In California's Mother Lode, Sam pits himself against a malevolent spirit, while an injured Dean unravels the mystery of a little girl's murder.

A/N: This story takes place in Season 2, between "Road Kill" and "Heart," and includes spoilers for both episodes, particularly "Road Kill." I took liberties with time, assuming "Road Kill" to have taken place in April, and "Heart" to have taken place in June.

There are also spoilers for other episodes, particularly "Devil's Trap," "In My Time of Dying" and "Born Under a Bad Sign."

Coarse language abounds in "Rush," and at least one person breaks the Third Commandment. Perhaps others, too—people and Commandments. It's never my intention to offend, and I hope I don't.

Disclaimer: I make no claim on Supernatural, its concept or its characters, which do not belong to me. No copyright infringement is intended, and I make no profit from these efforts.


Chapter One

"Daniel Alan Matson!"

The little brown-haired boy and his friend were playing under the big tree in the park, laughing and shrieking beneath its sturdy limbs when they heard his mother's strident call.

"Danny! If I have to tell you one more time to get in the car before your father is ready to leave…" The threat was left hanging, but Danny recognized the end of play-time nonetheless.

"I gotta go," he said, panting a little from the impromptu game of tag. "'Bye!"

He shoved his friend lightly on the shoulder as a token of young affection and turned to meet his mother, who stalked angrily toward him from the street.

"I'm coming, Mom!" he said, but she was already there under the shade of the old oak, her firm hand on his shoulder giving him a little shake.

"We aren't going to be home for another four hours, young man. What did I tell you about getting dirty?"

Julie Matson squatted beside her son, clucking as she wiped the sweat off his brow and fussed at the fresh stains on his t-shirt. "Danny, you're a mess!" she exclaimed. "How on earth did you get so filthy so fast?"

"We were just playing, Mom," the seven-year-old said with a shrug, fidgeting under her ministrations before twisting with a grin and waving. "'Bye!" he said again.

Julie frowned, tossing a look over her son's shoulder but seeing nothing more than the scarred trunk of the oak. An icy breath of air swirled suddenly around her, and she shivered at its strange caress.

"Who are you talking to?" she asked, getting slowly to her feet, eyes uneasily searching the empty park. If there was some damned pedophile after her kid--

"Her." Danny pointed to a spot beneath the tree, and Julie's frown deepened, her grip tightening on the little boy's arm.

"Danny, you know I don't like it when you lie to me," she said, and he turned a pouting face up to her.

"Mom!" he whined. "I'm not lying! We were just playing!"

"When we get home, you're going straight to bed. No TV, no Xbox, no anyth—"

She felt the air around her chill again suddenly, this time mostly to her right and accompanied by an odd creaking sound. Julie stepped back nervously, drawing her son with her as she looked up at the tree, her eyes widening.

She couldn't scream, her breath clogging her throat, but she clutched at Danny and pulled him close, smothering him against her as he squawked in muffled protest.

On his way out of the sandwich shop, Brent Matson tucked his billfold into his back pocket with one hand and reached for the car with the other, surprised to find the door handle locked.

"Julie?" He stooped a little to look inside, expecting to find his wife and son buckled up and ready to go, but the car was empty. He made a hasty scan of the street, finally spotting Julie and Danny standing under the tree in the park, looking at some sort of bag caught in the branches. Danny's arms were flapping as his mother held him tight against her.

"Hey!" Brent called to them, feeling his anger flare. They should have been on the road thirty minutes ago, and this was no time to be playing. "Let's go!"

Julie cast him a frantic look, and Brent could see the terror on her face even from halfway down the block.


He moved quickly toward them, frowning as his attention was drawn from his family to the long bag of dark rags hanging oddly from the tree.

Holy shit!

Brent began to run, protective arms encircling his wife and son when he reached them, staring up in horrified awe at the man's body dangling from a sturdy oak branch. There was enough of a breeze that the corpse swayed slightly, the rope creaking as it rubbed across bark.

