In the pitch blackness of the Pullman sleeper car, Garret Weston lit another match and flipped open his pocket watch for the third time; 4:45 a.m. He flicked it shut. Chicago was at least another hour away. Another hour of being cramped, rattled, and of having his eardrums mercilessly assaulted.
As if on cue, the inhabitant of the top bunk let loose with a wall rattling snore and Weston's patience snapped. "Blast it Huxley, roll over!" Flipping back the gray wool blanket, Weston planted a swift kick on the bottom of the upper berth, knocking it half-way to the ceiling and, he hoped, rolling Huxley onto his side. When the bunk dropped back into place and only silence greeted his outburst, Weston sighed and returned to trying to find a comfortable way to wedge his 6'2'' frame into what felt like a minuscule six foot space.
Getting just a might prissy in your old age aren't you, Wes? he asked himself. Time was when you slept on the ground with only a bedroll and nothing short of a stampede could have 'woken you up. But that was long in the past. It was strange but at forty, Weston was finding that he simultaneously had both more and less tolerance for situations such as Huxley presented. Twenty years ago, he would have snubbed Huxley instantly when the ambitious San Francisco attorney had invited himself to share Weston's compartment on the train headed for Chicago. Huxley's story about going to Chicago to try and win back the woman he'd lost nine years ago wouldn't have influenced him in the least. But that was before he'd known the pain of losing the only woman he’d ever loved. Empathy was a new emotion for Weston, and he wasn’t sure quite how to handle it, but putting up with Huxley for five days had sounded reasonable at the time.
It was a decision that had been relatively painless until he found out that the damn fool snored loud enough to wake the dead when he was drunk. Early last evening Huxley had left the poker game early and had finally staggered into their stateroom a couple of hours ago, drunk and mumbling a string of curses. Weston had dodged a couple of lose swings before he finally got Huxley into the upper berth. Weston wasn't sure who'd finally cracked Huxley's cool facade but he was willing to bet that someone would soon find there'd be hell to pay. Based on five days of close quarters, Weston had decided that Huxley reminded him of a diamondback rattler. Curled up and sunning himself he was safe enough, but riled he was always lethal.
Another snore shattered the silence. With a sigh of resignation, Weston lit the small oil lamp mounted on the wall next to his berth. If he couldn’t sleep, he might as well go rustle up a cup of coffee. A moment later he had dressed and run a comb through his curly dark blond hair and neatly trimmed beard. Noiselessly, he opened the door of the stateroom and with a swaying gait that matched the motion of the train, moved quietly past the curtained berths that lined the rest of the Pullman car. The dining car was near the end of the train. As he walked the length of the five cars he noticed that while he heard an occasional deep throated rumble, nothing matched Huxley either in volume or in duration. Just my luck, he thought ruefully.
"Morning, Mr. Weston," the porter greeted him at the doorway of the dining car. "Jes' you come in and sit right down there and I'll fix you up with somethin' good."
Moving past the porter, Weston was surprised to find the dinning car already occupied, and by someone he recognized. He'd known Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field and his wife were on board the train; they'd had their private car attached in San Francisco, but for reasons he hadn't wanted to dwell on he'd have preferred to avoid seeing them.
The bearded, impeccably dressed older gentleman rose quickly from his seat and extended his hand in greeting. "Weston, my good man, what are you doing here?"
"Just looking for a cup of Arbuckle's, Judge, same as you are." Weston drawled as the other man enthusiastically shook his hand.
Field motioned Weston to join him at the table. "You've been keeping company with your foreman too long, Weston. You're beginning to sound like a slow talking Texan cowboy; instead of the man I hope will someday be one of California's senators."
Words out of the past, dreams out of the past. Weston shook his head. "Lizzie was the one who wanted Washington; it wouldn't be the same without her."
Field nodded his head in silent agreement. “It’s still hard to believe she’s gone. Sue was inconsolable. But all this is beside the point. Why didn’t you let us know you were on this train? You’ve been such a stranger, Sue feels like she’s lost both of you.”
This is exactly why he hadn’t wanted to see them. He simply wasn’t in any mood to commiserate with his wife’s best friend about their mutual loss. In an attempt to change the subject, he eyed the cup of coffee the judge was cradling in his hands. "Does this mean that the luxuries of a private car don't include room service?"
“Weston, you say that with such an air of Calvinistic disapproval, but this time I’m entering a not guilty plea. Mrs. Stanford insisted Sue take her private car for our trip back to Washington and Sue wouldn’t have dreamed of offending her. Even you would have had to accept gracefully if Lizzie had been in the same position... I’m sorry I don’t mean to keep bringing her up.”
