DARKEST HOURS by Estevana Rey


Buck couldn't remember ever being as scared as he was then. His own basic survival instincts screamed at him to get as far away as possible from the three men who had brought a silent killer home with them from Eagle Bend. But, he knew he couldn't leave JD.

He was not sure when the cocky little brat had roped his heart, but somewhere along the way, JD had somehow become his best friend, his little brother - his family. And you didn't leave someone you cared about to die alone.

A lump rose in his throat. JD could die. Nathan had said so. Hell, Nathan didn't need to have said it for him to know. People were dying in Eagle Bend, and pretty soon, they'd be dying in Four Corners.

The kid had seemed okay the evening before, until he'd keeled over on him. Through the night, he'd gotten steadily - and quickly - worse. Having to move him from the boarding house hadn't helped, either.

After they'd gotten him settled at the hotel, he had complained that his legs hurt. Buck had figured maybe it was just the exertion. He had offered to carry JD to the hotel, but the kid had insisted he could walk on his own, even though he was so sick he could barely stand up.

Nathan had checked him out, and had discovered that the muscles in his legs were contracting in fierce spasms. He'd let Buck feel for himself. The muscles in the kid's calves were like rocks. The pain had to be excruciating.

What was causing it was anyone's guess. It was a symptom of a brain fever, Nathan had said, yet JD was conscious and as alert as his fever allowed. They had used linament to work some of the knots out of the muscles, and then Nathan had heated water and soaked towels in it, wrapping the hot, damp cloth around the kid's legs in an attempt to ease the cramping and relieve his pain. It had helped, some, but the spasms had moved upward, to his back, his neck, his arms. Wrapping him completely in hot towels might have helped, but his fever was already high, and that would have made him dangerously hot.

Nathan had dosed him with laudanum, but it had only taken the sharpest edge off the boy's pain.

JD looked at him with pleading eyes. He wanted him to make the hurting stop and Buck didn't know what to do for him. He felt helpless, like he had the time the kid had taken that bullet in his gut. Only this was even worse. That time, JD had gone into shock and then had been unconscious most of the time. This time, he was feeling everything.

Sweat was pouring off of him, and Buck wiped it off his face, pushing damp hair out of his eyes. The muscles in his back were so tensed up, he couldn't even lie flat against the mattress.

"Roll over, JD," he said, as he pulled the kid onto his stomach.

JD groaned and hissed from the pain the movement caused him but he was too weak to resist.

Buck lifted the kid's undershirt and poured some of the linament into his hands. Gently, he began to knead the tightened muscles in the boy's back and neck. He knew it wasn't going to help much, but JD seemed to appreciate the effort.

The boy closed his eyes, but not to sleep. The mid-morning sun coming from the window seemed to bother him. "Buck?"

"Yeah, kid?"

"You don't gotta stay. This could be catchin'."

"If I'm gonna catch it, it's prob'ly already too late to worry about it." Buck tried to sound casual, but that very fear was gnawing at his gut. He wondered if by touching the kid, or even being in the same room with him, he had already signed his own death warrant.

"I feel awful, Buck."

"I know you do, kid." Sympathy was about the only comfort Buck could offer him.

The boy reached up and covered his eyes with his hand. The movement was awkward, because the muscles at the back of his arms were fighting his efforts.

"What's the matter, JD?" Buck asked him.

"The light... my head hurts. The light makes it worse."

Buck looked at the window. There was no shade or curtain on it, but it did have a shutter on the outside. Problem was, if he closed it, the room would get hotter than hell, but he decided to worry about that when it happened. He went to close the shutter and chanced to look down into the street below.

A small crowd had gathered near the back entrance to the hotel, and they didn't look happy. Hank Conklin spotted him and pointed an accusing finger at him. "You! Get Larabee out here. We need to talk to him."

"Whatever you got to say to him, you can say to me," Buck answered. Normally, he wouldn't have thought to step into Chris's place as the leader of the Seven, but he didn't think Conklin was worth the effort it would take to get Chris to go out there and listen to whatever he had to babble about.

"Tell him you're under quarantine!" Conklin called back. "All of you. No one leaves this building, for any reason."

"Unless it's to get the hell out of town!" someone behind Conklin chimed in. A few people in the crowd cheered him on.

