DARKEST HOURS by Estevana Rey


Funny how you thought you knew people.

Chris Larabee stared wearily through the gap in the closed curtains down at the crowd below.

They had demanded that the windows be shut, the place sealed up tight, but it was too damned hot. There was no way he'd allow Vin to endure any more misery than he had to. You'd do as much for a dog. Hell, you'd do more for a dog. You'd put a dog down so it didn't suffer...

Nathan had tried to soften the blow as best he could, but Chris knew Vin was dying. They'd probably lose JD and Ezra before it was over, too. Nobody wanted it to happen, including the mob outside, most of whom had been decent enough folks up until the last day or so.

But what you wanted and what happened were hardly ever the same thing, were they?

Why was that? Chris wondered.

Why did living and dying both have to hurt?

He caught Mary Travis's eyes through the open window. She stared back at him, only the barest trace of sympathy in her gaze. The rest of her stare was hard steel. She was on the other side now.

He didn't blame her. She had Billy to think of, and he understood that. He hoped she could understand why his loyalties had to lie elsewhere, this time.

But if she didn't, he didn't care. It wouldn't change anything one way or another.

They wanted to torch the place, those good townspeople gathered out there in the street. As if flame would purge their fear. Maybe it would.

"You reckon to burn us all alive?" Chris said, deliberately catching Mary's eyes.

The thought would have scared most other men, but not Chris Larabee. To him, it would be a fitting way to die. But he feared for the others, the ones who had no choice.

"We want you out of town," Hank Conklin looked up, his face pinched with righteous indignation. "We have to think of our wives, our families."

"And yourselves," Chris added.

Conklin just stared.

"Might as well set them torches," Chris told the crowd. "We ain't goin' nowhere."

"Chris..." Mary began gently, "Be reasonable."

"I ain't a reasonable man, Mary," he said, his eyes betraying no emotion. "We can't move 'em. They'll die."

"They'll die, anyway," Conklin barked.

A stifled shriek escaped from a small figure in the crowd. Casey. She made a move towards the building, but Nettie grabbed her and held her back. This had to be tough on her, poor kid. JD, too. He'd asked for her, at first, when he was still able to understand that she wasn't there. They'd promised him she'd be there soon. No point in telling him he'd never see her again.

Larabee leveled his gaze at Conklin. "Maybe so," he said. "But they're gonna go as easy as they can. We ain't leavin'."

A gust of wind caught the yellow banner that hung conspicuously from the front of the building, obstructing his view.

Just a plain yellow square of cloth. There was no writing on it, but still, it told its story in words no one wanted to hear.




Five days earlier...

They hadn't found out anything the first time they'd ridden into Eagle Bend and now they were back without much hope for success the second time. The trail had gotten that far and then had gone cold. It was as if Warren Spriggs had ridden into the town and then been swallowed up by it.

Not that they got all that much cooperation when they had asked about him. Feelings between Eagle Bend and Four Corners had gotten chafed because of Obediah Jackson's trial, and every man in Eagle Bend knew who they were. If they didn't know their names, they knew their faces, or at least their reputations - they were part of the peacekeeping force in Four Corners - the seven men who had taken on their entire town, and then rubbed salt in the wounds by winning.

They got more dirty looks than they got information.

No one had wanted to come here, but Vin hadn't been given a choice. He was the one best able to track down Spriggs. The outlaw had slipped right through their fingers when he'd passed through Four Corners, unnoticed. It was only by chance that JD happened to see him on a wanted poster two days after he was long gone. JD felt that gave him a personal stake in the matter, so he'd announced he was going with Vin. The other five had drawn straws to see who would accompany them both and make sure JD didn't drive the quiet tracker crazy, and Ezra's luck had picked that time to run out.

Between the three of them, they had found out exactly nothing.

Vin was in a bad mood. He wasn't used to failure, but they had worked a spiral path away from the town for 15 miles in an attempt to pick up a trail with no luck. Either Spriggs was one crafty sonofabitch, or he was still holed up in Eagle Bend.

