watch fires and making sure that the dirt around them was clear of leaves and debris. Dark was coming earlier these days as the town settled into late autumn.

"Chris!" a voice called out behind him, and he turned to find Billy Travis running down the street toward him.

Billy was grinning and waving his hands. "You like my costume?" Billy called. "I wanted to dress like you - what do you think?"

Chris blinked then, despite himself, he grinned. Billy was dressed in black pants, a white shirt with a black vest over it, and he was wearing a gun belt that was far too big for his slender build. In the holsters were wooden guns, ones Chris had carved himself.

"I put silver one them - see?" Billy said, taking out one of the guns and showing Chris where he had used small bits of what looked to be tin foil to cover some of the wooden frame and to dot places on the belt and holsters so that they looked a little like Chris' own silver-adorned rig.

Chris leaned down, resting one hand on one knee and reaching out with the other to look at the wooden gun. "Nice job," he said. But as he said it, he thought about what Billy was doing and why he was doing it. Thought about the life he lead now and the things he'd done over the years, especially these last few. "It's a great costume - for the party tonight?"

"It's Halloween!" Billy said, excitedly. "You dress up in a costume, like someone you're not! Harold Crader says you're supposed to dress like something scary - a ghost or a bank robber or - someone like you!"

The words stung, even though he knew Billy didn't mean them that way. But the words did support what he was already thinking: Billy didn't need to think of him as a hero. No one did, because he wasn't.

"You don't always have to dress up like someone scary," he said, sticking the wooden gun back into Billy's holster and straightening. "You get to be someone different - it could be - "

"I know," Billy cut in, shaking his head. "We wanted to dress up like ghosts and stuff - you know, like the Garcia kids are. But Ma and Mrs. Potter didn't like that idea - they don't want us to scare each other or something like that." He sighed and rolled his eyes, and Chris looked away so that he could control his own grin. "They decided we could have a party and dress-up - but only as real people, not scary things. Ma wanted me to be a newspaperman, like my dad. But I wanted to be you - I want to be you! No one would ever shoot you, Chris! No one would - "

"Billy," he said shortly, cutting the boy off. "That's not - " He caught himself, drawing a long breath and trying to think. It wasn't easy, not with Billy's wide, hurt eyes staring up at him. Slowly, he said, "Anyone can get hurt, just like your dad. I can get hurt - hell, the first time we were together, you saw me get shot, remember? You had to save me." He bent down again, this time going to one knee so he could look Billy in the eyes.

The hurt faded as Billy's forehead scrunched and he considered Chris' words, remembering. "I did?" he asked hesitantly.

Chris almost laughed. "Yeah, you did." It had been something, the boy riding back with his horse to put himself between the man who had killed his father and Chris.

Billy smiled then. "But you're still the best gunman I know!" he said. "I want to be like you when I grow up!"

Before Chris could catch his breath, Billy turned and trotted away, calling to one of the other kids on the other side of the street. Chris stared after the boy, wondering what he could do to change Billy's view of him and what he did.

Wondering what he would have done if it had been Adam . . .

He wasn't aware of walking on to the saloon, but as he walked through the door, he saw that Buck was already there with a bottle of whiskey on the table and several glasses. He was talking to Inez who was leaning on a chair across the table, not flirting but talking about Nathan and her worry for him.

"He's a good man," Inez said as Chris eased up to the table. "It is good that he has friends like you."

She was honest, and as Chris expected, Buck smiled at her - but it was sincere, not flirtatious. "And like you," he nodded to her.

They smiled at each other, at a truce, and Chris shook his head. Before he had time to slow down or alter his course, Inez caught sight of him. "Senor Chris," she said, straightening. "Welcome."

"Inez," he nodded, sliding into the chair at one end of the table. He reached for the bottle and poured himself a long shot of whiskey, tossing it back fast and closing his eyes as he swallowed. It was better than the usual he bought, probably a gift from Inez for Nathan. It burned a warm fire down his gut and he took a few seconds to appreciate the taste of it on his tongue.

