Western Skies, Part 1

Western Montana, 1890

In the end, it was the horse that saved his life.

Certainly the man on the back of the horse was in no shape to assist in directing the animal. It was all he could do to tie himself to the saddle before the blackness had claimed him. Occasional lapses of consciousness told the man he was still moving, the horse taking the man on some kind of private trek of its own so he allowed the darkness to swallow him again. It was better than dealing with the pain.

Meanwhile, the horse, with that inborn sense of self preservation so common in animals, headed unerringly toward the only shelter around, the smell of hay and oats and water drawing him along. At the clearing, the big animal shook a bit, straining at the weight on its back before heading into a sloppy trot. With a soft whinny, the horse plunged its head into the water trough, drinking deep of the clear, cool liquid.

A sound caused the horse's ears to twitch and the gelding's head lifted from the trough. Big brown eyes locked with blue across the path toward the barn. The horse broke first, shaking the excess water from its head and travelling wearily across the ground toward the man and the barn, knowing instinctively the man meant safety and the barn meant food. It shied a bit as a big hand was lifted to its nose, but shuddered in pleasure at the soft stroking. "Shh…" the voice said, soft and low. "Shh, fella, it's okay."

Gibbs looked at the man tied to the horse and wondered what the hell was going on. He moved around the horse's head to the unconscious man, noting his breathing was shallow and his skin pale, as well as the blood on both his leg and shoulder. His gaze flicked down to the man's hands, spying the length of rawhide wrapped around both the saddle horn and the man's wrists. With a quick flip of his knife, he cut the binds loose and gently pulled the body off the horse.

He nearly stumbled as the heavy weight of the man fell on him. Gibbs steadied himself and pulled the man closer, hitching his good arm around his neck and lifting him by the back of his pants. The horse, he noted, was already headed into the barn. Gibbs would take care of the animal as soon as he could, but right now he had to get the injuries tended to. With not a little effort, he maneuvered the man up to the house, juggling a bit to open the latch and shove him inside. The light from the doorway illuminated the simple room enough for Gibbs to move through to the bedroom. He pushed the door open and lowered the man onto the bed.

Gibbs straightened up and gazed down at the unconscious man. He took note again of the blood stains on his arm and leg, the tearing in the cloth indicating bullet holes. His hands reached out to unbutton the shirt, pulling gently where the blood had dried and crusted. His hands lowered toward the gunbelt strapped around a trim waist. The leather was rich, hand tooled and obviously expensive—but the holster was empty. Gibbs quickly unbuckled the belt and the pants, pulling both down the man's legs, again taking care at the wound site. Two thumps on the wood floor signaled the removal of the dusty boots and soon the man was naked.

Gibbs took a moment to survey the man. His hair was a light brown, a bit long so it brushed his ears. His face was lean and from what he could tell, handsome; chest and shoulders wide, the former covered with a dusting of hair, the latter…Gibbs' gut twisted as he lifted the man a bit on his uninjured side, seeing the scars that crossed the wide back and tanned shoulders. He gently lowered the man again, eyes skimming along the rest—narrow hips and strong legs. Remembering the fine quality of the gun belt, Gibbs picked up the man's right hand, ghosting a touch over the fingers, finding the calluses he knew would be there.

The man was a gunfighter.

"Who got the better of you, kid," Gibbs murmured, dropping the hand and running a light hand along the wound on the man's leg. The red puckered skin was hot and a bit swollen, the entry wound of the bullet an angry hole in the otherwise strong leg. The wound on the stranger's arm was also red, weeping blood from both the entry in front and exit in back. Gibbs grunted at that, glad that there was only one bullet to remove but also knowing the through and through shots brought their own brand of danger.

The man groaned in pain, spurring Gibbs back to action. He left the bedroom to the kitchen, pushing hard on the pump to start the water before snagging a jug, filling it half way. He grabbed a few clean towels, then made a stop into the parlor his half-empty bottle of whisky. He opened the breakfront and pulled out the basket that was inside. His mind flashed for second, seeing small, delicate hands holding the basket, quick fingers sewing and knitting and darning…he shook the memory away, heading back into the bedroom. He filled a basin on the table near the bed with the water, sliding up a chair and dipping a towel into the cool water. He slowly worked the soft fabric against the blood on the man's arm, dipping and wringing until the water was pink. He turned again to wet the cloth when his wrist was grabbed, sloshing the water a bit.

He turned to find the man's eyes open and wary. "Who are you?" The voice was raspy and hoarse, the lips cracking.

