|Vin listened at the door. He heard Buck's voice, but couldn't make out
the words. He wished he could be out there, providing back up. Again, he
cursed his blindness. He jumped when he heard the gunshot.
"Oh, God," Vin prayed. "Please let that have been Buck's gun."
He listened some more. He didn't hear anymore gunshots, but he heard what sounded like a scuffle on the ground. Several loud metallic thuds followed. Then silence. Vin couldn't take it anymore, not knowing. He opened the door.
"Buck? Buck?!" he called. "Oh, shit," he muttered to himself, starting to panic when Buck didn't reply.
He stepped outside, grabbing onto the porch rails for support, hoping to God that the thief had gone and he wouldn't have a gun trained on him.
"I'm unarmed and blind as a bat!" Vin announced, dropping his mare's leg to the ground. "All I want to do is find my friend," he said, taking tentative steps in the direction he knew the shed lay, arms outstretched, hands searching.
In the distance the thief watched warily as Vin came out of the house. He wasn't sure if he believed Vin. Why would a blind man have a gun? But then he saw Vin trip over a pile of kindling, landing hard. He laughed out loud.
"Dammit!" Vin cursed, picking himself up out of the pile. He winced as he took a step. He'd twisted his ankle on the wood. Determined, Vin tried to get his bearings. He listened for the sounds of the chickens to guide him toward the coop and shed.
"Buck?" he called as he started again, slowly limping, hands out searching. "Shit!" he swore, bringing his hand to his mouth.
He had cut his hand on the wire fencing surrounding the small pen and chicken coop. Again he heard the thief laugh at him. He sucked on thew ound, hoping to ease the pain and stop the bleeding. He put the hand out again and felt along the fence, more carefully this time, making his way toward the coop.
"Buck?" he called out, straining to keep the panic out of his voice.
When he got to the coop, he got down on all fours and started to crawl around, one hand searching for his friend and the other keeping in contact with the fencing, not wanting to get disoriented.
"You're gettin' warmer!" the thief taunted, laughing again at Vin.
Vin tensed. He tried to ignore the man and keep his focus on finding Buck.
"Oh-oh! You're gettin' colder now!" he yelled out.
"You could just show a little decency and help a blind man out, ya know!" Vin shouted, frustrated.
"What fun would that be?" the thief called out.
"What's gonna be fun is what I do to ya if I ever lay my hands on ya!" Vin shouted angrily.
"Not very likely blind man," the man retorted. "I've had both my dinner and entertainment for the evening. I have no more reason to stay."
Vin heard the chickens rile up and one squawk loudly. The man had taken one more before Vin heard him walking away into the tall grass. Focussing once more on his search, Vin started moving further from the fencing. It felt like hours that he crawled on the ground, panic rising with each passing minute. He called out repeatedly, hoping Buck would hear him and call out or moan or something. The thief no longer taunted him. Vin hoped he really had gone on his way and wasn't going to harass him further, or worse. Vin suddenly realized that he was shaking, hopelessness creeping into his being. Sitting back on his heels, fingers pulling at his hair, he screamed out in frustration. He listened to his own ragged breathing, squeezing his eyes shut tight. After a few minutes he took a deep breath and let it out. Determination regained, he started searching again. Then he felt a hand.
"Buck!" he cried, relief washing through him. Vin felt his way up the arm and touched Buck's neck. He found a pulse and sighed, sending a silent prayer of thanks upward. Then he felt Buck's face. Felt his mustache. Felt the blood on his lips.
"Come on, Buck, talk to me," Vin plead.
He checked Buck's head for wounds. His jaw felt strange, swollen. Buck moaned when he touched it.
"Buck? Can you hear me? Buck?" Vin called to him, but got no response.
Then Vin felt his way down and over Buck's chest, hoping and praying he wouldn't find any bullet holes. Buck sucked in a breath when Vin touched his lower ribs. Vin continued to check Buck for injuries, checking his legs, arms and back. He found none besides the sore ribs and jaw and got no further responses from his friend.
Vin sat back on his heels and sighed. He had to get Buck some help. But how? Neither of them could ride. He realized that they'd just have to wait until Nettie came back in the morning. Vin took another deep breath.
"Okay, first things first," he said to himself. "Let's get you into the house, Buck."
