Buck had woken at the touch of a hand to his undamaged shoulder. The elderly Reverend had returned and brought some encouraging news. Buck found himself shaking with relief as he followed the quietly spoken man down a string of hallways until they arrived in the hotel. His steps halted at the doorway of a large room, his eyes quickly scanning the occupants of the eight narrow beds that were crowded into the space. His eyes locked onto a small blanket covered bundle, dark straight tresses just appearing from the top.
"JD," he gasped, stumbling forward. His hand hovered, uncertain if his touch would cause pain or disturb the pale sleeper.
The Reverend brought a straight-back chair over. "I'll see if I can find one of the doctors for you."
Buck scanned the room again, this time for a trail of fair hair across a pillow. None of the beds held Vin, but one stood ominously vacant. Buck took a shallow breath and tried to stay calm. Vin was just in another room. Vin was fine. His path took him back to the original bed and he leaned in closer. The pale still body was so wrong.
His study was interrupted by the arrival of a harried doctor, a nurse trailing close behind.
"There is another boy, Vin Tanner." Buck immediately asked.
The nurse flicked through the list quickly and looked around the room. "Yes, we had a Vin Tanner in here."
Buck felt his stomach hit the floor. Why would Vin not be here. "Did he...was he...?"
"Oh no," the Doctor reassured, understanding the stumbled question. "He had a head injury but he was quite coherent, the few words he would speak."
"Vin's a quiet one," Buck confirmed. JD was starting to wake and Buck stepped aside as the Doctor moved in. He wanted to pull the man away at each whimper from the boy. "How is he?"
"He's broken two ribs and cracked at least two more. He has to stay as still and quiet as possible. I'm leaving him raised like this because it's more comfortable." The doctor took a good look at the concerned man. "You should be in bed yourself."
"No," Buck waved the concern away. "Vin. Should he be wandering around?"
"I'm surprised that he would be as he would have quite a serious headache. He must want something rather badly."
Buck thought immediately of Chris. Both would want the same thing.
Dark lashes fluttered on a waxen face and the mumbled words drew him down to whisper softly. "Baby boy, I didn't mean to hurt you."
"Papa?" The call was weak and groggy.
"Yes, Li'l Bit. It's your papa." Buck pushed the soft bangs from blinking eyes, pressing soft kissed in a trail after his fingers. "No, no, don't move." Buck gently stilled any attempt to move. He didn't want to risk JD moving the fragile ribs and perhaps puncturing a lung. He carefully tucked one chilled hand within his.
He wanted to do nothing more than hold JD.
But Vin needed to be found.
And Chris needed to be told.
And he needed to sit down.
The thought was only fleeting but his body decided of its own accord to take action, his knees turning to water. He tried to lock them in place, confusion furrowing his brow as the floor wavered and the walls rushed in. The hand he stretched toward JD's bed touched nothing as he collapsed to his knees, slumping to the floor beneath the beds. He didn't see the pair of startled blue eyes staring in shock at him as the roaring darkness crashed down over him.
Vin's gasp drew the attention of the nurse attending to the fallen man.
"Come out from there," she ordered the wayward boy. "Back into your own bed, right now."
Vin backed away from the tall man, regardless of the fact that he lay defenceless and unmoving on the floor. He's said that he'd hurt JD. Other adults were appearing, other strangers crowded the room forcing Vin to retreat to his bed. He watched silently as the man was placed on a stretcher and taken away. Stretching a little he could see that JD still slept through the disturbance. Vin hoped the man didn't return before they could escape.
Buck realised he'd lost time again then cringed as he tried to roll over. His shoulder and arm were now encased in heavier bandages but showed the signs of some bleeding. He found himself back in his original bed and slowly pieced together the events. The boys rushed to mind. He pushed out from the bed, not bothered by nurses too busy to be concerned with patients who wouldn't do as they were told.
"Chris?" Buck could only hope his friend was rising from the drugged stupor he'd been kept in. "Chris?" He tapped the cheek lightly and was rewarded with a groan. Finally a slither of green appeared beneath the slowly lifting lids. "Come on pard, just let me know you're in there." Buck would continue the hunt as soon as he was reassured. He didn't need Chris waking alone and taking off as well. The jaw moved slowly, tongue seeming to test the air and dab at dry lips. Understanding, Buck poured some water from a nearby jug and lifted his friend's head slightly to drink.
"Hell of a party. Keep that red-eye away and leave me the good stuff next time."
Buck intercepted the wandering hand as it approached the bandages near his eye. "Chris, you remember the train?"
Larabee was slowly working his way through the scattered fragments of his mind, piecing them back together. He was only catching a word or two, aware of Buck's insistent presence but unable to concentrated on more than one thing at a time.
"Train?" he echoed blearily.
"We were goin' to Denver to see that Doc," Buck prompted. "We were on..."
Chris jerked his head back against the pillow, his eyes flying open and one hand reaching out to close on air. A fragment, an image, Vin wrenched from his grasp. He gazed at his empty fist with shock and horror as it all came crashing back, the sounds, the screaming. "Vin? JD?"
Buck tried to reassure the horrified eyes that searched the empty space behind him. "They're alive, Chris. JD is down at the hotel with some of the other injured children. He's a little bust...he's busted up some." Buck swallowed hard at the words. "Vin's already out of bed a looking for you."
