|From across the street at the jail, Chris and Buck watched with interest
as Vin gestured and talked to Nettie Wells. Though they had no idea what
the two were talking about, they could easily tell that their friend was
trying to calm Nettie down. Placate her maybe. A few more words and reassuring
gestures from Vin and Nettie had a satisfied look on her face. Vin added
a couple more reassurances though, for good measure, they saw.
"So what do you think the boy's gotten himself into this time?" Buck asked.
"I don't know," Chris replied. "But I sure wouldn't want to be him if he disappoints Miss Nettie," he added.
Buck grinned, knowing what it was like to cross the woman. He looked up to see Vin heading their way.
"Do we dare ask?" Chris asked him when he stopped in front of the jail. "Or, are we volunteered too?"
Vin gave him a half smile.
"No, you ain't volunteered too," he countered. "Unless of course, you want to..." he trailed, a hint of mischief in his voice.
"Oh, no, Vin," Chris replied, shaking his head. "I ain't mendin' fences this week."
"Nothin' like that, Chris," Vin said. "I'm just gonna go set up some traps. Some critter's been gettin' into her storage shed and took a couple of chickens from the coop," he explained.
"I'll help ya, Vin," Buck responded. "I still gotta pay back Casey for mendin' some of my shirts last week."
Vin smiled. He knew he'd be able to get at least one of them to help.
"I'm plannin' on headin' out tomorrow afternoon. Miss Nettie said she'd have us for supper after we finished," he said.
"Definitely can't turn ya down, now," Buck agreed, licking his lips.
"Anything for a home cooked meal, huh, Buck?" Chris chided.
"Anything for one of Miss Nettie's pies for dessert," Buck corrected.
"Looks like another fight!" JD yelled, heading for the saloon.
Nathan and Chris followed shortly, leaving their checkerboard behind. As JD bounded up the steps to the saloon, Nathan put a hand on his shoulder, holding him back, as a man was thrown through the swinging doors. They looked up to see a flash of Buck's grinning face before he turned on another of the rowdy patrons. Inside, Ezra, Josiah and Vin were trying to get their own adversaries under control or out of the saloon before things got even more out of hand.
"Vin! Look out!" JD shouted, throwing a punch at one of the Beck boys.
But JD's warning was a bit too late and Vin ducked when he should have sidestepped. He took the full force of the chair as it broke across his back and head, falling down in a heap under the splintered wood. Chris immediately took down Vin's assailant, hitting him with a table leg, but before he could check on his fallen comrade, one of the other Beck boys attacked. Chris blocked his punch and returned with one of his own, sending the man reeling.
'This is getting ridiculous,' he thought.
Frustrated, Chris pulled his pistol from its holster and fired three shots into the air. Everybody froze.
"Enough!" he shouted.
Each of his men grabbed a bad guy, even Vin, who had staggered to his feet by then.
"Vin? You okay?" Chris asked, looking at his friend.
"Yeah," he drawled, rubbing the back of his head and rolling his sore shoulders.
"Ezra?" Chris called to the gambler. "What the hell happened this time?" he asked, annoyance in his voice.
Ezra looked around before he spoke.
"I believe the man at your feet, Mr. Larabee," he began. "Is the one who started this melee by upending one of the gaming tables. Unfortunately, that particular table was being used by these four gentlemen," he finished, indicating four of the men being held.
"Alright," Chris sighed. "JD, take this one over to the jail," he indicated, toeing the man with his boot. "Ezra, give these four ten dollars each and send them on their way."
When Ezra was about to voice his objections about having to pay the men, Chris answered, qualifying his decision, by gesturing to the money that lay scattered about the saloon. Ezra tipped his head slightly in understanding and a sly smile came to his face. There must have been at least two hundred dollars scattered on the saloon floor.
"Well, you ready?" Vin asked.
"You bet," Buck replied, swinging up into his saddle. "So what kind of game are we huntin'?" he asked, rubbing his hands together.
