Rating: PG-13

 

Chapter 5

"I have a very strict gun control policy: if there's a gun around, I want to be in control of it."

~ Clint Eastwood

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Sulfur Springs, Texas 1870

Thoughts slipped through the web of his mind as though coated in axel grease, never quite gripping, pausing long enough to tease him with clarity, then skimming away in a blur of color and light, leaving an aftertaste of reason lying heavy in his head.

I'm here.

It was the only thing he could hang onto for long. He was here. He wanted to tell Sean, to assure him that it was going to be fine, now, it was all going to be okay…but he couldn't remember where he'd told Sean to go. He was sure he'd hidden him away, safe from all of this. It would come back to him, he knew. Just as every important fact did.

But for now Sean was safe and he was here.

The confusing rush of rage and pain that had propelled him away from the dust of an empty paddock area into the cool of the Texas night had subsided. In its place, filling him like a rising tide, was a trembling combination of disbelief and realization: it had worked.

He had a job to do. He just had to remember what it was.

Strange smells filled his nostrils. An unfamiliar mixture of manure and mud, alfalfa and sweat brought his cloudy thoughts into a narrowed, perplexing focus. He was standing in a corral, surrounded by sleepy-looking horses. He looked around, seeing a rough-hewn fence with a deep trough of water shoved up against it.

A bewildering sense of utter openness pressed in around him. It was as if the world had been emptied of all superfluous attachments, shaking anything unnecessary loose and leaving only those things necessary for survival. He felt as if he were suffocating on space.

Looking down, he saw a curry brush in his hand and it slowly began to click. He'd maneuvered himself into the corral under the guise of brushing down the horses just turned loose so that he could better spy on the activities of the main house. What he was looking for there, though, slipped through the wide-holed net of purpose in his mind.

He dropped the curry brush in the dirt and patted his pockets, searching for something that might provide him a clue as to his next steps. He came up empty. Again. And then he remembered: he wasn't wearing his own clothes.

His clothes had been shredded. He'd stolen these. He couldn't even remember who he'd taken them from. Plucking at the garments in frustrated confusion, he saw the blood. His hands felt almost coated with it; it seemed to stain his shirt wherever he touched.

The blood of another man's son. The blood of the innocent.

He shouldered two horses aside and plunged his aching hands into the slimy water trough, vexed that he was unable to rid his skin of the sticky substance. He remembered the face…the green eyes filled with hate and panic, the pain in the cry as he cut through the skin.

"Brand!"

Jake brought his head up, irritated at being interrupted. If nothing else, he had to get that kid's blood off of his hands.

"What the hell you doin' out with the horses?"

"Cleanin' up," Jake snarled at a heavy-set man who was sizing him up from beneath bushy eyebrows.

"Well, get your ass up to the house," the man replied, lightly tossing the short leather lash of a riding crop over his shoulder and spitting a stream of brown liquid into the water trough. "Ivers wants you."

Hands dripping, suspended over the trough, Jake glared at the man until he finally turned and left, ambling back the way he'd come. It took Jake a moment to remember: that man was his boss, now. The foreman for Ivers' ranch. He now worked for Ivers. He wanted to work for Ivers. Because Ivers….

Think, dammit. Why the hell do I give a damn about this Ivers?

Running his wet palms along the legs of his stolen pants, Jake dragged in a shuddering breath. The world shifted around him and his vision doubled. Leaning against the flank of a Paint horse, he tried to pin down a thought—just one thought—that made sense in the slick maze that was his mind. He'd managed to get here, to this ranch, this house, on purpose.

He just couldn't remember why.

A shout caught his attention and he made his way through the cluster of horses to the wooden fence creating the circular corral that penned in the animals. Climbing to the top rung and throwing his leg over, he saw a smaller building attached to a barn. Two men moved from the door of that building carrying a figure between them. He frowned, watching as they made their way to the other side of the building and dropped the figure next to a hole.

A hole dug in the Earth.

"He keeps this up, we're not gonna have enough men," grumbled a rough voice near him.

Jake looked down to see an ancient man, time-worn with wrinkles lining his face in deep creases. "Keeps what up?" he asked.

The man tipped his chin toward the two men who were now swinging the figure—a body, Jake realized slowly—over the hole and dropping it in.

Dropping it into a grave.

Jake's heart skittered.

Sean….

"Ivers killed that one because he asked why we needed so many horses," the man said. "You're new here, right?"

Jake nodded, his head suddenly pounding. He pressed two fingers against his forehead, working to push away the images that beat against the backs of his eyes.

The image of Sean, shredded, bloody, staring up sightlessly.

The image of another man's son, struggling, fighting, bleeding.

The image of face after face as he cut through their skin, broke open their skulls, and pulled out the pivotal piece from inside their heads.

"You want to get old here, keep your head down and your mouth shut," the old man said, then moved slowly toward the grave, tugging his battered hat from his bald head.

Jake closed his eyes against the sight of dirt being tossed in over the body. He pressed his palms against his temples, wanting to stop the noise, wanting to blank out the memories.

Sean isn't safe. Sean isn't safe at all….

Sean is dead.

All he needed was to find it. The weapon. He just had to find it and then he could fix this. He could fix all of this.

He took a deep breath and ran his hands down his face, surprised to find his cheeks wet. Climbing down from the corral fence, he walked slowly toward the main house, trying not to think about the fact that he was the one who'd broken it all in the first place.

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As they stepped from the bright light of day into the shadows of the saloon, it struck Sam as odd how normal the whole situation felt now that Dean stood next to him.

The surreal quality of the reality he'd opened his eyes to before dawn had now been replaced with a feeling of solidarity and purpose. They'd survived the impossible: time travel. They were now standing in a moment before they had even been ideas; when their great, great grandparents were children.

Now, far removed from No-Tell Motels and empty highways, he and Dean crossed the wood floor of the saloon, their boots hitting a synchronized beat, the sound captured by the slowly-filling establishment.

In the time they'd been away, the saloon had come to life, despite the fact that it was mid-morning. The interior still smelled of dust, whiskey, sweat, and old smoke, but for one unbalanced moment, Sam felt as if he recognized those scents from his regular life. As if there were no other smells he would associate with home, life, heartbeats. Moving in unison with Dean toward the bar, Sam worked to recall the smell of motor oil, gunpowder, leather... anything that had grounded him in the past.

A middle-aged man maneuvered glasses and drinks easily behind the bar and nodded at Zeke as they entered. Sam watched with wry amusement as the man wiped down the overturned shot glasses, then flung the thin white towel over his shoulder. It was implausible, but if he didn't know better, he'd be willing to guess he and Dean were sharing a dream. That at least might make sense.

But reality was bending to fit this new shape of now and Sam was just trying to keep up.

Dirty, weary-looking men in various stages of dress—some clad only in pants, suspenders, and long underwear—graced various tables and he saw a poker game had started at the green felt table nearest the base of the stairs. The man who had approached them at the Livery leaned against the far end of the bar, a mug of beer in front of him, his head hanging low.

Guess he didn't find Fox and Ray.

"I'll get Stella," Zeke said to them as he moved toward the stairs. "She can rustle up some food for us."

"I ate," Dean waved a hand at him.

Sam leaned on the bar, hooking the heel of his boot on the brass floor runner, and looked at his brother. "You're passing up food?"

Dean removed the black hat and set it on the bar, rubbing the top of his head until his sandy hair stuck up in familiar tufts. "For now," he said, looking at Sam's reflection in the big mirror behind the bar. "Don't suppose they have cheese burger and fries in the old west, do you?"