"Don't look, Danny! Don't look!" Julie moaned piteously, her own eyes riveted to the grisly sight.

Brent felt his jaw drop open as the pajama-clad body twisted slowly in the wind until he was looking directly up into the bloated face; could see the mottled skin, the protruding tongue. Beside him, Julie looked up, too.

They screamed together when the dead man's eyes opened.

-:- -:- -:-

The drive shouldn't have taken more than an hour or so, but once Dean was conked out in the back seat, Sam kept his foot light on the accelerator, taking the winding curves slow and easy, allowing himself to decompress. The past two weeks had been hard going, both physically and emotionally. Spiritually, too, if he allowed himself to think that way—Molly McNamara had asked poignant questions that still made him uncomfortable, mostly because he and his brother had had no answers.

They still didn't know what happened when people were put to rest, still didn't know what happened to spirits when they finally let go. Still could only hope that everyone moved on to someplace better.

Everyone except their dad….

Whatever else remained a mystery, Sam knew to his soul that John Winchester had consigned himself to Hell to save his oldest son, and by that very act he had taken Dean along with him. Sam himself was maybe destined for darkness, too, if they believed the signs. Believed their dad.

Dean wouldn't, Sam knew. No matter what their old man had told him, Dean couldn't bring himself to accept there might be evil in his beloved little brother, and for that unquenchable faith Sam was grateful. But it didn't change the facts, and if the facts were that he went dark-side, then Sam needed Dean to end him.

Which brought them right back around to what happened next, and there were still no answers. But today, without realizing he had done so, Sam chose not to think about past and next, accepting for a little while that sometimes there was peace in ignorance, serenity in forgetting. For now, there was just now.

The route he followed had taken them by interstate down the hill from Reno, then northwest at Colfax into the heart of California's Mother Lode country. There was still snow on the higher elevations, but the day was looking beautiful, all blue sky and sunshine befitting early May in the Sierras. There was fresh growth on the scrub oaks and manzanitas, and here and there Sam thought maybe the poppies were already opening. The early-morning sun spiked obliquely through the pines, throwing long shadows across the foothills into the canyons.

He'd breezed right past the Donner Party Memorial without even slowing down, keeping an eye on the rearview mirror, alert for both the CHP and for any sign that his brother was in pain.

It was hard seeing Dean in the mirror without flashing back to that night after Jefferson City, Dad in the passenger seat with a bullet in his leg and Dean propped hollow-eyed and boneless against the door in the back, torn up inside by the yellow-eyed demon, telltale blood drooling from his mouth. Just before the truck hit....

Sam blinked, determinedly brushing the memory away.

Dean definitely looked uncomfortable, jammed against the driver's-side rear door, right leg stretched out across the seat, head bobbing on his chest as he slept. The scrapes on his face had scabbed over and the bruises were already fading, but the knee-brace was going to be a part of him for the next several weeks.

The ER doctor had prescribed complete bed-rest and heavy meds for at least four days, but Dean had insisted on leaving Elko a mere six hours after Sam himself had slid the dislocated kneecap back into place. Sam had managed to keep his brother at the clinic just long enough for a quick McMurray test and to see the x-ray results—there was a potential tear in the medial meniscus, but no breaks in the patella. Still, any fool could tell that a brace wasn't a bad idea, if Dean ever wanted to walk normally and pain-free again. It was his third dislocation of that same knee, after all, not to mention other previous damage.

"It doesn't hurt that bad," the older brother had wheedled from the examination table, more than a little stoned from the painkiller the doctor had given him. "I can probably walk on it—no offense, doc, but can we please just get the hell out of here? C'mon, Sammy. This is no way to spend your birthday."