"They had no right to come back into this town carrying plague," Conklin continued. "They've put everyone in this town in danger!"

Buck couldn't think of a response to that. As much as he feared for JD, deep inside he wasn't sure he blamed Conklin for his attitude. Vin, Ezra and JD had brought whatever was killing people in Eagle Bend to Four Corners. The townspeople had every reason to feel helpless and afraid.

He didn't understand their anger, though. He looked at JD curled up on the bed. He looked so young and so small - and so sick. He hadn't done this deliberately, and he was paying as high a price as anyone.

He closed the shutter without another word to Conklin.

"What's goin' on, Buck?" JD asked. His voice was weak and raspy. He was having trouble breathing, Buck could tell, but he hadn't complained about it. Poor dumb kid probably figured so long as he could ignore it, it wouldn't be so.

"Nothin' to worry about kid..." Buck folded a washcloth and covered JD's eyes with it to keep out the remaining light in the room. "That better?" he asked him.

JD nodded, but in the next instant cried out in pain as a new wave of spasms wracked his body. "God, it hurts, Buck..." he sobbed.

Buck resumed the massage, telling the kid in a soothing voice that everything was going to be okay, that he'd feel better soon.

He wished he believed it.


Ezra reached for the cup that Maude held to his lips. It was a decidedly unnerving sensation to not know exactly where it was.

Maude pushed his hands down. "It's hot, darlin'. Let me hold it."

Ezra didn't have the strength to argue with her. He sipped at the bitter liquid, which was beyond question one of the most vile concoctions ever to pass his lips. He turned his head away.

"Drink it!" Maude ordered, although, he noted, not as sternly as she was capable of... it was more an urgent request than her usual command.

"I assure you mother..." - he need to pause every few words to catch his breath when he tried to talk - "if I drink that... we shall both... see it again ... shortly thereafter."

He heard Nathan's voice from somewhere close by. "Do what your mama says, Ezra. It's just some herbs. It ain't gonna hurt you and it might help some."

Ezra's insided had already made that decision for him. He hated being sick to his stomach. It was the most vile and repulsive bodily function there was, and he hadn't the least inclination to invite the experience upon himself. "No."

He knew it was impossible, but it seemed like he could actually hear Maude's features contort into an annoyed expression. "Ezra, you're being childish. Enough of that..."

She held the cup to his lips and tried to pour the contents into his mouth. He shoved it away and heard it crash to the floor and shatter. Then, he started coughing, violently.

And then, he got sick anyway.

Someone shoved a basin under his head before a real mess happened, but that did very little to lessen the humiliation.

After he had completed the act of depositing what seemed like the entire contents of his body into the basin, he dropped back onto his pillow, exhausted. He felt completely, horridly wretched. He was beyond any doubt sicker than he had ever been in his entire life, and the inescapable knowledge that whatever name this abominable scourge went by was potentially fatal did little to comfort him, beyond the assurance that if he got much worse, he would be dead and out of his misery.

Someone wiped his face with a damp cloth, and then moved to undo the buttons on his undershirt. He was close to the point of not caring if his mother undressed him, but he wasn't quite there, yet. He reached up and grabbed the hand on his chest. It was large and the skin was rough. Nathan. He released his feeble grip and allowed him to proceed.

The big healer got him out of his shirt easily, but he didn't know who was sponging him off with cool water. He supposed he didn't really care. It almost felt good, if anything could at that point. He could hear Nathan and Maude bustling around the bed, talking about... something... He couldn't really understand them unless he concentrated, and that was just too much effort. He couldn't see them at all. Compounding the altogether abhorrent set of circumstances in which he now found himself, he couldn't see. He wasn't blind in the sense that he was in total darkness - he could easily perceive light, shadow, color and movement - but there were pieces missing from the overall picture, where big blotches of white nothing obstructed his visual field. It was like trying to make out the picture on a jigsaw puzzle from just a few pieces. The effect was so bizarre, it was simpler just to keep his eyes closed.

He somehow sensed Josiah enter the room before he spoke. The preacher had been relegated to the role of domestic, and Nathan had sent him to prepare a steam kettle. Together, they rigged a makeshift tent over the head of his bed. Nathan slipped the kettle inside, setting it on the mattress beside Ezra's head, but taking care to pad it with a towel so that there would be no accidental contact. The steam smelled almost as foul as Nathan's herbal brew.