He seemed weak but the hold on Gibbs' wrist was strong. "Jethro Gibbs," he said simply.

"How…" He swallowed dryly. "How did I get here?"

"Your horse brought you."

This seemed to make sense to the man, who nodded and closed his eyes again, settling back down onto the pillow. Gibbs started, needing at least one thing before the pain conquered again. "What's your name?" he asked.

"Smith."

Gibbs felt his anger rise. He reached out a hand and tapped the injured man lightly on the top of the head, causing his eyes to pop open again, this time in surprise. "I'm about to save your life, kid, and don't appreciate being lied to."

Something flittered in the man's green eyes as they locked with Gibbs' narrowed blue ones. "Tony."

Gibbs nodded, pleased with the honest answer. "You might want to pass out again, Tony," he said. "The shot in your arm went clear through, but you've still got a bullet in your leg that needs to come out, and frankly, it's gonna hurt like hell."

"Can't…" came the reply. "Keep moving…"

"No one's gonna get to you here, Tony," Gibbs said, reassuringly. "My place is hard to locate…I can't believe you found me."

"Didn't…horse."

"That's right." He smiled at the small joke. All this time, Gibbs had continued to clean off the wounds. "Smart horse you've got there. But you're still gonna want to be asleep."

"Just…do what you have to, Gibbs," Tony ordered between gritted teeth. "Gotta get away…can't…stay long."

Gibbs could see he was fighting against the pain and struggling to stay awake, more scared of what—or who—was after him than of the upcoming removal of the bullet from his thigh. "You're not going anywhere for quite a bit."

Tony shook his head, pointing to the bottle on the table.

Gibbs raised a brow, reaching for the whisky. He tipped the bottle towards the bullet hole in Tony's thigh, wincing as the scream erupted from the younger man, his entire body jerking at the fiery heat of the whiskey in his wound. He dropped the bottle on the table, kneeling next to the bed and laying his arms over Tony's chest and legs to keep him from twisting completely off the bed. The screaming and jerking eventually stopped and Gibbs peered up at Tony's face, noting the slack jaw and almost closed eyes. "Sorry about that, kid," he said with a wry smile as Tony's eyes rolled back and he passed out.

xxx

Shutting the door quietly behind him, Gibbs leaned wearily against the wood. He lifted his hands, noting the fine tremor as well as the blood still covering them. Pushing himself away from the room, he stepped into the kitchen, jerking the pump hard until the cool water ran fast, cleaning his hands before bending and tucking his head under the flow. The water felt wonderful, rushing over his skin and rinsing away some of the tension of the last few hours. Lifting up, he shook off the excess water, grabbing a towel and wiping it across his face before sinking into a chair.

Tony was alive, and for now, seemed free of fever. The bullet in his thigh had been lodged deep, but thankfully Tony had stayed unconscious while Gibbs dug around, finally extracting the ball of lead with a fresh flow of blood. For a moment Gibbs was worried the bullet had hit a vein, but the blood flow stopped to a trickle. Gibbs had once again poured the whisky in the wound before treading a needle with the strongest thread in the sewing basket. The edges of the bullet hole were clean, and Gibbs worked quickly to close the wound. Afterwards he bound the entire leg with strips from a clean sheet. He also sewed the two wounds on Tony's arm, binding them as well. Afterwards, he'd fetched clean water and washed Tony as best he could before changing the linen on the bed. He'd left Tony asleep under the fresh sheets.

Gibbs finally noticed the dimming light and heaved himself out of the chair, walking outside and toward the barn. Smiling, he saw Tony's horse had made himself comfortable in the stall with Brownie, his old mare. Brownie was leaning against the gelding's flank, her head resting on the other horse's neck. Brownie was a social horse and since Gibbs had sold off the last of her colts, she'd been lonely. "Found a friend, did you girl?" he asked the horse, patting her round rump and squeezing between them. He received a snuffle in response and shoved against the gelding, hands already on the saddle. He pulled the equipment off the horse, gave it a quick brush down, then refilled the oat trough and water trough. Brownie was still, waiting for Gibbs to leave the stall before moving right back next to the gelding, head resting once again on his neck.

Returning to the kitchen, Gibbs lit the stove and reheated the morning's left over coffee, grabbing a steaming mug along with a hunk of cheese and bread from the larder before heading back once more into the bedroom. He sank into the chair next to the bed, sipping slowly and observing the man sleeping in his bed.

The man sleeping in his bed.

Now there's a phrase Gibbs never thought he'd hear again.