"I'm guessing no," Sam replied, trying to surreptitiously inspect his brother.

Weary lines drew down Dean's eyes, leveling his mouth into a slight frown as his gaze took in their surroundings. Sam recognized what only someone who'd spent hours alongside another would see: well-masked pain. Dean was hurting, and Sam guessed he was running a fever based on a light sheen of sweat on his brow and a slightly heightened color to his cheeks. But he seemed to be holding it together.

For now.

"Sam." Dean's voice startled him, pulling his eyes forward to meet his brother's in the mirror. "Stop it."

"I'm not doing anything," Sam protested, looking away.

"Relax, okay? I'm not going anywhere," Dean assured him. "Not without you, anyway."

Dean's quiet words shifted a delicate balance inside of Sam's heart. There was only so much unreality he could take. He felt the world swim around him, doubling his vision and bringing a sour, wet taste to the back of his mouth as the events of the morning caught up to him.

"Whoa," he breathed, closing his eyes and slowly lowering his forehead to rest on his folded arms, drawing air in slowly.

"Easy, Sammy…slow, deep breaths."

He felt Dean's hand on his back. His muscles instantly eased. He knew that weight, that touch: the blunt fingers digging gently into the cut of his shoulder, the palm heavy and warm.

A hand on his back had been Dean's way of comforting him since Sam had been very young. He never rubbed or patted the way John had when Sam had been scared or upset or sick. There was no motion to distract from the weight. It was just a touch; a simple reassurance that Sam wasn't alone, that he had someone to lean on.

"I'm okay," Sam muttered toward the bar, wincing as the fetid smell of his own breath wafted back at him. "Just…been a long morning."

"You're not wrong there," Dean sighed, lifting his hand.

Sam brought his head up when he heard the sound of a glass hitting the bar near him. "You're drinking?"

Dean lifted an eyebrow. "When in Rome…," he commented and tossed the shot of amber liquid to the back of his throat. Sam watched tears gather in his eyes as the alcohol hit him and bit back a smile as Dean gasped. "Damn."

"Strong, huh?"

"Yeah," Dean wheezed. "'S good stuff."

He coughed once, banging a fist against his chest, then turned and glanced around the saloon. Sam did a mental count-down as he watched Dean's mouth tip up into a slight grin.

"Dude, I think I like this place," he said, his eyes narrowing as he sized up the poker game.

"Figured you might," Sam replied. He started to reach for the bottle next to Dean's glass, but thought better of it as he stomach rolled slightly. Food first, he lectured himself. He'd never been able to hold his liquor as well as his brother.

"All that's missing is a willing woman," Dean glanced at Sam, winking, "or two."

Sam shook his head, smiling at the incorrigible way Dean seemed to gravitate to the same vices, regardless of their location. "Well, Stella? That Zeke went to get?"

"Oh, dude, don't tell me…," Dean closed his eyes in anticipated pleasure, the edges of his mouth tipping upward.

"She runs the brothel," Sam said.

"Scratch that," Dean turned back around, leaning against the counter and pouring himself another shot. "I friggin' love this place."

"You're so easy," Sam shook his head.

"But not cheap," Dean lifted the glass in a slight salute to Sam before sipping the whiskey slowly. "Where do you think they are?"

"Who?"

"The…brothel…ladies," Dean said, looking at Sam's reflection in the mirror. Sam could see him trying to figure out what the term for prostitutes would be in this time period. "Sleepin' late?"

Sam shrugged. "Who knows? It's not even noon. Maybe they don't…y'know…work until it gets dark."

"A man has needs any time of the day," Dean said, his lips pressed forward.

"Easy, cowboy," Sam chuckled. "You might not want to…you know…I mean, with the women…."

Dean glanced up at him, eyes twinkling. "What, Sam?"

Sam felt his cheeks heat up. "You know what I mean."

Blinking innocently, Dean shook his head. "Seriously…drawing a complete blank here."

"There are, y'know…diseases, Dean," Sam whispered. "The kind that you might not want to contract if we can't get back to the twentieth century."

Dean started laughing.

"Shut up," Sam grumbled, rethinking his decision to hold off on drinking.

"Loosen up, Sammy," Dean chuckled. "There's plenty to appreciate about women without contracting a disease. "

Sam scowled a moment longer, but his disgruntlement at being teased vanished when he caught sight of a woman descending the stairs with Zeke.

"For example," Dean whispered, and Sam knew he'd seen her, too.

"Boys, meet Stella," Zeke said as the duo approached.

Sam felt his mouth go dry, all the dizziness and uncertainty of the last few moments vanishing as blood rushed from his head down, his body reacting to the sight before him.

She was easily old enough to be his mother; the light in her dark eyes held echoes of wisdom only years of experience could gather. Her black hair was piled high in finger-curled ringlets with one or two falling down her nearly-bare back. Her eyes were painted with smudges of dark shadow—just enough that Sam found himself looking longer as if afraid she'd expose her secrets the moment he dared to blink.

Her lips curved up in a smile as she glanced from Sam to Dean.

"Eyes up," she ordered, her throaty voice betraying a hint of humor. "Those don't say much."

Confused, Sam glanced over at Dean and watched as his brother dragged his gaze slowly from Stella's barely-concealed, ample breasts up to her face with considerable effort. Sam skidded a glance down the rest of her body, noting the black corseted waist and deep red skirt that ended at her well-muscled calves exposing netted stockings and high-heeled, lace-up boots. She wasn't tiny; he didn't think his hands would span her waist even with the corset.

But her curves left him thirsty.

"Ma'am," the brothers nodded in unison.

"Oh, Ma'am, is it?" She glanced at Zeke. "What lies are you telling this time?"

Zeke held his hands up in surrender, his eyebrows hitting his hairline. "Haven't said a word. I swear."

Stella looked back at the brothers, her smile knowing as she skimmed Dean's face, then softening as she rested her gaze on Sam. "Zeke says you boys need some help," she said. Sam nodded. Dean didn't move. "I have food and an empty bed. Which one do you want first?"

Sam heard the low-throated whimper Dean tried to suppress and had to give his brother credit for reining in his obvious desire to crank the Winchester charm up to eleven.

"Food would be great, Ms…," Sam replied.

"Just Stella," she replied with a grin. "I left the Missus with my man, and he ain't coming back. So Stella it is."

"Why don't you get Sam some food," Zeke suggested. "I'll just take Dean back and check out those cuts."

"I'll go with you," Sam spoke up.

Dean blinked over at him, but stayed quiet. The fact that he didn't protest—didn't wave Sam off with a you worry too much comment—cemented Sam's resolve.

"You need to eat something, Sam," Zeke said. "I know for a fact you're running on nothing but whiskey."

"Whiskey for breakfast, Sammy?" Dean smirked.

"I've been hanging around you too much," Sam replied. He glanced over at Zeke. "I can eat back there with you."

Zeke shrugged. "Suit yourself." He tipped his chin up at Stella. "You know where my room is."

As if their heads were on a joint swivel, the brothers looked between Zeke and Stella, landing on the brothel madam, whose lips were curled into the grin of a cat.

"Indeed, I do," she replied. "See you boys in a bit."

The brothers looked back at Zeke as she walked away. Zeke grinned, looking more than pleased with himself. "This job does have its perks."

"No shit," Dean muttered. He met Sam's eyes. "Why are we trying to leave again?"

Sam raised an eyebrow, then started ticking off his fingers one by one. "Impala, Metallica, bottled beer, movies—"

Dean raised his hands in surrender. "You win, you win."

Zeke started back toward the doors that led to the store room. "You mean to tell me that beer is in…bottles where you come from?"