When he opened his eyes, Buck was pouring him another drink and Inez was gone, back behind the bar.

"One hell of a turn out," Buck said quietly. "Nathan should be proud."

"Reckon he is," Chris said, picking up his glass again. "More for his papa, I hope. Obediah was a good man - damned good. Reckon Nathan knows that."

"Hope so," Buck agreed. "Finding out your pa's worth his weight - well, reckon that's something."

Chris caught his eye and held it. Buck hadn't known his pa except by reputation and that hadn't been good. When Obediah had come into their lives, he'd felt the undercurrent of worry in his old friend, worry for Nathan and for them all. In this collection of men, fathers were in short supply and good fathers were a treasure.

"Nathan found some answers he needed," he said shortly. "And maybe the rest of us found some faith in Travis."

Buck nodded. "To Obediah," he said, raising his own glass.

Chris joined him in the toast, and before they had emptied their glasses, Ezra joined them, and soon thereafter, Vin. Chris poured them both drinks as Vin reported the whereabouts of the other three.

"JD and Judge Travis are helping to clean up and get the ladies settled - Casey and Nettie are staying with the Potters, as Judge Travis is at Mary's. Think they're all headed over to that party at the church. Josiah and Nathan are headed this way but Nathan wanted to wander up past the cemetery again, make sure his pa's settled in good." He nodded his thanks to Chris as he picked up the drink and took a long swallow.

Chris kicked out the chair beside him, inviting Vin to sit down. Vin nodded as he took the seat, leaning back comfortably but positioned so his back was to the wall and he could see the door.

"I understand that Nathan has two sisters," Ezra said as he drew his cards from the pocket of his jacket and shuffled. "It's shame they couldn't be here, but then I gather that Obediah had already made his peace with them."

"Nathan sent them letters," Buck said, settling back. "He mentioned maybe going to visit, once he's gotten to know them a little better by mail. They're back in Chicago, long way from here." Chris grimaced before he could catch himself and Buck laughed. "You and Nathan could go together, get the family out of the way."

Vin shifted beside Chris and he didn't have to look to know the question, so he answered it before Vin, or Ezra, who looked at him with one arched eyebrow, could ask. "Indiana," he said shortly. "Little town called Jasper. My folks are still there, and so are my sisters."

"My, my," Ezra said dryly, dealing himself a round of solitaire. "How wonderfully traditional. You choose to leave the breadbasket of our lovely country for the deprivations of the desert?"

"Too much family," he answered, picking up his glass and downing the liquid in it. Even though that wasn't quite true; the war had come along, taking some of the decision out of his hands. After the war, he'd gone back, but something about the peace of the place, the tranquility and sameness, had gotten under his skin. He'd run from it - until he'd met Sarah.

As he swallowed, he realized that the table was quiet. Buck was watching Ezra turn cards, and Ezra was studying the cards as if they might change in mid-play. Beside him, Vin's head was down, his eyes hidden under the brim of his hat.

'Too much family'. The words echoed in the air, and he realized, suddenly, how hard they must have sounded, to these men in particular. It'd been a long time since he'd thought about his family for more than a few seconds at a time. It's been since before Sarah and Adam died, since he's make the trip back with them, that one time after Adam was born. He hadn't been able to face them since.

Before he had a chance to say anything else, the doors to the saloon swung open to admit JD, coming in ahead of Nathan and Josiah.

" . . . just plain doesn't like me!" JD said, waving his arms. "It wasn't like I was asking her to the hayloft - I asked Casey to go to the swimming hole! To fish!"

Beside Chris, Vin shifted, sitting back enough that Chris could see the flash of a grin on his face. Nettie Wells was having her say in Casey's activities - or, more like, JD's. Chris had a feeling Casey was as headstrong as Sarah had been, someone who knew how to get what she wanted when she wanted it, but who also enjoyed sitting back from time to time and watching the fight over her. Sarah had surely loved to put Chris and Hank together, and Chris saw some of that same amusement in Casey. Unlike Sarah, though, Casey had the advantage in that, despite what JD thought, Nettie did like JD, though she wasn't about to show it.

