On the Dodge
By Candle Beck
. . . but once they ruled the West!
Dean was in a good way, fat-pocketed banging through the batwing doors and breathing deep of the smoke like a man breaking the surface of the ocean. The saloon was banked with shadow, the lamps burning low and counting on the sun to bleed through the doors and the dust-caked windows. Dean pushed his hat back, found his brother playing cards at a back table with three strangers.
Sam was slouched back, black hat tugged down to hide his eyes, his mouth working on a toothpick. Dean could tell from how he held his cards, that crooked fall of his wrist, that Sam was bluffing at the moment. He could tell from the barest curl of Sam's lip that he was gonna get away with it, too.
Dean came on him strong, running his mouth fast and grabbing at Sam's shoulder. Sam shoved Dean's hand off without changing expression, answering none of his questions. He slanted a look up at Dean from under his hat brim, a conspiratorial hint of warning, and flicked a pair of coins into the pot, seeing and raising.
Dean grinned at the other men, indistinguishable with their heavy oil-covered beards and shapeless hats. "How we doin', fellas? Everybody gettin' on all right?"
The man dealing glowered at Dean blackly, his teeth the color of chaw and pitted. "Keep him quiet," he said to Sam.
Sam smirked mildly. "Dean, keep quiet."
"Takin' orders now, are we?"
But Dean left it at that, fading back behind his brother's shoulder to watch Sam take the pot. They started another hand and Dean took a moment to case the men's iron and found it well-maintained, well-used. Their hands were misshapen with scar tissue and formerly dislocated knuckles, cramped around the cards. They were glaring at Sam like he'd shot their dogs, folding one after another.
"Call," Sam said, his voice soft, slow and threatening. He flipped his cards. "Jacks over threes."
Dean whistled silently. He managed to keep from grinning outright, but only by a hair. Sam was impassive, one big hand at rest on the table. The dealer was the only one still in and he had a dark cloud of disbelief riding his brow. Then he smiled with his awful crumbling teeth, cold mean smile as he flattened his cards for all to see. Queens, three of them, usually good enough.
Sam reached for the pot, the muted light striking randomly off the pearl buttons on his cuff. Dean didn't miss the dealer dropping his hands off the table, still smiling that bad-news smile.
"You're pretty good, huh," the dealer said. Sam didn't answer, one shoulder half-raising in a shrug. "Y'know how I know? 'Cause I'm pretty good, and even I can't see how you're cheating."
The room went still and silent, dead as a stone. Men had been killed for a tenth as much in this room. Sam's dirty once-white shirt flickered as the muscles in his back tensed. Dean pasted on a big stupid grin for the men, all of whom had at least one hand disappeared under the table.
"Hell, son, no need for that kinda talk," Dean said, words crowding together in his throat. "Don't wanna end it on a down note, do ya? We were just going anyway-"
"I wasn't cheating," Sam said, his voice still low and even but so goddamn dangerous for all that.
"Course you weren't, who said anything about cheatin', let's go."
The dealer nodded, leaned forward. "You go. The money stays. Everybody lives." He leveled a malicious glare at Sam, circles of hell spinning in his eyes. He would have had as much luck trying to unnerve a lake.
"Man makes a good case," Dean said hopefully, eyeing the exits.
"I won that money fair, Dean," Sam said without taking his eyes off the man.
"Yeah, but he really seems to want it." Dean pulled off his hat, scratched through his gritty hair. He wished Sam would at least put his hand on his Colt, at least for show. "You gonna make a big thing out of it?"
"I wasn't cheating."
"You can die," the dealer broke in, getting impatient. "You can both die--no one's immune."
"Jesus, now you got him mad at me too," and Dean jammed his fist into his brother's shoulder, looked over the three men with their thick murderous hands and hateful eyes. Dean shook his head, stepping aside. "You're on your own on this one, Sam."
The room stopped again.
The dealer's eyes went huge, darting to Dean and back to Sam. A charred stub of cigar hit the table in front of one of the other men. All three of them stared at Sam, horror-struck.
"Sam," the dealer managed, fear roughening his voice down to almost nothing. "Winchester?"
Sam's mouth curved ever so slightly. "Look, Dean, he's heard of us."
Dean rolled his eyes, didn't say anything. He was watching the three men, seeing how the knowing of it changed them, made their mouths weak and their shoulders slack. All three of them still staring helplessly at Sam like men facing a firing squad, and it made Dean feel kinda sick but there wasn't anything he could do about it now.
"I, I," the dealer tried, stammering. "I never woulda--if I'd known who you were, I never woulda said you were cheatin'."
"Hey, sounds like an apology to me," Dean said. He was tired of this scene; he'd come in here in such a good mood. "Get the money, come on."
Sam shook his head, his jaw outlined sharply. He was still slumped down but only a fool would take him for at ease. The potential for violence shimmered around him like a heated wire, underlaid with an ever-present sadness that the world had brought him to this point again.
"You don't know my name, that makes it okay to say I was cheating?" Sam asked, sounding genuinely curious.
The dealer shook his head, paling under his beard. He was a brave man because everybody on the range at least had that going for them, and he was trying to keep his head up, trying his best.
"You weren't cheating," the man said, the words chipped off him.
Sam tipped his chin up. "Goddamn right." He finally let his gaze fall off the man, took off his hat to sweep the coins into it. His hair was matted and dusty and tangled at the ends, making him look years younger, and coins bounced and rolled across the floor, colliding with Dean's boot and dying slow spiraling deaths. Dean exhaled, the moment of immediate peril behind them.
They went up to the bar to settle up and get the coins changed to paper money. Sam didn't put his back to the men, leaning back on his elbows, eyes cutting around the room. Dean saw him check the angle of the light, if it was anybody's eyes, and the dim corners where someone might be concealed, and the places where there was room to move, to duck and roll. Sam was better when he moved.
The men were muttering, casting furious awed looks over at them. Dean caught smudges of accusation, a slur that sounded like their father's name. Dean flinched, and Sam snorted a quiet laugh, eyeing him and murmuring, "Steady."
