Tony came awake suddenly, but with his hard worn sense of self preservation his eyes remained closed and his breathing even, giving him time to remember, recoup, and if need be, rebel.
He remembered how he got here, the events that led to his being shot by someone he almost trusted. He remembered strapping his hand to the horse in the hope the animal would at least try to save itself, thereby saving him. It seems to have worked.
His second task was to take a self inventory, to catalogue his various injuries and judge how incapacitated he was. A small shift of his shoulder brought a sharp pain to his left arm, but nothing he couldn't live with. In fact, he knows he's had worse and managed to fight. Moving his left leg was quite another story. He bit the inside of his lip as the excruciating pain shot from the wound in his thigh.
This one might be a problem, he thought, fighting to keep his breath even and light. There was no way he'd be able to stand on this leg for quite a while. He hated being trapped with no escape.
As the pain receded he became aware of a sound in the room, identifying it as breathing. The breathing was rhythmic and even, indicating whoever was making the sound was asleep. He took this chance to open his eyes a fraction to see the man slumped in the chair next to the bed.
Tony started with the face. Tanned and lined. Older than himself, but not too weathered or beaten by time. The hair was silver and mussed, the beard coming in on his cheeks and chin white. He noted the clothes were splattered with stains, and he realized it was his blood on the shirt. His eyes dropped to the hands, one holding a dangling mug, the other resting palm up on a thigh. Strong hands—calloused, rough. What was his name again? Tony searched his foggy memory and came up with a name. Jethro.
A rancher, the thought, happy with the knowledge. He knew men like this were generally strong, but he'd never met one he couldn't beat. This one would be no different. He would bide his time, regain use of his leg, then leave—with his horse, his gun, and anything he could get from Jethro. It wasn't the best way to say thank you, but to him, it was the only way to survive.
He watched the small change of Jethro's posture, realizing the other man was about to wake. Not wanting to deal with things just yet, he closed his eyes and evened out his breathing, ears alert and straining to track the man by sound. It wasn't easy. He'd never known a man to moved so silently. A creak of the chair as it moved as Jethro rose and a muffled thump as the mug was placed on the table, and that was it. There were no sounds from the man himself. Suddenly a hand was placed on his head causing his eyes to pop open at the touch.
Tony was caught by Jethro's eyes. They were peering straight into his own, making him feel open and exposed, as if Jethro was seeing everything he was with one look. His past and his present, his plans and schemes, the men he'd killed and will kill. The eyes told him Jethro saw who he was inside and more shockingly, understood him.
The moment stretched and Tony was surprised when he saw a change in Jethro's eyes, a sharpening of the blue orbs that coincided with Jethro's thumb moving softly along his brow. The stroking sent a shiver of fire running through Tony's body, from Jethro's thumb down to Tony's…no. It was impossible. He mentally shook it off, burying the feeling and with a bit of effort slipped the mask back on.
Jethro must have noticed something in his face because the other man smiled slightly and removed his hand, sitting back down in the chair "That's a neat trick, Tony," the man said. "How do you feel?"
"Not too bad," he said, his voice rusty.
"Hmm." The rancher gave him a long look. "You remember anything that happened?"
Tony nodded. "I remember you from last night. Jethro Gibbs." He gave a tight smile. "You poured whiskey on my leg."
"Easiest way to knock you out," Jethro said unapologetically. "Took out the bullet in your leg, patched up your arm."
He leaned forward and placed a hand on him, though this time near the bandage on Tony's injured arm as it lay outside the sheet. Tony fought back a second shiver Jethro's touch caused.
"No fever, which is good. Must have done alright." Jethro pulled the sheet back, exposing Tony's hip and wounded leg. Again a touch, this one light on the bandaged area.
This time there was no shiver for Tony to hide. Instead, Tony tried, but couldn't control the flinch of pain he felt at the probing. He mentally cursed himself at exposing the weakness.
"Sorry," Jethro murmured, flipping the sheet back. "But this wound's not hot, which is good. Also, there's no bad seepage, which again is good."
"You a doctor?" The touch, the bandages and the care seemed almost professional. Maybe he wasn't just a rancher.