Hank Connelly never had gotten past his anger at Chris for first stealing Sarah's heart away from him and then for getting her and Adam killed. Sarah's father had died with some acceptance of Chris, finally, even if they still didn't know why Sarah had been killed. Chris hoped like hell that when he found out who had hired Cletus Fowler - and he would, if it was the last damned thing he ever did - it made some sort of damned sense.

"You making advances on that girl?" Buck called out, his voice so stern that it was clear to everyone that he was kidding.

Except JD, who was already contentious. "I am not making advances!" JD said loudly, charging forward and waving his arms. "You know me, Buck, you know I'd never - "

"He knows, JD," Nathan said, but he was smiling and Chris found himself smiling, too.

Behind Nathan, Josiah nodded, glancing over the table, then he stepped out, heading for the bar.

"Buck!" JD said, his tone indignant. But Chris had seen JD when he was really caught up in his worries, and he didn't look that way now. Like Buck, JD was playing. For Nathan.

Buck pushed up out of his chair and reached out, knocking JD's hat off his head and then ruffling his hair. Nathan caught the hat, shaking his head as he set it on the table and took a chair several places down from Buck and across from Ezra.

"Nettie Wells ain't someone to mess with, boy," Buck said, slapping the back of JD's head and grinning as he did. "Ask old Vin over there."

Chris was drinking at the time, and despite himself, he almost snorted.

"What the hell for?" JD shot back. "Mrs. Wells thinks Vin walks on water - hell, I keep waiting for her to set Vin and Casey up together!"

"Hold on, kid," Vin said, lifting his head. He pushed back his hat so that his eyes were visible to JD and to all of them. "That ain't gonna happen, so you just get that out of your mind."

Even though they'd mostly been teasing, Vin's tone was flat and clear. He wasn't messing around with this.

JD frowned and glanced at Buck. "You saying Casey ain't good enough for you?" he asked, his own tone sharp.

"JD," Buck started, but Vin held up a hand, cutting him off.

"I'm saying that first off, she's your girl and I wouldn't get between you - I ain't kidding about that." He turned his head so that he met Chris' gaze this time, and Chris knew that Vin drawing the line between what had happened with Charlotte Richmond on the wagon train. "I don't like joking about this sort of thing - seen too many jokes like this get out of hand, and men, good men, kill each other or get killed over something stupid involving a woman." He waited a second, letting the words sink in, before settling back again in the chair. "Hell, you done seen how stupid I can get, and I don't aim to do it again any time soon. Besides, I've seen Nettie shoot."

He grinned as he said the last, making light now. Something inside Chris eased, something he hadn't realized was tight. It was a little more off the knot of worry that had taken up residence in his stomach when he'd thought Vin was leaving him, leaving them, when Vin had left with Charlotte and he thought he'd never see the man again. Vin had told him, promised him he was back, but it hadn't been until they'd put the settlers behind them and arrived back in town that he'd begun to believe it. Even now, he worried some mornings when he hadn't see Vin, that he'd packed up and ridden back to the homestead, wanting her and the fantasy she'd offered more than what he had here.

Buck chuckled as JD looked at all of them, trying to figure out if he'd been insulted.

"Here we go," Josiah said, returning to the table with a handful of beer mugs. He set them down and Chris noticed that he took one for himself - which meant he wasn't planning on drinking whiskey. Watching over Nathan, then, not planning to get lost in his own thoughts. As if knowing Chris' mind, Josiah said, "Got to pace myself tonight. I promised Mary, Mrs. Potter and several of the ladies that they could use the church for the children's party."

"At the church?" JD asked, staring at Josiah.

Josiah sat down in a chair between Vin and Ezra, sipping from his beer before he answered. "Celebration of All Saint's Day - don't get much more religious than that - and I think that's what they were hoping for."

