|As Billy led Vin back to Nathan's, Vin stopped short. Something had gotten
his attention. Someone's voice? No, someone's laughter.
"Hey, Billy, how about takin' me for a little walk, huh?" he asked, bringing his attention back to the boy.
"Ma said to come right back," Billy replied.
"Come on, kid," Vin said. "I've been cooped up for two days now. A walk around town won't hurt none," he said.
He had to be sure about the laughter.
"I don't know," Billy said, unsure of what to do.
"Okay," Vin started. "At least take me to my wagon so I can get a new shirt to wear," he said, thinking quickly. "The one I had before got all tattered. I can't go walkin' around in my undershirt all the time, now can I?" he asked, pulling at the undershirt he was wearing for emphasis. "Won't take long," he added.
"I guess it'll be okay," Billy said.
Vin put his hand on the boy's shoulder and patted it before he had him lead the way. All the while, he was listening for the laughter. He was also counting steps. Visualizing the way to his wagon from memory, he added the numbers so that later on, after dark, he would be able to make the trip again, by himself. Just as Billy put Vin's hand on the back of the wagon, he heard the laughter again.
"Great. Thanks, kid," Vin said as he climbed inside.
He felt around the wagon for his clothing bin. He found what felt like a shirt.
"What color is this?" he called to Billy, holding up the shirt.
"Blue," Billy replied.
Vin threw the shirt towards Billy, hoping to distract the boy. Then he felt around for something else. He found the small pistol exactly where he remembered it would be. He quickly checked to see if it was loaded. He hid it from Billy's view as he backed his way out of the wagon and stashed the gun just inside the entry.
"Hey Billy, hear that guy laughin'?" Vin asked.
"Yeah," Billy replied.
"Do ya see him? Do ya know who he is?" Vin asked.
Vin was formulating his plan. He'd get out again later, and not just for the sake of getting out. He had a mission now. He'd get to the wagon, get his gun and find the man. He'd be able to make it look like self defense, too. A ruthless thief beating up on an injured blind man. Then again, he didn't care if he survived to defend his actions or not, as long as that bastard died first. Billy interrupted his thoughts.
"I see him, but I don't know him," Billy replied. "I saw him check into the rooming house just before, when Ma brought me up to help you," he added.
"Where is he now?" Vin asked.
"Heading toward the saloon," Billy answered.
"Okay, kid. Let's head back," Vin said. "Let's go through the front door, this time."
Billy led him back to the rooming house. As he walked he again counted his steps, visualizing the path from the wagon to the front door of the rooming house. He had Billy stop at the office.
"Hey, Vin," Mrs. Murphy greeted softly. "The boys told me about what happened to you. I'm awful sorry," she said. "If there's anything at all I can do for you, let me know," she added, touching his arm.
"Thanks ma'am," Vin answered. He started to walk away with Billy when he stopped and said, "You know, Mrs. Murphy, there is something you can do."
"Sure, Vin," she replied.
"Billy says a stranger came to town, checked in with you this mornin'," Vin began. "I heard him talkin' and he sounded familiar. I was hopin' you could tell me about him. So I know if I should avoid him or not," he finished.
Mrs. Murphy knew about the bounty on Vin's head and therefore understood his wariness of strangers in town.
"Checked in just a little while ago, into room four," she began. "Said his name was Jacob Lambert," she finished.
"Jacob Lambert?" Vin asked.
"Do you know him?" she asked.
"Not by that name," Vin replied. "Can you describe him for me?"
"Big man, dark hair and a scraggly beard. About forty," she began. "Looks like he's been out of civilization for a while. You know, needing a bath and all," she continued. "But he had enough money," she finished.
"Could be my friend. I'll have to ask one of the boys to check him out for me," Vin said. "Thanks, Mrs. Murphy," he added before letting Billy lead him back towards Nathan's room.
The stairs again took their toll on Vin, making his head hurt, and he had Billy bring him right to his bed. Mary had been ready to scold both Vin and Billy for not coming right back. She'd seen them walking towards the wagon from the balcony. But when she saw Vin lie down as he did, all those thoughts were gone.
"Vin? Are you okay?" she asked.
"I guess stairs and my head just don't agree," Vin replied quietly, between soft moans.
