Rating: PG-13

 

Chapter 6

"Our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change."

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Sulfur Springs, Texas 1870

He should have left the saloon the very moment Ivers drew on the drunken man.

He used to be sharper, savvier, his senses tuned to the most minute shift in his environment. He used to be a formidable opponent.

A hunter. A soldier. A father. A friend.

There used to be meaning behind his actions. Now all he had was the mission. And he couldn't even keep a grip on that from one minute to the next. He'd forgotten why he was sitting in a hard-backed, wooden chair across from a quiet man with eyes that seemed to see everything at once. He'd even forgotten the cigarette in his hand until it burned down to ash, scoring the skin of his fingers.

But then he saw the kid. Another man's son. He watched as the kid advanced on Ivers and he thought about calling out, thought about warning him, thought about grabbing him up as he would have done with Sean and hauling him out of there, away from this devil of a man.

Thought about it all, yet didn't move.

He simply watched it happen; listened as Ivers called Dean a hunter, listened as he threatened, listened as he exposed his secret: the search for the gate.

And then he remembered. He remembered the years of searching, the tiny clue that had given him hope, the discovery of an abandoned Hell's Gate, a thwarted attempted by a demon, a defeat only made possible because of one weapon.

The weapon he had to find.

Jake stood when the man across from him at the table rose and pulled a cannon of a gun from a holster at his hip. Jake melted into the shadows as the man pressed the barrel of the gun against Ivers' ear. He stopped breathing as the man threatened Ivers, obviously unclear as to who held the advantage here.

Unaware that he was dealing with a devil.

Jake watched as Ivers held Dean by the throat, bent backwards over the bar, the other man holding the gun on Ivers, and waited for the bloodbath.

"You seem to have me at a disadvantage, friend," Ivers said.

Jake nearly fell over with surprise.

"I'm not your friend. Let him go," the man in black returned, his voice steady, his arm unwavering with the weight of his gun.

To Jake's amazement, Ivers released Dean, the young hunter frantically gripping the edge of the bar to keep from falling to the floor. Ivers turned slowly, taking a step toward the gunslinger, allowing the barrel of the other man's gun to press into his scarred cheek.

"You have no idea who you're dealing with," Ivers informed the gunman, his voice sucking the heat from the room.

Jake watched as the man who'd originally stepped into this ruckus hurried to Dean's side, catching the kid as his legs buckled and holding him up with one arm slung around his shoulders. The paid kept their eyes pinned to the exchange taking place in the center of the room.

"I run this town, friend. These people? Belong to me!"

The gunman didn't lower his weapon or change facial expression. "You can't tell but right now, deep down, I'm petrified," he replied. "And I already told you…I'm not your friend."

Jake watched, his body tense, as Ivers studied the man. He knew without question that if Ivers wanted to, he could kill this man with just his will. He could reach into the man's chest with his mind and rip his heart free. He could twist him up inside until he bled out.

But he did none of those things.

"I don't really care about you," Ivers informed the man.

"I'll try to live with that," the man replied.

Ivers turned and looked back at Dean and the man holding him up. "I already warned you once, Zeke. You started by protecting the priest. Now you've taken a hunter under your wing. The wrath you bring upon this town is your own doing."

"And that's what makes me special," Zeke replied, his face blank.

Dean grinned, straightening slightly away from Zeke. Jake swallowed, his fear increasing. Ivers turned, his dark gaze ignoring the gun still pointed at his head and taking in the various men in the saloon who officially worked for him.

"Let's go," he ordered, his voice a deepened rumble.

He moved past the revolver, past Jake, and out through the saloon doors. The man in black thumbed the hammer of his gun forward and lowered the weapon as at least ten men followed Ivers out of the saloon. Jake held still, watching Dean.

Ivers knew the kid was a hunter. He saw it. He hadn't encountered many demons in his career, but those he'd had never once pegged him as a hunter. He wasn't sure where to put that realization.

"You okay?" Zeke turned to Dean, releasing him slowly.

Dean nodded, a hand on the bar, steadying himself, his eyes on the man in black. "You're Larabee, right?"

The man holstered his weapon, then extended a hand. "Chris Larabee."

Dean grasped the hand. "Appreciate the help, man."

Larabee looked at Zeke. "Who was that guy?" he asked, tipping his head in the direction of the saloon doors.

A woman in a red skirt and black corset moved behind the bar and began setting out shot glasses; Jake watched as she nodded to a small man with a gray beard that hung to the middle of his chest. In moments, off-key piano music trickled through the thinned-out crowd and people returned to their business.

Jake was forced to move from his hiding place to another table in order to hear the words from the men at the bar.

"…find my brother," Dean was saying.

"He's okay," Zeke assured him. "I sent him in the opposite direction of Ivers' place to bury your friend."

"If he's a bounty hunter, too, he'll know how to stay low," Larabee commented, reaching for the shot glass the woman set in front of him.

Jake saw the look that crossed Dean's face. His own lips twitched in what he almost recognized as a conspirators smile, though the other men had no idea he stood nearby. The gunfighter had heard hunter and assumed Dean was after a bounty. The veil of secrets that cloaked their lives stretched back through time, it seemed.

"Who is this priest Ivers was talking about?" Larabee asked, swallowing the whiskey and tugging his lips back in a suppressed hiss.

"Ramirez," Zeke sighed, rubbing his face.

"Pablo Ramirez?"

Dean turned to look at the gunfighter, surprise on his face. "You know him?"

Larabee nodded. "Yeah, I know him. Just passed him on my way here."

"Where was he? Do you know where he was going?" Zeke's voice was tight.

Larabee frowned. "Far as I know, he was heading to his Mission. Said something about…I don't know…holding back the darkness." The man shrugged. "Pablo talks in riddles. I didn't think much of it."

"He's coming back," Dean said to Zeke, and there was a curious mixture of worry and relief on his face.

Zeke nodded. "And we have to warn him."

A door behind the bar banged and Jake heard the slap-thunk of swiftly approaching foot-falls.

"Dean!"

The sound of that young voice sent Jake's memory spinning. Back to the diner and the taste of blood in his coffee. Back to the moment the brothers had walked through the door. Back to the realization that one of his best friends—a man he'd considered a brother—had betrayed him. Had called in reinforcements. Had summoned another man's sons for help.

Sean is dead…Sean is dead because of me and John Winchester's sons are alive…they're alive and they're here…they're here with me and Sean is dead….

The sickening realization that the person running through the back of the saloon to join the group at the bar was Dean's brother slammed through Jake in the space of a heartbeat. The spell hadn't only joined Dean to him on this journey—Sam was here as well.

And if Sam was here….

He staggered, head swimming, and bounced against one of the tables. The unexpected sound brought several pairs of eyes his way, the most disconcerting belonging to Sam and Dean Winchester.

"Jake?" Dean breathed, moving stiffly away from the bar.

Jake backed up. "Just stay there."

"Jake—wait!" Sam called, hurrying past his brother, closing the gap between them.

Confusion surged to the surface of Jake's heart. Here they were. Both of them. John Winchester's sons had come back in time with him. So where were Leo and Max? Why was he alone? What had he done to them, to his friends, to his brothers?

What have I done…?

"Just…just STAY BACK!" Jake shouted, panic rising tight and hard in his chest. What if Leo and Max were out there…searching for him…seeking to put an end to this….

No, no, no…they can't stop me…they can't touch me…they can't get me now…not now…not until I have it!

"Jake, please!" Sam implored, pulling up short as Jake's back banged against the swinging doors. "We need your help."

"I can't help you," Jake shook his head rapidly. "I can't help you now."

"You're our only shot, man!" Dean came up beside Sam, his eyes oddly bright, his pale face grim. "We need you."

