The A03 version of this has four embedded music links, all my own compositions, so if you want to listen to music and a watch a super-sad 15 second video of Dean writing Sam a Dear John letter, head over there.
Written for tebtosca's spn-meanttobe Harlequin Romance prompt: "The No. 1 Sheriff in Texas" Randell men are hard to resist. Hired to protect and serve, Detective Brandon Randell wears his hat low and his badge polished. Randell men love for a lifetime. After Brandon rescues Nora Donnelly and her young son, they remind him there could be more to life than duty. And Randell men never give up! Running from her past, Nora has bumped into her future. She plans to run again soon...but not if Brandon can help it!"
"Is he asleep?"
Dean peeked inside the tent, where a little boy curled beneath a horse blanket. "Yeah," he said, looking back, "Hey Sheriff, I don't suppose I can get my shirt back?"
"You suppose wrong," Sam hissed, the shirt balled up against his shoulder and already black with blood, "You mind telling me why someone would send twenty men after you?"
"I got a shoulder with more holes than it started out with this morning, so you talk or y'all can walk the twenty miles back to town. What's your name?"
Dean tossed another branch into the fire, sparks spiraling clockwise toward the moon. "Aaron."
Dean uncorked a canteen of mezcal. "I could do this all night."
"I doubt that. If half the stories about you are true," said Sam, pulling a slip of paper from his coat, "You got about an hour before reinforcements arrive."
Sam unfolded the bounty notice, where Dean's portrait sat above a long round number and a longer list of crimes. "I seen you in El Paso. Been there long?"
"Eight years. Right after Ben was born."
"What made you cross into Mexico today?"
"My fiance's father wanted to buy some horses from Crowley, I was sent to broker the deal and...settle some old accounts."
Sam could think of a hundred other men he'd rather meet at night beside Crowley, whose plantation and the poor creatures who worked it spawned horror stories. "Should've left the child at home."
"I don't see that anyone stays a child long in this place."
Sam nodded. "When's the wedding?"
"Does she know about you?"
"If Anna Milton thought I'd so much as worn my hat in church, she'd have me hung by my heels."
"Doesn't seem your type."
"Maybe. But she says 'thank you' and 'I love you' every day I'm with her, and that counts for something," said Dean, looking into his his hat, "What about you?"
"That depends on you," said Sam, a dark glitter in his eyes, "I'm only here to help recruit the new rangers, and once they find my replacement I'll be back to Santa Fe. But til then I got a big county to look after, and I don't fancy trouble."
Dean stood. "I'm no trouble Sheriff. You close your eyes and when you open 'em," he said, a toy smile at the corner of his mouth, "I won't be here."
Sam leaned against his saddle and watched Dean water the horse, bending close to whisper to it whenever it seemed to shy away. Every horse was 'darling' to Dean, even the greenbrokes that tossed him on his ass every day at the ranch, and this one was no fiercer than the rest. A meteorite passed overhead and disappeared into the ether, and all was still save for the distant song of starlings in flight.
Sam tongued the spot in the back of his mouth, where, eight years ago, someone had punched out his back teeth during a particularly wanton one-night-stand. He took a long pull of mezcal, and his eyes watered staring at the picture. "Mister Smith," he said, flicking his finger against the bounty notice, "I hardly recognized you."
A knock came at Rev. Novak's door. "Come in."
Dean poked his head in, dignified in his starched Sunday suit. "Got a minute?"
"I can't get this thing," he said, pointing to his detachable collar, "Could you...?"
Novak smiled and reached to button him in. "I confess, I never thought you'd make it this morning. If you'd held out another month, someone else might've snatched Anna out of your hand."
"Someone?" he asked, eyes snapping up playfully at Novak, and the pastor had the good grace to blush.
"It's not like that. She's like a sister to me."
"Yeah," said Dean, looking ahead at Anna in thirty years, the house, the family, the good table manners, the chaste kisses, the polite understanding between them like a stone around his neck, "Like a sister."
A piano started as people found their seats, while outside Sheriff Wesson slipped his hand into a barrel of wedding rice, the wind flipping his collar against his neck.
"You here to arrest me?"
He turned around. Dean stood by Sam's horse, the bridle wrapped twice in his hand. "Not really my jurisdiction," said Sam, letting grains of rice slip through his fingers, "Your future is her business now."
"So what, you just never saw me last night?"
"I reckon I was careless and fell on some bullets somewhere near the river."