Dean had made it abundantly clear that there was no way in hell he'd be wearing shorts during his recuperation, so the full-length brace fitted snugly over his jeans. The metal uprights were held in place by four padded Velcro straps, one high on his thigh, two others just above and below his knee, and the last one at his ankle. Although the brace could be set to allow a full range of motion, Dean's was currently locked to keep his knee extended straight for a week. Sam thought it looked ridiculous.

He also bet it hurt like a sonofabitch.

They'd stocked up on OxyContin and those awesomely handy instant cold-packs, set up an appointment they had no intention of keeping with the orthopedic surgeon for the following Tuesday, and hit the road for Reno. They'd found a motel just outside of town and holed up, Sam hoping to stay long enough for Dean to get his feet back under him, figuratively speaking, and long enough for Sam's hands to forget what it felt like shoving his brother's kneecap back where it belonged.

But Bobby had called the second afternoon, and Sam had agreed to investigate the old gold mine out of a simple desire to protect his own sanity. Dean stuck in Nevada, loopy on painkillers and pissed as hell that he'd be wearing some kind of brace for three or four weeks was a combination to try the patience of a saint, and Sam had never claimed to be any such thing. He'd called Bobby's contact to tell him they were coming, and forced his brother to get one more night's recuperative sleep in the cheap motel. Then Sam had stowed everything carefully in the Impala, Dean included, and headed over the pass into California.

The two-lane state route that led from Colfax farther into the back-country was narrow and winding all the way to Grass Valley, and Sam eased the Impala into the turns with unhurried grace.

Spring had hit the foothills fast, he thought idly, noting how prolific the pine pollen was. It was everywhere—on the bushes, on the buildings, even on the pavement. The closer they got to Rattlesnake, the more yellow the road appeared, a saffron-colored dust powdering the ground in windswept eddies. It had been unnerving at first, until he'd figured out what it was.

They weren't due to meet their client in Rattlesnake until ten, and even if he stuck to the local roads, avoiding Highway 49, they'd be at the mine by nine-thirty, nine-forty at the latest. The leisurely pace seemed warranted as Sam let himself be lulled by memories of the last time he'd been in the Mother Lode.

He and Jess had taken the historic route through the Gold Rush country on a long, lazy weekend just before Christmas of their first year together. They'd both finished finals early and Sam had borrowed a buddy's car, making reservations at a bed-and-breakfast in Nevada City, surprising Jess with the romantic gesture. It had cost him a small fortune but was worth every penny when he saw the light it brought to her eyes, the appreciative joy to her smile.

It was when he had first realized that maybe she was the one.

That night, they'd enjoyed a candle-lit dinner, caught a play at the local repertory theater, and strolled arm in arm down the sidewalks decorated with gas lamps and pine boughs, laughing and holding one another close in the chill December air. After that, they'd pretty much spent the entire weekend in their room, in bed, until it was time to head back to Palo Alto with all the ski traffic. Jess would be celebrating Christmas with her family, and Sam would stay in his dorm room. She'd invited him to join her, of course—her parents wouldn't mind, she'd sworn—but Sam had declined, not yet certain how he felt about spending holidays with families other than his own. Not that his family observed holidays, exactly, and maybe that was why he'd felt uneasy about celebrating with others.

There sure wasn't any chance he'd be seeing his brother or father. His last conversation with Dean hadn't ended well, and the one with Dad—well, there were worse things than spending Christmas alone, Sam knew. So that's what he'd do.

Lost in memories, Sam almost missed the turnoff to Rattlesnake, the road winding steeply up out of the river canyon, and he ended up taking the curve a little more sharply than he would have preferred. Dean shifted in the back seat, off-kilter and waking with a start, arms thrashing to catch himself as his body lurched left.

-:- -:--:-

In that unbalanced moment between oblivion and consciousness, Dean was airborne, once again a human pinball being hurled headlong, smashing his way down the staircase of the Browns' haunted house, once again feeling the dreadful pop and pulsing agony as his knee came apart.

He opened his mouth to scream on a sharp intake of breath.