"That should help ease his breathin' some," Nathan told Maude, sounding more like he was hoping that was true rather than certain.

Ezra felt Maude's cool, soft hand take his own. Under normal circumstances, she would have chided Nathan that he'd better know what he was doing, but Maude had run out of glib rejoinders and Ezra knew why. She thought he was dying.

Hell, he probably was.



Chris ignored the shouting from the street below. He leaned back in his chair, arms folded, watching for any sign that Vin wasn't getting sicker. He knew he was clinging to false hopes, but he wasn't ready to buy into the possibility that the quiet tracker - his best friend - could be dead in a matter of hours. His fever was alarmingly high, and Chris had tried sponging him off like Nathan had said, but just being touched seemed to make Vin hurt.

There was more shouting from the street, and he ignored that, too, until a rock came flying though the open window and landed inches from the bed with a loud thud.

It woke Vin up. He flinched and opened his eyes. He looked at Chris, his thoughts muddled by pain and fever. Chris picked the rock up and put it on the dresser where Vin wouldn't see it. "Sorry pard, I dropped something," he said. There was no point in trying to explain to Vin that the town he'd risked his life to protect was turning its ugliest face on him as he lay there sick and helpless.

Chris poured some water into the sipping bottle Nathan had given him. He'd said to get him to drink as much as possible. When Vin had done his business in the chamber pot like Nathan had asked, his piss was tinged with red. Chris didn't need Nathan to tell him that was a bad sign.

He cradled Vin's head and lifted him so he could drink.

"Don't want any," Vin muttered.

"Sorry, pard, you ain't got no choice. You need it." The bottle had a little spout that Vin could suck the water from if Chris could force it between his lips. Decorative as well as practical, the porcelain bottle was painted to look like a bird.

"Get that chicken away from me," Vin growled. He was out of his head from the fever, so who knew what he was thinking, but it almost made Chris smile. Vin could do that, even when no one and nothing else could.

Chris forced the water on him, anyway. Vin sucked down a couple of swallows, but then he choked on it. He couldn't catch his breath and was coughing and gagging at the same time. Chris turned him over onto his side in case he puked, and an instant after he did, a torrent of blood came pouring out of Vin's mouth.

Chris had never been prone to panic, but that scared him. "NATHAN!" he shouted.

Nathan and Josiah both came running, followed by Buck, who took one look at the mess on the bed and had to lean against the wall so he wouldn't pass out. "Aw, Jesus..." he gasped.

Vin was still choking. Nathan sat down on the bed beside him and in one practiced movement pulled Vin's upper body across his lap so that his head and arms hung over the side of the bed. Using the heel of his hand, he struck him three times between the shoulder blades.

Vin's airway cleared and he cried out in agony. "Lemme alone!" he sobbed.

Chris sat on the other side of the bed and took him from Nathan. His eyes were closed, but tears were streaming down his face. He used a washcloth to wipe his face off. They were going to have to move him to change the bloody sheets, and he held the tracker's pain-wracked body as gently and carefully as he could. "It's okay, Vin," he said softly. "You're okay now," he lied.

"I'm dyin' Chris," Vin gasped.

"No you ain't. I ain't gonna let you."

For whatever reason, Vin didn't argue with that. He just nodded his head and settled into Chris's arms.

Josiah had sent Buck for clean sheets, and he'd been eager to comply so he could get out of there. Chris held Vin until Buck came back, and he drifted off, either into unconsciousness or sleep. When Buck returned, Chris stroked Vin's hair to rouse him so he could tell him they had to move him. Earlier, his long, dark hair had been soaked with sweat, but it was just barely damp now. Chris knew it was because he was becoming dehydrated. He hated forcing the water on him again, but there was no choice.

Vin tried to push it away. Chris's voice was stern. "Drink it, Vin. If you don't, you are gonna die, you hear me?" The other three men were shocked by his tone, but Vin took a few more swallows of the water. Josiah and Buck were ready to swap the soiled sheets. "I'm gonna lift you up, Vin," Chris warned him.

"No!" Vin pleaded. "Don't touch me!"

