DARKEST HOURS by Estevana Rey


He might have just wanted to believe it, but Nathan was sure Vin looked better. He wasn't certain what it was, but his skin just generally looked different than it had before they'd given him the first batch of Dr. Quinn's mixture.

He was still too weak to move or respond though, so Nathan was keeping his hopes at bay until Chris said, "I think he's feelin' better, Nathan."

Nathan frowned. "He wake up? He been talking to you?" That really would have been a good sign.

But Chris just shrugged. "Got a feelin' is all. I know he's still pretty sick." He wiped a hand across Vin's upper lip. His nose ain't bleedin' no more. That's a good sign, ain't it?"

Nathan couldn't be sure, thinking Vin might just be too dehydrated to bleed. But when he pulled the needle out of Vin's vein the blood flowed freely until he put pressure on the tiny hole.

He rigged up the second rubber bottle like he had the first, and then set to work looking for another vein to stick it in. He had an easier time finding one this time, now that Vin had some fluids in him. He found a good-sized vessel at the base of his left thumb and had Chris hold his hand steady while he worked the pointed tube inside. This time, Vin moaned softly and made a feeble attempt to pull his hand away.

Chris held him in a firm but gentle grip. "It's okay, Vin. Let Nathan help you," he commanded softly. Even as sick as he was, Vin listened to and trusted Chris. He endured the procedure without any further protest.

Chris took hold of the rubber bottle the way he had the first time, while Nathan secured the needle with a bandage.

The two men waited for a sign that the fluid was leaking under the skin, but they didn't see one.

Chris watched the shallow rise and fall of Vin's chest as Nathan held his stethoscope against his pale, hot skin. The healer shook his head and placed the instrument back into his vest pocket. He reached for the steam kettle, which had cooled off and was no longer producing the soothing vapor that seemed to ease Vin's breathing. He left to refill it.

Vin moaned and tried to pull his hand away from the invasive needle. Chris had to manage the flexible bottle with one hand while he clamped down on his wrist with the other. "Don't move your arm, Vin."

Vin's eyes opened the slightest bit. He eyed the needle protruding from his arm, but didn't really seem to comprehend what he was looking at.

"Go back to sleep, Vin," Chris told him.

Vin's eyelids fell closed again, and Chris wondered if he had actually been awake.

Nathan returned shortly thereafter with a fresh kettle. He arranged the blanket tent around the head of the bed so that most of Vin's upper body was obscured by it.

Chris felt a pang of sadness that he couldn't explain. He wanted to be able to see Vin, to know he was still there with him. But, he saw the need for the tent, and chalked his thoughts up to being dead tired.

He looked at Nathan. The man had not slept in days and he looked ready to fall flat on his face.

"Get some sleep, Nathan," he unwittingly repeated Buck's advice. "I can watch Vin."

"I'll just rest a spell. I suspect it's only going to be an hour or so before we know if any of this will help." Then he added sadly, "He ain't gonna be able to hang on much longer if it doesn't."

With a heavy sigh, he sat down on the floor next to the bed and closed his eyes. He didn't have to worry about Chris falling asleep, and Josiah and Maude would keep each other awake and between the two of them keep Ezra breathing. There wasn't any more anyone could do for JD, except keep him company and Buck was the best person to do that.

Darkness fell and Nathan closed his eyes. He'd take a short nap, just a few minutes...


Josiah sat mesmerized as he watched Ezra's bare chest rise and fall, awed by the knowledge that it perhaps only did so because he pumped the bellows at a steady, even pace. Occasionally, he'd put his hand on Ezra's breastbone to see if his heart was still beating, because there was no other sign to indicate that the gambler was still alive.

Maude refused to rest, and Josiah knew it was because she feared that he would fall asleep, or that Ezra would choke and neither of them would know it. She had to be frightened out of her wits, but you never would have known it to look at her. She busied herself with a deck of cards although she never got beyond shuffling them nervously from one hand to the other. She sponged Ezra down at regular intervals and stroked his hair, but if she had any feelings of despair, she didn't display them before Josiah.

