In the Mountains, Hidden Gold

"Hiking?"

"Yeah, Dean. Hiking."

"Seriously, dude, you talking about walking, like, just for the hell of it?"

"That's pretty much what hiking is, Dean." Sam stashed another rolled up shirt in his duffle and looked over his shoulder at his brother, who was similarly, if more messily, engaged. "Come on, man, it would do you good to get off your lazy ass and get some exercise that doesn't involve chasing after something with a load of rock salt."

"Hey, if it's exercise you want," Dean responded. "Why not just hit a gym somewhere? Do a few curls, some nautilus, maybe punch the heavy bag a while."

"Check out the women in tight leotards," Sam intoned.

Dean grinned lecherously. "Umm, leotards…"

Sam sniffed. "Look, I thought it might be nice to get a closer look at those mountains, that's all."

"Isn't there a road?"

"You know what, Dean? Never mind. Forget I mentioned it. We'd just be wasting time."

Sam turned back to his packing with a sigh. Missed the way Dean's gaze snapped toward him. Because that sigh didn't say Dean, you're an asshole or even whatever, man. Instead it carried a load of almost insupportable weariness.

Silence reigned for several minutes, broken only by the rustle of cloth and the scratch of a zipper closing.

"Ready, Sammy?" Dean asked at last. Then, casually, like there had never really been any question. "So, how far to these mountains?"

They had been traveling east, leaving both the heartache and the silliness of California behind. Had fetched up for the night in one of the endless chain of municipalities that bled into each other like bands on a spectrograph radiating out from the prism that was Phoenix, Arizona. Tempe. Maybe Scottsdale. Hard to tell, since the two seemed to leapfrog each other over the course of several disjointed blocks.

The main drag had tickled Dean. There was something oddly duplicitous about it. Coffee houses, new age bookstores, thematic shopping centers full of specialty shops and mini-resorts lined up cheek by jowl with shabby diners, adult bookstores, package liquor stores and cheap motels. Hell, there was even a biker bar.

Duplicitous might also describe the Arizona landscape, monotonously flat to jaggedly soaring with no visible transition. The distant mountains which had attracted Sam rose up on the horizon like a wall on the edge of the world, massy and ethereal at once first viewed through the evening haze. The Superstition Mountains. Maybe the irony appealed as much as the mountains themselves.

A leisurely breakfast—no need to hurry when the plan called for a day off of sorts—and the brothers hit the road. The Superstitions were only about 35-40 miles away, but Dean wanted to make a detour first.

North of Scottsdale, just off 101, was a big outfitter store, one of those monster stores on two stories with an indoor aquarium, cheesy dioramas sporting full-size animal sculptures and masses of stuff for sale for just about anything you could do in the great outdoors. Not by any means the sort of place the Winchesters normally frequented, not when military surplus stores carried most of what they needed in the way of weapons maintenance at dirt cheap prices. But they were short on some basic supplies that the outfitter would have in stock and that were not all that pricey to begin with—oil, patches, some Hoppe's solvent and a replacement nylon jag for cleaning the shotguns—and besides it was kind of fun to wander around and look at all the shit hunters (of the animal game persuasion) and yuppie sportsmen got off on.

Sam was bemused by the place, by Dean's choosing it, but while Dean spent a little time checking out the large selection of edged weapons, Sam pored over regional books and topo maps. He briefly considered buying a paperback entitled Haunted Arizona: Ghosts, Ghost Towns and Phantom Mines, just because he knew Dean would get a laugh out of it. But in the end he put it back on the rack and they left with nothing more than the gun cleaning supplies, a couple of bottles of water and a t-shirt Sam found on a mark-down rack that was a weird color, kind of dried blood brown, but was big enough to fit him.

By the time they navigated back around via Highway 60 East to the A-88 and reached Apache Junction, a sprawling town at the base of the Superstitions that appeared to be made up predominantly of mobile home parks, it was early afternoon and Dean insisted on fortification before physical activity.

"There," Sam barked suddenly, pointing at a sign off to the left of the road.

"'Goldfield Ghost Town'," Dean read, grinning crookedly. "Awesome."

Sam snorted. "I don't know about that, but at it'll probably have a visitor's center and a place to eat."

