Return Journey

by WendyW

Disclaimer: No infringement is intended in regard to The Magnificent Seven, owned by MGM and Trilogy. No profit is being made from this activity.

Thanks: To J. K. Poffenberger and S Berry, the originators of the Little Britches Universe, who have kindly opened it for all of us to play.

Size: Approx 165K

A hollow ringing echoed out as the last timber cross rail was hammered into place. Tools were set down as the two men stood back to view the newly constructed post and rail fence. The tallest of the pair exposed dark hair as he pulled the sweat-marred hat from his head and raked fingers through damp locks to cool his heated scalp. He accepted the proffered canteen from his fair-haired companion, ignoring the drips of moisture from his moustache as the upended canteen overflowed and splashed down his shirtfront.

"Give me that," Chris Larabee growled, snatching the canteen back from his friend. They were in no risk of a lack of water but that didn't mean he wanted to walk back to the creek any more times than he really needed to.

Wild laughter drifted back to them, two young voices free and light. Their adopted sons, Vin and JD, could be seen in the distance darting about on the slope chasing a jackrabbit or some other small hapless creature.

"How can they do that? I'm melting just standing here watching," Buck groaned.

Chris appreciated when the boys ran themselves ragged but they didn't need heatstroke just to burn of the excess energy. He straightened up and eyed the distance. "You want to round them up?"

Buck just smirked and let loose an ear splitting whistle. Both boys turned and Buck waved them back. Chris ignored Buck's smirk. "I'll be more impressed if you can do that tonight when their bath is ready."

Vin stumbled in the hectic rush down the slope, losing his footing and tumbling head over heels. Chris moved forward only to see Vin complete the roll, regain his feet smoothly and continue after JD as if nothing had happened. The two boys were soon sliding to a halt before the men.

"We're finished here, boys," Chris informed them.

"Aw, already?" JD complained.

Chris saw Vin look to the sky, quickly assessing how much of the day still remained for play. "You don't have to come in yet but you do have to come closer to the house."

"You sure it's done, Papa?" JD persisted with Buck.

"Very sure."

"Aw." JD was only deflated for a moment until a new option came along. "We'll race ya back," he yelled, pulling Vin along.

The two men exchanged a look as the boys took off at a run. Buck could see no movement from his friend, even though they had the horses and the race was easily won. "Where's your competitive edge Larabee?"

"Same place as yours, drowned in its own sweat an hour ago."

The men rode quietly home only to find their boys waiting just within sight of the house, JD impatiently hopping from foot to foot, Vin leaning back against a tree, arms folded across his chest.

"Ya didn't even try," JD complained. "But we won anyway," he asserted. Stretching his arms up as Buck stopped his horse. Buck leaned down, easily hoisting the smaller boy up into the saddle before him.

Vin didn't bother to look. He just stepped forward and raised an arm up into the grasp he knew would be waiting, feeling the strong grip just above his elbow. With a small jump he swung his leg over Pony's broad haunches in an easy familiar move. The horses moved on slowly both men too weary to do more than amble the last mile home.

"Hey," Chris tapped the knee rubbing against the back of his thigh. "Hold on."

"We're goin' slow."

"Hold on anyway," Chris reprimanded, waiting until he felt Vin's hands finally tuck under his belt, accompanied by an aggrieved sigh.

The men drew the horses to a halt inside the yard and were quickly deserted by their passengers. Vin slid and dropped to the ground easily. JD, being shorter had discovered he could reduce his drop by sliding down using Buck's trouser clad leg. Buck had grown accustomed to the manoeuvre, locking his knee firmly as JD slid down and dropped to the ground.

The men attended to the horses and left the boys to play, only calling them in later as supper was prepared. The summer days were long so the final meal of the day was enjoyed as the sun was still setting. Afterward, the family gathered on the porch as the light faded, content to soak in the cool of the evening and watch the stars unveiled above. JD had faded quickly after eating and was now draped face down across Buck's lap, arms and legs dangling toward the floor. Buck's hand unconsciously stroked the stretched back as he continued to converse quietly with Chris.

Vin watched JD enviously then shifted, the step he'd perched on no longer comfortable. He turned to ask a favor but his Pa had disappeared inside the house. Disappointed, he leaned a little forward to stretch out his own back and focused again on the bright star suspended just above the horizon.

"Bath, Vin," Chris called quietly from the doorway.

Vin was accustomed to the Saturday night ritual and didn't bother to argue, just heaving a giant sigh in resignation. Chris let the unspoken opinion go, ruffling the boy's hair as he passed.