He once again listened for the chickens to get his bearings. Then he grabbed Buck under his armpits and began dragging him towards the fence, fighting the pain that emanated from his own injuries. Once he was at the fence, he changed directions and headed for the house. Vin tripped on the kindling again, causing him to fall down with Buck's head and shoulders landing in his lap. Buck let out a low moan.
"Sorry, pard," Vin apologized softly.
He scooted out from under Buck's limp form and started to drag him again.
"God, I hope I'm headin' in the right direction," he said aloud.
He stepped on something and nearly fell again. He reached down for the object below his foot and found his mare's leg.
"Never know," he remarked as he holstered the weapon.
He reached back and felt the stairs.
"Almost there, Buck," he whispered as he dragged Buck up the stairs and into the kitchen through the back door.
He was about halfway through the kitchen when he backed into the hot stove.
"Goddammit!" he yelled, pain and frustration coming through in the volume of his curse.
He dropped Buck as his hands went instinctively to his back, grabbing at the burned flesh.
"Oh, God, Buck, I'm sorry," he said, dropping to his knees. "I don't know what the hell I'm doin'," he added, despair and self-hatred in his voice.
He took a couple of deep breaths and let them out slow, trying to deaden the pain of the burn and gain some focus. Buck let out a moan and Vin was reminded of his task. Once he had the pain under some semblance of control, he picked Buck up again and dragged him through the house, bumping into and knocking over furniture along the way. He found his way to one of the bedrooms and hauled Buck up onto the bed. Vin sat on the edge and caught his breath. As his head pounded and the pain in his back flared, he fought back dizziness and nausea, grabbing onto the bedpost so he wouldn't fall off the bed. He would have easily collapsed back on the bed himself, if he didn't hear Buck groan.
He turned toward Buck and found his arm. He gave it a squeeze.
"Take it easy, pard," he soothed wearily.
Buck said something, but Vin couldn't understand.
"I can't understand you, Buck," he said.
Buck tried again, but only moaned. Vin felt Buck's jaw again.
"I think it's broke," he said to himself as well as Buck. "Don't talk. I'll be right back." After gathering his strength, Vin limped back toward the kitchen. Slowly feeling his way as he edged along the walls, Vin moved aside any obstacles he encountered so he'd have a clear path back. Once in the kitchen, he found the water pump. Feeling around carefully, not wanting to break any dishes, Vin found a large pot. He primed the pump and washed his hands with the initial trickle of water. He winced as it hit the cut on his hand, but held the wound under the water anyway. Then he filled the pot with water. He tried to remember where Nettie kept her washcloths and towels. He didn't have a clue. He didn't feel like ransacking the house, so he just headed back to the bedroom, trying not to trip or spill the pot of water. He took the top sheet off of the bed and ripped it up, silently apologizing to Nettie, again. He dipped a piece into the water and wiped Buck's face as best he could, being extra gentle near his swollen jaw, hoping he'd gotten most, if not all the blood off his face.
"This would be a whole lot easier if I could see," Vin said. "Shit, you never woulda gotten hurt if I could see," he cursed.
Buck grabbed Vin's hand, hoping to counter Vin's dark thought. He said something, but Vin couldn't understand the words.
"You hurt anywhere else besides your ribs, Buck?" Vin asked, changing the subject. "Show me where, if you do."
Buck only sucked in a breath as he tried to get comfortable. Vin heard Buck's pain and cursed himself again.
"I'm sorry, Buck. I don't think I can do anythin' else for ya. We're gonna have to wait here for Nettie to get back in the morning," Vin said, despair in his voice.
Buck didn't reply. Vin slid down to the floor and sat, leaning his shoulder and head against the bed. He couldn't do anything else. Before too long he fell asleep - anger, fear, stress, pain and exertion finally taking their toll.
Vin jerked awake. A noise had startled him. Hand instinctively on his mare's leg, he listened again and heard footsteps outside the house. Whoever it was, was trying to be quiet and not heard. It wasn't Nettie, he realized.
"Buck, we got company again," he whispered. "Stay quiet," he added, not even knowing if Buck was awake to hear him.
