Rating: PG-13


Chapter 7

The thing about family disasters is that you never have to wait long before the next one puts the previous one into perspective.

~Robert Brault

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Sulfur Springs, Texas 1870

The first thing Dean saw when he opened his eyes was the top of Sam's head.

It seemed to be a habit, lately.

He found comfort in the sight, the nearness of his brother. In the strange, complicated life that surrounded him, Sam was a constant. If nothing else, Dean knew Sam was in the world and that knowledge staved off much of the fear he had no other way of combating. It gave him purpose, direction; watching Sam grow up had offered Dean a history he knew he wouldn't have had on his own.

For a moment, he simply laid there, the bare skin of his upper body finding comfort against the well-washed material of the sheet beneath him. The silence that surrounded the building they were hidden within was pervasive. If he held his breath, he could hear the wind peppering the side of the Mission with dust from the empty paddock area. No voices, no traffic, no music…nothing but the wind.

The bed he lay on was narrow, the mattress more of a gesture than anything else. The room was nearly bare: a wardrobe, desk, and a lantern the only adornments. There was no window; the light from the lantern bounced in odd, surreal shadows along the walls and ceiling. Unfamiliar objects, unfamiliar smells; it was all just a rhythm to remind him that even though his home was essentially the road and they were forever without grounding, this place, this time was not his.

He didn't really remember falling asleep.

He remembered talking about Jake. He remembered feeling a reluctant resolve, and like they had the beginnings of an actual plan for the first time in a long, long time. Since before they'd climbed that damned elevator shaft after Meg.

And then…nothing.

An overwhelming weariness tucked up against him, wordlessly telling him he wasn't yet ready to face what was to come. Yesterday, he'd been dying. He knew that as surely as he'd known it when the volts from the weapon he used on the Rawhead rocketed through him and seized his heart.

Today, though, was different. The broken pieces inside of him that had been slicing through his will, separating his desire to fight from his ability to hold on, were starting to mend. He no longer felt that hole; he no longer felt that something was wrong, that something was fading inside of him. He felt himself healing.

He just needed a little more time….

If Sam didn't look so uncomfortable, Dean would have allowed himself to fall back into the darkness that had held him like a lover. But there was an odd tilt to Sam's head that told Dean his brother hadn't meant to fall asleep that way. Shifting slowly, Dean rolled to his right side, amazed how he felt even that small motion in every cell of his body.

His muscles protested with abbreviated whimpers of pain. His joints swore at him. His skin was alight with increased sensation, as if the air itself caressed him with scalpel-sharp blades. He managed to bite back the groan building at the base of his throat and reached out a slightly-trembling hand to rest his palm on the top of his brother's head.

Sam snuffed a bit against the side of the bed, rubbing his face against the thin mattress, and then settled down again. Vision clearing, Dean could see that Sam was sprawled alongside the bed; his back slumped against the wall by the headboard. He'd all-but nestled his head against the mattress next to the thin pillow Dean lay upon.

"Sam," Dean half-whispered, his voice sounding rusty. His throat protested the usage and threatened to close. Forcing himself to swallow, Dean flexed his fingers against Sam's scalp. "Sammy."

With a harsh inhale, Sam snapped his head up, Dean's hand dropping to the mattress. Sam stared straight ahead, his eyes wide and unseeing, having been startled conscious, but not fully awake.

"Hey," Dean said softly. "Go on and wake up, now."

When he was young, Sam had suffered from intense nightmares. Dean knew not much had changed except for how his brother was able to handle them. And now, he apparently got the added bonus of seeing visions of death behind closed eyes.

Dad's gonna freak when we tell him about those….

As a kid, Dean remembered, Sam would open his eyes, stare directly at him, and have no comprehension of anything that was said or done around him until Dean could get him to move and shake off the hold of the dream.

"Sam." Dean reached out again, this time resting his right hand on Sam's shoulder. If he sat up, he knew he'd be able to easily jostle Sam fully awake. The problem was he wasn't entirely sure he could move much under his own power. "Wake up, man."

He worked his fingers into the muscle of Sam's shoulder, a motion as familiar for him as tuning the timing of the Impala's engine. Sam blinked once, then again rapidly. Dean watched as his brother took a deep breath and the vacant look on his face finally subsided, reality crashing against him, making him appear so much older than his twenty-three years.

"Dean?" Sam asked, foggy-voiced as he turned sideways to meet Dean's eyes.

"Hey," Dean greeted. "Bad one, huh?"

"I was falling," Sam said.

"I've had that one," Dean told him, knowing Sam didn't comprehend how literally he meant those words.

"I think…I think I was remembering…," Sam said softly, leaning back against the wall, closing his eyes and raising a hand to grip the bridge of his nose. "Head's killing me."

"Maybe Ramirez knows Bird's trick with the herbs," Dean suggested.

With that Sam shot forward once more, then looked at Dean with wide eyes. "Are you okay?"

Dean started to nod, the intention to reassure his brother that he was always all right balanced on the tip of his tongue. But then he tried to push himself up—even to his elbow—and felt the lingering weakness that permeated his body deny him even that.

"I, uh…don't know."

"Ramirez said you'd be weak," Sam informed him, pulling his legs under him. "That you'd need some time."

"He wasn't lying," Dean groaned, rolling once more to his back.

"What do you remember?" Sam asked, grunting a bit as he took his feet.

Dean turned his head and watched Sam begin to pace stiffly in the small confines of the room. He gripped his lower back—which Dean knew had to be sore from his chosen sleeping position—and kicked his legs in an odd rocking motion with a grimace on his face.

"Enough," Dean replied. "How long was I asleep?"

Sam twisted at the waist. "Awhile. I don't really know what time it is," he said, shaking out his hands. "One minute you were with us, looking at me, then next," he shrugged, "you were out. You kinda did that off and on until they left. Then I just…," Sam made an abbreviated you're out motion with his hands.

"Sorry, man," Dean said softly, trying once more to push himself upright. He didn't like the vulnerable feeling of lying down while Sam moved around. It put him at a disadvantage he didn't want to think too much about.

"Want some help?" Sam asked, moving closer.

Dean nodded, and reached out to grip his brother's forearm, pushing his other hand into the mattress and letting Sam lift him up, then scoot him back against the headboard.

This sucks out loud.

"This is going to be interesting," Sam said softly, starting to release Dean's arm and back away.

