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The Good, The Bad And The Tony

By Tipper

 

Disclaimer:  NCIS and its characters are the property of CBS Studios, Inc. and Belisarius Productions. This story was created for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and setting are the property of the author(s), not me.  Thank you to the amazing writers, producers, actors, crew and directors who bring this show to life.

Genre/Rating: T (for language and violence); action/adventure and au…of sorts.

Characters: Everyone, thought it's a Tony POV.

A/N:  I dreamt this one night, around the same time that I started rereading stories in my old fandom.  I'm sure it's been done before, many times (I admit, I haven't read a lot of NCIS fanfiction), but I enjoyed writing it anyway.

Status: Complete in eight chapters.

 

Description:  When Tony wakes up somewhere he couldn't possibly be, he finds himself both lost and, curiously, home.

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CHAPTER ONE:  SO NOT WASHINGTON, D.C.

 

"Don't die, I'll get you water. Stay there. Don't move, I'll get you water. Don't die until later." -- The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, 1966.

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Tony sat up quickly, wincing at the headache pounding in his skull.  Groaning, he grabbed his head in his hands, willing the tilting room to stop swaying and for his body to stop shivering. 

 

After a moment, he drew his hands away, blinking with puzzlement at the red and pink patchwork quilt covering his bed.

 

It took him a little while, but he finally realized why it seemed odd: he had never seen it before.

 

What the hell…?  He looked around, and his eyes widened.  By the time he finished staring blankly at his surroundings, the headache was all but gone.  So was the wound on his forehead, where he could have sworn he’d been shot.  But the skin was unbroken under his fingers—not even a scar.

 

Pulling his hand away, he stared at his fingers for a long moment, noting the thick calluses on the palms and on the fingers.  These weren’t his hands.  Tossing back the quilt, he frowned at the clearly homespun cotton pajama bottoms he was wearing, and finally to his bare feet, which were slightly bruised and, from the looks of it…leather stained. 

 

His fingers curled closed, his gaze once more lifting to study the strange room.

 

It was all wood, both walls and floor, covered in bright, colorful rugs like you might see in a shop selling Navajo goods.   Even part of the ceiling had rugs covering it, as if for insulation.   The rest of the room was sparsely furnished.  There was a rocking chair next to a gabled window, a couple of books resting on the seat.  There was also  a small dark wooden dresser with a mirror, comb and…a gun-belt.  With a really old looking gun.  Okay.  Closer to him was a bedside table with a pocket-watch on top of it – a nice one – and a half-filled glass of water.  There was also another book.  He picked it up and read the binding: Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream.

 

Great.  Someone had to be having a joke on him.  He was going to kill McGee.

 

The sickening scent of blood suddenly assaulted his nostrils, powerful and overwhelming, bile already rising in his throat.  He bent forward, hands over his mouth, gritting his eyes shut against the images flashing through his mind.  A warehouse, cement flooring, black and blue walls, light, windows....McGee on the ground next to him, bleeding…bleeding to death.  Someone was laughing.  No. No!

 

"No!" he screamed, grabbing at the quilt.

 

And, just as suddenly, the images, sound and the smell were gone. 

 

He breathed heavily, still gripping the quilt, his fingers aching a little with how tightly he was holding it.  Slowly, he let go, feeling the blood returning to his white knuckled fingers, a feathery tingle.  He stared at his hands again, at the realness of them, of the coarseness of the quilt, and shook his head.

 

What the hell was going on?   

 

Rolling off the metal bed, frowning a little at the worn creak of metal springs under the lumpy mattress, Tony placed his bare feet on braided rug and stood.  He wobbled a little, disorientation washing over him.  Sitting down again, he pressed the base of his palm to his forehead and willed the returning beat of the headache to recede again. 

 

A small mirror sat atop the dresser, and he snatched it, staring at the person in the reflection.  It was his face sure enough, except…except with leathery brown skin, hair bleached blond by the sun and…was that a broken nose?

 

This had better be a dream.  However real it felt, no way was he accepting a broken nose. 

 

He touched it, grimacing a little.  Then again, it did give him a sort of rugged qual….

 

A soft knock at the door to the small room had him looking up.  He frowned, uncertain about what to say.

 

“Um….”

 

“Tony?”

 

He instantly straightened, relief flooding through him.  “McGee?"  Oh thank God!   In seconds, he was at the door, pulling it open, grinning, waiting to hear the joke.  "McGee, you scared the crap…."  He stopped, too surprised to continue.

 

McGee stood on the other side of the door, his lips pressed together in that pouty way of his, dressed like something out of an old western.  He wore long, faded brown trousers, stained with dust, a cream button up shirt under a dark green vest, and a clearly patched dun-brown corduroy jacket on top. 

 

Tony’s jaw dropped. “McGee?” He blinked, taking in the fact that McGee looked perfectly healthy (and not dying on the floor of a warehouse), but also like he’d been shopping in the basement of a Goodwill. Ignoring the second for a moment, he reached out to touch the other man’s not-bloody chest briefly, wonderingly. “You okay?”

 

McGee jerked away at the touch with a frown, his expression clearly baffled (and a little creeped-out). “I’m fine.  I wasn’t the one laid up and sick for two weeks with fever.”  He tilted his head.  “You okay?  You look better.”

 

“Uh…”  Tony shook his head, wincing a little as the headache returned in full force, and lifted his hand to his head again.  He blinked anew at McGee’s clothes.  “What are you wearing?” he asked, smiling a little to hide the pain. “Did you lose a bet?”

 

McGee’s eyes narrowed.  “No.  My clothes are perfectly fine, thank you very much.  Just because I don’t spend every dime I earn on fancy duds like you doesn’t mean I look bad.”  He drew himself up, his hands tugging at the lapels of the ugly jacket. “I’ll have you know I got a compliment on this jacket just today from Abby.  She said I looked dapper.”

 

Tony’s right eye twitched.  “Dapper?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“You’re kidding.”

 

McGee frowned. “No.  Why would I kid?”  He shrugged. “Besides, we have to work today and these are comfortable.”

 

“Work?” 

 

“Well," his lips screwed up slightly, almost childishly, "only if you’re feeling up to it.  That’s part of the reason I’m here.”  His eyebrows lifted.  “Are you feeling up to it?”

 

"Um…I don't…."  Actually, he felt like hell, dizzy now as well as the headache, and he was very, very confused.  He didn’t want to work feeling like this. “I don’t know,” he finished.  “I’m…I’m sort of confused, McGee.”

 

“Do you have to call me that?” McGee sighed, his tone long-suffering.  “At some point, Tony, using that name is going to get old, you know that, right?”

 

Tony blinked, his confusion growing even more.  What?  What the hell did that mean?

 

“What?” he repeated out loud.

 

“I’m going to forgive you, since you’ve been sick, but you know how I feel about it, no matter what Dad says.  So, quit it, okay?”    

 

Tony blinked again, but before he could say anything about the bomb in that last sentence (Dad?), McGee’s eyebrows lifted high on his head and he tried to look past Tony into the room.  A half second later, he turned a quizzical gaze to Tony.  Or perhaps, more accurately, a suspicious gaze.

 

“Okay, what gives?” McGee asked. “You haven’t let me in.  Some reason why?” His brow furrowed. “You don’t have a girl in there, do you?”

 

Tony almost choked on the hysterical laughter bubbling inside of him.  “What?  I don't even….”  He stopped, putting a hand to his head again. 

 

McGee tilted his head slightly, like a curious dog.  Then he backed up some more, almost to the opposite side of the hallway.

 

“Tell you what,” Tim began, his voice softening, as if speaking to someone holding a loaded gun, “why don’t I just go fetch Ducky."  He started backing away down the dark, wood-slatted hall, towards a set of stairs at the end. "He’s just downstairs, having breakfast.  I’m sure he won’t mind coming up to say hello.”  He flashed a worried smile, and then disappeared down the stairs.

 

Tony slumped slightly as McGee disappeared, leaning against the doorframe. 

 

“What the hell is going on?” he whispered, staring at the brightly colored braided rugs lining the hallway floor.  "I feel like I'm trapped in an LL Bean catalogue."  Running a shaking hand through his hair, he turned and glanced again at the room he’d woken up in.  There was a button-down shirt thrown over one of the bedposts of the headboard, and a pair of trousers with suspenders.  Grabbing both, he dressed quickly and headed out of the room.

 

He was at the top of the stairs when he stopped again, staring in wonder out the small window. 

 

So not Washington, DC.  Not even east coast.

 

Instead, he was looking out at a barren landscape, mostly green and brown in hue.  Short grass, some trees, and a whole lot of flat. 

 

He was in the west somewhere.

 

“Oh crap.”

 

“Tony?”

 

The quiet call startled him, even though the kind voice underlying it was more than familiar.  Tony’s gaze slid sideways, coming to a stop on his old friend standing at the base of the stairs.  Ducky’s eyebrows lifted behind thin-rimmed glasses, before the doctor's expression slipped into a smile.

 

“Hello, Tony,” he began, his head tilting like McGee’s had. “Tim says you might still be feeling a little off.  I was just coming up to check on you.”

 

Like McGee, Ducky was dressed like something out of "Unforgiven."  Dark corduroy pants, a pale blue oxford shirt, a dark brown jacket, and, honest to God, a blue bandana around his neck.  A bandana.  Never in a million years would he have pictured Ducky wearing a bandana.

 

As he took this all in, Ducky climbed the rest of the stairs until he was standing just in front of Tony, who was still on the landing.  The doctor’s eyes had narrowed slightly, scrutinizing.  A dry, soft hand reached to touch his face, and Tony backed away.

 

“I’m not sick,” he insisted.  Ducky just smiled again.

 

“Let me be the judge of that, young man.”

 

Tony swallowed, but stood still then, letting Ducky press thumbs into his jugular, touch his forehead, and then grabbed his ears.  He grimaced slightly—what the hell was up with the ears?

 

"Open your mouth, would you?"

 

Tony dutifully opened his mouth, and, just because he expected it to be the next order, he said "ah."

 

Ducky arched an eyebrow at him, but returned his attention to whatever was happening inside Tony's mouth.

 

Finally, the doctor backed away, lowering his arms and still arching his eyebrow as he studied the taller man. 

 

"Well," he began, resting hands on his hips, "other than a rather bad case of halitosis, you appear to be fairly well.  How do you feel?  Tim said something about you being somewhat discombobulated?"

 

Discombobulated.  Hell, yes, did he feel discombobulated.  If, by discombobulated, Ducky meant, freaking the hell out because he had no idea what the hell was going on.

 

"I'm okay," he said instead.

 

Ducky watched him a moment, as if waiting for more.  Finally, he sighed.

 

"Fine.  I'm sure Jethro will soon determine whether that's true or not."

 

Tony's eyebrows shot up.  Gibbs?  Where was he in this nightmare world?

 

Ducky turned to head back down the stairs.  "If you're feeling ill still," he called over his shoulder, "just let me know.  I plan to be in town all day today, so can swing by the office whenever you want to."

 

Tony swallowed, watching the doctor stop at the bottom, glance up at him once more, frown slightly, and then move on.

 

Tony was almost afraid to follow him. 

 

He closed his eyes, pressing a hand to his brow.  This wasn't real.  Whatever, wherever, hell, whenever this was, he wasn't really here.  He was in a hospital somewhere, of that he was sure.  He and McGee.  Because McGee had been shot covering him. 

 

Shot.  In the chest.  Bleeding.  So much blood.  Oh God.

 

He barely registered the footsteps running up the steps, or the sudden grip on his arms, pulling his hand away from his face.

 

He opened his eyes, and found Tim staring at him, face bright with concern.

 

"I'm going to tell Dad you're not well," the younger man said.  "You can lie to Ducky, but you can't lie to me.  I know you too well."

 

"Tim…."

 

"Nope, not gonna buy it.  You just rest easy here at Abby's until the coach comes, then you can come meet our cousin.  But you're not working.  Dad'll just have to deal."

 

Most of that made sense, except…."Cousin?"

 

Tim smiled softly. "Yeah.  How time flies, eh?  Remember when Dad first told us about her?" He grinned, musing. "Stephanie's brother-in-law's brother's…adopted daughter. Is that right?  I still think it's nuts, especially since Dad divorced Stephanie years ago.  Well, her coach arrives today.  Gonna be weird.  I'm still not sure what to expect."  He kept an arm on Tony's as he started down the stairs, taking Tony with him.  "I mean," Tim's voice softened to a whisper, "she's a Jew."

 

Jew?  Hang on….  "You mean, Ziva?  She's coming here?"

 

"Today.  See what you miss all laid up and sick?  She telegraphed Dad last week, said she'd be on today's stage.  I mean, I know Dad invited her and everything, but I never actually thought she'd come."  They hit the bottom landing, and Tony barely had time to register what was clearly the ground floor of a pretty impressive looking old west saloon when Tim started shoving him towards a table in the corner where Ducky sat with a hilariously garbed Jimmy Palmer.  Jimmy looked like an undertaker in that black suit, and there was, honest to God, a black top hat on the table.  He almost laughed, except that he was afraid it'd come out more hysterical than genuine.  Jimmy grinned up at him, giving him a gap-toothed smile, and dug back into the hash browns and beans he was eating.

 

Ducky watched him with a smile as well, pushing the chair out as Tim practically pushed Tony down into it.  The older man then arched an eyebrow at Tim.

 

"He needs a jacket.  It's too cold for him to just be wearing a shirt." 

 

Tim nodded and, without another word, bounded away, headed back to the stairs.  Tony watched him leave, feeling oddly bereft without his bro…without McGee. 

 

"Hey, handsome," Abby's sweet voice purred from behind him.  Tony twisted, and couldn't hide the smile that lit his lips upon seeing his favorite forensic…bartender?  His eyebrows lifted, and Abby smirked in return, standing hipshot with a tray of food and drinks balanced on one hand.  More hash browns, beans and, quite distinctly, pan-fried ham.   Next to it, a pot of coffee, three mugs, and a silver flask.  Smoothly, she had the plate in front of Ducky, the coffees arranged in front of all three of them, and placed the flask in front of Tony.

 

"A little concoction of my own making," she informed, patting Tony on the shoulder.  "That should clear the rest of that cold out of your head."  She bent over, kissing the top of his head, and Tony had to look away from the low cut top she wore.  Good lord, Abby in something low cut?  And a long skirt—not being able to see her fantastic legs was almost as strange as not seeing her in a lab coat.  He obviously blushed, because Ducky was chuckling even as Abby ruffled Tony's hair and sashayed (yes, sashayed) away.

 

"Better not let Tim see you looking at her that way," Jimmy noted, mouth full of beans.  Tony grimaced.

 

"Better not let me see the inside of your full mouth again, Jimmy, or I might show you what I had for dinner last night."

 

Ducky chuckled again, carving into the ham. 

 

"Though it's not like Tim'll ever make a move again anyway," Jimmy added, as if Tony hadn't spoken, shoveling more food in his mouth.  "What's it been, three, four years?"

 

"Four," Ducky replied.  He eyed Tony over his coffee as Tony screwed the cap off the flask and took a sniff…

 

"Yagh!"  He held it far away from him, screwing the cap back on.  It smelled like death!

 

"Better drink it, Tony," advised the good doctor.  "Abby won't be put off, and you know it."

 

"I'm concerned I may not have a throat left if I do," he answered, taking a dram of coffee to try to kill the smell that was still in his nostrils.

 

"My guess is," Ducky said, picking up the flask and sloshing it around, "raw egg, Tabasco, tomato juice, pepper and a healthy dose of Red-Eye."

 

"Red-Eye?" Tony choked. "I've been sick, and you recommend that I drink whiskey?"

 

Ducky gave him an odd look. "Of course I do, young man.  One of the best ways to get the blood flowing.  In fact, I just read that most interesting article in the latest Boston Medical and Surgical Journal on the medicinal effects of alcohol for treating cholera.  It appears there are still some arguments over whether one should, as they say, feed a fever or keep it down, but did you know that, at least among typhoid cases, it has been determined that—?"

 

"Uh, Doc?"

 

Ducky frowned a little at being interrupted. "Yes, Tony?"

 

"Can we not talk about sicknesses right now?" 

 

The doctor's expression softened, and he suddenly smiled. "Of course.  My apologies. Ah, here comes Tim and…ah."  He leaned back, eyes taking on that analytic look Tony knew so well.

 

Tony turned as Tim stopped at the bottom of the stairs, holding a jacket, vest and gunbelt in both hands, stock-still as Leroy Jethro Gibbs pushed through the saloon doors and surveyed the room. 

 

Tony had never really imagined Gibbs in the old west, but, damned if it didn't fit him perfectly.  The same granite features, the same hawk-like eyes, the same simmering anger just below the surface…all of it was very present in the simply dressed man that now studied the saloon as if he owned it.  And when those blue eyes landed on Tony, he knew this man also believed he owned him too.

 

Gibbs strode forward, a long, dark brown duster lifting in his wake, revealing loose brown trousers and a gray shirt.  There was a silver star on the man's chest, and, hell, if it didn't suit him to a tee.

 

He stopped at the table, staring down at Tony just as he'd done before a hundred times in the Yard, just waiting.  But, for once, Tony really had no idea what was expected of him.

 

"Um," Tony offered, clearing his throat. "Hi?"

 

Gibbs arched an eyebrow.  "Tony."

 

"Boss."

 

Both eyebrows arched at that.  "Boss?"

 

"I mean, um…"  Tony glanced nervously at Tim, who still seemed rooted to the spot at the bottom of the stairs.  No help there.  He looked again at Gibbs, and because, well, who else could Tim have meant?  "Dad?" 

 

The tiniest hint of a smile on the pale lips, and Gibbs gave a nod.  "I take it by the first title you just gave me, that you're ready to get back to work today?"

 

Tony blinked. "Um…" But before he could finish, several things happened at once.  Tim was suddenly at his back, muscling him to his feet so he could put the vest and jacket on and stating definitively that Tony wasn't ready to work.  Abby was pressing a coffee into Gibbs hand (and, shoot, if there wasn't a distinct smell of Irish mixed in with the brew), while somehow also shoving the flask back into Tony's hands.  Ducky was saying something about after affects of a bad sickness on the mind (did he just say, "fever-induced brain damage?"), while Jimmy tried to ungracefully to exit, talking something about cleaning up the buggy (buggy?  Really?).  Gibbs just continued to watch Tony throughout it all, that tiny smile on his face that was neither amusement nor agreement nor, really, anything. 

 

It was too much.  Tony closed his eyes and felt himself start to fall forward, only to feel the strong hold of Tim's hands on his arms, stopping him from crashing against the table.

 

"Sit," Tim ordered.  So he did, and Tim dropped the gunbelt in his lap.  Tony just stared at the worn leather handle of the revolver.

 

"See?" Tim asked then, clearly not at Tony. 

 

Tony looked up at something clattered on the table in front of him.  It was a silver star similar to Gibbs, but with a circle around it and the word "Deputy" clearly stamped on the metal.  "Calm down, Tim.  No ranch work," Gibbs narrowed his eyes at Tim as if chastising him for something, "but he…you," Gibbs was looking at Tony again, "could work the jail.  I need to do some work on the ranch, and Tim's supposed to be finishing that….what was it again?"

 

"Dissertation, Dad."

 

"Dissertation thing of his.  He's way behind because he's been covering you at both the jail and at the ranch.  So, you take the jail for the day."

 

Tim gripped his shoulder. "I don't think he—"  He stopped in the face of Gibbs' stare, eyes lowering briefly before lifting again. "What about Ziva?  She's supposed to be on the noon stage."

 

"We'll all be there."  Gibbs' expression tightened.  "Girl needs our help.  We're going to give it to her, whether she wants it or not."  Tony instantly perked up.  Ziva was in trouble?

 

"You really think she needs our help?" Tim asked, his tone skeptical.  "From the way you spoke of her, she didn't seem like someone who needed anyone's help."

 

"Everyone needs help sometime.   She's coming here for a reason.  I aim to know why, and make sure she's safe while she deals with it.  And so will you and your brother."

 

Ziva was in trouble.  Tony's body almost hummed with concern.  Not that it wasn't a new feeling—for some reason, Ziva always seemed to be in trouble lately.  Whether from family, her boyfriend, her past….woman was a walking magnet for scumbags, it seemed. 

 

He was on his feet without remembering standing up, grabbing the deputy star.  "We'll keep her safe," he said, holding the metal tight between his fingers. 

 

"I know," Gibbs said.  He reached across the table then, resting a cool, rough hand on the side of Tony's face, and then slapped his cheek lightly.  "Because you're good boys."

 

"Comes from having a good role model," Ducky noted casually, still drinking his coffee in his seat.  "Albeit, one who is more stubborn than a mule stuck in a mudpatch on a rainy day." 

 

Gibbs just smiled and, with a sweep of his coat, sat down.  Abby materialized from somewhere, putting a plate of the same food in front of him as she had for Ducky.  She glanced up at Tony, her brow furrowed slightly in concern.

 

"What about you?  Feel up to eating something other than broth?"

 

Tony frowned, glancing at the food, and shook his head.  He still felt too out of sorts.   Right now, all he really wanted was to get away and to get some fresh air.

 

"Can you send something along to the jail in a bit?" Tim asked.  "I think he needs some fresh air, walk around."  Damn, his brother was a mind reader.  "Come on," Tim said, plucking at his jacket sleeve, "I'll walk you over there."

 

Tony gave him a grateful smile, and turned to leave. 

 

"Unh uh," Abby tsked, sliding the silver flask in his breast pocket. "Not without this.  I promise you," she smiled slyly, "it'll save your life."  She patted the pocket. "Trust me."

 

He couldn’t resist smiling.  "Always, Abby," he promised. "Always."

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CHAPTER TWO: THE TRAIL HERD

 

"Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness." -- She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949

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If anything, the town was almost anti-climatic.  Blinking in the too bright sunlight, Tony stared at what could have been an old movie set—as if he'd knitted it together himself from stills from El Dorado, How the West Was Won, Silverado, Shanghai Noon and countless other films that flitted through his mind's eye.  Signs hung from clapboard wooden buildings proudly proclaiming themselves as general store, undertaker, mercantile, boarding house, bank, hotel…everything you'd expect.  And there were so many horses!  Animals were everywhere, tied to hitching posts, drinking from troughs, watching him balefully from all too knowing big brown eyes.  People roamed around, dressed in a mixture of clothes—women in both Victorian style dresses and in riding clothes, men in brown working clothes and gray suits, children in pinafores and short-pants.  The last were giggling and playing what looked like blind man's bluff in the middle of the street.  And at one end of the street, a white steepled church oversaw the town, ringing out the ten o'clock hour, while at the other…nothing but sky.  