Dean huffed, shoved the mess of paper money into his shirt. His skin prickled feeling every eye in the place on them, chewing over his brother and wanting to tear him into pieces like wolves.
Halfway out the door, and a voice rose unevenly behind them, climbing above the midday haze and drone, "Fuckin' unnatural is what he is," and Dean spun back, his mind a perfect blank and his hand drawing out his gun clean as anything. He was going to put holes in every one of them, leave their faces shattered and bloody. He had a sneer warped across his mouth, his arm raising swiftly until Sam grabbed him, hauled him out into the sunlight.
Dean was struck blind for a moment. He stumbled, Sam's arm hard around his back, hauling him forward. Dean's spurs clacked and stuck in the wood boards, and he still wanted to go back and kill the man who had said that about his brother, but he couldn't see and he was no good to anyone like that.
"Dumb son of a bitch, you get us so far then you gotta go wreck it all," Sam muttered, jamming Dean's hat down on his head. "Just let 'em talk, what harm's it do letting 'em talk?"
Dean shook his brother off, jerking at his hat and fingering it back into shape. He scowled, feeling edgy and stupid and tired of this town.
"You got us into that one, Sammy," Dean said.
"Yeah, and I got us out of it too, 'member that part?" Sam shook his head, smiled a little bit. "C'mon, we got miles ahead."
Dean rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. When he looked up again, Sam had all but disappeared into the glare of the sun.
They rode the sun down, heading west. The land was green and wide because it was just recently spring, high mesas and mountains jagged teeth scribbled with snow. Their horses kicked up dust in little clouds like coughs, shaking their heads against grit and insects. Sam and Dean trotted them for miles at a time, slowed up to pass canteens and jerky back and forth.
Ambling next to his brother, Sam pushed his hat back, a streak of grime revealed on his forehead, faintly curved like the horizon.
"Saw a paper from back east," Sam said, voice roughed up by the ride. "That goddamn spiritualism is gettin' popular in New England again, we might have to head it off pretty soon."
Dean scowled. Silly stupid rich women playing at seances like it was a game, crowds of people buying tickets to see "ghosts" speak through some eerily beautiful medium in a self-induced trance--Dean's contempt was beyond description.
"Or we leave them to their reward," he said. "Let 'em see what comes of being ignorant. It'll weed out the chaff."
Sam snorted, took a long drink off the canteen, head cocked back. Dean eyed him, taut line of Sam's throat and that strange curling sensation in Dean's stomach that he had learned to ignore.
"Ain't very Christian of you, Dean," Sam told him with a smirk. Dean rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, well, Christian's never done much for me either."
Dean watched Sam tying the canteen back onto the side of his horse, and then they both straightened, exchanged a ready look. Dean grinned, kicked down, shouting, "Ya, girl!" as her power reared up beneath him.
They rode a ways farther. Dean felt a new rush of energy come through him as the sun sank down, fire-colored and melting. He whooped and kicked his girl into a gallop for a few hundred feet, hat clutched to his head against the wind and Sam hollering laughter, racing behind him. Dean looked back to see his brother grinning, a wedge of ivory in the gathering dim.
Coming up to the pass, Sam and Dean slowed, quieted. Sam's eyes dug into the shadows and crevices, the thickening brush, and the twilight was no hindrance to him; Sam had always been able to see superhumanly well in the dark.
"You know," Sam said contemplatively. "Every time I see Hole-in-the-Wall it's like seein' it fresh, for the very first time. And every time that happens I ask myself the same question: how can I be so damn stupid as to keep comin' back here?"
Dean half-smiled, because this was an old argument. "These boys are our best source outside Bobby, Sam, just because they're not so crazy about you-"
"They wanna kill me, Dean," Sam said, still with a kinda joking tilt to his voice. "Every one of 'em's got a bullet with my name engraved."
Dean hawked and spat to the side, a red buzz in the back of his mind. His hand found his gun unconsciously, riding on his hip.
"They can engrave all the bullets they want," Dean said. "Nobody's doing shit to you while I'm here."
Sam didn't answer, which was probably for the best. Dean wasn't what kept guys from taking on Sam. Dean was just his first layer of defense.
They came down into the valley, a shallow bowl under the emerging stars, rotting wood cabins and canvas tents loosely clustered. There was a fire burning, small shifting spot of orange leaking finer smoke into the sky. They were riding abreast but Sam fell back as they approached, letting the men see Dean first.
Four of them around the fire, one crouched with what looked like a skinned prairie dog on a stick, most of the way charred. Dean recognized Curry and Carver and Harvey Logan with his huge shoulders and face as blank as a shovel. Out of the light he sensed other eyes, metal glinting vaguely.
Dean put on a big grin. "Howdy, boys."
Flat Nose Curry smiled idiotically. "Hey there, Dean." He hesitated, eyes glancing and darting past Dean. "Howdy, Sam."
Sam didn't respond, and Dean didn't look back at him, his awareness of his brother simmering low. He kept his eyes on Logan, ice against ice. Seven months ago Logan had stuck a knife in Sam's back in a very literal way, twisted until Sam's shirt was soaked black with gore. Dean hadn't had time to kill him then, what with hauling Sam out and onto his horse, galloping insanely for Bobby's with his body hunched down over his brother's, pleading and his face covered in Sam's blood. He'd left Logan with a bullet in his leg, but the man looked to have recovered fine.
"How you been, Harvey?" Dean asked him.
Logan lifted his head, glared at Dean with the light of the fire manic on his face. "You ain't welcome here."
Dean flattened a hand on his chest, made his eyes go big. "Now, that hurts. Here I am ready to let bygones be bygones, and you're clinging to the resentments of the past."
Logan snarled. He'd never had much use for Dean's mouth. Dean flapped his hand dismissively at him, his heartrate picking up even if he gave no outward sign.
"No gratitude at all, no respect," Dean said, aggrieved. "Seem to recall that this camp was crawling with evil spirits 'fore me an' Sam got here, but hell, I must be mistaken."
News Carver bobbed his head eagerly. "No, you're right, Dean, that was here. Really did a number on 'em, you sure did."
