DARKEST HOURS by Estevana Rey

Two days later

The worst had passed, and the elation over the fact that Vin, Ezra and JD would survive was somewhat tempered by the realization that all three of them still had a long way to go before they were fully recovered. For now, though, it was enough that they were still seven.

Since they could no longer justify their commandeering of the hotel - and because the owner wanted to open it up again - it was decided that Vin, Ezra and JD would have to be moved elsewhere. Nathan's makeshift clinic was considered only briefly. It was too small for one thing, and for another, there were always other folks in town who needed his attention.

So Josiah had set to work converting the church into a convalescent hospital. With Nettie and Casey's help, he moved the pews and had intended to build some bunks. But Maude, who had managed to come up with an excuse to stay in town - besides what everyone suspected was the true one - insisted that real beds be brought in. Then she wanted curtains, and rugs for the floor, and moveable partitions between the beds and fine linens.

By the time she was done, the place looked to Josiah like a French whorehouse, but, his friends would be comfortable once they managed to get them there.

Ezra was the only one who could walk, but he still couldn't see worth a damn. He was just as stubborn as ever, though, and had insisted on bathing, shaving, and getting fully dressed before Nathan and Josiah walked him over to the church, each one of the larger men walking on either side of him. By the time they arrived, he was exhausted and collapsed on the large feather bed sandwiched between two of more modest proportions. It was his own bed - Maude had insisted on that, too.

Maude pretended not to notice anything was amiss. Josiah suspected that it was difficult for her seeing her usually ebullient son and sparing partner looking so frail. Ezra was still very pale and unusually complacent.

Josiah helped him out of his clothes. Maude had brought a clean nightshirt for him, but he refused to wear it.

"Ezra, civilized people don't sleep in their undergarments," she chastised him.

"In case you hadn't noticed, Mother, we are not among civilized people."

"Thanks Ezra," Josiah huffed.

"Present company excepted, of course," Ezra said, and then coughed. No longer a deep, body-wracking cough, it was still obviously painful, especially with the healing wound on his throat. He fingered the bandage. "Even if you did allow that charlatan to slit my throat."

"Nathan saved your life, Ezra," Josiah admonished him, unnecessarily. Ezra preferred to complain rather than voice his real feelings about what Nathan had done for him, and Nathan was fine with that. The healer still wasn't sure he had done the right thing in treating Ezra with such a radical procedure. Ezra knew, though. Even in his unconscious state, he had been aware that he was suffocating, and the simple and blessed joy of having air in his lungs had given him the strength to ward off the Angel of Death, of that he was certain. Nathan Jackson had saved his life, and at a tremendous risk. If he had died and word of Nathan's experiment had gotten out... well, Nathan had almost been lynched once for losing a patient upon whom he had not attempted anything nearly as drastic.

He took the nightshirt from Maude and pulled it over his head. "I assure you mother, the pretense of civility will be lost completely upon my associates," he intoned as Nathan and Buck entered, each with an armload of JD.

Either of the big men could have easily carried the boy alone, but it looked more dignified - albeit only slightly - for him to be carried by the two of them, so Buck had his legs while Nathan held him around his chest. JD was still embarrassed enough that he'd covered his face with his hat for the short walk from the hotel.

"Which one you want?" Buck indicated the two remaining beds.

"I don't care, jus' put me down," JD muttered, without even looking out from under the hat.

"This one, then" Buck said, leaving the bunk nearest the window empty, because he knew, when all was said and done, Vin would want to be where he could at least see outside.

Maude pulled the covers back and then discretely drew the partition around the bed while JD wiggled out of his pants using his good arm. Buck resisted the temptation to help him. The boy's strength was slowly returning, and he could move his legs some now where he couldn't before, but he was still too weak to walk. JD didn't mind being treated like a kid, but he did hate being cared for like a baby, so Buck had made a vow that unless the kid was about to fall flat on his face, he wasn't going to help him do anything.

