A/N: Well here it is, the final chapter. My apologies for the horrendous delay, I have no worthy excuse so I won't bother with giving you one. As always, my sincerest thanks go to A-Blackwinged-Bird for giving me insight and guidance, and Kaewi for her gentle and persistent nudging to get this story finished. You got me moving, now I hope you're not too disappointed.

To everyone who read, especially those who left reviews, thank you! And, because I just can't help it: woot-woot for season three, and for the events of the season final. Awesome on many levels! Now on with the fic.

GUNSLINGER (Chapter Seven)

Dean heard a shotgun blast. Muted to a sodden whoomph, the muzzle-fire an accompanying flare that corrupted the darkness at the corner of his eye. His pulse stammered and cold licked his bones.

"What was that?" Brad stepped backward, fear making his eyes go wide. His friend followed suit, drawing a haphazard retreat that near ended him up on his ass in the grave.

The last of the salt went in, the accelerant after it. Empty eye sockets leered up at him, framed by a derelict skull. No solid brain mass in there now, nothing but air and dirt. Still, it was too damned much.

Silence wrapped him in a death shroud and his hands shook as he lit the match, tossed it into the grave. Another sodden whoomph: tiny flame to fire, and Dean wheeled and ran. Across moonlit ground, stars beveled in the night sky, the sound of fire behind him and the specter of death in front.

Conrad had attacked Sam. Dean figured out how. The spirit would have wrenched the shotgun from his brother and shot him point blank with a salt round. That wouldn't bode well for a man with no existing injuries, but for Sam – already gravely wounded – it meant death.

Dean should never have left his injured brother alone – should never have risked it.

Aching lungs made every breath burn in his chest, denied him oxygen to call his brother's name. The Impala, headlights as dual condemning eyes, observed his frantic dash, then watched with calm trepidation as he fell, slammed to the ground by a false step. His ankle flared, firing white hot pain up his shin like the flames that sucked oxygen from the grave behind him. No way Conrad was still with Sam now. The ignition would have sucked the dead gunslinger back – ended him.

"Sam!" It came out as a tortured whisper, but it got him moving again. Pain bladed his ankle, made him favor one side, but it did not slow him down. He reached the car, slammed hard into the driver's side door and grappled at the door handle. "Sammy, open up."

Frost coated the windows, obscured a view of the interior of the car. Worse than the night he had gotten lucky with Janine, the red-headed waitress from Oscar's Diner in Keyhole, Nebraska. They had drawn lurid images on the windows of the car in their post-coital inebriation, and Dean had been too endorphin drunk to realize that they'd show up next time the car's windows frosted up.

His father did though, and his reaction had been both frightening and funny. There was absolutely nothing funny about this situation.

Dean leapt across the hood and half slid, half fell to the passenger side door. "Sam!"

He scanned for a boulder, a hunk of debris, for something hard enough to smash through the glass. His attention jerked back by the sound of the door lock disengaging.

Dean ripped open the door. Sam sat sideways in the seat, the shotgun loose in his grip, blankets shucked off his shoulders. Sam was shaking, trembling, and his head was bowed, making it impossible to see his face.

"Where'd he get you? What did he do?" Dean dropped to his knees, flattened one hand against Sam's chest, the other around his brother's wrist and ducked his head in the car to check the back-seat, but it was too dark to see and the interior light had blown. Sam's pulse hammered wildly, and his skin had a slick cold feel.

"Sammy, talk to me. Where are you hurt?"

Sam's head came up with a lethargic pull. His eyes were shut. "Didn't."

"Didn't what?" Dean pinned Sam against the seat, pushed the blankets aside and fumbled in search of blood, of fresh wounds. Expected to find pellet peppered flesh, the hospital gown blood soaked. But it wasn't.

Sam breathed shallowly, carefully, and his head dipped. He caught it and straightened, hissing as he moved. Dean caught sight of a pattern of red on Sam's right side, against his forearm. He nudged the limb to the side and sucked in a breath. A blood stain, tennis ball size, fingered outwards from a central point to form a gory scarlet sea-star just above Sam's right hip.

"Didn't get me," Sam said. He set cold fingers around Dean's forearm and pushed away. Let go and reached out, trying to grab something that lay beyond his weak stretch. Moaned and flopped back, misery etched on his face. "Cold. Please, hurts."

Blankets tangled in a pool at Dean's knees, on the desert sand. He scooped them up, covered his brother's bare legs. "You're bleeding," Dean said. "Is this where he hit you?"

Sam snagged the blankets and tugged them higher. His fingers, white and shaking, knotted into the wool. "No, I shot him."