He leaned heavily on the bed as he rose and silently went to the door, closing it as quietly as he could. He drew the mare's leg out of its holster as he put his sore back gently against the wall next to the door. He tried to calm down and slow his breathing. Vin felt as if his heart was going to jump out of his chest, it was beating so fast and hard. He cursed his nervousness, feeling the sweat in his palms make his grip on the mare's leg slippery. He heard footsteps come closer. He listened intently as they stopped at the door. The doorknob squeaked as it turned. When the door opened Vin reached out and grabbed the intruder around his neck and put the gun to his temple.
"Drop your weapons, or I swear I'll blow your head off," Vin threatened, teeth clenched.
Chris, JD, Josiah, Ezra and Nathan approached Nettie Wells' ranch. When Nettie and Casey had gotten into town, they told Chris about Vin's findings. Wanting to better the odds, Chris decided that they'd go to the ranch to help out. They got there just after nightfall.
"No lamps on," Josiah noted.
"Buck and Vin's horses are tied out front, still saddled," JD pointed out.
"I don't like it," Chris said, reining in his horse.
The five dismounted and spread out, slowly surrounding the house as they did. Chris and JD met up on the front porch. They warily opened the door and peeked in, the full moon providing the only light.
"Jesus," JD whispered, seeing the mess inside.
"Looks like our chicken thief decided he wanted more than just chickens tonight," Chris whispered back.
"But where're Buck and Vin?" JD asked.
"Don't know, yet," Chris replied, quietly making his way into the house.
They heard a door close.
"Drop your weapons, or I swear I'll blow your head off," Vin threatened, teeth clenched.
"Vin? It's me, Chris," he said slowly, confusion and just a hint of fear in his voice as he held his hands up, ready to drop his gun.
"And me, JD," JD added, confusion in his voice as well.
Vin, recognizing his friends, relaxed. He released his hold on Chris and lowered the mare's leg down to his side.
"Oh, God, Chris. I'm sorry," he breathed, slumping against the wall.
"Buck!" JD exclaimed, seeing his friend on the bed.
He and Chris rushed to Buck's bedside.
"Is Nathan with you?" Vin asked. "Buck's hurt," he added tiredly, sliding down to the floor.
"What happened?" JD asked, worried, putting a gentle hand to Buck's swollen jaw.
"Bad guy got the drop on 'im," Vin replied, dropping his head onto his knees.
"I'll go get Nathan," Chris said. "Vin, see if you can get some lamps lit around here," he ordered, heading out the door.
When Vin didn't move, JD looked over to him.
"Vin?" JD called. "You okay?" he asked, approaching him. "Vin?" he called again, touching his shoulder.
When Vin didn't respond, JD panicked.
"Chris!" he yelled.
The others met JD at the door, almost knocking him down.
"What's the matter, JD?" Chris asked as Nathan quickly made his way over to the bed.
"Something's wrong with Vin," he said.
"Josiah, Ezra, get some lamps in here," Nathan ordered.
Chris knelt down in front of Vin.
"Vin?" he called quietly.
When Vin didn't respond, Chris reached in and grabbed his chin. He lifted it up to force Vin to look at him. Even with only the moon for light, he was able to make out Vin's features. He was taken back by the desperation in Vin's eyes.
"I can't see, Chris," Vin choked out.
"What?!" Chris exclaimed.
"That's why Buck's hurt. I couldn't help 'im," Vin continued, tilting his head and leaning it against the wall.
Josiah and Ezra returned to the room with a couple of lanterns. Chris finally got a good look at Vin. He saw his eyes.
"Nathan?" Chris called.
"Just a minute, Chris," he replied, still checking on Buck.
When Nathan was done, he turned, taking a step toward Chris and Vin. He stopped when he saw them. Chris's eyes held fear. Vin's were just...empty, he realized.
"He can't see, Nathan," Chris said.
"JD," Nathan began. "Get some cool cloths and put them over Buck's jaw. Be real gentle, too," he finished as he knelt next to Chris.
"Vin? What happened?" he asked, motioning Ezra to hold the lantern closer to Vin's face.
"I don't know," Vin answered. "All of a sudden it started to get dark and I couldn't see anymore," he added, his voice barely audible.
Chris put his hand on Vin's shoulder.
"Buck thinks it's 'cause of my headache," he continued.