And woke up, his flailing hand finding and latching onto the Impala's front seat.

"Whazzit?" he blurted in alarm, eyes wide, back straightening as he glanced rapidly around him.

What big brother didn't know about how Sam was driving wouldn't hurt him, the younger Winchester decided. No harm, no foul.

"Hey, Dean, we're almost there," Sam said brightly before letting his tone slide into something a little more sympathetic. "How you doing?"

Dean blinked twice, having difficulty focusing as the trees swept by, the car moving swiftly through alternating shadow and light. He slouched against the door with a grimace, scrubbing at his eyes with his right hand, the left still gripping the back of the driver's seat.

"This is so not the way I'm used to using this back seat, Sammy," he groaned, wincing as he resettled his injured leg. The brace kept it from bending at all, and the sole of his boot was wedged against the far door. "I think my ass is asleep."

Sam didn't exactly grimace, but he felt his mouth tighten with distaste. "Less I hear about any of that, the happier I'm gonna be, Dean," he said dryly.

"Dude, what the hell! Stop the car!"

Sam slammed on the brakes, the Impala fishtailing slightly before rocking to a halt in the middle of the road.

"Jesus, Dean! What?" Sam threw the car into park and turned awkwardly in his seat to glare over his shoulder at his brother. The frown-line between Dean's brows was deep as he stared wide-eyed out the window.

"Don't you see it?" he asked incredulously. "It's everywhere!"


No matter where he looked, there was yellow dust, like some demon army had swarmed through and left the telltale sign of its vile presence on every available surface. Even as he watched, he could see it sifting down from somewhere, eddying in the apparent breeze to form a thin, growing layer on the Impala, turning her shiny black a subtle gold.

Dean felt as though he'd been sucker-punched, the air forced from his lungs as he struggled to breathe, to figure out what it might mean.

Oh, Christ—Sammy in Texas!

Fighting now not to panic, Dean sought his brother's eyes.

"What are you doin', Sam?" he growled, voice hoarse with dread. "Where are you taking us?"

But Sam's angry glare dialed down to confused and concerned, then flew past sudden comprehension to end up at mildly apologetic. Clear hazel, anyway. Maybe he was even trying not to laugh, and Dean's chest loosened just a little as he finally caught a breath of air.

"It's not sulfur, Dean, I swear to you."

Sam fought hard to keep the grin off his face, knowing exactly why Dean was freaked and not really blaming him one bit. In fact, if their positions were reversed, Sam was pretty sure he'd feel the same way. Plus, his brother was pretty much still doped to the gills with OxyContin, and it was kind of like taking unfair advantage.

Still, it was a little funny…

'It's pollen, Dean."

Dean stared into his eyes a moment longer before the words hit and the older man blinked.

"Say what?"

Nodding, Sam shrugged one shoulder. "It's pine pollen. Said back at the gas station that they hadn't seen it like this in 20 years. Relax, would you?"

It took another ten seconds or so, but Dean finally slumped back against the door, dropping his head to his chest with a weary shake before turning to look out the side window again.

"I gotta tell you, Sammy, I could've sworn…" He huffed a laugh, rubbing a hand over his eyes, wincing. "Last time I'm taking Ox, I swear it."

Sam turned back around and shifted into gear, running the wipers twice to clear the windshield of yellow before setting the Impala in motion once again. "It's not the meds, Dean. But you keep jumping into situations with both guns blazing, and you're gonna have to take the consequences. You're going through painkillers like they were candy."

"You sayin' I'm reckless?" Anger threatened in Dean's voice, and Sam felt his lips tighten again.

"No," he said softly. "I'm saying that I just don't like seeing you hurt."

Green eyes met hazel in the rear-view mirror, and at last Dean nodded, tension draining from his face.

"So," he said, looking back out at the road. "Pollen, huh? Sure as hell looks like sulfur to me."