Well... except maybe tug on the pants from the cuffs. No harm in that.

JD didn't seem to think so, either. "Thanks, Buck," he whispered, and then lay back against the plump pillows Maude had furnished.

"You need anything, kid?" Buck asked.

"Legs that work," JD glowered.

Buck didn't miss a beat. "Like maybe a deck of cards..." He leaned closer and whispered, "Ain't no way Ezra would know you were cheatin'."

JD looked at him, shocked at the suggestion that he take advantage of Ezra's misfortune. Then he realized that Buck was reminding him that he wasn't alone in his misery. He knew Ezra's eyesight had been impaired by the mysterious fever, and if it never got better, Ezra's skill as a gambler would be about as useful as his own ability to ride a horse without the full use of his legs.

"I hate this, Buck," JD said softly.

Buck wanted to hug him, let him know he was there for him, but he knew the kid's pride would suffer. He could see the boy was tiring, so he pulled the covers over him before kneeling so that he was eye-level with him. "You rest a bit, and then I'll bring you somethin' that'll make lyin' there in bed a whole lot more interestin'."

JD gave a hint of a devilish grin. "Casey?" And then he realized Maude was there and his pallid features flushed with pink. "Uh... sorry, ma'am."

Buck clapped him on the shoulder. "You rest now, JD. Things always look better after a good nap."

JD closed his eyes and Buck looked at Nathan who shook his head slightly. The boy was getting better, but like most things, it wasn't happening fast enough to satisfy his impetuous nature.

"Best go give Chris a hand gettin' Vin over here," Nathan nodded to Buck.

"Oh, lovely," Ezra scoffed, shuffling a deck of cards as Buck made his exit. "Were it not bad enough that I am indisposed, I am to endure my convalescence surrounded by barbarians."

"Vin don't like you, either," JD said, even though both he and Ezra knew that wasn't true. At least, he didn't think it was.

"His loss, I assure you."

"Petulance hardly becomes you, Ezra," Maude huffed, snatching the cards from his hand and slyly replacing them with another deck. Ezra looked at her, puzzled, until he ran his fingers along the edges of the deck. He tried not to smile. To a mere mortal soul, the deck appeared quite ordinary, but Ezra's keen sense of touch could detect the slight fraying of the edges where Maude had expertly marked the deck for him.

She bent down and kissed him. "Now you take care to mind Nathan, darlin'" she told him and then was gone.

JD snorted.

Ezra glared at him - or at least, appeared to - as he shuffled the mark deck. Without averting his eyes, he pulled out a card and held it up for JD to see. The ace of Spades.


Chris had helped Vin wash and shave and change into some clean drawers. He smelled of soap and sun-dried laundry instead of sweat and sickness, and Chris figured he probably felt better, even if that small amount of activity had exhausted him. He lay face-down, because he insisted he was more comfortable that way, quiet except for his still somewhat labored breathing. Chris knew Vin had to be troubled by how weak he was, but he hadn't complained, not once, about anything.

He sat down on the bed beside him and gently rubbed Vin's bare back, knowing that the muscles were stiff and sore from him being in bed for so long. "You okay, Vin?" he asked.

"Jus' tired," Vin whispered. "Don't know if I can walk over to the church."

"Don't worry about it. Buck'll be back pretty soon. We'll manage."

Vin didn't say anything right away, then came a barely audible, "Chris?"


"Why aren't you mad?... About Ella..."

"Because it's done with, Vin. Let it go."

"That's jus' it, Chris. It ain't over... not as long as she's alive."

"I ain't worried about you goin' to work for her again, if that's what you mean. You ain't that kind of man, Vin. Never were."

Vin sighed softly and closed his eyes, falling once again into a deep, healing sleep. Chris watched over him, thinking of the risk Vin had taken coming back and warning him about Ella Gaines. True, Ella may not have known that he was the same man her lackey had hired to bring him back into her clutches, but just the fact that Vin now stood between them would have been more than enough to incite her demented rage, had she known.