Mary went to Nathan's desk and got some of the medicine he'd left if Vin or Buck needed some for pain. She put some in a spoon and brought it over to Vin.
"Here, open up," Mary said, holding the spoon to his mouth.
"No, I don't," Vin started, trying to refuse.
But before he finished the sentence, Mary shoved the spoonful into his mouth.
"I've been warned about you, Vin," she said in response to his hurt look. "Now rest up and be good and I won't tell Nettie about your little adventure," she added.
"Nobody plays fair around here," Vin muttered, sinking into the pillow.
"Including you, Vin," she said to herself.
Vin hadn't planned on falling asleep. He woke up with a groan. He was sore and a little disoriented at first, but his head didn't ache as much as it had before. In fact, he felt pretty good, compared to earlier that morning.
'Maybe I shouldn't be so mad at Mary for making me take that medicine after all,' he thought.
"Well, hello, sleepyhead," Nettie greeted him, patting his knee.
"Hey, Miss Nettie," he replied.
"How are ya feelin'?" she asked.
"Okay," he answered, sitting up.
"Good, 'cause it's time to change your bandages," she said, reaching for his cut hand.
Vin thought about resisting, telling her that he was fine, but thought better of it. He'd have to be nice to Nettie if he wanted his plan to work. He gave her his hand willingly, submitting to her ministrations. He didn't even fuss when she applied more salve to his burn, though he did bury his face into the pillow to try and hide his pain.
Buck watched Vin with interest. He was suspicious. Vin was being too cooperative, in his mind. He saw the determined set of Vin's jaw. If his eyes weren't bandaged, Nettie would have seen his eyes and seen the wool Vin was pulling over hers. What was the boy up to? Hopefully, just another walk outside.
When Nettie finished up bandaging Vin's back and pulled his shirt down, Vin rolled over and sat up.
"What time is it?" he asked.
"Just after five," Mary replied. "I'm heading home to get supper started. Stew for us and more broth for Buck," she said, giving Buck an apologetic look.
He shrugged his shoulders. Only two days of the broth and water diet and already he was sick of it. But he knew he couldn't eat anything else. He wrote Mary a note before she left and handed it to her, giving her the saddest puppy dog look he could muster.
-- Any chance of a beer or a whiskey to chase the broth down? --
"Sorry, Buck," she said, shaking her head as she headed out the door.
As Mary left, Vin thought about his plan. As far as he knew, Mary didn't tell Nettie about him getting dizzy on the stairs earlier, so Nettie might not object to him going and using the stairs again. But if Mary was at her place, she might see him at his wagon. Getting his gun was out of the question. He had one option left as he looked for his boots.
"Vin, what're ya doin'?" Nettie asked.
"Just lookin' for my boots," he replied.
"What do ya need them for?" she asked, getting ready to steer him back to bed.
"I really need to use the privy, Miss Nettie," he replied.
Buck smiled inwardly, wondering if Nettie was going to give in to this one, as Mary had.
When Nettie hesitated, Vin begged softly, "Come on, Miss Nettie. I've been a good boy. Let me have some dignity, tonight."
'Oooh, Vin, you found the magic words,' Buck thought, seeing Nettie's face change from suspicious and stern to motherly and somewhat sad.
Nettie handed Vin his boots.
"You gonna be okay without us, Buck?" Vin asked.
He knew Nettie would be looking at Buck for his response as he checked his right boot for the knife he kept hidden in it. For some reason he couldn't remember if it was there during his morning trip out. He found it. Now he wouldn't need to go to the wagon.
"All set," he said, boots on and standing.
"We'll be right back, Buck," Nettie said, leading Vin out of the room.
"See ya, Buck," Vin said, turning toward him, before leaving.
Buck's eyes grew in confusion now as he heard certain finality to Vin's voice. He tried to call to them as the door closed, but his shouts were muffled behind the bandages around his swollen jaw.
'Oh, shit, Vin,' he cursed. 'What the hell are you gonna do?'
Buck gathered all his strength and pulled himself upright, breathing hard against the pain. He had to find Vin before he did whatever it was he had planned. He searched the room for his clothes.
Nettie waited patiently for Vin to emerge from the privy. He reached his hands out for her when he did. She thought he looked tired and took his arm and put it on hers. Vin walked slowly, gradually leaning more and more onto Nettie's guiding arm.
