Disclaimer: Don't own…not making profit. (Unless you count the perverse pleasure I receive from whumping on our boys profit. )
Summary: Pre-series. Dean 21, Sam 17. A routine salt-and-burn turns into anything but, as a series of misfortunes leave the Winchester boys not only hunting, but being hunted. Plenty of h/c and angst.
A/N: A huge thank you to all who read, reviewed, favorited and followed my other story, Into the Wild. You are my inspiration and encouragement. This story is pretty much completely written, and I plan on updating it at least once a week, but reviews do encourage me to post faster.
Also, please note that all three Winchesters are in this story, but John will definitely be playing a more secondary/background role.
Thanks to first_catfish for beta reading this story for me.
The camp fire popped and crackled, a small shower of sparks drifting lazily upward through the thin canopy of trees toward the vast array of stars twinkling above. A cacophony of insects chirped and buzzed in the night, and somewhere back within the trees an owl hooted its lonely cry.
Sara Littleton shifted on the log she was currently using as a chair, trying in vain to find a more comfortable position on the hard wood. Almost unconsciously her hands came up to rub briskly at her arms, feeling slightly chilled in the cool June evening despite the warm glow of the fire. Her lips pursed out in a slightly pouty expression as her gaze swept the darkened trees surrounding the small campsite. A slight shift in the wind sent the smoke from the campfire curling in her direction, and she quickly held her breath, her head tilted slightly to one side and her eyes squinted closed against the burn of the smoke.
"What's wrong, Sara? Aren't you having fun?"
Sara cracked open her eyes, taking a cautious breath of air as the smoke shifted directions once more. She peered across the campfire at her friend and room-mate, Jenna Wilson, doing her best to paste on a convincing smile. "Of course I'm having fun," she lied. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Jenna smiled back sweetly, then turned her attention to the tall, gangly boy sitting to her right. "Hey, Mat? I heard Dr. Beardsly assigned you an extra research paper in World History," she taunted lightly, nudging the young man with one shoulder.
Mat grumbled some sort of response under his breath, causing Jenna to laugh. Sara watched from across the fire, feeling a slight twinge of jealously at the completely casual way her friend slouched down against her own log, looking completely relaxed and comfortable, as at home out here miles from any civilization as she was back in their dorm room.
Sara, on the other hand, sat stiff and tense, her eyes continually scanning her body for any stray insects that might happen to land on her, as completely out of her element as a ballerina on a basketball court.
She found herself wondering for the hundredth time how she had allowed herself to be talked into coming on this trip. When Jenna had found out that she had never been camping before, she'd refused to let up until Sara had agreed to come. Her room-mate could be pretty persuasive when she got her mind set on something, and in truth, Sara had wanted to come, if for no other reason than to feel included. Now, she wasn't so sure. She was pretty certain her mother was rolling over in her grave right now, and she could clearly imagine her father's disapproving scowl. Camping was not ladylike, after all, and the Littletons prided themselves on dignity and propriety in any and all situations.
"So unlike Jenna," Sara thought. Jenna was freedom and spontaneity from her close cut blond hair down to the butterfly tattoo on her ankle. She was bubbly and mischievous and sweet, and everyone liked her. Sara didn't think Jenna had any idea how much she envied her.
"Want a marshmallow?"
Sara turned and blinked at Jared, the fourth and final member of their small company. He smiled at her and thrust out a stick with the blackened remains of a marshmallow dripping from the end. Sara eyed the marshmallow uncertainly, trying to think if there was any way to eat it without making a sticky mess. Deciding there wasn't, she shook her head in the negative.
"Actually, I…umm...need to use the restroom," She admitted, blushing slightly as she glanced around at the dark trees surrounding them. She had been holding it for some time, unable to face the thought of squatting at the base of some tree with nothing but a wadded up napkin to use as toilet paper. Her Aunt Marian would faint straight away if she ever heard about this.
"Third tree on your left," Mat quipped, grinning at her slyly. "Be careful not to step on any snakes out there. Or worse…wake up the wildlife."
Sara froze in the act of rising, her eyes widening.
"Oh shut up, Mat," Jenna smacked his shoulder before turning her attention to Sara. "Don't worry," she soothed. "Any animals out there will be more scared of you than you are of them." She reached down and grabbed a small, blue flashlight from beside the log, tossing it casually across the fire toward Sara.