Jethro shook his head, the small smile returning to his face. "No, just worked with one for a few years and picked things up." He sat back in the chair again. "So, you gonna tell me what happened?"
Jethro raised a brow, eyes again locked with Tony's. The silent battle went on for some time, until Tony finally turned away, gaze moving around the room. The room was sparse, a wardrobe in the corner, white curtains open over the window. He spied his hat and gun belt on a table, a flare of anger rising at the sight of the empty holster. "Where's my gun?" he demanded, leaning up on his good arm. He was never unarmed, ever. He pulled his legs up a bit, trying to swing his injured one over the side of the bed. He had to find his gun…
Jethro was up and rounding the bed, pushing Tony back to the mattress. "Lay back down," he demanded, a hand on Tony's shoulder. "I didn't go to all the trouble of sewing you up just have you pull all the stitches out."
Tony fought against the hand, reaching up and grasping Jethro's wrist and tossing it away. "Where's my gun, Gibbs?" he demanded again as a fissure of fear welled up inside, overtaking his anger and causing just a hint of panic.
"Didn't have it when you came in," Jethro explained.
"I don't believe you."
Jethro gave a rough laugh. "I'm the last person to take a gun from someone, but believe what you want," he said. He walked away from the bed to the wardrobe, opening it and reaching inside. He turned back to Tony with a Colt revolver in his hand.
Tony tensed at the sight of the gun, but Jethro just scooped up Tony's gun belt and tossed both onto his lap.
"Here, this should make you feel better," he said before walking to the door. "I'm making something to eat, and I'll be back with some food for you. I'd appreciate it if you didn't shoot me when I return." With that, he left the room, closing the door behind him with a loud click.
Tony kept an eye on the door as he lifted the Colt, removing bullets from his gun belt and loading the revolver, snapping the cylinder shut before Jethro could come back and change his mind. He weighed the gun in his hand, already feeling calmer knowing he was armed and not vulnerable anymore. He hooked his gun belt on the bed post next to pillow and turned to tuck the gun in the holster, knowing it would be close enough to reach if need be. He paused in his actions, noting some script on the gun handle and turned it into the sunlight to read the worn words.
Sgt. L. J. Gibbs. USS Ticonderoga.
Jethro focused on the food, lighting the stove and pulling bacon from the larder, grabbing the last of yesterday's eggs as well. He set the fry pan on the stove, turning to the sink to pump in water, washing out the old coffee in the pot and scooping fresh grounds inside. He sliced the bacon and placed it in the pan before breaking the eggs in a bowl, whisking them quickly with a fork. Throwing the eggs in with the bacon, he pulled out two plates and two cups.
He paused as the food cooked, annoyance at the young man in the other room dissipating a bit as he remembered the look of fear on his face, the almost panic Tony had shown at the idea of losing his gun. He knew that fear, which was why he'd dug out his old Colt. He smiled in remembrance at the time he'd been without his own gun, shaking his head at how much like the past it was.
He woke up with a searing pain in his head and the realization he was no longer on the ship. Memories flooded back to the battle, then the landing, then…nothing. He'd been hit before the battled had ended so he wasn't even sure who won. He opened his eyes and saw a ceiling, slowly becoming aware he was not alone, that there were other men in the room. He lifted himself off the bed a bit, grimacing in pain in his head and observed the room. A dozen cots were here, each one occupied by a wounded man.
"Your comrades brought you," a voice said, the words sounding strange.
Jethro looked toward the voice and spied a small man, spectacles on his face and blood on his apron.
"You were wondering who you got here, yes?" the little man said, coming to stand next to his cot. "After the landing, after they found you, wounded, they brought you to me. I patched you up and put you to bed."
"And where is here?" he asked cautiously. He noted he was still wearing his uniform shirt but not his pants. He also couldn't tell which side this hospital belonged too, as the doctor wasn't in uniform. His eyes skidded around the room in an effort to locate his effects. "And who are you?"
"Here is the infirmary at Fort Fisher, my dear boy. And I am Doctor Donald Mallard." He sat on the edge of Jethro's cot, removing his glasses, frowning until he found a clean patch of apron to clean them off with. He replaced the glasses, then leaned in towards Jethro, extending a hand.