"But that's not until tomorrow!" JD protested. "Halloween - "

"All Hallow's Eve," Josiah interrupted him. "Came from the ancient Celts, who believed that on the day before their new year, which would be tomorrow, all souls came to earth to celebrate the coming of winter. It works out right well with All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day, too - days to honor people who have died and moved on. The locals call it Dia de Los Muertos - the Day of the Dead. I think Mary and the others were a little worried about the emphasis on 'the dead' - not the individual person but the idea of ghosts and spirits and so forth." He shrugged as he went on, "They wanted it not to be so solemn, I guess, or scary." He arched an eyebrow at JD, who sighed dramatically. "Honoring the dead."

"Like my daddy," Nathan said, staring into one of the beers.

Ezra glanced to Chris and looked pointedly at the bottle of whiskey sitting near Chris' hand. Chris realized with a start that the look he was getting wasn't a request for Chris to hand over the bottle, but a request for him to pour a shot for Nathan.

He reached for one of the empty glasses on the table, filling it and then pushing it toward Buck, how pushed it on toward Nathan. Nathan stared at it with a frown until Ezra lifted his own glass and said, "To Obediah Jackson."

The all toasted, the murmur of their voices low, and Nathan nodded his thanks even as he tossed back the shot. Chris refilled his glass and Vin's before handing the bottle off to Buck.

As Buck refilled the shot glasses around him, Nathan turned to Chris. "You were right," he said, "and I'm glad I listened to you."

Chris shook his head, uncomfortable with the gratitude. Before he could find words, Buck stepped in, saving him.

"Hell, Nathan, you go talking like that and Chris will expect the rest of us to think that he's always right. We can't have that." He turned to Chris, grinning as he went on, "He already thinks he's the boss around here."

Beside him, he could feel Vin's amusement and at the far end of the table, Ezra gathered up his cards and said, "Mr. Larabee already has too many misconceptions about his authority in this municipality. I, for one, do not wish to give him any more delusions, no matter how well intended."

"Odd coming from you," Josiah said, but he was leaning back, comfortably, and smiling. "Delusions are your stock in trade, aren't they?"

Ezra turned and waved a hand in Josiah's direction. "Mine, yes, but I like to create ones that are to my advantage. A delusion in which Mr. Larabee believes that he can tell me what to do and then I will do it, well, that's hardly to my advantage."

They all laughed, even Nathan.

From there, the chatter was easy, all of them working to keep Nathan relaxed. He drank more than he usually did, but Chris noticed that the rest of them weren't. The bottle of whiskey lasted a lot longer than usual, and even the runs to the bar for beer were fewer and farther between. Ezra had suckered Buck, JD, and Josiah into a game of poker when Nathan pushed away his shot glass and rose to his feet.

"Thanks, y'all," he said, his voice even but the words a little slurred. "Think I'm going to visit with Daddy for a little while."

JD's eyes widened and he looked at Josiah as he said, "But your pa's - " He caught himself, drawing in air so quickly that he coughed.

Nathan grinned, reaching down to touch JD on the shoulder. "I haven't forgotten that he's dead, JD. I'm just gonna go sit with him for a while, make sure he's settled in."

Instead of reassuring JD, that seemed to make it worse. His eyes widened more, which Chris always found hard to believe, and JD's mouth moved several times before he managed to stammer out, "Tonight? You can't sit in the cemetery tonight - Josiah, tell him!"

Josiah was looking at his cards and shaking his head. He glared at Ezra as he drew the cards together in a neat stack and tossed them on the table. "JD," he said, getting to his feet, "he's probably safer in that cemetery on All Hallow's Eve than he is here at the table with Ezra."

"Ain't that the damned truth," Buck grunted, tossing down his own cards. "Ezra, could you at least pretend to want to play cards. This hand ain't worth the ante!"

Ezra made some smart reply to Buck, but Chris was listening to Nathan, who shook his head and said to Josiah, "You don't have to come. I'm fine, Josiah." His speech was a little more clear, but his eyes were bright in the smokey light of the saloon.