Dean clapped Zeke on the shoulder. "Oh, the things I could tell you, man."

"But you won't!" Sam protested, close behind.

"But I won't," Dean sighed with a pretense of dejection.

Zeke pushed through the storeroom door and veered left toward the shelves, leaving the brothers in full view of Leo's body. In the thrill of getting Dean back, Sam had almost forgotten the dead hunter and his stomach tightened at the sight. He felt Dean go still next to him. It wasn't ever easy, seeing the body of someone they knew.

Even someone that'd had a hand in getting them into this mess.

"I almost said we gotta call Dad," Dean said softly.

Sam looked over at him quickly, seeing the frown set in deeper as his brother's eyes seemed to reflect a foreign pain that Sam found he couldn't connect to.

"He's not gonna be happy about this…y'know, if he ever finds out," Dean continued. "This guy was a friend of his."

"I thought you said you didn't think they were friends," Sam countered.

Dean slid a look to him out of the corner of his eyes. "You know Dad, man. They both wore the uniform. Makes them practically brothers in his book."

Zeke continued to fill his arms with random supplies pulled from various points on the storage shelves, glancing over his shoulder at Dean. "Your father was a soldier, too?"

Sam absorbed the way Dean's eyes cut from Zeke's face, to the blue jacket on Sam's body, then back, an understanding filtering through inside of a heartbeat of time. He gave his brother serious flack for his vices, but he had to credit him this: the guy was observant.

More so than Sam thought anyone realized.

"Yeah, he was a soldier," Dean replied, dropping his chin, then glancing back up at Zeke. "Different war, though."

Zeke let out his breath and his shoulders seemed to sag a bit.

"What is it?" Sam asked.

Shrugging, Zeke's eyes tracked with a disconcerting emptiness back to Leo's body. "Just a bit…depressing to know that even a hundred years from now…there's still war."

Sam looked down at his hands, the thin, white scars there testament to his own battles.

"There's always gonna be something to fight for," Dean said quietly. "And someone to fight against."

Taking that in, Zeke moved past the body and toward the door that connected the store room to his bedroom. The brothers followed.

"Speaking of…," Zeke said, setting the supplies in his arms down on top of the dresser. "You boys thought about how you're gonna get to your friend while he's working for Ivers?" He gestured with a flick of his finger for Dean to sit on his bed.

Dean complied, removing the black duster and dropping it over the wrought-iron footboard of the bed as he did so. His gun belt followed. With deliberate slowness, he started tugging his borrowed black shirt free from his waistband. Sam put his back to a wall and slid down, making himself comfortable on the floor, out of the way, where he could watch Zeke work and keep an eye on Dean.

"Not really," Sam confessed. Replaying the fight he and Dean had overheard inside the old mission before everything went to Hell, he recalled Max yelling at Jake about finding a weapon that didn't exist. "Whatever he's looking for…he's gotta think it's there with Ivers," he muttered to himself. "He's not gonna just…leave."

"He will if we make him," Dean grumbled.

Sam focused on his brother, catching the barely-concealed wince in Dean's voice. Dean unbuttoned the black shirt and slid it free of his shoulders, exposing his bare upper torso. Sam sucked in his breath as he caught sight of his brother's wounded side.

"Jesus—"

"—Christ." Zeke finished the curse.

Sam was on his feet before he registered standing. "What the hell, man!"

Dean glared at him. "Don't start, Sam."

"You couldn't have said anything earlier?"

"And when would I have done that?" Dean shot back, his voice hard and his eyes flinty. "When I was trying to figure out if you were alive or dead while also not scaring the shit out of the kid that found me? Or, hey, maybe when we were riding back to town—"

"I get the idea," Sam snapped back, his voice matching his brother's in tone and ferocity. "It just looks…."

"Bad," Zeke said.

One arm around his middle, the other hand up near his mouth, Zeke took a step back, tapping his fingers against his lips as if in thought as he sized up Dean's wounds. The shallow cuts that Sam hadn't stitched were crusted over with scabs, the skin around them swollen and bright pink. The two longer, deeper cuts that Sam had sewn were now puffed up around the stitches and the skin was rolling between the sutures, exposing the torn flesh.

"Who stitched you up?"

"I did," Sam replied as Dean leaned back on one hand as he surrendered to Zeke's scrutiny.

"You did a good job."

"He's had a lot of practice," Dean muttered, his fever-bright eyes hitting Sam's face.

Zeke took a breath. "What did this to you, Dean?"

Sam caught his brother's eyes. We can't.

Dean raised an eyebrow. What's it gonna hurt, Sam?

Sam shook his head once. No, Dean.

"You boys want me to give you a minute?" Zeke looked between them.

Sam sighed. "It's complicated."

Zeke nodded carefully. "Mm-hmm, I see." Tilting his head to the side, he regarded Sam with narrowed eyes, his voice laced with pointed sarcasm. "More complicated than traveling a hundred years back in time?"

"Well, not exactly, but—"

"Or, how about more complicated than the fact that the man in my store room died before he was even born?"

Sam licked his lips. "We, uh…have kind of a weird job."

Zeke arched an eyebrow. "Define…weird."

"We hunt evil," Dean replied, his voice without leeway.

"Evil?" Zeke replied, pursing his lips as he looked back at Dean.

Dean nodded. "Monsters, ghosts, werewolves…," he looked at Sam, "demons. If you've had a nightmare about it, we've hunted it."

Sam watched Zeke carefully, noting the way the color seemed to slowly escape the man's face. "Kid, my nightmares are about an entirely different kind of monster."

Sam frowned as Dean replied softly, "I believe you."

"So…," Sam started, stepping forward and carefully touching the saloon owner's shoulder, drawing his attention. "You're…okay with this?"

Zeke huffed out a rough laugh. "No, I'm not okay with it." He flapped his arms against his sides in impotent frustration. "I'm not okay with any of this!"

Sam looked at his brother, trying to figure out how long Dean could last if they had to escape the tenuous protection of this man and his saloon.

"But unless I'm caught in one helluva vivid dream," Zeke continued, "you're here, with me, in my room. And I have no other explanation for what I'm seeing except that…you're not lying to me."

"We're not lying," Dean said tiredly.

"In that case, let me ask again," Zeke pressed. "What did this to you?"

"It's called a Daeva," Sam replied.

"Uh…huh," Zeke nodded slowly.

Dean rolled his neck tiredly, but stayed quiet, so Sam continued.

"They're…ancient demons. The word actually means demon of darkness."

"Think demonic attack dogs," Dean offered.

"Right," Sam nodded.

"And you fought them?" Zeke shot his eyes between the brothers.

Sam nodded. "Didn't actually…defeat them, but fought them off."

"How?"

"Sammy lit a flare," Dean grinned proudly. "Cut through all their darkness and chased them off."

"A flare?" Zeke's brows practically met across the bridge of his nose.

"Yeah, it's a…y'know, what? Forget it. The point is, these bastards had wicked long…talon thingies and they weren't afraid to use them," Dean said.

Zeke's eyes went to Sam's cheek. "Those scratches," he concluded.

Sam nodded. "Yeah, but…these scratches," he gestured to his face, "and the ones on your forehead…they're practically healed."

"So, what did you do differently with them?" Zeke asked.

"Nothing!" Sam exclaimed. "Dean…passed out and I cleaned his side. He woke up when I was stitching him up."

Dean was frowning. "Sammy…."

"What?"

"What'd you use?"

"For…what?"

"To clean out the cuts."

Sam shrugged. "Antiseptic, soap…."

