DARKEST HOURS by Estevana Rey


Ashamed to have taken part in the tragedy unfolding before them, many people in the crowd turned away and the mob quickly began to disperse. Hank Conklin continued to stare in stupefied silence, his torch still burning in his hands, as Yosemite carried Casey into the hotel.

The hotel's small lobby reminded Nathan of the field hospitals where he had worked in during the Civil War. Vin, JD and Ezra had been placed on the bare floor in the rush to get them away from the fire. Ezra and JD had blankets, but Vin was already shaking with chills.

"Get them back to bed," Nathan said, partly out of concern for the sick men, but also because he still had to be wary of the possibility of contagion.

Unfortunately, JD was awake and alert enough to recognize the small body in Yosemite's arms. He tried to get up from the floor. "Casey?"

Nathan knelt beside him and put a reassuring hand on the boy's chest. "Don't you worry, JD, she's gonna be just fine." Buck looked at the healer hopefully, but Nathan's clouded expression told him Nathan was lying to spare the kid. "Take him back to bed, Buck," Nathan said softly, then followed Yosemite into the hotel dining room.

The big blacksmith laid Casey on the table. Nettie was silent as she held and patted the girl's hand. Fearing the worst, Nathan put his stethoscope to her chest, and then was unable to contain a broad grin when he heard her heartbeat, strong and steady. He took her head in his hands. "Casey?!" he commanded. "Casey, can you hear me? C'mon now..."

Slowly, her brown eyes fluttered open. "Wha... huh?" She was confused and disoriented, but aside from some minor burns on her arm from the scorched wood that had fallen on her, she was miraculously unscathed.

"Thank God," Nettie whispered and hugged her niece close. Then she admonished Casey, "That was a dang fool thing you did, Casey. You could have been killed."

Casey looked up at her, tears running down her dirt-streaked face. "JD's dyin', Aunt Nettie. I couldn't let them put him out on the street. It ain't right."

Nettie pulled her back into an embrace. "No, girl... It ain't," she whispered. Then she looked at Nathan. "I reckon this means we're all in quarantine with you."

Nathan suspected all the fight had gone out of the town when they'd come close to actually burning them out. The citizens of Four Corners weren't evil people. They were good people who were scared, and none of them - well almost none of them - had actually wanted any harm to come to Vin, Ezra and JD. They just hadn't realized it until they'd almost done something most of them would have regretted forever.

Just the same, the quarantine never had been a bad idea. "I reckon that would be safest for all concerned," Nathan said. "But I'll dress them burns and then I think it's best you just take Casey on home so she can rest up a bit."

The girl needed rest, that was certain, but mostly Nathan didn't want her there when JD passed on. It was going to be hard enough on the others, and they were all just too exhausted to have to deal with her grief, too.

The two women were silent as Nathan spread a soothing salve over the reddened skin on Casey's arms and then bandaged them. When he was done, Nettie helped her up but the girl stopped her and looked at Nathan. "Can I see him? Please? Just for a minute?"

If JD was contagious, Casey had already been exposed, so Nathan saw no added danger in letting her see the boy, but what it would do to her emotionally was another story. Still, she deserved a chance to say good-bye. Nathan hated himself for thinking of it that way, but his skills and resources and his own strength were almost used up, and Vin, Ezra and JD just kept getting sicker and sicker. He couldn't save them and he knew it.

"Okay, you can look in on him, but that's all." He still didn't want her too close to the kid.

She left the kitchen and Nettie looked Nathan in the eye. "The boy is dyin'?" she said sadly.

Nathan shook his head. "I don't know Nettie. I don't know how any of them can hold on much longer."

"Vin?" she said softly.

Nathan knew the old woman had a soft spot in her heart for the scruffy tracker, but his fatigue was taking its toll on his ability to be tactful "He's given up."

+ + + + + + +

Casey trudged slowly up the stairs. The second floor still reeked of smoke and charred wood, and they'd had to open the windows. Buck was putting an extra blanket on JD when she got to the doorway. JD's lovely dark hair was spread in limp strands across his pillow, which was the only thing in the room whiter than he was. It looked to Casey like all of the blood had been drained from him, except for the dark circles around his eyes.

She wanted to go to him, to lay beside him and hold him in her arms as if that would allow some of her strength to pass into his weakened body. But Nathan wouldn't let her step into the room. "JD?" she spoke softly.

To her surprise and relief, he opened his eyes. His voice was a harsh whisper. "Case..?"

"You take care of yourself," she said, holding back a sob. "I love you."

She'd never told him that before. Not even when that bitch had shot him and hurt him so bad. But she had to say it now, because she hadn't said it then.