Frost melted off the windows, letting in weak light from outside the car. Dean scanned the back seat. Salt pocked the leather, gouged craters to reveal blistered foam. Bits of it lay splattered across the seat, stuck to the windows.

"You shot him?" Dean glanced at his brother and saw a spark of repentant anguish in the younger man's eyes.

"I'll pay to have it fixed."

Dean understood. The blood stain now revealed itself as pulled stitches, newly sutured wounds ripped open when Sam had twisted in the seat and fired. Even grievously injured, barely over an hour after waking after surgery for a knife wound to his thigh, and drugged to the gills by pain and drugs, Sam had blasted Conrad's spirit with rock salt.

Oh yeah, Sam was a Winchester alright – through and through. The pride that swelled threatened to strangle Dean, but he swallowed it down and kept his expression neutral.

"Damn straight you're paying," he said. "You know how much that'll cost. That was original interior, straight off the factory floor. Cost a mint to replace."

He pulled the blankets higher, set the heat packs back in place, well away from the blood stain. Checked the wound again but the stain was not increasing in size. When he had Sam bundled up, he touched at his brother's neck to check his pulse. Sam watched in silence, wearing an exhausted, pain drawn expression that warned of depleted reserves: of a man pushed too hard, too fast, for too long. It was Sam's permanent expression now, just never quite as raw as this.

"It's over. You did good." He paused, and added, "the window would've been harder to replace. You're still paying for it though. Next time, draw the bastard out of the car first."

He grinned, letting his brother know he was joking, but Sam just blinked and looked away.

Dean retrieved the keys, closed the door and hobbled around the car. His ankle ached, and driving would be an exercise in endurance, but he had suffered worse, and recently too. Pain at his back reminded him of how bad it had been. How close it had come – of how strong his little brother was. He pushed away the thoughts of what might be coming, of how strong Sam would need to be to fight it. It just didn't bear thinking about.

"I know where Bevins is," Sam said when Dean slid into the driver's seat, started the engine and flipped on the heating.

"Where?"

Brad and his buddy walked toward the car. They carried shovels and the empty can of accelerant, matches too probably, but Dean couldn't see.

"The ghost town."

Dean glanced at his brother then wound down the window. "Throw those in the trunk."

"Is it over?" Brad flexed fingers over the shovel handle, gripping so hard his knuckles turned white.

"Yeah," Dean said. He tensed to wind up the window.

"No," Sam said. He looked like an overgrown, tousled headed kid tucked up in blankets after a big day out, but the intensity of his expression broke the image. "We have to destroy the ghost town."

"What?" Brad took a step back, his hand blister hard around the shovel handle. "The ghosts are gone, it's over. You said so."

And Dean had. He waved a hand at the two men. "Toss those in the trunk and give us a minute." He turned to Sam. "We need to leave, you're bleeding and—"

"A game of chicken is when two sides face off and neither will back down."

"I know what it is. I played it with that possessed truck that was after Cassie." Dean set his hand on the window winder.

"Conrad and Sam Bevins were playing it. Had been playing it for over a century."

"Did he tell you that?" He thumbed toward the back seat and the shotgun pelted upholstery. Some form of miracle had kept the back window intact, not that it would have mattered much. Whatever means Sam needed to stay alive, Dean accepted it.

"No." Sam's eyelids fell to half mast. "Not in so many words."

"Then how?"

"Ever seen a chicken with its head cut off?"

Dean's mouth went dry and he looked away, watched the two men stow the shovels and step aside to wait.

"Bevins' body is there. Conrad killed him, probably in a showdown – a game of chicken, except it wasn't enough. Wasn't good enough." Sam's voice grew softer, more pained. "Bevins was the chicken, except he didn't run. He just died. Too easy, too quick, Conrad didn't get to do it his way."

Dean pursed his lips, displeased by the glossy shine to his brother's eyes, the shivering that wracked his body despite the cab's increasing temperature. "We can come back and finish the job."

"No."

For a moment Dean gained a multi-sensory recollection of Sam as a frightened child, clutched to his side, pleading to be kept safe. The details faded to haze, but the desperation in his little brother's voice remained. Years had passed and now Sam pleaded for very little, he argued a hell of a lot, and brooded some, but rarely pleaded. Right now, his exclamation of opposition held an open plea. As did his eyes, dewy with pain and rich with need.

"Okay, we'll torch the place."

An hour later, fire licked the night sky. Embers rose in twisting spirals, and smoke gusseted the stars and blanketed out the sky. Heat radiated off the windshield and warmed the car without the need for the heaters. Good thing too, because they had used almost all the available gas as accelerant to start the fires.