"And the Holy Water, right?"

Sam literally felt the blood drain from his face. It left his skin feeling tingly, as if miniature needles were being rolled across his cheeks. "The…what?"

Dean looked down, his body appearing to bow. "It's my fault, dude," he said in a rough voice. "I put the extra Holy Water in the spare antiseptic bottle."

"I can't believe I didn't think about that." Sam closed his eyes, his fingers going to his forehead as a headache worked its way through his skull. He felt a hand on his shoulder and knew instantly that it was Zeke's.

"Sam, sit down," the man ordered. "You look kinda pale there, kid."

Sam opened his eyes. "Ya think? This isn't something I should miss, Zeke!"

"Sam," Dean tried. "Calm down. It's okay…."

"It's not okay!" Sam protested, feeling ire at himself build heat behind his eyes. "This shit was drilled into us, man. I should have thought of this."

"We were both kinda messed up that night, Sam," Dean reminded him. "And besides, you were…."

"What? I was what?" Sam challenged.

"I was gonna say you were away from the routine for awhile."

Sam held himself still, his stomach churning. "I've been back long enough," he said quietly.

"I coulda double checked," Dean shrugged. "Neither of us is perfect, man. Shit like this…it happens."

"It shouldn't happen," Sam said in a low, dangerous voice. Guilt and self-punishment were turning his guts to ice. "You wouldn't have let it happen to me."

"Hey. Hey! Listen to me, okay?" Dean ordered, apparently ignoring the last missive. "It's gonna be fine. We got us a doctor—"

"I used to be a doctor," Zeke corrected.

"Good enough," Dean replied. "Better than we usually have. Anyway, we'll just head up to the Mission, get some Holy Water—"

"Ramirez is gone, Dean," Sam reminded him dully.

"Huh?" Dean's eyebrows puckered over the bridge of his nose.

"No priest, no Holy Water," Sam continued. "Unless you memorized the rite and have a rosary in your boot so we could bless the water ourselves."

"Uh, no," Dean confessed. "Always had Dad…or his journal."

"Or a church nearby," Sam said softly.

Dean blew his air out slowly. "Okay, then we'll improvise."

"With what?"

"Easy, dude." Dean held up a hand. "I've made it this far, haven't I?"

Sam turned away, shoving his fingers through his hair. Facing the wall, he balled up his hand into a fist and slammed it, hard, against the wood.

"Hey!" Zeke exclaimed. "I don't need two patients!"

"Shouldn't even have one," Sam muttered. "Dad will kick my ass for this."

"So we don't tell him," Dean countered.

"Not the point," Sam said, sliding down the wall, his knees tented, arms hanging across them.

"Okay, Dean," Zeke replied, visibly shifting away from disbelieving wonder to the business at hand. "I'm gonna just…deal with this like any other infected wound. We'll cross the whole Holy Water bridge when we come to it. Deal?"

Dean nodded, "Deal," he said wearily.

"Lie back against the pillows," Zeke ordered as he poured water into the basin on the dresser and began to roll up his sleeves.

As Dean obeyed, there was a brisk knock on the door and before any of the men could move, Stella stepped through carrying a tray of food. Sam started to get up.

"Sit yourself down," Stella ordered, kicking the door closed behind her. "Do I look like some wilting flower to you?"

"No, ma'am," Sam replied, watching as she knelt carefully next to him and set down the tray of biscuits and stew.

"Do I smell coffee?" Dean called out.

"You do," Stella confirmed, standing up and making her way over to the bed. Sam watched as she lightly trailed her hand across Zeke's back and moved to the foot of the bed where she could better see Dean. "And from the looks of you, you're gonna need something a lot stronger."

"No more whiskey," Zeke shook his head, picking up Dean's wrist and pressing two fingers against his pulse point, frowning.

"No offense, doc," Dean grunted, trying to sit up. Sam saw that once he was down, forcing his stomach muscles to work was not an easy task. "But if you're gonna do what I think you're gonna do…I'd rather not be sober."

"I am," Zeke replied, "but the last thing you need is to dehydrate from too much alcohol. You've lost blood, your color is for shit, and your pulse is racing. Trust me on this—liquor would be a bad, bad thing. "

Dean sagged against the pillows. "Always used whiskey in the movies," he muttered to himself.

"You're going to take the stitches out, aren't you?" Sam asked, pushing the food aside.

Dean continued to grumble. "Least give a guy a piece of leather to bite on…maybe a bullet?"

"Dean," Sam snapped, watching Zeke inspect Dean's wound. "They're not giving you a damn bullet."

"Why not? Phrase had to come from somewhere…."

"What phrase?" Zeke asked, distractedly

"Bite the bullet! Guys are always biting on something to deal with the pain in—"

"No bullet!" Sam yelled, causing Dean to flinch in surprise.

"Take it easy, Sam," he said softly. "I was just—"

"I know what you're trying to do, Dean," Sam said, rubbing at his aching temple. The pain felt like the onset of a vision, but deeper, duller. The kind of headache that declared it was going to hang around for awhile. "But it's not gonna help. I screwed up and you're paying the price."

He saw Zeke and Stella exchange a look.

"Sam, why don't you come on out here with me?" Stella asked, crouching in front of him and giving him an unobstructed view of her bosom.

"No," Sam snapped. "Sorry, but I'm not leaving him."

"You need to eat; Zeke knows how to take care of your brother," Stella put a hand lightly on his arm.

"Stella," Sam said, feeling the edge of his voice cut through the air between them. "I know you're just trying to help, but I'm. not. leaving. him."

Sighing, Stella looked up at Zeke. The saloon owner shrugged and tipped his head toward the door. "Make sure everyone plays nice out there," he said. "I'll let you know if we need anything."

"All right, Sugar," she said, standing. She tossed another look at Dean, winked at Sam, then left.

"Since you're here, you may as well help," Zeke said, his freshly-scrubbed hands still dripping as he reached for a small linen towel. "Get that clear bottle off the dresser and bring it here."

"What is it?" the brothers asked in unison.

"Chloroform," Zeke replied. "Used it on plenty of soldiers during the war, Dean."

"I'll be okay," Dean replied quickly.

Sam turned from the dresser at the sound of panic in Dean's voice. His brother's face was so pale the freckles across his nose stood out like constellations. His eyes were wide and the sheen of sweat Sam had noticed earlier now coated Dean's chest and belly.

"He doesn't like drugs much," Sam said, handing the bottle to Zeke, not taking his eyes from Dean's face. "Can you try without it?"

"I won't lie to you," Zeke said, his voice a sigh, as he set the bottle down on the edge of the dresser nearest Sam. He turned to the wash basin and rolled up his sleeves. "It's gonna hurt like a bitch on fire."

"I'll be okay," Dean repeated, shaking his head stubbornly.

"We'll try it," Zeke said, scrubbing his hands and forearms. "I'm going to take out the stitches, drain the infection, and pack the wound. I'll have Bird mix up some herbs for you that should help."

"Herbs aren't Holy Water," Sam said grimly, moving to the head of the bed.

"Don't worry about it Sammy," Dean said, teeth clenched as he anticipated the pain. A tremble ran through his body.

Hell, yes, I'm worried about it. Sam caught his lower lip in his teeth to keep the automatic retort from flinging itself free.

"You ready?" Zeke asked Dean.

"Let's do this thing," Dean grunted.

Sam bounced his eyes between Dean's face and Zeke's hands as the former doctor began to clean the skin around the puckered wounds. Dean groaned and his eyes slammed shut. Sam worked to breathe carefully, in through his nose, out through his mouth forcing himself to calm down. His heartbeat was slamming against the base of his throat.