JD's eyes closed again. He nodded and tried to smile, but he didn't even have the strength for that.

Nettie stood quietly behind her niece. She could see into Vin's room from where she stood, but had reluctantly heeded Nathan's warning about getting too close to the sick men. Chris positioned Vin comfortably on the bed, making certain he was warmly covered, but Vin was pale and unresponsive.

"Is there anything we can do? For any of them?" she asked the healer.

"I wish I could say there was." He glanced at Casey, whom he could tell was overwhelmed by JD's ghostly appearance. "I think it's time you took Casey home."


Josiah had gone to fetch clean water for the basins and pitchers in the sick rooms. He entered JD's room as Casey was leaving.

JD's eyes followed him for a moment, and then in a tiny voice he said Josiah's name.

Josiah turned around. "What son?"

"Josiah, you were a priest, right?" JD asked.

Josiah sat down on the bed beside the boy. When JD had come to the church after Annie had died, it was apparent from his behavior that JD had been raised in the Roman Catholic faith, as he had been. He suspected what the boy was thinking. "I was JD."

JD looked at him, his eyes full of misery and pain and, Josiah thought, fear.

"Can you do it for me, then?" the kid whispered.

"JD, I'm not a priest anymore..."

"But you still know how to do it, right?"

Josiah nodded and then put his big hand gently on the boy's shoulder. "Let me go get what I need," he said softly.

JD tried to smile again, but the brief conversation had cost him all of his reserve strength.

Josiah rose to leave, but Buck stopped him with a hand around his arm. "What's goin' on?" he asked, confused that whatever it was JD wanted, he'd asked it of Josiah and not of him.

"Extreme Unction," Josiah said. "He wants the Last Rites."

Buck frowned. He'd heard of that, but he wasn't sure what the ritual entailed. Josiah explained, "JD's a Catholic, Buck. Last Rites are the final absolution before death."

"NO!" Buck said, his voice angry with denial. "That's crap!"

"JD doesn't see it that way, Buck."

"You can't do it," Buck shook his head. "I ain't gonna let you."

Josiah clamped his hands on Buck's shoulders. "It ain't right for you to deny him this because you're afraid, Buck."

"But.... but you don't even believe in that stuff!" Buck protested. "An' JD... JD don't even go to church!"

"It don't matter what you or I believe, Buck. It's between JD and his God. If it'll help him go peacefully, I'm going to do it."

Buck was speechless for a moment, his lip just quivering slightly. There was a catch in his throat when he finally spoke. "JD ain't goin' nowhere."

Josiah nodded. "I hope you're right about that, but you still gotta let me do this for him."

Buck shook his head. "Josiah, it's just too much like sayin' he ain't got no hope left."

"Maybe he doesn't, Buck."

Buck knew what Josiah said was true. He looked down at JD. His muscles were still taut from the wracking spasms, but he no longer had the strength to cry out from the pain. He looked back at Josiah. "Do what you gotta do," he said. "Do it for him," he whispered.


Chris had stretched out on the bed beside Vin, holding the tracker in his arms to warm him. The heat of the day was stifling to him, but Vin was chilled from having been moved from the warmth of his bed to the comparatively cold floor during the fire.

Chris tried to put his anger at the townspeople aside, but goddamn them, wasn't Vin suffering enough?

Eventually, Vin stopped shaking, and Chris released his hold on him. Vin's back was pressed against his chest, so he couldn't see his face, and he was alarmed when he unwrapped his arm and discovered his hand was smeared with blood. "Damn, Vin," he cursed, not Vin but the savage illness that was causing him so much pain. He sat up and turned the other man over onto his back. There was blood smeared under his nose and on the pillow beneath his head. At least he hadn't puked.

Josiah had re-filled the washbasin and he dipped a washcloth in it to clean the blood from his hand and Vin's face. He didn't get up from the bed. He was too tired and it felt too good to be lying down.

As he wiped Vin's face with the cool water, the sick man opened his eyes. Warily, he studied Chris lying beside him.

"Ain't this... a mite cozy?" he smiled weakly.

"You were shakin' like a cornered rabbit. Thought it'd warm you up."

Vin nodded. "Helped. Thanks."

He closed his eyes again and tried to turn over on his side. Chris stopped him. "Vin, you're bleedin' again. Stay lyin' on your back."

Vin shook his head. "Don't care," he wheezed. "Lyin' on my back makes my belly feel bad."

Chris didn't see what harm it could do for Vin to be as comfortable as possible. He helped him roll over and then tucked a clean towel under his head to absorb any additional blood.

He smoothed Vin's dirty hair back from his face with the washcloth and the tracker opened his eyes again.