Jake backed through the doors. "Not until I have it," he said, then turned, running into the dark of the rutted street to find the horse he'd ridden to town. "I can't go until I have it!"

He had to get back to Ivers' place. He had to find it.

Because it wouldn't take those two long to find him again.

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Sam was amazed at how quickly the dark swallowed the escaping figure of the man. He stood in the doorway, ready to give chase, but the unfamiliar sounds of the night masked any noise of horse's hooves and he could no longer see Jake.

"Wait, Sam." Dean's hand was on his arm, drawing him back into the saloon, the doors swinging slowly shut behind him.

Sam looked over at his brother, frowning at the way Dean seemed to tilt to his left as if unconsciously protecting his wounded side. Dean looked back at him, shaking his head wearily.

"Just wait," Dean said softly. "We're not ready."

Sam could feel the heat of his brother's skin through the contact on his arm. He nodded, turning with Dean to face the men waiting behind them.

"It?" Zeke called through the din of music and voices. "What the hell is it?"

"We don't know," Sam replied, heading back to the bar where Stella, Zeke, and the man named Larabee waited. "It's what brought him—" he stopped looking at the two who weren't in on the back story, "—uh, to this town."

"You need his help?" Larabee asked.

Sam frowned at the gunslinger, confused.

"Uh, Sam, this is Chris," Dean said. "He…basically just saved my life." Dean reached up and rubbed at his neck, his fingers tripping over the small, healing cut near his collarbone.

Sam didn't need to know the details; he could tell Dean was weakening. And there was something swimming in his brother's eyes that tripped his pulse, digging fingers of fear into his heart.

He held out a hand, shaking the gunfighter's in gratitude. "Thanks, man."

Larabee nodded. "Never did like to see the bad guys win." He glanced down. "I've seen too much of that in my life."

The group was quiet for a moment. Then Larabee bounced a finger on the bar. "I've gotta be going. On my way to meet a friend."

"Thanks again," Dean said, offering the man a genuine smile.

"If you need Pablo," Larabee said, adjusting his hat, "pretty sure you'll find him at the Mission by morning." He tipped a finger to his brim, then turned and exited the saloon.

"Pablo?" Sam asked, looking from Dean to Zeke.

"Ramirez," Dean informed him.

"He's coming back?" Sam felt a bubble of hope rise inside of him.

"Yeah, and one of Ivers' men heard that," Zeke replied, implications heavy in his tone. "We gotta do something."

"We gotta do some reconnaissance is what we gotta do," Dean growled. "Then get Jake and—" he glanced quickly at Stella, who was hanging on every word. "Get him to…show us the way home."

"You boys don't know how to get home?" Stella asked, her frown drawing character lines around her eyes.

"In a manner of speaking," Sam replied softly.

"You took care of Leo?" Dean asked his brother.

Sam nodded, the glowing orange and blue of the dying light of the pyre licking the edges of his memory. "Bird is unhitching the wagon now."

Dean looked at Zeke. "Tell us how to get to Ivers' ranch."

"You?" Zeke frowned, his eyes instinctively going to Dean's wounded side.

"Yes," Dean replied, his voice hard.

"Dean," Zeke shook his head. "You need to…rest up. I'll go with Sam and—"

"No!" There was a brittle edge of desperation on the tail-end of Dean's voice. Sam felt his body pull in tight as Dean turned to him. "I am not gonna let you head off to this monster's house alone—even if the doc comes with you. This is my fight, too, and we may not get another chance to get Jake to get us back home." Sam watched as Dean's right arm wrapped around his middle, his hand protecting his wounded side. "I'm not an idiot; I know I don't have much of a chance unless we find Jake or get to Ramirez." He paused to take a shaky breath. "But you're not going without me."

Sam simply nodded, having given up the idea of arguing with him before he'd even started talking. There was something wrong with Dean, other than the obvious. His eyes were too bright, his skin too hot. Sam knew that Zeke's ministrations had only staved off the inevitable. But there was something…shimmering around his brother. A need, a drive that was scaring him.

"Okay then," he replied. "I guess we need…a gun and some horses."

"I got a gun," Dean said softly, leaning against the bar.

"I don't," Sam pointed out.

"Thought you were better with a knife," Zeke said.

Sam frowned. "Who told you that?"

"Don't worry about it," Dean interrupted. "I was just…making conversation with Ivers."

"Making conversation with…," Sam shook his head. "You're impossible, you know that?"

"So I've been told," Dean said. He looked at Zeke. "You point us in the right direction. All we need to do is get a lay of the land—get an idea of where Jake could be, what we might be up against. We'll come back and get you."

Zeke thunked his fingers against the edge of the bar. "Hell, no. You're not leaving me out of this. I gotta see how it all plays out. Plus," he tucked his chin, trying unsuccessfully to catch Dean's eyes, "at the rate you're going, you might need a former doctor along for the ride."

Dean looked at Sam and something heavy rolled across his expression. Something that said it's too risky, it's too much.

Sam licked his lips then looked at Zeke. "Maybe we should do recon on our own, Zeke. Dean's right; we'll come back and get you."

Zeke's normally placid eyes shifted rapidly, turning hard. He gripped Sam's bicep and shoved him off to the side of the saloon, tucked into the shadows, away from Stella's eyes and anyone else who might be listening. Sam stumbled along, blinking in surprise, and caught himself with the flat of his hand on the far wall before Zeke could shove him against it.

Dean was right behind them, his face colorless with fury.

"Dude!" Dean bit out, his tone so clipped it cut the air. "What the hell?"

"You listen, kid," Zeke all-but growled at Sam, his voice low, his eyes dark. "I have gone along with every one of your claims. I've trusted you even when what you said was eight shades of crazy. I promised you I wasn't gonna let your brother die."

Sam jerked his arm free, weariness condensing and curdling inside of him until it quickly fermented into anger. "What do you want, a medal?" He snapped.

Dean pulled up short, his eyes darting to Sam's with a look of surprise and appreciation.

"You think I'm excited about riding into a goddamn hornets' nest with my brother just this side of conscious?" Sam continued, the headache that had crept up on him earlier making itself home behind his eyes.

"Hey!" Dean protested softly.

"We're trying to keep you from getting killed, man," Sam snarled, pushing away from the wall and facing down the saloon owner, finding the man's equal height slightly imposing. "None of this was supposed to happen. We can't risk—"

"Who the hell do you think you are?" Zeke interrupted, drawing Stella's curious eyes. Sam frowned and Zeke dropped his tone. "I don't remember asking you two to protect me. I'm a grown man; I can decide for myself whose play to back, what battle to fight."

"You don't get it," Dean spoke up, moving to stand next to Sam, his slightly-bowed stance pulling their attention. "That's not just your average bad guy, looking to take over the town."

"I'm starting to work that part out," Zeke replied.

"He's…It's…the kind of thing me and my brother deal with every day," Dean continued.

"Well," Sam half-turned to Dean. "We haven't exactly dealt with a demon like this before, Dean."

Dean arched an eyebrow at him. "You're gonna get particular on me now?"

Sam raised a hand. "I see your point."

"I don't care what he—or it—is," Zeke declared. "You two got me into this mess with your whole…falling from the sky…traveling through time…wounds that won't heal business. I don't know what people are like where you come from," he pulled himself straight, his mouth set in a grim line, "but 'round here? We don't just leave friends to twist in the wind."

Sam blinked. He glanced over at Dean and saw his brother lift his chin a bit. Friends….

"So, if we're done with this little side-bar, I say we get Sam a gun, head to Ivers' ranch, see what we see."

"Not much of a plan," Sam grumbled, pinching the bridge of his nose. His headache had receded somewhat, but hadn't escaped completely. "Get guns. Ride in. Hope for the best."

