DARKEST HOURS by Estevana Rey


"I ain't gonna let you do this," Chris snapped.

Nathan was taken aback by the anger in his voice, but he'd stood up to Chris Larabee's wrath before. "You got a better idea, Chris? If you do, I'd like to hear it."

Chris scowled at him, something to which Nathan was also pretty much immune. That worked with the others, but he just stared back. "He might die if I do it, Chris. I ain't gonna guarantee he won't. But you an' I both know he's dyin' anyway." He looked at his patient. Vin already looked dead, his face drawn with fatigue, dark circles under eyes that he no longer had the strength to open. "Vin knows it, too," he added softly.

Chris didn't know if Vin could hear or understand him. He was too sick to respond if he did, but he knew Vin didn't want to die. Vin's life, from what he knew of it, had been one long struggle, but he'd never given up, until now. This enemy had overwhelmed him.

Chris raked his fingers through his short hair. "Okay, what do you want me to do?"

Josiah had joined them to watch. Nathan looked up at him. "I might need you to hold him down. This is going to hurt, and he can't move once I stick this in him." He indicated the needle he intended to force into one of Vin's veins, although to Josiah, it looked more like a nail.

Nathan turned to Chris, indicating the soft water bottle he held."Chris, I need you to hold this in place while I wrap a bandage around his arm to hold the needle in."

Chris felt himself break out in a cold sweat. He had faced some of the worst desperadoes around, but he wasn't sure he could do this.

Still, he knew Nathan was right. Vin had already resigned himself to his own death, and if something wasn't done to make him better soon, to give him a fighting chance, they'd be burying him before much longer, and that would be even harder to do than what Nathan was asking. He nodded that he understood.

Nathan had filled the rubber bottle with the mixture Dr. Quinn had prescribed. He'd carefully placed the stopper with its hollowed out tube in the opening. When he inverted the bottle, the fluid inside began to drip out. Satisfied that it worked the way he wanted it to, he turned it rightside up again and handed it to Chris, admonishing him not to touch the sharpened tube at the end, lest he contaminate it with microbes. Nathan still wasn't sure he actually believed in microbes, but if there was such a thing, Vin certainly had no use for them in his bloodstream.

He examined Vin's arm looking for a vein, but he was so dehydrated it was hard to find one. He could see one beneath the skin of his wrist, though, and when he tied a tourniquet above the tracker's elbow, he was rewarded by seeing it bulge slightly. Leaving the tourniquet in place, he cleaned Vin's arm with soap and then with whiskey.

Then, he said a prayer. He'd injected morphine directly into a patient's bloodstream a few times, and he knew that penetrating the vein could be tricky. If he didn't get the needle positioned correctly, the precious fluid in the bag would just pool beneath the skin, or the needle would rupture the blood vessel.

He had Chris support the bottle while he positioned the tube over the vein in a practice run. When he was sure he had a feel for what needed to be done, he gently stroked Vin's forehead. "Vin? Can you hear me?"

Vin nodded the slightest bit.

Nathan wasn't sure how to explain what he was about to do. He decided to keep it simple, because Vin probably wouldn't comprehend most of it, anyway. "Vin, I'm going to hurt your arm a little bit...." He picked up Vin's opposite hand and gave it to Josiah. "You can squeeze Josiah's hand, or you can holler if it hurts too much... but whatever you do, don't move. Do you understand me, Vin?"

Vin nodded again. He was barely conscious. Nathan hoped he was really understanding all of this, because he knew that instinct would cause Vin to pull his arm away.

"I'm gonna stick something in your arm. I'm gonna leave it there. It's likely to feel like a big splinter. I'm sorry it has to hurt, but it might make you better."

Vin didn't respond. He was beyond caring what was done to him, so close to death that his body was no longer fighting it. Even more alarmingly, he hardly flinched when Nathan pierced the skin above his wrist.

Nathan could not be sure he had done this right. Dr. Quinn had explained it was being done in some modern hospitals back east, but had left Nathan to figure out how to accomplish it, knowing that he healer would not have the proper equipment at his disposal, anyway. To Nathan, the entire procedure was so unnatural, it almost seemed wrong.