It was caught in strong grasp, halting any progress towards Jethro's body. "Where's my gun?" he asked.
"Under your cot."
"Get it," he ordered, holding onto the wrist of the doctor while he leaned down to retrieve his holster and revolver. Jethro pulled the gun out and aimed it at the other man. "North or South?" he asked, cocking the Colt.
Mallard regarded him calmly. "North. I imagine that head wound is clouding your thought processes. If you were thinking clearly, you'd have realized I was friend and not foe when I gave you your gun."
Chagrined, Jethro lowered the revolver and released the doctor's arm. "Sorry about that. But you talk a bit funny and I wasn't sure."
"Oh, you were puzzled by my accent, were you?" the doctor said. "Well actually, I'm British, and by British, I really mean Scottish. I am currently a doctor with the Union army. It's quite an interesting story, how I came to be here. I was touring America with my mother when General Beauregard fired those first shots at Fort Sumter and the hostilities broke out. I sent her home immediately, but decided to stay and see if I could help. I had been in the Crimean conflict and knew quite a bit about battle injuries so I walked right into the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac and offered my services. For a while, I was assigned as General McClellan's personal physician, but that didn't seem to be helping much in the field."
"Doctor!" Jethro had a feeling if he didn't stop the doctor's words, they'd never stop at all.
The eyes behind the spectacles were mild, but Jethro could see the intelligence and even a spark of humor. He doubted Doctor Mallard missed much and knew a lot. He'd watch his step with the doctor, for sure. "When can I get out of here and back to my ship?"
"Oh, not for a few days." The doctor chuckled at the growl from the cot. "You might as well get comfortable, marine. Now, I am reminded of a time when I was with on one of Her Majesty's war ships and helping induct new recruits to the Royal Marines..."
He was brought out of his memories by the sound a horse approaching the house. Jethro pulled the fry pan off the heat and headed out of the kitchen to the front of the house. Peering through the screen door, he sighed at the sight of the sheriff dismounting and striding to the steps. Jethro hurried through the screen and stood at the top of the steps, halting the other man's progress.
"Sheriff Fornell," Jethro said in greeting.
"Gibbs," the other man said, taking off his hat and wiping down his balding head with a bandana. "Haven't seen you in town for a few months."
Jethro shrugged. "Got everything I need for a while," he said.
"I see," Fornell said, trying to peer beyond Jethro into the house. "You got company?" he asked.
Jethro cocked his head. "Why do you ask?"
"Wondering why you won't let me inside," he commented. "You're usually not so inhospitable."
"Got things to do, Tobias," Jethro said simply. "Can't sit around gossiping all day."
"Hmm," the sheriff said. Fornell wiped the inside of his hat before putting the bandana back into his pocket. "Seems there was a bank robbery over in Bozeman a few days ago. Rough gang came in, shot up the place, stole the cash." He paused for a moment. "Manager said there were three of them."
Jethro remained silent and he continued. "Miller, the Bozeman sheriff, tracked them for a few miles, but just missed them at their camp. Funny thing about their camp, though. Looked like the gang met up with someone."
"Another gang member?"
"Not sure, but if so, there was a falling out. Sheriff found a body. Bank manager confirmed he was one of the robbers." Fornell squinted at the sun. "Miller said they split up after that, trails leading in three different directions.
"You think one might still be headed this way?"
"You live the farthest out of town, and the closest to Bozeman," Fornell said. "Just wanted to give you a warning of possible trouble."
"I'll be on the lookout," Jethro said. "Thank you."
Fornell replaced his hat on his head. "You do that," he said before striding over to his horse and mounting up. He looked at the screen door again, his gaze thoughtful before spurring his horse into a walk and giving a nod of his head. "Take care, Gibbs."
Jethro watched as Fornell rode away, rounding the bend before speaking. "You shouldn't be out of bed, Tony," he said calmly, turning to the door. He entered the house to find the younger man propped against the wall, leaning heavily on his good leg with Jethro's Colt pointed at the door, his aim steady. The bandage on his leg was stained red, and there was a trickle of blood running down Tony's leg. "Now you want to tell me what happened?"
The hand holding the revolver lowered. "No," Tony said again, just before sliding down the wall in a faint.