“It’s hard not to.” With unusual candor Weston admitted, "It's been over a year and part of me still can't believe she's gone. I still keep expecting to turn around and see her standing next to me."
Judge Field thoughtfully tugged at the corner of his beard. "Thank God Sue is twenty years younger than I am. I don't think I could carry on if I lost her."
"Life goes on, Judge, whether we want it to or not. Me, I’ve got a ranch to run, and cattle to buy.”
“Is that why you’re going to Chicago?”
Weston nodded as he accepted a cup of coffee from the porter. They sat in silence for a moment until Field asked, “How well do you know Coleman Huxley?"
"Passing acquaintance. I'm sharing a stateroom with him, but that's because it was the last one available when we left San Francisco."
"I just wondered how he was taking the news that he didn't get the appointment replacing Judge Sinclair on the State Court. He seemed rather upset when he left us last night."
Was that what had gotten Huxley so riled up last night? Weston thought.
"Had Huxley been in the running?"
"Yes, Judge Bradley spoke quite eloquently in his favor, but something about the man has always bothered me. When it came right down to it I found I just couldn't support his appointment."
Weston was just about to advise Field not to turn his back on Huxley, when his words were cut off by the shrieking squeal of brakes. A few seconds later, a thundering crash reverberated through the car as it lurched forward, then snapped back, throwing Weston sideways across the aisle and crashing into a table. For a moment time and space converged and his world consisted of nothing but drawing one ragged breath after another. Finally, using the table as support he pushed himself upright only be driven back down towards the table, when a sharp stab of pain ran through his left side. After a few ragged breaths he once again pushed himself to his feet. He placed his hand on his side and winced. Sprained or cracked but not broken. When that blasted horse had kicked him back in ’60 he’d learned what broken felt like and this wasn’t quite as bad.
With a wobbly gait he returned to the table he'd shared with Field.
Muttering a string of obscenities, Field was slowly pulling himself out from under the table. When he'd once again gained his seat he put a hand to the back of his head and rubbed at his bald spot. "I'm not sure I'm as thick as they say. The inside of my head is screaming."
Screaming. That was it. It wasn't just the judge's head that was screaming. Weston had noticed the noise right away but he hadn't been able to place it. Now, as he listened more intently the sound grew louder, more frantic, higher pitched, and decidedly human. Weston reached for the small pistol from his jacket pocket and headed for the door. If it was train robbers or Indians he'd do what he could. He'd rather have had his Colts but they were back in his compartment four cars away, and there wasn't time to go get them. Two shots weren't much, but if they were well aimed...
Stepping down from the train, bright orange flames lit up the sky and illuminated the scene about ten cars ahead of him. Dumbfounded by the nightmarish spectacle unfolding before him, he put his gun back in his pocket; two bullets might have helped against train robbers but not against this. In the eerie dawn, it was only too clear what had happened. The Rock Island Express had crashed into the rear end of another train and people were dying.
The screams drove Weston into action. Heedless of his bruised ribs he ran until he reached two men struggling to attach a hose to the nozzle on the water car. "Can you get pressure?" he shouted to them.
"Think so. Here, take the hose." The man thrust the nozzle into Weston's hands.
He was instantly joined by another man and together they grabbed the hose and ran forward toward what was left of the other train. The engine of the Rock Island had telescoped at least two of the old wooden cars into a continuous mass of rubble and the fire was rapidly destroying whatever was left. Pointing the hose toward the carnage they opened the nozzle. The water gushed out in a steady stream but the flames, already consuming the cars, leapt higher, encircling them from all sides. It was as if the flames were alive and part of some ravenous creature from the depth of hell, with a giant gaping maw that sucked in and completely overwhelmed what ever puny efforts Weston and the other man brought against it.
Choking from the smoke and the stench of burnt flesh, Weston knew their efforts here would prove futile. He turned to the other man on the hose. "We've got to move forward. We don’t know how much water we have and we’re wasting our time here, maybe we can still save those up ahead." Slowly, they inched forward, keeping the water directed at the flames as they went. Weston prayed that the hose would be long enough for them to reach a car where there was still someone left alive to rescue.
The heat from the blaze beat at him and the smoke caused him to labor for each breath but he plodded forward until the hose was ripped from his hands and someone shoved him to the ground. The man, who had grabbed the hose, was trying desperately to refocus the stream of water back onto the first car.