"So, I've been thinking," he said as casually as he could.

"That's…never…good," Dean forced out, working to balance the tone Sam set for the conversation.

Hoping that Zeke wouldn't pay too close attention to what they said, Sam continued, "Maybe we don't need Jake to get home."

"H-how do you…ah! Son of a bitch," Dean exclaimed as Zeke carefully clipped the first stitch. The first of eighteen. "How d-do you f-figure?"

"It was a spell, right?" Sam said, watching as Zeke reached for the bottle of chloroform and a folded handkerchief. Catching the former doctor's eyes, Sam shook his head. Not yet. Zeke frowned at him and moved back to Dean's side. "Maybe we figure out a counter spell."

Dean began to puff air through his mouth, his body twitching as he instinctively tried moved away from the pain, but continued to hold himself as still as possible. Sam watched his brother's hands grip the sheet on the bed as Zeke slid a towel next to Dean's side to catch the pus that began to leak from the re-opened wound.

"There's gotta be some…books. At that Mission, maybe. Or someone around here who can—"

Sam's ramble was cut off as Dean cried out, his voice ragged from pain. His hand shot up as if to instinctively push away the thing that was hurting him and Sam caught it, gripping it tightly with his own. He could feel Dean's body shake and pulled his brother's hand against his chest, pressing it tightly.

"I got you, man," Sam soothed. "I got you."

"Gah…dammit, Sam…this fuckin' hurts," Dean gasped.

"I know," Sam nodded, resting his other hand lightly on Dean's head, wiping away some of the sweat that ran into his brother's eyes and tented his lashes. "I know…you just hang in there, okay?"

"One done," Zeke said in a low, tense voice.

Sam shot a look down at Dean's side and saw that one of the cuts was now free of stitches. He exhaled slowly.

"Okay, just one more, okay, Dean? Hang in there, man."

"This is…uh…this might hurt…more," Zeke said in an attempted warning.

Sam looked back again and saw what he was about to do: flush the infection from the wound. His stomach rolled over at the thought of Dean feeling every bit of that process.

"Easy," Zeke breathed out and then pressed the tips of his fingers on either side of the swollen cut, watery fluid and thick, greenish-white infection oozing free of Dean's body, followed by a sluggish flow of blood.

Dean's cry of pain sounded as if it were pulled from his gut, starting low with teeth clenched against release then rolling upward until it all-but exploded from him.

"Nnnnnnnarrgggahhhh!" Dean gasped, his sweat-soak face turning away from Sam. "Argh…son of a fucking bitch…" His curses were quick pants for air, helpless and angry.

Zeke withdrew his hands, breathing heavy, then lifted a fresh towel and began to gently clean the area around the wound. Still holding tightly to Dean's hand, Sam watched as Zeke lifted a bottle of whiskey, confused that he'd changed his mind.

Until he saw that he was going to pour it over the wound.

Screw this.

"Dean!" Sam barked. Dean jerked, turning his head slightly on the pillow. "Look at me. Now."

Dean opened his eyes and Sam felt his stomach clench at the pain he saw there.

"I'm not going to let you go, okay?" As Sam spoke, he reached with his free hand for the chloroform bottle. "I'm gonna be right here. I'm not going anywhere."

He breathed a quick sigh of relief as he saw that Zeke realized what he was doing and had poured a small amount of liquid onto the handkerchief, then handed it to Sam.

"I'm s-sorry, man," Dean gasped. "Sh-shoulda listened…t-to you…not gone in after J-Jake…without a p-plan."

"Hey, hey," Sam shook his head, gripping Dean's sweaty hand tighter. "It's okay. Did you hear me coming up with a plan? Hell no! We did okay back there, Dean. We saved that girl."

Dean closed his eyes, nodding his head once. "We d-did."

"Damn right we did," Sam nodded, though Dean couldn't see him. Keeping the handkerchief well away from himself, he moved it closer to Dean's face. "Big damn hero, man," he said softly, then eased the rag over Dean's nose and mouth.

Dean's eyes flew open and he tensed, his grip crushing Sam's hand.

"Easy!" Sam soothed. "Easy, man. Just breathe, okay? It's okay. I'm right here. Just breathe."

Eyes slowly clouding, Dean's grip relaxed and when his lids fluttered shut, Sam started to remove the rag.

"Wait," Zeke coached softly. "Just wait a moment."

After another heartbeat, Sam felt the tremble in Dean's body slow and glanced back at Zeke, who nodded. Sam removed the rag and lowered Dean's hand. Dean's face was lax, his mouth slightly parted, his tented lashes shadowing pale cheeks. Zeke pressed two fingers against Dean's throat, checking his pulse, then nodded.

"You did good, Sam," Zeke praised him, taking the rag from Sam and setting it and the chloroform bottle on the other side of the room. As he passed the narrow window, he shoved it up an inch, allowing fresh air to filter in. "Real good. Coulda used you with me in the war."

Sam slid to his knees beside the bed, his legs refusing to hold him. "No way," Sam shook his head. "There's no way."

"Just take a breath," Zeke said, turning his attention back to Dean's side. "Sit down and shove your head between your legs if you have to, but do not pass out on me."

"I'm not gonna," Sam said, rolling away from the scent of the chloroform, blood, and sweat. He leaned against the wall, his head back. "How bad is it, really?"

"I've seen worse," Zeke said. "Not often, but I've seen it."

"Think you can fix him?" Sam swallowed, embarrassed by how close tears were to the surface.

"Well…if this were a…knife wound, yes," Zeke said, his voice undulating as he worked. "But I don't know about those David things."

"Daeva," Sam corrected.

"Right."

"He never said anything," Sam said, closing his eyes and letting his feet slip until his legs were straight out in front of him. "When he got hurt…he never said anything."

"He make a habit of that?" Zeke asked, his voice tight as Sam heard more snipping of stitches.

Sam huffed. "He's my big brother," he said softly. "So…yeah, kinda."

For several moments, quiet ruled the room. Sam listened to Dean's ragged breathing, to the muffled noise of the saloon, to the movement of Zeke's hands. He knew they had to find Jake. He knew there was really no other way to get home. But he was in foreign territory and coming up with a plan seemed almost impossible. He reached for the biscuit on the tray, chewing without thought.

"You okay?" Zeke asked suddenly.

Sam looked up. "Yeah."

"You're…quiet."

"I'm thinking."

"You just haven't been…quiet," Zeke shrugged. "You run out of questions?"

"There's only two that matter anymore," Sam shrugged.

Zeke's eyes softened. "I don't think I have the answer to either of them."

Sam sighed. "Any idea where we can find Ramirez?"

Zeke shook his head, then started to clean up his supplies. "I'm sorry, kid."

Sam narrowed his eyes. "If you did…would you tell me?"

Zeke looked surprised. "Why would you ask me that?"

"Just wondering if you'd…pick keeping the priest safe from Ivers over saving my brother."

Zeke's eyes cut over to Dean. "Fair enough." He wrapped a bandage loosely around Dean's middle, his face tense, serious. "I've drained the infection and packed the worst of the cuts. We'll have to check it pretty frequently…make sure the infection is continuing to drain. He should sleep for a few hours. Probably have a headache when he wakes up. I'll get Bird to help out with something for his pain. You should get some rest yourself—after you eat."

Sam watched the man move around the room, packing away the medical supplies. Zeke put his hand on the door knob, then paused, his shoulders bowing slightly. Sam waited. After a moment, Zeke looked over at him.