 

He felt a strong grip on his arm, and he was carried off the boardwalk onto the hard-packed dirt, steered around piles of manure and bits of dirty snow (which explained the chill in the air—winter?), and prevented from walking into other people while he gazed around in wonder.  He caught a few hellos, and he answered as best he could, nodding at people who all looked familiar, though, in most cases, he couldn't tell from where. 

 

And then they were on the boardwalk again, and Tim was guiding him down the street, past shop windows, the telegraph and a newspaper office.  Hang on, newspaper office?

 

He halted abruptly, staggering Tim, and stared at the paper on display in the front window.  It showed just enough to be tantalizing—something about a group of wagon train attacks nearby—but that wasn't what he was looking for.  Instead, he focused on the date at the top, and the name of the paper.

 

The Galatea Journal (Galatea…why was that name so familiar?), Galatea, Colorado, February 1, 1884.

 

Shit.

 

"What?" Tim asked over his shoulder.  "The Wagon Train thing?  Yeah. They're saying its Apache."

 

"Apache," Tony whispered.

 

"I don't think so, myself.  I mean, we're really too far north for that.  The last reports over the wire is that they've been contained down there, in the mountains east of Prescott."

 

Tony frowned, remembering. "You mean, Geronimo?"

 

"Who else?"

 

Yeah, Tony thought dazedly, who else?

 

"But you ask me…" Tim lowered his voice, pulling Tony away from the window and down the boardwalk.  "I'm thinking it's one of us.  White men, I mean.  Not sure who yet, though I've some good ideas.  Wagon trains means homesteaders, and there's been a lot of talk in the saloon that they're threatening the livelihood of the ranchers.  Wouldn't take much for the same kind of range wars happening down in the New Mexico and Arizona Territories to spark up here."

 

Tony snorted.  He meant the Lincoln County War and Tombstone.  Sure.

 

"You don't agree?" Tim asked, apparently taking his silence the wrong way.

 

"No, you're probably right, Pro…Tim."  He looked up then, feeling a rumble beneath his feet, and his hand went instinctively for the gun at his hip.  He'd strapped the gunbelt on when he'd left the saloon, having seen it done a million times in the movies, and he could see the wear on his trousers where it was supposed to be tied.  Now, resting his hand on the butt of the gun, it felt as natural as anything.

 

Tim, similarly, had his hand on his gun, and was studying the group of riders storming into town from the west, kicking up dust, and shouting at the tops of their lungs.  There were about a dozen of them, all men, all dirty, all wild.

 

"Trail herd hit town last night," Tim muttered, brushing back his coat so that his deputy star was clearly visible. "Wasn't expecting them to be coming in quite this early in such force.  Abby won't be ready for 'em."

 

Tony frowned, but imitated his brother and revealed the star on his chest. 

 

Wait, did he just think of Tim as his….?

 

All thoughts left his head as the obvious leaders of the cowboys pulled to a halt in front of them, two ragged looking men with hollows in their cheeks and the brightness of exhaustion in their eyes.  They were both grinning ear to ear with dirty teeth, and the one on the right cocked back his hat to reveal scraggly blond-gray hair and a graying beard.

 

"You boys the law?" he asked.

 

"Part of it," Tim answered.  "Who are you?"

 

"I'm Johnny Acres.  I'm running about five hundred head through just west of here, heading up to Cheyenne.  This here is Roger Castille, my foreman."  The man to Acres' left lifted his hat, revealing pale blue eyes and a head of black hair.  He was clean shaven—mostly.  Patches of dark stubble showed here and there, as if he'd been rushed.  A cold chill ran through Tony upon seeing his face—he knew him.  He didn't know how or from where, but he was certain he'd seen him before, and that memory was not a good one.

 

Acres was still talking.  "I've got about half my men with me.  The other half are with the cattle, but, come tomorrow, the men'll switch off so the other half can come in for a spell." 

 

Tim nodded once, seeming oblivious to Tony's discomfiture. "You just passing through?"

 

"Nah," Acres replied. "We aim on staying a couple of days, give our men a rest.  We're ahead of schedule and they could use a little time on real beds, hit the gambling hall, that sort of thing."  He smiled then, almost a smirk.  "Iffin you get my meaning."

 

"We get your meaning," Tim replied, not smiling back.  "But if you want to spend any time here, we require that your boys leave their guns at the jail."

 

Acres' smile fell fast, eyes turning sharp. "Oh?"

 

"Just as a precaution," Tim continued. "It's as much for your boy's protection as the folks' here.  People are a lot less likely to pull a gun in a fit of pique if they don't have a gun to pull."  He arched an eyebrow. "If you get my meaning."

 

"A fit of pique, huh?" Acres repeated, and a little of the smile had returned.  "Well, maybe we'll consider it.  I'll ask them."

 

"Put it this way, Mr. Acres," Tony said brightly, "they don't leave their guns with us, the doors will all be closed, from restaurant to saloon to hotel.  And the restaurant here is one of the best in the state." He got an eyeful from McGee on that last one, but he ignored it.  "Seems to me, it's worth a couple of days of people not being able to kill each other with guns to get a hot meal, a real bed and maybe win a few hands of poker.  Whaddya say?"

 

Acres just stared at him, as if curious he had even spoken at all.  Then, like a flash, the older man was laughing.  Tony grinned some more, patting Tim on the back, and nodding.

 

"Great, great, so with that all settled…" he began.

 

"Nothing's settled," Acres said, still chuckling, "but we'll see."  He wiped a hand over his eyes, as if to wipe away tears of laughter.  "But know this…."  Just as quickly as he'd laughed, Acres was completely sober, staring at Tony as if he could see through him.  "If we decide to keep our guns, those doors will be open, or we will open them for you.  Get me?"

 

Tony's grin froze on his face, and, for a moment, he wondered if, should he die here, would he really be dead?

 

Finally, he hummed a little and shook his head.  "You know what?" he asked, grinning again at the trail boss. "I'm just going to let you go talk to your men and decide what you want to do.  And we'll be ready for you, one way or another.  How's that?"

 

Acres smirked, and shrugged, leaning back in his saddle. "Fine with me."

 

Tony nodded again. "Right then.  Let us know.  We'll be at the jail." 

 

Acres chuckled, but he and Castille both swung their horses around to go and speak with the knot of men hanging back, waiting for the go ahead to dismount.

 

Tony continued to smile; he couldn't help it.  This was sort of fun!  Even if Castille was still giving him the heebie jeebies with that face of his.

 

He heard Tim sigh heavily next to him, then a hand plucked at his sleeve jacket. "Come on."

 

"Hmm?"  He turned, confused. "Why?  They haven't told us their decision yet."

 

"You said we'd be at the jail.  We may as well be."  Tim started walking away, and Tony looked past him to the small adobe building a few storefronts down, with the sign "Galatea Sheriff" hanging over it.  Okey doke.  He jogged after the other man.

 

Tim glanced over his shoulder as he unlocked the door, still frowning at Tony, and disappeared inside.  Tony was about to follow when Tim reappeared and tossed Tony a rifle. Before Tony even understood what was happening, Tim was chambering his rifle and placing it against his shoulder, pointing it directly at Acres.

 

Tony just blinked.  "Um…."

 

"What's the matter?" Tim asked without dropping his bead on Acres. "Thought you liked that rifle."

 

Tony clamped his mouth shut, not sure how to answer that.  Instead, he chambered the rifle he'd been tossed and pointed it at the ground.   Tim steeled his jaw, clearly seeing Tony's lack of aim in his peripheral vision, but not saying anything.

 

Acres turned at stared at them, his gaze narrowed to slits.  The men with him had all quieted, and then one of them pointed towards the saloon.  Tony followed the point, and saw Gibbs standing on the boardwalk, also pointing a rifle at the men.  Upon being spotted, Gibbs cracked the lever on his rifle.

 

And, a little further down, another man stood in front of what was proclaimed the Mayor's Office, wearing a neat pinstriped suit and holding a rifle to his shoulder as well.

 

Vance.  Well hell.  Still in charge, even here.

 

Acres turned on his horse, forcing the animal in a circle so that he could see every rifle pointed at him.

 

"There's more guns pointed at you than just four!" Gibbs' shouted. "You really want to risk it?"

 

"Is there really?" Tony asked in a whisper.

 

Tim just frowned more deeply.  "Not funny," he hissed under his breath.

 

"Take that as a no," Tony mumbled to himself.  Great.  Not that he wouldn't bank on Gibbs and Vance both being able to take on the whole bunch with just the two of them, but still….

 

Acres twisted around to face Gibbs, stared at him a moment, obviously taking in the full star on his chest, and raised a hand.   

 

"No need for that, Sheriff," he called. "We're leaving our guns at your jail, as your deputies suggested."

 

"Then do it," Gibbs ordered.  Acres just nodded, and his men dismounted, all immediately unbuckling their gun-belts as they hit the ground.  When the first group started over, gun-belts in hand, Tim lowered his rifle.

 

"Keep them covered," he said. "I'll go get the receipt book."

 

Tony snorted a laugh.  Receipt book.  One hundred and twenty five years in the past, and McGee was still the one doing all the paperwork.

___________________________________________________________

 

Tony couldn't take his eyes off Castille.  It was driving him crazy, not knowing where he'd seen the man before.  As Tim took the foreman's gun, dropping it in the box he'd put next to the desk in the jail, Tony found his hand still resting on his own gun, as if waiting for Castille to make a move.

 

The man's blue eyes regarded Tony unhappily, no hint of anything but bleakness in their depths.  Tony lifted his chin in defiance to that stare.

 

"What are you looking at?" Castille demanded finally, practically ripping the receipt Tim handed him from the younger man's hand.  "Something the matter?"

 

Tony just shrugged. "No.  Just think I know you from somewhere."

 

Castille snorted, grimacing. "I ain't wanted, if that's what you're thinking."

 

Tony's eyes narrowed. "If you say so."

 

The other man frowned, glared at Tony a second longer, and then disappeared out the door, fuming the whole way.

 

"Shouldn't antagonize them," Tim offered quietly, taking the name of the next cowboy to hand him a gun.

 

"He antagonized me."

 

"How?" Tim asked, ripping the receipt free of the book and handing it over.  "You were the one staring at him."

 

"He just rubs me the wrong way, and I trust my gut."

 

"Oh, right.  The famous Dinozzo gut." Tim shook his head. "I just hope your trust in it doesn't get you shot in it one day."  He waved in the next cowboy.  "Name?"

 

Tony frowned at that—the famous Dinozzo gut?  How could he have a Dinozzo gut if Gibbs was his father?  Shouldn't that be the famous Gibbs gut?

 

He rubbed a hand across his forehead, knuckling the spot above one eye that was beating an annoying drumbeat.

 

Tim waved out the last cowboy, dropped the final gunbelt in the box, and looked up at Tony.  "I'm going to put these in the safe.  You'll be okay for a minute?"

 

Tony dropped his hand from his head and frowned.  The headache had migrated, and his ears were buzzing.  Somewhere, he thought he could hear the high-pitched whine of a heart monitor going off. 

 

"Tony?  You okay?"  Tim's voice was almost lost in the cacophony, and Tony frowned more deeply, trying to wave him off.  It'll pass; it'll pass.  Just hold on.  He tried to nod, to make Tim go away.

 

"Of course, Probie.  Why wouldn't I be?"

 

Tim blinked once. "What did you call me?"

 

But Tony couldn't answer.  The world had abruptly turned completely black.

__________________________________________________

 

Hands clapped loudly in his ears.  What the…?

 

"Come on, Tony, wake up." 

 

Hands clapped again, and Tony flinched.

 

"Ow…loud."  He waved a hand upwards, stopping whomever was clapping loudly right over his head.  What sort of sadist….?

 

"There you are, my boy.  You had us worried for a moment."

 

Ducky? 

 

He peeled back his eyelids, which felt glued to his eyeballs, and blinked a few times before recognizing the walls of the jail.  He was lying on a cot in one of the cells, and Ducky was looking down at him, curiosity and concern in his gaze.  Tim wasn't there, but Jimmy was, standing in the cell door and worrying the brim of his black top hat in his hands, looking ready to go fetch anything the doctor asked of him.

 

"You with me, Tony?"

 

"I, um…."  Tony frowned, and started to sit up.  Ducky pressed a hand to his chest.

 

"Not just yet.  You fainted, Tony, clean away, so Tim tells me.  That's not normal, as I'm sure you know.  Tell me, is it your head?"

 

Tony frowned more deeply, and rested a hand on his head.  "How long was I out?"

 

"A few minutes only. We dragged you in here, I clapped my hands above your head a couple of times, and here you are.  Tony, I need to know—is it your head?"

 

Tony stared at Ducky for a long moment, and thought about his answer.  It was 1883. There were no X-Rays, no Tylenol, no ibuprofen, no nothing.  Just good intentions, dirty knives and alcohol.  If there was something wrong with his head, what could Ducky really do?  And if involved anything like a lobotomy (did they come up with those yet?), then he was having no part of it.  19th Century medicine was staying far away from him, no matter how smart Ducky was.

 

"Just dizziness from trying to do too much too soon, Duck," he answered, finally.  "I've been in bed for, what, two weeks?  I probably should have sat down once I was in here, but I stayed on my feet, and it was a little much."  He pushed up again onto his elbows. "I'm fine."

 

 Ducky's eyes narrowed behind the wire-rimmed glasses.  "Why don't I believe that, young man?"

 

Tony just smiled softly, and asked, "Where's Tim?"

 

Ducky looked puzzled. "What do you mean, he's right…."  He stopped, looking around the little jail, then up at Jimmy.  The young man just shrugged.

 

"He was here a second ago, Doctor."

 

A shriek pierced the room, and Tony was on his feet so fast, he nearly knocked Ducky over.  Shouting an apology over his shoulder, he made it to the front door in time to see Tim putting himself bodily between Abby and Castille in the middle of the street.  Abby was carrying a basket of food, and she staggered backwards as Tim pushed her back.  Tony saw the flash of metal in Abby's hand—she was holding a knife, probably from the basket, and had probably pulled it to protect herself.

 

"What's the big idea, Castille?" Tim spat. "She said to leave her alone!"

 

"Aw, you know," the other man said, leering at Abby over Tim's shoulder. "She don't look married, and, at her age, that usually means something." 

 

"Yeah, it means I've got taste!" Abby snapped. 

 

"You're damned pretty, you know that?" Castille pressed. "Hell of a body on ya.  I love 'em tall." He stepped forward, as if to go around Tim. "What say we—"

 

"What say you back away before I gut you," Abby snarled, still holding the knife. 

 

"Abby," Tim warned. "Let me handle this."

 

"Then handle it! Make him go away before I do something he'll regret."

 

"Wow," Castille smiled. "What a mouth on her!  Come on, darling, give me a chance.  I'll show you a good time."

 

"And by good time," Tony interjected, sauntering over, his hand on his gun again, "you mean, you'll buy her enough alcohol to blitz her brain, and then try to get her into your bed before she sobers up enough to remember what a slimeball you are?  That about sum it up?"

 

Castille whirled around, reaching for the non-existent gun on his own hip, before curling his hand into a fist.  All smiles were gone as he glared at Tony.  Tim obviously hadn't been seen as a threat, Tony on the other hand….

 

"Back off, Deputy.  This don't concern you."

 

"Pretty sure it does, Castille.  You're bothering a friend of mine, and foolishly ignoring my brother who, quite frankly, is probably saving your life right now.  Abby is very good with a knife."

 

Castille snorted, glancing at Tim and Abby, before returning his dark stare to Tony.  "This is between me and the girl."

 

"The girl has made her opinion of you pretty clear, seems to me.  She wants you to leave her alone.  I don't think there is anything more to discuss."

 

"And if I think there is?" the other man challenged.

 

"Then you'd be wrong.  And if you don't want to be dead wrong, you'll leave now and not talk to Abby again unless it's to buy a drink from her in the saloon.  Is that clear?"

 

Castille sneered. "You think you're so tough.  I seen your type before.  All flash, no fire."

 

Tony chuckled coolly.  "You really want to test that theory?"

 

For a second, something flared in Castille's eyes, and Tony frowned.  It was such a familiar look; it made him all the more certain he'd seen this man before.  He just couldn't….

 

"Castille!  Get your butt in here!"  Acres had apparently had enough, and was standing on the boardwalk in front of the saloon.  "There's other women!  Stop picking fights you won't win!"

 

The flare in Castille's eyes grew even hotter, and Tony felt half a second of genuine fear, but from what, he wasn't sure.

 

"Castille! Damn it!"

 

And, just as suddenly, the fire was gone from the young cowboy's eyes. 

 

"You're a lucky man, Deputy."

 

Tony inclined his head. "And you're an ass."

 

At that, Castille huffed a laugh, spat on the ground in front of Tony, and turned away, stalking towards the saloon.  Some of the other cowboys hanging with him laughed, clapping him on the back as he walked.  Apparently, they thought he'd won that fight somehow.  Which made Tony wonder just what might have happened if Castille had, in fact, made it a real fight.

 

Not that Tony was slow with his fists, but, well, with the way his head was right now….

 

"Thanks, Tony," Abby said, sighing a little. "I don't like that guy."

 

"Me neither, Abbs," Tony replied, still watching the batwing doors swing where Castille had disappeared.  When he returned his gaze to Abby and Tim, he found Tim staring at him, something inscrutable in his face.  Tony frowned.  Tim lowered his eyes, and, clearly unhappy, walked away. 

 

What the hell was that about?

 

"This is for you, by the way," Abby said, jerking his attention back.  She was by his side now, patting the basket.  "I was bringing it to you in the jail.  Breakfast and lunch, seeing as it's nearing mid-day now."  She glanced at the clock on the church before smiling once more at Tony—sure enough, it was already past eleven.

 

"I do love food," he admitted.  He leaned over and lifted up the red and white checked cloth hiding the basket, and drew in the smell of hot biscuits.  Heaven.  "Thanks, Abbs.  You're a lifesaver."

 

"Back atcha," she agreed cheekily.  "Shall we?"  She offered her arm, and he took it, leading her back to the jail where Ducky and Jimmy still stood, watching them from the doorway.  Once inside, Ducky continued to hover as Abby laid out the food for Tony on the desk.  Jimmy stayed by the open door to the outside, watching the town.

 

"There," Abby said, finished with a flourish.  She put the basket to one side. "Put the dishes back in there and bring it back when you're done."  She took a step back.  "Need anything else?"

 

"Don't think so," Tony said, mouth already watering.  Did he know Abby could cook this well?  He couldn’t remember. 

 

"'Kay. See you later, then." She spun cutely in place and headed towards the door. 

 

What?  Hey! "Wait," Tony called, stopping her.  "Someone should walk you back."

 

"I'll do it," Jimmy said, all dimples and eager to please.  Tony arched an eyebrow.

 

"We'll be fine," Abby promised, already taking Jimmy's arm and leading him out of the jail.  Tony made to follow, to make sure they crossed the street without a problem, but Ducky blocked his way.

 

"We weren't finished, Tony."

 

"Doc, I need to make sure…."

 

"Tim's out there.  They'll be fine."

 

Tony grimaced. "Tim won't be able to handle—"

 

"He's been doing just fine these last few weeks.  He can handle what's going on far better than you think.  He's not ten years old anymore."

 

Tony studied Ducky a second, about to challenge that, and then frowned suddenly.  Ducky was right—Tony didn't think of Tim as a trained agent…deputy….  Clear as crystal, he remembered a gangly boy chasing after him, wanting to play cowboys and Indians and to go fishing with his big brother.  He was someone his dad said needed protecting.  No wait.  Wait.

 

How…how could he have a memory like that?   

 

"Tony?"

 

He was leaning against the desk, and Ducky had a hand on his arm. 

 

"Tony, what's going on in there?  You need to tell me, or I can't help."

 

He shook his head.  God, what was going on with him?  He knew things, he realized, had memories of things, understood things he couldn't possibly know.

 

"Tony?" 

 

He sighed heavily, and then forced a smile for Ducky's benefit.  "I'm fine, Doc.  Just need some food in me.  I'm probably light-headed from eating nothing but broth for two weeks, don't you think?"

 

Ducky's eyes narrowed, clearly not buying it for a second.  "I'm not stupid, Tony.  I need to know—"

 

"I'm fine, Doc."  He pressed a hand to Ducky's arm, as if he could physically imprint the statement. "I'm fine, I promise."

 

Ducky simply frowned, his brow a mess of dark lines, and shook his head.  "When did the word 'fine' become the defense against my profession?" 

 

Tony just shrugged and smiled.  Ducky eyed him a moment longer, and then tapped the desk with his fist.

 

"You're to stay here, young man, until I return with something that should help with those headaches I know you're having, even if you won't admit it.  Promise you'll stay here."

 

Tony nodded.  Why wouldn't he?  With this whole table of food to eat, it was as pleasant a place as any.  Except maybe that cute little bistro on the corner near the Yard.  What was it called again?  Maria's?  May's?  Mirabel's?  No, no, that was the brothel on the edge of town.  It…damn it, what was it called?

 

He shook his head, not even aware he'd closed his eyes, but when he opened them, Ducky was gone.  Sighing, he stood and made his way around the desk, settling down to stare at the chicken pot pie that had begun to grow cold on the desk. 

 

Someone cleared their throat, startling him.  Trying to cover it up with a cough, Tony looked up to find Director Vance standing in the open doorway.

 

"Deputy," Vance greeted.

 

"Dir…Mayor, um…"  Tony stood, not quite sure what he should be doing.  Shake hands?  Bow?  Do a little dance.  He smiled at that last thought, and Vance's gaze narrowed.

 

"Something amusing, Dinozzo?"

 

Whoops. "Uh, no.  No, sir.  Um…"  He cleared his throat and attempted a somber mien. "What can I do for you, Mayor?"

 

"Just checking in, son.  It's been almost two weeks since I saw you last.  Your father and brother have been keeping you well hidden while you were under the weather.  Are you well now?"

 

Tony gave a nod. "Seem to be.  A few…"  he waved a hand, "issues.  But I seem to be on the mend."

 

"Good." Vance looked out the door—he hadn't actually fully entered the jail, as if he didn't feel like he belonged inside.  It reminded Tony of the way Vance always hovered just outside the cubicles, as if aware that, inside was not his domain unless invited.  The Mayor frowned at whatever was outside; Tony could guess what it was.

 

"This trail herd," the quiet man began, frowning a little, "think they'll be trouble?"

 

"Probably."

 

Vance gave a nod. "You well enough to handle it?"

 

Tony frowned.  What kind of question was that?  "Gibbs thinks so."

 

"Your father…."  Vance grimaced, gaze narrowing again. "I've never been all that keen on the fact that he made his sons his deputies."  Dark eyes caught Tony's again. "I always thought he'd send McGee away when he went to college.  Tell him not to come back.  But McGee did.  Over and over again."

