A Matter of Circumstance (for a prompt by ash48 for the Nov 2013 ohsam fic challenge on LJ)
Sam came to slowly, like drifting through a thick morning fog, carried by the tide toward a distant, vague shoreline. But it wasn't anything visual that came into gradual focus for him; his eyes were still closed, scrunched tight against the pain. It was his hearing that came awake first—the soft squeak of rubber-soled shoes on linoleum, the clatter of something metal, the distant unintelligible sound of voices over an intercom, and then he settled on the unmistakable beeping that told him he was in a hospital.
He didn't remember why.
He wanted to know what had happened, but some part of him knew that whatever it was, it was bad, very bad. Fear clenched in his gut, stronger than the pain radiating up his leg. Fight it, he told himself, and coward, he called himself, but it didn't matter. He couldn't bring himself to face the reality, not yet. He gave in to the temptation to drift away and sink back into the fog.
The next time he surfaced it was with a start, heart racing. "Dad!" Dad was in terrible danger. Was hurt, bad, and Sam—
"Easy, little brother." Dean's voice broke through his panic, and Sam felt Dean's hand on his arm, warm. Just enough pressure to keep Sam from thrashing if it came to that, but Sam calmed at the words.
"Dad's here. He's gonna be okay."
Here. Here in the hospital, that meant. Sam still didn't remember what had happened, but the one thing he did know was that Dean never lied to him. Not anymore. Not since that Christmas when Sam was nine, and had demanded the truth about where Dad was and what Dad did. And Dean had stopped pretending.
Dean said Dad was going to be okay. So Sam didn't have anything to worry about. Reassured, he went back to sleep.
The third time he woke, Sam started to remember.
They'd been hunting a hodag in the woods of northern Wisconsin. He and Dad, that is. Dean had been stuck at the motel back in town, laid up with a broken arm, arguing in vain that a creature like that was too much for just the two of them to handle.
"You questioning my ability, Dean?" John Winchester gave him that patented disapproving look, the don't mess with me that always seemed to turn Dean into a proper soldier, and made Sam bite his lip to hold back a retort. "Or my judgment?"
"No, sir. I just—"
Dad waved him off. "We've got this, Dean. Sam's never gonna develop into a real hunter if you're always around to pick up the slack."
Sam rolled his eyes. John shot him a quick glare, as if daring Sam to smart off, but Sam held his tongue. Hoping he would one day earn Dad's respect and in turn Dad would come to trust Sam and support his choices… well, as plans went, it wasn't a very good one, but it was the best one he had for now.
He watched the broad expanse of Dad's retreating back as he headed out the door with a load of supplies. Sam was going along with it, no arguments. A great way to start Christmas break. December. In Wisconsin. Just him and Dad, together 24/7 for two or three days. They'd be lucky if they didn't kill each other instead of the hodag, especially without Dean along to distract and defuse.
Still, Dean's right arm was in a cast, from his forearm all the way to the tips of two fingers. He obviously couldn't handle a weapon. He couldn't even drive the car. There wasn't much he could do, and Sam could see his brother was chomping at the bit.
"Just hang loose," he offered helpfully. "Spend some quality time with your skin mags."
"I wish," Dean sighed, holding up his bum arm wistfully. "'Tis the season; maybe I'll practice making eggnog one-handed while you're gone. Too bad you're too young to sample the outcome."
"Yeah, 'cause you never indulged till you were legal." Sam grinned. Dean had given Sam his first beer when he was fourteen. He picked up the heavy duffel bag and settled the strap on his shoulder.
"You got everything you need packed in there? Bear spray?"
"I don't think that's gonna stop a hodag, Dean. Dad says it's gonna take dynamite."
"You'll be in bear territory up there, dude. Just because they're supposed to be hibernating now doesn't mean you should take any chances."
Yes, Mom. The phrase was on the tip of Sam's tongue, a retort he'd heard often enough at school whenever one friend made a bossy-but-not-wholly-unreasonable suggestion to another. But looking at Dean, the words caught in his throat. Instead, he crossed his heart. "I promise I won't provoke any bears."
"Better not," Dean warned, ducking his head as if embarrassed to be serious. "Just be careful out there. And watch out for Dad too."
Sam nodded and turned to go.
"Shake a leg, Sam!" Dad's voice boomed from the parking lot.
"Bring home some hodag bacon!" Dean called after them, and Sam jogged out to the Impala, really wishing Dean could come along.