"Don't care what you done," Logan said. "Your times is over now. Get gone, Winchester, and take that thing you call a brother with you."
Dean had his gun drawn and Logan would be dead but something was jamming the trigger, cramping Dean's hand. Sam.
They were frozen for a moment, no one drawing to counter Dean and Dean saw the panic breaking on their faces, eyes rolling white and terrified. Sam was keeping all of them in place too.
"You oughta be dead, Logan," Sam said conversationally. Logan bared his teeth, veins standing out on his neck and arms as he strained against Sam's invisible hold. "Dean would have killed you just now if I hadn't stopped him."
Sam paused, taking a long assessing look at the men in the flicker of the fire. Dean could move, he just couldn't fire, but he didn't lower his weapon. He liked the look of Logan at the end of the barrel.
"So considerin' I just saved your life, maybe you wanna change your tone."
But Logan was not smart, fearless and merciless but in no way smart, and he hissed at Sam, "Demon."
"Motherfucker," Dean spat, squeezing the trigger so hard the metal ground against bone. "Lemme kill him, Sam, for the love of god."
Sam laughed, actually sounding pretty amused by the whole thing. "Nah, he's got a bullet coming soon enough without you gettin' involved."
Logan's eyes flashed uncertainty and a deeper fear, but Dean knew Sam was just playing it up. People believed Sam could do all sorts of terrible things.
"Now if y'all don't mind," Sam continued, raising his voice for those beyond the light of the fire. "We heard rumors the Union-Pacific's got a ghost problem. What can you tell us about that?"
The force holding Dean's trigger finger abruptly vanished, and he could see by the surprised way the men suddenly went slack that they'd been released too. Sam had made his point, sweat broken out on foreheads and faces, hands wrenched into hard futile fists. These men hated him, a million gruesome deaths playing over their expressions, but under it all was a terror so real and true it shook Dean to his foundations.
Stuttering, haltingly, the men told what they'd seen out there on the rails, the man cut in half by the train, the little girl found beaten to death in the space between the cars, the gas lamps that had all extinguished at the same moment, the plates and silverware that had flown and daggered through the club car. Sam repeated the names of the lines and stations, made Dean say them back so they would both remember. Sam's mouth was pinched, his forehead lined with exertion and pain.
When they'd wrung the men dry, Sam gave him a look that said they were done here, and Dean breathed out in relief, not liking the gray tint of his brother's skin in this light. He wound his girl's reins tight around his hand and leveled another glare at Logan.
"Ain't done with you, Logan," Dean promised, and spat into the fire. "You're gonna know what it feels like to get stabbed in the back, so whyn't you just think on that for awhile. Be seein' ya."
They left Hole-in-the-Wall at a fair clip, the echoes through the narrow canyons sounding like pursuit, but no one would dare come after Sam Winchester in the full dark. Dean's heart was still going too fast, and he could see Sam slouched in silhouette, breathing unsteadily. He'd put on a good show for the gang, but it was no mean thing, holding half a dozen men in place with his mind, and Dean knew he had to be near-dead from it.
"Here, c'mon," he said once they got free of the pass. He caught up Sam's horse alongside his own and flicked a match alight with his thumb. Sam blinked against the sudden light, his face drawn and wearied. "Get on."
Dean tugged at Sam's shoulder until Sam got the idea and clambered on behind Dean, slumping heavily on his brother's back and blowing out a rusty breath. His arms slung around Dean's waist, heat and exhaustion beating out of him. Dean reached behind, took Sam's hat off his head and started down the dark slope, leading Sam's horse.
Sam rubbed his face on Dean's coat, and Dean picked out the flat of his cheek, his pointy nose. He could ride all night like this.
"You believe me now?" Sam mumbled, chin pressing and giving.
"What? Go to sleep."
"'bout Hole-inna-Wall. Don't make me go back there."
Dean bit his teeth together, grit crunching. He'd misjudged the situation, that was probably true. Sam was drained and boneless because he'd had to fix the mess his brother had made, and this wasn't the first time.
"It's that goatfucker Logan," Dean said to the thick night in front of him. He felt Sam shaking his head, dirty hair brushing on the back of Dean's neck.
"'s all of them. Ever' one of 'em. Terrified of me."
The weight on Dean's back was deepening, Sam pressing himself close and crashing into sleep even as Dean tried to tell him:
"It's not you."
There were stories about the Winchester brothers, but you couldn't believe everything you heard.
Dean had once killed twenty men with a pair of Colt revolvers without reloading. He could shoot the heads off playing card kings from thirty paces, tell the make of any weapon he heard fired, put a buffalo down with a single shot, and it was always nighttime, and his hand was broken, and he was temporarily blind in one eye, and there was a dust storm picking up. They always took it a step too far.
Sam had been born in the middle of a fire. Embers had fallen from the ceiling and seared the shape of three linked sixes on the crown of his head, and the scar remained as tangible proof, expertly concealed. Sam could kill a man with a thought, lift a train car off the rails easily as a child's toy, curse crops into bearing ash and salt. When Sam was cut, he bled black.
It was their own damn fault. After their father had been murdered, Sam and Dean did nothing to discourage their growing legend, even as it turned fantastic and corrupt. They'd wanted people to be afraid of them, wanted the ten-foot radius accorded to them in saloons, wanted to be left alone and it seemed the easiest way.
The point of no return was probably in Hays City a couple years ago, when Sam had killed a shapeshifter that had taken the form of an eleven year old girl. It had been broad daylight on the main road, half the town strewn along the sidewalks in their Sunday best, watching Sam press his Colt to its white pinafore and explode silver into its heart.
They hadn't had a chance to explain, wouldn't have been believed anyway, and since then a lot of people had been trying to kill them. Sam and Dean were chased out of graveyards, shot at in churches. They'd been blamed for a cholera epidemic in Montana that killed off half a town. They were almost lynched in Kansas because the moon turned red the night they arrived. They'd been on the run so long Dean didn't know how to move at any other speed.