 

Tony's expression caught, and something like chagrin bit into his chest.  He'd hoped his brother would stay out East too. Tim deserved to be lighting up the world (literally—electricity was his science), not stuck in this backwater town on the edge of Colorado.  But, outwardly, he just shrugged.

 

"Family won't betray you."

 

Vance grunted. "Sometimes to their detriment."  He stared at Tony a moment longer, and then gave a head shake.  "My apologies, Dinozzo.  This latest threat to our peaceful home has me wound up."  He gave a small smile.  "I am glad to see you well again.  It would be nice to see your father looking a little less like the world was about to end."

 

Tony just smiled back, not sure how to respond to that, and Vance seemed to take that as a thank you.  With another nod, the quiet man slipped back out of the door. It was only then that Tony noticed Vance still carried a rifle in his hand.  Funny how he hadn't noticed before—as if it were a natural thing to see.

 

Tony sighed again, and dug a fork into the pie.  If the fork stabbed through to the pot's bottom a little harder than necessary, it was just because he really was hungry.      

 

As he ate, he considered the fact that he felt convinced that this was a dream, but part of him also seemed convinced that this was all real. It was because he felt at home here, like he belonged.  And the longer he thought about it, the longer he breathed this place in, the more solid he felt.

 

He was polishing off a truly spectacular piece of blackberry pie about half an hour later when Ducky reappeared, smiling.  Tony tried to smile back, and not look too suspiciously at the black bag Ducky had in his hand.  What did headache medicine really mean in the 1880s?

 

As if in answer to his question, Ducky moved over to the stove and picked up the kettle, filling it with water and placing it on top to boil.  Of course, Tony remembered.  Willow Bark Tea.  The memory of its bitter taste was sharp on his tongue. 

 

And how could he know what it tasted like, he screamed inwardly.  Aspirin.  Aspirin was what you took for headaches, not Willow Bark Tea….

 

Seemingly oblivious to Tony's discomfiture, Ducky started to talk.  "It feels a little like being on the cusp of some terrible sporting event out there," the sage doctor mused.  "All those restless cowboys standing around, waiting for some great sport where, undoubtedly, some poor soul will be humiliated and killed.  Seems not unlike the anticipation I imagine must have surrounded gladiatorial games in Ancient Rome.  Did you know that most gladiator fights were not held in the great arenas but in private homes?  Most assume they were much grander than most of them were…."

 

As Ducky rambled on, Tony found himself thinking more about what the doctor been telling him earlier, about needing someone to talk to.  Fact was, the old man was right.  But, just as sure as he was that admitting to the man that he was having black-outs was a bad idea, he knew he couldn't tell Ducky about this.  But who else….?

 

Jimmy suddenly appeared in the door, nearly running into Ducky as the other man began pouring the tea into a tin cup, the young man panting as if he'd been running. 

 

"Sorry, Doctor," he uttered hurriedly, getting out of Ducky's way before grinning anew at Tony.  "Hey, your father wanted me to tell you that the noon stage is arriving.  Should be rolling into town in a few minutes."

 

Tony's eyes widened—of course! "Ziva!  She's here?"  Of course.  Ziva would help!  He grinned, and Ducky gave him the oddest look.  Tony ignored it, patted him on the back, and headed over to the door.  He grabbed Jimmy's arms as if he'd hug him. "Ziva's here!" he said again, laughing.

 

"Tony, wait!  The tea!"

 

He stopped, turning to see Ducky watching him worriedly, holding up the tin cup.

 

"And you really shouldn't run," the doctor implored.

 

Tony just saluted cheekily.  "Promise I'll drink it later, Doc.  But I can't miss her arrival.  I'll be back! Honest!"  And he bounded out of the jail house door.  The last thing he heard before being bathed in sunlight was Ducky muttering, "Oh, dear."

 

He stood on the edge of the boardwalk, scanning the town.  He spotted Tim and Gibbs over in front of the hotel, talking.  And coming towards them at a slow clip was, quite clearly, a stage coach led by six horses.  Damn—that thing was big!  Looked like it fit at least six people, maybe even eight. 

 

He jogged over to the others, who both stopped talking as he approached.  Gibbs was, as always, impossible to read, but Tim's expression was a mix of concern and unhappiness.  Reaching them, he slung an arm over Tim's shoulder and gave him a half-hug.

 

"You didn't think I'd miss her arrival, did you?"

 

"Are you alright?" Tim asked, not buying the joviality for a second. 

 

"Fine, fine.  Ask Ducky.  It's all good."

 

Tim frowned. "No, it's not." He shoved Tony's arm off his shoulder. "You dropped like you'd been pole-axed in the jail!  Then you come outside all grit and bristle even though I had the situation with Abby well in—"

 

"Tim," Gibbs ordered softly, "later."  Tim frowned, but did as he was told, crossing his arms sullenly.  In the meantime, the stage had stopped, and the driver jumped down, smiling brightly at them. 

 

"Full complement today, Sheriff." 

 

"Bill," Gibbs replied, nodding at the driver.  "Good ride?"

 

"Quiet.  My favorite kind."  Bill had the door to the stage open and was dropping the stairs.  Then he backed up, whistling up at his bag man to start dropping luggage off the top. 

 

A couple disembarked first, with a small child, who grinned up at Gibbs.  Gibbs smiled back—man never could resist a kid.  Tim greeted the couple by name, welcoming them home.  Tony continued to watch the stage.

 

An older woman and her daughter emerged next, neither of them remarkable, although Tim called one of them "Mrs. Lowell," which, for some reason, made Tony's hackles rise.  But it all faded when a shapely, but practical boot hit the first step, and Ziva leaned out of the small door.

 

She took the three of them in, and they all studied her right back.  She was dressed in a long wool skirt, a long duster and a red shirt.  Her hair was pinned tightly to the back of her head, and her face was as lovely as ever.  She also wore a gunbelt.  It was odd to see a woman carrying a gun, but on Ziva, it would have been odd had she not worn one.

 

She smiled then, and Tony smiled back, walking forward to offer her a hand.

 

"It's so good to see you," he said warmly, feeling a little like the last piece of this little jigsaw world was popping into place.  She nodded back taking his hand and stepping to the ground.

 

"You must be Tony," she said, and then turned to Gibbs.  Her smile grew deeper, more genuine.  "Hello, Gibbs."

 

"Ziva."  Gibbs had that warm smile of his—the kind he only reserved for people he truly loved.  To Tony, it was expected, but, based on Tim's expression, his younger brother was clearly surprised.

 

"And you must be Tim," Ziva finished, offering the young man a hand.  Tim stared at it a moment, then took it.  Ziva smiled again. "I understand that you've returned home from Boston not that long ago."

 

"He made it into Harvard on a scholarship," Gibbs said, and there was no hiding the pride in his voice. "Though it meant ten years of his being away from home, he's done now, and close to obtaining a doctorate in engineering.  He just has to finish his…."  He paused, frowning slightly. "What is it called again?"

 

"Dissertation," Tim supplied in the same resigned voice he'd used earlier that morning.  This was a thing, apparently.

 

"Dissertation, and he'll be Dr. McGee." Gibbs patted his boy on the back as he finished.

 

"McGee," Ziva repeated, tilting her head.  She smiled up at Tim. "Gibbs is not your surname?"

 

"Not by choice," Tim replied sourly.

 

"It's important that they remember their roots," Gibbs explained, his tone firm.  "Plus, I promised their mothers."

 

Mothers.  Right, of course.  They weren't related.  They were adopted.  No…wait…that wasn't right either. 

 

Another memory bubbled up to the surface, of Gibbs sitting him down to tell him that he'd remarried.  A woman named Diane, a widow.  She had a son, a two-year old boy, and an six-week old daughter.  They were going to come live with them here in Galatea.  Tony was going to have a new little brother….

 

Diane died of consumption not long after she arrived, and her daughter soon after.  Gibbs had brought up Tim and Tony on his own, and Tim kept Diane's last name.  Tony, too, wasn't blood—Gibbs had married his mother when Tony was one.  And, just like Tim, Gibbs had insisted both boys keep their mother's maiden name as their surnames.

 

He'd resented it.  So had Tim.  For a long time, they thought it was because Gibbs didn’t want his name associated with them.  But, over time, they realized it was Gibb's way of keeping their mother's alive.  Still…it hurt. 

 

And Gibbs didn't like them referring to each other by those last names, which suggested, at least to Tony, that Gibbs wasn't all that happy about it either. 

 

But Gibbs always kept his promises.  At least they got to call him "Dad."

 

Dad.

 

It was nice calling him that.  Really, really nice.

 

"Get her bags, Tony."

 

Tony flinched at the order from Gibbs, knowing he'd been caught day-dreaming, and he scrambled to get the bags Ziva was pointing out.  Tim already had two suitcases in hand and a duffel over his shoulder.  He was clearly waiting, and Tony blushed.

 

"Right, sorry, coming." 

 

"Sign of weakness," Tim quoted airily, moving to follow Gibbs and Ziva inside. 

 

"Whatever."  Tony tried not to grin. "McSmarty-pants."

 

Tim laughed, and another piece of this world slotted into place.

 

As he walked into the cool darkness, he felt more and more at home, and that other place…that other place more distant. 

______________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER THREE: GANGS ALL HERE

 

"Get ready, little lady. Hell is coming to breakfast." – The Outlaw Josie Wales, 1976

______________________________________________________

 

Ziva found them a couple of hours later in the saloon, smiling in amusement as she brushed past the tables to the one where Gibbs and Tony sat.  She had clearly bathed and changed clothes, dressed in a more flattering dress than before, though still not one meant to garner attention.  Nonetheless, she earned numerous stares from the men filling the room, and Tony glared at them, the longest one for Acres, whose leer was disgusting.  Acres just raised a glass at him, and Tony fought the urge to shoot him.

 

As she reached them, both Tony and Gibbs stood, and Ziva nodded her thanks.    

 

"Good lunch?" Gibbs asked.

 

She nodded. "Tim is a very sweet young man.  Although I would have preferred it if you had all been there, but I understand from Tim that you…."  She smiled, glancing over her shoulder at the room full of cowboys. "Have a situation."

 

Gibbs smiled, and Ziva sat down with them, smoothing down the creases in her skirt as she did so. 

 

"I admit, I was surprised when Tim told me you wanted me to meet you here," she said, and there was a mischievous glint in her eye now as she looked at them.  "Most don't usually recommend the saloon for a quiet conversation, especially with a woman.  Typically, men believe they must protect me from places like this."

 

Tony smiled.  "We give you more credit than that, and," he shrugged, "we didn't think you'd mind."

 

She inclined her head, still studying the room. "You would be right."  Her gaze landed on Acres, who still appeared to be fixated on her.  "I take it, he's the leader?"

 

Gibbs smiled softly.  "He is.  How can you tell?"

 

"The way he holds himself," Ziva replied.  "And the deference the others are showing him, both in his place of seating and how they protect him."  She frowned. "He's dangerous.  That is no mere trail boss."

 

Gibbs' eyes narrowed. "Instinct tell you that?"

 

"Experience," she answered darkly.  "I've met men like him all my life."  Her gaze shifted again, focusing on Gibbs once more.  "But that's not why I am here."  She smiled at him. "I'm here to see you.  I wanted to thank you again for inviting me.  It was kind of you."

 

"Not kind," Gibbs replied.  "You're family."

 

She smiled wryly. "Let's be honest.  I'm hardly that," she said. "At best, we are connected by writings."

 

"At best," Gibbs stated, "you're family."

 

Her eyes pinched slightly, and Tony had to smile.  He knew her face so well—for her, that was the equivalent of showing confusion. 

 

"Regardless," she continued finally, "it was—"

 

"Kind.  I know."  Gibbs leaned forward.  "And I'm glad you came.  How long are you staying?"

 

"Just for a few days.  I am heading to Seattle.  I had hoped to see you one more time before I left, to say goodbye.  You were always a good friend to me."

 

"Seattle?"  Gibbs' frown was deep.  "Why Seattle?"

 

"There's a ship there.  I was told there are opportunities in Alaska for—"

 

"Alaska?" Tony choked. "Are you kidding?  It's not even a territory yet."

 

She frowned at him.  "Why is that a problem?"

 

"Well, because," Tony glanced at Gibbs, looking for support, and getting none, stammered a bit, "because it's just…there are some military regiments up there, but no people."

 

Gibbs snorted. "Military aren't people, son?"

 

"I don't mean you, Dad," Tony snapped back, hand waving.  "I mean that Ziva is a city girl.  She needs more than just some jarheads to keep her company."

 

"Some what?" Ziva asked.

 

"You know," Tony said, frowning, "marines."  He looked again at Gibbs, and saw only lifted eyebrows of someone who had no idea what he was talking about.  "You know," he said, his voice wavering, "like…like leathernecks?  Isn't that…isn't that…." Pain spiked in his head, and he grunted, pressing a hand to his temple. "Damn it."  He hadn't even noticed that he'd closed his eyes until he felt something cold pressed into his hand.  When he looked up, Abby was smiling down at him.  She'd pressed a cool cloth into his head.  He nodded his thanks, held it to his head, and turned back to Ziva.

 

She was also looking at him in concern.  "Are you alright?"

 

He gave a nod and a smile, and promptly ignored the question.  "Abby, this is our cousin Ziva.  Ziva, this is Abby, our brilliant resident saloonkeeper and chemist."

 

Ziva's eyebrows lifted, glancing up at the woman.  "You're a chemist?"

 

"Got a Bachelor of Science and everything," Abby said, nodding. "But not much call for female scientists back east.  So, I came out here, bought this saloon and opened the apothecary shop next door.  If you need tobacco, arsenic or a really good liquor, I'm your girl."

 

Ziva's smile broadened, and she reached out a hand, which Abby took.  "It is a great pleasure to meet you, Abby."

 

"And you, cousin Ziva," Abby replied, grinning. "Speaking of liquor, can I get you any?"

 

"I'd love it," Ziva replied, sounding almost relieved at the question.  "Thank you."

 

"What would you like?"

 

She shrugged. "Whiskey?"

 

"I'll get you the good stuff," Abby promised with a smile, and, with a squeeze of Tony's shoulder, disappeared in a flurry of skirts. 

 

Ziva watched her leave, and then turned her attention back to the table.  Her smile faltered when she noticed Tony still had the compress to his head.

 

"Is it bad?" she asked then, her voice soft, "your headache?"

 

"It's fine," he said, lowering the cloth. "And we were talking about you."

 

Her lips pressed together tightly, and she looked again at Gibbs, who nodded in return.

 

"What really brings you here, Ziva?" asked the older man. 

 

She frowned.  "I told you—because I am leaving the country, and I do not expect to return.  I wanted—"

 

"Not what I meant, Ziva."  Gibbs didn't raised his voice, but it made her flinch nonetheless.

 

"Then what did you mean?" she asked, gaze downcast now, but stubbornness in her tone.

 

"He means," Tony said helpfully, "why are you running away?"

 

"More to the point," Gibbs added, "who are you running from?"  

 

That caused her to look up in surprise, before her eyes went to the table again. "What makes you think…?"

 

"You're strong," Gibbs answered. "You're smart.  You're the best shot of anyone I've ever met, and I've seen you handle yourself in a fight." He smiled softly. "For which I'm still thankful."  Ziva gave a gentle smirk in return, but it disappeared as he continued. "And you're brave.  If you're running away, then something has scared you deeply."

 

She pressed her lips together tightly, thinking.  When she eventually looked up again, there was uncertainty in her eyes.  She sought out Gibbs' eyes like a lifeline.

 

"It is not your concern."

 

"You're my niece.  It damn well is my concern."

 

She closed her eyes.  "I assure you—"

 

"Stephanie once told me that your adoption was more a front than a truth.  She wasn't sure, but she thought the family her sister married into wasn't honest.  She worried more than once that they were criminals, but all her sister seemed to care about was the money they made off their importing business.  Frankly," Gibbs shrugged, "I only met them and you that once in New York City, and you were the only one of that entire clan that didn't stink of corruption and death."

 

Ziva didn't respond. 

 

"Made me wonder," Gibbs continued, "whether adoption was just a pretty way of saying indentured servitude."

 

She looked up at that, and something like anger crossed her features. "Absolutely not," she hissed. "I am no one's slave."

 

Gibbs nodded. "Then what was it?  Because the man who allegedly adopted you, Eli David, certainly didn't treat you like a daughter."

 

Her lips twisted wryly, and she shook her head.  "Unfortunately," she whispered, "that is because his daughter is exactly what I am.  His real daughter, but not by his wife."

 

Tony's eyebrows lifted.  Gibbs frowned.  Ziva's eyes dropped to the table as she explained.

 

"My mother, his mistress, died when I was very young.  She convinced Eli to find a means to adopt me, as if I were a waif he'd taken on for charity."  She sneered. "And in return, he treated me like nothing more than the manure on his shoes.  His wife hated me, and her children did as well, all except my half-brother…."  She shook her head.  "But it is not worth discussing.  They are not part of my life anymore."

 

"Why?"

 

She licked her lips, and her eyes took on that granite quality Tony knew so well. "Because they tried to sell me.  My…"  She waved a hand at her face. "…Looks made me a commodity, a valuable one, apparently.  Eli found me an advantageous marriage, whereby I would be the wife of one of the cruelest, rudest, most vile human being ever to walk the city's streets.  I refused, and I was given an ultimatum."  She turned her head away then, to look out the window at the dusty streets outside, clearly only just holding onto her fury. 

 

"Marry him or get out?"

 

She snorted.  "Marriage was one option, the other…." She radiated anger now, all of it directed at some place in her mind's eye.  "I decided Alaska was a viable third option, and a place I could be sure they would not follow."

 

"You could stay here," Gibbs said, his voice neutral.  Ziva snorted softly, but she smiled and shook her head.

 

"No.  They would follow me here.  It is not far enough away."

 

"I know."

 

"No, you don't.  They would follow me for only one purpose, to—"

 

"Kill you, I know.  We'll protect you."

 

She looked at him, and her smile grew warmer.  "You are a good man."

 

"So stay."

 

Her headshake was more vehement.  "No.  I would not wish my father's family on you or anyone I know.  It is too dangerous.  He would kill you to get to me.  It is far better that I just disappear, make a life for myself far from anyone he can hurt."

 

"Running away to a wasteland is not a life, Ziva.  It's a punishment."

 

"It is my choice."

 

"It's not a choice if it is ruled by fear.  If you want to fight for your freedom, you can do that here.  My sons and I will support you."

 

"No.  I did not come here for your pity, Uncle.  Do not—"

 

"And we could use your help."

 

She blinked at that, and, after a moment, tilted her head.  "What?"

 

"It's getting harder and harder to protect this town, even with my sons' help.  And on top of that," Gibbs frowned, glancing at Tony, "I want Tim out of this business.   He's trapped here, afraid to leave Tony and me alone.  If I had someone to replace him, he might be more inclined to go."

 

Tony just nodded, remembering his conversation with Vance earlier.  It had taken a long time to convince Tim to go away for college and university, and then he was still home as often as he could be.  And, at the rate he was going, he was never going to finish his dissertation.  And even if he did, what use was it out here?  Back east was where all the scientific and engineering breakthroughs were occurring, with men like Edison.  Tim had even been offered a job by George Westinghouse, to join him at the electric company he was forming, but Tim would never leave Galatea.  Not until he felt safe that he could.

 

Ziva, meanwhile, was still looking somewhat shocked by Gibbs' pronouncement.  She leaned back in her chair, blinked slowly once, and then leaned forward again.

 

"Are you saying," she said slowly, as if speaking to a madman, "that you want me to be a deputy sheriff?"

 

Gibbs shrugged.  "Yup."

 

"But I'm a woman."

 

"You saved my life once.  I know you'd be good at it.  I don't care that you're a woman."

 

Ziva flashed a bright smile, before hiding it behind suspicion.  "Why me?  You could find anyone to step into the place of your son."

 

"They wouldn't be as good as you.  Plus," Gibbs tilted his head, "you're family."

 

She stared at him for a long moment, and then slowly began to nod. "That is why you invited me here.  To offer me a job."

 

"Pretty much."  He smirked a little.  "I told you I wasn't being kind."

 

She frowned.  "And what would make you think I would even consider such a thing?"

 

Gibbs shrugged.  "Took a chance.  I didn't know about your troubles, but…"

 

"He's not above taking advantage," Tony finished.  Gibbs glanced at him, but didn't refute the statement.  Instead, he nodded.

 

"He's right."

 

Ziva stared at them both, looking torn now. 

 

"So," Gibbs said then, "what do you say?"

 

She blinked slowly.  "That…I…I am flattered that….that you would think so highly of me, Uncle, and you," she looked at Tony, "you don't even know me, but…"

 

"Excuse me, sirs," an oily voice interrupted, "but is this young lady free for the evening?"

 

Acres hovered over Ziva's chair, staring straight down her dress.  Instantly, Ziva's expression changed from open and honest to cold as ice.  Tony stood up.

 

"If she were," he offered, "would she be sitting with us?"

 

"Well, I assumed she'd made a mistake.  No one this attractive could be sitting with you on purpose."

 

"Oh, and I suppose she should be sitting with you?" Tony asked.

 

"It would be a step up," Acres smirked. "Bulls aren't known to be the best of company.  Now me, I could show her a good time."

 

Ziva smiled dryly.  "Is that right?"

 

"Ah," Acres settled into the chair next to her, "the angel speaks!  Just give me the word, darling, and I'll whisk you away from these two backwater boys and teach you things about your body that you would never have thought possible."

 

Tony winced. "Ugh.  Do you talk to your mother with that mouth?"

 

"Oh, I'm betting she likes it.  Don't you, my beauty?"  Acres reached a hand across, touching Ziva's where it rested on the table.  "So how 'bout it?  Want to be with a real man?"

 

"Thank you, no," Ziva replied, drawing her hand back.  "I am happy where I am."

 

"Don't you lie to me, darling.  I can see the fire in you trying to get out.   That high collar and that long skirt—I bet you're dying to show me what's underneath all that cloth."  His hand moved forward, and trailed up her arm.  She shifted out of reach, still holding onto the cool smile.

 

"I said, no.  Please leave."

 

"Can't do that.  Not when I know what you're missing."  Acres' eyes were bright with dutch courage. "Me." 

 

"Oh, that line's just awful," Tony muttered.  He looked at Gibbs. "Shouldn't we--?"

 

"She can take care of herself," Gibbs replied, crossing his arms and leaning back.  Ziva glanced at the older man briefly, and then turned to face Acres.

 

"Is that right, light of my life?" Acres asked her with a simpering smile. "Can you take care of yourself?"

 

She stood up.  "You should leave now."

 

He stood up with her.  "Not without you on my arm, gorgeous."  He reached for her again, and, quick as a snake, she smacked his arm down.  Acres' eyes narrowed at the rebuff, and he reached for her again.  This time she slapped him hard enough on the face to stagger him.  He gasped, holding onto his face, and turned a furious stare on her.