What had happened after that? It had to be somewhere in Sam's brain, but it was like searching for something under murky water: the deeper he dove, the darker it got. He knew in his bones that there was something ominous, just out of sight. His skin felt damp and clammy, and he started to shiver.
"It's okay, Sammy." That was Dean's voice. Dean's hands pulling the blanket up to his shoulders. Was he dreaming?
"It's just the fever, that's all. The nurse is coming," Dean reassured him. "She'll put a cocktail in your IV that'll clear that right up." There was a creak of plastic, and his voice went softer as he apparently settled back in a nearby chair. "Tell you what. You wanna hear a secret? I've never told anyone this before—the most harrowing moment in my young-but-heroic life. Guaranteed to make you feel like your own troubles aren't so bad."
What? What terrible thing could have happened to Dean that Sam didn't know anything about? Sam's anxiety took a U-turn.
As if gathering his thoughts, Dean started to whistle softly. It was a classic TV theme song, and as quickly as Sam recognized it, Dean broke out the lyrics. I'm not afraid of any pretty maid—Bonanza! But when I give a kiss to any little miss, she'll learn a lot from me!
"Dean, what the hell?" Sam tried to ask, but nothing came out, and Dean went on.
"It was a Saturday night. You'd fallen asleep—kinda like now, Sammy, come to think of it—and I snuck back into the living room to watch TV. Dad wasn't home. He wasn't gone on a hunt, just down at the nearest bar, playing pool and picking up some rent money. So anyway, I was playing with that crappy TV antenna to get a signal, and Bonanza came on. You know that show?" Dean didn't wait for an answer. "Sure you do. You liked Little Joe's horse; I remember that. So, I was saying. Pa and Hoss went off on a cattle drive or something, and Joe stayed behind at the Ponderosa to meet up with the new cook. 'Cause Hop Sing didn't want to go on the cattle drive; he made up some excuse about needing to visit his family or something. And so there I am, sitting on the couch and kinda thinking about changing the channel for something with a little more action. And then suddenly—"
Sam tried to open his eyes, wanted to see Dean telling the story, but it was too hard. He heard a sound like Dean pouring a glass of water from a nearby pitcher, and he tried to guess where this story was going. Something scary had to have happened in that motel room, Sam thought. Had it been haunted? Or maybe there'd been some kind of creature—he wracked his brain to remember some of the things they hunted that preyed on children. Like a rawhead?
"Suddenly," Dean repeated, "a huge storm rolled in. The sky went pitch black, and the wind was strong enough to literally shake the buildings. Lightning crashed on top of thunder—it sounded like being inside a Lars Ulrich drum solo, man."
Maybe it wasn't something supernatural, Sam thought. Maybe lightning hit the motel. Or a tornado. Though he was pretty sure he'd have remembered that….
"Little Joe went into the barn to settle the horses—"
Oh. Duh. The storm was on the TV.
"—and one of the horses got spooked, and reared up in a panic. I remember Joe getting pinned in the corner of the stall, and the flash of the horse's front legs." Dean's voice shook a little, and a chill rolled down Sam's spine. "I still remember the sound when it stomped on Little Joe, and shattered his arm and his leg. Like, really gross, dude. Bone sticking through the skin and everything."
Sam flinched, and the image that flashed behind his closed eyelids wasn't the Ponderosa.
It was a hodag they'd been hunting in the woods. The snow made it almost easy to track: nothing else in the forest was bigger than Dad and left a trail that revealed clawed footprints, three claws facing forward and one backward, and the broad tail of something like a lizard. Not unlike the mythical dragon in some ways, but uglier and without wings.
The best way to kill it, lore said, was dynamite.
The growing stench meant they were getting closer. Through the late afternoon shadows and the flurries of snow, Sam saw a flicker of red flame and a puff of smoke; he reached forward to tap his father's shoulder. John came to a stop and Sam nodded, pointing in the direction of the possible lair.
They'd planned this out: Sam was to stay back with the gear, while John got close enough to light a short fuse, toss a stick of dynamite, and take cover. With an ear-splitting BOOM! it all went according to plan, too. Up until the moment the ground John was standing on suddenly crumbled and disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Sam raced forward, skidding to a stop just before the lip of the landslide. They'd been hunting near the edge of a steep gorge, and the percussive blast had caused a massive rock slide. Shattered bits of tree bark and leaves and dirt were still floating down, but he could just make out the shape of a motionless body at the bottom of the ravine. Sam waved at the dust and snow flurries in the air and then let out a long breath when he realized it was the hodag, with those spikes along his heavy spine, and the massive horned head cocked at an angle that surely meant a broken neck.