But he looked at Vin, his normally tanned skin the color of ash and his strong, young body now without the strength to even react to the pain Nathan was inflicting on him - that was even more unnatural.

He wrapped a bandage around Vin's arm to hold the needle in place. Chris was still holding the flexible bottle. "Hold it just like so," Nathan tilted it so that the liquid inside would flow with gravity. "Maybe give it a little squeeze now and then... Not too hard. Don't wanna pop that vein open." He looked at Josiah. "Keep him as still as you can. I don't think he's got any fight left, but if he starts to move around too much..." It occurred to Nathan that he didn't know what would happen if Vin moved with that needle in his arm.

Chris interrupted him, anyway. "Where are you gonna be?" Just a hint of Larabee sarcasm.

Nathan was in no mood. "I got two other men to think about. I'm gonna see what I can do for Ezra."

Josiah had just looked in on Ezra a few minutes before. He looked at the healer with sorrow in his eyes. "Let him go in peace, Nathan. You already done all you could for him."

Nathan shook his head. "No. I got one more thing to try." He left without explaining. What he had planned for Ezra was even more grisly than what he had just done to Vin. Maude might not even allow him to try it, so the fewer who knew his plans, the better.


Yosemite handed Nathan the silver object. "How are you gonna get that thing... in?" he winced.

Nathan had once seen a old curandera use a hollow reed to make an airway for an Indian child with putrid fever. It had probably saved the boy's life. But he'd never had a reason to try it himself, and truth be told, even the thought of attempting it scared him. "I gotta cut a hole... right about here." Nathan pointed to a spot where his neck met his chest.

Yosemite winced. "Nathan, I don't see whereas this is gonna do him no good anyway. He's like' to choke with that thing in his throat."

Nathan had to admit Yosemite could be right. Once the hollow tube he'd had the blacksmith fashion was in place, it would close off Ezra's normal airway. He really should ask Dr. Quinn about it, but he had no time to waste. He might have already waited too long.

He thanked Yosemite and then let him leave, realizing the man wanted no part of his killing Ezra, if that was to be the result of his experiment. Nathan couldn't help but feel like the doctor in that scary book JD had given him, the one who made a person out of body parts. He wasn't doing anything that ghoulish, but he was experimenting, and on his friends, no denying that.

+ + + + + + +

Maude's face went as pale as Ezra's when Nathan explained what he was about to do, but she was no fool. She could see that Ezra was in serious trouble and if anything was going to help, it had to be done soon.

"What would you like me to do, Mr. Jackson?" she said, her voice not wavering.

Nathan had no real answer for her. Ezra was unconscious, his will alone keeping him alive now. He probably wouldn't even know what Nathan was doing to him. "Talk to him," he told Maude. "Keep him calm."

"Will there... be pain?" Maude asked. If what Nathan was about to do didn't work, she didn't want Ezra's last moments - and they would be his last - to be spent in any more distress than he had already endured.

Nathan shook his head. "I don't know, Maude. Probably be some if he was awake, but... I don't think he'll feel anything."

She nodded. "Do it, then."

Armed with a boiled knife, his copy of Grey's Anatomy and the borrowed bellows, Nathan went to work. Maude turned her head when he put the knife to Ezra throat, right above where his collar bones met. He pushed it in, and the resistance of the unyielding flesh almost made him stop. But he kept a gentle continuous pressure on the blade until he felt it punch through Ezra's windpipe.

Ezra roused slightly, and tried to push him away. Maude stroked his hair and spoke soothingly to him, while Nathan mopped up the blood that seeped from the wound. The small opening wasn't large enough, so he was forced to use a sawing motion to widen it. Ezra began to cough, and Nathan realized they were going to need to hold him down. He called for Josiah, who was there in a heartbeat.

The preacher froze when he saw the scene before him. "Nathan, what the hell are you doing?!" he gasped.

"Hold his arms down," Nathan said. "I'll explain later."

To Josiah, it looked like Nathan had just slit Ezra's throat, and he had to force himself to trust the healer's judgment.

He took Ezra's pale hands in his own and clasped them tightly.

"Tilt his head back," Nathan told Maude.