"Vin, are you all right?" she asked, putting her arm around his waist now, supporting his ever increasing weight.
"I'm sorry, Miss Nettie," he panted. "I just feel dizzy all of a sudden," he added, collapsing to the ground as they reached the steps to the back door of the rooming house.
"Vin!" she cried.
"I don't feel to good," he gasped, holding his head.
Nettie tried to pull him up, but she just wasn't strong enough and Vin wasn't helping.
"Better go get some help," Vin breathed.
Nettie didn't want to leave him. Vin let out a moan.
"Alright," she said, getting worried. "But you stay here and don't move a muscle," she warned. "I'm goin' to go get Mary," she added and hurried away.
As soon as Vin knew she couldn't see him anymore, he got to his feet. He finished climbing the steps and entered the rooming house. He tried to remember the layout from when he himself had roomed there, before he got his wagon. He felt the doors for the numbers nailed to them.
"Six...five...four," he counted quietly.
He reached down and got the knife from his boot. His palm was sweaty and he took a deep breath to try to calm himself. Then he knocked on the door. No answer. He tried the door. It was locked.
'Not a problem,' Vin thought as he used the knife to jimmy the lock.
He was inside in no time and closed and locked the door quickly as he heard Nettie and Mary calling for him outside.
"That fool boy!" Nettie growled. "I'm gonna whip him good when I find him," she swore.
"Go upstairs and stay with Buck, Billy," Mary told the boy, scooting him toward the stairs.
"Let's split up," Nettie said, looking around for her wayward charge. "I'll check his wagon, you start with the saloon," she ordered.
The two women went their separate ways searching for Vin, stopping everyone they saw, asking if they'd seen him.
Inside the room, Vin leaned against the wall next to the door, trying to decide whether what he was doing would work or if it was just plain stupid and suicide to boot.
'It worked on Chris,' he thought, as he went over his plan.
He hoped he could be as intimidating with a knife as he had been with a gun. And if not, he'd have at least died trying, he resolved.
Buck had managed to find his pants and get them on by the time Billy made it to the room.
"Ma's gonna be mad at me when she sees you outta bed," Billy said, seeing Buck grab onto the bed for support.
Buck tried to talk to question the boy, find out what happened to Vin if Billy was sent here to stay with him, but again, his efforts were futile. He grabbed the pencil and paper and wrote furiously before handing the note to the boy.
-- Where's Vin? --
"We don't know," Billy answered. "Miss Nettie said he fell and needed Ma's help. But when we got back, he was gone."
Buck ran a hand through his hair and tried to think about where Vin may have gone off to.
"Maybe he went to find his friend," Billy said, hoping to help.
Buck looked at the boy and wrote again, handing the note to Billy, urgency showing in his eyes.
-- What friend? --
"The stranger that checked in downstairs this morning," the boy replied. "When we were out this morning, Vin heard a man laughing and asked me and Mrs. Murphy about him. He said it sounded like a friend of his."
'Shit!' Buck cursed to himself, remembering Chris telling him what Vin had said about the thief's laugh. He wrote another question for Billy.
-- What room? --
"Four," Billy replied, fear in his voice as he saw Buck reach into Nathan's desk for Vin's mare's leg.
After making sure it was loaded, Buck wrote one last note before making his way painfully to the door.
-- Go get your Ma and Miss Nettie --
When Billy hesitated, Buck growled "NOW!" at him through his clenched teeth.
Billy ran out of the room and down the stairs. Buck didn't see the man the boy ran into as he headed out of the rooming house's front door. Buck was still seeing stars as his ribs protested his movements.
Vin took what seemed like his hundredth deep breath as he leaned against the wall. Then he heard it. The laughter. The man had asked a child what his hurry was and then laughed at the youthful exuberance as the child kept running.
'This is it, Tanner,' he thought, tightening his grip on the knife.
He listened as the footsteps approach the door. He heard the jingling of coins in a pocket as the man fished the key out. He heard the key turn the lock and the door open. And just like he had with Chris, Vin reached out and grabbed the man around his neck, intending to put the knife to it. But this man was a lot taller than he had expected and his plan faltered. The man, though surprised by Vin's presence, easily escaped Vin's grasp and shoved him away.