 

"How dare you—"  He made to grab her, but she caught his wrist and twisted hard.  Next thing they knew, Acres was on his knees, his arm twisted painfully away from his body, his expression a rictus of pain.

 

"I won't tell you again," she hissed in his ear.  "Leave me alone."  Letting him go, he fell forward to his hands.  With a growl, he was on his feet, ready to charge her, but the sound of two hammers being cocked stopped him.

 

Tony and Gibbs pointed their guns at his chest; Acres glared daggers at them both.

 

"You made your play," Gibbs stated. "You lost.  Leave."

 

The trail boss snorted, but he backed away, retreating into the safety of his men.  They were all on their feet now, ready to support their leader.  Tony's eyes caught Castille's, and frowned to see the wiry foreman smiling at him.  Castille arched an eyebrow, and Tony's frown deepened.

 

Finally, Acres broke the impasse by turning around, deliberately putting his back to them, and returning to his seat at the table he'd been at originally.  His men gathered tightly, their expressions angry.

 

Abby broke the tension a little more by appearing with trays of food and drink.  Smiling, she put food in front of everyone, and a bottle of whiskey right in front of Acres.  She said something to him that Tony couldn't hear, but it caused Acres to look up at her and, miraculously, some of the anger left his face.  His men relaxed minutely, and Abby turned away to wink at Tony.  He gave her a nod of thanks.  It was hard for anyone to stay angry in light of Abby's perpetual perkiness.

 

Ziva sighed and sat down, rubbing her hands together.  "I apologize for that," she said, sounding contrite.  "I should not have let it get violent."

 

Gibbs snorted. "Don't apologize," he ordered. "It's a sign of—"

 

"Weakness," Ziva finished, and she smiled at Tony.  "So I've heard."

_____________________________________________________

 

She left them a few hours later, after an early dinner, still with no decision made about what they had discussed.  In the end, she agreed to think about it, but would not make any promises.  She was clearly afraid of the family she had escaped from catching up to her and, despite clearly being pleased by Gibbs' offer, she wasn't going to accept it lightly.

 

Gibbs settled back in his chair, drinking his bourbon slowly and casting his eyes to the wooden table.  Tony sighed, holding his own glass of beer in both hands.  Outside, the sun was setting, and it was casting a somber mood over the saloon.

 

Tim blew in as the chimes struck six, and threaded his way over to their table through the poker playing cowboys.

 

"Hey," he greeted, sliding into a chair.

 

"Hey," Tony answered, leaning back with a nod.

 

"Report," Gibbs said.

 

"Two of them are over at the restaurant, having dinner.  The three who visited Ducky at lunch, then went to take baths and have found Mirabel's.  Looks like they're spending the rest of the evening there, with her girls.  The rest," he glanced around the saloon, "appear to be here."

 

"Getting drunker by the minute," Tony noted.

 

"And meaner," Tim added, grabbing Tony's beer and finishing it. 

 

"Hey!"

 

"What? You weren't drinking it."

 

"Not that second!  But I—"

 

"What's the saying?  You snooze, you lose?"

 

"Oh, you squirrely, son of a—"

 

"Boys," Gibbs finished his whiskey. "Behave." 

 

Tony was about to complain when he noticed that Gibbs was completely fixed on something going on in the saloon.  Turning, he was just in time to see a very drunk Acres and about three others leave the saloon.  The others were laughing and cheering.  All but one.

 

Just as Tony was thinking that all that joviality couldn't be good, Castille walked over to the bar, his expression deadly serious.  He tilted his head to indicate Tony follow him around the bar to the backdoor.  Tony ground his teeth but, with a nod from Gibbs (who had seen it too), he got up to follow. 

 

Castille stood in the shadows of the back hallway, clearly waiting for him.  Tony kept his hand on his gun, his gut churning with the desire to kill this man before it was too late (too late for what?).

 

"What do you want?" he demanded, pushing his subconscious down.

 

"Keep your voice down," Castille hissed, making shushing motions with his hand.  "I'm here to warn you."

 

"Warn me."

 

"Well, not you exactly…."  Castille made a show of looking out of the door, as if afraid to be followed, before returning his full attention to Tony.  "Look, I know you don't like me.  I don't like you either, but there's something I don't like more."

 

Tony sighed heavily. "I'm listening."

 

"First, promise me you won't tell anyone that I'm the one who told."

 

"Told what?"

 

"Promise me."

 

Tony shrugged. "Fine.  What is it?"

 

Castille nodded. "See, here's the thing.  I'm all for hitting on pretty women, but I draw the line at hitting women, if you get my meaning."

 

Tony frowned. "Hitting?"

 

"That pretty thing you were hanging with earlier?  The boys got Acres all riled up, telling him he couldn't handle her, not after the way she put him down.  He don't take well to being humiliated, 'specially by a woman."

 

Tony's heart began to beat faster.  "You're saying--?"

 

"He's gone after her, to teach her a lesson.  Men with him followed to watch."

 

Tony didn't even think, he just bolted out the door and through the saloon.  He didn't need to look to know that Tim and his dad would be instantly at his back.

______________________________________________

 

He took the hotel stairs two at a time, never even pausing as he skidded on the landing carpet, running down the hallway and through the open door into her room without any thought other than to get to Ziva.

 

Only to find he really wasn't needed.

 

She stood in the middle of the room, one man on the ground unconscious, and Acres on his knees, staring down the barrel of a Colt 45.   He looked terrified, blood dripping down his face from what looked like a broken nose.

 

She had a Derringer in her left hand, which she raised to point at Tony as he burst into the room.  She lowered it when she recognized him.

 

"Took your time," she said, an almost feral smirk on her face.  "I'm not sure how much longer I could avoid pulling the trigger."  She backed off from Acres and lowered her aim.  The trail boss exhaled heavily, slumping over in obvious relief.

 

Tony had to grin back.  "Nice.  Where are the other two?"

 

"Other two?"  She looked confused. "What other two?"

 

"They're still outside," Gibbs answered, strolling into the room.  "They were standing on the street, probably planning to stop any of us from getting in to 'save' Ziva.   Didn't you see them, Tony?"

 

Tony's eyebrows lifted.  He'd been so focused on getting up here, he hadn't even thought to look for threats on the street.  "No, I…. Why didn't they try to stop me?"

 

"Probably something to do with the guns Tim and I pointed at them when they made to draw on you as you sprinted past them.  They changed their minds, raised their hands, and took off.  Tim's down there still, keeping an eye out."

 

Tony smiled wryly.  "Oh.  Thanks, Dad."

 

Gibbs walked past, cuffed him on the back of the head (which, amazingly, didn't hurt at all, despite the whole head-sickness thing), and walked across to Acres.  Ziva lowered her guns completely when Gibbs stepped in front of her in order to stare down at the bleeding trail boss.

 

"You know we're going to lock you up for this, right?" the sheriff asked.

 

Acres closed his eyes, but said nothing.  Gibbs just nodded.

 

"Take him and the other one to the jail, Tony."

 

"Will do, Boss."

 

Gibbs snorted at the name, and turned to Ziva.  Tony went to grab Acres and pull him to his feet; he had every intention of making the trail boss carry his own man across to the jail.

 

Gibbs rested a hand on Ziva's shoulder. "You alright?"

 

She nodded, blowing the air out of her cheeks. "I'm fine."  She gave a short laugh. "Is it always like this?"

 

"Nah," Gibbs replied. "But it's never boring either."  He kept his eyes on Acres as the trail boss slung the unconscious cowboy over his shoulder.  Tony just sighed and pushed them out the door, leaving Gibbs and Ziva to talk.

 

At the bottom of the stairs, Acres and his burden stumbling in front of him as they hit the cold air of the street outside, Tony found Tim waiting for them, standing guard with his rifle in hand.  His brother's eyebrows lifted at the sight of the bloodied cowboys.

 

"Damn," he muttered. "Ziva?"

 

"Is still very much Ziva," Tony replied, shaking his head. "She's fine," he elaborated when Tim looked perplexed at the statement.  "Do me a favor, kid."

 

"What?"

 

"Never surprise her in a dark alley.  I'd hate to lose you as a brother." 

_____________________________________________

 

CHAPTER FOUR: WHERE'S THE BEEF?

 

"The world is what you make of it, friend. If it doesn't fit, you make alterations." – Silverado, 1985

______________________________________________

 

Acres swore like a sailor as Ducky reset his nose, and then even more as the doctor taped a splint over it.

 

"Shame you didn't have him around when you broke your nose, Tony," Ziva said, leaning against the wall of the jail, her arms crossed. 

 

"He was," Tim said, finishing off the paperwork for Acres and the other cowboy, whose name was Riggers.  "He refused treatment."

 

She frowned, glancing at Tony. "Why?"

 

"You hear him screaming?" Tony replied, gesturing towards Acres. "That's why."

 

"Wimp," Tim muttered, just loud enough to be heard.

 

"Don't make me punch you in the nose, brother dear," Tony snapped.  "Or, better yet, have Ziva do it."

 

Tim just grinned, glancing at Ziva before returning to writing.  "She wouldn't do that," he said. "We're family."

 

"True, though…" Ziva shrugged. "I might make an exception for cousin Tony."  Her eyes sparkled as she smiled up at him.

 

"Family?" Acres spluttered from the cell. "You're related to them?"

 

"Don't speak, please," Ducky said, still trying to apply the wet tape to Acres' nose. "This is delicate work."

 

"Cousins," Tony answered Acres.  The trail boss groaned.

 

"No wonder you showed up so fast."

 

Tony shook his head. "Nah.  We'd do it for anyone in this town."

 

"No," Acres said, "I meant, you arrived so quickly because you must've been keeping tabs on her.  How else could you have known we were going for her?"

 

Tony shrugged.  "Actually—"

 

"You're lucky we did follow her," Gibbs said, breezing into the jail, "or else she might have killed you."  He arched an eyebrow at Tony and Ziva before reaching down to knock on the desk in front of Tim.

 

"You're with me.  We'd best tell Acres' men while they're still relaxed at the saloon.  Tony and Ziva can keep an eye on things here."

 

"Um…" Ziva held up a finger. "I never agreed to spend the night here on watch duty."

 

Gibbs just shrugged. "We need you.  Tony's still not…."  He paused, frowning at Tony, and started again. "Consider it a favor."  Ziva grimaced, but, after a moment, she gave a nod.

 

"Hey," Acres said, pushing Ducky away from him. "What about me?  How long do you expect to keep me here?"

 

"At least overnight," Gibbs replied.  "After that, it's up to you."

 

"What does that mean?"

 

"Means, I don't want you in my town anymore.  You promise to leave tomorrow, I'll let you out.  If you don't, I'll keep you in here until the judge arrives on his circuit in two weeks, and try you for assault."

 

"You can't do that," Acres snarled. 

 

"My town," Gibbs replied simply. "My rules."

 

"My men won't stand for it."

 

Gibbs's lips twisted into a frown.  "We'll see."  He jerked his head at Tim, who stood up on command. 

 

And just like that, Tony's gut lurched, fear prickling his skin as certain as if Death had run a hand down his back. 

 

"Dad, wait."

 

Gibbs was already halfway to the door, Tim on his heels, but he stopped, his look questioning.  "What?"

 

"Let me go with you.  Tim can stay here."

 

Blue eyes narrowed. "Why?"

 

"Just…" Tony had no explanation, just fear.  "I just want to go with you."

 

Gibbs frowned, but after a moment, he shrugged. "Come on then."

 

Tim grimaced, watching them leave with a puzzled frown. 

 

Tony didn't explain, and he didn't look back once they were outside.  But his gut still churned, and for the first time he understood better why he had had an instant dislike for Castille.  Somewhere in the back of his throbbing head, something was screaming at him that Tim would die if he confronted the foreman.…

_____________________________________________

 

The saloon was already in an uproar when they arrived, men yelling and shouting.  It didn't take long to recognize the heart of the disturbance were the two men that had followed Acres over to the hotel but hadn't gone in with them.  And Castille, lording over it all with a strangely satisfied look on his face. 

 

As soon as the crowd of cowboys saw Gibbs and Tony enter, the shouting grew louder.  Tony actually winced, feeling deafened by the noise and aware that it couldn't be doing his head any good.  He could make out some of what was being yelled—mostly demands for them to release Acres and threats against the town if they didn't.  Finally, after failing to shout them down, Gibbs pulled his gun and fired it into the air, earning a light dusting of wood to drift down in the lamplight.

 

Thank God none of them had guns on them, because Tony was sure they would have fired back if they'd did.

 

Instead, blessedly, Gibbs got his silence.

 

"Thank you," his dad snarled sarcastically.  "Now, before you get any more excited, yes, we arrested your boss.  He attempted to force himself on a guest of our town, and that's not something we stand for here.  He'll be in jail overnight.  Tomorrow, he'll be let go provided—" He raised his hands as the men started muttering at the news.  "Provided he agrees to leave town."

 

For the length of a heartbeat, no one spoke.  Then Castille stood, faced them both with nothing but contempt on his face, and walked out of the saloon.

 

And like that, the rest of the room went off like a powder keg.  If they had been loud before, now they were ear piercing, screaming obscenities and threats.  Gibbs shot once more into the air, and when that didn't work, he grabbed one of Abby's chairs.

 

"Shut up!" he shouted, flinging it into a wall and shattering it.  Tony was glad Abby had intelligently retreated to the back rooms.  The cowboys all flinched at the move, jumping away from him, and when Gibbs stalked forward, they backed off some more.

 

"I am not going to tell you this more than once," Gibbs snarled. "If your boss doesn't leave this town tomorrow, I will keep him in jail until the Judge and the Marshals come, and I warn you now, they don't cotton to hitting women anymore than I do."  The muttering began to grow again, and Tony rested a hand on the gun on his hip.  Gibbs just shook his head, raising his hand.

 

"Right now, you boys have the freedom of Galatea.  You've got beds, you've got the brothel, you've got beer and food.  But if any of you try anything tonight, this town will get locked down so fast, you'll be lucky to get water from the troughs outside.  And if your boss makes the wrong decision tomorrow, and you back him, there will be bodies, and they will be yours.  Do I make myself clear?"

 

One of the men snorted, but otherwise, no one answered the question.

 

After a moment, Gibbs gave a nod.  "Good.  I'll see you boys in the morning."

 

Tony watched them a moment longer as his dad turned his back, heading back outside.  Some had their hands braced at their sides, seeking their non-existent holsters.  Others just gripped their hands into fists.  But none made a move.

 

Tony backed up, following but not willing to turn his own back (because, seriously, they probably all have knives), when one red-headed kid near the front of the pack perked up.

 

"You don't let the boss go tomorrow," he said, his voice reedy but filled with bravado, "and we'll tree this town."

 

Gibbs was still in the doorway, leaning on the swinging doors.  At those words, he turned and stared hard at the kid who'd spoken.

 

"You try," he warned. "And you'll fail."

 

The kid shook his head.  "You don't know who you're messing with, Sheriff.  We ain't your average cowboys."

 

"Oh?" Gibbs feigned interest.  "And who might you be, then?"

 

The kid drew himself up proudly.  "We're—"  The smack to the back of his head, delivered by one of the men standing next to the kid, threw him forward, his red hair flopping in his face.  He growled, pushed the hair back, glared at the man who hit him.  When he returned his attention to Gibbs and Tony, though, he lowered his gaze. "We just ain't average," he muttered, frustration edging his voice.

 

"If you say so." Gibbs took one last look around, earning him averted gazes all across the saloon, and then abruptly walked out into the night.  Tony stood watching the cowboys a moment longer, and then followed him.

 

The sun was way down now, and a sharp chill bit the air, adding smoke to Tony's breath.  Shivering, he chased after his father, who was walking way too casually back to the jail.  You'd never have known he just stood up to a barroom full of over-inflated egos and barely restrained fury.

 

"Want me to hang back," Tony asked, "keep an eye on them?"

 

Gibbs shook his head.  "No.  They won't do anything tonight."  His eyes turned cold. "And I wouldn't want you doing it anyway."

 

Tony frowned at what felt like a verbal slap. "What?  Why?"

 

"Because you passed out in the jail today, and then you nearly did it again when we were with Ziva."

 

Tony's frown deepened.  "Dad, I can—"

 

"No."  Tony was stopped by a hand to his arm, the grip vise-like.  Gibbs' eyes were nearly black in the pale light, his voice pitched low so only Tony could hear.  "You can't.  Because the only thing you're doing tonight is going in the back door of that saloon, checking on Abby and her staff, and then going up to your room by the back stairs.  You won't talk to those men in the saloon, you won't even look at them through the door.  You're just going to go to your room and you're going to get a full night's sleep."  He let go, backing off a step. "If something happens tomorrow, I'll need you at your best."

 

"And if something happens tonight?"

 

"It won't."

 

"But if it does…?"

 

"Tim and I can handle it."

 

"Oh, come on, Dad! Tim?  Look, let me just—"

 

"I'm not arguing, Tony."

 

"Well, I am!  This is stupid.  I'm fine.  Let me—"  The grip on his arm was back, and this time it was so painful, Tony actually gasped.  His father didn't blink, just held on.

 

"You will do what I tell you."  There was no brooking that tone.  Except that Tony always brooked.  He fisted his hands, trying to break the grip.

 

"Dad…"

 

"No.  You listen to me, Anthony Dinozzo.   I care about this town and everyone in it, you know that.  I'll protect it best I can.  But nothing…" Gibbs stepped closer. "Nothing is more important to me than you and your brother.  You nearly died on us a week ago, and you still might if you don't take care of yourself.  I am not jeopardizing your health for anything.  Do you understand?"

 

Wow.  Part of him was exulting, some piece of him from a time and place that wasn't here.  Words he'd wanted to hear for so long.  But here…now….He didn't want them used this way.

 

"And you listen to me," Tony whispered, forcing his voice steady.  "You're not the only with something to lose here.  You and my brother are my life.  How do you think I would feel if I were fast asleep when those bastards in that saloon went after you?  Do you have any idea what that would do to me?"

 

His father's expression tightened, and, after a moment, the hand loosened.

 

"So…" Tony cleared his throat. "Guess we're at an impasse."

 

Gibbs snorted.  "Except you've forgotten one thing," he replied evenly.  Tony flipped an eyebrow.

 

"Oh?"

 

"I'm your father.  That means I win.  Go to your room.  Tell Abby to wake you at six."

 

And with that simple order, he turned and strode away from his son.

 

Who swore several times before doing exactly what he was told.

___________________________________________________

 

Something banged, and Tony sat up straight in bed, hand reaching for the revolver he'd placed on the nightstand.    

 

For half a second, he saw bright sunlight streaming through vinyl blinds, bright yellow walls, a blue curtain, and a very goth looking Abby, staring down at him in surprise and, briefly, joy.  And then he blinked and she and that room were gone, replaced by near total darkness.

 

Falling back against the pillow, the lumpy mattress and metal springs yielded with a squeak, and his hands bunched up the quilt, drawing it higher.  It was still night; his plain wooden room was awash in moonlight.  And it was freezing! 

 

Drawing the quilt up higher, he closed his eyes.  It was way too early to—

 

The banging came again—five swift, sharp knocks on his bedroom door.   They weren’t loud, exactly.  It was if someone was trying to knock quietly, but insistently.

 

“Tony?”

 

Abby’s whispered voice carried through the door, her tone nervous. 

 

“Tony, you awake?”

 

“I am now,” he muttered, grabbing for the shirt he’d hung off the bedpost and putting the gun he’d grabbed back on the bedside table.  Swearing when his bare feet hit the cold, braided rug, he tiptoed to the door and pressed his ear against it.

 

“What is it, Abbs?”

 

“I found something out,” she whispered back. “Can you take me over to the jail?”

 

Tony frowned.  “Why can’t you just go over there yourself?”

 

“Because I don’t want Acres to see me there.  He’ll know I’ve figured it out.   You can go in, get Gibbs and Tim, and come back out.”

 

Tony sighed. “And you can’t just tell me, because...?”

 

“It may be nothing, but Gibbs will know best.  It’s easier if I tell him face to face.”

 

Of course.  He sighed again, looking around the dimly lit room.  He wondered what time it was.

 

“If you’re wondering,” Abby whispered then, “it’s about four in the morning.  The rest of Acres’ gang have gone to sleep, most of them down in my saloon.  I’d have kicked them out, but I decided it might be safer having them here.”

 

That got Tony’s interest.  Not the part about Abby reading his mind—that was her thing—but the fact that she’d called the cowboys a “gang” and the idea that it might be safer to have them here.  Mind made up, he quickly bundled up to leave, because if it was cold in here, it was going to be frigid outside.

 

Less than five minutes later, with a white-capped, scarf buried Abby tucked under one arm, he jogged across the street to the brightly lit jail.  When they reached the door, Abby stopped, wrapping her arms around herself, her bright red scarf covering most of her pale face.  The long black coat she wore looked warm enough, but when it felt like the Arctic outside, nothing was ever warm enough.  His arms were already getting numb.

 

He knocked on the solid jail door, and waited patiently until Gibbs drew the curtain back from the window and peered out at him.  Tony motioned him outside, and his father nodded, glancing back at the two jail cells.  Tony could just make out Acres, blinking owlishly at him through the bars.

 

Gibbs emerged with Tim a few seconds later, two mugs of hot coffee in his hands.  He handed one to Abby, and, when Tony reached for the second…his father pulled it back and took a long sip.  Of course, he did.

 

Gibbs flexed an eyebrow at the girl.  “What have you got, Abbs?”

 

“I was listening to the men in the saloon all night,” she began, “plying them with so much alcohol they probably won’t be able to see straight until near noon today.”  She rubbed her arms with red gloved hands.  “And I can almost guarantee that these men are not cowboys.”

 

“Why do you say that?” Tim asked.

 

“When cowboys come off the range, they get drunk reliving the stupidest moments of the trail.  Chasing mavericks, falling into mud-holes, killing rattlers that probably weren’t even close to scaring their horses, and getting dumped by said horses, that sort of thing.  Mostly, though, they bitch about the cows.  The stupid ones, the ugly ones, the smart ones….it’s like their repertoire is limited to bovine exploits.”

 

Tim snorted a laugh, but Gibbs’ expression only darkened. 

 

“So what did they talk about?”

 

“Though they never came out and said it,” Abby whispered, “they talked about robbing homesteaders and chasing farmers off their land.  The ‘stupid’ animals they mocked were people, and, I think, kids.  They hushed up a little when they saw me listening, trying not to be too explicit, but I’d have been a fool not to guess.”

 

Gibbs’ frown deepened.  Abby bit her lip as she waited.

 

“Tim,” Gibbs said finally, “go find the rest of Acres’ men.”