"Chris? What I wanted to tell you... before..."

"Shhh... It can wait, Vin."

Vin shook his head. "No, Chris. There ain't... no more time."

"Don't say that, Vin."

"No... you gotta... hear me out this time."

Chris would have done anything to quiet Vin. He was so weak already and his instincts told him that whatever Vin had to say wasn't going to come easy. But he had to listen. He owed Vin that much.

"When I came here... it was because she paid me..."

"Who paid you, Vin?"

"Ella Gaines."

Chris felt his heart sink to the pit of his stomach.

"What're you sayin' Vin?"

"I didn't... know it was her. Not 'til I checked her out. But the bank where I was 'sposed to pick up the pay-off.... after... same one. Same account."

"I don't understand, Vin." Chris wasn't lying about that, and he didn't like what he'd heard so far.

"Federal Marshall... nabbed me outside El Paso," Vin struggled with the words. "Only he was on the take. Cut me a deal. I do a job for someone he knew, and he'd ferget he ever saw me. He'd get paid... more for gettin' me to do the job... than the bounty."

Chris felt his own features twist into a scowl. He thought he knew Vin Tanner.

He was sure Vin could see his anger and disappointment. He didn't try to hide it. But, Vin was no threat to him now, not like he was. He kept his emotions in check, which seemed to give Vin the strength to continue.

"I come here lookin' for you," he gasped out the words. "Waitin' for you to show up. You were worth two thousand... alive."

"Vin, you were gonna sell me to her?"

Vin nodded. "I ain't proud of it, Chris. But I figgered you was some two-bit gunfighter who'd prob'ly... kill me as soon as look at me, so it didn't... make me no nevermind."

"So what changed your mind?" Chris tried to keep the sarcasm out of his voice, because he really wanted an answer.

Vin tried to take a deep breath. "Nathan," was all he was able to get out before a coughing fit seized him. Chris was not as quick to comfort him this time, but finally he couldn't bear to see this man he'd called a friend suffering so. He reached out and rubbed his back gently until the coughing subsided.

Vin's blue eyes, bright with fever, looked up at him. "After what happened with Nathan, it didn't seem important no more. I'd never took no money and that Marshall had lived up to his part an' gotten paid so he didn't care. Ain't no one was gonna see to it I got the job done."

"Why didn't she recognize you?" Chris wanted to know.

"She never met me," Vin wheezed. "I don't think she knew. But it was why I couldn't stay... out there... with her."

Chris was sure that was part of the reason Vin had almost run out on them, but another part was that he hadn't trusted Vin when he'd tried to warn him about Ella Gaines. When it turned out he'd taken a big risk just coming back to tell him. For all Vin had known, Ella had had time figure out who he was. The bitch would have had him killed for crossing her. Even if Vin didn't know that, Chris did.

Vin reached out and put a hand on Chris's forearm. "For what it's worth, Chris, I never coulda... made good on that deal. Not after I knew ya."

Chris's feelings were in turmoil, knowing that this man whom he had trusted with his life had a dark side to him that would let him put a price on an innocent man's head....

No! a voice inside him shouted. Vin might have thought he could do that, but when it came down to it, he hadn't. He hadn't and he never would.

He returned Vin's handclasp. "For what it's worth, Vin," he said softly.

Vin's eyes closed then, and Chris knew in his gut that they weren't going to open again. The tracker had given up the fight, and now there was only the waiting left to do.


Across the hall, Nathan feared the wait was over for one of them. After Casey had left, he'd gone to help Maude with Ezra. The woman was exhausted, but even had she been at her best, she didn't have the physical strength to lift her son and position him so he could breathe easier, or turn him so that the congestion in his lungs didn't pool up and drown him.

The gambler was a shocking sight, even to Nathan. He was beyond pale, except for the distinctive bluish tinge to his lips and fingertips. A sheen of sweat covered his skin and matted his fine hair into unruly strands. He hated the thought of what it was like for Maude to see her child struggling for air, his strength slowly ebbing away with each gasping breath. Nathan knew what it meant when a man's skin took on that blue color. When that happened, the end was not far behind.

Maude sat against the headboard of the bed, cradling her son in her arms. She gently intertwined one of her hands with his, the darkened tips of Ezra's fingers a shocking contrast to her own healthy pink skin.

She kissed him and rocked him gently. "Mama loves you, baby," she whispered. "You remember that, you hear me?"

The fact that Maude, who usually hid her feelings behind a poker face and flamboyant demeanor, didn't seem to care that she was baring her soul for him to witness, made Nathan feel hollow and empty inside. Ezra was a grown man, and it should have been funny to see Maude fussing over him that way, but it wasn't. It wasn't funny at all. He was watching a mother say good-bye to the only child she'd ever have, and there weren't many things more painful than that.