"It's a fine evening for a stroll," Josiah said with a shrug. "Unless you want to be alone?"

Nathan's forehead scrunched as he thought about it. "You don't mind going to the cemetery?" he asked. "Thought you'd had enough of it for today."

Josiah picked up his hat and put it on his head as he started around the table. "All Hallow's Eve," he said. "Reckon I got a few souls I wouldn't mind speaking to, myself." He reached Nathan and slapped him lightly on the back. "Besides, my own father might be floating around and if that's the case, it might be a good idea to warn your dad."

Chris frowned, trying to recall what he knew of Josiah's father, which wasn't much - just that he had been a missionary of some sort and that he was dead.

"Are you kidding?" JD squawked. "You two are actually going to go sit in the cemetery - tonight?"

At that, Buck stood up and stared down at JD. "Don't tell me you believe in - ghosts," he said, lifting his hands and waving them in the air near his head.

"Not ghosts!" JD shot back, getting to his feet automatically. "Souls, Buck, not ghosts! Ghosts are different!"

Beside Chris, Vin jerked a little, and Chris glanced to him, not surprised to see his head bowed so low his chin would have been touching his chest if he hadn't been laughing.

Buck, however, wasn't nearly as polite. He stared at JD for a second, his hands dropping to rest on his hips as he said, "And what the hell does that mean? The souls of people are more dangerous than ghosts?"

"No!" JD said, slapping his hands on the table and shaking the bottle and mugs. Ezra caught up one mug quickly, saving the beer from sloshing over. "Yes!" JD said quickly, contradicting himself. Then just as quickly, he went on, "No! I mean - I - I - "

"You know what you need?" Buck said, grabbing JD around the shoulders and pulling him away from the table before he could do more harm. "You need to find out for yourself. Come on."

"Wha - huh? What do you - Hey!"

"Nathan," Buck said, slapping one hand over JD's mouth, "you mind if we tag along?"

Nathan looked a Josiah who shrugged and answered for him. "We're going out of respect," he said, "but we don't mind the company."

"We can do that," Buck said. "Right, JD?"

As JD opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again, Buck pushed him toward the door, one arm on his back. He used his other hand to snag the bottle of whiskey and called out, "Ezra? You coming along to take bets on this?"

Ezra's gold tooth flickered as he tucked the deck of cards away in his pocket and stood. "Gentlemen?" he said, straightening his jacket. "Care to wager on the possibilities of finding ghosts or souls or other denizens of the afterlife in the darkness?"

Chris shook his head, but his eyes caught on Nathan, who was looking at him. Beside him, Vin sat forward then he, too, slowly got to his feet, his thumbs sliding easily into the front of his gun belt. He took a breath and looked across to Josiah as he asked, "So, is this the souls of all the dead, or just - recent folk who have passed?"

Josiah smiled, but it was a soft expression, one that Chris rarely saw. "I reckon it's any soul who's been loved."

Vin grinned, shaking his head, but Chris saw the flush of color that darkened his cheeks.

Then Vin turned his head and looked at Chris. "You coming?" he asked, his voice low. "It's for Nathan."

The last was too low for Nathan to hear, as he was looking after Buck and JD and Ezra was standing beside him, saying something about the beauty of the night. Chris looked from them up to Vin who was looking down at him. His eyes were in shadow under the brim of his hat, but Chris could feel their intensity.

Not that he needed any suggestion from Vin. He pushed back his chair and stood, shrugging so that his coat settled more comfortably. "Lead on."

But as they started out the door, he made a short side trip to the bar. Inez raised her eyebrows but she didn't ask, simply setting the bottle on the counter in front of Chris. When he laid dollar coins down, she smiled at him, and pushed half of them back. "Pour a little on the ground for me," she said, grinning at him. "My ancestors will thank you for it."