He looked up at her after feeling Ezra's heartbeat once again, and smiled at Maude to let her know it was still there. "He's strong," Josiah told her.

"He's a fighter," Maude said, a hint of pride and defiance in her voice. "He's had to be. We've both had to be...." She paused thoughtfully. "I think that can rightfully be said of all seven of you."

Josiah smiled. "Either that, or we're all just to danged stubborn to know when to quit."

Maude looked at her son. "Maybe that's why he's so taken with the lot of you. You're the family I could never give him."

"You did your best, ma'am. Ezra's a good man."

She ran her fingers through Ezra's damp curls. "He is that, isn't he?"

+ + + + + + +

Buck Wilmington had seen friends die before, so he didn't know what made this time any different. Maybe it was JD's youth, and the way he had always seemed to have enough life in him for two people. Cocky little know-it-all always thinkin' he was bigger, stronger and faster than he was. Not that he wasn't strong or fast - the kid had the makings of a gunfighter in that respect - but he didn't have the soul of one, and if Buck Wilmington had his way, he never would.

Not that any of that mattered now. Damn, this was so unfair. JD was just a kid. Probably hadn't never even gotten laid, unless him and Casey had been up to somethin' Nettie would shoot him for. There was so much living left for him to do.

As night settled over the town, the temperature dropped and the room began to cool off. Buck tucked the covers snuggly around his young friend. Like the others, he was running on too little sleep and was dead tired, but he couldn't rest now. He had to be awake when... if... it happened.

He sat on the bed beside JD and stretched his long legs out on the mattress. There was plenty of room for him. JD was strong and fast, but he wasn't ever going to be big.

Impulsively, he pulled the boy into his arms again, holding him like he had before. JD's head rested comfortably against his chest and Buck could feel him breathing. This way, he would know when he stopped, when it was over.

He nestled his face in JD's thick, black hair. Hell, he loved the kid, and he'd say that to anyone's face. "You rest easy, little brother," he whispered. "Ol' Buck has ya'."

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee rarely slept deeply and now was no different. After the last bag of whatever it was Nathan was putting into Vin had emptied, he pulled the needle out the way Nathan and done and wrapped a small bandage around Vin's wrist. He hadn't awakened Nathan. The man was exhausted and had fallen asleep on the hard wooden planks of the floor beside Vin's bed.

Vin hadn't roused again after that one brief moment, and he didn't look any better, not really, but Chris no longer sensed that imminent shadow of death hanging over him. Vin might still die, but it wasn't going to be in the next few hours. He let himself doze off in the chair, a hand resting lightly on Vin's chest, just in case.


Chris never slept as soundly as most men and his heightened senses had for some reason urged him to full alertness. He looked down to see Vin's hand had dropped from the bed onto his on his thigh, pale and lifeless, and he realized that was what had awakened him..

Fearing the worst, he pulled the steam tent open - and discovered those blue eyes that he thought he'd never see again staring at him. Vin just mouthed the word 'Chris' - he didn't have the strength to actually say it.

"Hey pard," Chris took Vin's hand in his own. "How ya' doin'?"

To his utter amazement, Chris noticed the first stirrings of dawn through the window. It had been well before midnight when he had dozed off. Vin had apparently been relatively fine for several hours - there was no blood on the bed linens, and he hadn't upchucked anything....

But almost as if that thought had cursed their luck, Vin started to cough, hard. He gasped for breath and the fit seemed to be ripping him apart. Chris sat him up, hoping that would help.

Nathan was jolted out of his slumber and was quickly with them. He grabbed a towel and covered Vin's mouth with it as the sick man brought up the congestion in his throat and lungs. Finally, it ended, and Vin fell back against Chris unable to move. He was sweating from the exertion and still taking gulping breaths.

Nathan grimly examined the towel, and then frowned.

"What is it?" Chris asked.