 

“And?” Tim asked.

 

“Just look.”

 

“For?”

 

“Cows.”

 

“Oh,” Tim’s blush was lost inside his already cold-flushed face. “Right.  Will do.”   He turned to jog away, but Abby reached for him.

 

“Wait,” she whispered urgently, “there’s more.”

 

Tim halted mid-step, and Gibbs jerked his head, calling him back to Abby's little circle.  He grimaced, but returned, and Abby smiled up at him, resting a red-mittened hand on his arm.  Gibbs sighed.

 

“It’s cold out here, Abbs.  What is it?”

 

"Oh, um, right." She shook her head, as if to clear it, and then looked across at Tony. "That man, the one you don't like…."

 

"Castille?"

 

"Yeah, him.  He's the one who told you about Acres going after Ziva, right?"

 

Tony nodded. 

 

Abby frowned. "Thing is, he's the one who encouraged Acres to go after her.  I overheard him telling it looked bad what she did to him in the saloon." 

 

Tony frowned as well, glancing at his father.  Gibbs' was looking at the jail wall, as if he could see through it to the men imprisoned inside.

 

"And since Acres has been here," Abby continued, "Castille has been rabble-rousing.  He's subtle about it, like watching the devil con Adam and Eve, convincing them to set fire to this town.  With Acres out of the picture, he's their leader, and if he tells them go…."

 

"But he's the one who put him there," Tim interjected.  "Why would he do that?"

 

Gibbs shook his head. "Tim, you and Ziva watched Acres and Riggers for a few hours tonight without me.  Did Castille visit?"

 

Tim nodded. "Ziva left to get some sleep around midnight.  Castille came in soon after, asked to speak to Acres."  He shrugged. "I didn't have any right to stop him."

 

"Did you eavesdrop?" Tony asked.

 

"No," Tim replied, frowning and looking embarrassed. "I couldn't.  Castille kept his voice really low—I wouldn't have been able to hear them unless I'd been sitting in there with them."

 

Gibbs nodded again, thoughtful and slow, before smiling anew at Abby and leaning in to give her a kiss on the cheek.

 

"Thanks, Abby.  Tim, see her home, and then go check on those cows.  Tony," his father smiled coolly, "you're with me."

 

Tim nodded, tucking Abby close as Tony had done, and started to lead her away.  A sudden pang of fear hit Tony in the chest, the same horrible sensation from before, convincing him he'd never see his brother again.

 

"Tim!"

 

Tim stopped, and turned, Abby's eyebrow rising in confusion as she lifted her head from his chest. 

 

Tony grimaced, slightly embarrassed now.  "Um…just…What's the saying?  Don't be a hero?"

 

A half-smirk graced Tim's face, his tired eyes lit with amusement. "What's the matter, big brother.  'Fraid I'll steal some of the spotlight?"

 

Tony forced a laugh, hiding his embarrassment. "Nah.  That'd never happen.  Forget I said anything."

 

Tim just gave him a puzzled look, and then shrugged, dislodging Abby slightly.  She frowned and burrowed deeper into his shoulder, muttering something about "boys" as Tim once more started leading her away. 

 

Tony rubbed at the back of his neck, and turned to find his father watching him with a curious gaze.

 

"What was that all about?" Gibbs asked.  Tony shrugged.

 

"Nothing, boss.  Just…got a bad feeling for a minute.  It's gone now."  He straightened, smacking his hands together and rubbing them for warmth.  "So, what's the plan?"

 

"Well, for starters," Gibbs replied, "we're going to have a talk with Acres."

__________________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER FIVE: CLEANING GUNS

 

"Is this an invite to a necktie party, Reverend?" – The Searchers, 1956

_________________________________________________________

 

Inside the jail, it was warm, almost oppressively so after the frigid temperatures outside.  Tony shifted uncomfortably in the heavy coat, pulling it off quickly to hang it on the hook.   Gibbs was less hurried, hanging up his coat and then putting the kettle on the stove as if nothing had happened outside.

 

Acres was fully awake now, examining them with a pointed gaze.  He knew something was up, despite the sheriff's nonchalant attitude.  He'd clearly woken Riggers from where he'd been sleeping on the other cot—the other man was rubbing his eyes and yawning, not nearly as alert as his boss.

 

"Coffee, boys?" Gibbs called, loud enough to carry to the cells.  Acres stood up, walking up to the cell door and resting his arms on the cross-arm.

 

"Change of guard?" Acres asked, looking Tony up and down.  "Been wondering when you'd bring the big dog back in."

 

"Big dog?" Tony repeated.  Sure, he was stockier than Tim, but still….

 

Gibbs just smiled. "His bark is worse than his bite," he said.  When Tony protested, Acres chuckled.

 

"Aren't they all," the trail boss said, pulling his arms back.  He rubbed at his head, sending his thick silver hair askew.  "It's too early," he muttered.  He took a step back and sat down again on his cot, leaning forward with his arms on his knees.  "I'll take that coffee."

 

Gibbs nodded, and, as soon as the kettle squealed, poured two new cups of what Tony could only think smelled like paint thinner.  His father then grabbed a chair and dragged it across to the cell door, settling himself down directly opposite where Acres sat on his cot.  Tony remained in the front part of the jail, leaning against the desk, to listen.

 

"Been wondering something," Gibbs said, handing Acres the coffee through the bars.  "Why did Castille send you after my niece?"

 

Acres paused with the cup just inches from his lips, frowning at Gibbs over the rim. "No one sends me anywhere."

 

"Oh?" Gibbs' eyebrows lifted.  "Funny, I thought it was to get back at how Tony treated Castille earlier, with Ms. Scuito.  You know, going after a member of the sheriff's family—I assumed it was Castille's way of getting revenge on us."

 

The trail boss shrugged. "I told you, no one sends me anywhere.   It wasn't Castille's idea--it was mine.  And I wouldn't have done it if I'd known she was a member of your family."  He smiled thinly. "Not much family resemblance."

 

"But Castille knew who she was."

 

Tony tried not to react to the lie his father had just told.  Acres reaction, however, wasn't so guarded.  His eyes pinched as if he'd been slapped.

 

"What are you talking about?" he growled.

 

Gibbs shrugged. "Your man, Castille, knew Ziva was my niece.  I would have thought he'd have counseled you on that.  He overheard my sons discussing her visit when he was over at the jail, surrendering his weapon.  He even joked a little about what she might look like—something about a female version of Tony."  He smiled.  "Why do you think my son has been so set against him?  My son's not too keen on being mocked."

 

Tony crossed his arms, trying not to smile at the deception.  Acres leaned forward on his cot, hands gripping the tin cup of coffee a little too tightly.  He feigned a shrug of disinterest, poorly.

 

"So what if he knew?" he tried, not looking at Gibbs. "Could be he forgot to tell me."

 

"When he was egging you to go after her, you mean?"

 

Acres frowned, his head twitching angrily to one side. "I already told you.  No one tells me what to do."

 

"So, he didn't encourage you?"

 

"No." He shrugged again. "He supported me.  That's what a good lieutenant does."

 

"And does a good lieutenant also snitch on his boss as soon as his back is turned?"

 

Acres frowned deeply, puzzlement on his face now as he looked straight at Gibbs.  "What?"

 

"We weren’t keeping tabs on Ziva, Acres.  We didn't know the reason you left until Castille pulled Tony aside and told him what you were up to.  He wanted us to go after you."

 

"Bullshit." Acres sat up straight again, his anger clear. "You're a lying piece of shit."

 

"Think about it," Gibbs pressed. "You were in Ziva's room long enough for her to knock him unconscious and to get you on your knees.  If we'd really been watching her, we'd have been there before you'd even breached the threshold of her room."

 

Acres' jaw worked inside his closed mouth, but he didn't reply.

 

"He came to Tony as soon as you left," Gibbs continued.  "Ask your men who were outside.  Were we already out there?  Or did we come running out the saloon like it was on fire, because someone had tipped us off?"

 

Acres glanced at Riggers, who was just sitting there, watching all this with a curious expression. 

 

"You want to know what I think?" Gibbs asked then. 

 

Acres snorted, his eyes sliding back to the sheriff with as much disdain as he could still muster.  "Not really."

 

"I think your lieutenant is looking to take advantage of you being in jail.  He just spent the last eight hours convincing the men in that saloon that they should tree this town in your name.  And when they do, they know that we'll never let you out of this jail until most of them are dead, or we are.  And with you in there, without a gun, vulnerable…."  Gibbs shrugged. "Well, we know who will become the boss when you're dead, don't we?"

 

Acres' eyes narrowed, lips pressed together tightly.  "This is bullshit," he said again, but it lacked the same conviction.

 

"Of course, it is," Gibbs agreed.  "It's not like Castille came by here tonight, promising to take us down if you chose not to leave.  Right?"

 

Acres' looked away, lips still pressed tightly together. 

 

Gibbs just nodded. "I thought so."  He stood up.  "It's up to you, Acres.  I told you that before.  If you stay, there will be blood.  You agree to leave…" Gibbs shrugged. "I'll let you think about that." 

 

Tony straightened as Gibbs picked up the chair he'd been sitting on, planning on carrying it back. 

 

"Naw," Acres said suddenly, and there was a faint sense of laughter under his voice. "I don't need to think on it."  Gibbs turned, and Acres stood up, his blue eyes bright. "You think you can play games with me, lawman?"

 

Gibbs just shrugged again. "I don't think anything, Acres."

 

"You want me to leave this town tomorrow," Acres said, stepping forward to lean against the bars again.  "This whole charade was just to try to convince me to leave peaceful.  Well, it ain't going to work."  He still held the coffee in his hand, but as he stood there, he tipped the cup sideways, dumping the contents onto the floor.  "I don't play games, Sheriff.  And I don't listen to lawmen when they try to con me into doubting my men."  He tossed the cup, so that it clattered against the far wall.  "I'm not leaving tomorrow, so you can bet that my men will bring this town to its knees, and you and your sons along with it.  And," he smirked, "don't you ever try to give me crap coffee like this again.  Got it?"

 

Gibbs just quirked a smile, and shrugged. "It's your funeral, Acres.  Guess I gave your brains more credit than they deserved."

 

Acres just spat at him, but the cell prevented him from getting much distance.  Gibbs just stared at the spittle congealing on the ground, sighed, and walked over to the desk.  He patted Tony on the shoulder.

 

"I'm going to go get forty winks.  If Tim comes back before I do, send him to wake me up.  I want to know what he found."

 

 Tony just nodded, turning to hide his face from Acres.  "Didn't go so well with him, did it?" he whispered.

 

Gibbs shrugged, pitching his voice low. "Actually, it did.  He responded the way I expected.  I never really thought he'd leave.  And he did confirm some things for me."

 

"Oh?  What?"

 

"That Abby was right.  Tim's not going to find any cattle out there.  These men are outlaws.  Now we just have to find something concrete to pin on them.  Start looking through the bills here in the office.  I'm going to go check with the telegraph agent and the newspaper."

 

"What if I don't find anything?"

 

"You'll find something.  And even if you don't…" Gibbs glanced at Acres. "They're not leaving this town free men."

 

"You going to telegraph the Marshals office and the judge?"

 

"Yup.  We're going need them." 

 

And with that, Gibbs simply left, leaving Tony alone with Acres' beady eyes glaring at him from behind the cell walls.

_________________________________________________

 

The wanted posters weren't much help—the descriptions were generally poor, and, frankly, he knew enough about psychology to know that the men and gangs listed were singular or small.  An outlaw group this large wasn't a real gang—they'd been brought together for something, probably by someone outside the group.  They were the old west version of contract killers, like the Texan "invaders" of the so-called Johnson County War.

 

He did get a small thrill out of the names he read, though.  Billy the Kid.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  The Dalton brothers.  The James boys.  And on and on.  It was like reading down a list of movie titles.

 

After a while, though, even that lost its flavor, and he pulled out a deck of cards from the desk.  He played solitaire until the sun rose, shining pink light under the door and through the small gaps in the heavy curtain.

 

His stomach began to churn again as he considered that Tim hadn't returned yet.  It wasn't surprising.  An hour out and back was exactly how long he'd expected a reconnaissance mission to take, but still….

 

He glanced at the pocket-watch he'd placed on the desk, noting the six o'clock hour. The town would be rousing soon.  In a few hours, most of the visiting cowboys—or whatever they were—would be demanding coffee and bacon, and Acres would state his intention to his men that he wasn't leaving.

 

Tony's eyes drifted up to the rifles stored on the far wall, and the tiny roll-top desk sitting next to it.   It was shut, but there were some photographs sitting in frames on the very top.  Jenny Shepard was there, grinning out of the black and white frame, Gibbs standing by her side.  Tony wasn't sure, but he thought she might be dead.  For some reason, though, the memory of it was fuzzy.   He was also fuzzy on the women in the other pictures, as if he'd never really met any of them.  Surely…surely he would have known the women Gibbs' had married.  Surely he'd know his own mother's face.  But all the photos seemed blurry from this far away.  Of course, he could stand and get closer….

 

His head started to throb again, for the first time since he'd woken.  Frowning, he rubbed at his temples and looked down at the cards in his hand.  What was he doing again?

 

A soft knock at the door had him on his feet, hand on his gun.

 

"It's me," Tim's voice called softly.  "Coming in."

 

Tony relaxed, walked over to unlock the door and returned to the desk as his brother entered.  Chilled morning air rushed inside, blowing some of the cards off the big desk, causing Tony to swear softly.  Tim pushed inside, his cheeks bright red and his eyes bruised from lack of sleep.  Still, he smiled upon seeing Tony, locking the door behind him. 

 

"You're back," Tony said, as Tim walked over to the stove, pulled off his gloves and started warming them.

 

"Seemed like a good idea," Tim replied.  "Seeing as it's about nothing degrees outside.  Thought the wind would flail the skin off my face."

 

Tony smirked. "Might be an improvement."

 

"Jerk."

 

"Loser."

 

"Jackass."

 

"Screams-like-a-girl."

 

Tim turned, his expression nonplussed. "Really?  Screams like a girl?  Do you not remember the sound you made when Abby accidentally spilled red wine all over that fancy new shirt of yours last month?  I'm still trying to get the ringing out of my ears."

 

"Takes one to know one.  Still recall when that man's prize palomino ate part of your coat sleeve at the county fair two months back."

 

Tim's lips screwed up tightly. "Stupid horse.  Why do people keep breeding palominos?  They're the swans of the horse world—mean and useless."

 

"But pretty.  And they have some good qualities."

 

Tim just smiled. "As you say, takes one to know one."

 

Tony threw his empty tin cup of coffee at Tim, who ducked and laughed.

 

"Keep it down!" Acres groaned from the cells. "Some of us are still trying to sleep!"

 

Tim and Tony just grinned at each other, but Tim dutifully moved closer to Tony, so the two could sit on the edge of the desk.  Actually, the main reason, as Tony knew, was so that Tim could talk more quietly.

 

"So," the younger man began, sipping at what was probably pretty awful coffee by now (Tony hadn't changed the pot in a couple of hours), "Abby was right."

 

"No cows?"

 

"No cows.  Just nine men and a wagon sitting next to a campfire in the traveler's glen on the Wyoming road."

 

"Sitting?  You mean sleeping?"  It couldn't even have been false dawn when Tim found them.

 

"No.  They were all awake and moving around, as if preparing for something."

 

Tony's brow furrowed. " Meaning?"

 

"They were cleaning guns, Tony."  Tim's eyes studied the steam rising from the mug. "Each of them had three, maybe four rifles sitting next to them.  I'm guessing Castille or someone else from Acres' gang went out last night and told them about Acres being in jail, and told them to mobilize this morning.  I tried to get close enough to hear what they were talking about, but…."  He shook his head.

 

"I'm glad you didn't," Tony admitted softly.   Nine men with loaded rifles—his brother would have been dead before he'd said hello.

 

Tim shook his head.  "Based on what I saw, they're going to be riding in here soon enough—probably before nine bells."  He sighed. "You know, before seeing that, I'd figured we'd be able to handle them all since we had most of the gang's guns here at the jail, but…."  He shook his head. "They have an arsenal in that wagon, Tony.  Boxes and boxes of weapons.  Looked like they could lay siege to Denver for weeks with all those guns and ammo.  All Castille and his men have to do is ride out to meet them."

 

Tony grimaced. "Boxes of weapons?  Damn.  So, who do you think they are?"

 

"Hired guns, obviously.  I just don't know what they've been hired to do.  It doesn't make sense.  It's not like Galatea is a major town.  I can't think that anyone around here would have enough money to hire that many men, or why they would do it in the first place."

 

Tony snorted, twisting his lips as he considered what he'd been told.  After a moment, he shrugged.

 

"Well, maybe Acres was telling the truth when he first came.  Maybe they were only planning on staying a couple of days.  Could be they're just passing through, and their job is further away—Pueblo or La Junta, or maybe not even in Colorado."

 

Tim just frowned, shaking his head. "If so, what's with all the rabble rousing by Castille?  Why are they picking on us?"

 

"Could just be rabble rousing.  Letting off steam. Maybe Castille thinks we'll be an easy 'victory' for them; get them a taste of the real thing, whatever that is.  Or maybe Gibbs is right, and Castille is looking for a means to off his boss and take his place before the next big score.  Either way, they're going to attack us." Tony shrugged. "These boys all want to prove themselves—that's why they joined a gang to begin with.  You become part of a gang, you become invincible, and you command respect through the terror you inspire."

 

"The terror you inspire," Tim repeated, shuddering slightly, hands gripping the tin cup tightly.  He was still wearing his coat, and Tony could feel the coldness of the fabric through his own shirt.  "Mankind just never gets clear of its own horribleness, does it?"

 

"No.  Players will change, but the gangs will remain.  We'll just have more sophisticated names for them."  

 

Tim sighed, his head drooping.

 

"But they can't win, you know," Tony promised, slinging an arm over Tim's shoulder.  "History tells us over and over again that mankind's greatest strength is that we always persevere.  No matter how terrible the bad guys are, how evil, how much it seems like the sun can't possible rise again, man will keep on growing, getting healthier and smarter and stronger and fatter." When Tim glanced up at him, Tony squeezed his shoulder. "Just like my little brother."

 

Tim smiled briefly, and then frowned. "Hey!  I'm not getting fatter."

 

"We all get fatter, McPudgy.  It comes with age." 

 

"I really hate you, you know that?"

 

"Aw…" Tony kissed his temple. "I love you, too, Tim."

 

"Ugh."  And with that, Tim shoved Tony away, getting up to go back to the stove to get more coffee. 

 

Tony yawned, and then remembered his father's last order.   "Oh, before I forget…."

 

"Go see Dad. Yeah. I already have.  He's on his way here, once he cleans up and wakes up the Mayor and Ducky."

 

"Oh."  Then.  "Ducky?"

 

"Yeah.  Pretty sure his services will be needed."

 

"Ah, right."  Tony glanced at the sharply slanted sunlight cutting through the curtain.  "What about Ziva?

 

Tim shook his head.  "Dad thanked her last night for her help covering the jail while you were sleeping.  Suggested that she ride to Eads as soon as dawn broke, so she would be safe.  He promised to telegraph her if she could return."

 

Tony smirked.  "Yeah.  That's not going to happen.  She'll be here."

 

Tim gave him a odd look.  "Why would she—"

 

"She's not going to ride away from a fight. She's tougher than both of us combined."

 

Tim just hummed in response to that, and finished his coffee.  He bounced then, in place, still obviously trying to get warm.  Probably didn’t help that, of all of them, Tim was the only one who hadn't gotten any sleep last night.

 

"Tony?"

 

"Yeah?"

 

"About Ziva…."  Tim was frowning, watching him carefully. "You keep talking about her like you know her, but how could you?  I mean, I wouldn't mind an extra gun, but a woman?  And even if she does come, which seems pretty unlikely to me, why—"

 

A soft rap at the door interrupted him, followed by the voice Tony had been expecting all morning.

 

"It's Ziva," she called. "Can I come in?"

 

Tony's smirk was full-wattage.  Tim just sneered, moving to unlock the door.

 

"Come in," Tony called, crossing his arms and going for his best cheshire cat smile.

 

Ziva pushed inside, wearing a long dun great coat, brown breeches, and her hair up in a tight braid.  The coat opened as she shut the door behind her, revealing a long rifle hanging down one side, and her Colt slung low on her right hip.  She probably also had the derringer hidden up a sleeve.   She also had a knife sheathed on her belt. 

 

Damn, she was hot.

 

Tony knew he was gaping when she actually laughed a little at him.

 

"Something the matter?" she asked cheekily.  "Is this outfit not appropriate for a gunfight?"

 

Tim handed her a coffee, which she took with a nod of thanks.

 

"Don't mind him," Tim said. "He's still trying to stop undressing you in his mind."

 

Ziva just laughed again, and Tony glared at his brother. 

 

Another knock on the door, and, since Ziva was still standing next to it, she turned and opened it after glancing through the curtain.  Gibbs stood there, his eyes alighting on all three of them, and then jerked his head to indicate they head outside.

 

"We have to talk," he said. 

 

Like good soldiers, they all followed his orders without question.  Tony was last, noting that Gibbs was staring uncompromisingly towards Acres in the cells the whole time.  Tony wondered if Acres was staring back—if he was, he'd lose the contest.

_________________________________

 

Standing just outside the jail in the cold were Vance, Ducky and, surprisingly, Jimmy Palmer.  The latter looked particularly peaked, as if he'd just spent an entire night throwing up in his back yard.

 

Turned out, it wasn't far off.

 

Jimmy had been punched in the stomach by one of Acres' men, when he'd tried to stop him from hitting one of Mirabel's girls last night.  Jimmy was sweet on a girl named Mandy there, and he'd been hanging out in the kitchens (trying to get into Mirabel's good graces, so she wouldn't think he was poaching if he ever managed to get Mandy to go on a date with him), when he'd heard one of the other girls scream.  He ran upstairs, and received a beating for his troubles.  Mirabel (armed with her trusty double-barrel shotgun) had kicked out all of Acres' men after that, and Jimmy had gone to find Ducky for something for the gut punch. 

 

And Ducky had gone to warn Gibbs that it meant at least three of Acres' men were now unaccounted for, since they hadn't gone to either the hotel or over to Abby's.

 

And that wasn't the only thing Ducky had warned Gibbs about.

 

"Tell them what you told me," Gibbs said.  Ducky glanced at the four of them, lingering a half second longer on Ziva, before focusing on Tony.

 

"Well, as you can probably guess, a number of Acres' men came to see me while they were here.  They all suffered from the usual ailments, too nasty to mention in this company," he smiled weakly at Ziva, who simply nodded in return, "but one of them had a very nasty case of gangrene from a wound to his upper arm.  I cleaned it as best I could, but I doubt the young man will live very long, even if he had allowed me to cut his arm off.  He should have had it dealt with as soon as it happened."