"I became a doctor because I wanted to save lives," he said. "The war…changed that. I lost more than I saved."

Sam simply watched him.

"It…broke something. Inside me." Zeke looked down his jaw line tightening. "That day I saved Ramirez from Ivers was like…finding the missing pieces." He grabbed Sam's eyes with his own. "I won't let your brother die."

"I'm glad to hear it," Sam replied softly, feeling his being relax at the words.

With a final nod, Zeke moved into the now-bustling interior of the saloon, closing the door behind him. With a tired sigh, Sam leaned against the bed, reaching up and resting his hand on top of Dean's limp one.

www

There was a brief moment of clarity when he registered that he was shifting from oblivion into the tumultuous confines of a dream, but before he could hold onto that assurance—before he could convince himself that none of this was real—he was falling.

There was light above him—brilliant with the promise of warmth and safety. But he was tumbling backward, away from it. He flung his hands out, but came in contact with something smooth, slick, wet. Nothing to grasp, nothing to hold.

Blood.

He could smell it around him. On him. His fingers skidded through it as he flailed, trying desperately to cease the dizzying sensation of falling. He looked up; the light was still there, just as far away, just as close. And still he fell.

Sam!

He called out, forced the sound from his gut, the word tripping against his throat, but he heard nothing. His voice was stolen by the fall, by the smell of the blood, by the sense that any moment he would slam against the ground and it would be over.

DAD! Sam!

Nothing. He began to kick out, feeling madness dig greedy fingers into his heart, gripping and pulling at his skin. Chaos bubbled up inside him, gleefully stripping his bones of its protective skin. He fought, every cell in his body throwing up a shield against the invasion.

But still he fell, his fingers coated in blood, the smell wrapping around him, the light too far away to save him.

"Shhhhh…."

A cool, soft hand stroked his forehead.

"Sam…." He felt his mouth move around the word. He heard the whisper of his own voice.

"Shhhh, it's okay."

Dean's eyes popped open and he jerked to awareness, groaning in reaction to the instinctive movement. The fingers of the dream reluctantly released their grip. Silver light spun around him, filtering in from somewhere to his right. Its presence confused him. He was awake...right? If he was awake, why was the light still there? If the light was there, where was the blood?

He curled his fingers against the palms of his hands, feeling as if his hands belonged to someone else. His head felt as though it was caught in a vice, his skull working to crush the gray matter within.

"Take it easy. I'll get your brother."

He smelled her before he focused on her: sugar, whiskey, and tobacco.

"Stella," he managed, the sound like sandpaper on rocks.

"Hey there," Stella greeted him, her honeyed voice coating the sharp edges of awareness. "Some dream you were having."

"What…what…," he couldn't find the next word. His memory was like a skipping record, searching repeatedly for the one thing that he couldn't grasp.

Something isn't right.

He hurt. Everywhere. And his heart was slamming against his ribs so hard he was certain it was going to break free. For horrifying moment he was certain that he was going to be sick. He pulled in a shallow breath, willing the bile to retreat back to his stomach where it belonged.

"Zeke said you might be a little confused—chloroform does that to people sometimes," Stella said, sliding a hand beneath his neck and tipping his head forward until his lips met the edge of a glass. "Here, drink this. It's from Bird. She said to tell you it won't make you sleepy this time."

He drank greedily, memories flowing back through the fog as the water filled his aching insides.

Infection…wound…stitches…chloroform….

"Sam?"

"He's out there," Stella tipped her head toward the saloon. "Finally got him to leave you for a bit."

"How long?" He hadn't meant to sound quite so desperate; he was glad Sam had been convinced to leave the tiny room. But he wanted him back. Now.

"You slept through the day," Stella replied, misinterpreting his question. "You hungry?"

Dean closed his eyes, thinking. "Yeah."

"Feel like getting up?"

"Yeah," he whispered, not yet fully trusting his voice. "But, I—"

"It's okay, Dean," Stella soothed him with a pat on the leg and a softening of her large eyes. "I'll go get your brother," she repeated, seemingly picking up on his need for this reassurance.

"What's he doing out there?"

"Lightening the pockets of a few n'er-do-wells." Stella smiled her cat smile once again. He suddenly, irrationally, wanted to know what her lips tasted like. "Pretty decent card player, that kid."

Dean grinned weakly. "Taught him everything he knows."

"He said that," Stella said. "You wait here."

She was out of the room before he could tell her not to worry. He wasn't going anywhere fast.

He shot a cautious look over to his right. It was the moon. Moonlight was slipping through the wavy glass in the narrow window. The moon. It was only the moon, not a phantom specter looking to deprive him of safety.

Get a grip, Dean.

Taking a slow, deep breath, he ran his hands carefully down his body, skipping lightly over his left side. He felt the packing beneath the bandage, the skin tender even under the wrapping. Mentally bracing himself, he rolled slowly to his right side, the movement stealing his breath and sending shivers coursing through him. He made it to a seated position, his legs off the bed and his boots solid on the floor, when Sam came in.

"Hey!" Sam greeted, a sunny grin complete with dimples lighting up his face. "You're awake!"

"Hey yourself, Fast Eddie." Dean returned his grin. "I hear you've been collecting some antique cash."

Sam chuckled. "The cards…Dean, they don't have any numbers on them."

Dean arched an eyebrow. "And yet you still managed to win a hand or two."

Sam made a face at him, then his eyes skimmed Dean's bare chest, resting on the bandages.

"How are you feeling?"

"Like shit," Dean replied truthfully, then caught sight of Sam's expression. "But, uh…kinda better."

"Really?" Sam looked so hopeful that Dean didn't have the heart to be completely honest with him.

Why not let him believe for awhile longer?

There was something wrong inside; Dean could feel it tremble through him. He had no idea what happened when cuts from an ancient demon went untreated by Holy Water, but he was starting to get a pretty decent idea that it wasn't anything good.

"Yeah, really," he replied, infusing the words with false bravado. "Hand me that shirt."

Sam did and Dean worked to keep his motions fluid, relaxed as he slid his arms through the sleeves and fastened the buttons. He didn't bother tucking it in quite yet.

"Gotta piss like a racehorse," he complained.

Sam's grin was wry. "You gotta go outside."

"I was afraid of that."

"Need some help?"

Dean glanced at his brother.

"Getting to the outhouse, I mean."

"Nah," he bluffed. "I'm good." He started to push to his feet. The room tipped crazily to the side and Sam was next to him in an instant.

"Whoa," Dean breathed.

"I gotcha," Sam promised softly.

"You drugged me, man," Dean accused as Sam steadied him. "That was low."

"You telling me you wanted to feel him clean out those cuts?"

Remembering the gut-twisting pain, Dean tipped his head in concession. "Okay, no. Hey—where's my gun?"

"Here." Without question or comment, Sam handed him the holster, the shiny Colt tucked safely inside.

Bracing his legs apart so that he didn't sway, Dean tucked the black shirt into his waistband to get it out of the way, then strapped the Colt and holster around his hips. He felt more balanced, solid, with the weapon close to his body.

"Okay, where to?"

"Out back, across from the Livery," Sam said, leading him out of Zeke's room, along the edge of the now-bustling saloon, and toward the back door.

Dean's legs felt hollow, his chest made of glass. Each breath stretched his skin uncomfortably, and his head ached. But taken as a whole, he felt better being upright and mobile than lying on that narrow bed in Zeke's room. He caught sight of the former doctor behind the bar pouring a shot for one man while talking to another, his eyes constantly moving until they landed on Stella.