"Sam, wait," Dean tightened his grip, feeling the thready beat of panic build in his gut and climb his spine. Sam froze, bent over the bed, his hazel eyes meeting Dean's. "Promise me you won't do this without me."

"Dean, you're a mess," Sam protested, his face folding into a frown of concern.

"I'm better than I was," Dean pointed out, feeling something churning inside of him: desperation twisting and warping and becoming determination, strength…resilience. "Just give me a little time. I'll be fine, Sam."

Sam released Dean's arm, pulling away, forcing Dean to free him. He began to pace, his gait awkward and stiff in the small space. Watching him, Dean worked through the right words to offer his brother solace and convince him that they had to do this together. Sam rotated, coming back toward the bed, and Dean caught a glimpse of his brother's expression.

It sent his heart into a sideways slide. He'd seen that expression before. He'd lived it.

It was anger and pain and relief and resolve. It was every near-miss, every just-about, every moment he'd almost lost the one thing that really mattered: his brother. It was the look Sam carried through those long, painful days after the Rawhead attack and before the 'miracle' in Roy's tent. It was the ragged sorrow John had worn in the weeks after Sam had left for school.

"I was scared."

Dean blinked and tilted his head to the side, not sure he'd really heard his brother clearly.

"I was really scared, Dean," Sam repeated, his lips barely moving, his body unable to stop. "I messed up. And you were so close to…." Sam swallowed.

"I'm okay, Sam," Dean said softly.

Sam huffed. "Yeah, because we just so happened to find a priest that knew about demonic…wounds."

Dean reached up and dragged his fingers down his face. He felt the familiar calluses on his palms against his skin and noted the newer, tenderer ones as they scratched against his scruff of a beard. Skin that was more accustomed to a 1911 handgun and a steering wheel than a Colt Navy revolver and leather reins.

"I mean, what if he'd just been a regular priest, huh?" Sam was saying as he continued his quest to leave his mark in time by wearing a groove into the floor of Ramirez's rectory. His eyes were on his boots, his hands flopping at his sides in frustrated helplessness.

"A regular priest would still have known how to bless water, Sam," Dean pointed out. "You did good, kid. You did everything right."

"But it almost wasn't enough. You…God, Dean, you screamed so loud…I've never…," Sam swallowed, continuing his pacing.

"I…I don't remember that part," Dean confessed.

The last clear memory he had of the previous night was firing his weapon to start the stampede of horses. Everything after that until they were in this room, talking to Ramirez about the ritual was a blur of colors and sounds and…pain.

Gingerly, he touched his side, felt the loose bandages there, the tender skin. It felt like a fading sunburn, not the white-hot, bone-deep ache of the previous day. He looked at his biceps, saw the purplish bruises the shape of fingers, knew that his brother had held him there, had kept him close and still while the priest had used the Holy Water to chase the demon away.

"I remember you," Dean said softly, drawing his brother to a halt. "I…I remember your voice."

"That was…I don't ever want to go through something like that again, Dean," Sam confessed, listing slightly to the side.

Dean swallowed, trying to remember if he'd said thank you. "Sit down a minute."

"I don't want to," Sam replied, not meeting Dean's eyes.

"Sit down," Dean repeated, firmly. He watched as Sam carefully lowered himself to the edge of the bed. "What's the matter with you?"

"I'm…," he looked away, then shoved a hand through his hair. "I'm sore as hell, man," he finally confessed. "I'm not built to ride freakin' horses."

Laughter burbled out of Dean before he could catch it.

Sam glared at him. "Shut up."

Dean laughed harder. Tears began to gather at the corners of his eyes and he held a hand limply over the sore muscles of his belly, his fingertips resting on the bandages there. After a moment, Sam's lips quirked up, and as Dean weakly wiped at his eyes, Sam's dimples flashed and his shoulders shook as he chuckled.

"Okay, so it's a little funny."

Dean leaned back against the headboard, sighing, latent hiccups of hilarity skittering up as he worked to gain control. "Sorry, Sammy."

"No, you're not," Sam shook his head, still grinning. "I think you actually like it here."

"Are you high?" Dean swallowed, slowly sobering.

"C'mon, man. You have the tricked out gun-slinger rig going for you. You're like a freakin' Horse Whisperer…you'd fit right in."

"Sam, my body feels like a cracked egg that was lit on fire, I'm gritty, I stink, and I haven't heard Metallica in three days."

Sam folded his lips down in a good-natured frown of concession. "So what you're saying is…you want to go home."

"Hell yes, I want to go home," Dean exclaimed. "Why do you think I want you to take me with you?"

"Because you don't trust me to get the job done," Sam replied instantly, innocently.

Dean blinked in complete surprise. "What?"

Sam shrugged. "I just…I figured you didn't think I could find Jake on my own."

Dean shook his head, closing his eyes a moment. "Sam…you are probably the dumbest smart kid I've ever met." He tipped his chin, catching Sam's eyes with his. "You think I don't know you could take care of you and me and a hunt on your own if you had to?"

"Well…I…."

"I know you could, Sam," Dean informed him with conviction.

He ignored the burr of fear that buried itself under his skin at the thought of becoming obsolete, insignificant, unnecessary. One day, Sam was going to leave him again. He'd as much given him permission to. And he knew his brother. He knew Sam had to believe that Dean knew he could handle himself.

"I know you," Dean said softly. "You haven't needed me in a long time."

"That's not tr—"

Dean held up a hand. "Not in that way," he amended quickly. "We're family. We're always going to…y'know, need each other. Just like we're always gonna need Dad, even if he is a stubborn ass."

Sam bounced his eyebrows in a nod and looked down at his hands resting in his lap.

"But you're smart, Sam. And you're…y'know…decent with a gun." Dean grinned, though Sam didn't look up. He sighed, thinking. "You gotta be able to kinda…look at the world sideways in this job."

"No kidding," Sam muttered, picking at the palm of his hand.

"You gotta make judgment calls that nobody else has to make. Ever. You gotta live on this…edge."

Sam held himself very still as he listened. Dean continued.

"Thing is…you're never alone on that edge, Sam. I'm always there with you."

"I know," Sam whispered.

"And I know the same is true for you," Dean informed him. "I trust you."

"Yeah?" Sam glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes.

"Hell, yeah." Dean poked at him with his foot. Sam smiled at him. A real smile, but with too much thought lingering in his eyes for Dean to call it happy. "I just need to be part of this, y'know? See this one through."