"My wife, my babies, we've got to save them! You can't just let them die."
Weston picked himself up off the ground and looked back at the car. Even if the fire hadn't ravaged it beyond salvation, the collision had flattened it. No one could have lived through it. Trying to be heard above the roar of the flames, Weston shouted, "It's too late."
The man screamed his denial and struggled to get the hose away from the other men.
Weston shoved him aside. "Damn it, man, we've got to save the living. Help or get out of the way."
Weston left the man staring back at the wreckage of the car and moved forward once again until he heard a voice shouting. "What can I do to help?" There wasn't another hose, and it was questionable how much water was left, but there were other options. "Get shovels. Smother the fire with dirt,” he shouted to the man.
Fifteen minutes later the water ran out but they'd put out the blaze in two of the cars. Weston looked around, trying to decide what to do next. Everything was in shambles. The fire that had ravaged the train had died down but it was hard to tell how many people had survived.
"Hey, somebody give me a hand over here,” a man's voice bellowed from one of the wrecked cars. Weston hurried over. The fire hadn't touched the car, but broken timber, smashed seats and rubble were strewn everywhere. The man waved his hand. "Over here. Help me move old Joey."
Weston moved forward into the car. Old Joey, as the man had called him, lay trapped under the luggage rack and wood from the roof. It wasn't clear how badly the old man was hurt, only his head and one shoulder was exposed above the wreckage that buried him, but his face was a chalky gray and his breathing was labored.
Weston bent down and took one end of the large beam that rested across the old man's chest. "Let's get this off you so you can breathe better."
"No." The old man furiously shook his head. "Don't waste time on me. There are others hurt worse."
The younger man took the other end of the beam and together they heaved it aside. "Aw, shut up, and let us get this junk off you so we can get you out of here."
A train whistle sounded in the background, and the car resonated with the vibrations from the track. "Sounds like help is arriving." Weston said.
Working steadily they had cleared all the rubble except a massive wooden and metal beam that had fallen across the man's leg. Weston bent down, took one end, and heaved, and was immediately splattered by a spurt of blood. The man's foot had been severed at the ankle, and the heavy beam had been acting as a tourniquet. Moving rapidly, Weston pulled out his handkerchief, picked up a large splinter of wood and tied off the bleeding. He looked over at the other man. "He's got to have a doctor. Go see if one came in on the train."
Ashen-faced, the younger man nodded then reached down and squeezed the older man's shoulder. "Joey, you just lie here now, all right? I'll be right back."
The old man looked up at Weston. "You shouldn't be taking all this trouble with me. Other people need your help."
"Don't give up the ghost, ol' fella. You're going to make it." A moment later, Weston felt a hand on his shoulder. A tall, portly man stood behind him.
"I'm Dr. Stanfield." Weston moved out of the way. The doctor looked the old man over. "Who put the tourniquet on him?"
"Good. My niece is on her way with another trainload of doctors and supplies. In the meantime, stick close to me. I need someone with a clear head to help out."
The rhythmic motion of the train would normally have put Sara Winthrop promptly to sleep, regardless of the hour, but she knew that wouldn't happen this morning. Not when the words of Uncle Isaac's note kept echoing in her mind. "Train wreck. Bring nurses and supplies. Get to the Rock Island depot as fast as you can."
It had taken her barely half an hour to gather the four best nurses at St. Bartholomew and all the morphine, blankets, and bandages the hospital could spare. Despite that, Sara and her nurses were the last to board the special hospital train. Three doctors, whom Sara recognized as having served with her uncle during the war, were already on board along with young Dr. Josephson and three nurses from Chicago General.
Sara had barely gotten settled in the crowded passenger car next to Molly Neelen, one of the nurses she'd brought with her, when the train started to pull out of the station and a young dark-haired man entered the car. "Ladies and gentlemen, I want to extend to you the sincere appreciation of the Rock Island Railroad for your help, as well as to bring you up to date on the situation. Shortly after five o'clock this morning, the Rock Island Express collided with a circus train. I'm unsure at this moment about the extent of the damage, but I believe the situation is quite serious. They were able to tap into the telegraph lines to notify us, and Dr. Stanfield, from St. Bartholomew's and several of our own people, arrived at the site about an hour ago, so you shouldn't be walking into utter chaos."
"How many people have been injured?" Sara asked.
"I'm not sure, Ma'am, I'm afraid the number is well in excess of hundred. The collision started a fire...."