Dean put a warm hand on his shoulder. "You should be more careful with yourself," he said gently, "Will you see me off?"
Sam smiled. Out here, the music took on the melancholy air of elegy, and though his wound twinged at Dean's touch, he knew a few hours in the saddle would put him right. He'd be himself again, with just another painful reminder. "Can't take a gun into church now can I?"
Ben stood beside Rev. Novak with the rings on a linen pillow, hair pomaded into place. Dean winked. "I know a little boy who's getting his first beer tonight."
Ben looked at the congregation, then back at Dean. "You think there's a drink within five miles of here?"
Dean followed his gaze to the townsfolk, Dutch immigrants worn hard by the frontier. He sighed. "No, I reckon not."
Music spooled from the choir loft, and everyone rose as the doors parted and Anna approached the altar. He clasped his hands behind his back and smiled.
"My *sniff* little darling!" sobbed Mrs. Milton, who dabbed at her eyes with a bit of lace.
Dean glanced out the window and spied a lone horseman riding into the heat haze, mirrored against the desert as if he were walking on water. A bubble of panic rose in his chest, for something in the music haunted him like a love song you only remember when you're drunk, and he shut his eyes. The music stopped, and when he opened them again the Sheriff was gone.
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today..."
Sam was on the outskirts of town when he noticed the envelope in his saddlebag. He pulled it out and read the letter's contents, and when he finished he opened his hand and watched the wind take it away. Dean's old shirt was still bandaged to his shoulder, the smell dredging old memories to the surface, and he hugged his horse's neck until the pain passed.
Dean went through the motions, his feet not quite touching the ground. He only came to when Rev. Novak declared, "If any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be wed, speak now or forever hold your peace."
"I speak for the groom." said a low voice, and heads turned in unison to the shadow in the doorway, bootspurs clinking down the aisle like a drawer full of silverware. A gold tooth twinkled when Crowley smiled. "We had an appointment."
A shot rang out and blood bloomed on Crowley's shirt, smoke curling from the ring pillow that Ben now had crushed between his hands.
Crowley fell to one knee, and Dean snatched the pillow from Ben, where the barrel of a revolver stuck out the end. "You brought a firearm to my wedding?"
Dean pulled a hymnal from the front pew, the pages carved out to make space for a Colt .44. "Where I always keep it."
More horses sounded from outside, perhaps a quarter mile away. "They're coming for us," Dean said through his teeth, and kicked Crowley in the ribs, "Stand up, I'm not getting blood on my good suit."
He walked Crowley out the door at gunpoint, and this time Dean was greeted by no less than forty enforcers on horseback, each man uglier than the one before. Dean spat. "Well ain't ya'll a dog's breakfast."
"We ain't done with you son," said one of the men, leveling his shotgun, "You'll come with us or you'll have a massacre on your hands."
Dean didn't take a second to aim but he landed a bullet in the man's right hand and he fell off his horse. "You open fire on any law-abiding citizen on this town," he said, returning the gun to rest against Crowley's temple, "And I will scalp your pretty heads and buy myself a new hat."
"We ain't Apache." countered one of the men, though their hearts were not in it now.
"You're gonna look Apache to me you don't start moving at the count of ten," he said, his lip curling as he pushed Crowley away, "Not git."
They filed out silently, tying Crowley and the other wounded man to the horns of their saddles should they pass out from bloodloss, and soon nothing was left but a few tracks and the tang of gunpowder in the air. Ben touched his hand. "You can put it down now Pa."
Dean looked. He'd forgotten he still had the Colt. "Thanks," he said, stowing it in his waistband as he saw Anna in the doorway, "Anna..."
She stepped away, horrified. "Don't touch me," she hissed, as Dean tried to take her hand, "Either of you!"
"They might come back they know I'm here. We have to go now."
She backed into Rev. Novak, who put a protective arm around her. Dean set his teeth, and Ben followed him down the street. "Papa, how are we gonna get out of here?"
For answer, the North Express blared nearby, and Dean pointed to a line of black smoke splitting the sky. Old habits die hard. "They're gonna give us a lift."
Anna watched father and son go. "Who was that man?" she whispered.
Rev. Novak took her chin in his hand. "Not your husband."
Sam was tipped back in a chair, boots on the desk with his hat over his face. "Dammit, ain't you got any respect for my hangover?"
Chuck twisted his fingers. "Telegram from in town. They wanna hear from you."
"They can wait til I feel like hearing from them."