The heat Dean caught in that glance had him looking away, eyes skimming across the rest of the humanity filling the saloon. He smelled their sweat, their dirt, the alcohol on their breath. Making his way behind his brother, he imagined he could even feel their worry, their weariness, their fear as if something in the room with them had everyone on edge.

As they paused briefly at the door for Sam to pull it open, Dean felt eyes on him and glanced to his left, seeing a man at a poker table, slouched low in the curved-back chair, dressed all in black—much like Dean. His lips were pushed out, flattened in thought, his eyes oddly bright under the shade of his short-brimmed hat. He nodded once at Dean, who tipped his chin up in recognition of the greeting.

"Sam." Dean plucked his brother's sleeve.

"Yeah?"

"Who's that guy?" He nodded to the left, watching as Sam's eyes tracked in the correct direction.

"The guy in black?"

"Yeah." Dean followed his brother outside into the bracing, surprisingly fresh air of the Texas night.

"Name's Larabee," Sam said. "Stella said he was passing through town. Only one that beat me, by the way."

"You play Texas Hold 'em?" Dean teased.

"Funny," Sam grinned, nodding forward. "Outhouse is there. Just, uh…hold your breath."

"Swell," Dean sighed, grateful that the dark hid his sudden shiver. "Don't suppose they have showers around here?"

"Found out they have a bath house down thataway," Sam jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Seems kinda weird…taking a bath with a bunch of other guys."

"Never known you to be shy, Sammy."

"Dude, you're my brother. It's totally different."

Dean chuckled softly. "Maybe we won't be here long enough."

"Tell you one thing," Sam sighed, kicking the toe of his boot into the dirt. "Already miss my toothbrush."

"Me too," Dean slid him a sidelong glance, then gathered himself.

Moving was an easier task when he made it automatic. Thinking about it triggered a fire-brand of pain through his chest and back, slicing across his shoulders and slipping up his neck into his hairline before he even took a step.

Don't think…don't think…just move.

He opened the door of the outhouse and stopped breathing, blanking his mind to the specifics of his task. When he was done he stepped out into the fresh air, catching sight of his little brother leaning against an empty hitching rail, moonlight striking his face and tucking his eyes into pockets of shadow.

In the silvery light, for one horrifying second, Sam looked almost like a ghost.

"You okay?"

"Fine," Dean called back. Something caught his eye on the other side of the Livery, wrapped in what appeared to be a sheet, lying in the back of a wagon. "What's that?"

"Leo," Sam answered, making his way forward until he was standing next to Dean. "Zeke and me wrapped him up, loaded the wagon with a block of salt. They don't, uh…well, rock salt comes in a slightly different form."

"'Course it does," Dean said softly. "You have wood?"

"Yeah," Sam nodded. "Seems…I don't know…weird to just burn him out in the middle of nowhere. No tombstone…or graveyard…."

"He was a hunter, Sammy," Dean reminded him. "You remember what Dad said. There's no consecrated ground for the body of a hunter." He rested his eyes on the small, still body that had once been a man with a history and a family and a home. "One day, we'll all end up that way."

Sam shook his head. "I don't want to think about that."

"Why not? It's true," Dean said softly, watching his brother.

"I don't care!" Sam turned his ghost-face toward Dean once more, his eyes dark shadows in the moonlight. "I don't want to think about…burning the bodies of my family on some funeral pyre in the middle of nowhere. It's not gonna happen to us."

"Sammy—"

"It's not, okay?" Sam snapped.

Dean quieted, running his tongue across his lower lip, thinking.

"Zeke tell you where we could take him?" he asked eventually.

Sam nodded.

Dean sighed. "You want to do this now?"

Sam looked at the wagon. "I don't know how to hitch up the horses."

"I do," came a small voice from the shadow of the building.

The brothers turned. Bird stepped into the moonlight, shrinking back slightly as an especially loud shout echoed from inside the saloon. Dean grinned at the sight of her. Someone—Zeke or Stella, he guessed—had given her a clean change of clothes and her face was dirt-free, her short hair tucked behind her ears.

"Hey, Bird."

"You want horses?"

"Yeah," Dean nodded, moving toward her. "You can help us?"

She nodded and ducked back into the barn.

Feeling eyes on him, Dean glanced at his brother. "What?"

"You're not okay, are you?" Sam's voice was subdued.

Dean looked at him, weighing his options. He waited too long, however, because the light in Sam's eyes shifted, turning dark.

"I got this, Dean."

"Don't be stu—"

"I'll help him," Bird chimed in from the front of the wagon. The huff of horses and jingle of rigging echoed her declaration.

"What is this, a conspiracy?" Dean searched the shadows for the girl. "You don't even know what he's going to do."

"You think I don't recognize a body when I see one?"

Dean pressed his lips together, looking at the ground. "Bird…."

"Go back inside, Dean," Sam said, putting a hand on his arm. "I'll take care of Leo and come right back."

"I don't like this, Sam," Dean confessed. He didn't like not feeling strong enough to do his job. He didn't like Sam going off by himself. He didn't like the almost tangible countdown he could feel inside his own body.

"Yeah, I know," Sam sighed. "But…I came here with him."

Dean frowned. "So?"

Sam lifted a shoulder. "Kinda feels like poetic justice, I guess. Me burying him."

"What do you—"

"If you think about it," Sam rested his eyes on Leo's body, something crossing his face that cut into Dean's heart. "He's only here because of me."

"That's bullshit, Sam."

Sam shook his head slowly. "He came to us, asked for our help. If I'd have been stronger… faster…if I'd gotten him out of that building…I mean, Max isn't here. He got out of the Mission. Could be I…I could've saved Leo, too."

"Don't do this, Sammy," Dean implored him. "If you'd have done any of those things, you wouldn't be here with me."

Sam looked at him.

"And I'm sorry Leo's dead. I am." Dean looked at the back of the wagon. "Dad said he was a good man. But," he shifted his eyes to his brother's somber face. "I'm not sorry to have you watching my back."

After a moment, Sam nodded. "Go back inside, Dean," he said again, softer. "Get something to eat. There's still plenty left to do, y'know."

"Horses are hitched," Bird declared and Dean watched as she climbed into the seat. "You comin'?"

Dean looked at his brother, giving in to the necessary. Sam was right: there was plenty left to do. Getting Jake and getting home being the first two on the list. Dean didn't have enough left inside him to be everywhere.

"You be careful," he ordered.

"I'll be back before you know it."

Dean nodded, feeling cold as he watched Sam climb into the wagon seat next to Bird—shrinking her with his bulk—and head off into the shadows of the night.

"Can I ask you a question?"

Dean jerked violently, spinning to face the new voice. "Jesus!"

"Sorry," Zeke stepped into the moonlight. "I thought you'd heard me."

"You thought wrong," Dean worked to catch his breath, a hand instinctively going to his throbbing side. His head pounded, causing his vision to blur slightly with the incessant thrum. "How long have you been standing there?"

"Not long," Zeke said. "I got worried when you two didn't come back."

"I figured you were too busy making eyes at Stella to notice we'd left," Dean commented dryly as he slowly made his way back to the back door of the saloon.

Zeke's mouth tipped up in a half grin. "Stella and I…have an understanding."

"I'll bet you do," Dean said, pausing next to the other man. "What was your question?"

Zeke looked at him for a moment, and Dean saw something he couldn't identify shift through his eyes. "I guess it doesn't matter. Not really." His focus pulled in, his gaze on something Dean knew was buried in the man's memory. "Y'know…I've seen a lot of brothers. Never had one of my own; mother apparently thought once was enough. But I've seen brotherhood forged in battle and brothers torn apart by the same thing."