 

"What kind of wound?" Tony asked, already guessing the answer.

 

"The kind that often stops men like him from coming to doctors like me," Ducky answered. "It was a bullet wound.  It looked to be a few weeks old.  I noted that some of the other men I looked after also showed signs of having been in firefights recently."

 

"Could be they fought in the war," Tim suggested, "or were army."

 

"The wounds are not old enough, and, really, they're not old enough.  Most weren't over twenty."  Ducky shook his head. "No, I'm afraid the only way these men could have received those sorts of scars is by nefarious means."

 

"Nefarious," Tony repeated slowly. "Makes sense.  We'd already figured them to be hired guns." He glanced at Tim as he spoke.

 

"Yes," Ducky agreed, "but I think I may also know what they have been hired to do."  He pulled out a rolled up newspaper from his jacket, unfurling it to show the headline, and tapping it. "They've been attacking wagon trains on behalf of the ranchers."

 

Tony frowned, remembering the headline from this morning.  "That's a pretty big leap, Duck."

 

"Not really.  The timing is right with the young man's injury and, on top of that, from the survivor accounts, which, admittedly," Ducky frowned slightly, "aren't many, the number of attackers is around two dozen men."

 

"Acres only has twenty, including Castille and Riggers."

 

"I doubt any of the survivors actually counted while they were being shot at, Tony," Ducky noted wryly. "But the more important piece of information is that the leader was described to be white haired, and that they know one or more of the attackers were injured.  One survivor was convinced he'd shot one of them in the shoulder."

 

"Still not enough proof," Tim argued, as Ziva took the paper from Ducky to read the article. "Not for the judge, anyway."

 

"It's enough to convince me that I'm not letting Acres out of that jail until the judge comes," Gibbs declared.  "Especially since there are supposed to be twenty new families arriving in Eads in a few days.  Sheriff Fornell sent me a telegram about it last week."

 

Tony's eyebrows lifted. "You think they'll go after Eads?"  Eads was growing by leaps and bounds, a lot faster than Galatea or any of the other new towns on Sand Creek.  Terribly, it made some sense that it could be a target. 

 

Gibbs just shrugged in answer to Tony's question, but there was no real doubt in his gaze.

 

"They attack families?" Ziva asked softly, her eyes widening as she finished the article. "Children?"

 

"So it would seem," Gibbs replied. 

 

Ziva crushed the paper, and when she looked up again, there was no hiding the determination in her gaze.  "They will not kill another child."

 

Gibbs gave her an approving nod as Vance sighed.   The mayor crossed his arms.

 

"While an admirable sentiment, Miss…?"

 

"David."

 

"…David, Deputy McGee still has a point.  We cannot arrest these men based on a suspicion, and if you keep Acres in jail, his men will both take offense and, from what I understand, the offensive."

 

"Exactly," Gibbs noted.  Vance frowned.

 

"In other words, you actually want them to try to tree the town," his gaze narrowed, "my town, so you'll have an excuse to arrest them."

 

Gibbs just shrugged, and Vance's frown deepened. 

 

"I'm all for doing what is right, Sheriff, but…," He gave a headshake. "We have people of our own we need to protect.   You're asking the people of Galatea to just to accept your decision to stand up to these men, when it's possible that they might still leave us alone.  We have women and children here as well, and you're putting them at risk."  His chin lifted.  "What happens if you lose?"

 

"We won't," Gibbs replied.

 

"Even with my help," Vance said with a frown, "there are only four of us who can fight," he glanced at Ziva, "and a woman.  That's five against nineteen men, who will soon be very well armed.  That's nearly four to one odds."

 

"Would you rather we let them have the run of this place?" Gibbs asked pointedly.  "Allow them to continuing attacking women and threatening our men, beating them up like Palmer?  You want me to let a potential murderer go, just because you're afraid?"

 

Vance's eyes narrowed. "No."  He sighed. "I just felt it needed to be said.  I've already warned the townspeople to batten down."  He dropped the rifle perched on his shoulder into his hands with a solid smack.  "All I am saying is," his chin lifted, "I hope you have a damn good plan."

 

Gibbs smiled.

______________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER SIX: GET THEM FROM BEHIND

 

"When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better." – I'm No Angel, 1933

_______________________________________________________

 

"Get them from behind?" Tony muttered, settling down behind an embankment just outside of town and propping his rifle against the rise.  "What kind of plan is, 'get them from behind?'" 

 

"A simple but effective one," Ziva replied, mussing with her hair.  She had freed it from the tight braid, letting the wind blow it around. 

 

"I'm also not liking the idea of you as bait."

 

"It won't be for long."

 

"I still don't like it."

 

She just hummed, checking out the device that Tim had thrown together.  There was curiosity in her gaze as she considered the pocketwatch he'd attached to it, and the thin wires running along the edges.  After a moment, she sighed.

 

Tony had been watching her out of the corner of his eye, and frowned at the sigh.  "What?"

 

"Are we certain this will work?"

 

"Sure, I've seen Abby make it before.  Of course, last time, it was about a sixteenth of that amount and the Fourth of July, so I reckon this one'll have a slightly bigger impact."

 

"Not the concoction," Ziva counted. "The mechanism for setting it off.  It seems too delicate."

 

"Oh, that?  'Course it'll work.  Tim made it."

 

"And your brother is good at this?"

 

"Are you kidding?" Tony asked, not hiding the pride in his voice. "He's the smartest man this side of the Mississippi, and maybe on the other side as well.  If he says it'll work?  It'll work.  Perfectly."

 

She smiled softly, hiding the device under the bulky skirt she'd borrowed from Mirabel.  "You have a lot of faith, considering our lives may depend on this."

 

"I don't think you understand.  It's not faith—he's that smart.  When you take this job…"

 

"Don't you mean, if?" Ziva corrected, though she was smiling as she smoothed the heavily layered skirt down.

 

"If and when you take this job," Tony continued blithely, "he's going to head back east, and he's going to change everything about how this country works.  Edison's light bulbs?  Imagine them in every home, in every room, lighting up the night sky from coast to coast."

 

Ziva tilted her head.  "Light bulbs in every home?  How?  Every house would need to somehow be connected to generators.  The cost alone--"

 

"Wires.  He's going to connect everyone with wires."

 

She frowned, looking genuinely puzzled. "Wires?  How can wires—?"

 

"Shhh," Tony hissed, waving her down.  "I can hear them."  From down the road, the distinctive creak of saddle-leather and the rattle of a wagon became audible.  Ziva drew in a breath, smiled once more at Tony, and then climbed out of the little ditch they'd hidden in.  Tony bit his lip, still not liking this plan.

 

She jogged to the middle of the road…and then promptly swooned.  Her hair spread out like a halo around her head, her arms splayed, her legs curled under the skirt to hide the trousers she wore underneath…and the bomb.

 

Tony blew the air out of his cheeks, and waited.

 

Not two minutes later, men on horseback, leading a wagon carrying more men and leading several other horses, rattled around the bend, coming up onto the small plateau where Ziva was lying.

 

"Whoa!" the leader shouted, lifting a fist to stop the men behind him.  "Hold up!"

 

Almost like soldiers, the men spanned out, each lifting their weapons and studying the surroundings, as if looking for a trap.  Definitely not run of the mill cowboys.

 

The leader jumped down from his horse and, pulling his gun, cautiously approached Ziva on the ground.  The gun dipped slightly as he clearly took in the fact that, not only was she a woman, she was unconscious and, well, really pretty.  Tony sneered slightly as the leader holstered his gun and knelt down next to her.

 

"Hey," he called, tapping her gently on the cheek.  "Hey, Miss, wake up."

 

Ziva groaned, turning her head towards him.  Her eyes blinked open, and she startled, pushing away from him with a squeak.  Tony almost jumped out of his hiding place, it was that effective.

 

"Who are you?" she squeaked, sounding terrified.  "Where's Fido?"

 

Fido? Tony thought. 

 

"Fido?" the man repeated.  "Who is Fido?"

 

"My horse, I…."  She looked around as if for something, then groaned again and pressed the butt of her palm to her forehead. "Oh, my head…"

 

"Miss?  Are you alright?"

 

"I…."  She tried to sit up, and promptly fell forward neatly into the man's arms.  He blushed slightly as a couple of the other men chuckled.  Ziva gripped his arms, and tilted her head back, gazing up into his eyes.

 

"Ooh," she crooned, feeling his biceps, "you're so strong."

 

Tony slapped his forehead.     

 

The man blushed even more crimson, cleared his throat, and made to stand, carrying her upwards with him.  She continued to lean on him, still holding onto him like a lifeline. 

 

"Can you, uh…." The leader cleared his throat again. "Can you tell me what happened, Miss?"

 

"Carolina," she corrected.  "My name is Carolina.  And, no.  I was just out riding…."  She paused, and her eyes widened dramatically.  "Oh heavens," she breathed, still gazing up at him like a god, "there was a rattler!  It spooked my horse, and Fido threw me!  Where…."  She finally let go, twisting around, searching.  "Where is he?"

 

"Snake's probably long gone, Miss Carolina," the man noted.  "As for your horse…?"  He just shrugged.

 

"Oh, Fido!" Ziva moaned, falling against him again. "My poor baby!  Where could he be?"  She snuggled right into his chest, burying her head into his shoulder.  "And how will I ever get home now?"

 

Tony resisted the urge to vomit.  From the expressions on some of the other men, he wasn't the only one.

 

"Well, uh…"  The leader glanced around at his men, and they were all vehemently shaking their heads no.

 

"Fido!" Ziva whined piteously.  "Fido!"

 

"Um…" The leader paled slightly, drew in a deep breath, and asked, "Where do you live?"

 

Ziva tipped her head back again, all big brown eyes and tears.  "Just up the road.  One of the outlying ranches.  My father is very wealthy, I'm sure he'd pay you handsomely for taking me home."

 

"Oh, uh…." The leader's brow furrowed. "I'm sorry, Miss Carolina, but…."

 

"You have lovely eyes," Ziva said. "So very…hazel."

 

"Right.  Well, look, we'll, uh…" He looked at his men again, most of whom were now regarding him with disgust. "How about we drop you off a little further down the road, maybe at the bottom of your ranch's drive?"

 

Ziva grinned. "I'd be ever so grateful," she said, eyelashes fluttering.

 

Tony's head hit the ground. 

 

The leader just nodded, and, with Ziva still clinging to him, walked her around to the back of the wagon and helped her jump up to sit on the back.  She caressed his face as he backed off, causing the flush on his face to worsen.

 

"Just tell us where to drop you, Miss," he ordered gruffly.

 

"I will," she promised. 

 

A few minutes later, the leader had everyone moving again, and Ziva caught Tony's eye as she rode away.  That smile was going to be the death of him, he decided.

_________________________________________

 

Ponying Ziva's horse close behind him, Tony galloped down the short-cut that would allow him to head off the wagon a little further up the road.  Less than ten minutes later, he was pulling hard to a stop at another shallow bend, and encouraging Ziva's horse go to stand in the middle of the road.  He then dragged his own horse behind him off the road and behind a thick copse of trees.  Hunkering down, he knew he wouldn't have long to wait.

 

Moments later (damn, he almost hadn't made it), the wagon rounded the bend and Ziva squealed in delight.   From his new perch, he couldn't quite make out what they were saying this time, but Ziva jumping off the back of the wagon and running to throw her arms around her horse was pretty unmistakable.   Following that, there appeared to be a brief conversation, and then Ziva was waving to her "heroes" as they rode off without her.

 

Tony waited until they were gone, before emerging from behind the trees to where Ziva still stood, petting her horse's flank.  She was smiling widely, looking very pleased with herself.

 

Tony arched an eyebrow. "You're so strong?" he mimicked.  She chuckled, lifting her arms in order to pull her hair back into a tight braid.

 

"Jealous?"

 

"Not of that guy.  He had more acne pits on his face than Utah has canyons."

 

She tilted her head coyly.  "You are jealous," she challenged. "How cute."

 

He snorted.  "Whatever.  Package delivered?"

 

"Yup," she affirmed, finishing with her hair.  "Should go off not long after they hit the center of town, assuming your brother's device works."  She then proceeded to tug the skirt off, catching it only once on the holster attached to her leg.  A moment later, she had the skirt stuffed into a saddlebag, her long duster back on, and was leaping up onto her horse's back. 

 

"For a city girl," Tony noted, "you're pretty familiar around horses."

 

She ignored that, settling into the seat and gathering up the reins.  "You ready?"

 

"After you, Miss Carolina."

 

She smirked, and kicked her horse forward.  Tony quickly caught up to her, pulling up alongside.

 

"By the way," he called, earning him a sideways glance. "His name isn't Fido."

 

"Oh?" she replied, patting her horse's neck as he loped. "Then what is it?"

 

"Lady-killer."

 

She laughed brightly, kicking the horse even faster, and Tony encouraged his mustang to catch up.

____________________________________________

 

They nearly ran into the wagon stopped about a mile outside of town.  Ziva pulled back hard on the reins, and Tony nearly barreled her and her horse over.  Frowning as she gestured hard at him to be quiet, he nodded unhappily and guided them both off the road.

 

Leaving the horses hidden inside a grove, they jogged back to the road, to the clearing where the wagon was sitting, and huddled down behind a boulder.

 

Acres nine men were being greeted by Castille and about five others.  They all looked fairly angry.

 

Guns were being handed out.

 

"Damn," Tony muttered.  "Gibbs was sure Acres's arrogance would cause them to dispense the weapons in town, not out here.  He was banking on being able to box them in when they all went for the wagon for their guns."

 

"Except," Ziva whispered, "he forgot that Acres is not in charge.  Castille is, and he's not as much of a fool."

 

Tony frowned, not disagreeing.  Shit.

 

"What do we do?" Ziva asked.

 

Tony scrubbed a hand down his face, and shook his head.  "The plan hasn't changed.  We're still going to follow them in.  Or, at least, one of us is."  Her gaze narrowed, not understanding, so he continued.  "One of us needs to go in ahead and warn my father.  The other stays out here and…."

 

"Still try to get them from behind," Ziva nodded.  "I see."  She looked at the group.  "It has to be you that warns your father."

 

Tony was about to argue, but Ziva pressed a hand to his arm. 

 

"You know these woods far better than I do," she explained. "You know the short-cuts.  I would only be able to follow the road for fear of getting lost.  You'll reach him much faster than I would."

 

"But…."

 

"Don't worry about me," she pleaded.  "Believe me, what your father said is true—I can take care of myself." 

 

He grimaced.  "I know.  I just don't like the idea of leaving you alone."

 

"As I said before," she promised, her fingers digging into his arm for comfort, "It won't be for long."

 

Tony swallowed.  Damn it.

______________________________________________________

 

So this is what "hell bent for leather" means, he thought, bending low over his mustang's neck.  The small horse was fast, loyal and all his—and it shot through the trees more certain than any large horse, leaping over rocks and over brooks without pause or concern.  He held on to the leather reins and pressed his feet hard into the stirrups, begging them not to break and trusting his mount more than himself to get them home.

 

Careening into town, he barely avoided being bucked from his horse when he skidded to a halt behind the sheriff's office, the mustang nearly falling over with him as he kicked free of the stirrups.  Leaping off the still dancing horse, he hit the ground running, and was through the back door into the building in less time than it took to inhale.

 

And nearly ran into the business end of a double-barrelled shotgun.

 

Tony's feet stopped short and he fell back on his ass, arms flailing outwards, knowing full well that he had come within a hairs-breadth of being blown away by his father.  Gibbs lowered the gun, his expression torn between furious and terrified.

 

"Tony?  What the hell…?"

 

He grinned, shaking from adrenalin and exhilaration as he looked up at his father from the floor.  "Wow," he wheezed out. "What a rush!"  He raised a hand. "And I've got news!"

______________________________________________

 

Ten minutes later, Tony was pushing a couple of old hay bales to the open window of the livery's loft, sneezing softly at all the kicked up old straw.  He then slid down between bales, imagining himself to be an archer, peering out of an arrow slit inside a castle wall, waiting for the siege.  From the second floor of the barn at this end of the street, he had a fairly good view of most of the town, all the way up to the church at the far end.  When Castille and his men rolled down the street with their wagon, they'd come in right under him—assuming they came in a clump and didn't decide to attack from all directions.

 

Gibbs wasn't too happy that he had profiled the wrong strategy-maker.  Castille was the definition of a snake, which meant he would slither into town, versus Acres' strategy, which was more front-door.  The second-in-command was always less predictable, often because they tried harder.  The only thing his father was certain of was that Castille would try to get inside the jail to kill Acres.  For that reason, Gibbs would not leave the jail until Castille was in his sights.

 

Which was why the former marine was sitting in front of the Sheriff's office, pretending it wasn't close to freezing outside, whittling away at a piece of wood.

 

Man loved woodworking.  He had a penchant for whittling little boats, not that there was anywhere around here to float them.     

 

Cold air brushed Tony's face, and he shivered, settling down a little deeper between the hale bales he was using as cover.

 

Otherwise, Gibbs decided not to change his plan—as Tony had suspected.  They would still try to box Castille and the rest of Acres' men when they attacked Galatea, which was why Tony was up in this loft.  He considered where the others were: Vance (and Ducky) were near the church at the other end of town, of that he was sure; Tim was hidden somewhere inside Abby's, since the rest of Acres men—the ones who weren't out with Castille outside of town—were still in her saloon and would likely try to retreat there once the firing started;  Ziva, of course, was…in the woods somewhere, following the wagon.  At least, he hoped she was—he hoped she was safe.

 

He glanced at Mirabel's was across the way—he'd caught the brothel-keeper peeking through the curtains a few times from the second floor, had even caught her eye when he first climbed up here and had received a tentative wave from the proud woman.  Like everyone else in the town who had been warned by the mayor, she'd boarded up the ground floor, closing the storm doors and blockading the windows, just as if someone had spotted a tornado.   The whole town had an air of a ghost town right now, locked down and closed up tight.

 

He hoped it'd be enough.  If they lost this fight….

 

He shook his head.  He couldn't think that way.  They'd win.  His father said they would.  And he always believed his father. 

 

"Gibbs says search the alley again, we search the alley again."

 

"You never question anything he tells you to do, huh?"

 

"Nope."

 

Tony rested his throbbing head against the side of the bale, hearing the ghost of that conversation with Ziva in his head like it was yesterday.  But Tim was right--how could he have had a conversation with a woman he'd only just met?  A blast of frigid wind air blew across his hands, waking him up slightly and dispelling the pain in his head.  Shivering, he wished he'd worn a warmer coat.

 

He checked his rifle for the third time for signs of wear, and then checked the clock on the church.  Not quite nine yet.  Nine was the magic time for their little present in the wagon.  They'd expected the wagon to be here by now, in part because they hadn't expected Castille to stop it before arriving.  If it went off outside of town….

 

Well, it is what it is.

 

Nineteen men, altogether.  Fourteen plus Castille outside of town—all unknowns in terms of location, but all definitely coming here. And four men at Abby's.  If he thought about it mathematically, it meant they each had to take down at least four men. 

 

He patted the guns by his side.  Besides his rifle, he had his own gun on his hip and a borrowed gun from the ones collected from the cowboys by his hand.  In his pockets, he had ammo for all three weapons. 

 

Be nice to have his sig though.  Fully automatic, slim lines, never jammed, multiple rounds instead of just six….

 

His head throbbed again, and he willed the headache down.  He was getting used to it now.   He just had to stop thinking about that other place.  He was home now.  That other place was the dream.  This was what was real, and this is what he was fighting to hold onto.  His home.

 

He'd die for it. 

 

Breathing out heavily, he exercised his fingers, to keep them loose.  It'd be a bad, bad thing if they cramped up from cold while he was shooting.

 

He wondered how long they'd have to wait before….

 

Ah.  There.

 

Castille rode into town, seven men at his back, and the wagon.  That meant seven more were approaching the town from different directions.  Tony checked the clock.  Three minutes to nine.  Cutting it crazy close.

 

He followed Castille with his rifle as the gunslingers slowly rolled up to the front of the jail, and the seven men with him spaced themselves evenly in a semi-circle between their leader and the wagon.  Four unarmed men emerged from the saloon to stand behind the wagon, but all looked ready to dart back inside on command. 

 

Tony breathed out evenly, settled the rifle on his shoulder and sighted down it, pointing at Castille's head.  He was about to chamber the rifle when the sound of another rifle chambered directly behind him.

 

Oh shit.

 

Almost reluctantly, he turned over, looking over his shoulder into the rest of the loft.

 

One of Acres' men stood there, pointing a rifle at his back.  He'd never even heard him come up the stairs, he'd been so focused on what was happening outside.  The man smiled sickly.

 

"Gotcha," the cowboy crowed softly. "Drop the rifle, pretty boy, or I'll kill ya."

______________________________________________

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: GUNFIGHT IN GALATEA

 

"Think ya used enough dynamite there, Butch?" – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969

______________________________________________

 

"Sheriff!"

 

Castille's shout echoed down the empty, cold street, jerking Tony's attention back to the outside even as he put his rifle down and raised his hands.  The shout was answered with silence from the Town and Gibbs.  Not even the tumbleweeds moved, despite the chilly wind.

 

Castille snorted, and threw back his long jacket, revealing the rifle underneath.  "Sheriff, look at me!"

 

Slowly, very slowly, Gibbs lifted his head.  He put the block of wood down, but kept the knife in his hand.

 

"Something I can do for you, Castille?"

 

"You can let our boss out of jail."

 

Gibbs sighed, standing up to reveal the guns on both of his hips.  "I'm afraid I can't do that.  He broke the law."  He looked genuinely apologetic.

 

"You don't let him out," Castille countered, "you know what'll happen."

 

"Sure I do," Gibbs agreed, smiling slightly. "Do you?"

 

Castille growled. "This isn't a joke, Sheriff.  Are you going to do what we want?"

 

Gibbs gave a shrug, and backed up to the door of the Sheriff's office.  Opening it, he peered inside and called out.

 

"Hey, Acres.  You willing to leave?"

 

Tony couldn't hear the response, but he did notice the way Gibbs shifted more into the open doorway as he turned to face Castille and his men again. 

 

"Sorry, boys.  He's staying put."

 

Castille's response was to place his rifle against his shoulder, pointing it at Gibbs. 

 

"I'm only saying this one more time.  Let him out," Castille warned, "or we take this town down."

 

Gibbs just smiled.  "Are you certain of that?"

 

Castille laughed, pulled the lever on his rifle, and nodded.  "Pretty certain."

 

Gibbs inclined his head, looked up at the clock on the church, and then glanced at the acne-scarred man to Castille's right.  "You know," he offered conversationally, "you really shouldn't pick up strays in the desert, especially not pretty ones.  They tend to leave nasty presents behind."