Now they had their own private campfire, two storey's high and four buildings wide. The saloon, set off to one side and beside what must have been the bank, resisted combustion. It stood as a petulant smoldering shape in the night. Direct application of accelerant and flame failed to achieve anything other than acrid smoke. Rather than waste fuel on a lost cause, they had doused the other buildings, and now relied on the intense heat to achieve what they could not.

And it would. Even as Dean watched, flames laced fiery fingers across the saloon's roof, up under the verandah, around the skeletal structure of the gallows. Awe inspiring destruction: beautiful and terrifying. It held Dean transfixed, pinned him with a sense of dread, made it impossible to look away. Memories, recent and past, whittled through his mind: images of what had been, and of what might come. He lacked the strength for it, the courage and resilience to see it through… or to turn away. So he stared and he suffered.

He was not alone.

Brad stood by his SUV, arms folded, expression sorrowful: quiet and resigned – changed. Haunted. The man had experienced the loss of will, of self-determination. He had contributed in events too horrific for the mind to process, and now he had to try to move on. Dean pitied him, but had no energy for sympathetic gestures. Brad's future, his ability to cope with what had occurred, was not Dean's concern.

He rested his wrist on the steering wheel, fingers dangling, and shifted his gaze to his brother. Burnished light played across Sam's face, cast shadows into the sockets of his eyes, made him look gaunt and ill. This was no place for him, but whether they left right now, or waited another five minutes until the saloon was properly alight and gallows fully corrupted by fire, made no difference to Sam's injuries. He was in pain, but not in mortal danger. His body would heal, his mind may not.

But would watching the town burn bring Sam peace, offer a form of cathartic renewal – give him a buffer against the nightmares, the flashbacks, the emotional trauma that would come?

Dean just wasn't sure. Their lives, though violent and horrific and filled with events too difficult to endure, had not prepared them for brutal subjugation and torture. Nothing prepared a man for that.

The only way forward was with truth, as painful, unbearable, or as confronting as that might be. Recovery did not come in the form of candy coated lies.

"You know there's no way we can ever know for sure that Bevins is in there," Dean said. He kept his voice low, even though the windows were wound up. No point stirring Brad toward anger over the potentially needless destruction of the historic settlement. He wet his lips and added, "Not unless we trawl the place, and even then there's no guarantee."

"He's there."

"How do you know? Do you have some spidey sense thing going on? Precognition, or some Jennifer Love-Hewitt spirit connection."

"No."

"Cos if it is, then it'll come in handy."

"It's not."

"It'd give us the edge, better than an EMF, more reliable."

"No, just logic."

Dean nodded, his fingers tingling. "Geek boy logic?"

"Yeah." Sam shivered despite the heat in the car. He stared at the fire, at the gallows that glowed red. It would have been Sam's last conscious memory: the rope around his neck, the rough drag, the terrifying suspension… the pain.

Dean swallowed hard, his hand going to the ignition. His brother's soft voice stilled him.

"He's at peace now. They all are."

"I don't care what they are, as long as they can never come back."

"I care." Sam slurred, he shifted with a restless unease, his gaze skating off the fire and onto his lap. His mouth turned down, and his hands shifted beneath the blanket, no doubt going to his thigh, or the stitches in his abdomen, or the multitude of bruises, abrasions, wounds that bore testament to the abuse he had endured.

"You done here?" Dean tipped a hand toward the fire, and the wrist cast gleamed dull against the night. "Seen enough?"

Sam's head bobbed, it might have been an acknowledgement or the tug of unconsciousness. Either way, they had to move.

Dean wound down the window and shouted to the two men. "We're heading out. You right here?"

"Yeah, we'll stay till it's out." Brad sounded subdued, wearied. He rubbed at his face, avoiding his broken nose. "I'm sorry, for everything. I wish…." He cleared his throat and dropped his hand, let it fall to his side. "If there's ever anything I can do for you."

"Get a dozer in here and flatten the place. Make sure no-one ever builds on it."

"No-one comes out here."

"Not without an invitation, huh?"

Brad bowed his head. The man beside him looked between them, and looked away.

Dean watched them a moment longer, then wound up the window and took off. Dust kicked up behind them, no doubt smothering the two men in fumes and dirt, but he couldn't find it in his heart to care. Brad had been innocent, duped and controlled, but he had gotten away with nothing more than a lost investment. Sam had been tortured, beaten and terrorized, then lynched. Horror like that left scars, deep welts branded into the psyche, fodder for nightmares… or worse.

"Sammy, you still with me?"

"Hmm."

"You holding up okay?"

"Let's go to Vegas."

"Sure, okay. Once you're released from hospital."