-:- -:- -:-

Bobby hadn't said much about their client's problem, but his directions had been perfect—no surprise, there—and the brothers found the North Cedar Mine easily enough, tucked back into the trees several miles out of town, on a narrow road that wound through tall pines and scrub oak past a motley collection of houses and outbuildings.

When they reached the proper driveway, however, the forest opened considerably to what had clearly once been a major mining operation. Scattered across the wide gravel expanse were various pieces of rusted equipment—truck cabs, ore-carts and iron rails—abandoned amidst a number of barn-like buildings. A tall, slanted structure built of heavy lumber and rusted metal bracings, vaguely reminiscent of a gallows, rose beside one of the barns, which had been paneled with sheets of corrugated steel that rattled faintly in the morning breeze. Piles of granite slag were heaped along the far side of the yard, where another odd piece of equipment loomed among the trees, reminding Sam vaguely of a gigantic butter churn.

"I think that's the stamp-mill," he said mostly to himself, pointing with his chin. "Local hard-rock gold is in quartz veins inside the granite; they used the stamps to crush the quartz, make it easier to get at the gold."

But Dean was in no mood for lecture or conjecture.

"Where's the guy we're supposed to see?" he grumbled, and Sam pulled the Impala over the gravel and parked beside the most-likely building.

He got out of the car, stepping away and swinging his arms to loosen up, scanning the yard and the surrounding tall pines. He could hear the rush of the breeze high above him, and somewhere, a blue-jay scolded sharply. He'd read once that mines like the North Cedar had denuded acres and acres of forest with their incessant need for wood, burning thousands of trees to convert water to steam power for the nonstop business of retrieving gold from the earth's bowels. Here, it looked like those days were long-since past.

Behind him, Dean was struggling to get out of the car, awkward in the brace with his leg locked straight and still muzzy from the painkillers Sam had forced on him in the early morning.

Sam knew better than to interfere—God help him if he tried to offer a hand. In another week or so, his brother could start using a soft brace to support the injured knee, but for now, it looked like they were both going to have to suffer. No matter how much Sam might want to help, sometimes it was just better to let Dean do on his own whatever it was he wanted to do.

"Hey!" a man's voice called to them from inside the screen door of the mine office. "Sam and Dean, right? Man, am I glad to see you guys!"

-:- -:- -:-

Steve Hartson was in his mid-30s and kinda nondescript, Dean thought. Brown hair, brown eyes, short and stocky. Not fat, exactly, but he clearly suffered from spending too many hours behind a desk. Like he was doing now, with the Winchester brothers sitting across from him, Sam leaning forward attentively and Dean—well, at least Dean was upright. Mostly.

Steve had played baseball back in the day, though, Dean noted idly, taking in the old trophies on the bookcase. Couple of certificates on the walls—some kind of engineering degree from University of Montana and an MBA from Vanderbilt, just the kind of thing to make Sammy feel at home with him. More importantly, though, to Dean's way of thinking, was that the present owner of the North Cedar gold mine seemed like a regular guy, the kind of guy you could have a beer with, shoot the shit after a hard day's work, maybe grill some steaks out in the backya--.

Dean blinked, his eyes slowly refocusing, then pulled himself upright in the chair again while Sam gave him a quick look that read…well, it read, "Straighten up, jerk," which was exactly what Dean was trying to do. The smile he gave Sam in return was a little lopsided, and mostly sarcastic.

Little brother was doing all the fact-finding, which suited Dean just fine. The oxycodone was starting to wear off, the throb around his knee beginning to sharpen, but he was still a little fuzzy on the details of what had brought them to the historic mining town of Rattlesnake in the first place. All things considered, he was content to let Sam take the lead.

"The state inspector is coming up from Sacramento tomorrow, and she's going to want to go all the way down to the Forty-Eight," Hartson said cryptically. He seemed nervous, twiddling a mechanical pencil in his right hand. "I just want to make sure that everything's…safe. Bobby Singer said you'd know what I mean."