"I don't think we have much choice, Sam," Dean said, his voice slightly hollow.

Sam stared at him, willing Dean to look up, needing to see that his fear was unfounded. That he was wrong. That Dean was okay. Dean's eyes stayed stubbornly downcast and Sam watched a muscle work along his brother's jaw as if it were a live thing.

With one final glance at them, Zeke nodded as if punctuating the end of his decision, then turned and headed back to the bar. The brothers followed in quiet unison.

"We've got some work to do," Zeke said to Stella. "You think you can handle things here?"

Stella's lips curled upwards. "I've got Big Bob to help, and Frost tickling the Ivories," she said. "I'm good as long as Ivers doesn't come back."

"Too bad Larabee couldn't stay," Sam sighed. "Help you out a little, Stella."

Stella glanced down at the glass in her hand she was wiping down, an eyebrow arching. "Oh, I have a feeling Mr. Larabee might've been more of a…distraction…than a help."

"Hey, now," Zeke protested mildly.

"Off with you," Stella nodded toward the door. "Don't play nice with the outlaws."

Zeke kissed the air in her direction as he backed away from the bar, leading the brothers out of the saloon. They headed to the Livery, Sam peering into the darkness of the barn from the brightness of the moonlit night. He was startled to find himself coming face-to-face with Zeke's horse, Hooker.

"What the—" Zeke started, his voice laden with surprise.

"You have to promise me something," Bird said, appearing next to the big horse's shoulder.

"Bird?" Dean stepped forward and rested his hand on her shoulder.

"Sam said you had to find that guy," Bird said, her large gray eyes shifting from Dean to Sam and back. "Frost said he's at Ivers' place. So, I know you're going to ride out there."

Dean looked at Sam, then Zeke. Sam felt the heaviness in that glance roll from his brother and settle in around his own heart. This was getting too big, too complicated. It was starting to be about more than just getting home. It was starting to be about people.

It was a weight Sam wasn't sure they were equipped to carry.

"I got the horses all ready for you, but you have to promise me something."

"What?" Dean crouched down so that his face was level with hers. Sam saw a shimmer of pain radiate up through his jaw line.

"You gotta get my family out of there."

"Aw, kid," Dean sighed, shaking his head sadly. "If we can, we will."

"No." Bird stepped back, out of Dean's grasp. "You gotta promise. I know you ain't an angel…but if you promise, I'll believe you."

"Bird," Zeke stepped in, taking Hooker's reins from her. "You know we don't want anything bad to happen to your mom and brother."

"It don't matter what you want," Bird snapped. "It matters what you're gonna do. And if you say you're gonna save them, I know you'll do it."

She looked directly at Dean, her gray eyes wide. "I saved you," she said softly. "You fell from the sky and I saved you. Please," she swallowed hard, "promise me."

Sam looked at his brother, waiting. He already knew Dean's answer.

"I promise, Bird," Dean said. "We won't…we won't go home until we get your family out."

Bird took a breath. "Okay," she nodded. "Sentenza's here. He's got the other two horses."

Backing up, she made way for the small, mute Mexican to lead two other horses into the paddock area.

"Where'd the other horse come from?" Sam asked, eyeing the gray mare as she danced a bit in the opening, the silvery light from the moon giving her a ghostly, ethereal look.

Bird shrugged. "We, uh…borrowed it," she said, sharing a quick glance with Sentenza. "Frost is in there playing the piano." She gestured toward the saloon with a tip of her chin. "We would've asked, but…I didn't think Zeke would like it if I came into the saloon."

Zeke arched a brow. "Convenient."

"Hey, Sam," Dean chuckled softly. "You want to ride Little Joe's horse?"

Sam looked over at the black and white Paint.

"Who's Little Joe?" Zeke asked.

"This horse don't belong to no one," Bird frowned.

"Forget it," Sam shook his head. "And I'll take anything over that mare."

"She looks like a ghost horse," Dean observed, running a hand along the mare's neck. "Kinda fitting, huh?"

"Yeah, she's freakin' awesome," Sam grumbled, backing up a step as the mare blew at him through her nostrils, shying to one side of Sentenza.

Needing the reminder, Sam watched as Zeke shoved his left foot in the stirrup of Hooker's saddle, gripped the mane and reins in one hand, and then swung his leg across the horse's back. Zeke looked down at Bird in appreciation. Sam saw Sentenza sign something to the girl.

"He said he borrowed a rifle from Frost," Bird informed them, pointing to the little paint. "Put it on that one."

"There's a Winchester rifle in the scabbard on your saddle, Sam," he said. "You know how to use one of those?"

Sam couldn't help it. He chuckled, meeting his brother's amused expression. "I can handle a Winchester," he replied.

"Great," Zeke said, turning Hooker in a tight circle. The war-vet of a horse seemed to sense they were going into battle. He tossed his head, jingling the bit in his mouth, and danced in place. "This one's rarin' to go."

Sam took a breath, then swung up onto the back of the Paint. "Easy, Joe," he said softly, patting the smaller horse's neck. He looked over and saw Dean sitting on the mare, his eyes closed, his hand pressed against his side. The mare stood perfectly still. "You gonna make it?"

Dean opened his eyes and Sam saw resolve shining from his eyes, his skin milk-pale in the moonlight. "You bet your ass, I'll make it."

Looking at Zeke, Sam felt compelled to give the man one last chance to get out before it got too messy. "You really sure you're up for this?"

Zeke frowned. "You're friends, Sam. I'm not letting you go into this fight alone."

"But…you don't really even know us," Sam pointed out.

"You're friends," Zeke repeated, with a tired roll of his eyes. "Why are we still talking about this?"

Sam took a breath, deciding to let it go. Zeke was right: he was a grown man, capable of making his own choices. He thought of Leo. He hadn't known the man more than a day, but allowing him to be buried in some Potter's Field in Nowhere, Texas, just hadn't felt right. For a brief moment, sitting in the back of their car, Leo had needed a friend.

He nodded at the former doctor, then gathered the reins in one hand, gripping the saddle horn with the other. He wasn't ready for this. Once again they were going after Jake, walking—well, riding—into the unknown with the barest hint of a plan. And once again, they didn't have much of a choice. He followed the other man's motions, digging his heels into the flanks of the black and white horse. It was easy to keep Dean between them: the mare was simply faster than his Paint.

As they passed the Mission, Zeke pulled up to a brisk walk, dropping back next to the brothers.

"Anything happens and we get split up? Meet back here at the Mission."

Dean nodded tersely. He was bent slightly forward, but Sam didn't have time to worry. He watched as Zeke kicked Hooker back into a run, wanting for one brief moment to whimper aloud. He was winded and sweaty. His legs were tired and the skin on the inside of his knees was starting to chafe against the hard leather of the saddle. He ass was protesting the pounding.

But then he looked over at Dean, took in the pain he saw in just that glance, and watched as his brother kicked the mare into a run behind Hooker, and he knew that if Dean wasn't giving up, then he was going to make it. He had to.

Keeping his eyes on Dean, Sam saw how his brother seemed to naturally absorb the motion of the horse with his legs, rocking forward in time with the movement of the horse's gait, then tucking his hips in to scoop deep into the saddle. It was an oddly familiar rhythm; Dean's body seemed to roll in time with the horse's stride. It took Sam a moment to place where he'd seen that cadence before; when it hit him, he blushed. It was the same motion one often used in sex. Once he figured that out, he found that riding the horse became much easier.

Just as he felt he was too winded to keep the pretense up, Sam saw Zeke pull up short near an outcrop of pale stone at the crest of a hill. Dean followed and soon they were all three tucked behind the rock. The moon offered them a pseudo-spotlight as they looked down the hill to the buildings below.