Sam nodded, taking a breath. "But this time we go in with a plan."

"I'm a fan of plans," Dean replied.

"Whatever, Mr. I'm Making This Up As I Go," Sam scoffed. "Name one plan you've made."

Dean raised an eyebrow. "Elevator shaft in the Chicago warehouse with the shotguns."

Sam pushed himself to his feet. "Oh, 'cause that worked out so well." He grabbed Dean's black shirt from the desk and handed it to him.

"You didn't say it had to be a successful plan," Dean pointed out, shoving his arms in the sleeves. The cloth felt slightly damp, but smelled fresh, as if someone had taken the time to wash the sweat—and, presumably, blood—from the material during the night. As he buttoned up the front of the shirt, he glanced toward the table and the flickering lantern. "Speaking of plans…where's the priest? And Zeke?"

Sam frowned. "Good question. After you fell asleep, Zeke was trying to get Ramirez to high-tail it outta here before we brought hell back with us from Ivers' place."

"He can't do that," Dean protested. "He leaves and—"

"I am not leaving," Ramirez's calm voice informed them from the doorway.

Sam turned quickly and Dean brought his head up.

"I have already made that mistake once," Ramirez said as he entered the room, a tray of bread, water, and something that looked like beans balanced in his hands. "I allowed my fear to control me and I abandoned my calling." He set the tray down on the table, shaking his head solemnly.

"Ivers scared you," Dean said, somewhat surprised by this realization.

"He did," Ramirez nodded. "You see, I didn't know the face of the demon," he turned toward Dean. "I only knew that one would come. I stayed here, safe from the events taking place in town, ignoring even the words of warning from Tom O'Maera. I did not want this fight to come to me. But then…I saw him kill Cutter."

"What did you see, exactly?" Dean asked. How did you know he was a demon?

John had never told him how to tell if someone were actually a demon. Knowing what he knew now, Dean had to wonder why. He'd read about tests and indications in John's journal after his dad left, but with the exception of the Daeva, he'd not yet encountered a true demon. It wasn't until he saw Ivers' eyes slip black that he knew…really knew that they were, in a word, screwed.

Ramirez looked directly at him, and the contrast of fire and serenity in the man's eyes was disconcerting. It took everything in Dean to not look away.

"I saw his eyes," the priest said simply.

Sam moved to the tray, pouring water into one of the mugs and handing it to his brother. Dean took it gratefully and drank deeply, feeling the cool liquid splash down in his belly, filing his body with languid relief. He took the bread from Sam and began to eat.

It's no cheeseburger, but it'll do….

"What'd you mean…you didn't want this fight to come to you?" Dean asked around a mouthful of bread.

Ramirez folded his arms, his dark eyes trained on the floor. "There aren't many in this town who still visit this Mission. At first, it was a slow attrition. People were struggling at the end of the war…the town…it suffered."

The priest looked up, taking the brothers in with a glance. "I had been charged with the protection of this Mission. I was given guidance, instructions. I was told that there would come a day when San Jose de Valero could be all that stood between salvation and evil. I believed it. But I didn't believe I would be the one to face it."

"Life's just full of surprises, huh?" Dean commented.

"Ivers took over this town. Slowly, over the last year, he drained it of life. I watched it happen. I let it happen." Ramirez covered his eyes. Taking a breath he lifted his head. "But the moment he took that man's life—for nothing…nothing—I felt something awaken inside me. And I feared it."

"Y'know, it's funny," Sam said softly. "Zeke said that moment changed something for him, too."

"Did he?" Ramirez asked.

"So, let me get this straight," Dean said, resting his head back against the wall and trying to decide which he wanted more: a stiff drink or a cup of coffee. His system was thirsty for something strong, potent, bracing. "You've lived here for years, knowing there was a gate to freakin' Hell in your back yard, and when you saw some guy taking over the town and killing people…it didn't occur to you that it might be the big bad you'd been warned about?"

Dean didn't miss Sam's frown. Ramirez was silent for a moment, then nodded.

"That is correct," he nodded. "It is not a natural to assume that the evil inside a man is more than the man himself."

"Says you," Dean scoffed.

"Dean," Sam shushed him.

"I understand that you're upset," Ramirez started.

"No, see, I don't think you really do," Dean rebutted.

His instinct was to rise, to face this man, to square off with the level of intensity he felt burning behind his eyes. But he body rebelled and as he pushed himself forward, his belly muscles began to tremble, his eyes blurring. He felt rather than saw Sam tense up next to him as he sank back against the headboard.

"No offense, Padre," Dean continued, irritated that his voice betrayed him with a breathy weakness. "I owe you for this." He touched his side. "And I won't forget that. But my brother and me…we've been fighting shit like this our whole lives." He shook his head. "I just...I can't make it make sense. A demon is here, now, and a hundred years from now a hunter finds him…but now we're here and you could have stopped it a year ago….."

"I did not know—"

Dean held up a hand. "Yeah, yeah, I know. There was no way you could have known. I get that. It's just…," he sighed and looked over at Sam. "This whole thing…it's all just…."

"Messed up," Sam said softly.

"Yeah, that's exactly what it is. Messed up." Dean nodded, talking more to himself than Ramirez as he continued. "You've got stuff in that book that we've just started to learn about…and we've been doing this for so damn long…."

"It is still possible that you two being here is more than a simple accident."

"Yeah, well," Dean groaned, closing his eyes. "It's also possible that Lee Harvey Oswald wasn't alone."

Ramirez opened his mouth, but Sam held up a hand. "Don't," he pleaded. "Just…go with it."

"We are all in this now," Ramirez said quietly. "Whether or not we wish it."

Dean kept his head back but opened his eyes, finding his brother. Sam pulled off a piece of bread and put it in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully.

"Somehow…Ivers was defeated," Sam said. "In our history, I mean."

Dean nodded, following his line of thinking. "If we don't buy into the whole we were always supposed to be here theory, then our job isn't to stop him," he agreed. "It's to get Jake and get the hell out."

Sam stopped chewing and swallowed hard. "You still think…I mean, are you really going to kill him?"

"You wanna go home?" Dean shot back, feeling his heart sink as he spoke. He was a hunter. He wasn't a killer. But if it meant getting them back…if it meant protecting his brother…. "Don't see much of a choice here, Sam."