Sara fumbled to catch the flashlight but ended up dropping it. Jared hurried to pick it up, smiling gently as he handed it over. Hoping they would think the red in her cheeks was from the fire, Sara hurried away, flipping on the flashlight as she moved from the light of the camp.
Wondering how on earth she was going to survive three nights of this, she hurried into the trees, angling away from the campfire. Her hands were shaking slightly, sending the beam from the flashlight bouncing and skittering off the trunks of the trees.
"Get a hold of yourself, girl," she muttered to herself, pushing further into the dense trees.
Squatting down behind the leafy branches of a thick bush, she quickly did her business then rose, anxious to get back to the light of the camp. Suddenly, a cold shiver ran up her spine, causing the hair on her arms and the back of her neck to stand on end. She froze, uncertain what had triggered her alarm, her heart hammering a wild tattoo within her chest. She listened intently for any stray sound, but the night was quiet; far too quiet. The buzz and hum of insects that had been constant since the moment the sun went down was suddenly, eerily absent. Sara might not have ever been camping before, but she had seen enough movies to know that was definitely not a good sign.
Her breathing picked up a notch, and she had to swallow hard against the knot of fear building in her throat. She stumbled forward, tripping over branches as she hurried back toward the flickering light of the camp. She had almost made it when a scream ripped through the stillness of the night, the sound harsh and guttural and completely inhuman. It came from directly in front of her, in the direction of the camp, and Sara stumbled to a halt, eyes widening in terror.
"It's a trick." She thought desperately, her breath rasping in and out in short, sharp pants. "Mat's just being a jerk and trying to scare me again."
But no sooner had this thought crossed her mind, then another scream split through the night, this one most definitely human and filled with pain and fear. The scream sounded a second time, jerking Sara from her frozen state.
"Jenna," she gasped, stumbling forward despite her panic, fear for her friend driving her onward. She reached the edge of the camp and cautiously peered around the trunk of a large tree, nearly fainting at the sight that awaited her.
Jenna lay face-down and unmoving on the ground next to the fire, her blond hair glowing oddly in the dancing light of the flames, her pink shirt torn and stained dark with blood. Standing directly above her, bloody mouth pulled back in an angry snarl, stood the golden form of a giant mountain lion. One of the cat's large paws rested on Jenna's lower back, claws digging deeply into her flesh.
Across the fire, Jared stood with a burning branch gripped tightly in one hand, his face white, his mouth pulled tight in a grimace of fear. There was no sign of Mat anywhere. "G-get b-back," Jared stuttered, his voice coming out broken and terrified. He waved the burning branch in front of him warningly.
The cat's giant head followed the swaying path of the branch, its eyes glowing strangely white, and then it let out another coughing scream, the sound nearly causing Sara's knees to buckle in fright. The air around her suddenly seemed to drop several degrees, causing her to shudder with the unexpected cold, and her breath came out in a puffy cloud before her face.
Tearing her eyes away from the terrifying specter of the cat, she glanced wildly around, uncertain what she was looking for, but desperate for help. Almost immediately her eyes fell on the shadowy form of a man leaning casually against the base of a tree on the far side of the camp. At first Sara thought it was Mat, and she felt a flare of confusion…how could he just be standing there?
A second later, however, the man straightened, and Sara realized with a jolt of surprise that it was not Mat after all. This man was much older, with a thick beard covering his jaw and upper lip. He wore the traditional garb of a backwoodsman…worn pants and a flannel shirt…and his skin seemed to be glowing with a strange white light.
The cat's head swiveled toward the stranger, and Sara saw the man's lips move, as though he were talking to the animal, though she could hear no sound. The man's gaze flickered toward Jared, his expression twisted in a sneer, and then he flickered once and vanished, his sudden disappearance robbing Sara of her ability to breathe.
The cat turned its attention back toward Jared, swirling white lights flickering in the depths of its eyes. With a low growl, the animal crouched, the muscles in its shoulders bunching as it prepared to pounce.
Without a thought, Sara turned and fled into the woods.
Behind her, she heard Jared scream.
Sam was bored.
