Four men ran into the bedroom to find Vin screaming Buck's name at the top of his lungs. He was tangled in the blankets, trying to get out of bed. Chris was sitting on the edge of the bed. He had his hands on Vin's shoulders and was gently shaking him, trying to wake him up and hold him in the bed at the same time.
"Vin? Vin, wake up," he called. "Vin!"
Vin's eyes opened and he bolted upright, gasping for breath.
"Vin, it's alright, we're here," Chris soothed.
"I can't find Buck," Vin said, hands searching wildly.
"Vin, it's alright," Chris asserted, grabbing Vin's wrists and holding them. "You found Buck and he's gonna be just fine.
"That's right, Vin," Nathan added, squatting on the floor next to the bed. "You done real good helpin' him."
Vin woke up completely now, hearing both Chris and Nathan speak to him.
"Is Buck really gonna be okay?" he asked.
"Why yes, he is, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied.
"Thanks to you and the Good Lord," Josiah added.
Vin sighed in relief.
"Now, back to you," Chris said, changing the subject. "I think it's time we get you fixed up."
"Yeah, Vin," Nathan responded. "Chris says you got a couple of hurts needin' tendin' to," he said, taking Vin's cut hand into his own to examine it.
A pain-filled hiss escaped Vin's lips and he grabbed his hand back from Nathan's grasp.
"Except for my eyes, I'm fine, Nathan," he asserted.
Chris looked meaningfully at each of his friends.
"Ezra, why don't you and I get some breakfast started," Josiah said, putting his arm around the gambler's shoulders. "I don't know about you, but I'm gettin' a might hungry," he added.
Ezra, taking the hint, agreed.
"We'll check in on you later, Mr. Tanner," he said, heading out the door with Josiah.
"I'm gonna go check up on Buck again," JD said, backing out as well.
"I'll be right back," Nathan added, standing.
After Nathan left the room, Chris turned back to Vin.
"Come on, Cowboy," Chris admonished. "It's show and tell time."
"I'm fine, Chris," Vin asserted, repeating his earlier statement.
"No, Vin, you're not," Chris said, putting his hand on Vin's burned back for emphasis.
Vin flinched, nearly falling off the bed.
"Now. Am I gonna have to rip that shirt off of you and hold you down?" Chris threatened. "Or are you gonna let Nathan take a look at you willingly?" he asked.
Vin knew Chris would follow through with his threat if he didn't agree. He hung his head for a moment before starting to unbutton his shirt.
"Knew you'd see it my way," Chris chided, a small, triumphant smile forming on his lips.
"You don't play fair, Chris," Vin muttered.
Chris and Nathan came out of Vin's room a little while later.
"I'm worried about him, Chris," Nathan said.
"I know," Chris replied. "We all know how he can be. We're gonna have to force him to do everything, includin' keepin' hopeful," he added.
"I don't know how long we'll be able to do that," Nathan replied. "If he don't get better after awhile, we may start to lose hope as well."
Ezra and Josiah looked up from the table.
"I take it Mr. Tanner is still not cooperating?" Ezra asked.
Chris sighed and nodded in response.
Ezra had brought a plate of food in for Vin and had seen the look of contempt on his face as Nathan and Chris forced him to lie down so they could apply some salve to the burn on his back.
"Chris had to practically shove his breakfast down his mouth after you left," Nathan said.
"You can hardly blame the man," Josiah said. "He's been through quite a lot, physically and emotionally this past day. And despite his accomplishments in that time, we know Vin. It's going to take a lot of convincing to get him to accept any kind of help."
"I think I'd wanna die if I couldn't see," JD remarked absently as he joined the four. "Oh, God," he gasped when he realized just what he said. "You don't think Vin would," he started to ask.
"I don't know," Chris interrupted, answering JD's unfinished question. "But we ain't gonna give him the chance to try."
Later that morning, Nettie returned to the ranch, finding Josiah, Ezra and JD mounting their horses.
"Did you find the little thief?" Nettie asked.
"No, ma'am," Josiah replied. "But we're going out after him now," he added, tipping his hat to the woman.