He would never accept that Vin could have carried out his end of the bargain with her. He might have thought he could, at the time, but when it came down to the wire, Vin Tanner was a better man than that, even if he didn't know it himself.

He hadn't listened when Vin had tried to warn him about Ella Gaines, and that was something he would always regret. If he had heeded Vin's plea not to trust her, she might not have gotten away, and now there wouldn't be that raw rage that ate at his gut every time he thought of her.

He'd told a young boy once that killing for revenge didn't make you feel any better, and that was true. But at least there was comfort in knowing that the source of your pain would not be back, would not do to you again those unspeakable things that had taken a big chunk of your life and turned it into one big, dark, black hole in your heart.

No, he hadn't listened, and Ella was still out there. And now, there was someone else she could hurt in her twisted determination to have him to herself.

Even though he didn't understand it, Chris knew that the bond between him and Vin went deeper than that almost casual nod of the head they'd given each other on a dusty street the day fate brought them together. Vin had made him see that it was possible to care about someone again, after Sara and Adam, and in that respect, the laugh was on Ella Gaines. The bitch had taken the two people he loved most in his life from him and had unknowingly sent him the one person who could step into the void their loss had left behind. In so doing, she had sealed her own fate, for Chris had no doubt in his mind that when their paths crossed again, Vin would be the one to watch his back, and Vin would be the one to stand beside him while he saw to it that she paid the price for her evil.

He rested his hand gently on Vin's dark curls. This quiet, cautious young man was his brother, his other self, and theirs was a destiny meant to be shared. First, though, he had to get well.


Vin hated being helpless, but then, who didn't? At least he had company for his misery, such as it was. It seemed strange for Ezra to be so quiet and JD to be so still, just as it was strange for him to be lying in a soft, clean bed being waited on hand and foot. Nathan wouldn't even let 'em outside to go to the privy, for Christ's sake. He had a feeling that before they were well again, he, Ezra and JD were going to know each other a whole lot better than any of them wanted.

For the moment, it was just the three of them - Nathan had the usual sick folk to tend to, and Josiah was tending a fire outside to boil water. Sometimes, the wells around town would go bad and the three of them were still so piddly that something like that could easily kill them, so Nathan wouldn't risk well water.

Chris and Buck were shouldering the peacekeeping duties with some help from Rafe Mosely, Ted Cole and Jim Ramage. They had figured the best way to ward off trouble was to get the town's trouble-makers on their side, so Chris had temporarily deputized them.

They had been at the church less than two days, and already the three of them were so bored that if they'd had their guns, they might have shot each other just to have something to do.

Ezra had his cards, but he seemed to spend more time staring at them, trying to make out the markings on them than he did playing with them. His eyes had gone bad, Vin knew, and it shamed him that his first reaction to finding that out was to thank God that hadn't happened to him. There wasn't much use for a sharpshooter who couldn't see his target, or a tracker who couldn't see a trail. His second thought, though, was that it had to be a miserable state of affairs for Ezra, although he did take a certain devious satisfaction at watching him trying to read the Clarion. He needed to study the page carefully, painstakingly deciphering one word at a time. Now, maybe he'd know how it felt to watch everyone reading and making it look easy when for you, it wasn't.

Ezra set the paper down.

"So, what's in the news today, Ez?" Vin chided him sarcastically. It was a mean thing to do, and Vin wasn't sure why he did it. Just bored, he reckoned..

"Be my guest, Mr. Tanner." Ezra tossed the paper to him. "Feel free to peruse it for yourself... if you can."

JD didn't miss the exchange of cheap shots, but being JD, he said, "Toss it over here so I can read it."

Vin accommodated him, and JD began reading aloud without being asked. Vin and Ezra attempted to feign disinterest, but were unable to as JD read the feature story about how Casey, Billy and those two no-accounts Cole and Ramage had faced down the entire town. They both noticed a distinct change in the tone of JD's voice when he went on to read about how the good citizens of Four Corners had wanted to sacrifice the three of them to save themselves.