He shifted restlessly in the front seat of the Impala, trying to find an angle where he could stretch out his long legs and relieve some of the stiffness in his back and hips. Thirty-two hours stuck in the car with only the occasional rest stop or gas station was taking its toll on his body. It looked as though his summer break was starting off in typical fashion.
Letting out a long sigh, he twisted in the seat, banging his knee roughly against the bottom of the dash and drawing a scowl from his brother sitting in the driver's seat.
"Dude, careful with the car," Dean muttered, giving him a warning glare.
Sam rolled his eyes. Ever since Dad had given Dean the car three years ago when his brother had turned eighteen, Dean had treated the old classic like it was a priceless gem, jealously guarding it and wrathful of anyone or anything that might do it the slightest harm. Sam thought it was a little ridiculous, but had long since learned that arguing about it got him absolutely nowhere.
"Sorry," he muttered, "just trying to get comfortable."
Dean shook his head. "Why don't you get out and walk around a little," he suggested, his expression a little overly patient. "Dad's probably going to be a little while yet."
Sam nodded, having just been thinking the same thing. He opened the passenger door and unfolded himself from the seat, feeling somewhat like a jack-in-the-box popping free from its confines. He remembered a time not too distant when the Impala had felt open and roomy to him, with plenty of space to move around. That had been before he'd hit a growth spurt nearly a year ago.
Dean was constantly asking him when he was going to stop growing. Already Sam was slightly taller than his brother… as tall as their dad… and he took some satisfaction in the knowledge that this fact irritated his brother more than a little. It wasn't like his height gave him any sort of advantage. Dean was still better at fighting and shooting and just about everything else, but Sam would take what he could get. At least Dean had stopped referring to him as his "baby brother."
Stretching aching muscles, he glanced around him, taking in the tall hills and wooded peaks that surrounded the sprawling town of Price, Utah. Standing as the gateway to Huntington State Park in the Rocky Mountains, the town was a favorite supply point for hikers and campers heading into the park. It was an affluent town, its streets and parks neat and clean, its buildings quaint and well maintained. In short, it looked like any of the hundreds of other small towns Sam had passed through.
What made Price noteworthy to the Winchesters was that in the last two months, over a dozen campers and hikers had been killed in the nearby state park. All of the deaths were being blamed on wild animal attacks. The latest victims, three college students from a nearby university, had been attacked by a mountain lion. It was their bodies that his father was currently examining in the morgue.
There was nothing in particular about the attacks that suggested it was their kind of problem, but there was enough strangeness in the details to pique their father's interest. First, there was the sheer number of attacks in such a short period of time. And second, the attacks themselves…bear, wolf, even elk, and now a mountain lion. One rouge animal in an area was understandable, but multiple…? It was strange enough to have spooked the state park authorities into closing down the various camp grounds in the area and restricting access to that portion of the park.
Sam glanced over at the shiny, black truck parked a few spaces away, wondering idly how much longer their father would be in the morgue. Walking over to the truck he ran his hands along the shiny black metal, deciding then and there that his first vehicle would be a truck with adjustable seats and plenty of leg room. Perhaps his father would pass along his cherished truck to him when he turned eighteen. He somehow doubted it. After all, he wasn't the good son…
With a sigh, Sam turned and took off along the sidewalk, making for the open field on the south side of the building, his thoughts turning back to the latest argument he'd had with his dad. It had been several days ago, and he honestly couldn't clearly remember what had started the fight, or even what it had been about. It had escalated quickly, however, and they had been in the middle of a full on shouting match when Dean had forcefully intervened, shoving his body between them. Two days on the road in separate vehicles had helped ease some of the tension, but not all.
It wasn't very long ago that Sam wouldn't have dared challenge his father…would have swallowed his thoughts and opinions and quietly followed orders as he had always been taught to do. But recently something had changed within him, and Sam knew exactly when that change had started. Mr. Wyatt, an English teacher at a school Sam had stayed at for less than a month his freshman year had asked him a single question: Did he want to go into the family business? Sam had never been asked that question before, and so it had taken him by surprise at how quickly and certainly the answer had come to him. No.