Fire... In her mind's eye, Sara once again remembered the flames licking out at her, and felt the heat and smoke begin to surround her. Her breathing became ragged as she fought down the sick dread in her stomach. In the four years she'd been volunteering at the hospital she'd become used to death and disasters, but the thought of a raging blaze still held a very personal terror for her.
Molly silently reached over and squeezed her arm. "Now, don't you be worrying about that fire, Sara. When we get there you'll be too busy to even know you're scared."
Sara smiled her gratitude. Molly was one of the few people she didn't try to convince that she was invincible. In fact, even though they never saw each other outside of the hospital, Molly was probably one of the few friends she had. Molly had been at the hospital that night four years ago during the fire when she'd brought Jason in, fearing for his life and hysterical with worry. She shoved the memory back down into the recesses of her mind. He was a fine healthy eight-year-old now. Well, almost healthy and that was good enough.
It was after seven a.m. when the train began to slow. Sara stood by the door, holding the black medical bag Uncle Isaac had given her over a year ago. She'd felt uncomfortable with it at the beginning. It had seemed to imply a level of medical knowledge she knew she didn't posses but Uncle Isaac had insisted telling her she'd find a use for it and sadly, he'd been right. Emergencies and accidents seemed to happen with distressing frequency.
The air smelled heavy with smoke and the early morning sun harshly illuminated the full extent of the tragedy. Down the track as far as she could see, the grass was strewn with a blanket of heavy black cinders, curiously intermixed with bright spots of red, blues, yellows, and pinks.
Uncle Isaac waved to her from the rear of the ruined train, and as she rushed to join him the multicolored cinders solidified into identifiable objects. The yellow was all too obviously the shred of a tight, the pink the remnant of a ballet dress. What broke her heart was the sight of a large pair of charred black clown shoes. If this was what was on the outside, the damage inside the cars must be even worse. Sara swallowed hard and ordered the queasiness in her stomach to stop.
"Sara, who did you bring with you?" Isaac Stanfield looked up from the patient he was working on.
"Molly, Jane, Sue Ellen and Nora are right behind me." Sara pointed out the four women hurrying toward them along with the others from the train.
Stanfield nodded at Sara, and then turned his attention toward one of the doctors from St. Catherine's who had served with her uncle during the war. "Manson, just pretend we're back at Belmont."
"That bad, Colonel?"
"That bad, Major."
"That's what I thought when I saw the others on the train. The last of the regimental medical corp. Well, don't worry. We'll have an operating theater set up in jig time."
While Stanfield had been talking to Dr. Manson he'd continued to work on the man in front of him, and without a word Molly had slipped in and begun assisting; clamping the wound so he could suture it.
"Thanks, Molly." He returned his attention to Sara. "Go see what's going on in that car over there. A gentleman's been helping me, and he headed off in that direction."
Sara stepped gingerly through the debris as she worked her way into the car. The force of the impact had telescoped one of the cars into the other and literally reduced the compartment to rubble. The smell of smoke was still thick in the air and as she dragged it into her lungs she coughed.
"Dr. Stanfield? Over here." A strong, self-possessed voice called out to her from amidst the rubble at the back of the car.
"I'm not Dr. Stanfield, but I can help." I hope, she added silently under her breath.
A man stood up and began making his way through the wreckage toward her. "Miss, it's not a pretty sight back there.” He placed his hand on her waist and begin turning her back toward the way she had come. “I think you had better get Dr. Stanfield,”
With her attention focused completely on the destruction around her, her first reaction to his words was that he was being condescending and she was about to reply that she was quite capable of handling the situation when she stopped and looked up at him. At five foot six she knew she wasn’t a small woman but he seemed to tower above her. His manner wasn’t imposing but he seemed to completely fill the space he occupied and to demand her attention. The fact that his curly blond hair and beard were tinged with soot and his once well tailored sack coat was now caked in grime told her that what ever had been happening here he’d been in the thick of it. Everything about him said that he was a man to be counted on; now the only question was whether or not she was equal to the silent challenge in his eyes?” Swallowing hard she said, “Dr. Stanfield is in surgery. I'll do the best I can, Mr..?"
"Weston. Garret Weston.” He looked her over appraisingly. “Miss, are you sure this is what you want to do?” His eyes bored into her as if he was searching for the truth of her soul.
For the shortest of moments, feeling unreasonably naked and exposed Sara took a step back and broke his locked gaze, but then her stubborn pride instantly reasserted itself and she said tartly, “I promise not to faint on you, if that’s what you’re concerned about.”