But where was Dad?
Sam whipped his head in the direction of the faint voice. His dad was sprawled on his back on a shallow ledge, maybe twenty feet down.
"M'okay. Hit my head. But, mmm'alright." John curled forward, trying to prop himself up on his elbows, and then fell back with a hand to his head. "S-sammy? You 'kay?" His words slurred and faded. His hand flopped to the ground and Sam could see the blood on it.
Sam tried to calm himself and survey the situation. The ledge his dad lay on was maybe four feet wide and ten feet long. The angle of the rock face was too steep and barren to climb down or up.
"Dad! Don't move. I'll get help!"
There was no answer. His father was out cold.
"Just a concussion. It's just a concussion," Sam murmured to himself as he spun around. He ran back to the duffel bag, mind racing. Was there rope in it? Fat snowflakes fluttered into the bag and melted as he rummaged through the contents. No, no rope. More weapons: knife, machete, handgun, rock salt. Flashlight. Topographic map. First aid kit. Space blanket. Emergency rations. Matches and bottled water. Cell phone—but no signal.
All the main camping gear was back at the campsite, as was the Impala.
Which Sam didn't have keys to. But 'borrrowing' a car without keys was one of those essential life skills that Winchesters learned young; Dean had taught him how to hotwire a car. Resolved, Sam took off toward the campsite and car, making sure to mark the path he took as he headed for home base so he'd be able to find his way back… preferably with a full rescue crew.
Tree branches whipped at his head as he crashed through blackberry thickets, ignoring the scratch of thorns. The snow hid roots and rocks that made him stumble, but he didn't slow and trusted his balance to recover from any missteps. He had to admit, Dad's insistence on those cross-country training runs was paying off. His lungs burned, but he knew he could keep up the pace. And then—one wrong step, and he was suddenly wrenched to the ground, caught by what felt like the sharpest of teeth tearing through flesh and bone. A crack like a gunshot overlaid by the echoes of Sam's scream.
A change in Dean's voice felt like a lifeline; Sam clung to it and let it pull him away from the memory and back to the present. Dean had stopped his narration of the Bonanza episode, and Sam realized someone else had come in the room.
"Why won't he wake up, Doc?" There was a rough and anxious edge to Dean's voice.
I am awake! Sam protested—but apparently he didn't protest and he wasn't awake. He was trapped between a terrifying memory and a reality that held something that frightened him even more.
"Don't worry," a woman's voice answered, reassuringly. "His vitals look good. He'll wake up when he's ready. Just keep talking to him. He may be able to hear you, even if he doesn't respond."
A set of footsteps moved away, a door opened and Sam could hear the faint sound of Christmas carolers down a hallway before the door closed again.
Dean cleared his throat and settled back into the easygoing tone Sam remembered from years of bedtime stories long ago.
"Where was I? Oh, yeah. So Joe had dragged himself from the barn to the house, and I think he tried to splint his leg and his arm. But fever set in, and he was half out of his mind from the pain. And still nobody came. The new cook he was waiting for? Didn't show. Or didn't find him, I don't remember. Anyway. He was all alone. They had a bunch of books on the Ponderosa, so finally Joe dragged down a medical book and looked up his symptoms and then he knew. Gangrene had set in."
There was a lull before Dean said the fateful words. "He knew he'd have to amputate, or else he'd die."
Sam knew enough about anatomy to know that there were two bones in the lower leg, the fibula and the tibia. The rusty metal teeth of the bear trap had snapped both. He could tell that by the sickeningly wrong angle of his foot. And by the frost-white gleam of bone just visible through the torn denim of his bloodied jeans.
Desperate, Sam pulled at the steel jaws, struggling to pry them open. His gloves allowed for poor purchase so he tore them off, but still lacked the strength and leverage to get his leg free. Darkness fell quickly; he paused in his efforts to grab a flashlight from the duffel still hooked over his shoulder. His hands grew slick with sweat, and each time they slipped, it jerked his leg and almost made him pass out. Finally, wiping away tears of frustration with the back of his hand, Sam realized his need for warmth was almost as great as the need to escape. He shrugged the duffel off, rummaged in it for the matches, and built a small fire with the brush available in the limited radius he could reach. Then he pulled out the space blankets. The first one he opened and tried to toss across the blackberry bush. It fell a little above and behind the campfire, creating at least partial shelter against the wind and snow and reflecting some of the fire's heat back at him. The second blanket, he tucked around himself.