"He's okay?" Chris would hardly believe the miracle.
"Doc says he was hit in the head. I haven't seen him but others have."
"Haven't seen him?" Chris echoed, still dazed.
"Took a while to find 'em 'cause the injured are in a couple of buildings to get enough beds."
"I wasn't..." Chris tried to halt Buck's defensive response. Buck would have done everything he could. He didn't mean to accuse him. He took in his friend's haggard appearance, the hunched protection of his injured arm. "Help me up."
"I'm not just going to lay here?"
"No Chris, your knee is cut up and twisted bad. I'll find him."
"You look like shit, Buck." Chris doubted his friend was supposed to be wandering around either.
"We all do."
Chris didn't get the usual light-hearted response. "Buck, I'll help find him. I said I'd stay with him."
Buck wrapped his good arm around his friend in comfort. Buck felt the movement and quickly changed his grip from comfort to restraint. "No, Chris."
Chris continued to try to push past Buck to leave his bed.
"Don't do this, please!" Buck pleaded with his friend, lacking the energy for a fight. "I'll search every inch of this place until I have him back to you but you can't go walking around. You could wreck that knee for good," Buck warned.
"Get me some crutches. I can manage."
"I can do this faster alone."
"Then I'll go to JD. He'll be afraid." Chris was playing all his cards now. "Longer you argue the longer JD and Vin wait for both of us."
Buck turned and left in search of crutches and clothes but not before Chris saw a disturbing expression at the mention of their youngest. More than just exhaustion was wearing on Buck.
"Buck, is JD going to be alright?" Chris asked, fearful of what could put such an expression of anguish on his friends face.
"Yeah. Eventually. They've got him quieted down so his ribs don't shift. Couple are broken and some cracked. Such tiny little bones..." his voice trailed off as he thought of it again.
Chris put a hand to Buck's good shoulder, pressing hard in comfort but also to interrupt the torturous thoughts and stop the flow of words.
"Buck?" Chris moved quickly as Bucks color vanished, his jaw and throat moving in tell-tale sign. Chris shoved the chamber pot into place with a crutch just as Buck bent over and heaved. It was only the one sudden contraction, leaving Buck dazed by its sudden force.
"Buck?" Chris kept a reassuring hand resting on his friend's back, uncertain if it was Buck's injuries or JD's that had brought this on.
"It's...it's my fault," Buck murmured. "I tried to protect him. I tried to cover him."
Chris rubbed his hand along Buck's shoulder and gripped the back of his neck in support. He tried to console his friend but he couldn't bear it himself. He didn't want to hear about failures to protect. He didn't want a reminder of his own shortcoming. "We both tried."
"No. No. I crushed him. I tried to cover him but it was my weight that broke all those tiny bones. I hurt him. He's so little and I was on top of him."
Chris had no real recollection of the impact, just violent movement and sound. There had been no up or down in the chaos then had ensued. "You'd never deliberately hurt him, Buck."
The sorrowful eyes told him that his words would provide little comfort. Buck straightened, sucked up a deep breath and resolved to do this. "I'll take you to JD then I'll find Vin."
The two men hobbled together, supporting each other down the hallway to the rear stairs that re-entered the neighboring building. Buck steered them toward the room where he'd found JD. Buck stopped in the doorway when Vin's still vacant bed became visible. Turning Larabee back, he led him over the woman attending to a pile of linens and water jugs just down the hall.
"Ma'am. Have you seen Vin Tanner?" Buck asked anxiously, indicating the still empty bed. "Skinny little eight year old."
"Blue eyes, fair hair." Chris added.
The woman eyed the injured men, obviously more passengers from the train derailment. She remembered the little orphan. "Yes. Poor child. Such a trauma to handle when they're so young and alone."
"We couldn't...we tried," Buck stumbled at the criticism.
"He's not alone now. Where is Vin?" Chris asked.
"You know him?" she asked, confused at their apparent interest in the orphan.
"He's my son," Chris offered, annoyed at the delay in answers.
"He said he's an orphan," she corrected warily.
"Well he was. He's my adopted son," Chris explained grudgingly.
"I supposed that would explain why we couldn't locate any family. We were looking for Tanners."
"Aren't we all," Buck mumbled. "He just up and walked out of here?" Buck was surprised that an injured child would be allowed to wander around like this.
"Well that was hardly expected but he's left his bed a number of times." The woman began to lose patience. "We have our hands full at the moment. It's the ones who can't walk out that concern us more."
The men nodded slightly, understanding that so many other children lay here, apparently far more injured than their own. Understanding the situation didn't make it any easier to deal with.
"I'll ask everyone to keep a watch for him," she relented.
A sudden young, panicked call from the room beyond had both men entering the doorway in a rush.
JD had finally woken enough for Vin to actually speak to him. Vin had grown concerned at the talk of orphanages and strange man who'd visited JD, laying claim on him.
"We have to go JD. Ya gotta come with me now," Vin insisted.
"Why do we have to go? I hurt. I want my Papa."
Vin's brow was furrowed in confusion. JD was talking nonsense. "You know he ain't around. We have to take care of ourselves 'n we can't stay here."
"He's gonna come back, he said so."
"He won't come back. They don't come back." Vin wouldn't hear any more of waiting for fathers. He didn't know why JD was suddenly talking like this when he didn't know his father.