"You're that pathetic little blind man from the ranch," the man laughed when he recognized Vin.
"And you're still a two-bit chicken thief with no morals, Lambert, or whatever your name is," Vin returned, weaving the knife back and forth in front of him as he set himself into a defensive crouch.
"It's Lambert, today," he replied. "You know, I could just shoot you," he added, walking around the room, trying to decide what to do.
"You could," Vin said, following the man's movements. "Like to see how you'd defend yourself in court for shootin' a blind man, though," he added with a smile.
Lambert picked up the water pitcher and threw it to the floor in front of Vin. Its crash startled the tracker, but he did not move from his crouch. Impressed, Lambert reached for the room's lone chair and swung it out in an arc, hitting Vin in the arm with it and knocking the knife out of his hand. Vin didn't even think about searching for it as he clutched his arm. He just listened for a split second to find out where Lambert was and launched himself at the man, growling like a wildcat.
Mary and Nettie had made their way through town without any success. They sighed in relief when they saw Chris and the others ride their way.
Chris saw the anguished looks on their faces.
"Mary, Miss Nettie, what's goin' on?" he asked, dismounting his horse.
"Vin's gone," Mary answered.
"What??!!" Chris and the others exclaimed in unison.
"That sneaky little...." Nettie muttered, balling her fists, ready to say something nasty.
"Yeah, we know," Nathan said, stopping her from saying something unlady-like. "How long ago?" he asked.
"Ten minutes, tops," Mary replied.
"Alright, spread out," Chris sighed.
Buck barely made it down to the first floor of the rooming house. He was leaning heavily on the wall, panting for breath and trying to control his pain at the same time. He wasn't being very successful, he realized. He heard a crash in one of the rooms down the hall and swore as he continued his journey to it. He reached the doorway and collapsed against the jamb, holding onto it to keep himself upright, unable to move any further. Inside, he saw the man he recognized from Nettie's ranch and Vin wrestling around on the floor. He raised the mare's leg, but couldn't get a clear shot of the chicken thief. Hope came to his face as he saw Vin finding and grabbing his knife from floor. But just as Vin was about to bury the knife into the man's side, Lambert grabbed Vin by the hair and slammed his head down onto the floor. As the man rose, smiling over Vin's still body, he looked to the door and saw Buck.
"I remember you, too," Lambert smiled.
Buck leveled the mare's leg at the man's chest and fired, sliding down the doorjamb as Lambert's body hit the floor next to Vin.
"Ma! Ma!" Billy shouted, running toward Mary and the others, who had just begun to spread out.
"Billy! What is it?" Mary cried, worried about her son.
"Buck told me to come get you!" he gasped, out of breath from running.
Mary was just about to question him when they heard the gunshot.
"Stay here!" Chris ordered the women and the boy as he and the others raced towards the rooming house, weapons drawn.
"Vin?" Buck moaned, crawling over to him.
Vin let out a groan and opened his eyes. He blinked them a few times. The bandage had come off during the fight. He looked toward Buck, then Lambert and then back at Buck again, with tired, but focussed eyes.
"Ugly son of a bitch, ain't he, Buck," he whispered, giving Buck half a smile before closing his eyes.
Buck reached frantically for Vin, afraid. He was relieved to find him still breathing, if barely. He heard people running down the hall towards the room and picked up the mare's leg, ready to defend himself and Vin.
"Buck?! Vin?!" Chris called.
Buck recognized the voice and relaxed, dropping the weapon once more. He eased himself down to lie on the floor, all the strength he had, no longer needed, gone. Chris and Nathan stopped in their tracks at the door when they saw what lay before them.
"Buck! Vin!" Chris exclaimed, coming to kneel between the two.
Buck put his hands up and waived Chris off, silently telling him to check on Vin first. Nathan was at Vin's side now.
"Vin? Vin, can ya hear me?" he called, placing his hands on Vin's neck and chest.
"Buck, what happened?" Chris asked. "And who is this guy?" he added, pointing to Lambert.
Buck pointed to his jaw and his ribs.
"The guy from Nettie's?" Chris asked.
Buck closed his eyes and nodded before pain and exhaustion brought on unconsciousness.