Reluctantly, they rode back into the unfriendly town. Just because the people of Eagle Bend didn't like the Four Corners peacekeepers, it didn't mean they'd open their arms to a vicious outlaw just to spite them. If Spriggs was hiding out there, it wouldn't be for long.

Ezra was hoping they wouldn't get a cold stare when they tried to find a place to sleep that night. Camping out under the open stars had about as much appeal to him as sleeping in a barn, both of which he had done during the past two nights.

But this time when they rode into Eagle Bend, they didn't attract any attention at all. A crowd had gathered at the rear of the local feed store, in the large shed where the grain was stored. People were milling about with disgusted looks on their faces, holding their noses or batting away the foul odor that emanated from the building.

"Smells like something died in there," JD commented.

The three of them dismounted and edged their way through the crowd to take a look.

"Well, guess we know now he didn't leave town," Ezra said when he saw the body tucked among the sacks of grain. Beside it were two saddle bags with the initials "W.S." tooled into the leather.

"You think it's Spriggs?" Vin frowned.

Ezra picked up the saddle bags. "Those are his initials," he pointed to the letters.

Vin cleared his throat. "Uh... yeah..." He walked closer to the body. It was easy to do. Everyone else was keeping their distance. Spriggs didn't really smell that bad, not yet, but he was a frightening sight. His tongue had swelled and protruded from his mouth. The organ was black as tar, as were his lips and fingernails. He looked like he'd been strangled, but there was no sign of foul play, save for the sack of goobers beside him that had been slit open. The outlaw still clutched a handful of the nuts.

Ira Pinsette, Eagle Bend's "doctor," made his way to the body. The man didn't have a medical degree. He was a snake-oil peddler. He claimed to have learned his healing skills during his travels in Europe and the Orient, but Ezra doubted he'd ever been east of the Mississippi. As a healer, he had no doubt the man didn't hold a candle to Nathan Jackson, and as a con man, his skills were beneath contempt.

Nevertheless, the man drew himself up after examining the body, and in a solemn and authoritative voice turned to Sheriff Staynes and said "Get these people away from here."

"What is it, doc?

"I've seen this when I was in India," he intoned. "It's plague."

"What?" Staynes asked, as if he'd never heard the word.

"During the Middle Ages it was called the Black Death. It spares no victim and can move like a brush fire."

The sheriff's face paled.

Vin snorted and nudged Sprigg's folded hand with the toe of his boot. "Like as not, he died from this." The goobers rolled out onto the floorboards. The little round nuts didn't bother most people, and they were tasty enough, but Vin had eaten them once and that was enough to know he'd never go near them again. "They're like poison to some folks. They can make your throat tighten up so you can't get no air. Reckon he ate one too many of 'em."

The "doctor" looked at him scornfully. "Are you a physician?"

"No, and you ain't either," Vin said. "This feller didn't die from no Black Death."

But the sheriff wasn't hearing Vin. He immediately began to scatter the gathered crowd.

JD picked up one of the peanuts. He wasn't convinced Vin was right. "Ezra, is there such a thing as Black Death?"

Ezra looked uncertainly at Spriggs. "Yes, JD, there is, but I've never heard of it anywhere but in history books... I think Mr. Tanner is correct in his assessment that our outlaw here was asphyxiated."

JD picked up Spriggs' hat to cover the corpse's face, and then let out a little yelp of surprise as a dozen mice scurried out from under it in all directions.

There were droppings everywhere, on the floor, and on the sacks of grain, so it shouldn't have taken him off guard, but being that close to a corpse had made him jumpy.

He looked at Vin sheepishly, but Vin wasn't laughing.

"Deer mice," the tracker said, frowning.

"Mr. Tanner?" Ezra looked at him.

"If the Navaho find a deer mouse in their hogan, they burn it to the ground," he said. "Their medicine says they're a bad omen."