He was too delirious to realize that Chris was already holding him. Chris ignored his pleas and raised him just far enough for Buck and Josiah to slip the clean linen onto the bed. Josiah left with the bloody sheets as Chris gently eased Vin back onto the mattress. Nathan sponged him off again and looked him over. His breathing was coarse and ragged now.

"We rigged a steam tent for Ezra," Nathan explained. "I reckon we're gonna end up doing it for all three of them. I wish I knew if..."

He was interrupted by the crash of another rock hitting the pitcher beside the wash basin and shattering it.

Chris pulled his gun and marched to the window. Without a word to the crowd outside, he emptied the entire chamber into the street below.

There was screaming and panic, but those in the building knew Chris hadn't shot anyone. Yet.

"You send another rock through this window, and one of you dies," he said coldly. "Don't matter shit to me which one." His icy gaze scanned the crowd, most of whom averted their eyes.

Most, but not all.

"We want you and your men out of town," Hank Conklin said. "Then we're going to burn this place."

"We ain't leavin'," Chris stated flatly.

Someone had dipped what looked like a tablecloth in yellow paint and two men were tying it with rope to the front of the building. Buck joined him to watch the spectacle. "They're puttin' us in quarantine, Chris," he explained. "Sayin' we can't leave unless it's to get outa town."

Chris holstered his gun. "Don't matter. We ain't goin' nowhere, anyway."

Buck nodded. "'cept maybe to Hell."


Nathan would have collided with the man who blocked his path if he hadn't stepped sideways at the last second, backing off as if he were deathly afraid of any contact with the healer. Nathan recognized him: Jules Lahr. He owned a farm three miles from town and Nathan had saved his wife from bleeding to death after delivering his twin sons. Lahr seemed to have forgotten all about that as he drew his gun and aimed it at Nathan's chest.

"Get back inside," he ordered.

Nathan shook his head. "I have to get to the telegraph office... Need to find me a doctor who can..."

"Save it!" the man ordered. "Ain't no doc can help those men inside now. Ain't no medicine for plague."

"I don't even know they got plague and neither do you. Now get outa my way." Nathan would use physical force if he had to. He was not a violent man, but he was a strong one, and even though Lahr was big, Nathan was bigger.

Lahr cocked his weapon and raised it, and in a split second of horror, Nathan realized he was really going to shoot him.

There was a blinding flash and a thundering roar and Nathan instinctively clamped his eyes shut waiting for the fatal impact, but none came. He opened his eyes when he heard Lahr howling in pain and saw that he was holding his bleeding hand. Nathan looked around, expecting to see Buck, Josiah or even Chris, but to his great surprise, he spotted Jim Ramage lurking in the shadows. Ramage had raised hell with Vin a few months before. Along with his friend Ted Cole, he had done everything he could to make Vin's life as miserable as possible. They'd all ultimately resolved their differences after a terrifying accident had almost killed the pair of losers as well as Chris and Ezra, but, even so, the Seven were hardly on friendly terms with them.

Ramage holstered his gun. "Figured I owed you one," he said simply. Nathan had set Ramage's badly broken arm after the accident. He'd gotten full use of it back apparently, since he'd used it to shoot the gun from Lahr's hand. Nathan nodded as Cole sidled up alongside Ramage. The two of them were joined at the hip.

"Tanner dyin'?" Cole asked.

His tone was unreadable, and maybe he didn't mean anything by it, but since Nathan disliked the man, he bristled. "Not if I can help it." He moved towards Lahr. "Let me take a look at that hand..."

Lahr stepped backward. "Stay away from me!"

The man was in dire need of medical attention, and normally, Nathan would have persisted, but he had more pressing things to do. "Suit yourself," he shrugged.

Another unpleasant surprise awaited him when he got to the telegraph office. The door had been bolted shut from the inside. The telegraph operator peered at him though the window with a guilty look on his face. "I can't let you in here," he said. He opened the window a crack and handed him three messages. Nathan went to take them, and the man let them fall from his hand onto the dirt.

Nathan picked them up, disgusted by the telegraph operator's rudeness, but not really blaming the man for being cautious.

The first telegram he read was from a doctor in Denver who wanted to know who he was, and emphatically stating that he did not assist charlatans in the practice of medicine. The second was from a doctor in Albuquerque who said he didn't know anything about plague.

But the third one...