"Ain't much blood in it at all," Nathan said, too wary of this vicious illness to sound truly hopeful. He tossed the soiled cloth into a pile with the other sickroom supplies that would need to be laundered and boiled, and happened to glance out the window. He frowned again. "What time is it?"

"'Bout six, I reckon," Chris said.

Eight hours! Nathan thought with alarm. He'd slept for 8 hours! At first he was ashamed and angry with himself for the lapse in diligence, until he realized that had anything catastrophic happened during the night, Buck or Josiah would have come for him.

He ran his fingers though his short-cropped hair. They were still alive... all three of them....

Chris was holding Vin, rubbing his back to ease the pain from the coughing spell. Aside from that and being out of breath, though, Vin didn't seem to be in any extreme distress.

Nathan knelt beside his bed and felt his forehead. He was still feverish, but he was also sweating again, which meant he was no longer dehydrated. "How do you feel, Vin?"

Vin looked up at him like that was the dumbest question he'd ever heard. "I'm dyin'," he gasped. "Feel like shit...."

Nathan smiled. "Well, you look like shit, too, but, I don't think you're dyin'."

Chris shot him a questioning look, wondering if the healer meant that or if he was just trying to offer comfort.

"His fever's down," Nathan said, again, not daring to sound too hopeful. Vin was still very weak. He'd managed to gain a foothold on the hill he'd been sliding down for three days, but that didn't mean something wasn't going to come along and suddenly push him all the way to the bottom.

Chris understood this, knew this was just one small step forward, but he was thankful nonetheless.

Nathan left to check the others, and Chris wasn't consciously aware that he was still holding Vin until the tracker rasped his name.

"Shhhh... don't try to talk," Chris said softly, knowing Vin had very little strength to spare. And after their last conversation, he wasn't sure he wanted to hear Vin bare his soul again. What other secrets was the man hiding?

"Chris?" Vin said again, a little louder this time.

"Whatever it is, it can wait, Vin," Chris chastised him.

"Don't think so... gotta pee."

"Oh...." He hunted under the bed for the chamber pot.

He didn't have Nathan's inclination to examine bodily secretions, but when Vin had finished, he did notice that the contents were an almost normal color, not bright red like they had been before.

He got Vin settled again and covered him up. Vin looked up at him. "How long I been sick?" he whispered the question, his voice still raw from coughing.

"Three days."

"Don't remember," Vin said, his eyelids drooping.

That didn't surprise Chris. Vin was very ill. It made him wonder, though, if the younger man would later recall their conversation about Ella and the price that sorry bitch had put on his head that Vin had once intended to collect.

He decided that was enough to know that Vin felt bad enough to use what he thought was his dying breath to let Chris know he was sorry. If Vin died, he'd take the secret with him. If he didn't, Chris would never mention it again.


When he quietly entered Ezra's room, Nathan found Maude stretched out on the bed beside her sleeping son, her arms encircling him in a protective embrace. Josiah had thrown a blanket over her and wrapped one around himself. The preacher lazily put a finger to his lips to caution Nathan not to make any loud noises. The bellows that had kept Ezra alive lay at the foot of the bed, idle.

Nathan wanted to shout and rant at their irresponsibility, but he noticed immediately that Ezra was not only alive, but that he was breathing on his own.

Still, he was annoyed enough to nudge Josiah roughly to get him to wake up all the way.

Josiah looked up at him and gave him that silly grin of his.

"What the hell you doin'," Nathan demanded in a loud whisper as he pointed at the bellows.

Josiah stretched before he answered. "He started coughin'. The tube came out."

"Why didn't you come and get me!?"

"Well I was gonna, but once he stopped coughin' he seemed okay. Didn't see any reason to put him through that if it wasn't necessary."

Nathan bent down and examined Ezra's neck. Josiah had put a clean dressing on the wound, and he was right - Ezra did seem okay. Working around Maude's embrace, he listened to the gambler's heartbeat. It was a little fast, and not as strong as Nathan would have liked, but it was steady. His breathing was a little raspy, but his color was acceptable and he seemed reasonably comfortable.