Nathan sat beside the bed and took the gambler's other hand. "Ezra?" he said softly, hoping he'd get a response but not surprised when he didn't. He looked at Maude and their eyes met.

"He's leaving me, isn't he?" she asked. Her voice was controlled - Nathan doubted the woman knew how to be hysterical - but the pain was there.

"Yes'm, I think so," Nathan said wearily.

"How long?" she asked.

Nathan shook his head. Ezra only had hours left, maybe only minutes. With an aching heart, Nathan answered her, "I don't think he'll make it through the night, ma'am."

She nodded that she understood, and Nathan knew she wanted to be alone with her son. He put his hand on her shoulder. "I'll be back to check on him," he said, and then left without looking back.

His feet felt like they were made of lead, his heart like a heavy stone. When he came to JD's room, he was surprised to see Inez Recillos there. She knelt at the foot of the boy's bed, Rosary beads clutched in her hands, her head bowed in prayer. If Nathan had seen her arrive, he would have stopped her from entering the room, but it was too late for that now.

The night stand beside the bed had been cleared and covered with a crisp white cloth. Two candles burned on either side of a Crucifix and some smaller items were placed nearby.

Nathan knew what Josiah was doing, although he was surprised that the big preacher had agreed to it. Josiah had said many times that he no longer had any use for actual religion, although, Nathan supposed, that didn't necessarily mean he had stopped being a man of God.

He entered the room quietly and stood at a respectful distance while Josiah opened a small, worn book and began to read:

"Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven."

He closed the book and set it down, then carefully pushed JD's long hair back behind his ears and lifted the blankets at the foot of the bed so his feet were exposed. He picked up one of the small bowls on the night stand and dipped his thumb into the contents. He gently smudged the oily substance on JD's ears, lips, nose and closed eyelids, then he did the same with both of his hands and feet, reciting words that Nathan didn't understand but recognized as Latin.

JD was barely conscious, but Josiah patted his hand and spoke to him, "You ready to pray with me now, JD?" he asked. JD nodded, but didn't open his eyes. Buck took one of the boy's hands and Josiah the other. Josiah leaned in close to JD and began to recite a prayer in a voice that was almost too soft to hear. JD's lips moved along with the words, but he was too weak to speak. Inez prayed along with them. Her words were spoken in Spanish, but Nathan somehow knew it was the same prayer. Tears ran freely down her face. Buck's too.

Nathan was overwhelmed by the finality of the scene unfolding before him. JD was so young... too young to be accepting his own death.

He slipped out of the room as quietly as he had entered.


Weary to the bone, Nathan made his way back down to the kitchen. Yosemite was still there. The big blacksmith was bent over the stove and offered him a steaming cup of coffee when he let his body drop into a chair.

He handed Nathan a piece of paper. "Casey came running back with this. Said to make sure I gave it to you."

It was a telegram, from Dr. Quinn. He almost tossed it aside unread. He didn't need to be told there was nothing more he could do for his friends. But the message, he could see, was quite long. It had taken the good doctor time to write out the instructions it contained, and had no doubt cost him a pretty penny to send. The least he could do was read what the man had to say.

And as he read, the tiniest glimmer of hope began to take hold in his mind that maybe, just maybe, if Dr. Quinn's idea worked, he could save Vin. The doctor had emphasized it was a big risk, and he should only attempt it if he had nothing to lose, but he knew he had to try.

He sat for a moment willing his over-tired brain to work. He'd need to gather the supplies he required, and that could be a problem if the town's doors were still bolted against the threat of sickness. He looked at Yosemite. The blacksmith would be able to help, and he asked him to follow him to the clinic, which was just over the blacksmith shop.

Once there, he gathered the case that contained his only hypodermic syringe, handling it with the utmost care, for it was expensive and not easily replaced. From the drawer, he took two rubber hot water bottles. The blacksmith started at him incredulously when he explained what he wanted.

He examined the business end of the syringe, carefully holding it in his big hands. "Nathan, I ain't sure I can make something this small. I work with iron mostly... this would need something like silver or steel..." He scratched his stubble thoughtfully.

Nathan tugged on the blacksmith's arm and pointed to one of the veins that stood out on his strong forearms. "It only needs to be small enough to fit in here," he traced his finger down the vein.

Yosemite looked at him and frowned. "That could kill a man" he said.

Nathan nodded. "I know, but Vin's going to die anyway." He sighed deeply. Voicing his thoughts hurt, and the words didn't want to come. "They all are."