It was from a Dr. M. Quinn in Colorado, and Nathan read it carefully to make sure he'd gotten it right...

Mr. Jackson,

It is my privilege to have esteemed colleagues in the universities and teaching hospitals of Boston, and through them I have availed myself of the medical and scientific literature at their disposal...

It went on to describe the symptoms of plague.

Some of them fit, but they were general symptoms that could fit a dozen illnesses. Other symptoms, none of the sick men had - or at least, he didn't think they did. He'd have to re- examine all three of them. Also, some of the symptoms they did have weren't even listed.

The message also said if it was plague, he could expect more cases to crop up within two days of exposure. It didn't paint a pretty picture of the consequences should that happen. There was no effective treatment for plague, and no known way of stopping the spread of the contagion other than to quarantine the victims - and burn the bodies of the dead.

It had been almost 48 hours since Vin, JD and Ezra had arrived back in Four Corners, and even if it wasn't plague, he was expecting that soon, those they had come into contact with would begin to show signs of illness. Certainly the first would be those at the hotel with the sick men.

His friends.

He shuddered at the thought. Plague or no, maybe Conklin and the others had the right idea. If they all came down with whatever it was that had stricken Vin, JD and Ezra, the sanest thing to do would also be the most unthinkable.

Nathan refused to let his mind dwell on that. Dr. Quinn had given him some valuable information - and more importantly had offered his assistance. He needed to reassess his patients and decide where to go from here.

He walked back to the hotel, cataloging his patient's symptoms. All three of them were having trouble breathing, although Ezra was by far the worst off. All three had suffered bouts of nausea, although Vin was the only one who had brought up blood and couldn't seem to keep anything down. All of them were in pain, but JD seemed to be suffering the worst of it. But according to Dr. Quinn, the one definitive symptom of plague was boil-like swellings - 'buboes' - in the armpits, neck and groin. Unless he'd overlooked something, he was certain none of them had that one tell-tale sign.

He was lost in his thoughts and almost ran into Inez as she was coming out of the saloon burdened with a large block of ice wrapped in burlap. "Nathan!" she greeted him.

The healer looked up from his musings. "Hi, Inez..." He noticed her arms sagging under the weight of the ice. "Can I give you a hand with that?"

She passed it over to him. "I thought you might be able to use it," she said. "If not for the sick men, then for the others."

Ice was a precious commodity, and Inez's offer was both generous and welcome. "Thanks," he smiled.

"How are they?" she asked cautiously.

Nathan shook his head. "Not too good."

"You tell them I will pray for them."

Nathan nodded. "Thanks, Inez."

He meant that sincerely. Whatever they had, all three men were clearly dangerously ill - maybe dying - and there was not a damned thing he could do for them. At that point, Inez's prayers were as effective as anything he had to offer.

The healer was so consumed by that thought that he didn't notice how the townspeople fled from his path.


Nathan concluded his examination and replaced Ezra's night clothes and blanket and then carefully readjusted the blankets that formed a tent over the head of the bed. Maude had wanted to stay while he checked Ezra for the signs of plague, but it hadn't seemed right to lay a man out naked in front of a woman, even if she was his own ma, and even if Ezra was too sick to care.

The gambler's condition had deteriorated so rapidly that if the decline continued, Nathan feared he had only a few hours left. Ezra opened his eyes once and squinted at him, saying his name.

Nathan touched a damp cloth to Ezra's feverish forehead, pushing back ringlets of sweaty hair. "I'm here," he said simply.

"Why... can't I see... anything?" he frowned.

Nathan was honest. "I don't know, Ezra. Might be the fever."

Ezra turned his head towards the sound of his voice. "Am I to consider... the possibility... that my demise is imminent?" he whispered.

"You mean, is you gonna die?" Nathan countered. Normally, he loved to tease Ezra by rephrasing his fifty-dollar words, but now he did it out of a desperate hope that he'd continue to have the chance.

Ezra coughed and it sounded ugly. It came from deep inside his chest, but it was too weak to effectively clear the congestion. "Are... going to die," he corrected the healer, then he added. "I need to know, Nathan."

Nathan nodded that he understood. He wrang out a cool washcloth and placed it over Ezra's forehead and unseeing eyes. "You might, Ezra. I'll do all I can for you, you know that, but I ain't gonna tell you this ain't bad."