"That's the start of Ivers' spread there," Zeke pointed down toward a large corral full of horses. "Just there, that's the bunkhouse. And up the slope a ways is the main house."

"What's the plan?" Sam panted.

Dean licked his lips. His color was starting to look worse, if that was possible, and he was holding his side, hunched over. "You think Jake's at the bunkhouse?"

Zeke shrugged. "Unless he went up to the main house to tell Ivers about Ramirez."

Sam looked at his brother, nodded. They had to split up.

"Sam and me'll take the bunkhouse," Dean declared. "Zeke, you head up to the house. The plan is to find Jake. We'll worry about the rest later."

"What about Bird's family?" Zeke asked.

"If you can get them out without trouble," Dean nodded, "but we may just have to come back."

"You thinking we need more people?" Sam asked.

"I'm thinking we need a friggin' army," Dean returned. "You see how many horses he's got down there? If he even has half that amount in men, we're in trouble."

"I don't think Jake's gonna come willingly," Zeke pointed out. "He couldn't get out of the saloon fast enough."

Dean pulled his Colt revolver free. "He'll come if we make him."

Zeke frowned, getting a good look at the weapon in Dean's hand for the first time. "Where'd you get that?"

"Bird," Dean replied, rolling the cylinder along his forearm and peering at the loaded chambers. "Said it belonged to her dad."

"It did," Zeke nodded. "I got it for him. Tom O'Maera was a good man," he looked down at Ivers' spread. "He didn't deserve to die like that."

Dean frowned. "What did you say his name was?"

"I thought the same thing," Sam replied softly.

"What? Thought what? Why do I always feel like I walked into the middle of a conversation with you two?"

Dean huffed out a small laugh. "We've just…spent a lot of time together," he said. "Sulfur Springs isn't called Sulfur Springs in our time."

Zeke looked back at Sam as if for confirmation. "What's it called?"

Sam sighed, once more giving in to the inevitable. "Maera."

"As in… O'Maera," Zeke replied.

"Seems like it," Sam nodded.

"Named after Tom you think?" Zeke frowned.

"I don't know," Dean shook his head. "And before you get all space-time continuum on me, Sam, Bird's dad died like three weeks before we even got here, so if it was supposed to be named after him, we had nothing to do with it."

"I wasn't gonna say anything," Sam protested, raising his hands, then quickly re-gripping the saddle horn as Joe shifted beneath him.

"Uh-huh," Dean muttered.

Zeke took a breath. "Okay, boys," he said. "Quick and quiet. The moon is not our friend tonight."

Sam nodded, seeing Dean do the same out of the corner of his eyes. If they could see the ranch with relative ease this deep in the night, then sharp eyes would be able to spot their approach via the same illumination.

"We'll meet back here in an hour, or at the Mission at dawn," Zeke told him, not bothering to mention a third alternative.

Dean looked at the saloon owner. "Good luck."

"You, too."

And with that, they parted, the brothers riding down the hill in one direction, Zeke in another. Sam couldn't help but feel like they were riding away from the frying pan and into the fire.

As they approached the backside of the bunkhouse, Dean pulled the mare up, slowing her and edging toward a small cluster of trees on the bank of a dry riverbed that dug a deep groove into the earth along the back of the building. Sam watched as his brother slid from the saddle, hanging on to the tough leather for a moment as he caught his breath.

"You okay?" Sam whispered.

"Peachy," Dean gasped out. "Head's killing me."

"Just your head?"

"You want me to paint a picture for you, Sam?"

"Sorry." Sam dismounted, surprised that he, too, had to hold onto the saddle for a moment. His feet had fallen asleep and he stomped in place to get rid of the feeling of pins and needles. "I don't know why people actually pay to do this back home."

"They're masochists," Dean muttered.

"You looked like you were enjoying it," Sam whispered, ducking under the neck of his horse to come around to Dean's side.

The black hat Dean had been wearing was off, hanging down his back from stampede strings. His brother had his face buried in the mare's sweaty neck and his fingers fisted in her tangled mane.

"I was enjoying the fact that I was moving at all," Dean confessed, turning his head to face Sam. "Something's…something's wrong, Sam."

"All of this is wrong," Sam muttered stepping forward.

Dean shook his head, his short hair tangling slightly with the mare's black dreadlocks. "No…it's me. I can feel it," he said softly, reluctantly. "Inside. There's like a…a hole. And I'm falling in."

Sam took a step closer. Licking his suddenly dry lips, Sam reached out, gripping Dean's arm, dismayed at the tremble he felt there. Promises of care that always came so easily to Dean slipped across Sam's tongue too fast for him to grasp. He wanted to tell Dean he wouldn't let him fall. He wanted to tell him they were going to make it.

He wanted to believe it.

"We gotta get this guy," Dean said in a desperate, shaky whisper. "And get the hell outta here."

Dean's eyes seemed to be emptying as he stared at him and Sam felt his heart clench, tight in his chest. He had to force himself to take a breath.

"You're gonna be okay," Sam said, needing to say the words as much as he needed Dean to hear them. "We're gonna get out of this."

Dean's eyes latched onto his and Sam felt his brother drawing power from that connection, working to be strong enough, tough enough. After a moment, he nodded. "Well, I sure as hell am not gonna let some Judd Nelson wannabe beat us."

"You hate Judd Nelson," Sam commented.

"Exactly," Dean pointed at him, pulling away from the horse and standing on his own.

"What do we do with them?"

Dean frowned. "Leave them here…drop the reins on the ground. That's what they always do in the movies."

"Won't they run off?" Sam asked.

"Well, if they do, there's more over there," Dean said. "Let's go. Grab your Winchester."

"Grab my wha—oh," Sam said, frowning at the mischievous smirk on his brother's pale face.

He pulled the rifle from the scabbard and followed Dean along the river bed that ran between the trees and up to the rear of the bunkhouse. Once there, they put their backs to the rough-hewn wall. Dean ticked off a three-count with his free hand, then ducked his head around the side wall of the bunkhouse. Sam felt his stomach drop as his brother suddenly froze, straightened, then stepped out into the open.

"What the hell are you doing here, boy?" growled a liquor-heavy voice.

Sam could only see his brother in shadowed profile, but noted the squaring of his shoulders as he was challenged by the unexpected stranger. He brought his rifle up just as he saw Dean's hand held out to him, palm up, telling him to wait….

"I'm, uh…looking for a friend of mine," Dean said, holding his gun up, away from the person confronting him.

"Think you're looking in the wrong place," the man said, and Sam heard the roll-click of a revolver.

"Mister, you know what a Winchester rifle can do in the hands of someone who knows how to use it?" Dean asked, calmly.

"I don't see no Winchester," the man snarled.

Dean dropped his hand and Sam slid around the corner, positioned behind and to the right of his brother, the rifle up on his shoulder pointing directly at the heavy-set man.

"You do now," Dean said.

The man lowered his weapon, beady eyes bouncing between the brothers. "You want to look for your friend? You got five minutes."

With that, he stumbled off to the side, his loud belch announcing their presence.

"Nice move, Sam," Dean said with an appreciative nod. Sam smiled, lowering the rifle.

Dean took a step forward, then suddenly swayed.

"Shit," Sam cursed, grabbing Dean's arm, feeling his brother shift his weight first toward Sam, then away in an attempt to regain control.

"'M okay," Dean shrugged him off. "Leggo."

Sam pressed his lips together as Dean's words slurred, but propelled them both into the bunkhouse, coming face-to-face with several weapons raised in instinctive, automatic reaction to their sudden entrance.

"Jake!" Sam called, looking around at the strange faces around him. "Jake Brand!"

"He ain't in here," said a young-sounding voice.

The brothers turned and saw a dark-haired boy of about thirteen sitting on a top bunk, holding an ancient-looking Colt. The boy released the hammer on the weapon, lowering it, but kept his eyes on them.