And as easily as that, a shift had taken place inside him…an invisible line crossed. All the bitterness, frustration and discontent with the way they lived their lives had bloomed full force within him, growing and expanding, feeding the longing and desire for something else…something more. He had felt the transformation begin… the transformation from the boy who blindly followed and obeyed all orders to the young man who questioned and challenged everything. He began to chafe under his father's authoritarianism and tight control, and try as he might, he could no longer hide his dissatisfaction.
He knew his sudden change in attitude had caught his father and brother completely off guard. John saw Sam's behavior as rebelliousness, and had immediately attempted to squash it with even stricter rules and harsher punishments. But Sam's discontent was like a wild beast…once let out, it refused to be put back in its cage. Now, it seemed like barely a day passed without he and his father arguing about something.
Walking along the edge of the field, Sam watched a group of boys playing baseball in the distance. Not for the first time, he wondered what it would be like to spend his summer like a normal seventeen year old…playing baseball, swimming, or just lazing the days away. Instead, he got long hours cooped up in the car, cheap hotels, bad food, and an endless variety of creatures that went bump in the night. He felt the all too familiar bitterness rising up in his chest, and had to force his thoughts in another direction.
One more summer, Sam thought, turning away from the baseball game and moving toward a small copse of trees at the far edge of the field. It was a phrase he had repeated to himself over and over again lately. By this time next year, he would be graduated from high school and free to go his own way. He already had plans to go to college, though he hadn't told his father and brother yet. It was a plan that had been in the making for the last two years, and Sam was determined to see it through. He had to see it through, because unlike his dad and brother, he could not face a life filled with nothing but hunting.
It wouldn't be easy. Sam had no money to call his own, barring a couple hundred dollars earned from the occasional odd job. He knew he couldn't expect any financial support from his father, which meant he would need to provide for himself. He had managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA in school so far, and if he could maintain that through his senior year, he felt he had a fairly good chance of picking up a scholarship or two. Of course, his ACT scores would be taken into account as well, but Sam had already begun studying for the test, and felt confident that he would do well. Constantly moving would make things difficult, but it wasn't like Sam wasn't already used to that particular problem. He had overcome it so far, and would continue to do so.
A sharp whistle from behind him pulled him from his thoughts. He turned back toward the parking lot, quickly locating his brother as he leaned against the side of the Impala. Dean motioned him to come back, and Sam glanced toward the building in time to see his father striding down the steps, looking strangely formal in a suit and tie. Pushing down a resigned sigh, he hurried back toward the parking lot, reaching the car at the same time as his father.
"So, what did you find?" Dean asked, straightening from his slouch against the car as the three men came together.
John shrugged out of his suit jacket and tossed it into the back seat of the Impala, then reached up and began tugging loose the tie from around his neck. "Not much," he admitted shortly. "Nothing to show that it was anything other than what was reported, anyway. No missing organs or strange wounds on the body. The cat just tore them up. Didn't even eat them…just killed them."
"So you don't think there's anything here?" Dean actually sounded disappointed.
John shook his head. "Didn't say that," he answered. "The bodies might not have told me much, but the mortician certainly did."
"What do you mean?" Sam asked.
John glanced at him, his hazel eyes sparkling in the late afternoon sun. "He told me about the girl that survived…the one they pulled from the woods a few days ago. Sara Littleton. Apparently she told the police quite the story when they found her, but it never made it to the papers…her father hushed it up before it could go that far. He claims she was panicked and delusional."
"So, what is her story?" Dean asked, interested once more.
"Sara claims she saw a man watching the attack from the edge of the camp," John explained. "A man who disappeared."
Dean arched an eyebrow. "Definitely sounds like our kind of weird," he stated, casting Sam a quick grin before turning back to their father. "I take it our next step is to talk to this Sara chick?"
John nodded. "She's still at the local hospital, but word has it that her father plans to have her moved to a private hospital closer to home, which means we need to hurry if we want to talk to her before she leaves. Dean, you'll be coming in on this one with me, so be ready."
Dean nodded, switching into work mode in the blink of an eye, his features becoming focused and intent. He turned and pulled open the door to the Impala, slipping into the driver's seat as John turned and strode back toward his truck.
With a small sigh, Sam moved around to the passenger seat and slipped in next to his brother.
Like it or not, the hunt was on.