"It's a train robbery," he said, the telegram between his fingers, "In El Paso."
All four chair legs hit the floor, and Sam snatched the paper from him. "When did this happen?"
"Less than a half hour ago."
"They say who did it?"
"They're not entirely sure," he said, shrinking inside of Sam's shadow, "But they said he had a boy with him."
Sam plucked his rifle from against the wall. "Saddle my horse."
"Now I could be wrong, but I don't recall that you can just ride out without getting the judge to sign off."
He grabbed Chuck by the shirt and twisted his collar until he choked. "And I don't recall having the patience to say things twice," said, his eyes two gun bores in his head, "You gonna prove me wrong?"
Chuck nodded, shoes scrabbling at the hardwood floor, and Sam dropped him in a heap. "The hell's gotten into you?"
Sam stood in the doorway, not sure why he was so rattled. "I think some of my people are in on this. Someone from back home."
"You make a habit of looking for criminals?" asked Chuck, massaging his throat.
"Worse," said Sam, setting his hat on his head, "Sometimes I look away from them."
Dean and Ben dropped the engineer at the empty train depot in Pescado with a water canteen, then rode on toward the mountains. Ben yawned in the bed of a passenger car. "Where to Pa?"
Dean clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Wanna see the Pacific Ocean?"
Ben's eyes popped. "Would I!"
"Get some sleep, I'm gonna check the fuel."
Stars blinked in the east. Re-routing themselves, Dean penciled a path on a map to Las Cruces, where they would camp for a while before taking horses the rest of the way. He wiled the hours in the boiler room, shoveling coal and minding the pressure gauges, making sure to stay busy. He thought he heard the clop of hooves somewhere, but the wheels were so loud that he couldn't be sure, and when he looked out there was nothing but overcast desert in all directions.
After a while he unbuttoned his collar and tossed it in the fire. Lost in his memories, he didn't even see the second shadow in the room.
Dean stayed seated, the end of Sam's's rifle inches from the back of his head. "How'd you get on this train?"
"You should've cut the telegraph wire in Pescado," said Sam, thumbing back the hammer, "The engineer cottoned me to your whereabouts."
Sam's eyes flicked to the map on the wall, Dean's careful handwriting connecting El Paso to Santa Fe, but he steeled himself. "You working for Crowley?"
Dean's hands hung between his knees. "Did. It was a hard thing when Ben's ma died. I lost bad in a card game and Crowley offered work to clear my debts."
"And you didn't think to ask others for help?"
"Eh, you'd have slapped on your deputy badge and gone tearing off to demand the money back," he said, smiling at the memory of Sam in his youth, "You didn't have the sense of self-preservation back then that God gave a field mouse."
Sam listened, shadows playing across his face, but did not lower his gun. "I think you know how this ends."
Dean fingered the sleeve of his suit jacket, now filthy with coaldust. "Promise you'll watch after Ben for me. The bounty would pay for his education and he don't eat much," he said, unbuttoning his shirt one-handed, "But before you kill me..."
"What are you doing?"
Dean slipped out of his jacket, folding it into a neat square on the table, and then raised his arms to pull his shirt over his head. He looked at Sam over his shoulder, face half cast in shadow, the shirt nested in his arms. "It's my only good shirt," he said, setting it aside, "I gave the last one away."
Sam swallowed, blinking hard. "Do you want it back?"
Sam let his rifle sag, and put a hand to his wound. "Look at me."
Dean stood turned to face him. Sam continued. "Seems every time we meet I lose a little piece along the way."
"Shut up. I'm giving you a reprieve. Crowley had it coming, so for as long as I never hear tell of any future misdemeanors, I'll turn a blind eye to your little stunt in the churchyard," he said, his chest constricting, "Cuz if I had to bury you tonight I think I'd turn my face to the corner and die."
He tore the shirt from it's bandage, wincing. "Take it. It don't belong to me."
Dean grabbed his wrist. "Yes it does," he said, pulling him in, "It always did."
He pressed his mouth to his, flames sawing back and forth in the stove as the wind lifted the hair on their heads. The sky opened up until the plains were awash in starshine, the clinking of train pistons bouncing off the mountains and rolling away to wherever secret things gather in that lonely place.
Dean broke first, their faces still very close. "How long til we reach Santa Fe?"
"Another hour I imagine," Sam said, catching his breath, "Why?"
He smiled, sliding an arm around his waist. "I don't wanna be late for my wedding night."