The woman was shaking almost uncontrollably, but she did as Nathan instructed.

Working quickly, the healer forced the silver tube into Ezra's neck, allowing its curved shape to guide it further down the sick man's throat.

The most primitive part of Ezra's brain realized that he had something in his body that wasn't supposed to be there, and with a strength Nathan would not have believe he could muster, he began to buck against Josiah's grasp.

"HOLD HIM!" Nathan shouted. He need to affix the bellows to the tube but he wasn't going to be able to do that if Ezra was struggling like this.

He leaned forward and gently blew into the tube. There was no resistance - the air passed through it easily. "Thank you, God," he prayed in silent gratitude when he saw Ezra's chest expand with precious air.

Maude, who had been temporarily paralyzed, quickly remembered her purpose. "Ezra? Ezra darlin'?" She stroked her son's sweaty hair. "You're doin' just fine, baby. Don't you move now, you hear? You'll be feelin' better real soon. Just lie quiet...."

While she kept up her comforting litany, Nathan quickly affixed the bellows to the hollow tube in Ezra's neck.

There was no time to gather his courage. Ezra was trying to take another breath and would soon panic again. Nathan began the experiment...

To his amazement - for he realized that up until that point, he hadn't really thought the idea would work - Ezra's chest began to rise and fall in rhythm with the contraction and expansion of the bellows. Nathan had to resist the urge to fill Ezra's lungs with the air he so badly needed. It might have seemed like a good idea to do that, but he'd learned that too much of something could be just as bad as not enough, so he was careful not to let Ezra's chest expand any more than it would have were he breathing normally.

Ezra gradually calmed down and drifted back into the relative peace of his coma as Nathan and the bellows did the work of his weakened lungs. And astonishingly, after a few minutes, his color began to improve. The bluish tinge disappeared from his lips.

Josiah crossed himself. "It's working..." he said in awe.

Nathan wasn't as quick to be optimistic. "I don't know how long we can keep it up, though. There's a lot of congestion in his chest. We might have just bought him a few more hours."

Someone was obviously going to have to keep the bellows going continuously, but Nathan didn't think that would be a problem. Josiah confirmed that when he gently took over for him. "Go get some rest, Nathan," he indicated the hallway of mostly empty rooms.

"Can't do that," Nathan said. He wasn't being stubborn. He simply knew he wouldn't be able to rest knowing what he'd done to two of his best friends.


He decided to look in on JD. There wasn't much he could do for the boy, not like he had done for the others. Buck had been able to get him to take broth and water, and he was breathing easier than the other two. The danger to him was the convulsive fits that had begun to periodically wrack his small body. They weren't dramatic, nor were they long in duration, but with each one, he seemed to get weaker and weaker. Nathan also knew he was in pain. Laudanum helped, but it also slowed his breathing down, and he was so weak that Nathan was afraid to give him as much as he needed.

Buck was dozing quietly in a chair beside the bed. JD opened his eyes when he heard Nathan moving around in the room. "Nathan?" he whispered.

Nathan bent down so JD didn't have to speak up. "What is it, JD?"

"Vin an' Ezra... are they..."

"No, JD. They're still puttin' up a hell of a fight, just like you are."

Nathan couldn't tell from JD's expression whether his words comforted him or not. With a pang of sadness, he realized that by asking about Ezra and Vin, JD might really be asking for permission to just let go. Almost as if Vin and Ezra had died, it would be okay for him to die, too.

"I'm tired, Nathan," he said softly.

Nathan sat on the bed beside him and sponged his face with cool water. "I know you are, JD. I'm sorry I can't do nothin' for you."

JD reached out with a pale hand and weakly patted Nathan's arm. "'s okay," he said, before he drifted off again. Nathan fought the urge to shake him awake. Every time JD - or Vin, or Ezra - closed their eyes now, he feared it was for the last time.

Buck had roused from his shallow slumber and watched the scene with a tear in his eye. None of his friends deserved this kind of pain.

Nathan listened to JD's chest. The steam tent had kept his lungs relatively clear, but even as he dared think that might be a good sign, the boy was seized by another fit.