"Nothin' exciting, Buck," Vin replied, shaking his head. "Probably just some 'coons or maybe a fox."
He put his foot into the stirrup and started to mount his own horse, but stopped halfway up. Buck saw the grimace come across Vin's face.
"You okay, Vin?" he asked, concerned.
"Just a headache," he replied. "I'm still a little sore from that chair last night, is all," he explained as he finally swung up into the saddle.
"You sure you're alright?" Buck asked.
"I'm fine, Buck," Vin replied, dismissing Buck's concern.
Nettie met the pair outside as they dismounted their horses.
"Hello, Buck," she greeted. "Vin said he'd bring either you or Chris along."
"He did, huh?" Buck replied, giving Vin a sidelong glance. "Well, I'm only too happy to help ya out, Miss Nettie," he added.
"Hi, Miss Nettie," Vin said, avoiding Buck's gaze.
"I'll show you 'round to the shed," she began, walking toward the side of the house. "Critter hit last night, too. Some more stuff messed up in the shed and another chicken gone from the coop."
Vin and Buck followed the woman. Vin was checking the area as he walked, stopping every now and then to look for the tracks of the animal that was raiding Miss Nettie's property.
"See anything yet, Vin?" Buck asked.
"Nope," Vin replied, eyebrows furrowed.
"Here's where the little thief's been gettin' in," Nettie said, pointing to a small hole in the side of the shed.
"Good sized claw marks," Buck noted.
"And look over here, at the coop," Nettie added, pointing to the chicken coop a few feet away.
"Same marks," Vin said, looking towards the coop.
"What kind of critter you think is gettin' in?" Buck asked.
"Ain't no critters gettin' in here," Vin said, now kneeling on the floor of the shed. "Least not the four-legged kind," he added.
"What?" Buck and Nettie both asked, surprise in their voices.
"How do you know?" Nettie asked, moving over to stand next to Vin.
"Critters don't chew tobacco," he said, pointing to a couple of wads of chewed tobacco in the corner.
"That they don't," Buck sighed.
"I guess we best start trackin'," Vin announced as he started to stand.
A wave of dizziness swept over him as he rose and he had to grab the doorjamb for support.
"Vin!" Nettie cried, reaching for him.
"I'm fine," Vin said, putting his hand out to stop her. "Just got up too fast," he reasoned.
"You still got that headache, Vin?" Buck asked.
"I said I'm fine," Vin replied, already out of the shed and looking for other signs of the intruder.
"Buck, what's wrong with Vin?" Nettie asked, putting her hand on his arm.
"He told me he had a headache. Had it at least since we left town," Buck replied, watching Vin out of the corner of his eye. "Got hit with a chair in a fight at the saloon last night," he explained.
"Vin, if you're hurtin' that bad, then you ain't got no business out trackin' today," Nettie scolded.
"I'm fine, Miss Nettie. It's just a little headache," Vin assured her, glaring at Buck for getting her worried.
Buck just shrugged his shoulders. He knew Vin didn't like anybody fussing over him.
"Stubborn boy," Nettie muttered.
Vin ignored her remark and continued to search the area for tracks, heading away from her.
"Over here," he called from some tall grass.
Buck and Nettie met Vin and looked down at what he was pointing to.
"Boot marks," he said. "Looks like our chicken thief took his boots off over here to try to hide his tracks. Some chicken feathers and more tobacco, too," he added, pointing to the evidence.
"If he hit last night, he's probably still close by," Buck remarked.
Vin nodded in agreement.
"Miss Nettie, maybe you and Casey should head to town tonight," Vin suggested. "Buck and me'll try to track 'im this afternoon. If we don't find 'im, we'll come back here for the night."
"Then, if he hits again we'll be here when he does," Buck added.
"Alright," Nettie agreed.
"I'll get the horses," Buck said, walking with Nettie to the house as Vin started to pick up the track again.
Vin and Buck had been tracking for a couple of hours. They'd alternated between walking and riding, depending on how often Vin needed to check his findings. They were finding small signs of the thief's passing - chicken feathers, tobacco chew and an empty jar from Nettie's shed. Vin had just found the jar and was squatting next to it.