JD couldn't understand Vin's insistence. "Our Pa's are comin'. Buck and Chris will come get us."
Vin was already pulling the sheets back. "Whatever," Vin dismissed impatiently. "Just hurry before someone comes back."
"No. It hurts. I don't wanna." JD squirmed and pulled away from Vin, unwilling to play this odd game. "I want my Papa."
Vin shook his head hopelessly. JD had apparently decided he liked the big man who visited him. It was the only person he would think of. "No, JD you can't stay. We're supposed to be together." Vin wouldn't leave JD with someone who would hurt him.
"We are together. Stop it." JD started to raise his voice, the fretful argument turning into a wail. "Don't shake me. Yer hurtin' me." He pushed ineffectually at Vin's hands.
Vin released the younger boy, angry at the refusal but fearful of having caused him pain. JD stubbornly refused his urgings to leave and became distraught at Vin's words. He wouldn't leave. He didn't understand this. Voices could now be heard in the hallway and Vin turned to listen, fearful of who may be approaching. JD's face lit up in recognition.
"Papa?" JD wailed, as loud as he could manage.
Vin heard the adults and searched quickly for an escape, hurrying past the line of beds and ignoring JD's call. He ducked low behind a cabinet then looked back for a moment, stunned to witness JD reach out and welcome the large dark-haired man. JD had refused to reach for him, to follow him. JD would rather have this stranger.
"What're those tears for Li'l bit?"
The question was faded, the words barely reaching the older boys ears. The odd name caused him to pause.
Lil Bit. Buck.
He didn't know this man so why would he suddenly think of a name?
Vin couldn't hear anymore as voices were lowered. He shrank back from sight as the stranger's head lifted from JD and dark blue eyes locked on to his empty bed. Vin's mouth hung open in shock as JD pointed down toward his hiding place.
JD had given him away.
JD had betrayed him.
The second man turned and Vin froze. Confusing thoughts and images pressed in on him, filling his head until he though his skull would surely explode. He clutched tightly to his plan to escape and staggered a few steps to the rear door, turning blindly from one room to the next until he found a darkened doorway, unlocked and ajar.
Chris saw Vin fleeing out the door at the far end of the room but was too slow to make chase. The door led to the adjoining room, previously a parlour but now usurped with more beds.
"A young fella just darted off that way if he's who you're lookin fer," another weary parent directed him.
"Thanks," Chris acknowledged gratefully to the man keeping vigil over a young girl.
He hobbled forward then paused as he entered what appeared to be a service hallway. The light that filtered from the far end was dim, but it was sound not sight that drew him forward. A faint keening came from an open doorway so gritting his teeth against the insistent pain in his knee, he limped forward and pushed the door fully open. The dim light in the hall was quickly swallowed in the gloom of the windowless storage room. He was finally within sight of the source of the distressed sound. A familiar little figure sat huddled against in the corner, knees drawn to his chest.
Vin stayed curled in the dark, unaware of his own whimpering against the pain in his head, his rocking setting the nearby broom tapping against the wall.
"Vin? Vin?" Chris called in a lilting, quiet whisper. He repeated it over and over until finally the sound penetrated the boy's pain. Chris was silenced when Vin raised his head and opened wide dark eyes, the pupils expanded by the dim light and head injury until they swallowed all but a slender rim of blue.
Try as he might, Chris couldn't lower himself to the ground. He managed to bend as low as possible, balancing on one crutch, the other hand extended in plea.
"Let me help, Vin."
Vin knew better than to trust but this man wasn't a stranger. Somehow the voice was familiar and safe. He raised his eyes and met bright burning eyes. Green. He suddenly knew who this was but the hand he reached out with was pulled back sharply to press at his temples as pain seared through his skill once again.
Chris had no time to change his balance, trying to lunge forward as Vin whimpered once again, scrunching up his face in pain. Chris could do little more than stop Vin hitting the floor as he collapsed to the side with a distressed gasp, eyes rolling back.
Chris swallowed once then shattered the sudden silence with his own scream. "Buck!"
The two men were resting in chairs between the boys' beds. The medical staff had agreed to move the boys together after Vin was retrieved but could not convince the men to return to their own beds to rest. Both men had lost track of time, existing in a hazy euphoria of having all their family together and alive. Nothing else mattered.
Eventually reality forced its way in. "What now? Buck prompted. "Chris?"
His friend's attention remained transfixed on Vin's narrow delicate wrist, tracing the trail of blue veins with a light touch. Buck understood the need, as he too was holding on to JD for comfort, the tiny pale hands a strong anchor in the current turmoil.
Larabee finally pulled his attention from Vin. He was trying to believe what the Doctor had said after treating Vin again. Vin just needed to rest, was just exerting himself too much with a concussion. Chris felt it was more than that as Vin had been trying to hide, not seek him out. He tipped his head back to rest wearily against the wall, awkwardly shifting his knee where it rested propped on a small stool.
"Wire home," he finally responded to Buck's question. He was too exhausted to think beyond that. They would inform the others and let them decide about travelling, bills, the ranch. He was beginning to feel numb or at least his mind was. His knee wasn't numb instead it throbbed with each beat of his heart. He turned his head toward his tired friend. "How're you doin'?" Buck had been up and around long before him.