Buck was at his side in an instant, even though he could do nothing but watch helplessly. This time, the convulsions were violent and the muscle spasms were so intense that Nathan heard a bone snap. "Oh shit," he gasped. Buck looked at him with a sick expression on his face. He'd heard it too. Even though it lasted only a few seconds, it seemed to take hours for the fit to run its course. Once it had, Buck looked at Nathan accusingly. "Ain't there nothing that will stop this?!" he barked.

"You think if there was I'd let him go through this?!" Nathan yelled back, at the end of his patience. "I'm doin' everything I know how, and the three of them are doin' all they can to die!" his voice cracked and he bit his lip to force back the tears that threatened to fall.

Buck put his hands up in an apologetic gesture. "I'm sorry, Nate. I didn't mean to yell at ya'. This ain't easy for any of us."

Nathan accepted the apology with a slight nod of his head, feeling ashamed of himself because he wasn't in his right mind being angry at the three men for being sick. "Let's check him out, see what got broke...."

The healer ran his gentle fingers over JD's body, looking for the broken bone. The kid moaned in pain when he checked his left forearm. Nathan was relieved to discover it was the smaller of the two bones there, something that would heal with time. If JD had any time left.

"I'll go get somethin' to splint that up," he told Buck.

He got all the way to the door before he heard Buck shout, "NATHAN!"

He turned to see horror on the man's tired face. "Nathan, he ain't breathin'!" Buck choked on the words. He had lifted JD up and was holding him to his chest. "Oh God, Nathan..." he sobbed.

Nathan ran back to the bed and placed his stethoscope to JD's chest. "His heart's still beatin'... JD!" he yelled. "C'mon, JD, don't you quit on us now!"

Buck shook the unconscious boy hard. "Breathe, JD, damn you!" he cried.

It struck Nathan with a horrifying irony that what he had just done for Ezra would help JD - except he didn't have the time or the things he needed to do that for him, too.

Josiah had heard the shouting. Chris probably had, too, but he couldn't leave Vin's side. Josiah left Ezra in Maude's hands and joined Buck and Nathan.

His heart sank like a stone at what he saw before him. Buck was trying frantically to get some kind of response out of JD, but to him, the boy looked dead. Nathan held the stethoscope to his chest. He looked up at Josiah and shook his head. JD still had a heartbeat, but it was weak. The end was very near.

Buck buried his face in JD's thick hair and rocked him in his arms. "You little shit..." he wept. "Oh sweet Jesus..."


The little container of oil Josiah had used for the Catholic ritual was still beside the bed. He dabbed some on his thumb and knelt beside JD. He made the sign of the cross on his forehead and began to pray, "Bless this child, your servant, Lord, and may he know the peace of your everlasting -"

JD took a deep breath. Then, as the three astonished men watched, he took another, and then a third, until his breathing resumed a normal rhythm.

Josiah looked towards the ceiling and smiled. "Thanks. I owe You one."

Buck kept his arms folded around JD, as if he was willing life into him. Nathan checked his heartbeat again. It was still weak, but it was steady.

"If I wasn't seein' this with my own eyes, I wouldn't believe it," the healer muttered.

Buck gently stroked JD's cheek. "JD? Wake up, kid.... C'mon.... I know you can hear me, stubborn little -"

JD's hazel eyes blinked open, then closed again as a painful moan escaped him. "Can't... do this... Buck..." he muttered.

"Yes, you can, JD. Just hang on.... Just stay with me a little bit longer," Buck pleaded, and he didn't know why. JD wanted to die... was probably going to die. He didn't know if he was willing the boy to stay alive for JD or for himself, and if it was for himself, he was being selfish and cruel.

JD, though, just sighed softly and whispered, "Okay, Buck," and settled into his arms.

Nathan left reluctantly to get the supplies he needed to splint the kid's arm, thinking that the reprieve might only be temporary. As he passed Vin's room, Chris called out to him.

He stopped and turned to the gunman, whose calm demeanor could not hide the anguish in his eyes. "JD gone?" he asked softly.

Nathan shook his head. "No. Just gave us a little scare.... How's he doin'?" He stepped towards Vin and checked the punctured vein in his arm. There was no swelling or bruising around it to indicated it had ruptured, and the water bottle was half empty. "It's goin' in him," he said, and even sounded to himself like he couldn't quite believe that.