"Your head hurts?" Nathan asked, feeling Vin's head, looking for bumps and bruises. Vin winced when Nathan touched the back of his head.
"That where it hurts?" Nathan asked.
Vin nodded, closing his eyes.
"He got hit with that chair in the saloon last night, remember?" Chris remarked.
Nathan nodded as he said, "I've heard about injuries like this. Blows to the back of the head causin' blindness."
"Is it permanent?" Chris asked.
Nathan paused, tried to come up with an answer that sounded hopeful.
"Sometimes," he said, not liking it. "But sometimes it's only temporary, too," he added quickly.
"How do we know which it's gonna be?" Vin asked.
"We don't," Nathan answered. "I'm sorry, Vin."
"Nathan," JD called. "Buck's comin' around."
"Chris, see if you can get Vin to lie down and rest some. I'll check on 'im later," Nathan said, before returning to Buck's bedside.
Chris nodded and grabbed Vin's elbow.
"Come on, Cowboy," he said. "Let's find you a bed."
With Chris's help, Vin rose to his feet. He put his hand out to the wall for support as pain and dizziness overwhelmed him. Chris quickly grabbed him and slung Vin's arm over his shoulder before leading him to the other bedroom. Once there, Chris backed Vin up to the bed and eased him gently onto it. He started to take Vin's boots off, but Vin pushed his hands away.
"I can do it," Vin asserted, slight anger in his voice.
"Sorry," Chris replied, backing off.
"No, I'm sorry," Vin said quickly, with a sigh. "I didn't mean to bite at ya."
Chris didn't know what to say to his friend. He couldn't find the words to either give him hope or console him.
"It's alright, Vin," he finally replied. "Why don't you just tell me about what happened. About the guy who got Buck," he said.
Vin winced as he took the boot off his injured ankle.
"You hurt somewhere else?" Chris asked, concern in his voice.
"Probably lots of places," Vin replied wearily, easing himself down to lie on the mattress. "Can't tell you how many things I tripped on or bumped into. Nothin' too bad, though," he added, not wanting to worry Chris further.
"So you're the whirlwind who messed up Nettie's house?" Chris asked, humor in his voice, as he looked Vin over, checking for anything that might need Nathan's immediate attention.
Vin nodded guiltily and said, "Tell her I'll pay for anything I broke."
"I'm sure she'll understand, pard," Chris replied, patting Vin's shoulder. "Why don't you tell me what happened, now," he said, putting a blanket over Vin and sitting on the edge of the bed.
Vin started to tell him about finding the fake claw marks on the shed and coop. He continued on about how he'd found the tobacco chew in the shed and grass and how he and Buck had followed the thief's trail away from the ranch. Then he began to falter. Chris put a hand on Vin's arm.
"It's just you and me in here, Vin," he said.
Vin nodded and continued.
"It seemed so unreal, Chris," he whispered. "It was like the world was closin' in around me. It kept gettin' darker and darker. Then I couldn't see anything. It was like Buck just disappeared from in front of me. I'd never been so scared in my whole life, Chris," he said, then swallowed hard.
Chris still had his hand on Vin's arm. He gave it a gentle squeeze, hoping to give Vin some reassurance.
"Until we got back here," Vin added.
"What happened here?" Chris asked.
"Buck, just take it easy, okay?" Nathan soothed.
Buck opened his eyes and looked around the room. He sighed in relief that Nathan was there. Then he noticed that Vin wasn't. He tried to talk. Tried to ask where Vin was. But pain and Nathan's restraining hand stopped him.
"Don't talk, Buck," Nathan ordered. "I think your jaw's broke."
Josiah, realizing what Buck wanted to say, spoke up.
"Vin's in the other room with Chris," he said. "He's fine," he added.
Buck put his fingers to his eyes, questioning Nathan and the others.
"Yeah, we know," Nathan said.
Buck questioned Nathan further with his eyes.
"I don't know. He could see again tomorrow or never," Nathan said sadly.
Buck closed his eyes, remembering how scared Vin was and how hopeless he looked on the way back to Nettie's. He wanted to tell the others. Let them know what he saw.
"Come on, let's get you fixed up," Nathan said, changing the subject. "I'm gonna have to wrap that mouth of yours up tight," he said.