Vin was waiting on the boardwalk, smiling as he stared across the street toward the church. It was bright with lamps and color, the sounds of children's voices and laughter carrying on the cool night air.

"You ever dress up for Halloween?" Chris asked as they stepped into the street, following the others who were spread out in small clusters ahead of them, talking.

"Not that I recall," Vin said. "It wasn't something my grandma believed in. Did you?"

Chris caught sight of Billy through the window; he was waving one of his wooden pistols around, the silver of the foil catching in the light. "No," he said, distracted. "Not sure I like the idea now."

"Kids need heroes," Vin said softly. "People they can look up to and respect."

Chris shook his head, feeling relief when Mary stepped in and caught up the toy gun, shaking her head at Billy and saying things Chris could understand even without hearing. "Heroes are hard to come by. Someone who can draw a gun and shoot true ain't a hero. He's just a killer."

Vin shrugged. "Don't think it's the fact of doing it," he said, his voice still soft. "Reckon it's the reason for it. Ain't like the kid's thinking of a bank robber or a stage coach robber as his hero."

Chris didn't say anything, not sure what to say. It still didn't feel right that Billy was thinking of him that way. Vin might be right about the reasons why he pulled a gun, but the fact was, he still used the gun to solve problems.

Nathan and Josiah led the way to the grave, but as the neared it, Nathan slowed, stopping at the headstone. He leaned down, touching the top of the headstone, then he glanced around. He said something to Josiah that Chris was too far away to hear, but Josiah turned and waved to the rest of them, pulling them near.

"A toast," he said, holding up the bottle he'd picked up off the table. "To Obediah, and with him." He took the cork out of the bottle and handed it to Nathan.

Chris pulled out the bottle he had stuck in pocket of his coat, cracking it open. He stepped up near Josiah, tilting the bottle to dribble a thin stream of the amber liquid onto the ground near the stone that bore Obediah's name.

Nathan chuckled suddenly. "Daddy loved a good drink," he said. "When we got to Alabama, when I was older, he'd sit outside at night with the older men, sharing corn whiskey and talking about - " He stopped, closing his eyes as he remembered.

"If we had the finest cognac from France, it would not be worthy of him," Ezra said quietly. "But he will appreciate it because it's from you, my friend."

Chris looked over at Ezra, surprised, but then, after he thought about it, not really.

They ended up, eventually, settled around the grave, passing the bottles around. The night was cool but bright, and the liquor warmed them, as did the close huddle they eased into.

"I know," Nathan said eventually when the easy, gentle conversation had hit a lull, "that I had something special in this." He looked over at Josiah, his eyes bright in the light of the full moon. "Better than what most of y'all had."

Chris flinched despite himself, looking away. In the distance, the party for the children was breaking up, and he could see clusters of people walking down the street, hear the excited chatter and happy laughter.

"He wanted better for me," Nathan said, "wanted my life to be different from his, from his father's, from his father's father. When I ran away and made it to the North, just before the war, I became the first free man in my family since - well, since I don't know how long." His voice quivered a little at the words. "Since then, I forgot what that means, what that meant to him." He swallowed but shook his head at the offer of more whiskey. His voice was even when he went on. "I got a lot to do, to live up to his name."

Chris looked away again, thinking about Stephen Travis, about the things Billy got from his father. About the things he'd gotten from his own father. Martin Larabee, a corn farmer, descended from the good German Catholics who had settled the area. His life had revolved around his farm, the planting of corn, the harvesting of corn, and in between, tending to the small stock of pigs and cows they kept.