Vin began unbuttoning his shirt and slipping off his braces as he approached the hip bath sitting in the kitchen area. He eyed the water noticing it was much deeper than usual and looked back to his Pa, now attending to a kettle of hot water on the stove.

Larabee had seen Vin's earlier discomfort and started on something a little more practical. "Want it a little hotter than usual?" Chris offered. The extra heat and the liniment he planned to use next would hopefully provide a more comfortable night.

Vin looked back toward the door as Buck and JD still remained outside. He was aware the younger boy didn't like the bath water to be very hot.

"We'll leave JD with Buck and you can go first. When you're done the water will be cooled enough for JD."

"Me first?" Vin asked, surprised. Usually the boys shared the hip-bath.

"Yes, you first." Chris made a careful inspection as he helped strip the boy down. There were no obvious bruises or scrapes from today's adventure. "How bad does it hurt, Vin?"

"It's fine."

Chris hoisted Vin up and over the lip of the bath. "I know it's not Vin." The blissful sigh as Vin sunk into the heat confirmed Chris' suspicion. He set the washcloth aside for the moment and let Vin just lay and soak. The business end of the bath could wait a little longer.

Vin sank down as low into the steaming liquid as he could, delighted in the novelty of having the bath all to himself. He stayed perfectly still and tried to keep as much of the warmth covering him as possible, no waves or splashes to expose unsuspecting skin to the cooler night air.

Chris took the second kettle from the stove and placed it beside the tub to cool. He took up the cloth and soap, lifting one lax arm from the water to scrub lightly. He received no complaints, only a little disgruntled murmur as the cooler air touched wet skin. Chris continued at his task, surprised and pleased that Vin allowed the intrusion, usually more than capable of bathing himself as well as JD. He slid an arm under Vin's knees to fold them up higher and clear of the fresh hot water he was about to pour in. He stopped at the wince and quickly drawn in breath. The kettle was placed aside and instead he lifted Vin from the bath and set him carefully on his feet. He ignored his damp shirtfront as wrapped the slender body securely in a towel, patting damp skin dry. Chris didn't bother to reach for nightclothes yet.

Removal from the warm liquid depths drew Vin from his doze but he didn't argue about being hustled to his bed. His back was aching badly tonight and laying down was a fine idea to him, no matter how early it was. Chris settled Vin face down and drew the sheets up to cover his lower body.

"Ya forgot m'shirt," Vin mumbled, aware he was naked in his bed and concerned at this.

"Didn't forget. I'll cover you up soon." Chris knew Vin like his privacy but needed easy access for the back rub.

Vin relaxed into the familiar touch of fingers trailing down his spine and stoking across his hips. An odour assailed his nostrils and he sighed with pleasure at the upcoming relief. He didn't know what was in the greasy paste Nathan provided but it seemed to sink right into him and heat his bones from the inside out. Vin remembered the first time that Buck had done this for him. Buck had used a lot of the paste and it heated his skin until it was burning. Buck had apologised over and over, not believing that Vin hadn't minded. It had made his skin sting but it was so hot that the deep ache had disappeared for a long time. He tried to convince Buck or his Pa to use extra paste again but each time they refused. The warmth was already starting to soak in and spread. He sighed with contentment. This always helped. The gentle hands eventually disappeared and he turned his head in search of the reason.

A kiss was pressed to his forehead at his inquiring look.


"Thank you Pa."

Chris dropped another quick kiss to the temple. "You don't have to thank me, cowboy." He carded fingers through the soft locks as Vin closed his eyes. No matter how many times they had done this Vin still thanked him as if the kindness or a gentle hand shouldn't be taken for granted.

Chris decided not to disturb Vin's sleep just to dress him, pulling the bedclothes high and tucking them in securely. Vin wasn't a restless sleeper, his still quiet behaviour either natural or too deeply ingrained so that it remained in place during slumber. Vin would not be pleased to find himself unclothed when he awakened so Chris laid his nightshirt near his pillow, within easy reach.

Chris heard splashing as he exited the boys' small bedroom. Buck looked up from his soapy task, one hand firmly securing his squirming companion. "That's early. He okay?"

"About usual."

Buck nodded, hating to consider Vin's pain usual but at least there was no further injury. "Maybe Nathan's got word back," Buck offered.


Nathan had offered to make inquiries for them in the hope of find a Doctor who could perhaps help Vin and correct whatever the problem was. The curve in Vin's spine wasn't obvious until pointed out carefully by Nathan. The cause, and if it would become worse was unknown. They had discussed this over a month ago so perhaps there would be word soon.