Sara Littleton was a good looking girl, Dean thought. Or at least, she would have been if she hadn't look so frightened and timid, like an abused puppy cowering in the corner of the bed, large eyes turned up to them warily
"Who did you say you were again?" she asked hesitantly, chewing on her bottom lip, her hands fisted in the blanket pulled up over her lap
"My name is John Williams, and this is my son, Dean. We're investigative agents for the Department of Forestry," John told her gently, flashing an official looking badge before slipping it back into his jacket pocket. "Anytime there is a wild animal attack within a state park we have to investigate."
Sara swallowed hard, her fingers twisting in the thin blanket stretched over her lap. "But I already gave my story to the forest rangers who found me, and again to the local police," she argued weakly, sounding slightly desperate at the idea of having to recount her story yet again.
"I know, Ms. Littleton," John replied soothingly, "but unfortunately we have to write up our own report. Policy, you know?" he gave her an apologetic shrug. "We promise to make this as quick as possible."
Sara swallowed hard, her eyes darting around the room as though in search of an avenue of escape. Apparently realizing there was none, she looked back at them, the reluctance in her eyes evident. "What is it you want to know?" she asked softly.
John gave Dean the barest hint of a glance, and taking the cue, Dean stepped forward. "Why don't you just tell us what you told the police," he suggested gently, offering the girl his most charming smile. Sara nodded slowly, and Dean noted with satisfaction the slight blush that stained her cheeks.
"We were camping up near Black River," she began, her eyes locked on Dean's face. "We had just set up camp and were roasting some marshmallows as a late night snack before turning in. I left camp to use the restroom, and was just heading back when I heard it…" She broke off, swallowing hard, her eyes dropping to her lap.
"What was it that you heard?" John prompted quietly.
"The wild-cat," Sara whispered. "It had this coughing scream. I thought it was Mat playing tricks on me at first…trying to scare me, but then…" she broke off once more, her hands twisting into fists in the blankets.
Dean and John waited patiently for Sara to regain her composure, and eventually the girl continued, her gaze still locked on a spot on her lap. "I saw the cat standing over Jenna," she whispered. "I'm pretty sure she was already dead. I didn't see Mat, but Jared was trying to scare the thing off with a branch. I knew the animal was about to attack, and I sorta panicked." Sara looked up at them, and Dean inwardly flinched at the pool of tears filling her eyes. He hated it when girls cried.
"I ran." Sara choked out, the tears now spilling freely down her cheeks. "I was so scared, and I just ran. Jared was always kind to me, and I just left him there," she choked, her body racked with sobs.
Dean cast a slightly desperate glance in his father's direction. Dealing with emotionally distraught females was definitely not his forte.
"Sara," John said firmly, waiting until the girl looked up before continuing. "There is nothing you could have done to help your friends even if you had stayed. You did the right thing in getting out of there."
Dean nodded his support even as he wondered if his father really believed what he was saying. As a Marine, John would never have dreamed of leaving behind a fellow soldier, no matter what the consequences. Sara might not be a soldier, but Dean's experience had taught him that his father didn't always bother with such distinctions when doling out judgment.
With an obvious effort, Sara brought herself back under control. Reaching for a tissue from a box on the bedside stand, she hurriedly wiped at her eyes. "After that, I wandered around for a while…I'm afraid I got somewhat lost…before the park rangers found me. They told me later they found their bodies…all three of them. I had hoped maybe Mat had managed to get away, but…" She trailed off, looking as though she was fighting off another bout of tears.
"What about the man you saw?" John prompted gently, and Dean noted how Sara jerked at his question, looking up at them with wide, frightened eyes.
"You know about that?" she gasped, her cheeks flushing a deep red. "Look… when I told the police that story I was…umm…a little out of it. I was pretty freaked out, and I guess maybe my mind was just playing tricks on me. That's what my father and the doctors say anyway."
"I'm sure they're right," John assured her with a quick smile. "It's just that we need to document everything you remember…whether real or imagined."
When Sara continued to hesitate, Dean jumped in to reassure her. "Don't worry, Ms. Littleton, this conversation is completely confidential. None of it will make it to the public. Just tell us what you saw."
Sara looked back and forth between them before finally giving in with a hesitant shrug. "I thought I saw a man standing on the far side of the camp," she admitted slowly. "He was there one minute, and then the next he vanished. I guess that just serves as proof that he really was part of my imagination. There's not really much more to tell than that."