"Fine." Buck murmured, not bothering to open his eyes at the query. Buck ignored Chris's snort of disbelief. "We're all just fine."
"Tanner fine." Chris agreed.
The two men exchanged grins at the picture. Cut, bruised or scraped Vin was always fine. Their eyes fell on the empty bed across the room. Quietly and suddenly, that child had been claimed by God rather than by family earlier today. Maybe Vin wasn't so far wrong.
"Yeah, we're fine." Chris agreed.
Movement under his hand drew his attention. "Hey there, sleepyhead." Chris moved into Vin's line of sight. "Vin?" The gaze showed recognition, even if it didn't appear to be focussed.
Vin awoke slowly, aware he was laying in a bed again and pried his eyes open. His gaze locked on the green one directly in front of him. This was the face in the dreams. Had he finally come for him? Unwilling to trust in the sudden leap in his heart, Vin closed his eyes, prayed one last time and reopened them.
He was still there.
He wasn't a dream.
He had come.
Chris watched silently as Vin fluttered pale lashes, flashes of blue appearing until finally both eyes were open. One slow blink followed. Chris lightly traced down Vin's cheek and jaw, carefully avoiding the dark mottled flesh at the temple as bruising spread back into his tangled hair.
Finally there was a response. A groan. Pale lashes flickered again so Chris cradled one cheek, trying to coax Vin to keep his eyes open and focused.
"Vin, do you know who I am?" Chris saw only confusion in the gaze.
Vin knew only one word but hardly dared to voice it. Was it true? "Pa?"
"Yes, Vin," Chris reassured him, hearing the uncertainty.
Blue eyes widened in wonder and joy. "You found me? You came back." This is why he knew those eyes. This is why he knew to trust. He had finally come. His lower lip quivered as another memory crashed in. "Mama's gone now," he explained sadly. "God took her away. I asked if he'd find you for me, but I thought he'd forgotten."
Chris sucked in a breath as he realised that Vin was very confused. "I know your Ma is gone, Vin." Something was wrong here. "Don't think about it, just close your eyes." Chris brushed long strands away from Vin's face. He didn't try to explain what had happened. Vin needed peace and rest first. The truth could wait. "I'll take care of everything Vin, you sleep."
Vin grasped the hand as it began to draw away. Chris didn't need to hear the words to that request. "I'm not going away. I'll stay right here with you."
Vin released a sigh. He had been right to trust those eyes. His Pa was finally here. There would be no more orphanages, no more strangers. The relief flooded through him, letting him drift easily into a deep slumber.
Chris turned stunned eyes back to his friend.
"I'll go find that Doctor again," Buck offered, already moving toward the door.
It took some time but Buck finally returned with the Doctor in tow. Larabee immediately rounded on the man. "You said he was all right. You said he was coherent," he demanded.
"Yes, he was. We cannot identify what he did or didn't remember if we didn't know anything about him. It's not unusual that there may be some memory loss and it may return."
"May?" Chris echoed helplessly.
"He needs to rest. You all do."
"We're staying together," Chris ordered, adamantly.
"We just don't have the space here. You won't be in any condition to help them if you don't get rest for yourselves."
Both men were exhausted and in pain but unwilling to give in. They finally agreed to take turns, neither willing to leave the boys alone. It wasn't the best solution but it provided the men some time to rest and have their own injuries tended again and re-bandaged.
It wasn't until Chris returned from his third break that he began to feel a little more rested. His sleep was fitful but at least he'd been able to lay down and stretch out for a few hours. He found Buck in the chair between the two beds, both boys apparently sleeping although Buck remained hovering closely over JD. Chris watched sadly as Buck splayed his own hand over JD's lax fingers, sliding lightly up to loosely circle around the tiny wrist a number of times. Chris stepped over to the bedside and laid his own hand over Buck's as he moved to measure his spread fingers again over the tiny hand. Chris stilled the movement, feeling the fine tremors in Buck's hold.
"I didn't mean to lose hold of Vin. You didn't mean to land on JD." He knew his words were small consolation but he couldn't allow Buck to continue.
"But it happened," Buck returned flatly.
Chris couldn't argue the results. "Go get some rest, Buck."
"It doesn't look like you slept before." Chris saw the shrug, the attempt to brush him off. "Dreams?"
Bucks' eyes returned to the little boy, the shadows in his eyes answer enough. A quiet murmur and snuffle sounded as JD was disturbed in his sleep.
"Doc says they'll just let him sleep normally now. I promised we'd keep him calm and quiet." Neither were words either man would normally have associated with JD.
"I'll keep watch," Chris reassured the worried man. "I'll make sure he doesn't move around."
Bucks' eyes fell on the other sleeping child. Vin had stayed quiet and close-eyed this shift. He wondered if Vin was feigning sleep, uncertain what to do with the reproachful glances he had received the previous times Vin had woken. Vin didn't appear to recognise him at all, his gaze always wary and suspicious.
Buck's gaze returned to JD. "I want to hold him," he confided.
"Soon. But for now you need to sleep."
Buck didn't bother to acknowledge the comment. He knew Chris understood. He knew nothing but time would ease the ache. Buck whispered softly into the shell-like curve of ear under the dark locks. JD murmured again, he head starting to toss restlessly. Buck continued the words, his voice calming the little boy and raising him gently from his slumber. Buck had become accustomed to these brief bursts of waking , the bleary eyes, the mumbled words.