Sam nodded, sliding his eyes again at his brother. Dean still looked a little out of it, but Sam could see he was at least trying to pay attention. Struggling, but game.

"We do, Mr. Hartson," the younger man said, "but we're kinda short on details. What exactly has been happening here?"

Hartson shifted uncomfortably, and Dean cleared his throat.

"It's all right, Steve," he drawled, voice lazy and nonchalant. "Bobby sent us, remember? Nothing you tell us is going to surprise us, believe me."

Hartson gave each of them a second once-over, eyes pausing briefly on Dean's knee-brace. Watching him closely, Sam saw the exact moment that the mine-owner realized he was desperate and had nowhere else to turn.

"I don't know where to start, exactly…" he said.

"Try the beginning," Sam suggested, suddenly doubting his decision to bring his brother to Rattlesnake. "And can we look at the mine?"

-:- -:- -:-

They'd seen the headframe when they drove in, of course—the tall, slanted wooden structure looming over the yard like a gallows. Now they learned that it sat directly beside the opening of the main shaft, its massive cabling connected to the heavy ore-skips and to the lighter-weight man-skips that had taken miners down on rails into the darkness and brought them back out again.

The Winchesters stood with Steve Hartson at the North Cedar shaft's collar. The tunnel beyond the throat-like opening dropped steeply into the earth, railroad tracks laid out along both sides to handle the skips, long electrical cords snaking away into the depths, naked bulbs dangling from them to provide scant light on the way down. The collar wasn't wide—maybe thirty feet across—and the brothers could see that the shaft narrowed slightly as it went.

Steve told them a lot of history, most of which Dean let pass because it was obvious the mine-owner was stalling, simply too nervous to get started on the real story yet, and because Sam was drinking it all up like the geek-boy sponge he was. Dean was focused on the steep tunnel that plunged into the hard-rock before him—with the brace on his leg, he couldn't see how he'd be going down into the mine any time soon, except maybe by falling.

Fucking knee, he thought grimly. Like hell he was going to let Sam out of his sight much, not after their recent wild-ass experiences with demons and demi-gods. Sammy possessed; Dean shot; effing Trickster making fools of them—no way he was leaving them open for something like that again, new protection charms from Bobby or not. Where one brother went, the other was going, too. But this fucking knee…

Some of what Steve was saying sank in, however, at least for the time being—the mine-owner was clearly excited about his family history and it livened his story-telling, no matter how dry the details. Still, Dean wished the guy would just cut to the chase.

The North Cedar Mining Company had been established right after the first gold-strike in Rattlesnake, back in 1850, Steve told them. Leland Hartson had almost immediately become the principal shareholder, owning 98 percent of what turned out to be the third highest-producing gold mine in California over the next century.

The mine had operated full-tilt well into the 1950s, ownership passing down through the Hartson family, who had become, understandably, pillars of Rattlesnake society.

It had been Steve's grandfather's decision to shut down operations in 1954, after it became more expensive to mine the ore than the profit warranted. There had been no buyers, and the North Cedar had fallen into abandon, Rattlesnake drying up with it, until Steve had inherited the mine upon his father's recent passing.

"Sorry to hear about your dad," Sam murmured, cutting his eyes at Dean. Even with months gone by, John Winchester's death continued to haunt them both, Dean in particular, the subject still more painful than either of them cared to admit. At the moment, however, Sam's brother seemed distracted by the man-skip on the rails beside them. Made of wood and iron, it was basically a toboggan on wheels designed to carry crews up and down the main shaft. Interesting, yeah, but Sam wondered whether Dean's failure to focus on Steve's story was the result of design or fortune—or still the aftermath of that morning's meds.

"I don't get it," the older brother said abruptly, stirring from his apparent reverie. "You're looking to reopen? To mine more gold?"