"My father - " Josiah's voice caught and he cleared his throat before going on more slowly, "My father." He shook his head as if to clear it, the grey catching in the moonlight. He went on, his voice stronger, as if the cobwebs were gone. "My father was a good missionary, a man of faith and conviction. He was good for the Church, and good for the people he could help," Josiah said quietly, his voice weaving in and out of Chris' own thoughts. "Just not a good father, not to the kids he had." The last was quiet, just barely more than a whisper, and by the time the words caught up in Chris' head, Josiah went on, louder. "There are good men out there who teach us. There was an old Chinese man in San Francisco - Huan Xie. He was the one who taught me Chinese. He's also the one who taught me that God speaks to all people, in ways they understand." He smiled, shaking his head. "He was the wise one among his people, so he came to all my father's services, all his Bible classes, all his meetings. At first, he would talk with my father about their beliefs, about Buddha and the paths to enlightenment. I think he was trying to find common ground, to see where the two beliefs overlapped. But my father, well, he wasn't one for debating. He was certain of his world and his god. Certain of his rightness." He shook his head again. "Mr. Xie talked to me, though, and he talked to - well, to all of us kids. Treated us like we mattered. I think I learned more from him about being a man than I did from my father."

Chris shifted, uncomfortable. It seemed wrong to talk about parents that way even if it was true. But the memory of his father held him, a barrier between his past and this present.

Vin's voice was softer than Josiah's, and laced with a bitter humor. "My pa was long gone by the time I was born. When my ma was dying, she told me who he was - told me if I ever needed anything I should track him down and talk to him." He gave a soft chuckle that wasn't at all amused. "I figured if he didn't care enough 'bout my ma to spend more than that one night with her, he wouldn't give two damns about me. I reckon the man I got the most respect for is Tapco, one of the Comanche men who taught me hunting. I got to be good friends with his son Lallo, his youngest boy. Lallo - he was something else. Smart, fast, knew how to ride and shoot. But that was 'cause his pa was the kind of man he was, I reckon."

"I don't know about that," Buck said quietly. "You're a good man, Vin - hell, I reckon we all are. In some cases, like you, Josiah - like me, too, - it might be that the thing our daddys gave us was something to be better than. My pa - " He caught himself, picking up the bottle Nathan had left alone. But instead of drinking from it, he poured a little more on the ground near Obediah's grave. "My pa was a mean man. He took his pleasure in - in beating up people who couldn't fight him." He put the bottle down, his eyes on the spot where he'd poured the whiskey. "I learned that I didn't want to be like him."

Chris hadn't wanted to be like his father, hadn't wanted to be tied to a life that was rooted in patterns and predictability, in worrying about nature's fickle moods. He hadn't wanted that right up to the day he'd met Sarah. Losing her and Adam had made him realize how much he had wanted that.

"My ma told me that my pa died before I was born," JD said almost too softly for Chris to hear. "My ma said he was a good man - he was a porter on a passenger train that collided with another train. They had just been married. He was on the Aramingo when it ran into that train carrying all the church children."

"I remember that," Josiah said as JD paused. "Philadelphia, close to it."

"My ma said that they'd just settled into a small house near the train station. My pa wanted to be a conductor one day - she said that was all he ever wanted to be. She said - " He paused again and Chris could hear him swallow before he went on, "she said that I got my wandering from him. She used to tell me stories of the places he'd been - he'd traveled all over the country, worked on barges and riverboats, but that he loved the trains."

Martin Larabee had never wanted to be anything other than a farmer - but then, as he thought it, Chris realized that he wasn't sure. His father had never talked of anything but farming, but then his father had been a pragmatic man. He didn't talk about things that weren't real, that weren't necessary. There was no talk of dreams or hopes - just the talk of things that could be done, had to be done. But Chris remembered a book, several books, really, that sat on the end of one shelf in the corner of the living room. Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. He'd never thought much about them, but he remembered them now, how they were books that no one was allowed to touch - they couldn't be used to hold the doors open in the summer or for the little kids to sit on at dinner time. His ma never let anyone touch them, always saying 'Those are important to your father, leave them be, Christopher.' Had his father wanted to be a lawyer?

Would his own life have been different if his father had been? Stephen Travis had been the son of a lawyer . . .

"Ma said he didn't know about me - she didn't even know about me when he died," JD went on after a time, "but she said that he'd have wanted me to be an engineer. She wanted that, too, but she wanted me to be safe - that was why she wanted me to go to school. She'd be worried if she knew I'd used it to come west - but I think my pa would have been proud."