Buck knew how concerned Chris was, fretting over something he could perhaps not fix. "Could use an extra set of hands here," he explained, hoping to distract his friend.

Chris glanced down at his already damp shirt and shrugged. JD was also making the most of this rare opportunity of a lone bath, preparing for another spin to continue to create his whirlpool. Chris joined Buck in attempting to keep most of the bathwater in the tub with JD.
Sunday church was a now a moderately regular occurrence. Work or weather sometimes intervened but not today. Immediately after the service the boys ran off the play with the Potter children under Gloria's watchful eye. The men retreated to the saloon as Nathan Jackson caught their eye, indicating he had some news.

The two men sat considering their options after Nathan confirmed that he'd located a doctor for them. Unfortunately, they'd have to go to Denver.

"How do you want to do this?" Chris smiled as Buck immediately focussed on the how, not even questioning the cost.

"I guess we'll just have to make do with a few less things."

"I think we should all go," Buck suggested.

"That'll make it harder to get by. Cost twice as much."

"It'd make it easier on Vin," Buck immediately returned. "The money we can worry about later," Buck continued to reassure his friend. "It will always come and go."

Chris decided to speak to Vin immediately, leading him up to Nathan's clinic for a little privacy.

"Vin, I asked Nathan to see if he could find a doctor to help you with your back."

"Help me?" Vin's head shot up in surprise. "It's fine."

Chris ignored the usual denial. "Nathan's found a doctor in Denver who I want you to go to."

Vin couldn't help but listen to the ghost of a whisper in his ear. He knew it would become a problem. It had taken longer but he was being sent away. He only just caught Chris's further words.

"We'll leave soon. We can make the visit by the end of next week."

We? Of Course Chris wouldn't send him away. But it was still a risk. To much attention like this worried him. "It wasn't that bad last night," Vin denied, regretting his previous weakness and allowing the extra attentions. He wasn't supposed to make a fuss about it. "There's nothing wrong. It's fine, it really is," he insisted.

"It shouldn't hurt, Vin. It isn't normal."

"I don't care."

"Well I do."

He knew it would ultimately be a problem. "You said you wouldn't. You said it didn't matter," Vin accused.

Chris held back his immediately argument. How could Vin think he didn't care at all? He had to make Vin see that there was a difference between the injury and the pain.

"Vin, when you fell and sprained your wrist, didn't we go to Nathan to get it fixed?"

"Yes, but I hurt it."

"And your back hurts, so we're going to get it fixed."

"But I didn't hurt it," Vin quickly denied. "It's always just this way."

"Maybe you didn't. Maybe it was hurt a long time ago, before you remember."

Vin tried to think back but there was nothing to remember. He could see that Chris would not be swayed. It would be nice for it not to hurt but he didn't want to have to go away to achieve it.

Vin looked from his father to Nathan and back. "Nathan does good. I don't need to go nowhere."

Nathan tried to placate the agitated boy. "I'm not a Doctor, Vin."

"You're a healer. Ain't that better? I don't want to go," he argued determinedly.

"Not always, Vin. That's what these telegrams are about. I've been asking around to find the right person for you. You should see someone who knows more than me," Nathan reassured him. "Wouldn't you like to have your back fixed?"

The men thought Vin was considering the question as he withdrew into sudden silence. Vin wasn't considering the question. He just kept hearing that word.


There was nothing wrong with him. He wasn't broken.

Vin was reaching for defences now. "I don't like the city. There's too many people and it's too loud." Vin vividly remembered his arrival in Boston when his Aunt first took him in. The crowds on the sidewalk had bumped and hustled him.

"Vin, we need to see if we can help your back," Chris tried to explain again, disappointed and now becoming impatient at the boy's lack of enthusiasm.

"It's fine. I didn't do anything to it." Vin decided to change argument. "This'll cost money."

"Buck and I make the decisions about money in this family, so we're going," Chris interrupted decisively.

Vin turned pleading eyes in another direction. "Please Nathan, can't ya do it?"

Chris knew how much Nathan wanted to be able to help. The man deserved to be able to study and become a doctor himself but that wasn't how the world worked. Vin didn't realise he was unwittingly twisting a knife in an old wound.

"Vin, Nathan has suggested this himself. The doctor only needs to be a little part of the trip. We'll have a train ride, and visit the stores and stay in a big hotel."

"What'll he do to me?" Vin questioned with trepidation.

"He won't hurt you Vin. He'll look at your back, we'll listen to his advice and then make a decision after that." Chris was going to remain optimistic and believe for now that they would have some options.