Steve shook his head. "No, although I'm sure there's plenty left down there. There's even new technology to leach more ore out of the tailings, too, but it's really cost-prohibitive. No, truth is, I want to turn the North Cedar into a sort of…well, a park, I guess. A tourist attraction, even better than the Empire Mine over in Grass Valley. Chamber wants to revitalize Rattlesnake by making the most out of its history, and the North Cedar is basically what turned a shithole mining camp—pardon my language—into a town. If I can get it up to snuff, and get the proper clearances and permits, the mine can be a huge tourist draw."

"Chamber?" Dean asked through the thinning narcotic haze.

"The Rattlesnake Chamber of Commerce," Steve explained. "It's a bunch of the merchants, you know; most of us have ties to Rattlesnake going back generations. But we've got some new people on the board—I'm one of them, and the Markhams are back in town, now, sort of. Anyway, we've got some ideas about infusing life back into Rattlesnake."

"You want to turn the town into a mining Disneyland," Dean said dryly, and Sam cleared his throat, shooting his brother a chastising glare. Play nice, Dean. This guy's paying.

"Sounds interesting," the younger man said. "There are already lots of tourists through here in summer, I'm sure, and you must get some of the winter ski traffic."

Steve nodded enthusiastically. "We're trying to really put Rattlesnake on the map as a tourist destination, like so many of the other little towns here in Gold Rush country," he began. "Right now, people coming up Highway 49 spend an hour here, an hour there—they'll hit the antique shops in Sutter Creek and Amador; have lunch in Auburn; drive on up to Downieville. Like that, you know? Then they turn around and go home. If they stop over, mostly they do it in Grass Valley or Nevada City, or Placerville, so those are the places that do the best commercially for the broadest spectrum of merchants."

"You're a little off the highway for most people, I'd guess," Sam ventured. "Gotta have a big draw."

"If I can accomplish what I want to with the mine, I think we've got a shot," Steve replied. "Maybe even without the North Cedar. The Markhams are reopening the old hotel this fall; the Scotchbroom Café has been totally redesigned; we've got a couple of antique shops open, now, and an art gallery. The Historical Society has a first-rate exhibit of local artifacts at the museum. Go downtown, if you haven't already, and you'll see some of the merchants in period costume, so we can really transport people back to the mining-camp days, let them see what it was like to be here in the heyday of the Gold Rush. Reopening the North Cedar the way I want—people will actually be able to ride down into the mine and genuinely experience what the miners did in the early days. The tourists are going to love it!"

He paused to take a breath, about to plunge on, but Dean intervened.

"Except?" the older Winchester asked simply, and Steve's face fell with astonishing immediacy.

"Except…" The mine-owner pursed his lips, dropping his eyes to the dark expanse before them, speaking into the emptiness. "Except that I'm afraid."

Sam felt Dean shift uncomfortably beside him, trying to take some of the weight off his aching knee.

"Afraid of what?" the younger man asked, and although his voice was quiet, it carried down into the mine's throat, echoing there.

"I'm afraid there might be ghosts." Steve's answer was whispered, and then Dean grinned wolfishly, rubbing his hands together with glee.

"Now we're talkin'!"

-:- -:- -:-

Despite the mine-owner's obvious case of nerves, he actually had very little to say about why he had called Bobby, asking for help. Through the years, a few workers and visitors to the North Cedar had reported odd noises and funny feelings, none of which Steve Hartson had personally experienced. Not really, anyway. Still, he needed to cover all his bases before starting to work in earnest on the would-be tourist attraction. Surely the Winchesters could check things out and reassure him that nothing untoward was going to happen to any paying customers.

Sam felt his own uneasiness leach away as he thought about the anxiety prevalent in human nature. Dark places deep underground had a tendency to make people apprehensive, whether or not there was anything supernatural going on, and it was quite likely that the North Cedar wasn't haunted at all. It would be no trouble to give the mine a thorough going-over, maybe leave a few wards in the main passages to make Steve more comfortable about what Sam was going to charge him for the job, let Dean have a few days to rest up--

But Dean apparently had the heebie-jeebies, standing at his brother's side at the collar of the main shaft, staring down into the narrow tunnel that dropped steeply into the earth at their feet, his enthusiasm gone entirely upon hearing what Sam had planned.