If their father were alive, they'd still have the loose confederacy of hunters to fall back on, hunters and the outlaws they inevitably associated with, hard-skinned trail-beaten men who'd been made credulous by life on the range, where almost nothing had a rational explanation. Most cowboys believed in ghosts.
Sam and Dean had grown up out here, sleeping in barns and under back porches and piled with the ranch dogs in the yard. Their father had known someone in every county willing to put them up for a month or so, someone who owed him a sack of cornmeal or a half-dozen potatoes, someone whose boy had just died of fever and left boots that would fit Dean first and Sam later. John had saved more lives than he could count, and the name Winchester had been a password, a key. They didn't have a home; they had several thousand.
But now John was gone and even both his misfit sons together couldn't fill the space he'd left. No one trusted them on their own. Bad rumors stirred up around those Winchester boys, the darkness shadowing them seeming less like the family curse than its essential nature, here in the second generation. Sam was a killer of children, a dog-throat-slitter, a monster being pieced together day by day, hour by hour, and Dean was his maniacal protector, sadistic avenging angel. Together they were everyone's worst fear.
It was all so unfair.
These things that Sam could do, the broken mirrors littered behind him and the bullets stopped dead in mid-air, three inches from Dean's forehead, the miracles and visions that followed Sam around, they were just that, outside forces that had attached themselves to his brother for foggy messianic reasons. It wasn't Sam.
Fourteen years old and Sam was in a rage almost all the time, at Dean and John, the torched landscape and surplus of evil, the latest can of beans cooked over on open fire. He was angry at nothing, everything. He apologized to Dean still shaking with fury, knowing there was no good reason for it, unable to quit. Objects had started shattering around Sam when his face was rose-red and his hands screwed up into fists. Pint glasses imploded. Pictures trembled and leapt off walls. Knives flicked across rooms, buried themselves in the floorboards.
Nothing was safe from him, and Sam swore he didn't know how he was doing it, and John had told him, "Then you figure it out, son," and so Sam had.
They weren't thinking of it as a weapon. Sam wasn't a weapon, he was a scrawny kid with double-jointed thumbs who still told all his best secrets to the horses, his face pressed against long silky necks as they grazed. It was impossible to imagine him posing any kind of threat.
Sam got it under control because that was the only reasonable thing to do, practiced it like he practiced with Colts and rifles and knives, until he could pick a tree clean of apples while lying flat on his back in the grass. Dean watched him in something like awe. He was still his bullheaded contrary little brother who loved picking fights and reading the newspaper out loud because John had never learned how, and Dean couldn't really reconcile Sam with the things he had seen his brother do.
They were able to keep Sam's abilities a secret from the rest of their underground world for a long time. John said, "They wouldn't understand," but that made it seem like the Winchesters did understand, and Dean knew that wasn't true.
When Sam was nineteen a mineshaft had collapsed on his brother and he had dug him free for hours in a hysterical fugue, huge chunks of rock and wood ripped out of his way. His hands were bloody and dislocated by the time he got to Dean, but the worst damage was under his skin where his blood ran scalding hot, almost all of Sam's strength sapped away and he lingered pallidly near death for almost a week before recovering.
That was the far end of Sam's powers. He could tear through the earth itself, as long as his brother was on the other side.
He got careless with it after John's death, as with everything else, and someone saw him hold a charging werewolf at bay with an outstretched hand long enough for Dean to get a shot at it; someone else saw him drunkenly levitating bottles into the air for Dean to pick off like crystalline skeet, both of them laughing too loud, thinking they were alone.
The story traveled far ahead of them, warped and misinterpreted at every turn. Sam was unrecognizable when other people described him.
It didn't have some innately evil significance, Dean was sure, and he didn't know why everyone else insisted on seeing it that way. It was just something Sam could do, like how he could whittle and outrun almost anybody and remember all the letters in their last name. It was something he had only ever used for good, but no one cared about that.
It was maybe a year ago, down in one of those mummy-dry border towns. Sam and Dean had tried to purify a church that was infested with a nasty poltergeist, but the thing had snatched and shredded their gris-gris bags before they could get into the walls, so they'd had to burn the place to the ground. The townspeople, something less than grateful, promptly rode them out of town on a hail of buckshot and chucked stones.
Thundering away across the desert, bent down low with his hands wrenched in his girl's mane, his throat smoke-scoured and the wind drawing tears to his eyes, Dean had shouted over to Sam:
"You know when I was a kid I always thought I was gonna grow up to be a hero."
And Sam had grinned, called back, "Too late now," and spurred ahead of his brother into the dark.
Dean got them a couple hours away from Hole-in-the-Wall before making camp. He thought they might have made it back into the Dakotas but he wasn't sure. Sam mumbled and tried to help Dean get the rolls out and the fire going, but Dean just pushed him to the ground, tossed a blanket on him. Sam sprawled out long, boots scraping on the dirt, firelight playing over his features.
Dean made some coffee. He didn't think he'd sleep much. He watched his brother sleeping idly, just because there was nothing else to look at.
Sam's face was drawn, one collarbone revealed where his coat and shirt were tugged out, pressing hungrily at his skin. Sam was always about ten pounds underweight but it got worse in the winter when there wasn't as much game around. Sam didn't care about food, really. He would forget to eat for days at a time if he didn't have a brother.
Dean turned his eyes away from the visible structure of Sam's bones. He looked at the stars for awhile, thinking about the railroads.
He got Sam up a few hours later, near dawn, and made him have some cold coffee and the last of the hardtack, Sam chewing slow and resentful, mouth gluey-white and his eyes in slits even though it wasn't yet light out.
They rode into Rapid City and went to the Holy Moses, where Bobby left them messages when he was in town. Dean had two whiskies and some eggs while Sam carefully deciphered the several scraps of paper. Dean could read, he just preferred not to.
"Union-Pacific outta Omaha," Sam reported. "Bobby's been trackin' the same kinda stuff. He thinks it's probably just a couple malicious spirits infesting the rail system, and they're hopping from train to train, line to line, that's how come people are getting killed all over. Says if we can trap one it'll just take a standard cleansing."