"Can you tell us what the man looked like?" Dean asked, leaning forward slightly and giving Sara another encouraging smile.
"Sure," Sara stammered. "He was pretty tall, with an orange beard and mustache. He was wearing a red flannel shirt and tan pants. He looked kinda rough and unkempt, you know, and it was almost like he was…flickering?" She looked up at them, her expression telling Dean that she was waiting for them to tell her she was crazy.
"Is there anything else you can tell us," John asked. "Any sudden chill or strange smell to the air?"
Sara frowned, beginning to shake her head, but a second later her expression turned to one of surprise. "It went cold," she blurted, looking back and forth between them with wide eyes. "It was really weird because while the night was cool, it wasn't that bad, if you know what I mean. But suddenly, I was really, really cold. I could see my breath and everything."
Dean exchanged a quick glance with his father, feeling a flash of excitement. Bingo. They were finally on to something.
"What does that mean?" Sara whispered, watching their faces with a frightened expression.
"You were probably in shock, Ms. Littleton," John turned his attention back to her, his voice calm and soothing. "You can get chilled sometimes when your body goes through a traumatic event."
Sara stared at him, and Dean got the distinct impression she wasn't buying the explanation.
"Anything else?" he asked quickly, trying to distract her. "Anything at all?"
Sara hesitated for a moment, her eyes flickering to meet Dean's. He could tell she was debating telling them something, and he kept his expression open and friendly, hoping to encourage her to open up.
"Well," she began slowly, "it's not really something specific. More just an impression, if you know what I mean."
"Go on," Dean urged.
"Well, it sorta seemed to me like the man was…you know…egging the wild-cat on or something. I'm not really sure how to describe it…but…it just felt like he was encouraging it to attack..." She trailed off slowly, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth. "I know this all sounds crazy, but it's what I saw."
John gave her a brief smile. "It doesn't sound crazy at all. Your mind can play all sorts of tricks on you in stressful situations. It's perfectly normal, and I wouldn't worry about it." He turned and met Dean's eye, his silent message clear.
Dean turned to Sara. "Thanks for your time, Ms. Littleton," he said formally. "That should be all we need for our report. If we have any further questions, we'll be in touch."
Sara nodded, looking at once both relieved and confused by the abrupt ending to the interview. Dean gave her a final smile before following his father to the door, stepping out into the hallway and closing the door softly behind him.
"Time to hit the town library," John stated as soon as the door was shut.
Dean nodded his silent agreement, and together they turned and headed toward the exit.
"I think I've found something." Sam's soft statement caught the attention of both his dad and brother.
For the last couple of hours, Sam had been reviewing old articles that had been scanned and entered into the computer system at Price City Library. It was slow, tedious work, but he found he enjoyed it. It was a nice break from being cooped up in a car for hours on end with nothing to do but play old car games with Dean…games that had gotten old by the time Sam had turned seven.
John rose and moved around the table to stand behind Sam, while Dean, who had been sitting beside him, lay down his own research and leaned over. Sam quickly scrolled to the top of the page, revealing the article's title 'Radical Naturalist Shot and Killed By Poachers' displayed in big block letters over a black and white picture of a large, bearded man standing in front of a small cabin, shotgun slung casually over one shoulder.
John gave the photo a cursory glance, then turned to Sam. "Why don't you sum it up for us, son?"
Sam nodded. "Jeremiah Moulder," he stated simply, pointing to the man in the picture. "He was a naturalist and recluse who lived within the park back in the early sixties. According to the article, he was a bit of an extremist."
"What kind of extremist?" Dean asked, still scanning the article over Sam's shoulder.
"Well, let's just say that he preferred his four legged friends over his two legged." Sam replied succinctly. "He dedicated his whole life to fighting for stricter hunting laws and harsher punishments for poachers…all with little success. He was arrested six times for trying to take matters into his own hands by running off hunters…and the last time he actually spent eight months in jail for firing his rifle at them." He paused, shaking his head a little. "Then comes the grand finale. In 1963, he was accidentally killed by poachers when he tried to come between them and the mountain lion they were hunting."
"A pissed off extremist who suffered a violent death," John muttered quietly, gripping the back of Sam's chair.