One of these should be protecting Dad, he berated himself. He felt guilty, even though with his dad unconscious and so far out of reach, there'd been no way to get supplies to him.
The hours passed slowly. The OTC painkillers he'd found in the first aid kit didn't help much. Sam dozed and woke in fits and starts, and would have thought that he hadn't slept at all, but for his surprise at dawn at finding that the fire was out, a blanket of new snow covering his campsite. The space blanket over the thicket had blown away. Sam was stiff and cold and stretched without thinking. The sudden movement lit his leg on fire. He curled in on himself, shuddering, and rode out the waves of pain the way his dad and brother had taught him.
They weren't even due back till Christmas Eve; no one would be worried about them for another two days. If he had to, Sam knew he could melt snow to replenish his water supply. He had some protection from the weather. But Dad had already been out all night, no water, no fire, no shelter. There was no denying he was a tough old bastard, but even John Winchester might not survive another night of this. Sam knew he had to do something.
He yelled until he was hoarse while the sun rose higher, but no one came. He traced the chain to the anchor, thinking maybe he could dig that up, even though he was pretty sure he couldn't crawl to a road dragging a fifty-pound bear trap. But he had to try. In the end, it didn't matter though, because the ground was frozen and the anchor too deeply embedded. He'd need a shovel to dig it up, and of course, that was in the trunk of the Impala.
His hands were chapped and his fingers starting to swell. Where were his gloves? He remembered tossing them off the night before, but wherever they had landed, they were covered with a layer of snow now. He swiped at the ground in a circle around him with his sleeve but with no luck, and he cursed his stupidity. Maybe they, like the blanket, had been swept away by a gust of wind.
Sam tucked his hands under his armpits and started to shiver harder. After a while, he began to suspect by the sweat trickling down his face that the chills were due to fever as much as the cold. He had to do something now, if there was any chance of getting help before Dad spent another night exposed to the elements.
Reluctantly, he pulled his hands back out and built up the small campfire with pinecones and the last of the broken branches within reach. His fingers were getting numb and it took several tries before he got a match to light. He took the hunting knife out of the duffel bag and propped it so that the blade was in the fire. His vision wavered, and he wasn't sure if it was due to the flames or the tears that filled his eyes. He blinked and made himself look at his leg.
The puddle of blood below his foot had frozen. At least the cold had stopped the bleeding. He could see bone and sinew through the rip in his jeans, and it made his gut churn. Taking a deep breath, Sam reached back into the duffel and his hand closed on the handle of the machete.
It was sharp enough for beheading creatures they hunted. It ought to be sharp enough to take off his own foot.
He gagged and vomited bile. Then he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and pulled the machete the rest of the way out of the bag. His arms trembled and he barely had the strength to lift it.
Hold it up high, and then let gravity do the work, he told himself. He didn't have to put a lot of muscle into it. The bones were already sheared through. If he lined it up right, he just had to slice through any skin and muscle and nerves still holding his leg together.
A tourniquet, though. Veins and arteries would also have to be severed and he didn't want to bleed to death. He needed a tourniquet first.
He shrugged out of his coat and peeled off his outer shirt, before burrowing back into the coat. The long sleeves of the flannel wound easily around his leg just above the knee. His hands shook and it was hard to pull the sleeves into a tight knot, but he twisted the material with a stick to apply more leverage. Then he went to take a drink of water, as much for courage as to combat the utter dryness of his mouth, but he couldn't grip the bottle securely and it slipped through his fingers. Valuable water gurgled out before he righted it.
He couldn't do this.
He shouted again. "Help! Anyone, help!" he croaked, his throat shredded. He knew no one would hear him, but he couldn't help it. "Help!... Dad?... Dean?"
Only silence. It was time.
He picked the machete back up, lined it up, and raised it into position. Putting all his strength into the blow, he slammed it down.
"No!" Past caught up with present. Sam knew what he'd been hiding from now. The stabbing pain is his right leg was called 'phantom pain' and wasn't uncommon in amputees.
"Sammy? You awake?" Eagerness rang in Dean's voice. "Take it easy. You're okay. Dad's okay. I'm okay. Everyone is fine. Well, more or less."
More or less. One foot less, in his case. Look at the bright side, he told himself. He had a get-out-of-hunting-free card now. Sam took a deep breath, and hoped the tears pricking behind his eyes wouldn't show. It was time to open his eyes and face reality.