"Aw right," Dean said with his mouth full. "So how're we supposed to know which train they'll be on next?"
Sam showed Dean the rough map Bobby had drawn. "Lookit this. The Flyer, its brand-new boiler exploded here in North Platte, three men killed, one of 'em a hunter Bobby'd set on the case. That was three weeks ago, so it's probably just about fixed by now. It won't meet a switch till Sioux Falls, so we get to it 'fore the spirit has a chance to hop another, might have a shot."
"Ain't a passenger train, right? Couldn't do shit with a buncha people watching."
"No, just freight. Just have to deal with the crew."
Dean nodded, shoved back in his chair, tipping his hat back on his head. "Fair 'nough."
He pushed the remaining swallow of whiskey over to Sam, and Sam knocked it back without looking, scowling at the map. Color bloomed faint on his cheeks, and he swiped his wrist across his mouth, pushed a hand through his hair. Sam looked distracted and frustrated and Dean thought that as soon as the job was done he was gonna take some asshole cowboy for his month's pay and buy his brother a proper bed to sleep in for a week at least.
They spent a minute in the mercantile refitting for ammunition and dry goods, until most of the money Sam had won the day before was spent. Dean planned ahead a week or so, all they could ever really count on. They had food enough, and they'd be in river country, fresh young grass for the horses.
The clerk seemed to recognize them, eyes drawing narrow and suspicious trying to get a glimpse under Sam's lowered hat brim. There were poorly drawn pictures of them up in mail posts and banks, and this happened sometimes. Dean spoke sharply, kept the man's attention on him, and they rode out with an eye to the road behind them, wary as ever of a bullet in the back.
Sioux Falls took them most of two days. The Flyer was due within the week, so they took a look around, followed the tracks east until they found a likely spot, a brief skinny ravine that opened into a yellow plain dozens of miles from the next settlement.
Sam and Dean played odds-evens for the jump and Sam lost. Dean thought it might have been intentional on his brother's part, Sam who never believed Dean when he said that his back didn't hurt, but Dean wasn't in the mood to argue, nor jump on top of a moving train, for that matter.
Scheme set, they knocked around town counting time until the Flyer came through. Dean played faro in the saloon and won them a room with a little balcony overlooking the main road, and Sam spent hours out there with his arms crossed on the rail and his chin resting, watching the people come and go.
Dean came up from the raucous party going on in the saloon one night, bringing his brother a stein of beer and one for himself. He took the other chair, propped his boots on the rail. There were flush-faced women below and a man going off to war to put them in the mood, but Dean hadn't slept in a while and he'd rather sit here with Sam and let it be for a moment.
Sam shook his head, his eyes tracking up and down the street slow like a muffled pendulum. "Boy almost got shot trying to steal a horse, but they run him off."
"Kids today," Dean sighed. Sam smirked.
"You remember Dad teaching us that? 'Horse thief's as low as a man can get, but just in case you need to someday.'"
"That was his wisdom on about everything," Dean answered, kinda smiling. "'You better never do, but just in case.'"
"Worked out so far."
Sam lifted his glass and Dean gave him a clink, a long sidelong look. He liked the way Sam's hat was pushed back, the way his hair was a soft dirty crash on his forehead. The gaslights below caught up murky and indistinct on his fine-drawn features, making him blurry and less sharp to the touch.
Dean blinked, rubbed at his forehead. He'd been drinking but he didn't think he was drunk, and he didn't usually let himself think on stuff like that when he wasn't drunk. He was badly confused for a second, staring dumbly at Sam's big hand curled around the rail.
"Ladies and gentlemen!"
A circus-like cry suddenly from below, making them both start. Dean dropped his glass but it was almost empty anyway, tear track of beer spilling over edge of the balcony. He and Sam craned their heads in unison, spotting a rotund small-hatted man standing on the corner, both arms upraised, drawing a small crowd.
"Boys and girls! Friends and enemies: meet the future!"
The man made a grand flourish at the odd-looking metal contraption at his side, two spoked wheels glittering, skinnier than wagon wheels and covered in what looked to be rubber.
"Future what?" someone inquired from the crowd.
"The future mode of transportation for this weary western world!"
The man beamed, rolling the metal contraption back and forth proudly. It looked impossibly rickety. Sam and Dean exchanged looks, rolled their eyes. Every week it seemed there was some new revolution, some invention that would forever alter the course of history. The Winchesters had been in the game for a very long time, and they knew the only thing that changed about history was the names.
"The horse is dead, my friends," the salesman proclaimed.
Sam nudged his elbow into Dean. "'s your horse dead, Dean?"
"Bite your tongue," Dean said immediately. He looked over to see Sam grinning, little pink bit of tongue caught in his teeth, and Dean looked away hastily, his face hot all of a sudden. He scowled down at the salesman and his weird metal thing.
"People been coming up with all these machines just so they can make useless junk faster," Dean complained, his heart not really in it.
Sam didn't answer, sensing that Dean didn't want to get into it. He rested his chin on his folded arms again, watching with a slight smirk as people tried out the metal contraption, perched and wobbling uncertainly for a few moments before overbalancing. It looked even more ridiculous than most modern things, but Dean was watching Sam.
"Tell ya," Sam said after a long peaceful while. "When we were kids I used to think there'd be an end to it someday."
Dean leaned his elbow on the rail, his hand cocked out and the inside of his wrist braced against his temple. He yawned. "What?"
Sam moved his hand, tracing something vague in the air. "All of it. Go town to town and kill whatever's evil there and move on and eventually, eventually we'd run out of towns. Eventually we'd get them all."
Dean laughed before he had a chance to think about it, and he saw flinch of hazy drunken hurt on Sam's face. Dean recoiled, swallowed hard. There was probably a right thing to say here; he could find it.
"We get as many as we can. More'n anybody else."
Sam's face stayed pinched and dissatisfied and Dean knew he was getting it wrong. He felt jammed, dust in his works, his tongue thick and stupid.
"We do as much as we can do, Sam," Dean told him, voice giving slightly and he winced, not liking the sound of it.