"You shouldn't waste money. You didn't get a good price on them colts."

Chris hadn't been aware of just how conscious Vin was of the financial state of the family. Their ranch was yet to establish a name for itself necessitating them transporting their horses to the public sales. This had cut into the profits much further than they'd expected and now the long dry summer season was straining the finances further as feed had to be purchased.

"It's not a waste of money Vin. This is something that needs to be done when you're young." Chris didn't want Vin to be struggling with a weak back for the rest of his life. "Wouldn't you like to try and make the pain go away?"

Vin shrugged, unconvinced. "It's always like that, it don't matter. Please...I don't wanna go."

Chris would not be swayed. "Vin, we're going." He ignored the mutinous look. "I'd rather you enjoyed this trip, but you are going."

Vin grabbed Chris' hand before he could leave the room. "You said it didn't matter."

"It matters that it causes you pain." Chris understood how much of Vin's reluctance would be from fear. "We're all going. I'll be right next to you the whole way." Chris still retained Vin's hand, leading him toward the door. "Thanks for this, Nathan."

Vin turned back at the doorway. "Thank you, Nathan," Vin whispered politely.

Nathan's response was swallowed back as the little boy at the door turned wide, sorrowful eyes on him. Nathan felt like apologising to the boy but knew this was for the best.
Vin had made only a grudging effort to prepare for the journey, coerced and cajoled out the door of his home, into a stage and to the railhead at Eagle Bend.

JD's complaints of boredom on the stage quickly ceased as he experience the wonders of train travel from a carriage seat. His previous experience did not compare, consigned to an empty wagon like luggage. Today he had a real ticket and a real seat.

"Can I go see the engine? Can it blow its whistle? When are we gonna get there? Wow! Look at how fast we can go!" JD nudged Vin hard with his elbow to elicit a response. He wanted Vin to be as excited as himself. "We're gonna be there real soon if we go so fast, won't we Vin?"

His older cousin was indeed studying the passing trees but in resignation not excitement at the passing miles.

JD's excitement faded, his mouth drooping into an unhappy pout at Vin's lack of response.

Chris turned Vin away from the window. "Are you going to sulk the whole way there?"

"Not sulkin'."

Vin's voice was matter-of-fact, almost disinterested. Chris knew better. He knew the fine changes in tones that reflected Vin's moods.

"We're on the train and it's going in only one direction." Chris ignored the scowl he received at that description. "Just accept it and try to enjoy it. JD's enjoyin' it."

"He's just a li'l kid, what does he know?" Vin knew JD was thrilled to be on such a big adventure. All he had to look forward to was a hotel and going out to see all sort of new things with Buck while Vin would be stuck in some stupid Doctor's room.

The family occupied two bench seats, one with its backrest pushed into the reverse position to allow the two seats to face each other. The boys had taken the window seats, the adults the aisle in the hope of buffering the boys from the other passengers. Vin gave in gradually, conceding to play some games with JD, trying to spot animals in the passing scenery. The men took turns to walk the boys the length of the train, eager to stretch their own legs as the long hours passed.

On one return, Buck stayed on his feet to pull one of their bags from the overhead rack and rummaging around in it.

"You can't be hungry again," Chris asked in surprise. The group had already made heavy in-roads into the food packed by Nettie Wells.

"No. Nettie said Mary Travis provided us with a few distractions."

"She what?"

"Well, she packs up Billy often enough for long trips. Ah, here it is."

Buck took his seat and made use of their arrangement by extending his booted feet onto the edge of the opposite seat, neatly corralling JD into their space as the boy turned away from the window.

The wooden case Buck had retrieved slid open to reveal an array of colored wax sticks. Also packed were a number of small pads of paper. It appeared that Mary had cut up some of her damaged newspaper pages and sewn them together to make small drawing pads for each of the boys.

"What are those," JD asked squirming around on the slippery leather seat to peer over Buck's arm. He recognised the drawing charcoals but not the colored objects.

"Wax, I reckon."


"No," Buck picked up a stubby red cylinder. He dragged it over the paper leaving a long red line behind. "They're for making pictures. Mrs Travis has packed you both some paper so why don't you draw her something nice in return."

JD quickly began experimenting, trying each of the four colors in long lines and squiggles. Vin didn't move to take one of the new drawing implements.

"Don't you want to draw something colorful?" Chris prompted.

"Like what?"

"What you see out the window? Or maybe Buck," Chris pointed out the grinning face opposite. "How about Peso."