Yosemite looked at the syringe again. "This might help Vin?"

Nathan nodded. "Dr. Quinn gave me a mixture to prepare. Just water and sugar and salt. Has to be mixed just right and then put right into him, into his blood. Might give him some strength. He's so weak now because he can't keep nothin' down, not even water."

"What about the others?"

Nathan shrugged. "Might help JD, too, but Vin's the one needs this the most... Ain't nothin' can be done for Ezra. I can't breathe for him."

Yosemite nodded. "Give me twenty minutes or so. I'll see what I can do."

+ + + + + + +

Nathan returned to the hotel and found Josiah sitting quietly in the kitchen.

The look on his face was grim, and Nathan feared the worst, but when he asked, Josiah shook his head. "I don't know how, or why, but they're all still with us," he said.

Nathan handed him the telegram from Dr. Quinn and then pointed at it. "We need to make that mixture," he held up the hot water bottles, "and we need to rinse these with boiled water, get 'em as clean as we can."

Josiah looked at him the same way Yosemite had. "Nathan, you can't just go puttin' stuff into Vin like this. You ever seen what happens when you try to give blood from one person to another? When it doesn't work?"

Nathan shivered. He had indeed seen the immediate, catastrophic results of bad transfusions. But, sometimes, they worked, and helped the patient survive. Problem was, no one knew why it worked sometimes and not others, and why a patient could take blood from one man and seem to improve and then be killed by the blood of another man. And this preparation Dr. Quinn had told him to make wasn't even blood.

He very well could kill Vin.

"I don't know what else I can do," Nathan said, defeated. "I'm afraid he's going to die no matter what I do. I just don't know enough...."

His voice cracked and he covered his face with one hand to hide the tears of frustration that threatened to spill over.

Josiah stood up and embraced him. "God will guide our hands, brother," he whispered to the healer. "His will be done."


Nathan meticulously measured out the preparation according to the instructions in the telegram. Dr. Quinn was quite emphatic that the mixture's proportions had to be exact. If they weren't, it could poison Vin, and Nathan prayed that fatigue wouldn't cause him to make an error. He didn't see how something so simple could help, but it eased his mind some that there was nothing in it that would in itself harm Vin, either. Morphine was far more toxic, and that was injected into people routinely.

Josiah cleaned the hot water bottles and while they waited for the preparation to cool, Nathan went to see how Yosemite was coming along.

He'd given the blacksmith the metal stopper for the hot water bottle, and asked him to fashion a hollow pointed tube that would fit through it. He found the big man bent close to his forge, unaccustomed to working in such minute detail.

But he smiled triumphantly as Nathan approached. Crudely welded to the stopper was exactly what he'd had in mind.

Yosemite smiled and held his work up for inspection.

"Silver?" Nathan questioned.


"Where'd you get it?"

"Army scout traded me a conch belt awhile back for makin' him a new wagon axle. Purty thing it was, too. Didn't have much use fer it, though." He ran a rasp over the end, working it into a point. He put it to the coals one last time to temper it, and as he did, he worked the bellows with his left hand. Nathan watched curiously when the coals lit up as the bellows forced air onto them.

And suddenly, the seed of an idea took root....

Nathan clasped Yosemite on the shoulder, taking him by surprise. "How much more silver do you have?"

Yosemite blinked, confused. "Most of it. This here only took a couple of links."

"Wait here!" Nathan said, and then ran up the stairs to his shack and grabbed his treasured copy of Grey's Anatomy. Frantically, he flipped through the pages until he found what he was looking for and then ran back to Yosemite.

He laid the book open before the befuddled blacksmith and traced his finger along the picture. "I need you to make me another hollow tube, curved, so it fits in here, like this... about as big around as a pinky finger. The edges have to be real smooth, so they don't cut or scratch. Can you do that?"

Yosemite looked at the diagram, a cross-section of a human head and neck. "Yeah, but..."

"And then," Nathan pointed at the forge, "I need to borrow your bellows."

Yosemite was far from a stupid man. He looked at the diagram, then at the bellows and then at Nathan. "Do you think that will work?"

Nathan explained, "Ezra's dyin' from lack of air, but that's partly because he's gettin' too tired to breathe. If we can do it for him... with this...."

Yosemite turned away and headed for a shelf against the opposite wall. He took down a large wooden crate and used a pry bar to open it. Inside was a brand new bellows. "Always keep a spare one," he smiled. I'll bring it over as soon as it's ready." He handed Nathan the stopper for the hot water bottle.

Nathan remembered what Josiah had told him earlier. God had done better than guide his hands: He had sent him Yosemite. He smiled, because for the first time in days, he dared hope.


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