Ezra and JD tipped their hats to her as well before they followed Josiah and rode around to the back of the house.
Nettie entered the house, stopping in her tracks at the sight she saw.
"What in the Lord's name happened?" she asked.
Chris, coming out of the bedroom, tried to think of a way to tell her.
"Sorry 'bout the mess, Miss Nettie," he said, taking a breath. "I'll explain everything to you."
"Where are Vin and Buck?" she asked, knowing something was wrong.
"Have a seat," he told her.
"Where are Vin and Buck?" she repeated, her tone of voice telling Chris that he had better answer her directly this time.
"They're in bed," he started.
"They're hurt?" Nettie asked, heading for the bedrooms.
"Wait!" Chris called, stopping the woman in her tracks.
"What, are they sleeping?" she asked softly, turning back to Chris.
"I need to tell you," he started.
"What is it Chris?" she asked, taking Chris's hand, seeing his troubled expression.
He took a deep breath.
"Vin's blind," he let out.
Nettie was speechless for a moment, not knowing how to respond to Chris's statement.
"What? How?" she stammered. "I want to see him," she finally got out, heading again toward the bedrooms.
"Let me tell you what happened, first," Chris said, grabbing her arm gently and sitting her down.
He proceeded to tell her the entire story, hinting at Vin's reactions to not finding Buck right away and the thief's taunts, as well as Vin's current state of mind.
"I'll see to him, now," she said, rising from the chair, determination in her voice.
Chris went to the other room to see Buck. Nathan had given him some laudanum to ease his pain and help him rest, but he was awake when Chris entered. He nodded his head slowly to his friend.
"Hey, Buck, how ya doin'?" Chris asked. Buck shrugged his shoulders. He reached for the pencil and paper on the bed and wrote.
-- How's Vin? --
Reading what Buck had written, Chris replied, "He's okay," not wanting to worry Buck.
But Buck didn't believe him. He looked at Chris and willed him to tell the truth. Chris couldn't refuse.
"Alright, so he's not okay," Chris began, sitting on the chair beside the bed. "He's scared and he's hurtin', both inside and out," he continued. "Not that he'd admit it, though," he added.
Buck nodded and wrote more, handing the paper to Chris.
-- My fault - shouldn't have let him track with headache --
"Jeez, Buck! It ain't your fault anymore than Vin thinks it's his!" Chris admonished, rising from the chair. "The only people we can possibly blame are the drunk from the saloon two nights ago that smashed the chair onto Vin and that son of a bitch chicken thief that got you," he reasoned, sighing loudly.
Buck wrote another note and gave it to Chris.
-- Vin blaming himself? For what? --
"Yeah, Vin's blamin' himself - for you gettin' hurt. Thinks that if he could have been able to see, he would have been out there with you and you wouldn't have gotten beat up," he replied tiredly. "What a pair you two are makin'," Chris added, shaking his head.
Nathan entered the room. He frowned at the two men.
"You should be sleepin', Buck," he scolded, pointing his finger at Buck and glaring at Chris.
"I'm goin', I'm goin'," Chris responded.
"Miss Nettie said we could use her wagon to take these two back to town," Nathan informed him. "We'll head out after lunch. But until then, I want them both rested," he ordered.
"Vin's asleep already," Nettie called from the door. "Or at least pretendin' to be," she added.
"Did you get to talk to him?" Chris asked.
"I tried," she answered.
The three knew what that meant.
Nathan and Chris carried Buck out to the wagon. Luckily, the laudanum had k icked in and Buck wasn't feeling too much. They turned back to the house to get Vin, next. He was at the door, feeling his way toward the stairs. They heard Nettie scolding him at the same moment.
"Vin Tanner, you get right back here and wait for someone to help," she demanded, grabbing at his shirtsleeve.
"I can walk, Nettie," he growled.
Chris reached him and grabbed his elbow before he missed the first stair down.
"Easy, Cowboy," Chris admonished. "Miss Nettie's only tryin' to help."
Vin dropped his head and sighed.
"Sorry, Miss Nettie," he apologized.
"I know, Vin," she replied, caressing his cheek. "We just don't want to see you hurt anymore than you already are," she added.