"Aint' colorful. Peso's black."

Chris rolled tired shoulders and counted slowly to ten. They had hours to go and Vin seemed determined to refuse to enjoy any part of this trip.

Chris picked up the discarded paper. "So, did you forget to pack it as well?"

"Pack what?" Vin scowled.

"Your imagination. I guess you left it back at the ranch with that smile of yours." Chris ignored the rolled eyes, drawing some haphazard lines and curves and zigzags on the blank page. "There you are. Make it into something."

Vin took the offered paper, turning it around and around. "Make it into what?"

"Join up the lines, create a new animal, color the spaces." Chris plucked a green stick from the box. "You'll see something eventually."

"Do me too. Please," JD amended quickly, pushing his paper forward and offering the red color.

The new entertainment kept the boys relatively quiet for a while. The only major downfall in the plan was found as the two fought for the blue wax. Buck quickly silenced the argument, snapping the stick into halves. He forestalled any further bickering by breaking all the remaining colors. Both men ignored the growing streaks of red and green across pant legs and shirt fronts as wax softened in hot fingers or slipped from the edges of the paper as the carriage rocked back and forth.

Eventually Vin's interest waned and his gaze returned to the passing scenery. It seemed to be flying past even faster, each minute taking him further from home and closer to that doctor. Suddenly he felt hot and stuffy but could only push ineffectually at the closed window. Chris stretched over to help lift the heavy window in its runners but before he could touch it, Vin was on his feet trying to squeeze past Chris' knees.

"Outside," Vin gasped, both demand and plea. Chris moved aside to let him pass, following as Vin swayed and staggered as the carriage lurched around a bend, finally traversing the length of the carriage to open the narrow door at the rear.

Vin wanted air and although the space between the carriages was narrow, the wind rushed through whipping his hair about his face. Here, if he pressed close to the handrail he was free of walls. He leaned over, fascinated by the rails flashing away between the couplings. Chris reached out and wrapped a hand securely around Vin's upper arm as the boy continued to peer down the narrow void between the carriages. Vin showed no sign of moving back from the gap so Chris pulled the boy back toward the rear door, his arm crossing over Vin's shoulder, his hand pressed flat over Vin's chest. He eased the boy back, reassured of Vin's mood as the boy allowed the pressure, leaning back against his hip.

Chris bent low to stop the wind whipping his words away.

"It's a long journey, pard. It'll take more 'n a day on this train, then we have to find ourselves that hotel when we hit Denver. Going to see the doctor will only be for a few hours. We have all this time together because the journey is the biggest part of this trip. You won't have to stay at the Doctor's, I won't leave you there."


Chris crouched down and turned Vin toward him. "Promise." His large hands cradled the worried boy's face his thumbs gently pushing upward at the hard grim corners of the boy's mouth. "We can make this fun," he encouraged, white teeth gleaming as he offered a rare wide grin. A sudden lurch tossed Vin forward into Chris to meet nose-to-nose.

Vin couldn't help but respond to the laugh and the sparkle in the green eyes, his own grin appearing slowly.

"See," Chris released him. "I knew we'd find that Tanner grin packed away somewhere."

The smile lasted only a moment, fading back into anxious shadows again. Larabee knew his little boy wouldn't be distracted for long. He'd just keep trying. "Let's go back in and see what else we can find to keep you and JD occupied."
There was no warning as the regular easy sway of the carriages suddenly became a lurch and jolt as metal screamed on metal and timber splintered under the strain. In one moment the passengers were tossed to the side, most sliding from their seats as the carriage kept turning, flipping onto its side then roof, shattering timbers and glass. Hapless passengers were tangled in the iron frames of bench seats, the more unfortunate caught in the melding of flesh and metal as carriage forced into carriage. Iron screamed and sparks flew as vehicle and rail met and ground to a sliding halt in a braking method never intended.

Forced from the rails, each carriage skidded sideways to slam end after end into a concertina. The heavy engine lay on its side, steam hissing out and escaping in final gasping breaths. The solid iron body had anchored the forward movement only to have the more fragile carriages following shatter under the impact, the coal car disappearing completely from existence. The six carriages lay in a gruesome snake-like trail, one-consuming the other, the caboose hung suspended from its twisted coupling, luggage spewed forth from the unhinged doors.

At the first violent jolt, Chris had flung an arm out to steady Vin as they made their way along the isle. His arm flailed as Vin was tossed onto him, both slammed down to the carriage floor. The last crunch and shudder shoved the pair into the iron supports of one of the seats, the impact causing Chris to lose his grip and Vin was wrenched away.