"Reckon I can't blame 'em none," Vin said, sensing the hurt in JD's voice.

Ezra snorted. "Fear... the glue that binds the ignorant masses."

"What would you have done, Ezra?" JD asked.

"He woulda been takin' bets on our chances of pullin' through," Vin scoffed.

Ezra glared at Vin... or did the best he could considering he couldn't actually make out Vin's face. "I shall consider the source of that comment and disregard it accordingly."

Vin was about to snipe back at him when Buck, with his usual flare for being in the right place at the right time, burst through the door with a smile on his face. Somehow, it was just hard to stay mad when Buck was around.

He held up a wooden box. "I promised you a present, JD! Had to go all the way to Ridge City to find it, but it was worth the trip!"

JD grinned like the kid he was, and took the box from Buck. His fingers were still stiff and he was further hampered by the splint on his broken arm, but as he fumbled awkwardly with the lid, Buck made no move to help him. Finally, he got it off, and stared in rapt admiration at the contents - a stereopticon with a large collection of veiw-plate scenes.

"Buck... this is great!"

"You know how to work it?" Buck asked.

"I think so...." JD fussed with one of the view plates until he had it inserted. He turned the instrument towards the window so that the light could illuminate the image as he peered through the eyepieces.

"Damn," he marveled. "It's almost like you're standin' right there!"

Buck pointed out a small drawer at the bottom of the box. "There's a book in there tells you about what you're lookin' at, too."

JD was obviously happy with his gift as it was, but then Buck reached into his vest pocket and handed him another smaller packet. "An' when you get done lookin' at them," he said, pretending to look around to make sure he wasn't heard even though he didn't lower his voice, "you can get serious."

JD frowned, uncertain as to Buck's meaning. The packet contained more view-plates, which didn't seem at all remarkable until he inserted one of them into the stereopticon.

"Ho-lee Gawd!!!" he gasped.

"Lovely a view as I have ever seen," Buck laughed.

JD's reaction had piqued Vin's interest, although Ezra seemed to know what was going on when he said, "Mr. Wilmington, you are truly beyond redemption visiting your voyeuristic proclivities upon the afflicted and enfeebled."

"What?" JD and Vin frowned in unison.

Buck just laughed. "Hey, JD is sick, he ain't dead, and so long as a man ain't dead, he might as well enjoy what life has to offer."

JD had inserted another viewplate and his eyes widened around the eyepieces. "Shit, I woudln't'a thought that was possible...."

"Be nice if some folks would share," Vin muttered. It wasn't like him to be envious, but, hell, he was cooped up inside and he didn't feel good, and that was making him crabby. He didn't care what anyone thought.

JD good-naturedly handed over his new toy. Vin pretended casual interest as he peeked into it to see what had JD so fired up.

And there, before his eyes, was a voluptuous woman with flowing blond locks and big breasts whose upper body was framed by a V formed by her spread legs. She wasn't wearing a stitch that Vin could see, and her ultimate glory stared him right in the eye.

He didn't know about JD, but this was definitely making him feel better. He whistled softly. "Damn!"

"Perverted miscreants!" Ezra huffed.

As weak as he was, Vin felt a familiar stirring as his body reacted in the usual way to what he was looking at, which, while potentially uncomfortable was somehow reassuring.

"Give it back, now," JD said.

Vin complied, amused by the thought of what JD was going to do once he got himself all lathered up and realized he had no privacy.

Josiah returned with the fresh water and JD hastily replaced the stereopticon viewplate with the first one he'd looked at. Josiah noticed the instrument as soon as he set the kettles down. "Whatcha got there, JD?" he asked.

"Pyramids of Egypt," JD answered. Ezra snorted derisively, but said nothing.