Chris walked a still limping Vin to the wagon and helped him in. Vin sat next to Buck. Nathan got in beside him.
"Vin," he began. "I'm gonna cover your eyes up with some bandaging," he continued, taking Vin's hat off.
"Why?" Vin asked.
"Protect 'em from the sun, mainly. It'll keep other stuff out of 'em, too," Nathan explained.
Vin nodded and let Nathan wrap the bandage around his head, covering his eyes. Nettie climbed up into the seat of the wagon and waited for Nathan to mount his horse before she got the team going. Chris rode alongside the wagon, keeping an eye on Vin and Buck.
"When are the others gonna meet up with ya, Chris?" Vin asked.
He hoped they'd find the man. He hadn't hated a man this much since Eli Joe. Not only did he steal from Nettie, who was like a mother to him, but he hurt Buck, too. And of course there was the fact that the son of a bitch laughed at him when he was hurt, blind and searching for Buck. "Said they'd meet in town by nightfall," he replied.
Vin gave Chris a slight nod.
Chris looked at Vin. He knew he and Vin needed to talk. But Vin wouldn't let him in anymore. The fact that he had shown Chris how he felt with his words last night was only due to the fact that he was probably in shock and not thinking straight. Now he had his wits about him and he was a closed book. When he recanted the story again, it was without emotion. Chris also knew that fear, anger and self-doubt were slowly consuming Vin. Chris wanted so much to tell Vin that he'd be okay, with or without sight. That it was okay to admit that he was scared. That they would all help him out any way they could. But JD's earlier statement kept coming back to haunt Chris. Despite what he told JD, he truly believed that Vin, in his current state of mind, would choose death over blindness.
"Chris, you better duck soon," Vin announced.
Chris looked up at Vin's warning. Sure enough a broken tree limb hung down partially blocking the path Chris was riding in.
"How'd you know?" Chris asked, astonished.
"Heard and felt Nettie slow the team. Felt it goin' downhill," he replied, matter-of-factly. "We're comin' up on the crossroads," he added.
"You're right," Chris replied.
"You see, Vin," Nettie called from the wagon seat. "You're trackin' even without your eyes."
"Hell, Vin," Nathan added. "JD probably woulda hit that branch with two good eyes."
Vin smiled a little at the joke. He knew they were trying to cheer him up, give him hope. He couldn't blame them. But he couldn't believe he had any future as a blind tracker, either. He couldn't believe he had any future as a blind anything.
Nathan saw Vin's smile disappear.
"Hey, Vin," he called. "How's Buck holdin' up there?" he asked.
"Alright, I guess," Vin replied, reaching over to Buck. He placed his hand on Buck's forehead. "Don't feel like he's got a fever or nothin'. He ain't made a sound since we started," he added.
"Good, at least he's sleepin' well," Nathan responded.
Chris looked at Nathan and nodded to him. He knew Nathan really had no need to check on Buck. He was just giving Vin something useful to do.
When they arrived back at Four Corners, JD, Josiah and Ezra were already there.
"Well?" Vin asked when they met the wagon.
"Couldn't find him," JD answered.
"We'll head out again tomorrow," Josiah promised when he saw Vin's head fall, disappointed.
Josiah and Nathan carried Buck, who was still sleeping, up to Nathan's rooms.
Vin got out of the wagon and held onto the side for support until the slight dizziness left him and he got his bearings.
"JD, ya wanna help me get to my wagon," Vin called, already limping in that direction.
"Whoa, Vin," Chris said, grabbing Vin's arm. "You're comin' up to Nathan's."
"I don't want to stay at Nathan's. I'm already sick of everybody takin' care of me," Vin responded, shaking off Chris's hand.
Chris pinched the bridge of his nose, frustrated.
"Just for a couple of days, Vin," Chris responded.
"I don't want to," Vin repeated, teeth clenched.
"Fine, go ahead," Chris told Vin, sighing at Vin's stubbornness. "You don't want any help, then you won't get it," he added, looking at Nettie, Ezra and JD, telling them to let Vin be.
"But Chris!" JD protested, watching Vin slowly head out into the street.