"Well," JD dropped the hat on Spriggs' face. "They sure didn't bring him any luck."


With Spriggs found dead and Eagle Bend claiming the bounty on him, the three men had no reason to stay in Eagle Bend, so instead of staying the night, they decided to head for home.

As they approached Four Corners, Vin stopped to get a better look at something in the distance that Ezra and JD couldn't even see. The man had phenomenal eyesight, and between that and his spyglass, not much got past him unnoticed.

"What is it?" Ezra asked as Vin squinted thoughtfully through the instrument.

"Ain't sure what to make of it," he said and handed the spyglass to Ezra.

With the aid of the special lens, Ezra was able to see what had gotten Vin's attention. A group of men from the town were gathered in the road ahead, and they appeared to be arguing with two men on horseback. JD, Vin and Ezra had seen the two men in Eagle Bend. They were just a couple of cowpokes looking for work, not out to make trouble for anyone. But even without hearing the words that were being exchanged, Ezra could tell they were heated.

He handed the spyglass to JD. "Looks like they're arguin' about somethin'," the kid stated the obvious. "They're turnin' those fellas away from the town."

Vin took the spyglass from him to make sure. "He's right," he told Ezra.

"What do you think is going on?"

"Don't rightly know," Vin said, lowering the spyglass. "But I think maybe we better cut our own trail back to town."

"They wouldn't keep us out," JD said.

"Maybe not," Vin answered. "But somethin's up, and I'd just as soon not take that chance until I find out what it is."

Ezra reluctantly agreed. Cutting across virgin terrain would no doubt be unpleasantly rugged and would take longer.

He was right on both counts.

It was nightfall before they reached town. Luckily, at that hour, no one was out and about to notice that they had entered from a direction where there was no road.

The hostler, Yosemite, however, did ask them where they'd ridden in from. His curiosity wasn't anything unusual - the man liked to make small talk - but his reaction when JD answered "Eagle Bend" was.

He literally backed away from them, and then said "How'd you get around the blockade?"

"What blockade?" Vin asked, even though he figured Yosemite was referring to what he had seen through his spyglass.

"They got plague in Eagle Bend," Yosemite said. "Doc Pinsette there sent word to Mrs. Travis so's she could put it in the newspaper."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "I see Eagle Bend's paltry excuse for a physician will stop at no bounds to make a name for himself." He dusted off his jacket, even though it was beyond hope.

"It came over the telegraph," Yosemite continued. "Folks droppin' like flies o' what they call the 'Black Death'."

Vin looked at Ezra, who frowned. "They got folks down sick?"

"Almost the whole town, I hear tell. Mr. Conklin ordered the barricade. Said no one from Eagle Bend gets into this town. We don't want their plague here." He looked at the three somewhat apologetically. "They weren't supposed to let you in. They turned Mrs. Cumpsty away, and she was just over there visitin' her sister. Made her ride all the way back."

"Where was Chris and the others when all this was goin' on?" Vin asked.

"He said he was gonna wire Eagle Bend to see if you were there, maybe find out what was goin' on. He wasn't expectin' y'all back so soon."

Vin tossed the hostler two bits. "See to the horses..." He looked at JD and Ezra. "We need to talk to the others."

Yosemite caught Vin's coin reflexively, but quickly set it down and wiped his hand on his pants.


Chris usually waited for Vin to come and sit by him, but as soon as the young tracker was through the saloon door, the gunfighter got up to meet him and ushered him back outside so he could speak to him privately.

Ezra had headed to his room to clean up before socializing, and JD had gone looking for Buck. It was just as well, since Vin preferred talking to Chris one-to-one.

The untamed trail they'd ridden home must have been rougher than it looked, Vin realized as he stood there waiting for Chris to say what was on his mind. He was so tired his bones ached, and he wanted to sit down, or better yet, crawl into his wagon and go to sleep.