"Let's get both of them back upstairs," Nathan said, urgently motioning to the others who had arrived.
Chris sat between the beds in Nathan's clinic, willing himself not to get up and pace the floor. Nathan had given him enough dirty looks for one day, and it was only mid-morning, now. The last time Nathan had even threatened to sedate him, one way or another. Chris wasn't sure what other methods Nathan had in mind, but he didn't want to find out, either.
Chris looked at Buck's sleeping form. Nathan had assured him that Buck would be fine. He hadn't done any more damage and just needed rest. Buck had awoken briefly after being brought back to Nathan's. But the only thing he wrote down when they questioned him was 'Vin can see.'
"Sure, a lot of good that does him, now," he said to himself, looking at Vin.
Nathan wasn't so sure if Vin would be fine. When they'd found him, he was barely breathing and his pulse was too slow. Nathan had found blood from a cut on the back of Vin's head and he believed Vin had been hit there again. Hard. He hadn't moved a muscle or made a sound since being placed back into bed, even when Nathan stitched up the cut. Chris dragged his hands down his face and sighed. He looked up as Josiah entered the room.
"Chris, Nathan," Josiah said. "Judge sent a telegram," he continued. "Go on out, JD's got it," he added, going to check on Vin and Buck, telling Chris and Nathan with his actions that they'd have to find out what the wire said for themselves.
They didn't think it was good news. With one more look at their friends and a reassuring nod from Josiah, the two left to find JD.
"I don't fuckin' believe this!" Chris swore, crumpling the paper and throwing it to the ground. "We were sent to Eagle Bend to protect a stagecoach full of soldiers!"
"Well, Mr. Larabee," Ezra started. "The decoy did allow the territory governor, in the real stagecoach, to leave Yuma safely in the opposite direction," he reasoned.
"The governor has hundreds of his own soldiers!" Chris yelled back. "While we were babysitting men perfectly capable of takin' care of themselves, Buck and Vin..."
He closed his eyes, not finishing the thought.
"Chris! Nathan!" Josiah called from the clinic window. "Buck's awake!"
The four ran up the stairs to the clinic and went to Buck's bedside.
Josiah was trying to calm him down, telling him that Vin was indeed, still alive.
After Nathan quickly checked him over, Buck nodded to Chris, telling him with his eyes that they needed to talk. The others went back outside to the balcony.
"How ya doin', Buck?" Chris asked, sitting on the edge of the bed.
Buck shrugged his shoulders slightly and motioned for pencil and paper. Chris handed them to him.
-- How's Vin? --
Chris swallowed and looked down before meeting Buck's gaze.
"Nathan's not sure," he answered and watched Buck write some more.
-- He was ready to die --
"What do you mean?" Chris asked, concerned.
-- I heard it in his voice Vin went after him He had it all planned out --
Chris was confused at first. They'd thought that Lambert had found Vin out in back of the rooming house and, recognizing him, attacked him. He looked back at Buck, who nodded his head solemnly.
"Shit," Chris swore under his breath.
Chris went out to the balcony and told the others about Buck's observations. After talking with Billy and Mrs. Murphy, they confirmed them.
"Looks like you can start calling Vin those nasty names you were thinkin' earlier, after all," Nathan told Nettie.
"I already have," she replied. "And I'm savin' some for myself, too. Ooh, I can't believe I let that boy con me like that," she muttered.
"Don't go blaming yourself, now, Miss Wells," Ezra comforted the woman, patting her arm. "You are by far not the first, nor will you be the last person that Mr. Tanner has mislead to his advantage," he added.
"Us, included," Josiah put in, leading the others to nod in agreement.
'I only hope he'll con us again,' Chris thought, looking through the open door at Vin's still form.
Two days later, Buck was waving goodbye to Claire, the latest of his many ladyfriends who had come to visit him and bring him and Vin get well wishes. Nathan returned to the room, looked at Buck and shook his head at the man's ability to woo the ladies without a single word spoken. He glanced across the room at Vin and frowned. He didn't know how much longer Vin would hold out. They'd been able to get some water and broth into him, a little bit at a time, but that wouldn't give him enough strength and nourishment to survive for long. He needed to wake up.