"Papa." JD smiled, much more aware this time. JD's gaze slipped past him to Vin's bed, now easily within sight. "Vin?"
Buck didn't try to explain. "Yes, Vin's here. We're all here, Li'l Bit." Buck poured some barley water and gently eased JD's head up to sip from the cup. He watched the struggle as the little boy's body demanded more rest. "Go back to sleep, baby boy," he crooned, stroking across gently across JD's forehead.
Buck sighed at JD's easy compliance. He turned his attention to the other bed, certain that Vin would open his eyes after Larabee's arrival. Buck couldn't help but be hurt by Vin's denial. He had clearly connected emotionally with Chris even if the relationship wasn't remembered truly, yet somehow nothing of his relationship had survived in Vin's current world.
Buck made room as Chris settled into the other chair between the beds. The movement jarred his shoulder and ignited the pain. He grimaced, lifting the weight of his damaged arm in the sling to ease the pull at the back of his neck. He sighed heavily in exhaustion.
"What about Vin? Do you want to try and go on to Denver?"
Chris turned his head at the inquiry. "I don't think I could make this trip again." It wasn't the miles but the memories that he didn't think he could repeat. "If we can both manage it, I think we should try. You and JD should stay here and I'll take Vin alone."
Buck would have liked to stay together but JD wasn't healed enough to be travelling any further than necessary.
Vin had been laying quietly, pretending to sleep until the big man left. Even when his Pa arrived, he resisted opening his eyes. Now the quiet words filtered through as they talked quietly but the plan horrified Vin. A startled gasp escaped as he realised that they were planning to separate him and JD. The sound drew the attention of the adults and he found he could no longer hide.
"Vin? Vin, are you hurting?" Chris asked of the pained sound that had escaped the boy.
Chris found himself confronted by accusing eyes. "You can't let him have JD."
Both men were startled by Vin's waking words, Buck even more so by the icy blue glare that was being levelled at him.
"You can't have him. We gotta keep him, Pa. He can't have him 'cause he hurt JD." Vin was pushing back the covers to sit up, his defiant words betrayed by the quiver of uncertainty as both men rose to their feet, towering over his bed.
Buck couldn't breath, stabbed in the heart by Vin's accusation. "Vin, I didn't..."
"I heard ya. You said ya hurt him. Don't matter to say sorry now." The knife turned in Buck's chest with each repetition. "JD has to come with us. He can't take JD. He hurt him," Vin asserted again.
"Vin, no. You're a little confused at the moment. You and JD both know Buck, you just don't remember him at the moment." Chris tried to settle Vin back under the covers.
"I wouldn't hurt Lil' Bit or you. I promise Vin, we're real good friends," Buck pleaded.
Vin stiffened at the nickname again. Chris saw a strange shift, a blank look that swept over Vin for a moment, stealing him away. "Vin?"
The little boy broke away and turned abruptly to curl up on this mattress, head buried in his pillow with a quiet moan.
Chris rubbed the curved back. "Can you get me one of those powders, Buck?" There was little else to do for Vin when these headaches struck.
"I'm sorry, Pard. I didn't mean to bring this on."
"Maybe he's starting to remember. If he isn't then we're going to have to start explaining soon."
It was late into the evening when Vin awoke again. His head still ached but he remained still as the creaks and squeaks of bodies moving on old bed frames reached his ears. He opened his eyes cautiously to find the room in darkness. He turned toward to the next bed, expecting JD but instead his gaze fell on the man seated, dozing in the chair between them. He looked funny with his hair sticking up like that. Vin remembered all the mornings when he'd be the first one up and watch everyone else stumble from bed, nightclothes askew, Buck with dark stubble on his chin or Chris with his short golden hair spiking up in the air.
This was Chris Larabee. Chris Larabee wasn't his real Pa.
Vin remembered all the other times he'd woken in such a bed but no one had been waiting for him then. His Pa had never come.
He studied the man sitting here now, waiting. Chris was a good Pa and Vin loved him so he should be happy, but he felt so empty. Vin turned over and curled up under the linen sheet trying to silence his tears, the sniffing clogging his nose and bringing with it another pounding headache.
He remembered all of it. He remembered waiting for his Pa. No matter what his Ma had said he wouldn't believe that they would both leave him alone in such a place.
He hadn't been forgotten.
He hadn't been abandoned.
But his Pa never came.
He'd tried to hold onto some hope, but it had grown thin over time and when they put him on the train west it finally snapped completely and was lost. He was travelling with strangers to a place far in the west. How could anyone ever find him?
He'd thought he'd been on that train again. He'd thought someone had finally come for him. He'd thought wrong.
Vin was too miserable to register the extra warmth over his tightly curled shivering frame. Chris had woken to the muffled sobs of the grieving boy. He pulled the blanket up, leaning onto the edge of the mattress to wrap his arms around the curled form.
Vin finally raised his head to look back over his shoulder. Chris felt his chest tighten at the sight. The eyes were empty and desolate, stripped of the light and joy that swirled in those blue pools. Chris knew those eyes so well. How many times had he drunk from them, basked in the awe and the trust the Vin poured over him?
"He didn't come," Vin choked out. "It was you."