"It's startin' to get dark," Vin said, standing. "I don't think I'll be able to track 'im much further tonight," he added, looking at Buck.
Buck gave him a quizzical look.
"What?" Vin asked.
"Vin," Buck started slowly, confused. "It's not gettin' dark out," he finished, shaking his head.
Vin squinted and looked to the sky. Then he looked back at Buck. Buck saw a panicked expression come over Vin's face as his hands searched wildly for his horse.
"Vin?!" Buck called, jumping off his own horse and rushing over to him.
"I can't see, Buck!" Vin shouted, breathing rapidly, as fear took him. "I can't see!"
Buck reached Vin and held him by his shoulders to steady him. As Vin grabbed onto him, Buck lowered him to the ground to sit.
"Easy, there pard," Buck soothed.
"Buck! I can't see!" Vin shouted again.
Buck took Vin's face in his hands and turned it toward him. He looked into Vin's eyes and saw confusion and, for the first time, he realized, terror. But it was painfully obvious that there was no focus or recognition in them.
"Why can't I see, Buck?" Vin demanded.
"I don't know, Vin," he replied, fear and confusion in his voice. "You still got that headache? Maybe that caused it," Buck offered.
"What am I gonna do?" Vin asked, turning his hands in front of his face.
"Well, first we're gonna get you back to town," Buck said, trying to regain his composure. "Think you can ride?" he asked.
When Vin didn't answer him, Buck gently took Vin's hands and pulled them away from his face, making sure he had his attention.
"Come on, Vin, stay with me," he soothed. "We gotta get you to Nathan's. Now, do you think you can ride?" he asked.
"Yeah," Vin replied quietly.
Buck helped him up and held onto him, to make sure he was steady. Then he led him to his horse. He helped Vin into the saddle and took the reins. Once onto his own horse, Buck led the way back toward Nettie's.
Buck had tried to talk with Vin, occupy his thoughts, cheer him up. Vin realized that Buck was just as scared and confused as he was. In the end, they just fell into an awkward silence, knowing no words could help the situation any. As they rode, Vin's own thoughts and fears about his sudden blindness were the only sounds he heard. Was he going to be blind for life? Or was this only temporary? Maybe when the headache went away, his vision would return. What the hell was he going to do? Maybe he should just shoot himself now, since everything he was ever good at required seeing. He'd even cursed himself for being afraid to ride his horse. Even though he trusted Buck and his horse completely, he was afraid a low branch'd knock him off or that his horse would run off or throw him. He'd tried to pretend he was just out riding on a moonless night. Tried to listen to the sounds around him, hoping they'd tell him what was surrounding him and where he was. But the fear of this complete and possibly permanent darkness overpowered his senses. He squeezed his eyes shut tight.
"Oh, God," he sighed quietly, not realizing he'd said it out loud.
Buck heard Vin and turned around to check on him, as he'd been doing every five minutes or so since they started the return trip.
"You okay, Vin?" Buck called, startling him.
"Yeah," Vin lied, a slight waver in his voice.
Buck sighed. He felt helpless. He knew there wasn't anything he could say or do to help Vin except get him to Nathan. He looked again at Vin and bit his lip. Vin was an excellent horseman, able to do just about anything on a horse, including sleep. But now Buck watched as Vin held on to the saddlehorn, white-knuckled, as if his life depended on it. Vin was absolutely terrified, Buck realized.
"Another half an hour or so and we'll be back at Nettie's," Buck offered.
Vin nodded quickly.
About forty minutes later, they did indeed arrive back at Nettie's.
"Come on, we'll take a quick rest here, get something to eat and then head back to town," Buck said, helping Vin off his horse.
Vin put his arms out, ready to feel his own way to the house. But Buck saw the fear and uncertainty in his eyes and wasn't about to let his friend fall, literally or figuratively. He gently took hold of Vin's elbow ready to show him the way.