There was a visitor's center, which doubled as a museum, along with shops carrying antiques, western wear, turquoise jewelry and assorted Native American arts and crafts. Sam decided it was a good thing Dean was hungry or he probably would have insisted on visiting the museum, touring the abandoned mine works and maybe even panning for gold. God, Dean could be such a kid sometimes. Considering what their lives were like most of the time, though, that was kind of a miracle Sam really didn't want to fuck with.

For a buck fifty, the woman minding the visitor's center provided Sam with a printed flyer on some of the nearby hiking trails into the mountains and, for nothing, recommended the steakhouse for lunch. Since the only other choice was a coffee shop and bakery featuring soup and sandwiches, the steakhouse was clearly the way to go.

It proved to be a big, sprawling building with a staff that gave a whole new meaning to laid back. A short, thin man in jeans and a red plaid shirt pointed past the bar to an open door, told them they'd want to sit outside and said he'd come get their orders in a minute. So they plucked newsprint menus out of a basket and headed out onto a rough wooden deck sporting a number of picnic tables with checked oilcloth tablecloths. Dean ignored the tables in the shade of the building and made a beeline for a table in the sun by the railing around the deck. The early spring day had turned out sunny and clear, but a cool breeze kept it comfortable. Later in the summer, the heat would probably be inexorable.

Eventually, the waiter turned up and took their orders, returned quickly with their beers, then vanished in a way that told Sam their burgers might be a while in coming. Only after taking a deep swig of his beer did Sam finally allow himself to look out across the desert to a magnificent view of the mountains, the Superstition Range, rising up out of the desert in all its rough grandeur.

It was…stunning. Not beautiful in the smooth, almost femininely seductive manner of the old, green mountain ranges of the South, or even in the mysteriously neutral and remote manner of the snow-capped mountains of the Northwest. But beautiful in a raw, self-contained and distinctly masculine way. Not to be embraced. Not to be conquered. Just to be acknowledged.

Sam sensed more than saw Dean about to say something to him, only to catch himself abruptly, surprisingly, and leave him to his silent contemplation.

The arrival of their food, along with a second beer for each of them they hadn't even needed to ask for, finally broke the spell. The burgers were huge and a far cry from the anemic fast-food fare to which they were accustomed. Sam rolled his eyes at the super-sized bites Dean took out of his. Couldn't even close his mouth around them all the way until he had managed to chew and swallow about half of each mouthful. Dean was most of the way through his in the time it took Sam to eat half of his own.

Later, while they waited for their change, Sam went inside to the bathroom. When he returned, Dean was no longer seated at the table. Instead, he was squatting in front of the deck railing intent on something Sam couldn't see from the doorway. Curious, he moved closer and realized that his brother was, of all things, communing with a horse. A compact chestnut with black mane and tail, tacked up in a tooled western saddle and bridle, was tied to the railing. Since the ground dropped away some in the back of the restaurant, the horse's head was just about on the level of the middle of the three horizontal bars on the railing. Dean had his hand through the gap between the upper two and was stroking the animal's nose, murmuring soft words to it Sam couldn't make out.

"Your friend there has a way with horses," a voice sounded from behind him.

Sam looked around to see a man in levi's, a western shirt and well-worn shit-kickers straddling the bench of the table next to theirs, smoking and drinking a beer. He was in his fifties, maybe, or maybe a little younger. His sun-browned, leathery skin probably added years to his face, but he had a hard, wiry body and looked capable of just about any amount of hard work. Everything about him said "cowboy." Nothing about him was meant to.

"Yours?" Sam asked, nodding at the horse. "What's his, or is it her, name?"

"She's a mare," the cowboy answered. "Name's Harlot."

Sam had to laugh at that. "Okay, I guess that explains it."

Dean had not appeared to be following the conversation, but he stuck his left arm around his back and shot Sam the bird.

"Do much ridin' do ya?" the cowboy asked, aiming the question at Dean.

Dean rose to his feet and leaned sideways against the top rail. "Not in a long time," he answered. "Not since I was a kid."

Sam frowned. "I don't remember us ever riding horses when we were…"

His voice trailed off as something flickered across his memory. An image. Dean, maybe 10, 11 years old, climbing over a fence into a pasture with an apple tucked into his hand, coaxing a black horse that had appeared frighteningly large to Sam's 7-year old eyes as it approached his brother. Then, somehow, Dean was on the animal's back. With no saddle and only the horse's mane to hold onto, he had urged the beast into a gallop and ridden it across the open field. The sun struck sparks of gold and copper off Dean's hair and silvered the horse's coat. Looking for all the world like a centaur, a beast of myth and legend, boy and horse blended into one creature, running free under the sun. And Sam had held his breath, afraid Dean would fall. Even more afraid he would stop.