Chris silenced him with a look before getting ahead of Vin. He then stuck his foot out in front of Vin, tripping him to the ground. He backed off silently as Vin searched for what had tripped him.
"Why, Mr. Tanner, are you alright?" Ezra asked, helping Vin up and turning him slightly to disorient him.
Vin shook his hand off angrily and continued, cursing Chris silently as his head started to ache again.
Chris watched as Vin walked into the side of a horse and bumped into a couple of the townspeople. He hated doing this to Vin, but it was the only way that he could think of to convince him that he needed their help. At least for now. Before he knew it though, an obstacle he couldn't ignore, a stagecoach coming up fast, headed straight for Vin. Chris ran quickly to him and grabbed him, pulling him down to the ground on the side of the street.
"Vin, that last one coulda gotten you killed," Chris said, letting go of Vin and sitting him up. "Now, are you gonna come along quiet like or are we gonna have to carry you kickin' and screamin' to Nathan's?" he asked, in a tone Vin would know as a threat.
"Chris," Vin began before stopping short. "Dammit! I hate this!" he yelled, frustrated, balling his fists.
Chris put his hand on Vin's shoulder.
"I don't want to be a burden to no one," Vin whispered.
"Vin, all we're askin' is that you stay with Nathan for a little while," Chris explained. "Just 'til you can get around without hurtin' and can get your bearings back."
Vin thought about Chris's statement. He really did feel like shit, he realized. And he didn't want to be carried off kicking and screaming, either.
"Fine," he sighed.
"Knew you'd see it my way," Chris replied, pulling Vin up off the ground.
"You still don't play fair, Chris," Vin muttered.
JD led a reluctant Vin to the stairs. Finally giving in to the offered assistance when the stairs and his injured ankle didn't agree, Vin slung one arm across JD's shoulder and hung onto the rail with the other. As he hopped up the stairs, the ache that had returned to his head turned into an all out pounding. He collapsed onto the bed JD had led him to with a groan, curling up tightly on his side as he clutched his head in his hands.
"Vin? You alright?" Nathan called, as he rushed to his side.
"My head's poundin' again," he gasped, his breaths coming quick and shallow.
Before being asked, Chris was there with a cool washcloth. Nathan put it on the back of Vin's neck.
"Or, you put it where you think it'll help," he told Vin.
Vin left it where it was and after a few minutes, his breathing slowed.
"Thanks, Nathan," he whispered.
"Why don't you rest up some? It was a long ride today," Nathan told him.
Vin nodded, ceding to Nathan's suggestion.
"We'll be around, Vin," Chris said, patting his shoulder and leaving the room, motioning Nathan to follow.
Nathan, along with the others, met Chris outside.
"Is he gonna be alright?" Chris asked, concerned.
"I think so," Nathan began. "Hopping up the stairs like he did literally shook 'im up, probably caused his head to be hurtin'. I'll try to give 'im somethin' to help 'im rest," he finished.
The five men and Nettie stood silently, pondering the fate of their friend. The silence was broken when Mary Travis called to them.
"Chris!" she yelled, crossing the street towards them.
The men descended the stairs to meet her, leaving Nettie to stay with Buck and Vin.
"What's the matter, Mary?" Chris asked.
"You got a wire from the Judge," she said, holding the paper in her hand. "Says he wants you boys to ride to Eagle Bend to meet a stagecoach coming in from Yuma."
"A stagecoach?" JD asked. "Who's in it?"
"Doesn't say," Chris responded, reading the telegram.
"It must be someone of importance, if the Judge wants us to meet it," Ezra noted.
"When do we have to be in Eagle Bend?" Josiah asked.
"Tomorrow morning," Chris replied. "We're to protect the passengers during the layover."
"The Judge wants all seven of you," Mary remarked. "Where are Vin and Buck?" she asked.
"Up in my room, hurt," Nathan answered.
"Looks like the Judge is only gonna get four of us," JD remarked, worrying about whether they'd be able to handle the job.
"Buck and Vin aren't hurt too bad," Nathan began, seeing Mary's concerned look. "And if Mrs. Travis and Miss Nettie take turns stayin' with 'em, we'll have five," he finished, replying to JD's remark.