He checked Vin's pulse, breathing, body temperature. There hadn't been any change for the better that he could tell, but Dr. Quinn's bizarre treatment didn't seem to be doing him any harm.

"You think this is working?" Chris asked.

"Ain't no way to tell," Nathan shook his head.

"You don't think any of them are gonna come through this, do you?" Chris asked him point blank.

Nathan's shoulders sagged and he sighed heavily. "I just don't see how they can get any sicker." He looked out the window. It would be dark soon, and the small bonfires that normally illuminated the street were being lit. "At least the town has backed off. Reckon when it came down to it, weren't none of them really wanted to burn us out."

"People do dumb things when they're scared."

Nathan looked at the rubber hot water bottle the contents of which were draining into Vin's body. Then, he thought about the hole he'd cut in Ezra's throat. "You got that right," he whispered.


Nathan was surprised to find someone in the hotel kitchen when he returned from his clinic with splints and bandages for JD's arm. It was the old Indian, Koje.

"Koje, we got sick men here. I don't know that you wanna be here," Nathan said.

The old man nodded and held up a small pouch. Nathan took it and opened it, sniffing the contents. He didn't recognize it.

"This will help?" Nathan asked hopefully.

Koje's voice was sad. "Nothing will do that. This will let them die without fear, or pain, if death is what the Spirits wish."

"Thank you," Nathan said. He appreciated the gesture, even though he doubted that the medicine would be of any help at all. Koje instructed him its preparation and had turned to leave when a thought struck him and he called to the Indian.

"Koje, do you know what this disease is?"

The old man nodded, and appeared to be trying to find the English words. Finally, he said, "The mouse sickness."

Nathan frowned, not sure he'd understood the man, although he remembered something else... "Vin said something about deer mice... in Eagle Bend."

Koje nodded. "They bring this sickness with them. My people have always known this."

Nathan still didn't understand. Koje sensed that and tried to explain. "The wind that follows them is poisoned with this," he pointed to the rooms upstairs.

"They got this from a mouse?" Nathan was incredulous.

Koje nodded.

"But... how... why...."

"No one knows that," Koje interrupted. "But our medicine men have always known this to be true. Those mice are like no other. My people call them Walking Death."

Nathan didn't think he believed what Koje was telling him, but it scarcely mattered. "Are they going to die?" he asked, fearing Koje's answer.

The old Indian shook his head. "I cannot know that. Some live, most do not."

That was enough for Nathan though - the simple knowledge that maybe at least one of his friends had a fighting chance. With renewed strength, he thanked Koje and then prepared some of the herbs the Indian had brought him by mixing them with the boiled water that was now continuously on the kitchen stove. He carried a cupful of it upstairs along with the bandages.

He stopped first to check on Ezra. Josiah was fiddling with the tube in Ezra's throat and he immediately demanded to know what he was doing.

Josiah remained calm. "He started trying to cough. Tube got blocked up, so I opened the bellows all the way to see if I could suck out whatever was in there. He grabbed a small basin on the bedstand and passed it to Nathan. "Ain't the prettiest sight to look at."

There was mostly water in the bowl, but blood-flecked mucous floated on the surface. Whatever Josiah had done, it had worked. Ezra seemed to be relatively comfortable. He set Koje's brew down on the table at the bedside. He couldn't offer it to Ezra and take a chance that he'd choke on it, with catastrophic results.

Maude had pulled back the sheets and was sponging Ezra's upper body. He was still dangerously hot, but ironically, his deathly pale color was a definite improvement over the bluish tinge his skin had had earlier. "Does he seem a little better to you?" Maude asked hopefully.

Ezra was so sick that the question was relative - the difference between standing on the gallows with a rope around your neck and actually dangling from it. But, if Nathan had learned one thing, it was that mothers were often very intuitive about such things. In the war, it was not uncommon for a mother to show up at a battlefield hospital already knowing that her son was wounded or even dead without being told. And, the truth was, Ezra was resting easier now that he was no longer having to continuously struggle for air.