"This way, Vin," Buck said quietly. "Here's the stairs," he added.
Vin shook Buck's hand off, growling, "I can do it!"
Buck watched as Vin slowly made his way up the steps to the porch, staying close enough to lend a hand if necessary. He opened the door and ushered Vin into the house.
"Sit down, Vin," Buck said, pushing a chair in front of Vin.
He was surprised when Vin did sit down. He looked down at his friend and frowned. Vin looked awful to Buck.
'That ride back must have been hell,' he thought.
And Buck still felt helpless about what else he could say or do. Finally, he just put his hand on Vin's shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
"I'll get some food and coffee started for us," Buck told him and headed for the kitchen.
Vin sat and listened to the sounds around him. He recognized the sounds of the cabinets being opened and closed as Buck searched them for food. Vin counted seven of the doors open and shut before Buck finally found what he was looking for. He heard Buck puncture a can with a knife and open it up. He smiled a little when he heard Buck curse to himself.
'Probably cut his finger on the can,' he thought.
Vin heard the contents splatter into a metal pan. He heard the sound of metal hitting metal when Buck put it on the stove. Then he started to listen to the other sounds around him. Vin heard the leaves rustle on the trees and scratch the roof as the wind blew. He heard a couple of sparrows chittering back and forth. He heard the horses snort and paw at the ground. Then he heard something else. He listened again. Vin rose from the chair and started feeling his way to the kitchen.
"Buck?" he called quietly, but urgently.
"Yeah, Vin," Buck replied, stepping out of the kitchen, coffeepot in hand. "What do you need?"
"Buck, we got company," Vin replied.
Buck caught the seriousness in Vin's voice and saw it in his eyes. He put down the coffeepot and reached for his gun.
"How do you know?" he asked.
"Heard the chickens rile up," Vin replied, tripping on a footstool.
Buck caught him and pushed him down onto the footstool.
"Stay put," he ordered.
"Buck?" Vin called.
But Buck had already headed out the back door.
Not content to 'stay put,' Vin started clumsily toward the kitchen. He silently apologized to Nettie for all the things he knocked over on the way. Finally, he made it to the back door. He knew he couldn't go out. He didn't know where Buck was and didn't want to give his position away to the intruder. So he sat and listened. He realized that he had his mare's leg out, finger on the trigger.
'Like I'd be able to hit the side of a barn,' he thought bitterly.
Buck saw that the shed door was open and ran to the side, intending to approach from the side furthest from the house. He heard something fall off a shelf inside the shed. He inched his way along the outside, trying to be as quiet as he could. He peeked quickly around the corner, pistol first. All clear. He crept toward the door. He was about to enter, when the thief poked his head out.
"Hold it right there, mister!" Buck commanded.
The man stopped and raised his hands.
"I...I... was hungry," the man said.
"I can see that," Buck replied.
He believed it, too. The man was filthy and looked as if he'd been living in the rough for quite awhile. Though a big man, his clothing hung loose on him.
"I didn't mean no harm," he said slowly.
"Well, all you had to do was ask, and I'm sure Miss Wells, the owner of this here ranch," Buck said, gesturing around him, "She woulda been happy to help ya out. But since you didn't ask, I'm afraid I'm gonna have to take you into town."
"Sure," the man said, hanging his head.
"So, why don't you come on out of there, nice and slow," Buck said, still aiming his gun at the man.
The man started to walk out of the shed, but at the last minute he grabbed a shovel. He was quick with it and hit Buck's arm as the gun's trigger was pulled. The shot missed its target and the gun was knocked from Buck's grasp. Buck knocked the shovel out of the man's hands and then he managed to land a good punch to his ribs. They fought back and forth, trading punches. But then the thief grabbed the shovel again. Buck went down hard when the end of the shovel smashed first into his ribs and then up into his jaw. He lay there in a daze, helpless, as the man went through his pockets and took the money he'd had on him. He thought he heard Vin call his name before he lost consciousness.