"How long has he been breathin' on his own like this?"

Josiah shrugged. "Dunno.... an hour or so."

"I'll be damned," Nathan muttered.

"No," Josiah leaned back and winked at him. "I don't think so."

"Well, don't go gettin' too optimistic," Nathan said. "Could be bad luck..." Ezra was still feverish, and he hadn't reacted when Nathan examined him.

"You know Ezra," Josiah grinned again. "He makes his own luck."

Nathan just shook his head, but he couldn't argue with that. Ten hours ago, he wouldn't have bet 100 to 1 that Ezra would be here to see another sunrise.

+ + + + + + +

He found JD and Buck both asleep, Buck stretched out with his head resting against the headboard with JD curled up beside him in a natural position, without the subtle contortion that resulted from the wracking muscle spasms.

He checked the splint on JD's arm, making certain it wasn't too tight.

Buck roused and blinked his eyes. "It mornin' already?"


The big man sat up quickly and looked at JD in a panic, "Oh, Jesus... I didn't mean to fall asleep this long! Is he..."

"He's fine, Buck," Nathan said. His palm rested on JD's forehead and when he looked up at Buck, he dared to let himself smile. "His fever's broken."

If he wasn't worried about waking JD, Nathan was sure that Buck would have let out a whoop of joy. Instead, he clapped Nathan on the shoulder and grinned broadly, then tossled JD's hair. "Damn kid, you scared ol' Buck half to death!"

"Still... full of crap,... Buck," JD muttered, and then drifted back to sleep.


Inez brought a tray of food over that afternoon and was surprised to find Josiah humming contentedly as he did laundry in the kitchen. The room was stifling from the steam coming from the large kettles being used to boil sheets and towels, and he was drenched in sweat, but he seemed happy and that puzzled Inez.

Josiah looked up at her, and simultaneously got a whiff of the food.

"The Lord has answered my prayers," he grinned as he lifted the cloth covering the tray and grabbed a rolled tortilla filled with beans and meat.

"Josiah... is everything okay?" Inez asked warily.

Josiah assured her that it was. The three sick men still alive, and JD's fever had broken sometime during the night. With rest and careful watching, the boy would live. Vin and Ezra, seemed better, too. Where before there had been almost no hope, there was now a small chance they might all pull through.

Inez crossed herself, and then announced she was going to the church to light candles and pray. Josiah had never figured Inez for the praying type, but he figured she probably wasn't the only one who had hit her knees and prayed for his three friends. And the fact was, while Nathan's ingenuity and Dr. Quinn's assistance had probably saved Vin and Ezra, little JD had been spared by the hand of God alone. Just hours before, he hadn't thought the boy had a chance.

He took the tray of food upstairs and found Nathan with Ezra, a decidedly happy look on his weary face. Josiah could see the reason for that himself. Although pale and still very weak, the gambler was conscious. Green eyes squinted at him as he approached.

"Josiah?" he croaked, and then started to cough.

"Now you stay quiet, Ezra," Maude admonished him. "Mr. Jackson said you shouldn't try to talk just yet."

Ezra reached up to his neck, feeling the bandage there. Josiah didn't know if anyone had explained to him what had been done, and he figured there would be time for that later. He set the food down and sat on the bed, gently sqeezing Ezra's hand.

"You scared us, Ez."

Ezra sighed and tried to focus his eyes. Both Josiah and Nathan could tell that he still couldn't see well, but since there was nothing that could be done about that, neither of them saw the point in upsetting the sick man by mentioning it. Nathan put a hand to Ezra's forehead. "Fever's almost gone," he smiled. "I think he's gonna be okay.... Let's get him turned over on his side. Ain't good for him to lie in one spot like that."