“No, clearly you’re a woman made of sterner stuff.” The faintest hint of a smile seemed to warm his eyes and he gave her a small nod, “All right, there are two men back there and one of them is very badly hurt.” He holding out his hand he continued “Follow me and be careful where you step, we can’t afford to have you break an ankle in the rubble.”
Gingerly, with Garret Weston’s strong hand to stabilize her she picked her way toward the injured man. From what she could see he must have been asleep in a berth in the middle of the car. Any further back and he would have been crushed instantly. In fact as she saw the torso of a huge man, surrounded by the remnants of a sleeper berth it wasn’t really clear to her how he had survived at all. She glanced at Weston questioningly “How...?”
“Look at him. He’s as big as a tree. Anyone else would have been crushed in an instant. Like everyone else around him.”
Sara shuddered and refused to speculate on the meaning of Weston’s last comment. Instead she focused on the injured man and the true impact of his size hit her. She glanced at Weston; he was a big man, well built, with muscles that bulged under his dirty coat, but the man lying trapped underneath the rubble of the accident must have been twice his size. The enormity of the man was even more striking in comparison with that of his companion. A dwarf sat on the floor next to him holding his hand and trying futility to brush back his free flowing tears.
He looked at Sara and then at his friend. "Help's here, Hercules. This nice lady is going to help. Aren't you, lady?"
"Of course." Sara bent down and opened her bag. "I'm going to give you something for the pain, and then we'll see if we can get you out from under all this rubbish."
"No!" Hercules bellowed. Lowering his voice, he turned his head toward the dwarf. "Danny, you promised--you promised to help me die. I can't stand the pain anymore."
Sara motioned Weston to join her on the floor. "Could you hold his arms, please? I'll give him a shot of morphine." The muscles in the giant's arm twitched so convulsively that Sara was afraid for a moment she wouldn't be able to find a vein.
When she finished the injection she heard Weston whisper in her ear. "He's completely crushed from the waist down. He's dying and he knows it."
"The morphine will begin to work in a moment and then we can get Dr. Stanfield or one of the other doctors to look at him."
"No amount of medical help can save him. The only thing still alive is his heart and his brain, nothing else." Weston's voice was insistent.
His eyes bored through her, holding her, compelling her to do...what? "I don't know what else I can do. I'll get Dr. Stanfield." Sara started to stand up, but Weston gripped her arm and held her where she was.
"Out west, when a horse takes a fatal fall, we don't let it suffer. We shoot it."
Sara shook her head violently. "He's not a horse, he's a man." She again tried to rise but once again Weston's strong grip held her.
"Miss, he's dying and he's in pain. No man deserves worse treatment than a horse."
As if to emphasize Weston's point, Hercules let out a piercing scream of agony that tore through her. Sara carefully measured out another shot of morphine.
"He needs more."
Sara looked up to see the dwarf staring at her.
"Miss, he's done for. Don't let him suffer. Please?"
Sara looked at the man lying on the floor. Weston was right. Hercules was dying, slowly and painfully. She pulled the plunger back further on the hypodermic and injected the second, much larger, dose.
"Will that do it?" Weston asked in a whisper.
"I don't know. I think so. Give it a minute or two." Sara watched with a mixture of fascination and horror as the muscles of the mighty Hercules began to relax. His face stopped twitching and his eyes became unfocused. He reached out for the little man's hand.
"Danny, do you see her? Christine is here. Can't you see her? Christine! Wait honey, don't leave me again." The giant tried to lift himself up to his feet, and then with a cry he fell back down, lifeless.
Sara sat there, on the floor of train, dazed and horrified by what had happened.
"You did the right thing. You know that, don't you?" Weston reached down and helped her up.
"He's dead," Sara mumbled inanely, refusing to meet Weston's eyes.
"Look at me." He put his hand under her chin and forced her to look him in the eyes. "It's a tough world, and all of our decisions aren't pretty ones. You did the right thing."
Something passed between them in that moment as they stood there with their gazes locked. Sara had the strangest thought that somehow they were making a pact. Somehow promising a life in exchange for the death they had just helped hasten, but that was nonsense, they were strangers, they didn’t have a future, did they?
"No guilt. Promise me?" Weston question drew her back to the present and to the realization that her Uncle Isaac was calling her.
“Sara! Sara Winthrop, where the devil are you?”
“I have to go” she said and Weston released her. Without looking at him again, she reached down, pick up her bag, and stumbled toward what was left of the door.