"I don't like this," Sam grumbled. "Just…it feels wrong."

There was silence in the room for a moment as each man sank into his own thoughts.

"I pray you make it safe back to your time," Ramirez said, pausing at the door as he turned to leave. "This is not where you are meant to be." He lifted his eyes and met Dean's once more, the peace in his voice a mask for the turmoil on his face. "You have a job to do. And it isn't finished."

Dean felt his heart stutter. For a moment he couldn't breathe. He simply stared at Ramirez as the priest left the room. The food in his mouth turned to ash, the water changing to acid in his belly.

"Well that was…cryptic," Sam grumbled, eating once more. "Larabee was right; he does talk in riddles. I wonder where…Dean? Hey, you okay, man?"

"He said the same thing," Dean managed, his voice barely above a whisper.

"Who?" Sam asked setting his bread down and moving closer to his brother, his brows fisted in worry. "Said what?"

"LeGrange," Dean clarified, clearing his throat. "When I went…y'know, to his house? Before we figured out about the wife…he said those same words."

"About having a job to do?" Sam asked.

Dean nodded, feeling his heart resume its normal rhythm as Sam stepped away. "Why would…what's that even mean? A job to do? A hunt?"

Sam took a sip of water. "Maybe it's just…y'know…existential religious rhetoric."

Dean blinked at him. "Did you just use the word rhetoric in a sentence?"

Sam smirked, then sobered. "Listen, I wouldn't make too much of it," he said. "Pastor Jim used to say stuff like that to us all the time, remember? That we were…special. Meant for something more and all that?"

"Yeah, but," Dean lifted a shoulder. "I just figured he was trying to get under Dad's skin."

"He probably was," Sam nodded. "Kinda reminds me of Jim, y'know."

"Who, Ramirez?"

"Yeah," Sam nodded. "He's got that same…I don't know…calm personality."

"He's a priest and a hunter…it's not a big leap, Sam."

"Dude…Ramirez saved your ass last night."

Dean shook his head. "No, you saved my ass."

"I got you here," Sam conceded, "but without him…that fever would have burned you up and I…," Sam faltered for a moment. "Anyway, he was probably just trying to get you ready to…y'know…fight."

"Maybe," Dean sighed. "Kinda…I don't know…weird to find out there were hunters back then. I mean now. I mean…oh, hell."

"I know what you mean," Sam said, sparing him. "I had this idea that it was just Dad. I mean, for the longest time, I thought Uncle Bobby and Pastor Jim were just…."

"What? Dad's drinking buddies?"

"Kinda, yeah," Sam chuckled.

"Well, I didn't want—I mean we didn't, Dad and me—want you to have to know, Sam."

Sam slipped a sly look his direction and Dean looked away. Sometimes his brother saw too much.

"We met Caleb like a year after you finally told me the truth," Sam reminded him.

"Yeah, I remember," Dean nodded, realization sinking in. "You mean…that's when you figured out that Bobby and Jim were…?"

"In on the big family secret?" Sam finished for him. "Yeah, pretty much."

"Huh," Dean bounced his head. "Now…I kinda wonder."

"What?"

Shrugging Dean twisted his silver ring around his finger in thought. "Y'know…just if there are more out there. In our time. I mean, if a rancher and a priest in the old west…."

He let the thought hang unfinished, glancing over as Sam's face closed a bit in reflection. He could practically see the thoughts ricocheting through his brother's over-active brain. It was making him anxious. He needed to get up. He needed to move. He needed it like he needed his next breath.

"I'd give my left arm for a shower right about now," he muttered, rubbing his face.

"Yeah, no kidding," Sam nodded. "I don't think that's happening anytime soon…unless it rains. Anyway, you should eat more. We may know what have to do, but we don't know how we're gonna do it."

Using the edge of the small desk, Dean pushed against it, gaining his feet. His legs felt shaky, weak, but they held him.

"What do you mean?" he pressed his brother, looking for Sam's quick mind to make the necessary connections he was simply too tired to thread together. Leaning a shoulder against the wall he poured himself more water and continued to eat the meal Ramirez had provided for them.

Around a mouthful, Sam said, "Well, first, we gotta go back up to Ivers' ranch—undetected—and get Rory out of the bunkhouse—which is heavily guarded—and rescue his mom from the house—which is where Ivers is. Then we gotta find Jake and…y'know…get home."

"You make it sound like that's gonna be hard, Sammy," Dean commented.

"Well, I got an idea about one of those things," Zeke said suddenly from the door way.

Dean turned quickly to face him and nearly fell over. Without looking, Sam thrust out a hand and caught him by the elbow, holding on until Dean found his balance. He sat carefully on the edge of the bed, the muscles along his inner thighs breathing a sigh of relief.

"Where've you been?" Sam asked the saloon owner.

Zeke lifted a shoulder, slipping around the edge of the doorway and leaning against the wall opposite the bed. His eyes were on the floor, his face serious. "Been out…thinking."

Dean exchanged a glance with his brother, then looked back at Zeke. "Should we be worried?"

"Kid," Zeke replied glancing up. "I were you? I'da been worried a helluva long time ago."

"Have you been drinking?" Dean asked suddenly.

Zeke cut his eyes to him. "No. But don't think I don't want to."

Dean swallowed at the strange look of empty resolve in Zeke's eyes. He was suddenly reminded of his father after a night of battling the kind of monsters that lived only in his memory. John had said once that there were things he'd seen people do to each other that no supernatural being could touch. Until they'd met the Benders, Dean hadn't really known what he meant.

Looking at Zeke now, though, he saw that same understanding in the man's hazel eyes. He saw the footprint of war, the resignation of facing another battle, more death, and the understanding that he could be the cause of it.

"What is it?" Dean encouraged Zeke to continue, registering in his periphery that Sam rested his backside against the desk, his eyes forward, his whole body tense and quiet as he listened. It was one thing that he'd always admired about his brother: when Sam really listened to someone, his did so with his whole self.

"You know I fought under General Joe Hooker in the war," Zeke began. Dean blinked, swallowing the natural inclination to smirk at the name. He hadn't registered that bit of information, but tucked it away to ask Sam for details later. "I was with him at Lookout Mountain. In Chattanooga." He looked up, his eyebrows quirking in question. "That's still there, isn't it?"

Sam nodded. "Still there. Still in Tennessee," he reassured the man.