Chris felt selfish at his relief in not hearing the words 'only you'. As relieved as he was to hear Vin separate past and present, it was obvious that the little boy was also re-visiting old heartaches.
"I wasn't pretending," Chris offered, hoping to ease some of the burden. He settled onto the small bed sitting up against the wall. He drew the unresisting boy across his lap to rest up against his chest. "I am your Pa now Vin. You were a little confused because your hit your head."
"He didn't come," Vin whispered, finally placing the events back into order, remembering the right train, the right beds, the right man. "Why?"
Chris bent a little close to hear the words as they were repeated.
"Why?" It was a desperate broken question.
Chris gently pulled Vin's curled fist from his mouth where he'd jammed it to hold back further sobs. Chris tightened his hold again as the shivers turned again into distressed shudders. He could only keep one arm wrapped around Vin's narrow shoulders. His other hand, restricted by the splint, hovered over the tangled hair unable to offer any comfort. Ignoring the discomfort he pulled his knees up slightly to balance Vin firmly into his chest, all the while grappling for words to a question that could never be answered.
'Why?' was always a question asked too late.
He couldn't speak for the man that had fathered this boy. He didn't know who he was, what he was or whether he lived or died. If the same question were asked of him? Why would he abandon a child? Death would be the only answer. He would not have gone quietly or willingly from Adam, and neither would he willingly desert Vin. But it was a possibility, as this recent event brought home. He could only speak for himself, tell Vin now the why, in case one day it would again be too late.
"He would have come for you if he could, Vin. Any Pa would cross every desert, every mountain and every river to get to you. No one would choose to leave you, Vin."
Vin turned and buried his face further against the warm chest.
Chris' injuries began to complain at the awkward narrow bed and the weight in his arms. He ignored them in exchange for the comfort they offered Vin. He remained silent as Vin pressed into his chest, the patch of shirt over his heart soon soaked in the little boys tears. Vin was lost and bewildered, grieving for something he'd lost, for something he'd never had. Chris could do nothing but encourage Vin to release the pain. He lost track of time as Vin fell silent and boneless, collapsing into an exhausted sleep. Only Buck's return brought him back from the doze he'd fallen into and made him realise that hours had passed.
Buck sent him a questioning look at the child draped across him.
Buck nodded. He didn't remind Larabee it was his turn to rest. He doubted Chris would be releasing his hold any time soon.
Chris was finally forced to release Vin as cramping arm muscles threatened to disturb his sleep. Buck helped ease the boy down on to the pillows, levering Chris to the side and unsteadily to his feet.
"Go," Buck whispered quietly, reminding the man of their deal. "Don't be back here for another three hours."
"Only one hour left on this shift."
"Three," Buck enforced. Holding Vin had not been any rest for the man. Buck's shift passed in silence. It was late in the day when a quiet question from his right startled him.
"Can I sit with JD?"
Buck turned in surprised, only to find Vin avert his gaze quickly, eyes dropping to study his blanket.
"You can't sleep in the bed with him yet. How about you sit with me?" Buck asked, a little uncertain of his position with the older boy.
Vin shifted nervously under the man's friendly gaze. He remembered things that had happened, things that'd he'd said even though he didn't understand why. "Buck, I'm real sorry about what I said."
Buck shook his head slightly, not following Vin's apology.
"You're a really good Pa to JD. You'd never hurt him. I was...I didn't..." Vin stumbled to explain what he didn't understand himself.
Buck cupped Vin's chin and tilted his face up. "Vin, you don't have to apologise. You were confused after the accident." Buck pulled Vin a little closer. "Come and sit with me for a bit."
Vin shook his head in refusal. "I'll hurt yer arm."
Buck saw the squint in response to the movement, the fine lines that traced around the dull and shadowed blue eyes. "How's that headache?"
"Fine," Vin replied automatically. He looked hard at Buck's short snort of laughter, hurt by the response.
"And my arm's fine too," Buck added. Vin relaxed, meeting the knowing grin with one of his own. He moved in closer to the big man and accepted the offer of a seat, climbing up to straddle Buck's long legs with his own. He peered anxiously at JD. Vin had broken a rib before so he knew how much it must hurt JD with four of them. Everyone was hurt because of him.
Buck was a little startled as Vin suddenly wilted, leaning back into his chest for support. "Vin?"
"I'm sorry y'all came here with me." Vin suddenly dragged in deep uneven breaths, refusing to shed tears while sitting out in the open. "I said it didn't matter. No one shoulda got hurt."
Buck understood Vin's guilt and distress with this disastrous outcome but the reason for the journey hadn't changed. "It was important to come and do this, Vin. It still is."
"I don't wanna go to Denver. Ya can't split us up, please," Vin begged.
Buck tightened his hold letting Vin turn into the crook of his good shoulder. The boy's confusion still remained as both sets of memories sometimes collided.
"Chris isn't goint to take you away Vin. No one will hurt you. He's gone right now to ask the Doctors here in Salida if one of them could have a look at your back."
The two men had discussed their options and Larabee was reluctant to return to Four Corners having failed completely. A number of doctors and surgeons had converged on the busy city to help with the influx of injured and Larabee hoped one would be willing to assist them.
"Couldn't he just forget it? He shouldn't fuss."
"Don't you like it when he fusses?"