Buck too had seized his child at the lurching movement. There was no time to plan as he was shoved from his seat. He folded himself around the small boy hoping to protect him but unknowing if he had succeeded as the screaming of people and rending metal blotted out all thought and light.

A low wail rose from the wreckage to be joined slowly by other voices and become a chorus of anguish. The voices of nature stayed mute against this unnatural onslaught. Only the rocky escarpment stood witness, unable to provide warning so perhaps in grief or perhaps in guilt it allowed the thunderous crash to strike it's face a wash back out over the plain in a fading echo. It could not prevent the descent of rubble and boulders the night before, heavy rains so needed on the plains had washed down in rivers over its rocky edge. Now strewn across the tracks it was crushed and shattered further, joined now by a tangle of iron and splintered timbers.

On the distant platform in Salida the stationmaster paused as an unusual sound rolled in along the tracks. The Stationmaster listened again for it to be repeated then nervously checked his timepiece and considered again. The north-bound train was due in less than thirty minutes.
Light and sound blurred as Buck struggled for awareness, wedged as he was into the wall of the carriage, trapped by the collapsed seat. He was uncertain if he'd lost consciousness, unknowing of how long he'd deserted JD.

"JD!" The cry didn't make an impact amongst the screams, groans and sobs that filled the air. Efforts to shove himself free just brought agony to his arm and shoulder. A metallic flavour filled his mouth and he spat blood, his moustache sodden and dripping from his bleeding nose. The seat pinned him and blocked most of his vision but turning and pulling as far as he could bear allowed him to peer under the seat. A crumpled figure lay beneath him, pinned to the remains of the floor by his hip.

He tried to shift frantically as he realised the position he was in. He was crushing his own child, the child he had intended to protect.

He shoved against the seat again but the pain in his trapped arm screamed and bone grated on bone as the damaged collarbone snapped under the further pressure. Tortured muscles contracted across his shoulder and neck and the spear of sharp white-hot knives of pain forced him back down. He curled his spine, and tried to lift his hips to shove JD from beneath him. He wasn't sure if he was hurting the small boy further but the bluish tinge to his lips showed the necessity.

"JD," he whispered in anguish, unable to free his arm to cradle the boy. The fragile chest was moving, slowly but Buck would accept any thing if it meant he was still breathing. He wiped carefully at the blood over the pale face but could find no obvious injury. He was unaware that the blood was his own, still sluggishly dripping from his chin. Reassured JD had survived, he attempted to free himself again as the cries of others came to his ears. Vin and Chris hadn't returned to their seats. He had to find them. His body refused to participate and screamed it's own silent agony, filling his ears, blotting out the crumpled carriage and dragging him back into darkness.

Chris Larabee became aware of movement and pain before he recognised light or sound. He thought for a moment that he must have been injured and Buck had placed him across his horse. His chest hurt, felt compressed and the movement was making him nauseas. More sounds filtered through. Others were here. People were crying, shouting. His eyes flew open as he remembered. "Vin," his distraught shout was but a fractured whisper. Vin had been in his arms. He'd let him go.

The fluttering movements and whispers of the injured man were ignored as his bearers continued to carry the stretcher clear of the wreckage and loaded him onto the next available wagon. The rescuers from Salida didn't stop to console or question. They had too many to move, too many to rescue and all to soon, too many to bury.

A child was found on the carriage floor, limp as a rag-doll. He took little space so the makeshift stretcher was delayed to gather another small body before clearing the cramped tangled wreckage. The first of the wagons was already filled and began its journey back to Salida. Crews of men called for more tools and began swinging crowbars and axes to break up what remained of the carriage to access the trapped passengers. One seat was pried away, finally releasing one torn and bloodied man. He was moved with the others.

The rescuers continued down the gruesome line of carriages, halting at the two that had speared the engine. They couldn't even be recognised as carriages and men hesitated to move toward the pile. They would need more horses to drag the wreckage of the first two carriages apart.

The trail into the town became a convoy of wagons. News had spread quickly and the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Hospital prepared as best it could. Intended for use by the growing railway's employees in Salida, today it was filled instead with passengers. Its only ward, a room of six beds was already filled with the first wagon of injured survivors. Beds, cots, mattresses and blankets were gathered by the town's residents and quickly crammed into every spare corner of the hospital, overflowing into the adjoining hotel. The two doctors on staff did what they could with more than 30 adults and 12 children descending and sent wires out in urgent request of more aid from neighboring towns.
Buck jerked back against the mattress, dark blue eyes open wide, his mouth forced open in a gasp that quickly turned into a groan of pain. Not a dream and worse than a nightmare. This was real. The last image hung suspended before his eyes.