Ezra tried to say something else, but it brought on another coughing spell.

"Hush now," Nathan said gently. "Save your strength."

Ezra shook his head. "In the wardrobe..." he gasped. "The red box. Passbooks to my bank... accounts."

"Ezra, this ain't no time to be worrying about your money..."

"On the... contrary, my friend... I must..." He ran out of air before he finished and tried to inhale deeply, but it just wasn't possible, and what ever he was going to say, he wasn't able to continue. "Yours," he gasped.


"The money. Yours..."

He started to cough again, more violently this time. Nathan pushed the tent out of the way and lifted his upper body off the bed, calling for Maude to come back into the room. He had her pile pillows behind Ezra's back to raise him to a sitting position in the hope it would ease his breathing.

Maude quickly and efficiently did as he instructed, and even her practiced poker face wasn't able to conceal her apprehension at seeing her son struggling for air.

Ezra's strength was spent and he lay unmoving against the pillows. Maude gathered her skirts and sat on the bed beside him, drawing the tent around them both. She wiped his face with the washcloth. "Ezra? Darlin'?" Her voice was tinged with panic as she tried to rouse him.

Ezra's green eyes opened slightly and Maude seemed relieved even though he didn't actually respond to her.

Nathan wasn't sure his patient was still conscious. He tapped his cheek gently. "Ezra? Can you hear me?"

Ezra nodded.

Relieved himself, Nathan turned to Maude. "Josiah is cookin' up some broth. Try to get some nourishment into him."

Maude nodded. She was a smart and stubborn woman. She knew how sick Ezra was, but Nathan could see there was still some fight left in both of them.

He dipped his hands in the carbolic acid bath Dr. Quinn had advised him to use after touching his patients. He saw the point to it, if what he had read about disease being caused by microbes was correct. He'd never seen a microbe - had a problem even contemplating a living thing so small it was invisible without special instruments, in fact - but wiser men than he seemed pretty sure they existed, and something that sneaky couldn't be much use to anyone. It was a known fact that whatever they were, carbolic killed them and that had to be for the best.

"Nathan?" Maude said softly.


She looked down at Ezra in her arms. "He's all I have, Nathan. All I have that matters."

Nathan nodded. "Yes'm."

He didn't know what else to say to her, for he knew she wasn't begging him to help her son - she already knew he was doing all he could. She just wanted someone to know what she never seemed able to say to Ezra.

"Miss Maude, this thing ain't got us beat yet. If anyone'll get through it, it will be these three."

She nodded, a faint but determined smile on her lips. Nathan knew that if will alone could keep Ezra alive, Maude would make it happen. But it didn't look good. He had to admit that. He was sure Ezra didn't have plague, but whatever he did have, it had caused his lungs to become so clogged up that it was a wonder he was getting any air at all. He had herbs that would make him cough it all up, but he just wasn't sure Ezra was strong enough to endure the medicine's harsh effects. He'd seen people with pneumonia cough until they died from exhaustion. For now, the steam tent would have to do.

Maude chose to stay under the tent with Ezra as he re-rigged it to seal it completely. It wouldn't do her any harm, and if Ezra were to lose the battle with this unnamed killer, he might as well have the comfort of doing it in his mother's arms.

+ + + + + + +

Maude Standish swiped angrily at the strands of damp hair that fell into her eyes. The heat and humidity inside the blanket-tent were unbearable to her, but she could tell that they helped. Ezra's breathing was still labored, but the steam loosened the congestion enough that he was able to rest.

She folded her arms around his shoulders. Funny, she thought, how your child seemed to always fit into your arms no matter how old he was. Almost like that was something nature intended.

She rested her cheek against the soft, dark hair, damp from the steam and sweat. How long had it been since she had held him? Hell, she couldn't remember ever holding him like this, not for long, anyway.

She had never been much of a mother. In all honesty, she had never intended to be a mother at all. It had just happened, and then she'd had to make the best of the cards she was dealt. She was good at many things, but motherhood wasn't one of them, she knew. She supposed it was too late to make up for any of that now. Water under the bridge and all that.

She sighed and kissed Ezra's forehead. "Don't you dare die on me, baby, you hear? You hear me, Ezra Standish? You are not going to leave me..."


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