Vin shrugged awkwardly, not willing to acknowledge the truth. "Shouldn't fuss if it don't make a difference."
"You sure it doesn't make a difference? I know it makes Chris feel better." Buck could see Vin was doubtful of his words and refused to make any admissions.
Further debate was interrupted as JD stirred from his nap. Although he was restricted to bed, JD had become more active, wearing out both men's short reserves of stories. Buck set Vin down, ready to pull out a checkerboard he'd acquired earlier. The two boys often played at home with a twisted version of rules that only the boys seemed to understand.
The game was delayed however as Chris appeared in the doorway, moving slowly and leaning heavily on a cane. "Vin, I need you to go put your shoes on."
Vin knew instinctively what this was. "It's fine. Can't we just go back home?"
Chris dragged his fingers through his hair and lowered himself down onto a chair to relieve the ache in his knee. "Vin, it's what we came for." He didn't want to return to all the old arguments. "We won't have to go to Denver. Doctor Sheffield is in town assisting here at the hospital and he's agreed to look at you."
"Are they gonna fix your back, Vin?" JD asked.
Vin shrugged as he pulled his boots on, not interested in the topic.
"Do they gotta break it to make it straight?" JD persisted.
Vin blanched and stopped dead in the doorway.
"No!" Both adults exclaimed more sharply than they had intended. Just the thought of it had halted everyone.
"No," Chris stated firmly, dropping his hand onto Vin's shoulder. He rubbed lightly to try to ease the tension he could feel beneath his fingers. "Vin, I know we've all been through a lot but we're here now and there's a doctor who can help."
Chris took one small hand in his, not encouraged as Vin's hand stayed lax in his grip. The young boy at least followed without being pulled along but Chris knew he wanted no part of this. They made their way back to the hospital in silence and waited nervously until they were admitted to Dr Sheffield's room.
Chris had been able to do little more than wire his credentials to Nathan in the hope that he could confirm that Larabee was making the right decision in avoiding Denver. Dr Sheffield was in fact a surgeon, one of the many to travel to assist the D&RG Railroad Hospital. Larabee had discussed Vin's problem with the Doctor and was reassured by the man's interest and questions. Seeing Vin was the crucial test.
Vin looked past Chris to the man rising from his chair to greet them. He appeared to be as old as Josiah, grey streaking back in the sides of his hair. Even the deep rumbling voice was oddly comforting. Still nervous about the upcoming tests, he greeted the man politely but stepping closer to Chris. He didn't move further into the room, preferring to remain with his Pa's hand resting comfortingly on his shoulder.
"I'll just need you to take off your outer clothes and then walk across the room here."
Vin looked around the open room in surprise. "Right here?"
"No one will come in. It's okay, Vin," Chris reassured the shy boy.
Vin's fingers slipped nervously on the shiny buttons of his shirt. Chris moved his fumbling hands away and untucked the shirttails, sliding the buttons loose. His trouser buttons were released and he was soon stripped down to his underwear. Vin stood where he was placed and shivered slightly in the cold. He was focused so hard on the blank wall in front of him that he was startled as the deep voice spoke closely beside him.
"Just bend forward for me. Slowly," was the instruction as one broad hand lay flat on his stomach and the other pushed down on his neck. He flinched at the touch but followed the directions. He was turned and twisted and poked until he lost track of time. He was asked to stand, sit, walk, and lay stretched out flat. The hands gripping his hips or pushing at his spine seemed to dig in deeply and Vin couldn't help but wince.
Chris moved in closer as the procedures and tests continued, frowning at the pressure being applied, the red marks that he knew would leave bruises. He worried as Vin remained silent during the procedure, not showing any signs of the discomfort he must be feeling. Chris continued to field the Doctor's questions the best he could, each enquiry bringing home his lack of knowledge of Vin's history.
Vin ignored the comments and questions between the men, not lifting his attention again until there was a quick pat on his head. "Good boy, you can get dressed now."
It was an instruction Vin was happy to comply with. His attention no longer occupied in ignoring the hands, he turned to follow the adult's conversation only to find himself herded outside.
"Vin, just wait here for me," Chris instructed as he settled Vin just outside in the hall.
Chris cut the protest off quickly. "I'll be out soon so don't go wandering off."
"But..." Vin's attempt to gain admittance was ignored as the door was closed firmly in his face.
"Well?" Larabee asked, as he steeled himself for the news.
"His basic skeletal structure is sound. A curve such as that can be the result of uneven lengths of the major bones in the legs but I could find no serious discrepancy. There is no other sign of any other joints affected or diseased. There are some diseases of the spine that show in a curvature but those appear when the child is older, usually teenage. The curve here is set quite low in the spine and the vertebrate appear to have fused. While it's possible that he was born with this, it's more likely that it was cause by an impact or compression injury that was not treated and allowed to heal in this position."
"An injury," Chris echoed, automatically running through the traumas he knew Vin to have suffered. What else could there be to add to the list?
"He could simply have been dropped as a baby," the doctor supplied. "A simple enough accident where the injury may not show dramatically, particularly if he wasn't yet walking."
"But will he grow normally? Can you do anything?"
"The distortion causes an unnatural strain on the surrounding muscles."
Chris nodded automatically. He had heard all this from Nathan. "Yes, but can something be done?"