"He's up at the house."

Sam heard several clicks as the hammers from other weapons were released. He glanced around quickly, unable to see many faces, only the blurred motion of bodies shifting as they lay back down in their bunks, soft grumbles at being awoke providing a muffled backdrop to the their exchange with the boy.

"You Bird O'Maera's brother?" Dean asked.

Sam shot a surprised look at his brother, then narrowed his focus on the kid.

The kid frowned. "Rory," he nodded. "How'd you know?"

"You got her eyes, kid," Dean said, his voice barely audible.

"She's okay?" Rory asked, relief palpable in his tone.

"She's fine," Sam assured him. "She just wants you back. Come with us."

Rory shook his head. "Ivers has my Mama up at the house. I ain't leavin' until she does."

"We'll get your mom, too," Sam said. "Just—"

The explosion of gunfire from behind them had the brothers ducking instinctively, Dean stumbling against the door. Sam looked frantically over his shoulder as the heavy-set man who'd stopped them before stood on the wide, wrap-around porch of the main house, pistol firing in the air. He bellowed something indiscernible to Sam, but that the men in the bunkhouse seemed to recognize.

"What is it?" Sam yelled to Rory.

"Get the hell outta here," Rory yelled. "Go back and take care of Bird!"

Sam grabbed Dean's arm and propelled them from the door of the bunkhouse to the only place he could think of that would be safe from the myriad of guns that suddenly surrounded them: the corral of horses.

"Climb the fence, Dean!" Sam ordered, pushing his sluggish brother up the log fence.

Dean dropped to the ground on the other side, dangerously near the nervous hooves of several horses. Sam clambered down next to him, tucking the rifle under one arm and pulling Dean to his feet. His brother was visibly shaking and Sam saw his right hand was sticky with blood. With a sickening twist of his gut, he realized Dean's wound had reopened and the fever he'd been fighting all night was getting more than just a toe-hold on Dean's consciousness.

"C'mon," Sam pulled him into the suffocating throng of milling horses.

"What about Rory?" Dean said, doing his best to shove the nervous animals away from them, leaving smeared, bloody hand prints on their sides and shoulders that looked black in the moonlight.

"He'll be fine," Sam replied tersely. "Has been so far."

"We gotta help 'im," Dean slurred.

"We will, Dean," Sam assured him. "We gotta get outta here, first."

Another shout brought Sam's head up and around. People were pouring out of Ivers' house. He didn't see Jake or Zeke in the mix, but he did see a lot of weapons. Pushing forward through the horses, gripping Dean's arm, Sam thought furiously about what to do next.

"Sam," Dean said, his voice breathless.

Sam looked over at his brother, alarmed by Dean's hooded eyes. Ignoring Dean's weak protests, he bent low, slinging Dean's arm over his shoulder. He felt his brother's weight shift against him.

Jesus, he's burning up.

"Sam," Dean tried again.

"Shut up, man," Sam snarled. "I'm getting us out of here."

"The horses," Dean said.

Sam looked at him, confused. "What about them?"

"Stampede."

Sam looked around and saw that the opening to the corral faced the house. "Good thinking."

"Just…get us out of the way…first," Dean suggested, working to keep his legs under him.

"Right," Sam nodded, moving to the gate and releasing the latch. Dodging the heavy bodies of the increasingly agitated horses, he tucked both of them up against a thick support post, then looked down at Dean. "Ready?"

Dean pulled his weapon and nodded. Raising the barrels of their weapons skyward, they each fired off a round. That was all it took for several of the horses to utter high-pitched, terrified whinnies and charge the gate, pushing it open with their bodies and spilling in a flood of equestrian mass out around the main house, across the wide porch, churning Earth and men and weapons beneath their powerful, pounding hooves.

Sam held onto the now-swaying corral, keeping Dean against him, and waited until the last horse had charged from the corral before slinging Dean's arm across his shoulders once more. He felt Dean holster his weapon, then move with him out of the paddock area and across the now-ruined land to the bunkhouse wall.

"Zeke?" Dean gasped.

"Didn't see him," Sam panted, searching the darkness for their horses.

"Jake?"

"No," Sam shook his head. "Maybe Zeke got him."

"Maybe," Dean nodded. "Where's our horses?"

"I think they joined that mosh pit we let loose," Sam said as they reached the cluster of trees where they'd ground-tied their mounts.

"Sam…," Dean groaned softly, his legs finally buckling beneath him.

"Aw, no," Sam shook his head. "You son of a bitch, you don't do this." He knelt next to his brother, propping him carefully against one of the trees. "You said this is your fight, too."

"I know," Dean said, closing his eyes and swallowing hard. "I know…I did."

His hands on Dean's chest, Sam imagined he could feel his brother sinking, hollowing out, disappearing inside that hole he'd spoken of, fire from his fever replacing the fight that had always been the core of Dean.

"You can't stop fighting 'til the fight's done, then," Sam insisted. "Isn't that what Dad says?"

"He…stole that…line," Dean whispered, "from The Untouchables."

"Oh," Sam stood, rubbing a hand over his face. "Well, doesn't mean it's not true."

The distant thunder of the charging horses was fading and was replaced by incoherent shouts of men working to make sense of what had just happened. Sam peered through the darkness toward the bunkhouse.

It's not gonna take those guys long to figure out what direction we went. He looked down at Dean, slumped against the tree, eyes closed, body visibly shaking from whatever the fever was doing inside of him. I gotta get him outta here….

He heard a branch snap behind him and turned, bringing his rifle up swiftly. As if emerging from the shadows of a dream, the gray mare stepped forward, reins trailing behind her, head lowered.

"Son of a bitch," he heard Dean whisper and lowered his rifle to turn and see Dean lowering his Colt. He hadn't even heard his brother draw the weapon. "What do you know about that?"

"She stayed," Sam whispered in awe.

"Or came back," Dean said. "Either way, she needs a better name than Bitch."

"You got any ideas?" Sam said, approaching the horse slowly, empty hand out, unsure if she'd shy away from him. The mare stayed still, allowing Sam to grab her reins and slide the rifle into the empty scabbard on the back of the saddle.

"I'll…think…of something," Dean promised, trying to get to his feet.

Sam heard a shout that sounded way too near and led the mare toward his brother. "Here," he said, bending low. "Grab on to me."

He felt Dean's hand fumble across his shoulder, grab for a hold and end up anchoring on his suspenders. A hand around his brother's narrow waist, Sam stood, bringing both of them to their feet. He took a breath.

Now what?

The way Dean was shaking, there was no way he was going to be able to hold on behind Sam all the way to the Mission.

"Get on," Sam ordered. "I'll help you."

"Wh-what about y-you?"

"I have a plan. Kinda."

To his credit, Dean tried valiantly to push his foot into the stirrup, but Sam saw quickly he lacked the strength.

"I gotcha, man," Sam said, awkwardly boosting Dean upward.

It took every bit of his strength as Dean was more or less dead weight, but he got his brother's right leg over the saddle. Using his shoulder and hands, he shoved Dean up and over, steadying him once he was in the saddle, sending a wordless benediction to the horse gods for keeping the mare silent and still through the whole ordeal. Dean slumped forward over the horse's neck and Sam took another breath.

"If we get out of this," he said to no one in particular, "I swear I will never again complain about driving everywhere."

Without the aid of Dean's arm to boost him, Sam swung up behind the saddle, fumbling for the mare's reins. He pulled Dean upright, resting his brother against his chest as his arms acted liked a frame.

"I miss the Impala," Sam confessed as he used his hips and thighs to nudge the horse forward.

After a few moments, he realized that steering her was going to be a challenge and scooted as far forward as he could. It was then, though, that Dean's body gave in to the abuse and he felt his brother go boneless in his arms.