Nodding, downcast, Sam kept his eyes on the street. He had his mouth set small in a way that meant Dean had missed the point. Dean stared at him helplessly, jerky and irritated, wishing his brother would stop being such a goddamn mystery all the time.
They were both quiet for a long moment and Dean thought that was where the subject would die, but then Sam surprised him, asked:
"You never think about stopping?"
Dean was tired, nothing but. He'd probably be better served coming up with the lie that Sam so clearly wanted to hear, but he didn't have it in him tonight, and he told his brother, "Never," looked away so he wouldn't have to see Sam's reaction.
They kept drinking, both pretty lit by the time they wrestled out of their coats and shirts and belts, and took turns scrubbing their faces with cold water from the ewer by the door. Sam doused the lamp and they stumbled over their boots, crawling blindly into the bed.
Dean burrowed down under the sheets, squeezing his eyes shut and thinking that he couldn't see Sam so he would be okay. He didn't know why that should be, these crooked tracks his mind had found, but he could feel the heat of his brother across the few feet that separated them, and it made his breath come short.
"Hey Dean," Sam said, and Dean stiffened, muddled and uncertain. It was very dark under here.
"What?" Dean was not holding his breath. There was no good reason to be holding his breath.
"I don' mind," Sam told him all muzzy and slurred. "Long's you're around I don' mind."
And Sam's hand came searching through the linen, seeking and fumbling across Dean's face, petting his cheek and then retreating just as slow and clumsily as it had come. Dean exhaled in painstaking stages, his eyes peeled open and his cheek feeling blistered. He heard Sam sigh, and settle himself deeper into the pillow. He heard Sam's breath level out.
Dean lay there for a long time, drunk head spinning, his body crying out for rest. He could feel his heart racing and he thought that he was afraid but that didn't make any sense. Nothing made any sense, a fact irrefutably proven when Dean finally fell asleep, and all he dreamt of was bulls and bicycles.
There were a number of traditions that they held fast. The Colt, that was probably number one.
Their grandfather on their mother's side had known Samuel Colt, back when the gunmaker was fixated on creating a weapon that could kill a demon. They'd been successful, but Colt ended up losing his mind, so it couldn't really be called a happy ending.
That one Colt went from Samuel Campbell to his daughter to her husband to his eldest son. It had gone to Shiloh with John, that endless second day when nobody was whole in body or mind and the ground was a thick sucking mud made of loam and blood. John had lain in the dead pile for hours, convinced he belonged there himself. Someone dragged a stump of arm off him, tried pull the Colt out of his belt, and John had returned to the living world.
John made it home to Kansas and the girl waiting for him, the girl who had always been waiting for him. They had kept the one Colt, acquired others that maybe couldn't kill demons, but there were all kinds of righteous damage to be inflicted. Mary taught John how to fight everything she'd ever told him about, all the rituals and rites of her family, now their family, and he wasn't scared because the war had cured him of that. This was a kind of evil that he could do something about.
His beautiful ghost-slaying girl. His wife, beyond all reason, she'd said yes. And then five years after the president was shot, there was Dean. Dean was perfect and then there was Sam and everything was perfect.
It didn't last. John understood even at the time that it could never have lasted, wasn't the way of the world. Twenty, twenty-five years later, his boys came to their own knowing of it, another thing handed down.
Routine job, Indian ghosts with their arrows made of fire and air, and it was always more than one, always howling mobs and John had salted the mass grave, up to his hips in brittle bones and his wife covering him with a shotgun and rocksalt, wild booms shattering above everything else.
They'd done this so many times. John had been half-thinking about the boys, stashed away with Bobby in the Black Hills, as he spilled lamp oil all over the skeletons, climbed out of the grave. Mary flashed him a grin, and he loved her like crazy, lit a match. The flames licked up and John turned to watch the spirits dissolve writhing, reaching out for her and bumping her hand because she was doing the same.
They looked at each other, smiling stupid and victorious. It could have been any other night.
But the fire only took out most of them. There was at least one left, at least one buried someplace else that took advantage of that brief moment when the Winchesters had their eyes on each other instead of the peril before them. Just one, rushing out of the dark and killing Mary with a single stroke, opening her throat and she fell back into the grave, into the flames.
The scars on John's hands and arms forever after, those were from pulling her out. He passed almost everything else down to his sons, but those scars were his alone.
He buried her alongside her parents' ashes. It should have been the pyre for Mary too, but John couldn't bring himself to it. He couldn't watch it happening, see it and smell it, and he couldn't allow her to burn alone, so he put her in the ground instead and it didn't feel much better.
John carried on. There was something wrong with him now, something fractured and amiss, but he had the boys and they kept him alive for another twenty years, faintly astonishing when he had a moment to consider it.
Dean grew up charming and Sam grew up smart, both of them quick and strong, good shots, good in a fight up close, both of them able to survive off the land like soldiers. John lived to ensure that they would. The world had revealed itself to be blackhearted and lethal and his sons would at least be able to fight back.
It might not have been the life their mother wanted for them, but John believed the important things had made it down through the bloodlines. If nothing else, Sam and Dean were effortlessly dedicated to each other, this devotion that pulled them both forward and took their father aback at times. It was strange to think that he had created something so powerful, not just the boys themselves but the epic world-saving nature of their brotherhood.
He thought Mary would have liked that about her sons, at the very least.
John saw them all the way through the summer after Sam turned twenty and finally stopped growing, and then like his business on earth was complete, he got dead. It wasn't a hunt, although that was how it started.
There was a man in Creede who had sold his soul. He had wanted to be able to outdraw anybody and for ten years, so he had, as a mercenary, gunslinger for hire. It made a perverted kind of sense: already going to hell, might as well kill people for money.
His bill came due and John had exactly no qualms about using him for bait to get a chance at the crossroads demon, who'd been working on some kind of record in the area ever since they struck silver in the hills. It all went according to plan for the most part, an etched bullet between the demon's eyes as they rolled black, and if the gunslinger's throat had been torn out by the hellhounds before that happened, well, nothing was ever achieved without sacrifice.
Two months later, the gunslinger's brother had shot John in the back of the head.