Zeke sighed. "Good. Pretty place. Even with all the…the smoke and gunfire and…blood."

The brothers remained quiet, waiting.

"Anyway, the Rebs were set on starving out our men. See, Lookout Mountain is actually a ridge that runs along the Tennessee River. Reb artillery on top of Lookout Mountain controlled access by the river, and their cavalry launched raids on supply wagons heading toward Chattanooga. It was really only a matter of time until every one of those Union soldiers starved to death..."

Zeke ran his tongue across his bottom lip, taking a breath as his memories almost visibly wrapped around him. In that moment of brief silence, for a dizzying second Dean imagined he could hear the roar of cannons, the cry of men and horses, smell the acrid odor of gunpowder mixing with the sweet, wet scent of the mountainside. Zeke looked up and Dean caught his breath, bringing his focus back to now.

"It was October, y'know. Cold in Tennessee. General George Thomas found a break in the Rebel defenses and attacked Brown's Ferry, building a bridge across the Tennessee River and making it possible for our forces to link up and break through the Cracker Line."

"The what?" Sam asked, puzzled.

Zeke pressed the tips of his fingers together. "The Cracker Line—you ever hear of hardtack? It's pretty much what I ate for about three years. Called it that 'cause we were finally able to supply the Union troops with food. Anyway it was…brutal. All of it. But we won, and those soldiers didn't starve."

"What's this got to do with Ivers?" Dean asked.

Zeke pushed away from the wall, his hip cocked, stance relaxed, as if he were truly warming to his topic. "See, Thomas' plan only worked 'cause the Rebs thought they had it all tied up. They thought they had the tactical advantage on the ridge. They didn't think about us being able to use the river."

Sam narrowed his eyes. Dean looked at him, recognizing that expression. "What are you thinking, Sammy?"

"There's a river bed over behind the bunkhouse at Ivers' place," Sam said slowly, his eyes on the floor and also miles away.

Zeke nodded and moved to the wardrobe. He dug around inside for a moment then emerged with the map Ramirez had used the night before to illustrate Ivers' plan to open the gate.

"See this?" He pointed to a mark on the map.

Dean stood once more, leaning on the table to get a better look, pleased his legs felt more solid.

"About a year ago, Tom O'Maera and I built a dam here. It's on the edge of his property; he needed the additional water. Ivers ranted about it for awhile, but Tom, he…well, looking back I think he did it specifically to rile Ivers up. But at the time he just talked about property lines and didn't let Ivers get to him. Lot of people 'round here think that's why Ivers ultimately killed Tom."

"Ivers was using that river as a source of water?" Sam asked.

Zeke nodded. "So I assume."

"Where's he get his water now? For all those horses?" Sam continued.

Zeke shrugged. "You got me, but I can tell you one thing. If the dam goes? That bunkhouse would be flooded in minutes. Probably smash it up."

Dean looked at Sam, already visualizing the ramifications. "They'll be looking for us to come from the ridge. Ivers has gotta be pissed our stampede took out the front porch of his house."

"Not to mention a couple of his men," Sam nodded. "But what about Rory?"

"We go during the day. My guess is they won't be in the bunkhouse," Zeke pointed out, "they'll be rounding up them horses and fixing the corral."

"So…you're saying we blow the dam, and…then what?" Sam frowned, looking over at Dean. "Not like we can time an attack on the ranch with the flood of water."

"What I wouldn't give for a cell phone right about now," Dean muttered.

Zeke shook his head. "I'm not even gonna ask."

"Zeke," Dean straightened. "How long do you think it'll take the water to get from the dam to the bunkhouse?"

Zeke shrugged. "Amount of water in that reservoir…ten minutes. If that."

Dean looked at Sam, eyebrows raised.

"No," Sam shook his head.

"What else are we gonna do, Sam?"

"That's just…insane, Dean."

"C'mon!" Dean frowned, turning his hands up in a work with me here gesture. "You'd have to ride there anyway. Not like it's in walking distance."

"Everything is in walking distance if you have enough time," Sam pouted.

"That's one thing we don't have," Dean pointed out. "Ironically."

"Hey!" Zeke finally exploded. "In case you forgot, I don't have your super-special brother mind-reading powers. What the hell are you two goin' on about?"

"He wants to race the water," Sam grumbled, flopping down on the edge of the bed, his hands hanging loosely between his knees.

"Do what now?" Zeke looked at Dean.

"We start at the dam," Dean explained. "When it blows, we blow. I figure we hit the ranch right when they're scrambling to deal with the flood. Everyone comes out of the house to see what the hell…we head in."

Zeke listened, absorbing Dean's—somewhat demented—logic. "Only one problem I can see."

"One?" Sam exclaimed.

"What's that?" Dean asked, ignoring his brother.

"You still need three people at the ranch: one to get Rory, one to get Kate, one to get Jake."

"Who's Kate?" Dean frowned.

"Bird's Mama," Zeke explained.

"Oh, right," Dean nodded. "Okay yeah, you've got a point. So…someone else has to blow the dam."

"Not Ramirez," Sam spoke up, his voice dully resigned to the inevitable. "He has to stay at the Mission."

"Sam—"

"Dean," Sam interrupted, standing up and facing his brother. "I'll go along with this insanity because I know I'm not going to be able to stop you and there's no friggin' way I'm letting you go alone, but we're not leaving this place unprotected."

"I know—"

"And before you say it," Sam holding up a hand, "I get that Ivers being a demon and all isn't our problem. I do. I get that he was doing his demonic thing before we even got here. I get that he's probably the whole reason Jake was able to find out about the location of the weapon and that it's not all random circumstance and it all has meaning and all of that crap. I get it."

"Listen, just—"

"No, you listen, Dean." Sam's face was tight as he pointed at Dean's chest. "I said we had to have a plan, and we do, but…part of that plan has got to be to somehow help these people stay protected against Ivers. We've messed up enough lives in this town by just being here; I'm not gonna risk making the one mistake that would allow that bastard to open a friggin' gate to Hell."

He took a breath, folding his lips down as he stared hard at Dean.

"Are you done?" Dean asked calmly.

Sam rolled his shoulders back and nodded. "Yeah. That pretty much…y'know…covers it."

"Good," Dean said, then turned to Zeke. "You know how to find Sentenza?"

Zeke nodded, covering his mouth as if to hide the grin that was blatantly reflecting in his eyes. "He's not gonna be able to make that ride, though."