 

The man's eyes widened suddenly, just as the clock on the church rang out nine bells…and the wagon behind Castille and his men exploded in a massive fireball, shattering all the windows in the vicinity.

 

"Jesus Christ!" the man holding his rifle on Tony shouted, falling back from the blast, losing his aim.  Tony reacted instantly, kicking up with his feet and knocking the weapon from the man's hands.  Leaping to his feet, he drove hard into the cowboy, knocking him to the ground and slamming his fist into the man's jaw before he could draw in a breath.

 

The man's head lolled back, eyes closed and Tony fell back, going for the rifle the man dropped.  He turned and jogged back to the open window, lifting it to his shoulder.

 

And nearly received a gut shot for his trouble. 

 

"Damn it!"  He fell back, ducking down behind the edge of the loft.  He'd only seen a glimpse of the outside, but it was enough to see at least two men lying unconscious on the street, just feet from the still smoking and smoldering wagon shell.  The horses dragging it were long gone—probably took off as soon as the wood splintered.  As for the rest of Acres' men, they were scattered up and down the street, shooting at anything that moved.  Which included Tony.

 

He swore again, reached for the gun he'd left on the ground and, staying low, made his way back to the man he'd knocked out.  Flinching at the bullets making swiss cheese of the loft around him, he pulled some twine from a broken hay bale, and turned the guy over.  In about the same time it took him to tie down a calf in a rodeo event, he had the man trussed and out of the game. 

 

And then the floor exploded upwards, as someone stood on the ground of the barn and shot up the floor he was standing on.   He toppled sideways as another blast nearly took out the head of the guy he had trussed.

 

Swearing, he grabbed for his gun again, nearly dropping it in his haste. 

 

"Come down, lawman!" the shooter cajoled from below, laughing as he blasted another chunk of flooring. "Or I'm bringing you down!"  As if to prove the point, part of the wooden floor gave way to Tony's left, leaving a gaping hole. 

 

With no time to think, he started running for the back of the loft, towards the rear window.  He could see the rope dangling outside, the one used for pulling the hay bales up here into the loft for storage.  Bullets shattered the wood around his feet as he moved, wood splinters and shredded straw filling the air around him.  He had one chance, one chance or he was dead.

 

Shouting a Hail Mary, he dove out the window and grabbed the rope, swinging way out into the open air, twenty feet above the ground.  Turning in mid-swing, he let the rope slide through his fingers, momentum carrying him back towards the barn, and down towards the wide open doors on the ground floor.

 

"Bonzai!" he shouted, plowing feet first into the man still trying to shoot him; the cowboy never had a chance as Tony let go of the rope, driving fully into him, and the two men rolled across the floor of the barn.

 

Without even a pause, Tony was back to his feet and pulling his gun.  The other man was still trying to stand up when Tony shot him in the leg, taking him down.  Another shot sent the man's rifle flying away from his hands.

 

"Hey!"

 

Tony turned and fired again, narrowly missing another cowboy shooting at him from the front of the barn.  Then he was moving, diving behind the man whose leg he'd shot, using him for cover as the other man continued to fire at him from the street. 

 

He winced at the horrific sound of bullets hitting flesh, at the agonizing scream of his "cover" as the cowboy took the brunt of the bullets.  "Sorry," Tony hissed, meaning it as he felt the body jerk over and over.  But as soon as he heard the distinctive sound of an empty gun chamber, Tony was up and firing towards the front of the barn…only to run out of bullets after three shots. 

 

"Aw crap…" Pushing the dead man away, he turned and fled, trying to get out the back before the other man reloaded. 

 

He nearly made it, only to see the shadow of someone else in the back doorway.  Skidding to a halt, he had just enough time to throw himself sideways as bullets erupted from both directions.   Landing hard behind some hay bales, he flipped onto his back and pointed his gun towards the open rear door.

 

Only to see Ziva lowering her gun.  Mostly because no one was firing back at her.   She turned, smiling at Tony.

 

"Having fun?" she asked cheekily.

 

"Hell, woman!" he cried. "Where the hell did you come from?"

 

"New York City," she answered, still smiling. "And you're welcome."  She glanced behind her, then walked deeper into the barn, walking across to him to give him a hand up.  Outside, Tony could hear the loud, continuous banging of a lot of guns still firing, probably at his father, Vance and Tim.   "How many have you taken down," she asked seriously as he stood.

 

"Um," he swallowed, looking up at the ceiling. "Uh, two, so far.  There's a guy upstairs that's trussed up, still alive, I think.  And," he winced again at the bloody body on the floor of the barn, "that guy." 

 

Ziva didn't even flinch as she looked at the body, as if she saw things like it every day, and wasn't that a little terrifying.

 

"I have managed to knock out two and kill two others," she said, "including the man up front."  She nodded towards the front door.  "But there are still—"

 

"Thirteen.  Two are down next to the wagon, killed by the explosion, leaving—"

 

"Eleven.  Yes."  She walked over and pulled the dead man's gun from his holster, stuffing it in her coat, and then looked back at Tony. "You know this town better than I," she said, "what do you suggest we do next?"

 

He exhaled sharply, shaking his head. "Well, the others sound pinned down, which is not good.  Tim could probably use some back up at Abby's. I don't know if the four on her stoop managed to get any weapons, but if they did, Tim will have his hands full.  Why don't you head over there, try to get behind anyone hiding in the alleys on that side of the street.  If he's fine—go check on the mayor.  I think he and Ducky are holed up near the church.  If they got the drop on me, they could have done the same with the mayor."

 

"And you?"

 

"I'm going to check the alleys on this side, at least until I can get to the jail."

 

Her eyebrows lifted.  "You plan to join Gibbs?"

 

"I plan to make sure he's still alive.  If you could, uh," he smiled weakly, "do the same for my brother and the mayor…."

 

She inclined her head. "Of course."  She pointed out the back door. "That way?"

 

Tony nodded, and followed her to the back door.  Smoothly, as if they'd practiced it a hundred times, she went low as he went high, checking for anyone looking to ambush them.  When no threats appeared, Ziva nodded at him and darted outside, disappearing around the far side of the barn.  Tony sighed, summoned up his reserves of courage, and ran out of the barn in the opposite direction from Ziva, heading for the back door of the jail.

 

He ducked as bullets whizzed down the alleyways he passed, but none appeared to be aiming for him.  Mostly ricochets.  Still, he slowed at every opening, checking it for more of Acres' men.  He didn't see any, but he could sure hear them.  Sounded like a war was still going on out front on the street.

 

He slowed when he saw someone in a blue shirt lying on the ground, just feet from the open back door of the jail.  Open?  After what felt like an interminable age of checking alleyways, he reached the body and knelt down to see if he was still alive.  It was not someone he recognized, though, based on the threadbare clothing, probably one of Acres' men.  He was out, but not dead—looked like a bullet had grazed his skull.   He looked into the open back door of the jail, seeing only silhouettes moving inside the darkened interior.  He raised his gun, pointing it into the darkness.  The bright sunlit day was a serious disadvantage right now.

 

"Dad?" he shouted, ready to duck if someone started firing.

 

"Tony!"  Gibbs snapped in response. "Get in here!"

 

He didn't need to be ordered twice, practically running inside with his weapon raised, ready for anything.  He stuttered to a stop at the sight of Vance lying on a cot in the free cell, blinking at him muzzily, a blood-soaked bandage tied around his head.  Ducky was on the ground, holding bandages to the sternum of Riggers, who was breathing badly…probably due to the blood seeping out of his chest.   Acres was against the far wall, shackled to the cell wall, but his eyes were wide and he was breathing heavily.

 

Tony's own eyes were wide.  "What the…?"

 

"Get up here," Gibbs ordered, standing by the open door to the street.  He was firing out of it, and outside, Tony could make the ruins of the wagon and at least three men lying in the street—Gibbs must have killed another one.  There was also another unconscious young man on the ground by the desk—the red-headed kid from the saloon who'd threatened them last night.  There was a lot of blood by his head, but he breathed—not dead, then, apparently.

 

"What happened?" Tony asked, coming up alongside Gibbs and peering out into the street to see what he was shooting at. 

 

"Castille got inside," Gibbs hissed. "Using Vance and Ducky as hostages."

 

Tony gasped.  "How did you--?" 

 

"Got lucky.  I'm going after him.  Stay here and protect these idiots." 

 

"What?  No!"  But it was too late.  Gibbs was already ducking down low, running out into the street, bullets pelting the walls around it.  "Damn it!" Tony swore, firing at anything moving out there that looked like it might be shooting at his father.  "Dad!"

 

"Won't do any good, Tony," Ducky called, still not letting up on the pressure he was keeping up on Riggers. "You know how he feels when any of us are used as weapons against him."

 

Tony was still firing, trying to keep up with the glint of metal popping out of the windows and from alleyways.  How many more were there?  Couldn't be more than four or five now, right?  Gibbs had disappeared down a side street.  Tony grunted in frustration, and looked over his shoulder at Ducky.

 

"How did you end up as hostages?" he demanded.

 

"Our position was overrun up by the church before the first shot was fired; I'm still not sure how.  He must have guessed we'd be the weakest link in the chain, so to speak, since Vance also had to ostensibly protect me." Ducky frowned unhappily.  "Within moments of the wagon going up, Castille was there, knocking the mayor out, and forcing me to practically carry the man here.  He knew Gibbs would be forced to open the back door to let us in, if we were his hostages."

 

"Back door?" Tony repeated, firing at someone peeking out from behind an alley opposite, and smiling a little when he heard a yelp of pain.  "Why the back door?  Why not the front?  You'd think he'd want everyone to see his triumph."

 

"So he and that red-headed rat could kill us!" Acres roared, suddenly coming back to life with a rattle of chains holding him in place.  "And none of my men the wiser. That bastard!  I can't believe he did this!  After everything I did for that boy.  I'm going to kill him, you hear me?  Kill him!"

 

"I'm afraid you may have to wait in line, Mr. Acres," Ducky replied evenly. 

 

"God damn it!" Acres snarled, rattling the chain again.  For a moment, Tony was afraid he'd actually break free, but then Acres abruptly deflated, lowering his head.  Tony took the opportunity as he reloaded his guns to really examine the gang leader, surprised at how wrecked Acres looked. 

 

"How is he?" asked Acres, gazing at Riggers, sounding very much like a broken man.

 

"Not good," Ducky replied. "I'm sorry."

 

"He…he took the bullet for me. Jumped in front of me when Castille fired.  He shouldn't…I…do what you can to save him."  Acres expression was almost desperate. "Please."

 

Ducky simply nodded, but he didn't look hopeful as Riggers continued to, quite obviously, breathe his last.

 

Tony frowned, returning his attention to what was happening on the street.  Fewer weapons were firing now, but he raised his guns and watched for anyone threatening the jail.  When a rifle barrel showed itself near Abby's, he fired, earning a quick retreat from whomever had been about to shoot.   Tony then switched his aim, noting someone running up the street towards the church.  He fired, but missed as the man disappeared down an alley.  Damn.

 

"So how did you get lucky?" Tony asked then, needing a distraction.

 

"What?" Ducky replied.

 

"Gibbs said, the only reason you're not all dead by Castille's hand is that you got lucky.  How did you get lucky?"

 

"Oh, that.  One of Acres' other men just happened to see us come in here from the back, and, quite spontaneously, followed us in.  Castille wasn't expecting him—shot him in the head, I think.  You must have seen him out there."  At Tony's nod, Ducky continued. "The distraction was all Gibbs needed to get the upper hand.  He shot Castille, winged him in the arm, but Castille's friend there…." Ducky gazed at the red-headed kid on the ground.  "He charged Gibbs, got in the way long enough for Castille to escape out the front door.  You showed up almost immediately thereafter."

 

"And now Gibbs has gone after Castille," Tony finished.

 

"Precisely."

 

"This is my fault," Acres moaned. 

 

Tony snorted. "Can't disagree with you there."  As he spoke, he counted bodies in his head, trying to figure out how many more there might be.

 

The reason being—no one was firing anymore.

 

Riggers coughed wetly, and then wheezed out slowly.  A moment later, he was clearly gone.  Tony looked over his shoulder, to see Acres covering his eyes with his free hand.  Ducky leaned back from the dead man on the ground, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

 

"Uh, Doc?" Tony began.  "I don't think the guy Castille hit out back is dead.  Looked like the bullet might have just grazed his skull."

 

Ducky and Acres both looked up at that, and then Ducky was on his feet, heading towards the back door. 

 

"Be careful, Doc," Tony called after him.

 

"Of course ," Ducky replied. 

 

Tony returned his attention to the street in time to see Ziva appear from around a corner, striding down the street from the direction of the church as if she owned it, heading towards the smoldering wagon.  She came to a stop a few feet from the blackened shell, standing proudly, her guns still in her hands as she turned in a circle, surveying the area. 

 

"Tony?" she called out, glancing in his direction.

 

"Yeah?"

 

"How many bodies in the jail with you?"

 

"Two, not including Acres and Riggers."

 

Ziva gave a nod, and looked towards the saloon.  "Tim?"

 

"Yeah?"  His brother leaned out of the door of Abby's saloon, looking none the worse for wear, a rifle perched on his shoulder.  Tony's released a sigh of relief he hadn't realized he was holding.

 

"How many have you got in there?"

 

"Four.  No, wait…Abby got one with a frying pan trying to sneak in the back.  Nice work, Abbs."  He waited a moment as the saloon-keeper obviously replied to that, and then finished with. "Five, all trussed up like Christmas turkeys."

 

"Then we have accounted for everyone but Castille," Ziva stated firmly.  "As I took care of the last two up by the church."  She lowered her guns, though she still remained tense.  "It's done."

 

Tony tallied the body count in his head, and was mildly disappointed to realize that Ziva had, basically, kicked all their asses.  Not that it was a competition, but still….

 

He headed out front, his guns still raised despite her confidence, checking the alleys.  The sun was bright inside the crystal clear sky, and he blinked a few times in compensation. 

 

Ziva nodded at Tim, who was likewise checking for additional threats, and then stared at Tony.  "Your father rode out after Castille," she informed.  "I saw him chasing him on horseback, heading north into the tree-line."

 

Tony swore softly in annoyance, walking to the center of the street to look at the damage.  He felt a little light-headed when he took in how utterly destroyed the outer wall of the jail looked.  It was singed black from the explosion, and filled with bullet holes.  Abby's was similarly wrecked, the windows all shattered and the swinging doors looking about to fall of their hinges.  Luckily, the storm windows looked as if they'd protected the inside.  Still looked awful though.

 

Tim was examining the wagon, admiring the damage his little time bomb had done.  He caught Tony watching him, and grinned suddenly, jogging over to his side. 

 

"Hell of an explosion, eh?" he asked.  "Abby's really proud."

 

"Yeah," Tony agreed, still trying to take in the sheer carnage of it all. 

 

"And one hell of a fight."

 

Tony just grunted.  "Hell being the operative word," he noted mildly.

 

"But we won," Tim continued, still grinning.  "Four to one odds, and we won."

 

Tony just gave a head-shake. "Lot of bodies to bury," he noted unhappily.

 

That wiped the silly grin from Tim's face, as if the idea hadn't occurred to him. 

 

"A…a lot?" he asked.  "But…they're all…they're all still alive, the ones I took down at Abby's.  I thought…"  He blinked a couple of times, innocent green eyes widening slightly. "I thought maybe you might've not…there might not be…."  He stopped, frowning suddenly.  "How many are dead?"

 

"I killed at least five men," Ziva informed them, almost clinically.  "Tony here killed at least two.  Add the two men killed by your bomb, which was very well executed by the way…." She smiled at him, but Tim just blinked in return, as if realized for the first time that people had died because of his handiwork.   Her smile fell at his lack of response, and she cleared her throat.  "Anyway, add to that the two men I know Gibbs killed out here on the street while protecting the jail, that totals nine dead."

 

"Ten," Tony amended. "Riggers died, shot by Castille."

 

"Eleven," Ducky added quietly, appearing in the doorway of the jail. "I'm afraid the red-haired young man Gibbs knocked out with his gun just died as well.  The blow to his head was just too severe."

 

"What about the one in the back?" Tony asked. "The one Castille grazed, with the blue shirt."

 

"I believe he will be fine," Ducky replied. "I have placed him in the same cell as Acres and Riggers, and I have locked the door."

 

Tony inclined his head.  Tim had crossed his arms across his chest, and he was staring at the bodies by his feet as if seeing them for the first time.  He'd paled, taking on the pallor of someone who was about to be sick.

 

"Eleven men," he whispered. "We killed eleven men today."

 

"But you saved the town," Ziva pointed out.  "And you would not have had to shoot at them at all, if they hadn't tried to kill the rest of us first."

 

Tim just blinked again. "I know.  It's just…."  He didn't finish, just stalled out, still staring at the bodies on the street.

 

"We're going to need a wagon," Tony said then, to break his brother's mental spiral. "More than one."

 

"I'll go fetch Mr. Palmer," Ducky said. "We'll need him to commence his undertaker duties.  He has a suitably large wagon to gather up the dead."  He gave them a nod of farewell before walking away at a fairly swift clip.

 

"I saw another large wagon in the blacksmith's shop down at the other end of town," Ziva said. "I think that will be large enough for the men who are still alive."  She lifted her eyebrows.  "But I could use some help collecting them all."

 

"Tim," Tony said, using the name like an order.

 

"Huh?  Oh," Tim grimaced, walking across to Ziva. "Right.  Lead the way."  She gave him nod, but didn't move.  Instead she kept her gaze on Tony. 

 

"What about you?" she asked.

 

He shrugged. "Someone still needs to guard the jail."

 

"And Gibbs?"

 

Tony just lowered his head.  Damn his father. 

 

"He made his decision. We can't track him, not with the town to look after."  Tony turned away. "He's on his own."

______________________________________________

 

The townsfolk had emerged not long after, and had quietly aided in the cleanup and restoration of order.  Mirabel had hugged Tony tightly, which was somewhat embarrassing, and Abby had kissed his cheek, which was less embarrassing.  A wobbly Mayor Vance had shaken his hand, before being led away by Abby to Ducky's clinic.  Others were less grateful—still not quite sure what had brought this insanity down on their little town, and wondering if their lawmen could have avoided it—but at least they knew it was over, and that in itself was something good.

 

Ziva and Tim had gathered all the wounded and defeated cowboys together, and most were ensconced in the jail, sitting talking with Acres.  Doubtless, it was an interesting conversation in there, but Tony wasn't in the mood to listen to it.  Instead, he'd asked Ziva to keep an eye on them while he and Tim "supervised" the clean-up.

 

Really, though, it was an excuse for the two of them to hang out outside and watch for their father.

 

The church chimed the first beat of ten o'clock.  Only one hour since the wagon had blown up.  The gunfight itself had lasted for barely twenty minutes.  It had felt a hell of a lot longer than that.   Time was weird.

 

"Can't believe it's only just ten," Tim noted, eerily echoing Tony's thoughts.

 

"Yeah."

 

"When did Dad take off?"

 

"About thirty minutes ago."

 

"Huh."

 

"Yeah."

 

Tim crossed his arms, walking a few feet away from Tony.  They were both standing in front of the jail, just watching. 

 

Tim cleared his throat.  "So…" he said, looking off into the distance, his back to his brother.

 

"Something on your mind, little brother?"

 

"You were right about Castille."

 

"Yeah."

 

"I mean, Acres, he was the head of the whole evil gang, but Castille turned out to be even worse, informing on his boss, just so he can take over, and nearly getting us all killed in the process."

 

Tony frowned as a sudden sharp pang burst inside his skull, nearly blinding him.  He grunted, pressing a hand to his head. 

 

"And then he gets away," Tim continued, not noticing Tony's discomfort.  "And Dad goes after him, alone.  Like he always does."

 

Tony didn't answer.  The pain in his head was getting worse, abruptly turning into a hammer-beat against his eyes, nose and ears. 

 

"Why did he have to go after him alone?" Tim demanded, his voice sounding oddly muffled in Tony's ears.  "He didn't have to!  He could have waited for us, could have had one of us go with him."

 

Tony blinked, trying to still his swimming vision.  Liquid dripped from his nose, running down his lips.  He didn't have to touch it to know it was blood—he could taste it. 

 

"But, of course, Dad can't do that, can't let us help him."  Tim lowered his head.  "And in the end, what's the point of keeping us out of it?  What's the point of going after him at all?"

 

Tony blinked through the water in his vision, tears of pain.  He wiped his hand across his face, shook his head to clear it, and looked up.

 

Steel rafters.  The walls and ceiling of a warehouse.  Standing in the cold outside of the main doors, clapping Tim on the back as they were told over their ear-pieces that Acres had been captured, his men brought down.   Only odd thing was that Castille, their informant and witness, had slipped out of custody.  Gibbs had ordered the man be found.  Tim had been tired, Tony had been jumpy, but they had dutifully gone back into the dark warehouse after him….

 

And been ambushed.  Castille had been waiting for them.

 

"Revenge," Tony whispered out loud, remembering everything now.  "Castille is going to come back for revenge.  He still wants Acres dead, and now us as well.  We ruined his plans, because we weren't supposed to win.  Dad knows; he chose wrong last time, sending us in.  Now he's trying to stop it from happening again." Or maybe I am. At his hoarse voice, Tim turned to look at him.  He watched as the green eyes widened in shock.

 

And then Tim was moving, driving Tony down into the dirt of the street, shouting something that was lost in Tony's fog filled ears.

 

Shots rang out, and people screamed, scattering.

 

Tony just tried to breathe.

 

His head was on fire, fit to bursting.  He felt Tim's hand on his chest, tighten around his shirt…and then relax.

 

He looked to his left, at a pair of familiar boots running towards him.  Dad.  And he looked to his left, over his brother's head, to where Castille was staggering, blood covering his shirtfront.  The crazy, black-haired man was laughing as he died, collapsing to the ground in fits and jerks, like a dying fish out of water.

 

And then Tony looked at Tim.

 

His brother looked at nothing.

 

"No," he whispered, sitting up.  Blood soaked into Tim's brown jacket, spreading from the bullet-holes in his back.  Green eyes were glazed and fixed, lips parted, a trickle of blood dripping from slack lips.  "No," Tony said more forcefully, grabbing Tim's shoulders, pulling him up with him.  "No!  No, no, no!"  He wrapped his arms around Tim, dragging his brother's body closer to his chest.  "No!" he pleaded. "Please, God…no…."

 

Gibbs had come to a halt next to him, staring down at them in shock.  Ducky and Ziva appeared a moment later, and then Abby and Vance.  They all circled Tim and Tony, almost standing guard, faces alight with concern.