"Really?" Josiah said, taking the stereopticon from JD so he could take a look for himself. "I been there, you know."

"You have?!" JD said excitedly. "Tell us! I wanna hear all about it!"

"Oh, yes," Ezra yawned, "do regale us with tales of your meanderings."

"What's a peer-mid?" Vin frowned.

JD handed the viewer back to Vin so he could see for himself as Josiah explained, briefly, what he was looking at.

The big preacher then pulled up a chair and straddled it backwards. Instead of telling his own story, he began to recite the known history of Ancient Egypt, using a soft, soothing voice that soon had his audience - Buck included, peacefully asleep.

The room, he noted, was blessedly quiet. No coughing, no raspy, labored breathing, no painful moans.

He thanked God - his own and all the others - for miracles large and small.

Two weeks later

"Goddamit, Ezra, I know you're cheatin', I just can't figure out how," JD grumbled.

"Skill, my good man, pure, unadulterated aptitude," Ezra grinned, spreading his cards out on the table Josiah and Buck had moved to the center of the room once the three men had recovered enough to be out of bed for short periods.

Vin looked at him askance, a sly expression on his face. His well-honed powers of observation had long since revealed to him the method by which Ezra was distinguishing one card from another, but, even he hadn't figured out how he could tell which card was which. Obviously, that required a much more delicate sense of touch than his rough hands were capable of. JD hadn't figured it out at all, and it was driving the kid loco that Ezra was "cheating" even though all the gambler was doing at the moment was playing solitaire with JD looking over his shoulder.

He also suspected Ezra's eyes were no longer as bad as they had been, because he'd seen him snatching a peek at JD's dirty stereopticon pictures when the gambler had thought he and JD were asleep. He supposed he could also see why it would be to his advantage for everyone to think that his vision was still impaired, though. Word had gotten around town that Ezra was nearly blind, and Vin imagined that some folks were straining at the bit to take advantage of him. Their mistake.

Vin figured that had to be pretty strange for Ezra, not being able to depend on his eyes. Not that his keen vision did him any good at the moment. He had his Winchester there with him, and had tried its weight a few times only to discover each time that he was still too weak to aim and fire it properly. He could probably hit a target, but not get the bullet exactly where he wanted it.

He was getting better, though. He felt a little stronger every day. It was getting better for all of them, but it had been two weeks, and he was tired of being penned up. Ezra was fine staying indoors - he did it all the time, anyway, but Vin was at the other extreme, and there were times when he just wanted to kick a hole in the wall so he could crawl through it and be free of the confining space that was so contrary to his nature.

But, he wasn't stupid. He understood Nathan's concerns about the dust-choked streets and the smoke-filled saloon, and the effect it might have on their still-healing lungs. When Nathan did open the windows, it was early in the morning, when the dust had settled during the night, and the sooty bonfires had gone out, and the morning dew had settled the rest. Even then, he took care to drape wet strips of cloth over them to trap any remaining dust before it entered the sickroom.

JD had never had the dangerous lung congestion, so despite Nathan's insistent ranting that it was too dangerous, Buck had tossed JD up onto the back of his horse as soon as the kid was able to sit up by himself, and had been taking him out riding for an hour every day. To Nathan's relief, the exercise had actually strengthened the kid's legs instead of weakened them, to the point where he could ride alone after three or four days.

Vin wished someone would come and take him somewhere - anywhere - for just awhile, but he wasn't going to fuss over it. The others had made the sickroom as comfortable as was humanly possible, and they all appreciated that even though it wasn't like any of them to let on. Mary would come for a half hour or so every day and help him with his letters so the time wasn't completely going to waste.

Funny thing about that - before, he would have been embarrassed to let on to JD and Ezra that he couldn't read worth shit, but after the ordeal the three of them had shared, it didn't seem all that important any more. Even Ezra helped him out sometimes, and he did it without laughing at him. Usually, anyway.