"Dammit!" Sam swore. He shook Dean roughly. "Dean! Wake up. Just for a little longer, man. DEAN!"

Dean was heavy against him, dead weight in his arms. Sam craned his neck to look down at his brother's slack profile and the absolute lack of expression on Dean's face was terrifying. Even in sleep, Dean always held a modicum of awareness, enough that Sam knew he'd come to at a moment's notice. Now, though, Dean was all-but gone; Sam felt the heat of his fever, burning through him with an unnatural patience, and he was suddenly afraid. It was a mind-numbing terror the likes of which he hadn't felt in years.

This is wrong…this is all wrong.

For one moment, Sam froze. He needed someone else here, someone better than him. He needed Dad. He needed Dean. He needed—

Three quick pops of gunfire snapped him free of the paralyzing fear. He needed to move.

"C'mon, you Bitch," he snarled. "Move your ass!"

The mare whinnied and danced a bit, but somehow managed to pick up on Sam's instinctual thrusts and began to run. Sam hung on, one hand gripping the reins, the other the saddle horn, both arms holding his brother against him. Dean's fever radiated through his body into Sam's, breaking out a sweat along Sam's chest.

After what felt like forever the Mission came into view. Sam willed the horse toward the building, having no idea if he was actually doing anything to steer her. Pulling back on the reins as they reached the empty paddock area, Sam practically sat the mare on her haunches to get her to stop running.

"Zeke!" he shouted.

Dean listed against Sam's right arm, his head falling forward. Sam shifted him up, resting him once more against his chest, looking desperately between the Mission and the barn.

"ZEKE!"

He didn't see another horse in the yard, but that didn't mean Zeke hadn't hidden Hooker in the barn. Sam was trying to figure out how he was going to get both of them off the horse without dropping Dean in the dirt when a thin, dark-haired man wearing long black robes appeared in the doorway.

"What's the trouble, my son?"

Sam felt a strange rush of fear and relief. "Are you Father Ramirez? Pablo Ramirez?"

"I am," Ramirez stepped out, grabbing the mare's bridle and steadying the horse.

"I don't have time to explain, but my brother needs your help." Sam eased Dean forward until he was slumped over the saddle horn, his arms hanging limply on either side of the mare's neck.

"You called for Zeke," Ramirez said. "Did you mean Ezekiel McAdams?"

"Yeah," Sam nodded as Ramirez reached up and steadied Dean's still form. He slipped off the horse's flank and found his footing on shaky legs. "He was supposed to meet us here."

"He hasn't arrived," Ramirez said.

"I was afraid of that," Sam muttered, reaching up for Dean. Ramirez released Dean's arm and Sam let his brother slip sideways, staggering a bit as Dean's full weight filled his arms. "Jesus, he's heavy," Sam grunted.

"Take him inside," Ramirez instructed. "Up to the front. I'll be right behind you."

Sam carried Dean in an awkward, staggering gait into the Mission; his head hung over the edge of Sam's arm, his legs swayed with the movement, one arm flung outward, the other tucked up against Sam's body. Sam made it up to the front, nearly dropping Dean as he laid him on the stone floor beneath the altar filled with burning votive candles. Breathing heavily, he looked around, realizing this was the same place Dean had struggled with Jake just yesterday.

Yesterday…and a hundred years from now.

"Tell me what is needed," Ramirez said as he entered the Mission.

"Holy Water," Sam said, running the back of his hand across his grit-covered face. "Lots of it."

Without question, Ramirez nodded and disappeared through a stone archway. Sam unbuttoned Dean's shirt, exposing his brother's sweaty, bare chest. The bandage Zeke had wrapped around Dean's middle was soaked through with pus and blood.

"God, Dean," Sam whispered, dragging his hands down his face, willing his nausea away.

Ramirez returned, a deep basin of water in his hands. "My guess is, God had nothing to do with this," the priest said.

"You got that right, Father."

"Cut away the bandages," Ramirez said as he removed his rosary from around his neck.

Sam patted his pockets, finding nothing, before it occurred to him that Dean was still wearing his own boots. He reached into the hidden pocket of Dean's left boot and pulled out a small throwing knife, quickly slicing the sharp blade up through the bandages and parting them. The smell that wafted up from the wounds on Dean's side had Sam gagging, then turning his face away and breathing through his mouth.

"We haven't much time," Ramirez said, and began to rapidly whisper a blessing as he moved his fingers quickly along the beads of the rosary.

Sam moved around so that he could pull Dean's head and shoulders into his lap, and reached down for his brother's limp hand. The fire in Dean's body shook him, causing his shoulders to vibrate against Sam's legs violently enough that Sam felt his eyes burning with barely-restrained tears.

"You must hold him," Ramirez said. "Very tightly."

Sam nodded, not worrying about how this man knew what to do, or why to do it. All that mattered was that he was doing it.

Ramirez lifted the basin and Sam gripped Dean's hand, the other digging into Dean's shoulder. As the first drops of blessed liquid poured on Dean's wounds, the smell intensified and Dean bucked, his jaw tight as if holding in the pain.

"Easy," Sam whispered, unable to restrain his tears. He felt them spill over, run down his cheeks, drop onto his brother's face to mix with Dean's sweat. "Easy, man, I gotcha. I gotcha."

Ramirez, Sam realized vaguely, was praying as he poured. The ugly, swollen wounds began to bubble up as the poison and infection escaped. Another pour and Dean started screaming. His neck arched, shoving his head further into Sam's lap and the tendons along his neck popped out, tense and tight. His face was red, his voice hoarse, and still he screamed.

Steam began to rise from the wounds and Dean began to beg, his eyes open, unseeing, searching everywhere, landing on nothing.

"Stop! God, Dad! Sam! Stop…make it stop!"

"I can't, Dean, I'm so sorry, man. I can't stop it."

"Fuck…no, no more…ah…God…."

His pleas were incoherent; Sam knew he wasn't truly conscious. The fever was too hot, the pain too much. He was simply reacting, doing everything he could to maintain control and keep the scream that had all-but ripped him apart at bay. It was, Sam knew, instinctual for Dean to show as little weakness as possible. Even now.

"I gotcha, big brother. I'm here. I'm not gonna let go."

"'s so hot…so fuckin' hot…."

Sam lifted panicked eyes to the priest, tightening his hold as Dean's seizure-like jerks nearly pulled him free of Sam's grasp.

"It is the Holy Water," Ramirez hastily explained. "It is burning the poison out of him."

With perfect recall, Sam suddenly remembered the liquid fire that had poured down his face just before Dean had bandaged his cheek. Looking at his brother's steaming wounds, he nearly stopped breathing.

"Son of a bitch…I wanna go…Sammy…let's go home…."

"We will Dean, I swear to fuckin' God we're going home. Just hang on, okay…just hang in there. I'm right here…I'm here…."

He held onto his brother as Dean thrashed, kept speaking, low and soft, into his brother's ear, losing himself in the hellish sound of Dean's pain, losing track of where his tears ended and Dean's began.

It felt like years when Dean's cries finally quieted, his body beginning to still.

Sam looked up to see Dean's eyes roll closed, the lines on his face smoothing as unconsciousness took him completely. Sam was hollow, spent; his hair was clinging to his face with sweat, his eyes swollen and burning from exhausted emotion. The last few drops of Holy Water spilled onto Dean's side and Ramirez sat back on his heels, breathless, his eyes also filled with tears as he looked at Sam.

"It's over," he said. "It's done."

Sam looked at Dean's side and saw the swollen, putrid skin was now smooth, pink. The wounds were still there, but now resembled mere scratches much like the wounds on their faces had looked just before they'd slipped through time. Dean still trembled, but it felt more like aftershocks than the frightening vibrations of the fever burning him from the inside out.

