The French farm house appeared as if it had been abandoned for some time. Tom surveyed it for more than half an hour from the tree line to ensure it was vacant, before he dared to drag Neil to the door.
“It’s gonna be okay, Neil,” Tom said as he helped Neil up the steps to the porch. “Almost there.”
He broke the lock and they slipped inside. The two men stumbled down the hall, past the front parlour, dark and musty from disuse, and through to the back kitchen where late afternoon light shone filtered through a dusty picture window. A kitchen was good, Tom thought; there might be supplies to supplement their own meagre items. Maybe even running water.
“You sure the Boche didn’t follow us?” Neil gritted through clenched teeth.
“Positive.” He kicked a chair out from the kitchen table and dropped Neil onto it.
“Don’t use the fireplace or turn on the lights.”
“I think I know what to do,” Tom said. He pulled a second chair out and sat down across from him. “But first things first. I need to check your leg.”
“Tom, I’m fine,” Neil protested.
“No, you’re not, you were shot,” Tom replied.
“In the calf. It’s nothing.”
“You can barely walk. I need to take a look at it.”
Tom tried to school his face into confident optimism, but he couldn’t quite erase the worry around his eyes. He hoped Neil wouldn’t notice in the dimness.
Neil scowled at him, his jaw twitching. “Fucking hell, it’s just a scratch, Tom. It won’t kill me.”
“It’s a bullet wound to your leg, and let me decide that one, okay?”
He propped Neil’s leg in his lap and used his Bowie knife to cut away Neil’s bloodied trousers below the knee. Neil winced at the jarring movement.
“Sorry,” Tom said. “I’ll try to be gentle.”
He peered at the injury in the room’s half-light, feeling around as carefully as possible. Neil was partly right: the bullet wound wasn’t large, and there wasn’t much bleeding. But there was no exit, either; the bullet had apparently lodged in the muscle. As far as Tom could tell, with his limited first aid training, the slug hadn’t shattered and it hadn’t hit anything critical, but Neil still needed immediate treatment to reduce the chance of infection and get them mobile again.
“I’m gonna have to remove the bullet and suture it closed,” Tom said when he finished examining Neil’s calf.
“I can still walk, you know. Can’t it wait until we reach the safe house?”
Tom did some rough math in his head. “Nope, sorry. We’re still another couple hours away on foot. We don’t want risking further injury to the muscle.”
Neil rolled his eyes. “Brilliant. Just when I thought the day couldn’t get any better.”
Tom ignored the jab. “Hope you got your tetanus shot before you joined the Camp.”
“Lucky enough, I did. Now will you quit your fussing?”
“No, unless you want to treat your injury yourself.”
Neil glared daggers at him, and Tom smirked. Got him there. He rose and propped Neil’s injured leg on the chair seat.
Tom surveyed the dimly-lit room, and moved to the sink first. There was a hand pump to the side, so there still might be running water. He tried pumping the handle, but even after a minute or so, no water came out. Damn it. He then spied a full decanter of amber liquid on the window sill. “Maybe we can use this,” he said, and grabbed it. He opened it and waved it under his nose; the fumes stung his throat. “Whew, that’s strong stuff,” he said. “Must be at least one hundred proof. Should work for disinfecting at least.”
“Bloody waste of a good bottle,” Neil grumbled.
“If you behave, you can have some for the pain.”
Tom looked around the farm kitchen again for items to supplement his first aid kit. In the drawers he found towels and sheets to use for bandages; from the cupboard he retrieved a large enough bowl to disinfect his instruments, and two shot glasses.
Tom sloshed some whisky over his hands and into the bowl, poured two shots, and set them out in front of Neil, resisting the urge to grab one for himself. Neil tossed them back, and Tom poured two more. He found the suture needle, catgut and forceps in his kit and set them into the bowl.
A few minutes later, he was ready, or at least as ready as he felt he could be. He crouched beside Neil’s chair; Neil’s eyes were glassy from the shots. Tom gave him the flashlight. “Hold it here the best you can,” he said, aiming it at his leg. “You know, it’ll probably still hurt even with the alcohol,” he added.
“Yeah, yeah, just get to it.”
Tom moved to the chair opposite where Neil’s leg rested. He had limited sterile saline in the kit, just enough to irrigate the wound. Tom dabbed the skin with a cloth soaked in alcohol, whispering a heartfelt “Sorry” at Neil’s hiss of pain. He dribbled saline into the hole, then withdrew the forceps from the bowl and gently probed the wound, trying to limit his movement for Neil’s sake, until he felt a small clink of metal on metal.
“There it is,” he said. The flashlight wavered; he looked up to see Neil’s eyes squeezed closed, his teeth gritted. Even in the dim light Tom saw the beads of sweat on his forehead.
“Hey, focus,” Tom said. “I’m going to remove the bullet now. I don’t think it hit an artery or a vein, but be ready just in case.”
Neil nodded, pointed the light back onto his leg, and inhaled. Tom spread open the forceps as far as he dared, then encircled the slug.
“Jesus Christ,” Neil gasped.
“I’m sorry.” Tom focused on grasping the bullet. “Never wanted to be a doctor, especially on the battlefield.”
“I can tell,” Neil said.
Tom grinned despite himself. “I’ve got it, and I’m pulling it out now,” Tom said.
“Make sure you don’t leave any of it behind,” Neil said. Tom could hear the effort in Neil’s voice to suppress the agony.
Tom slowly withdrew the forceps, the bullet held intact and secure in their serrated grasp. Only a minimal amount of blood seeped out from the entry point. Tom breathed a sigh of relief at that. “Looks like I got it all,” Tom said, “and I didn’t puncture any major artery or vein. You’re a lucky man, Neil Mackay.”