"No, but he can light a fuse."

"Oh," Sam said softly, sitting back down on the bed. "Oh."

Zeke lifted his chin in acknowledgement. "He lights the fuse…and I go with you," he said slowly.

Dean mirrored the man's nod. "You know the layout of the place, you're good in a fight—"

"How do you know that?"

"You survived the war, didn't you?" Dean pointed out.

Zeke tipped his head to the side in concession. "Who's gonna protect Ramirez?" he asked.

Dean looked down, thinking. He glanced at Sam and saw the same question reflected in his brother's eyes. He thought of the slender, quiet man who had saved his life.

"Think there's any way we can reach his friend, Larabee?"

Zeke rubbed his chin. "We gotta go back to town and get the dynamite…get Sam another horse…I could send a telegram, maybe, but by the time he gets it…," Zeke shrugged.

"Do we even know where he went?" Sam asked. "All he said was that he had to meet a friend. Maybe he's still in Maera."

"Sulfur Springs," Dean corrected, erasing Zeke's confused frown.

"Good point," Zeke said. "I'll put out some feelers."

"We could ask Stella," Sam suggested. "I bet she knows."

Zeke arched an eyebrow, his lips quirking, but he said nothing. Dean was about to make a comment when he heard the unmistakable low rumble of thunder. He looked at Sam, pleased to find an echoing expression of delight on his brother's face.

"C'mon," Sam said, and led the way from the room.

Dean followed, slowly, relishing the feel of his body in motion, doing what it was told, gathering strength as the damage done to his spirit by the claws of the Daeva continued to heal. There was an echoing tremble inside of him, but he felt it slowly calming.

Regardless of what he thought about God, he sure did love the Big Guy's water.

"Where the hell are you two going?" Zeke called after them.

Dean smelled it before they reached the opened archway of the Mission's main doorway: rain. Sharp, clean, cool. The smell of earth and gravity and new beginnings. He joined Sam at the opening and breathed deeply, shivering with pleasure as gooseflesh rose along his skin in reaction to the sudden chill in the air.

Together they watched the storm approach from the West, a wall of water falling in a thick shower from heavy clouds, beating down on the thirsty land and rumbling toward them with the power of nature unleashed. Just before the rain hit the Mission, the brothers stepped out of the doorway and in unison closed their eyes and lifted their faces. The rain poured down on them, thundering over their bodies and soaking them in moments.

The rain roared in Dean's ears, filling the hollows of his eyes, spilling down his face and running in a river from his chin to tumble to the ground and join the puddles of red earth churning around his boots. It sounded different; it wasn't rain on the metal roof of his car, hitting the blacktop of a motel parking lot, or even slamming against the glass window or prefabricated roof of a building.

It was real and raw and perfectly overwhelming.

"Are you two crazy?" Zeke yelled from the doorway, safely tucked indoors away from the downpour.

Dean ignored him. He ran his hands through his short hair, rubbing away the grit and sweat from his face and neck, scrubbing his fingers through the coarse hair that framed his jaw line. Blinking the rain from his lashes, he peered at Sam and grinned, watching as his brother shook his longer hair from his face.

"What do you think, Sam?" he yelled over the storm. "Are we crazy?"

"You bet your ass we are!" Sam yelled back, water tripping from his lips and flinging itself into the void between them.

Dean laughed, the sound filling him, permeating the left over cracks that had dug into his fragile soul when the fever had burned through him. An unfamiliar feeling of joy slipped inside of him and Dean felt…whole.

The untucked shirt clung to him, molding against the shape of his body. The black pants were plastered against his legs. He felt oddly weightless without the borrowed Colt revolver strapped to his hip, but in that moment, all that mattered was the freeing sensation of rain washing his worn and weary body. Spreading his arms wide, Dean lifted his face to the rain, the surge of the storm against his skin already beginning to wane.

You may be right…we may be crazy….

Crazy might be the only way to live when trapped in a world where rituals tore them from their time and where death was their only means of escape.

www

He should have known better.

All it had taken was one man looking for favor, one whisper of possibility, one kernel of suspicion. He could have avoided all of this. He was good enough—correction, he used to be good enough.

He was better with Max and Leo there to back him up. They'd always been stronger as a unit. But he'd let grief warp him and his singular obsession destroyed a lifetime of friendship. He hadn't been able to hold on to the mission for long enough periods of time.

It's amazing the clarity that pain brings.

In too-bright, sharp-edged images, he recalled the fight with the demon that had taken Sean from him, the vow he'd made at his son's unmarked grave, the killings—so many killings—to get the ritual right, and the blood of another man's son on his hands. He heard his friend's voices in his head, pleading with him to stop, asking him to think about what he was doing, and backing him up as best they could as he continued through this nightmare.

He'd stopped screaming several minutes ago, but it was only because his voice had given in long before his consciousness. The branding iron marked his chest with a five-point star, the smell of burning hair and flesh filling his nostrils.

Leave it to a demon to be unoriginal.

"Enough for now," Ivers finally spoke up. "Don't want to kill him quite yet."

The fat man backed away, taking with him the glowing iron. Jake sagged against the bindings that held him to the chair, his hands secured behind him, the ropes at his legs tight enough to cut off circulation. Sweat ran into his eyes and he forced himself to blink it away as he regarded Ivers.

The man stood across the room, leaning against the edge of a windowsill, his dark eyes regarding Jake with what might be misconstrued as disinterest. But Jake recognized this act. He'd seen it before: the demon that had killed Sean behaved the same way.

And he remembered that now. He remembered every agonizing minute of it.

"So, tell me," Ivers said, his voice almost amicable, as if they were sipping brandy and smoking cigars. "How do you know the hunters from the saloon?"

"I…," Jake rasped, his voice barely audible, "d-don't know what you're t-talking about."

Ivers looked almost sad, turning his hand around to casually inspect his fingernails. "That's not what I heard. I have spies everywhere in that piss-ant town. Tucked into corners like cobwebs. Watching, listening, bringing it all back to me. I miss nothing. So, you see, when I heard that you knew that little peon of a hunter and his brother…I knew there had to be some truth to it."

Still looking at his nails, Ivers stepped away from the window and slowly crossed the room. The dull, rhythmic jangle of spurs sounded off with each step. Jake's eyes begged to close, his body pleaded to give in, but he knew his only hope lay in focusing on Ivers, watching for his chance.