 

Tony ignored them, holding Tim as close as he could, rocking the body almost in time with the throbbing in his head.  The people around them spoke, words of comfort, of pity, but he heard nothing beyond the beating of the blood trying to escape his brain. 

 

Tim was dead. 

 

Tony screamed.

______________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: HOME

 

"Slap some bacon on a biscuit and let's go!  We're burning daylight." – The Cowboys, 1972

_____________________________________________________

 

"Tony!  Tony, wake up! It's a dream!  I'm not dead!  Wake up!"

 

His eyes snapped open, his whole body snapping in time, nearly jumping out of the bed he was lying on.  Streaks of bright color assaulted him, blurring into a spinning mass as pain burst behind his eyes, blinding him.  Gasping for air, he slammed his eyelids shut, willing down the adrenalin, the dizziness and the shockiness, burying it until it gave way, leaving only a throbbing, dull pain in his head.  After a time, he realized he was being restrained by a shaking hand to his chest, and, when he risked opening his eyes again, it was to find a pair of incredibly familiar green eyes staring at him in fearful worry.

 

"Tony?" Tim begged, as if not expecting an answer.  "Tony?"

 

Tony breathed slowly, trying to remain calm as he studied his surroundings, trying to understand where he was.  Galatea was gone, not even a shred of it remained.  Instead, he saw yellow walls, blue curtains and white trim—Bethesda Naval Hospital.  Sun streamed through vinyl blinds, and somewhere, a church bell finished chiming ten o'clock. 

 

Tugging sensations on both arms also suggested IVs and scratchy, white sheets confirmed it.

 

He was back.

 

He just wasn't sure it was real.

 

"Tony?" Tim was sounding seriously freaked out now, still holding a hand to his chest as if he expected Tony to run out of the room.  Which, considering McGee was sitting in a bathrobe and scrub bottoms in a wheelchair next to his bed, suggested that he was partly worried because he wouldn't be able to run after him.

 

Tony blinked at him, and grabbed at the hand pressed to his chest, digging his fingers into the pulse point. 

 

"McGee?" It came out as a croak, almost inaudible, his voice rough from disuse.

 

Tim jerked initially, surprised, but then he huffed a relieved laugh, letting Tony grip his wrist even though it had to hurt. "Yeah.  It's me.  Are you all there?"

 

Tony ignored that.  "You're alive?"

 

Tim just smiled weakly, as if not surprised by the question.

 

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah.  I'm okay.  Nearly wasn't, but…well, you know.  They got to us in time."

 

Bleeding on the sand-packed street in Galatea…on the concrete floor in the warehouse, blood pooling under his body after Tim had thrown himself at Tony, saving Tony's life.

 

"They?" Tony asked.

 

"Gibbs and Ziva?  They found us in the warehouse.  Me, bleeding all over the place apparently, and you with…"  Tim looked up at Tony's forehead. "That."

 

Tony finally let go of McGee's wrist to touch at his forehead.  A bandage was taped to his skull.  He should probably care about his hair, but, right now, he really didn't.  Tim rubbed at his wrist for a moment, and then reached over and grabbed a plastic cup, quickly filling it with water from a small jug. He handed it to Tony. 

 

"Do you remember what happened?" Tim asked as Tony sipped the water.  "I mean, by all rights, with a head wound like yours, you shouldn't,  but the docs told us it’s case by case."  He tilted his head. "Do you remember?"

 

Tony put the cup down, and inclined his head.  He not only remembered, he remembered every last detail, set in two different worlds. 

 

"Yeah," he answered, imparting as much misery into that one word as he could. "I remember." I saw you die.  He shut his eyes, trying desperately to compartmentalize, to stop feeling the pain from that moment.

 

"Oh."

 

Tony glanced at him, grimaced a little at the somber expression on McGee's face, and looked away.

 

"You've , uh…"  Tim cleared his throat. "You've been out for a long time.  Well, that is, you've been waking up on and off, but…." He swallowed. "But you were never here, never seeing any of us."

 

Tony blinked at him, not sure how to answer that.  Fact was, he was still feeling displaced, lost in this bed in this oddly bright room.  To cover up his discomfort, and since he didn't trust his voice at the moment, he pointed at the bandage wrapped thickly around Tim's chest under the bathrobe.  It crossed at an angle, as if it covered his shoulder.  There was also bandages running up around his neck. Tim blushed.

 

"Vest took the brunt of the bullets fired at me," he explained.  "But I got clipped in both the shoulder and the side, and…." He touched at a bandage pressed to his right collar bone, just under his neck, "here.  Bullets didn't do much damage—flesh wounds, you'd call them—but I nearly bled out from this.  I was…" He licked his lips. "I was lucky the paramedics were just outside, waiting nearby with the ambulance.  Ducky too.  He saved my life."

 

Tony was just staring at him now, finding he didn't want to let him out of his sight, just in case this all went away.  The kid was growing uncomfortable under the scrutiny, and he rolled his wheelchair back about a foot from the bed.

 

"Um…" Tim blushed more. "I need to call the others.  They've been going nuts, waiting for you to wake up.  I—"

 

"Can you stand up?"  Tony asked suddenly. 

 

"What?" Tim asked.

 

"You're in a wheelchair.  Can you stand up?"

 

"Oh," Tim looked down at the chair. "Yeah.  I'm actually sharing these fabulous hospital accommodations with you." He gestured towards a bed on the other side of the room. "But they're letting me wheel over here and sit next to you for a little while every day.  This chair is pretty comfortable—a lot more comfortable than the other chairs.  Plus," he rolled back a bit, and then tilted the chair back on its rear wheels. "I can pop wheelies!"

 

Tony couldn't help but smile at that, knowing Tim was just doing it to make him laugh. 

 

"Come back," he said, waving him to return to the bedside.  Tim did so, trying to hold onto a smile as he returned.

 

"Stand up," Tony said.

 

Tim frowned.  "I already said I could—"

 

"I'm not asking if you can.  I'm asking you to stand up."

 

"Why?"

 

"Because I am.  Now stand."

 

Tim frowned more deeply, his expression distrustful, but, with a slight tremor, he got to his feet, leaning slightly over Tony's bed, holding onto it for purchase.

 

Which was perfect, because it allowed Tony to grab him into the tightest hug he could manage.  Tim gasped, but didn't immediately pull away, though it was probably torturing his wounds. 

 

"I thought you were dead," Tony croaked into the fluffy bathrobe, closing his eyes.  "I thought you'd died."

 

He felt Tim swallow.  "I—"

 

"Don't," Tony snarled, cutting him off. "Just shut up a minute…."

 

After a long moment, he felt Tim's hands pat his back awkwardly.  "You know," the younger man said softly, "it wasn't just me.  I wasn't the only one left for dead on the floor of that warehouse."  And, for perhaps the first time ever, Tony felt Tim actually hug him back. 

 

But almost immediately thereafter, Tim shifted his hands to Tony's arms, as if to pry them off.  "Okay," he said weakly. "This is beginning to hurt.  A lot."  He grunted and pushed a little at Tony's arms. "Tony, damn it, let go!"

 

Tony held on a for a moment longer, and then abruptly let go.  Tim practically fell back into the chair, looking like a startled deer in headlights.  But he did smile crookedly after a moment, probably in response to the fact that Tony was grinning.   Grinning, because, finally, Tony knew this was real—knew it as soon as McGee tried to pry him loose.

 

"You're really insane sometimes," Tim stated, still smiling crookedly.

 

"I know," Tony replied, lying back against the bed.

 

"I need to tell the others you're awake," Tim said then.

 

"Okay."

 

Tim gave a nod, and rolled back from the bed, looking fairly adept at the maneuver, as if he'd done it often.

 

"Hey," Tony called out, stopping McGee mid-turn.  Tim's eyebrows lifted, and Tony continued. "How long was I out of it exactly?  A day?  Two?"

 

"Nearly four."

 

"Four days," Tony breathed, soaking that in.  Tim finished maneuvering, and rolled around the end of his bed to the door of the hospital room.  Once there, he stood and opened it, gathering his bathrobe close for modesty.  Tony was surprised to see a guard outside, a young, freckled face kid.  He looked vaguely familiar, but Tony wasn't sure from where.

 

"Can you inform Agent Gibbs that Tony is awake?" Tim asked.  "And that he remembers what happened?"  The guard nodded and Tim shut the door.  Sitting back down, he wheeled back to Tony's bedside and reached for the button to call the doctor, but Tony raised a hand, stopping him.

 

"Why is there a guard?" he asked.

 

"Oh," Tim frowned slightly, looking briefly towards the door and back again. "Because I don't know who shot at us.  I remember seeing the rifle, and pushing you out of the way, but I didn't see the guy's face.  Gibbs is hoping you might have, since the shooter obviously got close enough to you to try to shoot you in the head."

 

Tony just stared at him, wide-eyed.  "Are you saying," he said slowly, "that Castille is still out there?"

 

Tim blinked.  "Castille?"  He leaned forward. "The informant?  He shot at us?"  He frowned in confusion. "Why?" 

 

"Yeah, Castille and…."  He stopped, staring at the door, suddenly.  Freckles…red hair.  The guard had red hair.  "Tim, do we have any weapons?"

 

"What?"

 

As if on cue, the door opened and the red-headed guard walked in, all smiles.  On his heels was Roger Castille, looking somewhat ridiculous in an obviously borrowed doctor's uniform.

 

"Agent Dinozzo," the black haired bastard greeted. "I was wondering if you'd rejoin reality."

 

"Castille."

 

"What's going on?" Tim demanded, backing up slightly.  "Castille? You're the one who shot at us?"

 

"Ah," Castille said, sounding almost sad. "So you do remember.  Shame."  As he spoke, he pulled a gun out from beneath his coat.

 

Tim shook his head.  "But you informed on Acres for us!  Why would you—?"

 

"Two reasons, Probie," Tony answered for Castille, who was now pulling out a silencer to screw on the gun barrel.  "First, because we went after him.  He thinks we should have just let him go.  Second, because he wanted revenge."

 

"Revenge," Tim repeated, still looking perplexed, and Tony realized, quite proudly, that McGee was actually doing this to stall for time.  

 

"We took out Acres a little too well, McGee," Tony said.  "He wanted Acres taken down, but had hoped for the rest of his little pirating operation to stay intact, so Castille could take it over.  When we ended up destroying the whole thing, including blowing up Acres' ship of weapons, but not, unfortunately, killing Acres himself, well…."  He shrugged.  "Castille saw all his best laid plans fall to pieces. Isn't that right, Roger?"

 

Castille's eyes flicked up from the gun, pale blue and cold.  He regarded Tony briefly, then returned to finishing putting the weapon together. 

 

"And, to add insult to injury," Tony continued, "when Castille escaped, probably to go after whatever he could find to steal in the dregs of Johnny Acres' empire, we went after him."

 

Castille snorted.  "That's about right."  Cocking the gun, he raised it and pointed it at Tony's head.  "You and your Agent Gibbs should have just let me go."

 

"Maybe he could have,'' Tony conceded.  "But it wouldn't have been right.  Strangely," he gave a shrug, "he doesn't believe in letting murdering bastards get away scot free." 

 

Castille sneered. "He signed your death-warrants when he did that.  Taking out two of Gibbs' precious team was just fair recompense for everything I lost."

 

"You did it to yourself, Castille."

 

"As did you, Agent Dinozzo, for following someone like him."  He smiled snidely. "Now, say goodbye."

 

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Tim said, standing up, only to find himself blocked by the red-head, who also had a gun, pointed right at Tim's sternum.  "Wait!"

 

"For what?" Castille asked.

 

Tim's eyes widened.  He didn't have a good answer, and, frankly, neither did Tony.  All he could hope for now was….

 

A knock on the door.  All four men glanced towards it as a young man in a blue, nurse scrubs looked inside.  "Hey," the nurse called, "is everything okay?  I thought there was supposed to be a gua….oh shit!"

 

Castille turned and shot towards the door as the nurse slammed the door shut, screaming for help, bullets splintering the wood where his head had just been.  Tony didn't think, just launched himself out of the bed at Castille, catching him in the side and bringing him to the ground.  Castille threw him off easily; Tony was just too weak, flung across the cold linoleum floor like he weighed nothing at all. 

 

Black spots swam in his vision as he lost his sense of balance, pressing his hands on the cold floor for purchase.  Shaking his head, he lifted it up in time to see Castille getting back to his feet, still pointing his gun at Tony.

 

"Hey!" Tim shouted.  Castille turned, and Tim shot him in the shoulder with the gun he'd obviously wrested away from the red-headed kid.  Castille gasped, staggering backwards towards Tony, his gun lowering in deference to the obvious pain and loss of motor control.  When he tried to bring the gun back up again, Tim shot him in the leg, and Castille went down, hitting the floor next to Tony. 

 

Dinozzo quickly pulled the gun from Castille's grasp and stood, pointing the weapon now at now the subdued former informant.  Castille blinked muzzily, holding onto his bleeding leg and glaring at both of the NCIS agents with pure hatred.

 

Tim quirked a smile, and glanced at Tony.  Tony just raised his eyebrows, impressed.  By Tim's feet, the red-headed kid was out cold, splayed out like puppet. 

 

And unlike how he saw his brother in Galatea, he realized that Ducky had been right; Tim could handle himself just fine.

 

"Wrestled in high school, eh?" Tony asked cheekily.

 

Tim laughed.

 

The door burst open a moment later, revealing a furious looking Gibbs and Ziva along with about three other cops, all with guns raised.  When they saw Tony and Tim, they lowered their guns. 

 

"Huh," Gibbs said, smiling slightly as he put his gun away. "Nice job."

 

"How did you get their guns away from them?" Ziva asked, looking surprised as she directed the cops with them to take charge of Castille and the red-head.

 

Tony pushed himself up against the wall he was leaning against, and shrugged.  "Got lucky," he replied, feeling it echo in his mind's eye.

__________________________________________________

 

A few hours later, in a different room in the hospital, Tony was lying back on the bed, one hand tucked under his head, enjoying the quiet.   Ziva had rolled Tim out of here a few minutes ago to get some fresh air, the two of them bickering lightly as they'd left.  She'd done it because she could tell Tony needed some time alone, and he was grateful.

 

He was thinking about Galatea, about how real it had seemed.  He'd never had a dream that intense in his life, one that, for a time, had made Washington seem like the dream.

 

The door slid open, and he glanced that way, watching as Gibbs entered and closed the door behind him. 

 

"Hey," his boss called, giving him a nod as he approached the bed. "You okay?"

 

Tony tried to smile, but it came out forced.  Gibbs obviously saw right through him, because he gave another nod as he pulled up a chair to sit next to the bed.

 

"You want to talk about it?" he asked quietly.

 

Tony swallowed, not quite meeting those too knowing blue eyes.  "Talk about what?"

 

"Where you've been for the last few days?"

 

Tony lowered his gaze, not sure if he did want to talk about it.  In some ways, it felt like a gift, in others….

 

"I don't know," he admitted eventually.  "Ducky already…."

 

"Came to see you earlier. I know."

 

Tony just nodded.  He hadn't been able to talk to Ducky.  He'd wanted to, but....

 

How could Ducky understand?

 

"You know," Gibbs began slowly, sitting forward on his knees, his head down, "I don't remember much about that time after the explosion on the Bakir Kamir, about what I dreamed, but I know that I had them, and I know…."  He looked up, "that they felt real."

 

Surprised by the admission, Tony caught Gibbs' eyes once before his boss looked away.  He returned his gaze to the ceiling, and, after a moment, replied roughly.

 

"Yeah.  They do."

 

Gibbs said nothing to that.  Content, apparently, to just listen. 

 

And so Tony talked.

 

"Ducky told me that, sometimes…," Tony paused, frowning a little. "Sometimes dreams can take us to a place we want to be.  More often, though…" He grimaced slightly.  "More often they amplify the things we are afraid of being, or afraid of happening…."

 

Gibbs lowered his head.  "Ducky is a smart man."

 

"Yeah."

 

"Is that what happened to you?"

 

Tony nodded.  "Yeah," he admitted. "All those things."

 

Gibbs gave an uncomfortable nod in return.  He lowered his head again.  "Was it about Jeanne?"

 

Tony's eyebrows shot up, too surprised to reply at first.  Jeanne.  She hadn't been there.  Not even a little.  And wasn't that weird. 

 

"No," he admitted weakly, "it wasn't.  I never even…."  He trailed off, realizing with a bit of a shock that he hadn't dreamed of any of his past loves and losses—not Jeanne, not Cassie, not even Kate.  It hadn't been about that.  It had been about something else.  "It wasn't about that," he said.

 

Gibbs titled his head slightly at the silence.  Waiting.

 

"It was…."  Tony blinked slowly, seeing those wooden buildings in his mind, the dusty street and the faded signs.  They were already disappearing from his memory, like the dream they were.  All that was left behind were his family.  Watching him.  Happy for him.  Caring about him.  It was the thing he'd never really had. 

 

No, the dream hadn't been about love.  It was deeper than that.  It was about finding…. 

 

"Home," he realized. "It was about home."  He licked his lips, staring up at the ceiling of the hospital room as if for answers.  "And being terrified of losing it."

 

Gibbs closed his eyes for a long moment, before opening them again.

 

"I thought I'd lost Tim," Tony whispered, still feeling the agony of that loss in his chest.  "That he'd died in that warehouse."

 

Gibbs said nothing, just continued to watch him. 

 

"And so I dreamt that he was still alive.  That we were all alive, someplace…someplace far from here and safe. But then…."

 

"You lost him again," Gibbs finished for him, again with that too knowing air, like someone who had been there and back himself. 

 

A tear tracked down Tony's face, but he didn't care.  "Yeah."

 

Gibbs nodded, looking down again.  "I know."

 

Tony glanced at him, and realized that he probably did know.  Too well.

 

"I got lucky," he said then, watching Gibbs carefully.  "Real lucky."

 

Gibbs didn't respond, just nodded again.

 

"Thanks, Boss," Tony said then.  "Thanks for everything."

 

Gibbs frowned, looking up.  "I didn't save you, Tony.  You did that yourself.  You and Tim."

 

"No," Tony said, shaking his head.  "You did.  When you hired me."

 

A tiny smile graced Gibbs lips at that, almost invisible, but there.  He closed his eyes again, and then opened them.  When he looked up, his expression was open again, and he shrugged.

 

"This is not a vacation, you know.  You're going to have to come back to work soon.  Both of you."

 

Tony smiled. "I know."

 

Gibbs gave a more forceful nod now, one indicating that this conversation was over.  He stood, patted Tony on the knee, and turned to leave.  A sudden thought hit Tony then, and he suddenly couldn't resist asking the question.

 

"Oh, hey, Boss?"

 

Gibbs glanced back at him, eyebrows raised in question.

 

"Have you ever, um…?"  Tony pressed his lips together, thinking a little too late that this was sort of a ridiculous question. 

 

"Have I ever…?" Gibbs prompted.

 

"Have you ever heard of a town called Galatea, Colorado?"

 

Gibbs' brow furrowed. "Galatea?  As in the statue?"

 

Tony blinked. "Statue?"

 

"Yeah.  Pygmalion and Galatea?  Man falls in love with the statue he made, and she comes to life."

 

"Pygmalion…" Tony breathed.  "Right, the classic story of transformation, made into a play by Shaw and then a film with the great Lesley Howard, and then redone as a musical in My Fair Lady, with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.  Eliza Doolittle was Galatea."

 

"Figured you might know it," Gibbs said, smiling again. 

 

"Huh," Tony said, pondering this as he leaned back on the bed again.  Was Galatea, Colorado a place he'd transformed into something he wanted?

 

Gibbs seemed to think the question answered, so he started towards the door again.  And then stopped.

 

"Wait," he said, his expression thoughtful.  He looked back at Tony on the bed. "Did you say, Galatea, Colorado?"

 

Tony's eyebrows perked. "Yeah."

 

"No," Gibbs mused, "I have been there.  It's near Eads, on Route 96."

 

Tony sat up again, surprised. "Really?  It's a real town?"

 

"Uh, no.  Not a town."  Gibbs huffed a laugh, as if remembering some long ago memory. "It's just a ramshackle train depot.  I don't think there was ever a town there, though I think one must have been planned."

 

"A train depot," Tony repeated, trying to hide the disappointment from his voice.

 

"Yeah.  That stretch of highway is popular with bikers.  Galatea is a place to stop, because it has one of those famous crossroads.  You can sit in the middle, with four straight as arrow roads heading directly north, south, east and west."  He smiled again, and shook his head.  "Yeah.  It's an interesting place."  He looked at Tony, and his expression softened.  "Is that where you were?" he asked quietly. "Standing in a crossroads?"

 

Tony watched him for a long moment, before answering, "No."

 

Gibbs studied his face, obviously reading it, and then gave a nod.  "Okay."  He shrugged. "See you back at the yard."

 

Tony gave him a nod, and watched him leave.

 

After a minute, he leaned back again on the pillows, hands behind his head again, still trying to understand it all.  

 

Galatea, Colorado.

 

He wondered if Tim and Ziva would be interested in a road trip.

 

There was a soft tap at the door, and he looked up as a nurse bustled into the room, carrying a tray of food and a stack of DVDs.

 

"Hi, gorgeous," she crooned, rolling the tray up next to his bed.  "You're looking much better.  How are you feeling?"

 

Tony smiled, letting her tip the bed up so he could eat. "Better," he said as she handed him a glass of water, looking at the DVDs with a sense of longing. "Those for me?"

 

"Oh, yes.  Your neighbor over there stopped by with his girlfriend and picked some out for you."

 

He nearly spit out the water he was drinking. "Girlfriend?" he spluttered.

 

"Oh, sorry, did I get that wrong?" the nurse asked, setting the tray on his lap.  "They seemed so familial, but without being clearly related, so I just assumed…."

 

"Ha, no, definitely no," Tony protested, trying to get the image of Tim and Ziva together out of his mind. "Gah!"

 

She just smiled. "I will say, your friends do have a strange sense of humor.  They kept picking movies about comatose patients.  I finally put my foot down, and told them to behave and pick out nice movies for you."  She handed him the stack to look through.  Tony blinked at the first one, not sure what to make of this particular choice.

 

"The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas?" he asked weakly, looking up at the nurse for the first time.  He knew her, he realized. 

 

"That one cracks me up so much," she said, grinning from ear to ear.  "And I'm sure you could use a good comedy after all you've been through, sweetie."

 

"Uh huh," Tony agreed weakly.  "Um…can I ask…what's your name?"

 

"Me?  Oh, apologies, sweet-cheeks.  Of course you wouldn't remember from when I told you before."  She held out a soft looking hand.  "I'm Mirabel.  I've been looking after you since you came in."

 

And that, Tony thought, was just about perfect.

____________________________________________

 

The End

 

Thank you so much for reading.  I hope you enjoyed this little romp through Tony's subconscious!

 

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