"Of course I'll help," Mary replied.
"Alright," Chris announced. "We'll meet at the livery first thing in the morning."
The next morning, after stopping first at Nathan's to check on Buck and Vin, the five headed to Eagle Bend.
"I don't envy Mrs. Travis or Miss Wells their task," Ezra said.
"I think they'll do just fine," Nathan replied.
"Yeah, Buck can't sweet talk either one of them with his jaw wrapped up," JD put in with a laugh.
"And Vin can't get anything past Miss Nettie," Chris added.
"Exactly," Nathan said.
"Vin Tanner, you get back in that bed!" Nettie scolded.
"Miss Nettie, I'm goin' crazy here," Vin sighed, sitting back down.
"I don't care," she replied. "Nathan said you needed bed rest and that's what you're gonna get."
He heard Buck chuckle softly from the next bed.
"Sure, laugh it up, Buck," Vin said bitterly. "At least you can do stuff like read those dime store novels JD left ya or even look out the window and watch the town go by," he added.
Buck sobered quickly. He wrote a note and handed it to Nettie to read to Vin.
-- Sorry --
"Vin, Buck says he's sorry for laughin' at ya," she read. "Hey, why don't I read one of those books out loud for ya both," she offered.
Vin just shrugged his shoulders and put his head back on his pillow. As Nettie started reading aloud, Vin thought of ways to get out of the room. He really was going stir crazy just lying in bed. He hated the fact that he couldn't ride with the others. He hated the fact that he couldn't watch over the town while they were gone. He hated the fact that he didn't know if he'd be able to do anything like that again. He put his arm up over his head and sighed. He listened for a little while to Nettie reading before the idea came. He had his way out, but he'd have to time it right.
Mary arrived a little later to spell Nettie.
"Now, if you don't mind, I've got some chores and errands to run," Nettie said. "Vin, Buck, mind Mary, now. I'll be back soon," she added before heading out.
Buck nodded and waved goodbye to her.
About ten minutes later, Vin started to get out of bed.
"Vin," Mary started.
"Mary," Vin said, cutting her off. "I gotta go use the privy," he said.
"Nathan said that you needed to stay here," Mary said. "I'll fetch the chamber pot for you," she added, though not entirely pleased with the task.
"Oh, come on, Mary," he admonished. "I ain't bedridden ya know. I can make it to the privy."
"Alright, I'll go with you," she said.
Vin stopped and tried to look as uncomfortable as he could.
"Uh, no offense, Mary," he said. "But, it's kinda personal. A guy thing, ya know?"
Mary didn't know what to do about the situation as yet. She looked at Buck, who just shrugged his shoulders a little. She did see the laughter behind his eyes, but didn't let on. She and Buck knew what Vin was up to and she couldn't blame him for wanting to get out. Even just to go to the privy. Buck wrote a note and gave it to her.
-- Billy around? --
She nodded her head.
"Okay, Vin," she began. "Tell you what. You wait here for a bit and I'll get Billy to go with you. Would that be alright?" she asked.
"I can agree to that," Vin replied.
Mary stood and went to the door.
"I'll be right back," she said. "And you better BOTH be here when I get back," she warned.
"Thanks, Buck," Vin said after the door closed.
Buck tried to say 'you're welcome' back to Vin, but it just came out muffled.
Vin chuckled, making his way over to Buck's bed.
"What a pair we make, huh? You can only write notes and I can't see to read 'em," he said, sadness in his voice.
Buck patted Vin's arm, understanding Vin's underlying pain.
As clearly as he could, Buck said, "Stay outta trouble," to Vin as Mary returned with Billy.
"Okay," Mary said to both Billy and Vin. "To the privy and back," she warned.
Vin rose from Buck's bedside and made his way across the room. His ankle was better and the limp he had was minimal. He reached out and Billy took his hand, leading him from the room.
"Be careful on the stairs!" Mary called after them.
Mary looked at Buck.
"And don't you believe for one minute that I didn't know what Vin and you were up to," she told him. "Just don't tell Nettie," she added.
Buck winked at her in response.