"Looks like you went an' let this town go to hell while I was gone, cowboy," he teased Chris with an easy smile.

Chris let the corners of his mouth turn up slightly, but he said, "People are scared."

"There ain't no plague in Eagle Bend, Chris. That piss-poor excuse for a sawbones they got there was just tryin' to make folks think he knew somethin'." He went on to tell Chris his opinion of how Spriggs had died.

"You saw the body?"

Vin nodded. "It was black, but that happens. You know that. It don't mean he had this 'Black Death' thing."

"What about the other folks? Last telegram said there were a dozen folks down with some kind of fever."

"Don't know nothin' about that," Vin admitted. "No one looked sick when we were there."

"Doc Pinsette seems pretty sure."

"The man ain't no doctor, Chris, and what the hell is he doin' sendin' telegrams to this town?"

"He wanted to be sure we kept you out," Chris smiled. "Says you could be carryin' it."

"Sounds personal to me," Vin yawned and then clapped Chris on the shoulder. "Let Conklin an' the others make fools outa themselves if they want to. It'll all blow over in a day or two."

Chris knew Vin was right. Conklin's idea to isolate the town would run out of steam when people started getting bored with maintaining the road blocks.

"Buy you some supper?" he asked the tracker.

Vin thought it over, but then shook his head. "I think I'll get some sleep."

"Kinda early for that, even for you," Chris noted. Vin was usually awake well before dawn, but he was also usually the first one to fade out at night. Still, it was barely sundown.

Vin just shrugged. "Been a long day."

Chris nodded. "See you in the mornin', then."

He headed for the hotel, hoping to find Buck. He hadn't admitted it to Vin, but he wasn't one hundred percent opposed to Conklin's actions. He'd lived through a cholera epidemic, spared only by the grace of whatever God watched over him. He knew how a fever could take a town off the map. Just the same, talk of plague and "Black Death" and who knew what else that was over-exaggerated or simply wasn't even true would only cause unnecessary panic and maybe get someone hurt.

He stopped by the newspaper office first. Mary was up to her elbows in ink, working with that single-minded determination that had enabled the young widow to make a moderate success of the Clarion.

He picked up one of her proofs. The plague outbreak in Eagle Bend was the headline.

"You aren't going to print this," he told her, not leaving the subject open for debate.

She bristled. "I beg your pardon?"

"It's not true. Vin just came from Eagle Bend. He says there ain't no plague."

"I mean no offense," Mary said firmly, "but Vin Tanner hasn't any medical training of which I am aware."

Chris only stared at her, so she continued, "Besides, I only said plague is suspected."

"Folks ain't gonna read the 'suspected' part, Mary. You're playin' with fire printin' this."

She took the proof from him. "It's news, Mr. Larabee. You are playing with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution if you try and stop me."

Chris glared at her, then tipped his hat. There was no point trying to change Mary Travis's mind. She was a smart gal - probably one of the smartest people he knew - but she had a stubborn streak to her that he almost admired, even when he disagreed with her.

He found Buck at the hotel. Ezra and JD were there, too, Ezra looking like he'd just stepped out of the bath, which he probably had.

Buck and JD were eating. Maude had been back in town for the past two weeks, and she had just invited Ezra to sit down to a game of poker with four complete, unsuspecting strangers. No doubt mother and son would cheat the newcomers out of everything they had, and then Maude would take Ezra's share from him or vice-versa.

He pulled up a chair and sat with Buck and JD.

"Vin said there ain't no plague in Eagle Bend," he told Buck.

"Last word on that came from Sheriff Staynes hisself," Buck pointed out. "You think they'd make something like that up just to start trouble for us?"

"We ain't got no trouble unless we let it get outa hand." He turned to JD, who was staring at his plate and looking as though he felt left out of the older men's conversation. "You see Spriggs' body, kid?" Chris asked him.

JD shuddered. "Yeah. Wasn't a pretty sight, Chris." He looked up at Buck with worried expression. "He was all black and swelled up... Is that what this Black Death does to someone?"