"Trying to brace the area would have little effect on the damaged bone structure and probably weaken the muscles. While his pelvis remains in reasonable alignment and he has no pain in the hip joints, there really is nothing to be done."
"But it could get worse?"
"If the curve begins to affect him he may develop a limp. It's simply best monitored, particularly in his teenage years when he's more likely to have growth spurts."
"And the pain?"
"It is a product of the muscle strain. I can provide you with a list of suitable pain relieving draughts."
"But you can't actually do anything," Chris confirmed in disappointment.
"I can see no disease to treat. That in itself is good news." He attempted to console the obviously disappointed man. "Encourage him in outdoor activity, the stronger his back muscles are the better able they will be to maintain the correct alignment of his spine. From neck to lower back, there is no damage and no reason for it to change position so don't allow him to develop a habit of sitting or standing crooked. He may be tempted to relieve the strain but it will only encourage the rest of his spine into poor posture. "
The doctor waited a moment for his words to sink in. "I'm sorry I couldn't provide any other assistance."
"Could this have been fixed earlier?" Chris was worried that they'd waited too long.
"Earlier? While he's been in your care?" the doctor clarified.
Chris nodded. Vin had been with them over a year. They'd known since the start that there was a problem.
"It could perhaps have been correct at the time the injury occurred or for a short period after that, but I do believe this to be a very old injury."
Larabee sat motionless for a moment. There was nothing he could do. There was nothing anyone could do. The futility of this trip suddenly weighed heavily and his shoulders stooped. He consciously pushed himself straighter in the chair. Vin was waiting outside.
"Thank you for agreeing to see us. I know you've been busy." Larabee stood the two men shaking hands briefly.
"I'm just sorry I couldn't do more. A safe journey home to you and your son."
Chris limped slowly out the door only to have two small hands lock onto his arm.
"Are we goin' now?"
The hands released him to allow him to step clear of the door and then instantly his good hand was again grasped by small fingers in need of reassurance. He knew Vin still feared that somehow he would be left here. "We've spoken to the Doctor and now we'll go home. There's nothing to worry about, Vin."
"It's okay?" Vin looked up, surprised and curious at the easy departure.
"Yes. We'll go back home and talk to Nathan again." Chris could see that Vin was relieved at the news. Nathan was familiar and safe. Home was familiar and safe.
"Nothing?" Buck asked in disbelief. "We wait and do nothing?" Buck sat stunned.
"There's nothing to fix."
Both dreaded the thought of telling Vin that this tragedy of a trip had achieved nothing but to tell him to live with it. Vin had been right. He was used to it and he would have to stay used to it.
Chris lowered his head into his hands in surrender. "It was all for nothing."
"It's an answer." Buck reminded him. "It might not be much of an answer and it might not be the one we wanted to hear but it's still better than not knowing. He said it wouldn't get worse, didn't he?"
"He said it's not a disease, it's not something that's spreading, but it doesn't mean it might not be a problem when he's growing. We have to keep a watch."
"Then we'll watch," Buck confirmed. "What will you tell Vin?"
"He hasn't even asked. All he wanted to hear was that he was going home."
"Well, I've got some news from that direction. We got a letter this time." The telegraph wire had kept them in touch with friends but this was the first lengthy communication. Buck pulled the rumpled pages from his pocket.
"Problems?" Chris murmured, not raising his head. He was too weary to even consider having to handle any of the ranch business long-distance.
"No." Buck paused as he read onwards. "They're going to come get us."
"What?" Chris jerked his head up in surprise. "Who?"
"Ezra, Nathan and Josiah."
"All of them? They can't just up and leave the town."
"Ezra says they're bringing that old wagon of ours. Nathan's suggesting he should make it into a travelling clinic for us, considering the use it's getting."
"They're all coming?" Chris repeated, a little shocked and disbelieving.
"Letter's a few days old and says to expect them on the 15th." Buck looked up expectantly. "We could be home in just over a week."
Buck looked across to where the two boys were playing checkers by whatever rules JD and Vin agreed to that day. JD was moving carefully, still easily tired and Vin's headaches were diminished. They were both fit to travel as long as they took things slowly. It was the adults who now fared worse. Buck was trying to rest and rid himself of the low fever that lingered after his stitches became infected. Chris's refusal to rest had left him using a cane, his knee barely improved from more than a week ago. Even now he was stretched out on Vin's bed, the knee propped a little higher to ease the swelling.
Buck had thought their friends' plan would be good news but Chris's expression wasn't so happy. "Chris?"
Chris was still stuck on the idea that their friends were all coming, that they could be going home soon. A sharp rising pain in his throat threatened to choke him as it fought to escape. Chris refused to give in and forced the sob back down. The strangled grunt brought Buck's attention but Chris raised a hand to wave off the advance from Buck. Buck was not so easily dissuaded, pulling his chair in close and reaching a long arm across his friend's shoulders.
Chris forced a smile to reassure the boys, the game suspended as Vin's hand hovered over the playing piece his eyes locked on Chris.
"I'm fine." Chris' attempt to reassure everyone failed dismally. Vin's hand dropped the checker, a worried frown knitting his brow. Buck's gripped tightened until Chris was forced to squirm a little for space. He forced himself to take a slow calming breath and pushed away thoughts of home. They weren't there yet.