How much of the memory was factual and how much retouched in shades of time and love and longing he'd probably never know, but there was truth in the image.

Harlot whinnied shrilly and pawed at the dirt, apparently not at all pleased at no longer being the center of attention.

"There you see," he owner chuckled. "Demanding as a hundred dollar whore. Got an eye for the fellas, too. Won't give a woman the time of day. She and the wife can't abide each other. My Sally's a good old girl, though. Know's you don't come between a man and his horse. Just gotta teach Harlot here you don't come between a man and his wife neither. By the way, names Bud. Bud Parker."

"Dean Winchester," Dean replied, reaching out to shake the cowboy's hand. "This is my brother, Sam."

"Winchester, huh?" Bud mused. "Good name. Figured you might be brothers. Pleasure to meet ya. Just passing through?"

"Yeah," Dean answered. "We're planning to do a little hiking in the mountains, but then we'll be moving on."

"Now ain't that just what I've been warning you about, Harlot?" Bud said, pointing a finger at his mare. "Boys'll come around and make a big fuss over you and the next thing you know they're gone and your heart's broke again."

The mare whinnied again, as if she understood, and all three men shared a laugh. Sam found himself liking the cowboy. He could tell Dean did, too. Dean's easy charm hid an innate distrust and wariness of strangers you had to know him better than well to descry. Sam didn't see even a hint of it with Bud Parker. Maybe the man reminded Dean of their friend Bobby Singer--a similarly rough, earthy, honest man.

"Guess we better shag ass if we're gonna have time for that hike, Sam," Dean said. He shook Parker's hand again and leaned over the rail to tap Harlot on the nose one last time, grinning when she nickered at him softly.

Parker's voice followed after them, goodbye and good fortune. Sam thought about asking Dean to verify his memory of the horseback riding incident, but decided to let it go. It was a good memory just the way it was.

Instead, he ragged on Dean all the way back to car about his closet horse-whispering tendencies.

With the flyer from the information center spread out on his knees, Sam directed Dean to turn right at the entrance to Lost Dutchman State Park barely a half mile further east on 88-A.

"Dude, the Lost Dutchman?" Dean asked throwing Sam a startled look. "As in the gold mine?"

"Well, yeah," Sam responded. "Wait, you mean you didn't know? That the Superstitions were where the mine's supposed to be?"

Dean shifted uneasily. "Course I knew that," he insisted. "I just…forgot. Okay, Encyclopedia Brown, wipe that look off your face before I reach over there and do it for you. You're so smart, why don't you put your freaky brain to work finding that mine?"

Sam couldn't keep the grin off his face and didn't try. Dean wasn't even really pretending to be pissed off. He was just playing with Sam. Okay, Sam could play, too.

"That would be a total waste of time, Dean," Sam pontificated in his most irritatingly superior tone, the one he knew drove Dean crazy. "First of all, there is no real proof the mine ever existed. Some people believe Jacob Waltz, who, by the way, was German, not Dutch, either stole some gold that had already been mined and hidden in a cave or that he got it by pilfering ore from the Vulture Mine, where he worked for a while. Second, some scientists say it isn't likely the Superstitions contain gold ore in any quantity because of the geology of the area. Third, even if the mine does exist, people have been searching for it since Waltz died in the late 1800's and no one has found any sign of it yet. And…"

"Okay, okay," Dean interrupted. "Enough, man. I get the picture. Too bad, though. A gold mine would pay for a lot of ammo."

Sam snorted. Who else but his brother would equate striking it rich with buying ammo?

The entrance to the State Park consisted of a small hut in the middle of the road, beyond which the roadway split in two different directions. Dean grumbled audibly when the ranger informed them there was a $5.00 parking charge for day hikers, although the man redeemed himself a little, at least, by the admiring looks he threw at the Impala.

Sam navigated Dean through the rather circuitous route to the parking area at the main trailhead. The desert stretched away in front of them, stark but not unlovely with its tangles of low-lying brittle bush and cholla cactus, interrupted here and there by towering saguaro. The lively spring breeze hissed through the brush and flapped their shirt sleeves. Ahead, the earth rose gently for a space and then unleashed the mountains towards the sky. They were much closer here, had a weight and presence Sam could almost feel. Gravitas, acting on him like a sort of inverse gravitational field, pulling him forward and up rather than down.