As JD looked on, Ezra beat yet another game of solitaire, which vexed the kid no end. He was reshuffling the cards when Josiah arrived with their noon meal. The gambler had resigned himself to the bland cuisine Nathan had visited relentlessly upon them, so he was surprised that the aromas coming from underneath the napkin-covered plates was decidedly appealing.

Buck uncovered the tray with a flourish and set a plate of steak and potatoes before JD and Ezra, who both looked at Vin with guilty expressions. Really substantial food still gave Vin a bellyache, which was one reason it was taking him so long to rebuild his strength. His meal was macaroni with little butter and some milk to wash it down. Vin had never seen macaroni until Dr. Quinn had recommended it to Nathan, but once he'd tried it, he'd found it to his liking. If he'd gotten bored with it, he wasn't complaining. Ezra suspected that Vin never complained about food, probably because he knew what it was like not to have any.

"How come we don't get any of that?" JD asked, pointing to Vin's meal.

"Because it ain't easy to get, and Dr. Quinn said it was for Vin," Buck explained as he casually cut up JD's meat for him.

"I don't see how that's gonna cure anyone," JD said. "It looks like a bowl of gutted grubs with their heads cut off."

Vin stopped eating and stared at his food. "Thanks, JD."

"It ain't a cure, it's just good for him. Dr. Quinn says he cooks it up to feed his own young'uns."

"A doctor who cooks?" JD blinked.

Buck just shrugged. "That's what the man said."

"Reckon we owe the doc in more ways than one," Vin said, scooping up a mouthful. Nathan had made certain the three men knew the invaluable role Quinn had played in saving their lives.

"I trust the good doctor has Nathan's eternal devotion, however, I feel our resident Hippocrates deserves as much of the credit."

It was the first time Ezra had acknowledged what Nathan had done, and the other men were temporarily at a loss for a response. But in the instance it took them to think it over, Buck looked at JD, sitting across the table from him as though he didn't have a care in the world, and he remembered holding his hand and thinking that when he let go it would be forever. "Amen to that," he said softly.

The men finished what they could eat and Buck polished off the rest. "No point in lettin' good food go to waste," he chuckled. "You ready to go ridin', JD?"

The kid answered him with a grin. Buck moved beside JD's chair and carefully eased him to his feet. He could walk now, but he was as unsteady as a one-legged drunk, and he was still reluctant to go any great distance without someone to support him, even though he pretended he didn't want any help.

Buck had his horse saddled and waiting. Vin moved from the table to his bed, because as much as he hated to admit it, he was ready for a nap. He watched the two men from the window as JD struggled to get on the horse. Time was, the kid could just jump up into the saddle without using the stirrups. Vin had always wondered at how he could kick those short little legs of his over the back of a horse and hop on like that. Now, though, hampered both by illness and his busted arm, he needed all of his strength just to pull himself up to where his chest and shoulders touched the saddle. Buck reached over from the other side and pulled him up the rest of the way.

It made him sad, not just for JD, but for the fact that it reminded him how useless the three of them were now, to everyone. Ezra didn't seem to be bothered by it, but, the gambler was good at hiding things. It had to scare him how dependent they now were on the others. Josiah and Nathan kept saying it was only temporary, but Vin knew they had no way to be sure of that.

He leaned back against his pillow and saw that Ezra had gone back to playing solitaire. Not much money in that, but at least he could trust himself not to take advantage of his situation. Then again, he was Ezra. Vin wouldn't put it past the man to con himself.

Then, as if he'd read his mind, Ezra gathered up his cards and retired to his own bed. The two of them watched through the window as JD rode off down the street with Buck so close he was practically in the saddle with him.

"You'd think Buck was his mama sometimes," Vin said.

"Amazing thing how those instincts surface when you least expect it," Ezra laughed softly, gently caressing his marked deck.

"Wouldn't know," Vin said sadly. Yeah, he was feelin' sorry for himself, but who else was gonna do it? He leaned back and closed his eyes.