"And that's not the only thing I heard," Ivers said, looking somewhat innocently troubled as he lifted his eyes and skipped them over Jake's haggard, sweaty face. "I heard that the inebriated idiot of a saloon owner somehow managed to kill the man that showed up with them."

Jake blinked, his stomach churning. He couldn't keep his heartbroken horror from his face. One of his friends was dead. One of the men who had once been as close to him as a brother was dead because of what he'd done.

Which one…?

"Oh, didn't you know?" Ivers smirked, his eyes cold coals burned into a placid face. "Brand," he said softly, running his index finger down Jake's wounded chest, pressing the tip against the weeping, burned skin. Jake groaned, his body trembling in reaction. "Ironic, don't you think?"

"Go to H-Hell, you bastard," Jake gasped.

Ivers raised his eyebrows, straightening and brushing the tip of his finger down his shirt front as if touching Jake had sullied him somehow. "Oh, I don't think so," he replied. With unnatural, inhuman swiftness he was suddenly leaning close, peering into Jake's face, his hands gripping the arm rests until Jake felt the chair shake, his eyes solid, onyx black. "I think Hell's going to come to meet me."

Jake drew back; he couldn't help himself. He'd looked into the eyes of a demon before, but it wasn't something one grew accustomed to. He had no one to blame for his predicament but himself. He'd been the one to research, to find the omens that had run rampant in this area in this exact moment in history. He had known about the gate and about Graham Ivers' obsession to be the one to open it.

And he had known the demon had been defeated.

It was the reason he'd chosen this moment in time, this place in history. It was here that the weapon had been used in a public display of execution, where people long protected from the existence of very real evil were exposed to the truth. It had confused him at first, that history had shown Ivers' defeat, but not a surge of hunters joining the fight.

The truth is not what you know; it's what you believe.

Max had been the one to point out such a simple, basic fact to him years ago as they worked to wrap their minds around the horrors of their first war. And it was still true. The people of Sulfur Springs, TX, had defeated a monster, changed the name of their town, then gone on about their business as if evil was simply something that existed in fairytales.

"You're wrong," Jake rasped.

Ivers' eyes returned to human—or as close to human as the demon could portray—and he tilted his head in curiosity.

"You're going to die," Jake informed him.

Ivers simply raised an eyebrow. "You first."

He backed up a step, motioning the fat man with the branding iron forward. Before the fat man could move, however, the door to the small room where they sat slammed open and one of the men from the bunkhouse that Jake had never bothered to meet came in with a slim, attractive woman struggling in his grasp.

Ivers' frown was ferocious. "Explain!"

The woman stomped on her captor's foot with the heel of her boot and he cried out in pain, releasing her. She moved quickly away from him—to the other side of the room, not out and away as Jake had expected—and turned furious gray eyes on Ivers. The man who'd tried to hold her fumbled his way back out of the room.

"I want to know where Rory is," she demanded. Her black hair had been twisted into a bun at the nap of her neck but it was falling loose, flying around her fine-boned face as if it had a life of its own.

"Who the hell is Rory?" Ivers replied.

"My son," she spat, marching up to the man, fists clenched.

Jake felt true fear for this woman. She was a head shorter than Ivers and slim enough that even without supernatural powers Jake knew Ivers could cause her true harm. But she faced him with the unabashed fury of a mother whose child was in danger.

"We had a deal," she continued, her voice like venom. "I stay here and do whatever you tell me to and Rory is safe."

Ivers lifted a shoulder. "What makes you think he isn't?"

"He's not in the bunkhouse," she said. "No one is."

Ivers cut his eyes over to the fat man. The man spit a thin stream of tobacco juice onto the floor then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Sent 'em all out after the horses," the fat man explained. "Said you needed 'em back, Boss."

Ivers turned back to the woman, spreading his hands wide as if to say there, you see? It wasn't enough for her.

"Fetch him back," she demanded.

"I don't believe you're in a position to give orders," Ivers replied, his voice cold.

"You might think differently the next time you try to put that thing inside me," she practically growled. Jake grimaced at her implication, and at the sneer that found a home on Ivers' face. "I want my son back. Now!"

Even Jake jumped at the sound of her shout. Ivers stared at her for almost a full minute before he sighed.

"I don't know why I don't just kill you all right now," he muttered.

At that Jake lifted his increasingly-heavy head.

"Why d-don't you?" Jake asked.

Ivers looked at him. The woman looked at him, her eyes registering a level of horrific surprise that showed Jake she hadn't truly seen him before that moment. The fat man spat tobacco again.

"Are you that ready to die, Brand?" Ivers asked.

Jake suddenly felt at peace; it was a feeling of control that came over him only in moments when he found a purpose.

"I got nothin' to lose," he informed Ivers. "The only reason I'm here is to watch you get killed."

Ivers rolled his eyes. "That again," he said as if the very notion were ridiculously amusing. "Don't you know, hunter? You. Can't. Kill. Me."

"Wanna bet?" Jake retorted.

Ivers cut his eyes from Jake to the woman. "Tie her up," he ordered the fat man. "Leave her here and come with me. We've got work to do."

"What about him?" the fat man gestured toward Jake with the cooling end of the branding iron.

"I haven't decided," Ivers said, his lips pulling up to expose yellowing teeth in a snarl. "Which would you prefer, Brand? Wearing your intestines like a necktie? Take off your fingers at the knuckle and feed them to you? Deforming you feels a bit like overkill; I've already marked you for whatever remains of your miserable life."

Jake saw the woman's face pale at Ivers words, the true horror of her captor's capabilities sinking in. He looked at Ivers with dead eyes, not bothering to answer.

"Leave him where he sits," Ivers snarled at the fat man then turned toward the door, a muscle in his cheek bouncing as he stared at the humanity left in the room. "I'm about done with this place anyway."

As he slammed the door behind him, Jake felt a smile inexplicably tug up the corner of his mouth.

"What are you grinnin' at?" asked the fat man as he grabbed the woman and shoved her up against the wall.

"Those guys," Jake said, a chuckle thickening his words, "back in town…they're coming after me."

"Too bad Ivers is gonna kill you, then," the fat man said, pressing his rotund belly against the woman's back as he tied her hands.

Jake knew the only reason she didn't fight back harder was because her son was still out there, unprotected. She would die to see him safe; it was etched on her tense face.