"Hell if I know," Buck shrugged him off. "I ain't never heard of it."

That wasn't what the kid wanted to hear, Chris could tell. He wanted reassurance.

"Nathan is sending telegrams to some real docs asking about it," he explained. "Meantime, ain't nothin' we can do about it."

"'cept keep folks from comin' here from Eagle Bend," Buck said. He was in favor of the blockade. He'd made that clear early on.

Chris nodded. "Much as I hate to agree with Conklin, I reckon we need to back him on this until we know what we're dealin' with."

Chris left to go find out if the healer had received any responses to his inquiries. He wasn't optimistic. There weren't that many trained doctors near enough for Nathan to know them by name. He was having to wire towns at random and ask if they had a physician, and then ask if the physician could and would take the time to answer his questions. Nathan's reputation also worked against him - some doctors knew who he was and were reluctant to offer advice to a colored man with no formal medical training, no matter how skilled he was.


Buck looked across the table at JD. For his small size, JD usually had a healthy appetite, but he'd hardly touched his food.

"You ain't eatin' kid. I thought you was hungry?"

JD rubbed his forehead "I thought I was, too, but it just ain't sittin' well."

"Too much talk about swollen up corpses don't do much for a man's appetite, I reckon," Buck laughed.

In the corner of the room, Maude was making a fuss about something. She got up from her table in a huff and stormed out of the place muttering something about Ezra being stupid.

Ezra looked like he wanted to follow her, but then he thought better of it and joined them instead.

Buck took a swallow from his beer mug. "What was that all about?"

Ezra shrugged. He looked mildly hurt by whatever Maude had said to him, but he grinned genially as he shuffled his ever-present deck of cards. "Mother has no tolerance for anything less than perfection when it comes to me," he said. "Seems my game is a bit off tonight."

"So what happened, you get caught cheating?" JD asked.

"Worse, I lost fair and square." He sighed, "My mind wasn't on the game. Three days of communing with the elements have taken their toll, I fear." He cleared his throat, which brought on a coughing spell.

Buck passed him his beer. "You okay?" he asked him.

Ezra assured him that he was and then started dealing the cards. They played a friendly game for an hour or so, until JD started nodding off. Buck considered suggesting that the kid go crawl into his bed. He looked done in. But, it wasn't yet 7 o'clock and he didn't think JD would even begin to consider the idea.

It was Ezra who suggested they call it a night. Strange as it seemed, Buck had actually bested the gambler by that time, and was gloating over a tidy pile of Ezra's cash. "As mother would say, it's not how you play the game, but whether you win or lose, and I don't intend to lose another hand to you rank amateurs," Ezra said, picking up his cards.

Buck gathered his winnings. "Nice playin' with you, too, Ezra," he laughed as the gambler left the table.

As he tucked the small bundle of cash into his poke, JD put his head down on the table. Buck reached across and tossled his hair. "You tired, kid?"

JD looked up. "Buck..."

"Yeah, kid?"

JD closed his eyes and shook his head. "Never mind... I'm goin' to bed. I am sorta tired."

Buck followed him. Their rooms were side-by-side at the boarding house, anyway, and he figured it might be a good idea to stow the cash he'd won from Ezra so he wasn't tempted to spend it all in one night.

He was tucking the bills into an extra pair of socks when he heard something hit the floor hard in JD's room.

"JD, you make more damn noise than a herd of stampeding cattle with their tails on fire," he called out.

He expected some kind of snot-nosed remark in return, but JD didn't answer him. "JD?"

He opened the door that separated the two rooms to find the kid trying to pick himself up off the floor.

He went to him and pulled him the rest of the way to his feet. "What happened kid? Did you fall?"

JD had already taken his jacket and vest off, and he started unbuttoning his shirt with shaky fingers. "I dunno. I think I passed out."

"You think? Don't you know?" Buck said curtly, attempting to keep any concern out of his voice. JD hated being babied.