"God damn," Buck cursed, rolling himself awkwardly to the side ignoring the spasm of pain in his shoulder. He remembered that well. There was no sign of JD, just a narrow mattress beneath him.

"Please, sir."

Buck ignored the hands trying to press him back into the mattress. "What is this?" He peered blearily around at the assortments of beds, mattress and makeshift cots crowded into the room.

"Salida. The Railroad Hospital. Please lay back down."

Groans and cries from a bed further down drew the woman's attention. Buck waved her away. "I'm fine," he smiled reassuringly, aware of the woman's concern under her obvious stress.

Buck found he'd been left stripped to his drawers but he had little concern for his modesty. He tentatively tested each limb and found his shoulder to be his main problem. Cradling his bandaged left arm close he eased his weight forward and tried to stand. The room spun forcing him to clench his eyes shut and swallow quickly to quell the rising nausea. Cautiously he turned his aching head, each movement bringing to his attention another bruise or strain as he reconsidered his injuries. He lurched unsteadily to the end of the next bed. He didn't recognise the sleeper although bandages and bruises obscured most of the patients face.

Finally his painful trek was rewarded by the discovery of a familiar face in the bed in the far corner. It's occupant was sleeping, white cotton strips wrapped across his forehead, almost obscuring one eye. He lifted the blanket warily, concerned by the bulky shapes it appeared to conceal. Larabee's left arm was strapped, his forearm splinted and folded across his chest. More bandages encased his ribs. His left leg was raised, the knee swollen, the flesh reddened around the edges of another bandage. Cut, broken, bruised but all in one piece.

"Chris?" he whispered, uncertain if he should disturb him. A touch to the pale stubbled cheek and a slightly louder call still failed to draw a response. Buck eyed the head injury with trepidation. He hoped Chris was only sleeping.

Not daring to sit and rest, uncertain that he could rise again, Buck continued in search of the rest of his family. Another room across the hall was jammed with beds. The assorted mounds under blankets all appeared to be the size of adults but he staggered his way onward to be sure. He mumbled apologies as he brushed past hovering loved ones.

"Anyone seen the kids?" he called, surprised as his confident question came out dry and cracked. Dull, shocked eyes returned his gaze. Some managed a shake of their head. Most had yet to emerge from their own shattered world.

A figure emerged from a doorway, the familiar garb giving Buck hope of assistance. "Reverend?" Buck called. He stopped suddenly and leaned against the wall unable to move forward, certain if he opened his mouth to speak again his rolling stomach would spew forth.

His first quiet call had been heard. The Revered turned tired grey eyes on the man across the hall. Obviously a victim of this terrible accident, he tried to guide the man back to one of the rooms in vain hope of a vacant bed.

"No." Buck halted the movement. "The kids? Where are the children? I had two boys with me."

"Only the most seriously injured are here with the adults. We placed the other children in rooms in the hotel. Perhaps I can locate them for you?" Even now the Reverend and the ladies of the church had been attempting to gather names from the waking patients in an attempt to reunite the displaced families.

"Where?" Buck didn't hear the offer, just the possibility that they could be here, laying alone and seriously injured.

"Please, let me locate them for you?" The question is his voice was obvious.

"Buck Wilmington, sir."

The Reverend didn't wish to have the injured man search in vain, or worse still, to have to inspect the mortuary. Others could at least try to limit that gruesome task. "How old?"

"JD. Six, dark hair, brown eyes. Vin's just gone eight, kinda dark blonde hair, big blue eyes." Buck watched the reverend pull some paper from his pocket and make a note. He couldn't entrust this to another. "The hotel?"

"The Grande. It neighbors this building so they've allowed the use of some of their larger rooms. I'll see to this. Let me assist you back to your bed."

Buck allowed himself to be guided back to the long room where his vacant bed stood waiting. He waved the elderly reverend away, promising to rest and wait for information. As the dark cloaked figure left the room, Buck began his search for outer clothing. His own were missing, but piled next to another sleeping patient were some clean items, perhaps left by a family member. With a silent apology, Buck shook out the shirt and trousers and raised them with his good arm for inspection. Close enough. It was a struggle to dress one-handed and the effort sapped his strength. He didn't dare lay down, instead returning to Chris, shirt clutch across his chest, on sleeve left empty and dangling. Dragging an empty chair from another bedside he settled for a moment to catch his breath.