Nathan sat at his desk and sighed. Josiah and Ezra were finally able to drag Chris from the clinic early this morning. Judge Travis was coming to town, they'd said. Chris had several words for the Judge, most of them having only four letters. Nathan thought about what he'd like to say to the Judge as well. Probably the same four letter words Chris was going to use. Buck interrupted his thoughts. He was snapping his fingers, trying to get his attention. He looked at Buck, who only pointed at Vin. Nathan looked over at him. Vin's eyes were open.
"Vin? Can ya hear me?" Nathan called, sitting on the edge of the bed.
Vin blinked slowly and his eyebrows furrowed but he did not meet Nathan's gaze.
"Vin?" Nathan called again, gently putting his hand to Vin's cheek, hoping the contact would help Vin connect with him.
Vin inhaled deeply at the touch and turned his head. His eyes locked with Nathan's and he let a half smile come to his lips.
"Hey, Nathan," he whispered.
Nathan grinned the biggest grin he'd had in days. Vin was awake and his eyes held a look that only meant he had his sight back.
"Welcome back, Vin," he said. He patted Vin's shoulder and added, "Let me get the others."
Over the next couple of days Vin slowly gained some strength. He was only able to stay awake for short periods of time - long enough for the others to have short visits with him and get some food into him. Between the bouts of dizziness he still got and the lingering headache he had, that was about all he could handle. Up until the fifth day, they didn't even have to worry about him sneaking out of bed.
On that fifth day, at his first attempt to get out of bed himself, Chris, Nettie and Buck, who was getting around a bit himself, appeared at his bedside. One look at their faces and Vin sheepishly got back under the covers.
"That's right, Vin Tanner," Nettie told him. "You get right back in that bed. We ain't lettin' you out of our sight this time. And you ain't gonna sweet talk me again, neither," she scolded, finger waving in front of his nose.
"Yes, ma'am," he whispered to her.
Nettie gave Chris a knowing look and left the room. Chris got a chair for Buck to sit on and he sat on the edge of the bed, near Vin's feet.
"Uh-oh," Vin muttered. "You boys got that serious look in your eyes."
"Yeah, Vin, we do," Chris began, looking at Buck for confirmation.
"Vin," Chris began. "What you did the other day, goin' after Lambert by yourself. We know you did it, not carin' if you got killed tryin'," he said, anger in his voice.
"Didn't have nothin' to lose," he replied.
"You had everythin' to lose!" Buck got out, pain in his words as well as his jaw.
"I was blind!" Vin countered. "What the hell kind of life could I have?"
"Vin, don't you know what you accomplished, even blind?" he asked. "First, you rescue Buck out at Nettie's. Then you find and track down a criminal here in town and come this close to takin' him out yourself," he added, putting his thumb and forefinger together.
"Most folks wouldn'ta been able to do what ya did with two good eyes," Buck said.
"And you didn't even give yourself time to try and heal before you set your mind on endin' it all," Chris said. "You didn't even try."
"Not to mention the fact that ya coulda put Nettie, Mary and Billy in danger if they'd looked for ya in the roomin' house first," Buck put in, still wincing as he tried to talk without moving his jaw.
Vin looked away, not willing to accept the truths Chris and Buck presented him with, especially the last one. He didn't even think about the risk he put the others at.
"I'm sorry," he said finally, looking back at them.
Chris and Buck stood up, knowing that Vin meant what he said. Vin started to get up as well.
"Oh, no," Buck said, pushing him back onto the mattress. "You ain't goin' nowhere until WE say ya do."
Vin looked at him and nodded quickly, but Buck and Chris both saw the scheming going on behind those baby blues of his.
"Nettie!" Chris called. "You can come back in now, and bring those items with you," he added.
Nettie came back into the room and walked over to Vin's bed. She had something in her hands, but Vin couldn't tell what it was. She handed the metal objects to Chris and smiled when she saw Vin's panic-stricken face.
"Oh, no you don't!" Vin shouted, struggling from Chris's grasp.
But Chris was quick and had the handcuffs on Vin's wrist in no time. He attached the other end to the bed frame and gave the key to Nettie. Nettie took the key, put it on a chain and put the chain around her neck, under her dress.
"There's no way out this time, Vin Tanner," she said mischievously.
"You guys don't play fair," was all Vin could say.