"Perfect recipe for a homicidal ghost," Dean finished triumphantly, grinning excitedly.
"This could be it," John acknowledged. "Does the article say where Jeremiah was buried?"
Sam nodded. "Near his cabin. The article says it was located just past the point where Black River splits in two."
Without prompting, Dean reached for the map at the center of the table, leaning over and squinting at the tiny print. "Got it," he finally said, placing his finger on a point near the center of the map. Then he let out a slow whistle.
Glancing over, Sam immediately saw what had gotten his brother's attention. Earlier, they had placed red dots on the map indicating each location where there had been an attack. Dean's finger now rested near the exact center of the cluster of dots.
"Well, that's proof enough for me," John stated, straightening from behind Sam and moving back to his own chair. He began hurriedly stacking the unused books and articles they had spread around them.
Sam shook his head, still staring down at the map. "If this really is our guy, it means he's working a pretty large area." He said slowly. "I thought ghosts were tied to a single area…like where their remains are buried or where they lived or died?"
John shrugged. "In most cases, yeah. But there are exceptions." He turned to glance at Dean. "Remember that Jewel Cave ghost we helped Bobby with up in South Dakota a few years back? Those caves ran for over 166 miles, and the ghost had free run of it all."
Dean shuddered. "Don't remind me," he grunted. "I still have nightmares about that one."
John smiled slightly and turned back to Sam. "I don't know, son," he continued. "It may be Jeremiah considered the whole woods his home and not just his cabin, or it might be because he's hitching rides in the animals he's possessing. Whatever the case, it's our job to stop him."
"Have you ever heard of anything like this before, Dad?" Dean asked, his brow furrowing. "Ghosts using animals to gank people?"
John shook his head. "It's a new one for me," he admitted, "but it's not that surprising. Certain ghosts, if they're strong enough, can possess people…make them do what they want. It can't be much different with animals."
"I still don't get what started him off," Sam broke in. "I mean, Jeremiah's been dead for over thirty years, but the attacks didn't start until a couple of months ago."
"I think I might know the answer to that," John replied, turning to shuffle through a large stack of newspapers. "I came across an article a while back about the state park contracting with a Timber company to go in and do some slash and burn work. If I remember correctly, the timber company was supposed to begin work mid-April and the proposed area includes the land around Jeremiah's cabin. I'll bet you anything they managed to inadvertently wake his spirit up."
"Fire and lots of falling trees? That would probably do it," Dean agreed, leaning back in his chair and stretching muscles aching from too many hours bent over books. "And the time frame fits. The first attack happened end of April. Looks like we got the information we need. Now all we need to do is drive out to this cabin, find Jeremiah's bones and torch them. We should be done and out in less than a day."
"Don't be too sure about that," John replied dryly. "There's more to that article I was reading. A bad storm blew through this area two weeks ago and washed out all the access roads back into the park, including the only drivable bridge across Black River. The Timber company had work crews out repairing them, but when the park authorities closed down the area, they pulled all the workers out. The roads are still listed as 'impassable'."
Dean let out a groan. "Great. Jeremiah's cabin is like twenty miles into the park!"
John glanced toward the clock on the wall over the reception desk, then reached for his coat slung over a nearby chair. "We'll grab a hotel in town for tonight, then head out first thing in the morning," he stated, shrugging into the coat. "We'll take my truck as far as we can, then hike the rest of the way in on foot. Get ready to do some camping, boys."
Sam couldn't hold back a small sigh, drawing his brother's eye. "What's wrong, Sammy?" he asked, clapping Sam over the shoulder. "You always used to ask why we couldn't spend our summers going camping like normal folk. Well, here's your chance."
Sam rolled his eyes. "Dean, camping out in the wilderness with a killer ghost using animals to rip people to shreds isn't the normal I was looking for."
Dean smirked, his green eyes flashing mischievously. "Ahh, don't worry, Sammy," he quipped. "I'll keep you safe from the bad ol' putty tat."
"Shut up." Sam glared at him.
"Enough, both of you." John stepped in before it could get out of hand. "Your heads in the game?"
"Yes sir," both boys chorused obediently, Dean with a bit more enthusiasm than Sam.
John nodded in satisfaction, then led the way from the library. One way or another, the next day promised to be very interesting.