They sat for a time in silence, the night deepening and growing cooler, the town quieting as people settled in for the night. The slow breeze grew stronger as the temperature dropped, stirring leaves and branches on the trees. The bottles started moving from hand to hand, the liquor serving to warm them, and Chris noticed that each of them dropped a few drops to the ground before partaking.

"So, Ezra?" JD asked after a time. "Did you know your pa?"

Ezra had settled in against a tree, and in the darkness, Chris could barely see him. When he spoke, though, the gold of his tooth caught the spare light, giving the impression of something winking. "As it happens, I did. For the first six years of my life, I lived in relative normalcy - my parents seemed happily married, we lived comfortably in a modest but well-appointed home in New Orleans, where my father was of all things, a doctor, a practice he inherited from his father and his father before him. My father had little need to work, in actuality, and from what I recall, he didn't work often, spending more time in his gentleman's club. So it was quite the surprise when Yellow Fever spread through the city that he sent us away, to stay with my mother's sister in Alabama. He himself decided to stay, saying something about answering the call of his Hippocratic Oath or some such nonsense. To my knowledge, he is still there, buried in an obscure grave along with other victims of the plague."

His voice was light, but Chris could taste the bitterness on his own tongue. He knew that, like himself, Ezra had been thinking of the 'what might have beens', the things that would have been different if his father hadn't been the man that he was.

If his father hadn't been like the man Ezra had, despite his best effort, become. They had all grown into the men they were because of their fathers - trying not to be them or the men they thought them to be - but then, did they really know the men their fathers had been?

Did they really know the men they had respected as children, when they were as young as Billy Travis?

A whirl of leaves rose nearby, startling them, and the wind moaned low through the trees. All Soul's Night, ghosts and spirits and memories of what might have been.

It wasn't JD who got to his feet first, but Nathan. Over the keening of the wind, he said, "My daddy said I should be proud of what I'd become. But he also said I should be proud of the men I've come to call friends. Means a lot to me that y'all were here not just today, but through all of this."

He didn't wait for a reply, simply turning and walking away. The rest of them rose, too, Josiah moving after Nathan, with JD and Buck following along. Chris found himself staring off toward Mary's house, watching as the lights in one room upstairs flickered then went out. Billy was in bed.

"I hated my father for many years," Ezra said casually. Chris glanced to him, not surprised to see him looking in the direction of Billy's room. "In fact, I still do. I wasn't important enough to him to keep him from dying - from choosing to stay somewhere where he was in danger. I think, though, that we all hate our fathers in some ways - and we all need them desperately. My father was the man my mother loved - the only man she ever truly loved. I think I hate him as much for leaving her as I do for leaving me. It changed her, irreparably, and though I didn't understand it at the time, it shaped how she influenced me."

"Ain't never thought about it like that," Vin said, his words slow. "My ma might have been that way, if she'd lived long enough. Maybe." He shrugged. "Don't know that she had time to know the man - sure didn't have time for him to mean nothing to us. But good men - well, there are more of them out there than the ones who were our fathers. And maybe, sometimes, our fathers were good men - just not the men we needed for fathers?" He might not have meant it as a question but that was how it came out. Because he wasn't sure, but he knew - just as Ezra did, just as Chris did, just as all of them did, that they also wanted to be proud of their fathers, for the men they had wanted them to be.

But not the fathers they were. As he had been with Adam. As Steven Travis had been for Billy.

His own father . . . his own father had been a good man and, damn it all to hell, a good father.

The same way Nathan now knew his pa.

"I, for one, could stand a drink and a game of cards," Ezra said with a shrug, starting toward the saloon. "I find that it helps sooth my - spirits."

"Well, hell," Vin grinned, "I'm all for that. Nothing like a good soul-soothing." He followed but glanced back over his shoulder at Chris.

Chris looked back at the darkened window, then he, too followed along.