"Well, I ain't never just passed out before, so how would I know?" JD shot back.

He sat down on the bed to pull his shoes off, but his hands were trembling so bad that it was hard for him to do.

Buck pushed him down on the bed and pulled his shoes off for him. He then had JD unfasten his pants so he could slide those off of him, too.

JD pulled his blankets up around himself while Buck piled his clothes on a chair.

When he was done, Buck sat down on the bed next to JD and put a hand on the boy's forehead. He wasn't burning up, but he definitely felt too warm.

JD looked up at him with fear in his dark eyes and said what they both already knew. "Buck, I don't feel good. I think I'm sick."


Buck found Nathan at the telegraph office, checking to see if anyone, anywhere, had bothered to respond to him. He needed to find out what he was dealing with should the sickness in Eagle Bend reach Four Corners.

It was hard for Buck to keep his voice calm and even. "We got a problem, Nathan."

The healer looked up from his cables. "What?" But Buck sensed he somehow already knew.

"The kid's sick."

If Nathan hadn't heard the fear in the big man's voice, he would have seen it in his eyes. JD meant a lot to Buck. To all of them, really, but especially to Buck. He tucked the telegrams in his pocket. "Let's go," he nodded for Buck to lead the way.

JD looked up at them when they entered the room, but he didn't say a word, which was unusual for him.

Nathan sat on the bed at his side and felt his forehead with his large, practiced hand.

"Well, you got you a fever," he told him. "How do you feel otherwise?"

JD shrugged.

"He passed out a few minutes ago," Buck said.

Nathan frowned. "What happened?" he asked JD.

"I dunno," the boy shrugged again. "I just got all weak and dizzy all of a sudden. I thought I was gonna throw up, but the next thing I knew, I was on the floor... My head hurts."

"It hurts because you banged it, or it just hurts?" Nathan asked, checking the boy's head for some sign of injury.

"I got a headache. Had it all night, but it's gettin' worse."

Nathan made him open his mouth, but if that told him anything, he didn't let on.

You still feel like upchuckin'?" Nathan asked.

JD nodded.

Nathan fetched the washbasin from the bureau and set it beside the bed, just in case.

JD looked at Buck. "Do I got it, Buck? That Black Death thing?"

"Hell, no, JD," Buck scoffed convincingly. "You prob'ly ain't got no more than a cold. Right Nathan?"

Nathan didn't like to lie to his patients, but sometimes, it was best not to divulge the entire truth, especially when you didn't know what the truth was.

"You don't seem too sick," he said to JD. "You just get some rest, okay?"

"Okay," JD nodded.

"You want anything, kid?" Buck asked him.

JD shook his head wearily. Buck followed Nathan into the hallway.

The healer looked uncharacteristically grim. "I don't like this Buck. Whatever is going around Eagle Bend, it's a killer." He handed Buck a telegram from Ira Pinsette confirming that two people in the neighboring town had died.

"You think it's plague, Nathan?"

Nathan shook his head. "I ain't never seen plague, Buck. I wouldn't know what to look for." He pulled the rest of the telegrams out of his pocket. "I need to find a doctor who is willing to do the research for me, but all they wanna know is what right I got to even be askin'."

Buck bristled. "Surely there has to be someone..."

"Buck, ain't nobody in the big city cares about a little town like this, and there ain't many doctors anywhere that will talk to a healer who ain't got no formal schoolin'."

Nathan didn't have to add, especially when he's an ex-slave. Buck knew the score. Nathan had to fight twice as hard to get half the respect that a charlatan like Ira Pinsette earned with nothing more than a line of bullshit.

Buck nodded towards the telegrams. "What's gonna happen to him?"

Nathan shook his head. "According to Pinsette, this thing hits fast and hard..." He looked Buck in the eye. As much as he hated to say the words, he knew Buck could handle the harsh truth. "Buck, JD could be dead by this time tomorrow."


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