"What are you saying?"

Zeke looked out toward where Sam and Bird had disappeared into the night. "You two…there's something different."

Dean arched a brow. "Different…how?"

This time Zeke's smile was sad. "I'll let you know when I figure it out," he said cryptically. "Think you could eat something? It'll keep your strength up…help fight off the infection."

Dean looked at him a moment, realizing Zeke knew. He knew Dean wasn't going to get better. Not without Ramirez's help. "Sure, Doc. I could eat."

The saloon was alive with a sea of voices, out-of-tune piano music, and tired laughter. Scattered like confetti throughout the cluster of men in dark clothing were several women—girls, really—with boldly colored corsets and skirts that didn't quite reach the floor, brazenly exposing narrow, heeled, lace-up boots. Lips quirking in appreciation for the surplus of skin the women offered, Dean sat at a vacant table; he smiled up at Stella when she set a plate of stew and biscuits in front of him.

"It's the only thing I know how to cook," she shrugged.

"Looks delicious," he said honestly.

"Is Sam coming back?" Stella asked.

Dean grinned. Puppy-dog eyes gets 'em every time. "He'll be back soon," he said. "Just taking care of…a friend."

Stella nodded and he watched her walk over to the table where the man Sam had identified as Larabee sat. She rested her hand on the man's shoulder and he watched as Larabee tipped his face up toward the light from one of the burning lanterns hung from hooks on the support beams. The man smiled at Stella as she continued on, letting her fingers trail across his shoulder, then dropped his eyes to meet Dean's once more.

Dean nodded at him, then focused on his food. It had no taste; the biscuits turned to dust on his tongue, the stew sat heavy in his gut. Thankfully, the coffee was hot and strong, cutting through the muck in his mouth and chasing away a to-the-bone chill that seemed to wrap around him.

Need to find Jake, kick his ass, and get home…. That or find Ramirez….

Neither option seemed likely at the moment. So engrossed was he in his own misery, Dean missed the first few beats of an argument brewing at the bar. Frowning, he stood as he recognized the man with the flying saucer of a hat who'd been searching for Ray and Fox earlier staggering back away from a smaller man with dark eyes and a pock-scarred face.

The man in the large hat was obviously drunk, barely able to stand on his own; this didn't seem to deter the other man as he advanced, a gun in each hand, hammers cocked. Zeke, Dean saw, had foolishly stepped between the two and was now caught smack in the middle.

"I really don't have a problem killing you, Zeke," the man with the weapons growled, and Dean felt the room quiet, chairs scraping back as people began to scatter away from any stray gunfire.

Dean instinctively put his hand on the butt of his own gun, blinking as he caught Zeke's eyes searching for his.

"I get that, Ivers," Zeke said, emphasizing the name.

Feeling his heart drop, Dean released his grip on his gun and moved around the table slowly, weighing his options. The man who had saved his life—saved Sam's life—was now being threatened. Dean knew what he would do were he back in his own time, with his own weapons and his own means of escape. He wasn't sure the same approach would work in a world where arguments were more often than not solved via justice-by-gun.

His eyes were full of the confrontation in front of him; he had no thought to the other patrons in the saloon.

"Just don't see any point to killing this guy," Zeke continued. "He's about gone on whiskey."

"He was supposed to bring two men to me today," Ivers snapped. "Two men to replace the one you got killed."

Zeke raised his hands. "Now, now, that's not exactly true. I mean…to be fair…you killed Cutter."

Ivers smoothly shifted the barrels of his weapons from the man in the hat to focus on Zeke's forehead. Dean heard Stella's gasp from across the room and the sound pushed him forward as if she'd rested her hand on his back.

"Hey," he greeted, his voice unnaturally bright. Zeke turned incredulous eyes on him, his lips tight and his teeth clenched as he mouthed get back. Ignoring him, Dean moved on instinct: distract, evade, conquer. "You Ivers?"

The man with the guns turned slowly to look at him. "Yeah. Who the hell are you?"

"Name's…Young. Angus Young," Dean replied, offering the man a dead-eyed grin. "Hope I'm not…interrupting anything." He let his eyes fall with disinterest on the drunken man and his protector before continuing. "Heard you were hiring."

Ivers tilted his head, studying Dean a moment, then released the hammers on his weapons. "You heard right."

"You're down two men?"

"Seems that way," Ivers nodded. "You got two others in mind?"

"My brother and me," Dean said, quickly eyeing Ivers' guns. "We're, uh…new in town. Could use some work."

Ivers studied him once a bit longer, then holstered his weapons. "What can you do?"

Dean shrugged, then moved in closer to Ivers. "I'm good with a gun."

"Your brother, too?"

"He's better with a knife," Dean replied, reaching the bar and leaning against it, his position turning Ivers around, his back now to Zeke. "What are you looking for?"

Zeke moved, grabbing the drunken man whose life he'd just saved by the collar and dragging him back away from the bar, dropping him in an empty seat at the table Dean had occupied, shoving his face down.

Ivers was still watching Dean; he felt as if the man were somehow turning his skin transparent with his gaze, peering into his soul and seeing the lie. Dean emptied his eyes, turning his face impassible and met the other man's look of scrutiny with an opaque stare.

"I'm looking for men who obey without question," Ivers said, his voice losing all amiable warmth. "I'm looking for soldiers."

Dean felt his stomach tighten and he forced himself to blink slowly. The chill that chased the edges of the man's words shifted Dean's confidence, but he made himself play through.

"Yeah, well...we might not be soldiers, but...we've been to war," Dean replied, the rest of his words fading as Ivers stepped forward. Dean felt the air around him constrict. His heartbeat turned sluggish for a moment before speeding up and slamming his aching head with a rush of blood.

It's just a man, Dean. A bastard of a man. He is nothing. He is nobody. Do not let him shake you up.

Then Ivers' eyes slid black. All black, no irises, no whites, just ink-black.

Oh, shit….

It happened so quickly that Dean had to blink to refocus, but it was enough to send him off-balance, exposing him by laying bare his recognition. Ivers pressed his sudden advantage and quick as lightening, grabbed Dean by the throat, turning him, and shoved him backwards against the bar. Dean's hands instinctively flew up to grip the man's wrists, unable to do a thing to relax Ivers' grip.

"You think you can best me, hunter?" he growled against Dean's ear, his voice hot, the spit that flew from his lips seeming to sizzle on Dean's cheek like acid.

Dean couldn't breathe for a moment, the pain in his side playing second fiddle to the soul-numbing shock of being seen for what he really was: a man raised to recognize evil and destroy it. The heat radiating from Ivers' body seemed to melt into Dean, making him shake from the intensity.

"First the priest and now you?" Ivers said, his face so close to Dean's that he choked on the feral breath. "You guys really need to find some different tactics."

"I-I don't know what you're t-talking about," Dean forced out, his lungs folding from the pressure of Ivers weight against him, bending him backwards over the bar. His side had become achingly cold. Dark spots started to gather at the corners of his eyes.

"You...," Ivers spat, his lips pulling back in a snarl and exposing yellowing teeth. "You know exactly what I'm talking about. And if I wasn't so damn close to opening that gate, I'd sacrifice you here and now."

The roll-click of a revolver was the prettiest sound Dean had heard in a long while. His eyes shot past Ivers' angry features to see the long barrel of a gun pointed directly at the man's left ear.

"You have a barrel of a Remington revolver set to open up the side of your head," declared the voice connected to the gun. "From this distance, it's guaranteed to kill you and make a helluva mess on my clothes. Let him go and we won't have to worry about either of those things."