"No, now." Sam's head tipped to the side, nudged against the window. His breathing seemed strained, hitched.

"Now, like right now?"

Another head bobble, less coordinated than the last.

"Hey, you're not planning on checking out on me." Dean slowed the car, worry fisting a hand into his chest. He waited, darkness pressing in close, fear matching it inch by inch. "Sammy?"

"Flamin' Nerd," Sam muttered, a half smile on his face. It faded quickly, replaced by a grimace. "On second thoughts." Sam caught his lower lip between his teeth and opened his eyes. They were moist with tears. "Vegas can wait. Hospital first."

"Really. You think?" Dean gunned the engine. "You're a stubborn bastard."

"Takes one."

"Shut up and breathe."

Sam might have laughed, or sobbed, it was sort of hard to tell. Dean regarded him anxiously, his chest tightening as Sam listed against the window, his eyes closed, face streaked with tears.

"Twenty minutes, Sammy, then you'll be back in bed, hooked up to all kinds of mind numbing hallucinogens. The good stuff."

It was actually forty minutes, because Sam insisted on Dean sneaking him back into the hospital in the same way he had gotten him out. Pointless really, Nurse Sondra, the red head who had let him use her computer to check on Brad, cornered them in the hallway and shepherded them back to the room. She gathered silence around her as a stony wall, similar to an English teacher Dean had in school, one that threatened corporal punishment but never followed through.

Today it seemed she might just follow through.

"Did you get it?" she asked once Sam was settled, his wounds checked, IV lines slipped back in place. She fussed over the young man, her voice low as Sam succumbed to exhaustion and pain relief.

Dean ignored the question and posed one himself. "He okay?"

She looked across at him, scanned up and down, settled on the leg, the way he favored one ankle and rested against the doorframe as though it was his new best friend. "Did you get it?"

"Get what?"

"The thing that did this?"

"Don't know what you mean. Sam wanted strawberry icecream on chocolate pancakes, there's this—"

"We are on the fifth story of secured building, the door was locked from the outside, no-one came in and no-one went out. Yet something drove a knife into Sam's thigh with such force that it severed his femoral artery. I know it wasn't you, and I know it wasn't human. So, tell me, did you get it?"

"This place needs better security."

"No, I need an assurance that you found it and you killed it."

"I told you—"

Sondra checked the monitors, and tugged the blankets up. She watched Sam's face, her voice low. "I've paged his doctor, she will run a thorough check. I've also requested for an orderly to bring a bed in here for you."

Dean listed against the doorframe, his ankle throbbing, the pain in his back wearing him down. "I told you, I took him out for pancakes."

"Yes, I'm sure you did." With a forced smile, she approached him, stopped beside him and pointed to the chair. "Sit down, the doctor will check you as well, your ankle could be broken."

"It's a sprain."

"It will need to be properly checked."

"In the morning. Just get her to check Sam. I'm fine.

"If it's broken—"

"It's not. I'd know if it was."

"Then at least let me check it."

He hesitated, reading the lines on her face, the age in her eyes. She was older than he first thought, and the irregular arch of one eyebrow wasn't from a misplucked hair, but from a thin scar. If he wasn't so tired, so drained, he might have wondered what she knew, what she had experienced. But he didn't, because it really didn't matter.

Fifteen minutes later she declared that he would live. He had a sprained ankle, re-opened stitches on his back and a rattle in his lungs. She fixed him up, set him up on an IV drip with only one less line than his brother's, and sat with him as it drew him down. The doctor had not yet arrived.

"I saw it." Sondra made notes on the chart in her hand, her head down. "Old style clothes, like those two-bit westerns. Expected him to have a six-gun and a horse, but he just had a knife."

Dean pulled himself upright and glanced at Sam. His brother slept, laying on his back, his face turned toward them. Peaceful. Safe.

"It got so cold, and the lights went out, just for a second, just long enough for him… for it to." She drew in a sharp breath, finished writing on the chart and straightened. "You need to rest, Sam's going to be fine."

"Thank you," Dean said.

She nodded, in a perfunctory school-maam sort of way, a gesture far beyond her youth, and left the room. Left Dean to his thoughts, his wonder, his confusion. Couldn't figure it out though, and quickly gave up.

"Vegas," he said to the quiet room and his sleeping brother. "It'll all make sense in Vegas. Everything makes sense in Vegas."

Then he fell asleep.

- The end -

Hope you enjoyed it! And, just a reminder for those who don't already know, there's a three day Supernatural convention on in Lawrence, Kansas on the first weekend in August. Check out www(dot)kazcon(dot)net for all the details. I hope to see you there!!