John had been playing cards in a saloon at the time, holding four clubs and waiting on the fifth. He'd been thinking of another whiskey and suspecting the dealer of cheating and he heard the gunslinger's name spoken from behind him and then he was dead.
Sam and Dean weren't there. They'd gone to Denver with a pair of girls, staying in a hotel with a white-napkin restaurant, real plates and every kind of liquor you could dream of, huge beds with sheets so clean they almost felt slick. The two of them were distracted by more than the altitude, because something had happened between them one afternoon in the dizzying pour of sunlight, velvet chair and thick carpet and heat and drunk, so drunk right then and immediately afterwards, for days afterwards. They didn't get word about their father until a week after he'd been killed.
It altered them both separately, and the way they were together, too, everything kinda jarred and uneasy. Sam shied away, closed himself off until Dean missed him when they were in the same room, and he couldn't help thinking that if Sam died too, he would probably just go insane. Sam might have been thinking the same thing, and maybe that explained some of the stupid shit they did in the aftermath.
They didn't hunt down their father's murderer, didn't even try. His hands under John's shoulders, lifting his body onto the pyre, Sam had said, "Dad killed his brother," and then stopped, though it seemed like he wanted to say more, he just stopped dead and his eyes went far away for a moment, a shadow passing.
Dean had his father's legs, his oddly bare feet because there was no sense burning a good pair of boots. Dean was crying but not in any serious way. He didn't answer Sam and they didn't talk about it after that.
Dean took possession of the Colt and his father's best coat, and they split up most of the other stuff. They never went back to Denver, no matter what the job, never set foot again. Sam kept getting drunk and saying, "You an' me, boy, you an' me," like an incantation, a favorite verse.
They carried on.
The day of the Flyer began ill-favored, heavy gray cloud cover and a wicked bite in the air, and they rode out eyeing the sky, daring the rain. Dean had apples and cold pancakes wrapped in cloth and he shared them out with his brother. They paused the horses to chuck their cores and Sam's went farther; Sam's usually went farther.
By the time they got to the ravine, the sun was fighting its way through, pinpoint shafts of light here and there across the plains, and Dean was feeling better about the whole operation.
They split up, Sam taking up his position above the tracks and Dean taking both their horses farther down into the open land. Dean wanted to remind Sam to watch his landing on the narrow top of the train, but Sam would just get all huffy, so he restrained himself to saying, "Be careful," and didn't look back more than twice.
Dean heard the train long before he saw it. He swung down from his horse and knelt by the tracks, laid his cheek on the rail and felt it buzzing and ringing. He paced up and down the metal until he could feel the vibrations through the soles of his boots, and got himself out of the way, wishing the angles were such that he could see Sam and make sure he'd nailed the goddamn landing.
The train appeared, steam and smoke and clatter, already slowing, and Dean could see Sam hanging out the side, scanning for him and Dean raised his arm, hat in hand. He led the horses, nickering, followed the train to its eventual stop a couple hundred feet on.
Sam climbed out of the cab to meet him, dragging the brakeman by his collar like a recalcitrant child. Sam had him held absently at gunpoint, most of his attention on Dean.
"There's another two in there and they got three other railroad men just hitchin' a ride," Sam reported. "Crew's disarmed."
Dean nodded, started to ask where the others were, but then a man in engineer blues leapt out of the cab, a length of iron in his hand already swinging for Sam's head. Dean cried out, drew and fired without conscious thought, bullet punching into the engineer's overalls and knocking him back but he didn't fall. He staggered back but then he kept coming, his arm rising again.
Sam whirled, the brakeman in front of him as a shield and his gun pressed to the man's head, but it didn't stop the engineer, who had three of Dean's bullets in his chest now but kept coming. Sam and Dean both saw the moment his eyes flipped to pure shiny black, and they both shouted, fell back. Sam shoved the brakeman away, reached for his brother.
Dean shot the engineer again but it was just panic. He didn't have the right Colt in his hand right now; they hadn't once thought it could be demons.
"Hold him, Sam, are you holding him," Dean said in a near-shriek, scrambling onto his horse with his hands feeling stupid and numb.
"Trying," Sam hollered back, and then, "Fuck," his voice breaking, and Dean looked over frantically, saw another man come out of the cab to join the engineer and brakeman and Sam was swinging onto his horse, shouting, "All of them, it's in all of them."
Dean jammed his heels down, tore his throat rallying his girl. From behind him he swore he could hear the rotted-wood voice of one of the demons saying, "Winchester," a fresh burst of baffled fright spearing through him. They set off galloping across the plains, and Sam wrenched backwards every few seconds to batter the demons with his mind, shoving them back, pinning them momentarily to the ground. Every time, Sam groaned at the effort, something ripped out of him.
They were flying, pounding, and Dean cast a terrified glance over his shoulder, saw the possessed men running for the horse cars.
"They're coming after us," Dean shouted uselessly, and looked to find his brother bent over in pain, clutching his horse's mane in one hand and his head in the other. He was fading back, losing ground, and Dean's stomach bottomed out. "Stop, Sam!" He was screaming, it hurt like coughing blood. "Ride, just ride!"
Sam pushed himself up, snarled at Dean with his eyes glassy, his hands tightening on the reins. He looked manic and desperate, his own evil twin, but he lashed at his horse's neck, stood in the saddle. Sam came up even with Dean, fierce new color on his face as if through sheer force of will. The wind slammed, the ground shook, and they were going so fast.
Behind them were six demons riding in perfect formation.
They rode flat out, heading west and north into the empty country. Dean wasn't aware of anything except his horse's smooth ebony flanks churning beneath him, his brother in his peripheral vision, the maddening wind. His lungs felt full of dust.
The plains gave way to rougher terrain, trees for cover and streams that they could follow, trusting the current to erase their tracks. They were a couple hours out now, the horses beginning to struggle from the pace, their sides bellowing out. Dean cajoled his girl, his voice raspy and unnatural, and they staggered up the hill, small rocks clattering down in their wake.