"His fever?" Sam asked, his voice raw.

"Will subside," Ramirez said. "I will give him something to help. He will be weak from this ordeal, but he will recover."

Sam sagged over Dean, his forehead on his brother's sweaty shoulder, his tears escaping from him without shame. He felt a hand on his back and brought his head up, sniffing.

"Zeke?"

The saloon owner's face was wet and dirt-streaked. There was a cut on his forehead that had bled into his eyebrow. His eyes matched Ramirez's in relief, weariness, and wonder.

"I saw," Zeke said in a choked, heavy voice. "I saw what you…what you risk…doing what you do."

Sam watched as Zeke's eyes tracked down Dean's limp body.

"I saw," Zeke repeated, as if he couldn't quite absorb that reality.

Sam looked past him. "Jake?"

Zeke shook his head. "I couldn't find him," he confessed. Licking his lips, he looked at Ramirez. "We were at…Ivers' place. Looking for a friend of theirs." He looked back at Sam. "One of his men—a real fat bastard—grabbed me. I thought I was done. And then…," he looked back down at Dean, his eyes wide and slightly shocky, "someone turned the horses loose."

"That was us," Sam said.

"I kinda figured."

"So, Jake's still there?"

Zeke nodded.

Sam looked at Ramirez. "Ivers is coming after you," he said, feeling weak, his head spinning dizzily as he stayed curled over Dean in instinctive protection. "He's…he's a bad…bad bad guy."

"He is a demon," Ramirez said calmly. "A fact which I'm sure you know."

Sam nodded. "Yeah, but…how do you know that?"

Ramirez took a breath, his calm eyes on Dean. "Let's take your brother to my rectory," he said. "I will tell you more there."

"Let me help," Zeke said, moving to Dean's feet.

Sam wasn't sure he could stand; he'd been sitting on his folded legs after riding the mare. He looked up at Ramirez, trying to figure out how to ask for help.

"Please," Ramirez said. "Allow me."

Sam eased Dean's head down to the stone floor and scooted out from beneath him, using one of the nearby wooden benches to pull himself shakily to his feet. He watched as between them, the priest and the saloon owner gently lifted his brother and carried him through the stone archway. Sam followed, glancing back at the mess of water and blood—Dean's blood—they left behind on the Mission floor.

"You will find a towel in the wardrobe there," Ramirez said as he turned away from the bed where they lay Dean. "Some water and bread here. Please, rebuild your strength."

Sam nodded his thanks, slipping his suspenders from his shoulders and pulled off the wet, collarless shirt, the long underwear still covering his sweat-chilled body. He used the towel to rub down his face, wiping the sweat from his brow and the back of his neck.

Ramirez eased Dean out of his shirt, then used the blade of the throwing knife to cut another towel into strips. Zeke carefully wrapped Dean's torso with the tied-together strips, protecting the healing cuts from the dust that permeated the air around them. Ramirez wiped Dean's sweaty face and neck with the edge of a wet towel, carefully dabbing at the cut Jake had administered in this very building.

Sam watched them with detachment, his body thrumming wearily. He felt himself shaking from the inside out—after-effects of the battle he'd just fought for his brother's life. He was so tired…so tired. All he wanted was to lie down and sleep for a week.

But they weren't safe, and Dean was still vulnerable like this, so Sam simply sat heavily on the foot of the bed. Dean's boot rolled to rest in the small of Sam's back. Sam had to smile at the comfort contact with his brother brought him, even when Dean had no idea.

"He's gonna be okay?" Sam couldn't help but ask again.

"He's gonna be fine, Sam," Zeke said. "Those cuts look almost healed."

"He will be very weak," Ramirez cautioned. "His spirit has been battling the demon that wounded him. Such a fight weakens even the most stalwart of souls. He needs time to heal. On the inside."

"Yeah, well," Sam sighed, eyeing his brother's profile, "Dean's the toughest person I know."

"You must listen to me," Ramirez said. "He needs time to regain his strength. And you cannot go up against this demon alone."

"You're a…hunter?" Sam asked. He was unable to mask his surprise, though he'd instinctively known the truth the moment Ramirez began to bless the water.

Ramirez looked at Zeke.

"He knows," Sam said.

"I know," Zeke nodded, dabbing at the blood on his forehead with the edge of a towel.

"But do you know the dangers of this life?" Ramirez asked, his voice soft, serious.

Zeke looked at Dean's pale, still face. "I do now," he said.

"This isn't a job, Zeke," Ramirez said. He moved over to Dean and laid a damp cloth across Dean's forehead. "It isn't leaving the life of a physician to become a saloon owner. This is who you are. You become a hunter, you are never anything else."

Sam listened, hearing the truth in the priest's words, and feeling his stomach turn to ice in reaction. Echoing in his head as if stemming from a different person, he heard his own words to Dean in the motel room in Chicago.

What if this whole thing was over tonight? Man, I'd sleep for a month. Go back to school—be a person again.

He looked over at his unconscious brother.

It's never gonna be over. There's gonna be others. There's always gonna be somethin' to hunt.

"Listen, I said I know what they do," Zeke was saying to the priest. "I didn't say I wanted to do it."

"But you need to understand their purpose if you are to help them battle this demon."

"Uh, Father?" Sam broke in. "Listen, no offense, but…right now I don't know if I care about Ivers. I just want to get my brother home."

Ramirez frowned. "Those wounds on your brother, they were from a demon," he said.

"Yeah, you're right." Sam nodded. "But Ivers didn't do it. It's, uh, kinda more complicated than that."

Ramirez sat back. "Tell me."

Sam and Zeke exchanged a look.

"Tell him," Zeke prompted. "I could handle it. So can he."

Sam looked down, feeling his heart twist inside of him as he was forced to once again go against every instinct that screamed: run, hide, be silent, be still.

"Father," he started, swallowing, "we're hunters, you're right about that, but, uh…we're not from…here."

"That much I determined for myself," Ramirez replied.

"I mean, we're really not from here," Sam looked up, meeting the priest's eyes squarely. "We got…trapped in a spell and were, uh…transported here."

"From…where?"

"From when actually," Sam said. "We're from 2005."

"The year two thousand and five," Ramirez repeated slowly, folding his arms across his body, his mouth bowed in thought.

Sam nodded. "This guy…Jake, the one that we were looking for…he's convinced there's something here. Some weapon or something. He performed a ritual to send him back in time and…my brother and me got caught in it when we tried to stop him."

"This is very troubling," Ramirez said, looking at the ground. "Every life you've encountered since you've been here has been shifted off its path. Including my own."

"I know," Sam said softly. "Believe me…we didn't want this."

"This man who performed the ritual," Ramirez said, his eyes resting on nothing. "Did he know about the demon?"

Sam shook his head. "I don't know. I mean…it's possible. But…I think he just wants this weapon."

"What kind of a weapon?"

Sam shrugged. "I don't know that either. Could be a book, or an amulet, or a sigil, or…hell, an actual weapon weapon."

Dean shifted, a soft moan slipping free; Sam felt a tremor run through his brother's body and he rested his hand on Dean's leg. Dean went still with that contact and Sam reached up to remove the cloth from Dean's face, noting that it had sucked up the heat from Dean's body.

Dipping the cloth into the basin Ramirez had used, he wrung out the excess water and laid it gently across Dean's forehead once more before returning his focus to Ramirez. He kept his hand on Dean's leg for both assurance and support.

"There are rumors of such a weapon," Ramirez said softly, turning back to the wardrobe and lifting out several heavy-looking, leather-bound books. "Tom O'Maera spoke to me about it before the demon took his life."

Zeke blinked, surprised. "Tom? Tom was one of…of them?"