They weren't exactly equipped for hiking. Sam exchanged his sneakers for work boots, but neither of them owned actual hiking boots. Duffles made awkward packs and the closest thing they had to a hat for protection from the sun was a frayed, grease-stained ball cap advertising some Minnesota micro-brew that had been kicking around in the trunk for who knew how long. But this wasn't going to be a long hike, just a few recreational miles up and back, so provisions were superfluous. Sam took one of the bottles of water he had picked up at the outfitter and made a makeshift shoulder strap from an extra belt on which to carry it. Left it at that.

"Ready?" he asked Dean, who was leaning on the front of the car tapping out some half-recognizable rhythm on the hood while he waited patiently. Well, patiently for Dean anyway.

"Lead on Pocahontas," Dean said grandly. "This is your party."

From the parking lot, a feeder trail ran for a quarter of a mile or so and then intersected with a couple of different routes. The trail Sam chose, Siphon Draw, wound across the desert in the general direction of the mountains, ultimately heading toward a peak topped by a striking formation called the Flatiron. At one point the trail slid near private property, a few impressive homes just off state lands, before turning away again and gradually beginning its ascent into the draw itself. Soon thereafter, they found themselves hemmed in on the left by a vertical wall of rust-colored rock, while a scree of tumbled boulders the size of trucks stretched between the trail and the cliff to the right .

Sam stopped and looked up toward the Flatiron, feeling his heart expand into the stark majesty. He was vaguely aware of Dean, who stood beside him briefly and then wandered off to the right of the trail to clamber onto a shelf of rock and look out over the expanse of the Salt River Valley, back the way they had come.

Sam had a sudden, overwhelming urge to partake of the solid mass of the mountain. He climbed the short, brush-covered slope to the left of the trail until it ended at the base of the wall and laid his hands against rough, sun-warmed rock. After a moment, he turned around and pressed his back against the mountain, arms splaying out at his sides and fingers curling around slight protrusions and declivities in the stone. He closed his eyes, felt the warm solidity behind him and the cool breeze riffling through his hair, heard the hiss of the wind in the dry brush and the hums and chirps of insects and birds. It made him feel small, but not diminished; alone, but not bereft.

How long he stood there, just being, he couldn't have said, but eventually the spell was broken by a clatter of sound and he opened his eyes to see Dean leaping onto the trail from the top of a boulder in a small rain of stones. Dean looked up the trail and Sam saw him wrinkle his forehead when he failed to spot his brother immediately. He didn't look worried, not yet anyway. Just…incomplete.

"Up here, Dean," Sam called.

Dean turned to the left, caught sight of Sam braced against the side of the mountain.

"What are you doing up there, Sammy?" he asked, a huge grin spreading over his face.

"Nothing, Dean." Too many words needed to answer that, and none of them needing to be said.

Sam pushed away from the mountainside and skidded back down the slope to the trail. He fetched up next to Dean, who clapped him on the shoulder and then reached for the water bottle and took a long swig. He handed it to Sam, who took a deep pull on the bottle himself, only now realizing how thirsty he had become.

"So, you wanta keep going?" Dean queried. "Try to make it up to that, what d'you call it, flat tire?"

"Flatiron," Sam corrected automatically, although he could tell from the twinkle in his brother's eyes that Dean had known the right name all along. "No, I don't need to. We can go back now."

"Your call, Jeremiah."

The hike back seemed to take much less time, but that was usually the way of it. A few hundred yards shy of the junction where the Siphon Draw trail met the main trail to the parking area, Sam stopped and turned back toward the mountains one last time, wanting to drink in the sight and fix it in his memory. No way of knowing if they would ever be back this way again.

He heard Dean walk on and few steps and then stop and return to stand just behind his right shoulder.

"Beautiful," Sam said quietly, and waited for Dean to come back with something like for a freakin' pile of rock or whatever you say, nature boy.

But all Dean said was, "Yeah."

And it hit Sam right then. Nothing he didn't already know, just sometimes lost sight of when things were at their worst. Something Dean had been reminding him of all day just by being Dean. Yes, the mountains were beautiful and the hike had helped in some small way to loosen some of the knots in his soul. But he hadn't really needed to go to the mountains to find something solid to put his back up against. The only thing he had ever needed for that was right there at his side.