He soaked a small cloth in alcohol, wiped off the bullet, then set it on the table beside Neil. “Have a souvenir.”
Neil snorted at that. “Like I need a memento of today.” But he picked it up and set it in his shirt pocket.
Tom turned his attention to closing the wound. Three sutures should do it, he thought. The Camp instructor had actually complimented him on his technique during their advanced first aid training session. Hard to believe that had been only a few months ago. He threaded the suture needle with catgut.
“You okay? Want another shot?” he asked, even though Neil had had four already, and Tom wasn’t sure he wanted to manhandle a drunken and surly injured Englishman back to the safe house by himself.
“No thanks. This part shouldn’t hurt nearly as bad. I hope.”
“It will pinch though,” Tom said. “Three sutures, that’s six times I have to push the needle through your skin.”
Neil glared at him in disbelief, then sighed. “Bloody hell. Right then. Just do it.”
Tom rinsed the hole with the remaining saline, then pierced each edge of opposing skin with the needle. He looped the catgut through and tied off the suture, visualizing the steps from the training session as he went. Neil winced with each insertion of the needle, but otherwise seemed to tolerate it.
Just before he started the second suture, Tom looked up and paused. Neil’s eyes were closed again, his face drawn and tense, but not with physical distress. A part of Tom’s gut twisted at Neil’s expression. The shoot-out with the local Boche contingent in the village had brought them here. A teenage boy had run between them and the Boche across the street. The kid had got caught in the crossfire. Tom wasn’t sure which side had taken him down; from the look on Neil’s face, he seemed convinced the kill shot came from his own gun.
“You know, Neil, it’s okay to be upset about what happened--” he started.
“Stop right there, Tom,” Neil mumbled, not bothering to open his eyes. “I don’t want your bleeding pity.”
Tom sighed inwardly. It wasn’t pity at all, he knew Neil too well to offer that, but Neil wouldn’t buy it. Other men might carry chips, but Neil carried a goddamn rock on his shoulder when it came to his feelings. He’d never known anyone to brush off kindness when it was offered the way Neil did. Tom supposed it was out of self-protection, he knew Neil’s past and so understood his reluctance, but they’d been working together in the field for weeks now. It wouldn’t kill Neil to open up to him a little. Confide in him just a bit about how he felt. About anything.
“I’m only trying to say you did what you had to do. Wasn’t your fault, you couldn’t have predicted it.”
Neil looked up at that, his mouth a grim line, then turned his head away. Tom’s shoulders sagged briefly, but he had a job to finish. “Light, please,” he said, and began to place the second suture. He wasn’t about to fight to get Neil to talk to him. They had to be going soon as it was.
After the third suture was in place, Tom bandaged the wound. “And we’re done,” he announced. “Should keep you going til we get back. How are you doing?”
Neil switched the light off. “Fine,” Neil snapped. “Just fantastic.”
Neil looked exhausted, his face pale and lined with pain despite the shots of whisky. Tom looked away a moment, considering what to do. Then he turned back and leaned down. Everyone needs a little comfort, he thought, Neil’s hangups be damned. He pressed his lips lightly to the top of Neil’s forehead, against the cool dampness of his skin.
When he pulled back, Neil gaped up at him for a long moment, stunned. “Did you just kiss it to make it better?” he said, incredulous, when he finally recovered his speech.
Tom gave him a lopsided smile. “A few days of rest, antibiotics when we return to the safe house, and you’ll be good as new,” he said. “Except for the snazzy scar. That’s a keepsake.”
“No such thing in the field as rest,” Neil said. But his scowl was gone, replaced by a thoughtful expression. “Maybe finishing off that bottle – ”
“You’ve had enough already. We’ll bring it back with us.” Tom busied himself with putting his kit back in his backpack and gathering the blood-stained cloths, checking to make sure he hadn’t left any telltale splotches behind on the chair or floor. He dumped the used cloths into an empty pot on the stove, poured the used alcohol on top, and dropped a lit match, watching the flames consume the fabric.
Just after the flames died down, Tom felt a clap on his shoulder, and looked up. Neil had hobbled to his side. At least Tom didn’t have to worry about whether Neil could still walk under his own power. “Suppose I should thank you,” Neil said as he inspected the ashes in the pot.
Something in Neil’s voice suggested he wasn’t just thanking Tom for fixing his leg. “You’d do the same for me,” Tom said, suddenly not quite able to meet Neil’s gaze. “We should get going before the Boche catch us here.”
“Yeah.” Neil reached out and lightly brushed his knuckles across Tom’s. “I owe you one,” he added softly.
Warmth flooded through Tom at the gesture. So there was a heart buried under all that gruffness. “You can pay me back later when it’s my turn,” he replied lightly.
Neil huffed a wry chortle that didn’t touch his eyes. “Hope it won’t have to come to that.”
“Then buy me a bottle of Scotch when we get back to Canada.”
“Single malt, Glenfiddich, 1921.” Tom grinned at Neil’s look of disbelief. Huh. That was the third time he’d left Neil speechless today. He was on a roll. “What? It was a good year for whisky.”
“Don’t push it, Cummings.” Neil sounded annoyed, but then he returned the smile and shook his head. “Reckon it could be worse,” he added under his breath.
The warm feeling in Tom’s chest blossomed, but he wouldn’t push it, at least for now. “Let’s go,” Tom said, picking up his backpack.
Neil grabbed the bottle from the table on their way past, and they left the farm house via the back door.