They broke into a clearing, a shelf on the steepening slope with a wide view of the valley, and without needing to discuss it they both swung off their horses, crouched together with their eyes tracking across the still land.
"How much of a head start you figure we got?" Dean asked, breath whistling. "Half a mile at least, right? And nobody outrides us on a short stretch, so they're a couple miles back and that gets us to the river."
Sam didn't answer, his face intent. Dean swallowed past a gritty feeling in his throat, staring out at the valley in a low-key state of terror.
"I think we lost 'em," Dean said, twisting one hand in Sam's coat. "Do you think we lost 'em?"
Dean smiled for some reason. "Neither do I."
They stood up, went back to the horses. Dean leaned on his girl's side, murmuring apologies and promising it would be over soon. Sam pushed at his shoulder with a canteen, saying, "Drink."
The water tasted mossy and old but Dean didn't care. He drank until he was gasping, passed the canteen to Sam and took off his hat, slapping it against his leg to get rid of the worst of the dust. Sam smirked at him, scrubbed a hand through Dean's hair and Dean squeezed his eyes shut against the cloud filtering down.
They swung back onto their horses, continued their push for higher ground.
The sun began to set. It had been the better part of a day, miles and miles and they had gone past sore to numb to sore again. They didn't talk, needing the breath.
The land had turned rocky and bristling with scrub brush sharp enough to tear through denim. Dean rode in front, no idea where they were or where they were going, but breaking a trail for his brother, at least. He could hear Sam coughing behind him, that rattling wrack of a cough that showed him to be worn down to the quick.
They broke another small rise, a natural pool sunk in the rock, and it was almost too dark to see, and Dean hit a wall, suddenly couldn't handle another moment in the saddle.
He swung down, and his legs didn't hold, pitching him onto his knees. Pain jarred through him, abrupt and stirring.
Dean heard Sam's boots hitting the ground, lifted his hand. "I'm all right, 'm fine, I just." He forced his head up. "Sweet Jesus, I'm tired."
Sam laughed rough, standing over Dean and offering him a hand up. Dean held his brother, swaying and catching his balance, and Sam was tall as a tree, rooted and strong. Dean's head was spinning. He pushed off, staggered and dropped to his knees again at the shallow pool, plunging his face into the water.
He stayed under until his thoughts fell into linear order again, pulled up hauling in breath and streaming, shaking his head like a dog. Sam knelt beside him, scooping water into his hat and pouring it over his head, the back of his neck. They became unevenly clean, smears of mud and dirt arrayed on their faces and necks.
"No way they're still after us, right?" Dean said. He watched Sam drinking from cupped hands, swiping his arm across his mouth. "Haven't seen hide nor hair for hours now."
Sam shrugged, didn't answer. Dean fidgeted, his eyes stuck for some reason on the damp curls of hair clinging to Sam's forehead and around his ears, thinking about sliding his fingers through for a split second before he banished the thought.
"Listen," Dean said hastily. "We find a town, right? Hole up for the night, get some food and maybe some sleep and then we can backtrack tomorrow, get behind them."
Sam shook his head, pushed onto his feet. He went over to the ridge, and Dean followed, whipping loose water off his hands.
"We can't bring half a dozen demons looking for blood into a town. There'd be a massacre," Sam said, eyes working over the land, darkening in long stretches of violet and slate.
"Why're they after us, anyway?" Dean asked for the first time even though he felt like he'd been saying it all day, his voice edging into a whine. He was so tired.
Sam shrugged and sighed, put a companionable hand on the back of Dean's neck. "People hardly seem to need a reason, these days."
Dean looked over at him, half a smile on his face, and he caught Sam staring, heavy-eyed and soft-mouthed and nothing like how a man should look at his brother. Dean skipped a breath, going tense under Sam's hand. A flash, Denver, Sam on his knees on the carpet and both hands holding Dean's face, and then Sam's expression went stricken and he let Dean go, stepped away jerkily.
Dean croaked, "Sam," but Sam had turned away, going back to the horses and pretending like he hadn't heard.
After a minute, Dean followed, keeping his mouth shut. Sam wouldn't look at him, his face averted, hat pulled down low. Dean dragged his eyes off the angle of his brother's jaw, casting his gaze instead to the rising moon.
The world hardened by night, petrified, and they rode across solid rock for a long time, until the thunder of the hoofbeats had Dean's ears ringing high and off-key. They made it into the mountains, brutally sheer land and the horses were dying. Forced ahead until they found a stream and a lookout, and then they staked out a place among the stones.
They watched for some interminable span, not speaking. Sam was hunched up in his coat, shoulders protectively high. Dean chewed on a toothpick, his stomach grumbling fiercely. There was a little bit of jerky left and a biscuit half-eaten by pale green mold, couldn't even have coffee because they wouldn't risk a fire. Dean was cold, plainly miserable.
The silence was killing him. "How long you figure we been watchin'?"
Sam didn't so much as twitch. "Awhile."
"How much longer before you figure they're not after us?"
Dean gave him a slanted look, wishing Sam would just smirk or something, break that stiff mask. Rubbing at his face, Dean yawned. He had no sense of time passing anymore, dawn somewhere in the amorphous future.
It was too quiet, always too quiet, and so Dean started talking.
"We ain't rode so much since that summer in Mexico, you remember that? That goddamn chupacabra pack, there's a miserable thing to hunt. You kill one just in time for another four to be born, like goddamn Irish rabbits is what they are-"
"Hey," Sam said sharply.
Dean snapped his eyes forward, teeth clenching on the pick. Way down in the valley, four or five miles back, there was a twist of light, snaking and moving almost imperceptibly. Dean's blood froze, sticking under his skin.
"Torches, you think?" he asked in a whisper, as if the posse might overhear.
"Maybe. Maybe lanterns."
Dean stared helplessly. "That's our trail they're following."
"Dead on it."
"I couldn't do that. Could you do that? How can they do that?"
"Demons," Sam replied simply. Dean sneered, a lowering curl of panic struggling in his chest.
"Goddamn motherfucking demons," he spat. He and Sam latched onto forearms and with twin groans, they pulled each other up, went to wake the horses.