"Chris? Now's a good time to wake up, Larabee." He received no response as Chris lay, head turned slightly to the side, lax jaw hanging open. "I'm gettin' the boys, then I'll be back Chris."

Buck hung his head for the moment, the task overwhelming. He forced himself back to his feet. His boys needed him. Weakened from the earlier blood loss, his body betrayed him as a roaring sound filled his ears and his vision tunnel into darkness. He hit the chair awkwardly, collapsing forward onto Larabee's bed. The disturbance caused only a murmur of discontent from the drugged occupant of the bed.
Vin Tanner awoke to pain and froze, certain he shouldn't move or draw attention to himself until he was sure of his surroundings. He could feel the bedding beneath him, a pillow under his head. He stayed silent and listened to the creak and squeak of bed frames and springs. Others were breathing, others were moving but no telltale heavy footsteps could be heard.

He cracked one eye open, squinting as the pale light stabbed at his tender pupils. He moved his head slightly and pain exploded, dragging fingers of fire down the back of his neck. He caught a glimpse of the line of beds and although the room itself wasn't familiar he knew what this place was. They weren't on the train anymore but he couldn't remember how he got here. It was hard to think, to try to remember. His head hurt so much this time, much worse that from just being slapped. He must have done something really bad this time. He tried to look for JD but the effort in raising his head only made his stomach churn. He was unable to hold back a whimper, shutting his eyes against the whirling room and the pale streaks of sunlight.

It was a minute or an hour later, he didn't know. His eyes snapped open this time, the cry of loss silenced by force of habit. Vin dragged the edge of the blankets up and balled them against his mouth to muffle the sob the burst forth. He didn't understand what the dream was. He'd been somewhere safe but he'd woken again here. A man had been there, so real, so close he could have touched him, held him. He felt sick and exposed laying on his back. Ignoring the thumping in his head he rolled slowly to his side and curled up tightly, arms wrapped around his stomach, left hollow and aching from the dream. He listened to the sounds in the room, the creaks of the metal-framed beds and the quiet breathing of the other children. He tried hard to picture the face. He could draw forth only the green eyes, filled with promise and love. Vin closed his eyes tightly in the hope that sleep would return, and with it the dream.

Vin finally gave up, the whimpers and muffled cries of the other children drawing him to the figure barely visible two beds over. He wanted JD. He pushed the covers aside and tried to slide off the bed, but the room swirled around him.

"No, you have to stay in bed."

The voice echoed strangely, as if from a distance. Hands were pressing him back to the pillow, the woman's voice faded in and out. " What's you name child?"


"Well Vin, you've hurt your head in that train accident. Do you remember it?

Vin ignored the question. Of course he remembered it. The train was their big chance for he and JD to come west.

"Vin?" The nurse prompted again. "Were you travelling with you mother and father?"

"With the orphans," Vin whispered, squinting painfully against the light that stabbed at his eyes.

"Well, I'll list you with the Foundling Home."

"The what..?" Vin asked with trepidation.

"A home, for children. Don't you worry, you'll be taken care of. Now, you stay in your bed and sleep." The nurse turned and left unaware of the dazed blue eyes that tracked her departure.

Vin couldn't stop the tears welling as her words sunk in and his heart and dreams shattered under their weight. This wasn't how it was supposed to happen. They had been on the train on the way to a family, not another orphanage. His disappointment churned in his stomach, gnawing at his gut and sparking anger and fire in the previously dull and dazed blue eyes. If he and JD's chance at a family was now ruined then he wasn't waiting around to be pushed back into another big old building with small dark rooms.

Vin slipped from his bed a little more cautiously this time.

"JD?" Vin's tentative whisper ended in a gasp as he reached he narrow bed. Vin was afraid to touch his cousin. He lay so still and so white. "JD?" he called again.

JD looked cold. His Ma had been cold and wouldn't wake either. Screwing up his courage he reached out with his forefinger and poked the sleeping boy's cheek. Not cold, he determined. Vin touched his own face and back to JD. Not cold but definitely cooler than himself. Vin hated being cold but JD needed more than the single sheet that covered him. Vin pulled the blanket from his own bed and lay it over his cousin. Peering under the covers he intended to see if JD had as few clothes as himself. Instead he stood gaping at the bruises that littered the narrow chest. Someone had broken JD. Someone had hurt him bad. Vin looked seriously at all the other beds. This wasn't an ordinary room. He moved to another bed to stare at its occupant, bruised, cut and broken. His heart raced at the sound of heavy footsteps and he ducked low to avoid discovery.