"I don't like it, Sammy. You're not going down there by yourself."

"Dean, we've got to check it out, and you can hardly walk on flat ground, let alone down a mine-shaft. I don't see what other choice we have."

Steve handed Sam a white plastic safety helmet, then tossed his own between both hands. "It's really very safe down below," he said. "In over a hundred years of mining, we lost less than two dozen men. It's hard rock, Dean, so you don't have to worry about cave-ins."

"Oh, believe me, it's not cave-ins I'm worried about," Dean muttered, shooting Sam a black look.

"Fine," Sam said, his see-how-patient-I'm-being-about-your-ridiculous-behavior face firmly in place as he held out the safety helmet. "You want to go down, you can do it. But you have to wear this."

Dean's scowl grew darker. "Over my dead body."

"Sorry, Dean," Steve said. "Safety regulation numero uno—the helmet's a requirement."


Sam huffed a sigh, a little surprised at himself that he hadn't expected Dean to make trouble. "Well," he said, considering his options. "We've got to have someone up top to make sure the hoist is running smoothly. One bell for stop; two for reverse, right, Steve?"

"That's it. But there's no need for Dean to stay here—we can operate the cables from below. For that matter, if something went wrong, we could just climb back up, although that would be kind of a problem for someone as tall as you are, Sam."

Sam had begun to grin at the look on Dean's face when his brother heard he could be relegated to backup status. Now he felt his own brow crinkle as he realized Steve was right—he was going to be damned uncomfortable slouching forward to keep his head from smacking granite in the low-ceilinged passageway.

"How long's it take to actually get down in there?" Dean asked, peering with distaste into the dim, open maw of the shaft. The whole gullet-like thing the mine had going had him feeling more than a little uncomfortable, although he'd seen his share of deep, dark places.

"The first descent in the skip just takes a few minutes," Steve said. "After that, we have to walk along the main tunnel for another couple minutes or so until we get to the first drift, which is called the Thirty-Six. That's one of the places where some people have—" He took a quick breath. "Well, that's where some people get antsy."

The brothers exchanged glances, and then Dean plucked the hard-hat from Sam's hands.

"No way I'm not goin'," he growled. "Get your own damn helmet."

-:- -:- -:-

Sam attempted to assist without being too obvious as his brother tried to decide the best way to get into the man-skip. Designed for a crew of ten, the flat car was about as far from luxurious as a vehicle could get. It was simply a long, narrow bed of raw boards on wheels, with slats like little speed-bumps placed horizontally across the bottom against which the North Cedar's crew had parked bony asses and braced their feet for decades. Sam had seen pictures of miners on similar sleds, riding on rails down into the earth's bowels, stacked together in a way that reminded him vaguely of those potato chips that come in a can. There were no sides, beyond a small, surrounding lip of what appeared to be cast-iron, and he wondered fleetingly whether anyone had ever fallen off a skip.

"Least we're not gonna get splinters," Dean grinned up at him, mood clearly improved now that he'd gotten his way about accompanying Sam and Steve into the mine.

Letting his left leg do all the work, the injured man sat down gingerly on the well-worn boards near the middle of the flat bed, putting his arms behind him and twisting slightly until he had hold of both sides. With Sam watching carefully, he pushed his weight up on his hands, swinging his straightened legs onto the skip together, boots hitting simultaneously with a dull thud.

"Let's move it, gents," Dean said, settling in and taking charge. "Time's a-wastin'. Hey, Steve, how do you drive this thing?"

Sam rolled his eyes, where his brother could not see.

-:- -:- -:-

TBC. Comments are welcomed.