"Don't underestimate the value of friends, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said.

Vin opened his eyes to look at him questioningly.

"I think it's a fair assumption that were it not for the disinclination our compatriots to allow the grim reaper to lay claim to us, we would not be having this conversation. Surely that counts for something."

Ezra was right. He - and Vin and JD - were alive because the others cared. He suddenly realized that what Buck felt for JD, what Maude felt for Ezra... at least to some degree, the others felt that about him, too. He'd always known that, deep down, but now it was right there in front of him. He had a family now. They all did. And together, they would get through this.


When Vin woke up, Chris was sitting next to his bed reading. He rubbed his eyes and saw Ezra and JD curled up asleep on their own bunks. He hadn't even heard anyone come back into the room. Sleeping like that was going to get him killed if he didn't get out of the habit, and soon.

Chris looked up from his book and Vin averted his gaze. He still couldn't look the man in the eye now that Chris knew the truth about why he had come to Four Corners. He had deliberately avoided Chris, as much as he was able to anyway, being a virtual prisoner in his own infirm body as he was.

Chris continued to glare at him. "How long you plan to keep this up, Vin?" he asked softly.

Vin raised his eyes slightly. "What're you talkin' about Chris?"

"You know what I'm talkin' about. You ain't been the same these past couple of weeks."

"Been sick, Chris. You know that."

"It's more than that, Vin, and you know that. Why won't you talk to me?"

Vin cast his eyes downward again. "Never been much of a talker, I reckon."

"That's not what I mean." He stared at Vin, long and hard, waiting for an answer.

Vin knew he wouldn't give up until he gave him one. "I reckon I'm ashamed of myself." There, he'd said it out loud.

"Why, Vin? Because you ain't the cold-blooded bounty hunter you thought you could be?"

Vin did look at him then, directly into those icy grey eyes. He didn't see forgiveness there, and it was because, he realized, Chris didn't think there was anything to forgive.

The two of them studied each other, and as it had always been, there was no need for words to pass between them. Finally, though, Chris spoke, "Vin, when I thought you were dyin', it didn't matter to me who you used to be or what you did in the past.... All that mattered was that I was gonna have to say that last good-bye again.... I don't know if I could have lived with that, not a second time. But you're still here. I didn't have to say good-bye, so now, I can live with anything else. You understand?"

Vin didn't understand, but then, no one really understood Chris Larabee, not even, he suspected, Chris Larabee.

"Nathan said in two, three days, you'll be strong enough to ride in a wagon out to my place. Air's cleaner out there, and I built an extra bunk."

Chris wasn't giving him an option to accept or decline the invitation. "Wouldn't want to put you to no trouble, Chris."

Chris glared at him. "You already done that, Vin."

Vin glared back. "Reckon you're right."

"Reckon I am."

Vin smiled faintly and nodded. Chris stood and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "You want anything?"

Vin looked around him, at the room made as comfortable as anyone could ask for, at his sleeping friends, who, like him, would be well again thanks in no small part to the other four men who had beaten the odds to keep them all alive - because that's what you did when someone was a part of you in your heart, if not your blood. Then, he looked at Chris Larabee, the man who was somehow the missing piece of himself just as he was the missing piece of Chris, and he knew that all was as it should be and, he prayed, always would be.

"Thanks," Vin answered softly. "I got everything I need."


The illness described in this story is a real disease, the southwestern hantavirus. Although it was not formally identified until the late 20th Century, Navaho medicine men have been aware of its existence since pre-Columbian times. They provided crucial information that enabled the Center for Disease Control to identify the disease vector as the deer mouse, after an outbreak occurred in the Four Corners region of New Mexico in the 1980s. It is contracted by inhaling the vaporized, airborne droppings of infected deer mice, and not usually by human-to-human contact. Some literary license was exercised by combining the symptoms for the two known types of the virus into one. (Hey, viruses mutate, so, who knows, right?)

Thank you for reading!

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