"A hunter," Ramirez nodded, setting the books down on a small, bare desk positioned near the head of the bed. "Yes. He tried to leave the life, to be simply a rancher with Kate and his children. However," Ramirez looked back toward Sam and Dean, "evil recognizes good as surely as good recognizes evil."

"Ivers knew about Tom?" Sam guessed.

"It is why Tom stayed in Sulfur Springs," Ramirez said softly. "He learned of Ivers and he wanted to protect the gate."

"The gate...," Zeke muttered. "Ivers said something about a gate when he attacked Dean."

"You mean back in the saloon?" Sam asked, glancing down as his brother shifted on the bed, his mouth turning down in a frown.

"He called Dean a hunter and said something about being close to opening the gate."

"He is," Ramirez said, opening one of the books and pulling out a sketch of a map. "This," he pointed to a spot on the map, "is Ivers' ranch. This is Sulfur Springs. This is Tom O'Maera's ranch. This is Dawson's old place."

"Dawson?"

"Sheriff," Zeke reminded him. "Not that that matters much."

"And here," Ramirez pointed to another spot on the map, "is the fifth location." Using a narrow piece of charcoal he fished from his pocket, he connected the points on the map, then drew a circle around it.

"Hey, I know that," Sam said, tilting his head as he looked at the symbol. "My dad…he keeps a journal. I saw it in there."

Ramirez nodded. "It's called a Devil's Trap. The gate is at the epicenter."

"The…gate to…what, exactly?" Zeke asked.

Ramirez looked over at him. "Hell."

Zeke's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. "Oh."

Sam rubbed his face. "This just gets better and better."

"What's stopping him from just…doing what you did? Drawing it out on a map?" Zeke asked.

"He knows where the gate is. For this gate to open, he must be in possession of the points of origin," Ramirez explained. "Or so it's been written. Therefore, all he need do is find a way to possess the fifth location."

"What's there?" Sam asked, almost afraid to hear the answer. "Another ranch?"

Ramirez shook his head. "San Jose de Valero. This Mission."

"How does he…get possession of the Mission?" Sam asked, his voice closing around the edges of his words.

Ramirez sighed, the lines on his face smoothing out, and Sam knew. He knew why Ivers wanted Ramirez gone.

"He has to get rid of you, doesn't he?" Sam asked.

Ramirez nodded.

"This is just…all kinds of crazy," Zeke sighed. He began to pace in the small confines of the room. "I mean, I thought I knew crazy, y'know? Grew up with Abigail McAdams, for one. Survived a war. Own a saloon in Sulfur Springs, Texas, but this? This takes the cake."

"I think your friend found this weapon," Ramirez said to Sam, smoothly bypassing Zeke's frenzied ramblings, "in his research, but what he didn't realize, perhaps, is that the reason it is here, now, in this time…is to protect the gate."

Sam sighed. "Well…all I know is, I've been doing this all my life, and I've never heard about a gate to Hell being opened in Texas in 1870."

"So, that means Ivers won't be successful," Zeke concluded, smiling as he tossed his hands up as if to say there, you see.

"Unless we do—or did—something that screws that up," Sam sighed, resting a hand on Dean's leg. "Like you said, Father, us just being here has already messed with people's lives."

Ramirez continued to flip through the pages in one of the books. "You never really know what God has planned for us. Perhaps you and your brother are the very reason Ivers fails. Perhaps your presence has had a ripple effect through the town that results in a revolution."

"A revolution?" Sam scoffed. "Against a demon?"

Ramirez looked at him. "If properly armed with knowledge, people can accomplish amazing things."

Sam looked down. "Something tells me that defeating Ivers isn't going to be enough to get us home."

Sam felt Dean shift again and realized suddenly that his brother was awake. Dean hadn't made a sound, but the increased pressure of his leg against Sam's back told him that one some level, Dean had been listening, absorbing the information saturating the air around them.

Sam turned, half leaning toward his brother. Dean's hooded eyes were dark, sunken into his face. His skin was grayish with splashes of color across his cheeks, and his lips were dry, but he was awake, aware.

"Hey," Sam said softly, watching Dean's heavy eyes blink back at him. "You're okay, Dean. You're safe."

"Holy Water?" Dean rasped.

Sam nodded, leaning forward, his fingers curling into Dean's grip and anchoring him. His hand was still hot, the fever slow to abate. "Yeah, Father Ramirez…he blessed the water. Saved your ass."

Dean's eyes didn't move from Sam's face. A shiver worked through him and Zeke moved in quietly to remove the damp cloth and cover Dean's bare chest with a thin, coarse blanket. He tipped a cup of water to Dean's mouth, holding the back of his head until Dean had taken a couple of sips.

"Thanks," Dean whispered, looking at his brother.

Sam felt Dean curl his fingers in their grip. The tears that had flowed freely as Dean thrashed from the pain of healing threatened a return and he swallowed them back. "We're okay," he said, unable to find any other words inside of him. "We're okay, man."

Dean's eyes closed once more and Sam sniffed, keeping his hand in his brother's heated one. He knew Dean wasn't asleep; he could feel the tension in his brother's body.

"Defeating Ivers might not be the key to your return," Ramirez said softly. "But I believe I found something that will."

"What is it?" Sam asked.

"There is a ritual in this book," Ramirez told him, "that speaks to a journey the likes of which you described."

"A book?" Sam repeated, incredulous. "Jake and his friends tortured a demon to get the ritual…and you found it in a book?"

"It's a very old book," Ramirez replied with a shrug.

"Sam…," Dean whispered. Sam looked at him, closing his mouth on his retort. He understood his brother was asking with that one word to know what they had to do next.

Sam nodded, his shoulders sagging a bit. "What's that very old book tell you, Father?"

"Blood of the innocent brought you here," Ramirez said, his finger training down the words on the page.

"Yeah, the dude cut my brother," Sam growled.

"Blood of the guilty will send you back," Ramirez said.

"Guilty?" Sam frowned.

"Jake," Dean said, his voice a harsh punch of sound. Three sets of eyes turned to face him. "He means Jake."

Ramirez nodded, smiling softly at Dean. "The spell is countered only by blood from the one guilty of the sin."

"So…no suprachiasmatic nucleas?" Sam asked.

Zeke looked at him, surprise plain on his face. "How the hell do you even know what that is?"

"I read a lot," Sam replied. "What about the herbs and the skin from the calf and all of that?"

"Good Lord," Zeke breathed, running a hand through his hair and causing it to stick up in a short Mohawk.

Ramirez was shaking his head. "Your hold in this time is tenuous. It hinges only on the blood of the one who triggered the journey. It is only as strong as his resolve. With his blood, you return."

"So…," Sam looked at the three other men. "What does this mean?"

"It means," Dean said, slowly, his hooded eyes pinned to his brother, his voice aged, worn. "It means…we're going back to that place…we're getting Bird's family out of there," he paused to take a steadying breath, "and we're gonna kill Jake."

"Dean, no," Sam breathed, shaking his head in denial. He looked to Ramirez. "Jake didn't have to kill Dean to make it work the first time…are you…are you sure?"

"I am not certain, Sam," Ramirez said sadly. "It simply says that the blood of the guilty will release your hold in this time. I'm afraid that it implies…if you are to return home, this man must die."

"But, Dean," Sam leaned forward, curling his fingers tightly into Dean's grip. "Your blood was innocent because you've never killed a human before."

Dean leveled weary eyes on him and Sam saw something shift in the green depths. Where for so many hours there had been pain, resolve began to reemerge, and where he'd seen glimpses of true fear, Sam now saw something close to cold fury.

He felt a slow shiver build from his gut and wrap around one thought: he was glad Dean was on his side.

"That's gonna change," Dean said simply.