He couldn't bring himself to look down the blanket at the outline of his legs though. Not yet. Instead, he turned to his brother. The relief he saw in Dean's face almost made Sam let loose with the tears he was fighting back.
Dean let go of Sam's shoulder and sank back in his chair. "So," he continued, as if Sam had been following along with his story the whole time. "Now you know the secret—one of my most traumatic memories."
"I told you, Sammy. Right when Little Joe was about to amputate his arm, Dad came home and made me shut off the TV and start packing up the car to leave. I never got to see what happened next! It's plagued me ever since!"
Sam didn't know whether to be angry or to laugh. "That's your idea of a harrowing experience? Missing the end of a TV show?"
"Well, it's haunted me more than any of the ghosts we've helped Dad put down." Dean shrugged and then his expression lifted. "Hey, I bet you can put me out of my misery. You probably saw that episode—maybe one of those times when you were staying at Bobby's?"
Bobby only got the local channels from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and one of them was always showing classic TV western marathons.
"Yeah, I remember it." Sam sighed. "What did you think would've happened next?"
"You tell me, Sammy."
"His dad and brother came back. They weren't supposed to be there, but they were worried and they came back and found him. Just in time."
"Figures!" Dean smiled, eyes crinkling, and Sam had the sudden impression that Dean knew how the story ended all along. He'd just wanted to make Sam say it. "Family," Dean added. "You can always count on family."
"I guess," Sam said heavily. He closed his eyes. At least, if Dad was okay, then apparently Dad could count on family, even though Sam had no memory of actually crawling away to find help. Whether he was delirious with fever by then, or it was too painful, too traumatic to remember, didn't really matter. What mattered was: family came through.
"Don't you ever doubt it, Sammy. You can always count on family," Dean repeated. Something in his tone made Sam open his eyes again. He saw Dean hiding a wince and shifting his casted arm awkwardly.
The cast looked pristine. Not a hint of their graffiti on it.
"Did you—did you cut off your cast?"
Dean actually looked sheepish. "I can't explain it. I just—I just had a bad feeling that you needed help."
That was just like Dean, who never was good at sitting still, and tended to think he was kind of indispensable. Any wondering if there was some coincidence about when Dean was moved to act, and when Sam called out to him? Well, that was just whimsical thinking, Sam told himself.
"It's only a cast, dude," Dean added. "You—" His voice caught on the words. "You were prepared to cut off a lot more."
Prepared to…? An insistent spike of jagged pain made Sam finally take a look. Almost faint with relief, he could see the outline of both legs under the blanket. The left leg, long and lean, the topography rising at the end where his toes pressed against the sheet. The right leg, just as long, but thickly padded and elevated, with another mound where his right foot angled up.
"When I found you," Dean went on, "Jesus Christ, Sammy. It was bad enough when I saw that fuckin' bear trap! But then I saw the tourniquet, and knife blade in the fire to cauterize the wound, and—and the machete… and I realized what you were planning to do—"
"I couldn't see any other way," Sam said quietly. The pain was growing in his leg and it was hard to focus on anything else. His bandaged fingers plucked restlessly at the blanket. "I didn't think Dad would survive another night."
"Looked to me like you missed, the machete must have hit the steel trap instead. Which didn't do anything more than scratch the metal."
The shock of that impact must have made him pass out, Sam thought. Because he didn't remember anything after that. He wanted to ask how Dean got him out, and how he got Dad up from the ledge. He must have gone back for help, Sam decided, but suddenly he felt very sleepy. He sensed Dean's shadow lean back across him and thought Dean must have hit the morphine pump for him.
"Thanks, Sam," Dean said softly. "For watching out for Dad. You did good."
I didn't do anything you wouldn't have done for us, Sam thought. Dad would have done the same thing too, he was certain. In fact, it scared him a little, the lengths they were willing to go for each other. It reminded him why he wanted them out of the hunting life. They shouldn't have to find themselves in situations where such drastic sacrifices were possible. He shivered.
But for now? He was whole. And his family was whole. And safe. They were a mess, but it looked like they'd be together for Christmas after all. He felt Dean's leather jacket being draped across his chest, and he let the comforting weight and smell of it soothe him into sleep.
~ end ~
Notes: Written for this prompt from ash48 at the LJ ohsam Nov 2013 fic challenge: "I've got a hankering for teenage Sam with hi s foot caught in a bear trap." Title taken from a certain Bonanza episode, which is featured in the story. Thanks to geminigrl11 for the beta!