With Josiah's help, Nathan gently eased Ezra onto his left side. The southerner's bed clothes were damp from sweat and his hair was matted. Combined with the three-day growth of beard, he scarcely resembled his usual fastidious self. Nathan knew he was probably uncomfortable. He put a hand on his shoulder. "We'll let you rest up for awhile and then get you cleaned up a bit," he reassured him.

Ezra nodded gratefully.

"Well," Maude stood up and fluffed her hair, a pretty much useless gesture since it hung in bedraggled strands from her customarily impeccable coiffure. "I do have other business to take care of, so if it's all the same to you, Mr. Jackson..." She opened her purse and offered Nathan a couple of bills.

Nathan was rankled by the gesture. "I didn't look after him so's I could get paid."

Josiah reached out and took the money, "What Nathan is trying to say is that he'll be making a donation to the poor and hungry of our fair municipality on Ezra's behalf."

"A lovely thought, I'm sure," Maude brushed them off. "I plan to be on the stage to Denver tomorrow morning. I'll try to stop by before then." And with that, she gave Ezra a quick peck on the cheek and flitted out of the room.

Josiah shook his head after her. "That is one hard woman to figure out."

Ezra, they noticed, betrayed no emotion as he watched her go, but Josiah saw the lost expression in his tired eyes. "She was with you the whole time, Ezra," he told the gambler. "She never left your side, not once."

He wasn't sure Ezra even heard him. The green eyes closed and he was asleep again.


Buck ducked his head into Ezra's room. "I smell food!" he exclaimed.

Josiah indicated the tray and Buck helped himself. "JD wants somethin' to eat," he said around a mouthful of tortilla as he reached out to grab one for JD.

Nathan smacked his hand. "You can't be givin' that boy stuff like that. We'll bring him some of Josiah's broth."

"He wants real food," Buck protested.

"Well, he ain't gonna get it. Maybe in a couple of days."

Buck shrugged and returned to JD's bedside. He sat in the chair where his butt had all but taken root, and proceeded to stuff another large mouthful. "Nathan said you can't have nothin' but broth for two more days."

"Fuck that..." JD whispered.

"Can't help it," Buck shrugged. "It's what the man said."

"But I'm hungry."

Buck looked around conspiratorially and then held the sandwich to JD's mouth so he could take a bite.

"BUCK!" Nathan's voice boomed from the doorway.

"Dammit," JD whispered.

"Sorry, kid, I tried," Buck laughed and proceeded with his meal.

Nathan was happy to see the kid was feeling better, but he didn't need the boy choking on something. His muscles were so overtaxed from the spasms he had suffered that he couldn't even sit up, and there was no way to be sure he could dislodge something from his airway if he swallowed it the wrong way.

He pulled back the covers and picked up one of JD's hands. Where a few hours before his body had been as taut as cordwood, he was now as limp as a rag doll.

He grasped the other hand. "Squeeze my hands, JD. Hard as you can." He was gratified to see the boy's fingers move, but his grip was extremely weak. "Can you sit up if I hold onto your hands?"

JD's abdominal muscles twitched slightly as he made an attempt, but he wasn't able to lift his shoulders more than an inch or two from the bed.

Nathan pulled the covers back and lifted one of the boy's legs, placing the palm of his hand against his foot. "Push on my hand," he told his patient. JD tried, and became alarmed when he realized he couldn't comply with the simple request.

Nathan frowned. "Can you feel your legs, JD?"

The boy nodded. "I can feel them fine... they just won't work...." He looked questioningly at Buck, who in turn looked to Nathan for answers that the healer didn't have. "It'll go away, won't it?"

Nathan didn't want to give the boy false hope. He'd seen paralytic fevers before, and the after-effects were often permanent. At the same time, he didn't know anything about the illness that had brought JD and the other two down beyond what Koje had told him. "I suspect you'll start gettin' your strength back soon enough. Just give it time," he said calmly. JD had enough to deal with right now just getting well.

When Nathan was gone, JD looked to Buck. "I don't wanna be an invalid, Buck."