"I think so, Ma'am," Nathan agreed, then turned to Josiah. He'd shown him how to pump the bellows at an even, steady pace, not too much or too little, not too slow or too fast. "Can you handle things here for awhile?"

Josiah nodded and smiled. "I reckon I know about as much about this contraption as you do."


Nathan gathered his supplies again and stopped outside JD's room. Buck was sitting on the bed with JD, still holding him, stroking his hair and talking to him, telling him about San Francisco and how they'd go there when he got better. The healer almost hated to intrude on the peaceful moment between the two friends, but JD's arm needed to be set before another fit caused further damage.

He entered as quietly as possible. Buck nodded to him, but, he didn't stop talking to JD. The boy moaned when Nathan touched his injured arm.

"JD? Can you hear me?" Nathan asked.

"Mmmm..." JD acknowledged him.

God, he hated having to hurt him.

"JD, Buck an' me gotta fix your arm. It's gonna hurt some, but I got some medicine here that Koje brought. It might help. Think you can drink it?"

JD shook his head, 'no'.

"Oh, come on, JD," Buck said in a jovial voice. "You can do it..." He reached for the cup and Nathan handed it to him. He sniffed at it. Unlike most of Nathan's concoctions, it didn't smell too bad. "What is this?" he asked.

Nathan shrugged. "Dunno. Koje said it would help ease his pain some. Can't hurt to try it."

Buck agreed and held the cup for JD to drink. The boy refused it at first, but Buck held his head firmly and forced a few drops into his mouth. Apparently, it didn't taste bad, either, because after the first taste, he willingly took a few more swallows.

"How do we know if it's workin'?" Buck asked.

Nathan shrugged. "Beats me...."

He set to work whittling the splint down to the size he'd need to fit JD's arm. It was going to be hell trying to put it in place. JD's body wanted to curl into a ball from the muscle spasms. His arms were drawn tightly to his chest, and his knees folded up against his torso. If he tried to extend his arm, there was going to be resistance. He'd have to do his best to set the bone without manipulating the limb too much.

As he worked, JD drifted off to sleep against Buck's chest. The heat from his feverish body was making the older man sweat, but Buck didn't seem to notice. He started singing to JD, some vulgar trail song about a whore with three titties, but he sang it softly, like a lullaby. Nathan wasn't sure he even realized he was doing it.

"I'm gonna need you to hold him still while I do this," he said when the splint was ready.

Buck looked like he wanted to cry. "Do ya gotta, Nate? Can't we jus' leave him be?"

"If he wants to use that arm again, I do," Nathan said, knowing that neither of them really thought JD was going to recover. He almost abandoned the idea, not wanting the boy to suffer needlessly, but when he reached for his arm, he noticed it was completely relaxed.

"Lay him out flat," he told Buck, who complied without question. "I'll be damned," he muttered. Koje's brew had done something more than put JD to sleep - the spasms had stopped. JD still looked bad - sickly pale and drawn - but he had fallen into a seemingly restful sleep. As Koje had promised, if he died, it would be without any more pain.

Nathan went ahead and splinted his arm. Where there was life there was still hope.

He stood to leave, planning to check on Vin, when the room began to spin wildly around him. The next thing he knew, he was looking up from the floor into Buck's worried eyes. The gunslinger was patting his face, like he'd done to others himself countless times.

He'd never realized how truly annoying that was.

He pushed Buck's hand aside. "What happened?"

"You keeled over," Buck said. "You ain't sick, too, are ya, Nathan?"

Nathan shook his head. He wasn't sick. He had just gone too long without food or sleep. "I'm fine," he insisted. How many times had he heard that one?

Buck helped him to his feet. "You gotta quit pushing yourself, Nathan. You won't do them no good if you get sick yourself."

Nathan knew Buck was right, but he had things to do. "Don't worry about me... the kid needs you."

He staggered out the door and back downstairs to prepare more of the mixture for Vin. He yielded to common sense and made himself a sandwich while he was there. After he saw to Vin, he'd take a short nap. There was nothing to do now except wait for what would come, and he could rest now knowing that he had done absolutely everything he possibly could for his three friends. They were in God's hands now.


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