"I guess you won't be sweet talkin' any of the ladies anytime soon," Josiah commented.
Buck, still thinking about Vin, ignored the comment.
"What happened here, Vin?" Chris repeated.
"He came back," Vin began, struggling past Chris's restraining hands to sit up on the bed. "Buck went outside to try to catch 'im and left me here in the house. I made my way to the kitchen, so I could try to hear what was goin' on outside. And then I heard the gunshot."
Vin shut his eyes tight and flinched as he remembered the sound.
"Oh, God, Chris," he whispered. "I didn't know what was goin' on. I couldn't take it anymore in here. I had to go out. I was prayin' the whole time that the bastard wasn't gonna shoot me on the spot. I even called out to 'im. Told 'im that I was 'unarmed and blind as a bat,'" he said with a sad chuckle. "Guy musta thought I was crazy. I heard 'im laugh at me when I tripped over the kindlin' pile. I ain't never gonna forget that laugh," Vin added bitterly, stopping to take a deep breath. "I got up, though," he continued. "And I found my way over to the chicken coop. But..."
Chris waited for Vin to go on. He watched as the emotions played across Vin's features. He watched as Vin clenched and unclenched his jaw.
"It's alright, Vin. Just take your time," Chris soothed, reaching over to rub Vin's shoulders.
"I couldn't find Buck!" Vin burst out, knocking Chris's hand back. "I was so afraid I was going to get lost! I didn't want to move! I called and called, but Buck wouldn't answer me. I felt like I was crawlin' around on the ground forever. And that sick bastard was still there, tauntin' me! Laughin' at me! Tellin' me I was gettin' warmer and colder!" he spat. "Buck could have been two feet away from me and died there and I never would have known it!" he shouted, hours of built up guilt and anguish finally coming out in his words.
"But you did find him, Vin," Chris asserted, grabbing the back of Vin's neck and bringing their foreheads together. "You did find him," he repeated as Vin pulled away. "You did real good, Vin," he added.
"Yeah. So good I almost killed you," Vin muttered guiltily.
"You didn't, Vin," Chris admonished. "I'm still here. And you were only doing what you had to do to protect Buck," he said.
Chris finally got Vin to calm down and go to sleep. He looked down sorrowfully at his friend and gently pulled the blanket up around Vin's shoulders. He left the room quietly and met Ezra in the hall. Ezra had started to clean up the mess Vin had made in the house.
"How's Buck?" Chris asked.
"He'll be alright. Josiah and Nathan are wrapping his ribs up now," Ezra answered. "And Mr. Tanner?" he inquired.
"Sleeping," Chris replied. "It hasn't been an easy day for him," he sighed.
"I don't think he'll have too many ahead of him, either," Ezra remarked.
Chris acknowledged the gambler's observation, nodding his head quickly. He looked around the house, sighed, and began helping Ezra. They had gotten all of the furnishings upright and were cleaning up some broken glass when Nathan and Josiah came out of the bedroom. Chris looked to Nathan, expectantly.
"Some bruises, a couple of cracked ribs and a broken jaw," Nathan listed. "I think he'll be okay, with some rest."
"As long as he can keep his mouth shut," Josiah added.
"Yeah, that'll be the tough part," Chris replied with a sad smile.
"Well, despite the circumstances, I'm sure Mr. Dunne will be glad to have the peace and quiet while Mr. Wilmington recuperates," Ezra added with a smile.
"Maybe even get in the last word a few times," Nathan put in.
"JD stayin' with him?" Chris asked.
"Yeah," Nathan replied. "How's Vin?"
"He's asleep for now," Chris answered. "You're gonna need to take a look at him later, though. He's got some cuts and a burn that'll need tendin' to when he wakes up."
"Did he tell you what happened?" Josiah asked.
"Yeah," Chris replied, sitting down heavily onto a chair, remembering Vin's anguished telling of the story.
He told the others what Vin had told him. About tracking the thief, losing his sight and coming back to the ranch. He told them about Buck going out after the thief when he had returned. Then he gave them an abbreviated version of how Vin had gone outside to find Buck and then brought him back to the house. He also told them the part about the thief taunting Vin during his search. He wanted the others to know just what a bastard the man was to laugh at a blind man while he searched for his injured friend.