Buck was not going to let him start wallowing in self-pity now, not after he'd been given back the precious gift of his life. He sat down on the bed next to JD, and pulled the kid into a sitting position so that he rested against his chest. "I tell you what kid... let's cross that bridge when it's time to burn it."

JD looked up at him. "Huh?"

He offered the sandwich to JD again, winking at him. The boy grinned and took a small bite, savoring the taste of real food. Damn it all, Buck thought. He had almost lost JD, and for now, he had him back. If that meant he'd have to care for him for a long time, he was pretty sure he could do that. He didn't know about JD, though. The kid couldn't just spend the rest of his life flat on his back, and Buck wouldn't wish that on anyone.

"Buck's gonna take care of you, kid, don't worry about that."


Nathan took some food to Chris and found him asleep again. All of them were exhausted, so he didn't disturb him. Like the other two, Vin's temperature had almost returned to normal. He opened his eyes as Nathan examined him.

"How you feelin', Vin?"

"A li'l' better," he rasped.

"You hungry? I'm gonna bring some broth up for JD. I can bring you some, too."

Vin made a face. "Stomach still feels a mite queasy," he said, and then had to take a deep breath. He looked over at Chris. "He ever leave?"

Nathan shook his head. "Nope. Not once."

"I reckon... I was outa my head some... of the time," he gasped out the words.

"You were pretty sick, that's true."

"Reckon I mighta... said some stuff... I shouldn'ta..."

Nathan put a finger to his lips. "Hush Vin. You're tirin' yourself out."

"I need to know... if...."

"Vin, when yer healthy we can't get two words outa you, now all ya wanna do is talk. Hush, you hear?"

The conversation awakened Chris, who stretched in his chair. "Is that food I smell?" he sniffed.

Nathan pointed to the tray and then said he was going to get some clean bedding and broth for the sick men.

Chris dug into the food. He hadn't felt much like eating since Vin had gotten sick, and now that his friend was better, he found he was ravenous.

"Chris?" Vin looked up at him.

Chris swallowed before answering. "Yeah, Vin?"

"Thanks for lookin' after me."

"Not a problem, Vin."

"Reckon I musta been... sayin' some pretty... dumb things... what with the... fever... an' all."

Chris wasn't sure what answer Vin was fishing for. Was the shy tracker just so self-conscious that he was afraid that being sick had made him appear weak or foolish? Or was he afraid that he might have revealed secrets that were better left unsaid? He looked into Vin's blue eyes, no longer glazed with fever, and he remembered that through those eyes he could see further into Vin Tanner than maybe the man himself could. Vin could read him, too, with no words passing between them, and Chris knew he couldn't lie to him. So his answer was basically the honest truth. "Nothin' I could understand, Vin."

Vin nodded. "I don't... remember."

"Just as well, I reckon...." He set his food down. "We thought you were dyin' Vin."

"So... did I.... Never... thought the idea would... scare me."

Chris nodded. "I reckon it's one thing to take a bullet and have it done quick, and another to have to lie in wait for it."

Vin nodded. "Chris... What I told you... about Ella..."

"Later, Vin," Chris hushed him.

"I never done nothin' like that.... Thought I could, but -" He started coughing again.

Chris turned him over onto his side, but all he did was cough. There was no blood. He waited for the fit to ease, and then quietly whispered, "Leave it be, Vin. Ain't none of us the same men we were back then." And he realized that was true.

He'd found something to care about again - the town, Vin, even Mary Travis. Buck had found again in JD what their friendship has lost after Sarah and Adam had been killed. At some point, Josiah had begun restoring the church as an act of faith rather than penance, and God knew that between the other six, Nathan knew he was needed. Ezra had learned to trust them, and they him, and JD was becoming a man right before their eyes. Whether Vin knew it or not, he had changed, too, from a shy loner to a leader, his second in command. His best friend.

Chris squeezed Vin's shoulder and smiled. "Reckon it's a good thing you're still so damn mean that even the devil didn't want you, though."


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