"Don't matter," Jake said, allowing his eyes to fall closed. "As long as they take every one of you bastards out to get to me."

www

The last time he'd ridden behind Dean, his brother had passed out in his arms.

This time, he clutched at Dean's waist in a desperate attempt to stay aboard the horse. Their clothes were still somewhat damp from the rainstorm, but Sam had to admit he felt as close to good as he had since watching Meg fall from the opened window of the warehouse. Even the scattered rest and bland food had done amazing things to strengthen his body, and seeing Dean move around under his own power—albeit a bit slowly—without the lines of pain drawn across his face had returned the hope he'd almost lost.

The sun had licked at the heels of the storm and was now beating down, burning the exposed skin on his brow and neck. Dean's black hat shaded his brother from the same abuse, but Sam hadn't gotten around to finding a hat that fit him. He dug his fingers into the gun belt strapped tightly to Dean's slim hips and gripped the gray mare with the trembling muscles of his inner thighs.

Never again…never again…never again….

The four-beat thrum of the horse's hooves seemed to drill the chant into his head. It was his personal vow: when they got home, he was never getting on a horse again.

Dean leaned a bit forward in the saddle. The Bitch took his body's cue and found another gear. Sam gasped and moved his hands from the gun belt to Dean's waist, his fingers digging in and he worked to mirror Dean's posture as they hauled ass through the edge of town to the front of The Beacon. Anticipating Dean's motion just before he hauled the mare up to a stop, Sam leaned back and felt his brother's shoulders against his chest as the horse skidded to panting halt.

Sam slid from the mare's back and made his way to the boardwalk just in front of the door as Dean dismounted and flipped the horse's reins around the hitching rail. They followed Zeke inside.

"I'll find Stella," Zeke said. "You two get—"

His voice slammed to a halt as he caught sight of the people grouped in front of the bar, facing him.

Sam and Dean drew up short just before crashing into Zeke's back. Sam blinked, his eyes tracking along the cluster of people. Big Bob was behind the bar, Stella in front. Next to her stood Frost, Sentenza, and Bird. The little girl gripped the hand of her brother, Rory, who stared out at them with too-old eyes. On the other side of Rory were four men Sam didn't know, but had seen in the saloon the previous night.

"Stella?" Zeke asked.

"You're going up against a very bad man, Zeke," Stella said, her voice husky and soft. Sam felt the weight of her words, the unspoken acknowledgement of necessity and deep-seated worry for a friend. "You're not gonna be able to do it alone."

Sam exchanged a look with his brother. Is this supposed to happen?

Dean lifted a shoulder and looked back toward the people of Sulfur Springs.

"I…was gonna find you," Zeke tried to explain.

"Rory found us first," Stella explained, nodding toward the boy. "He took a pretty big risk coming here."

Rory's eyes were on Dean. "I thought you'd be dead."

Sam felt his stomach tighten at the thought.

"Almost was," Dean replied. "Thought you weren't gonna leave without your mom."

"Counting on you to go back and get her," Rory countered. "I, uh…heard some stuff."

"What'd you hear, Rory?" Sam asked, his voice soft.

They hadn't moved from the doorway and none of the town's people had moved from their positions at the bar. It was as if they were in a verbal stand-off; the only thing that was going to break it would be a mutual concession for help.

Rory glanced down at Bird.

"Go on," she encouraged. "I told you. They promised."

"Ivers sent us out to round up them horses ya'll let loose," Rory stated. He shifted his feet and Sam saw that the large Colt he'd held on them when they encountered him in the bunkhouse was slipped into his belt, the barrel nearly meeting his knee. "He's planning on taking out the Mission. Killing the priest there."

Zeke tipped his chin up in a nod. "We kinda figured that part."

"Yeah, well," Rory narrowed his eyes. "He's gonna do it tonight."

Zeke looked over his shoulder at Dean and Sam.

"That ain't all," Rory said.

"What else?" Dean pressed, taking a step forward.

"He ain't just gonna kill the priest. I snuck into the house while everyone was busy trying to catch a horse on foot to go after the herd. I was gonna see if I could find my mom. I heard him talking funny," Rory's voice cracked across the last bit.

"You heard Ivers you mean?" Dean clarified.

"Yeah," Rory nodded. "Some stuff I didn't understand and then…then he said something about gutting the priest and that no one would be left alive."

"He's gonna sacrifice Ramirez," Sam muttered.

"And then annihilate the town," Zeke concluded.

"No, he's not," Dean shook his head. He rotated to face Sam. "It doesn't happen, Sam. None of that does."

"But what if we've changed things, Dean?" Sam said, fear plain in his voice. He pitched his volume low so that only his brother and Zeke could hear. "What if it happens now?"

"We don't let it," Zeke replied. He turned his back to the people gathered at the bar and faced the brothers. "We prepare them to fight. We keep our plan with the dam. We get Kate and Jake the hell outta there…," he swallowed, his eyes looking dangerous in their intensity, "and we get you two home."

"What about Ivers?" Sam asked.

Zeke glanced over his shoulder. "Ivers is our problem," he said toward the people standing behind him. He looked back the brothers. "He's been our problem. We let him control us, take our land, kill our friends. And we did nothing."

He turned and walked toward the bar, the eyes of the people of the town on him.

"This is our fight," Zeke said. "I think it's time we finished it."

Sam shook his head and saw Dean roll his lips against his teeth. "This…this isn't just some…some normal bad guy, Zeke," Sam said.

"You gotta know," Dean said, his voice strained as he echoed Sam, "that this might not be a fight these guys can win." He lifted his chin to the people behind Zeke.

"That's what they said about half the battles I survived," Zeke replied. He half-turned, his glance bringing the two groups of people together. "And what I learned was that in a real fight, you don't try to win," he looked back at Dean. "You try to make the other guy lose."

Sam watched Dean's eyes take this in, soften, then drop slightly as he agreed with the other man.

"What about them?" Sam motioned toward the people gathered at the bar. "You willing to pit them against Ivers?"

"Seems to me we're pitting ourselves," replied Stella. Sam watched the others nod in agreement. "Ivers killed some good men in this town. Changed a lot more into…monsters," Stella flinched as she forced that word free. "And he did it to keep us afraid. To keep us in line. So you all go off and do what you have to. If Ivers comes this way?" She tilted her head, pulling a small knife from the folds of her skirt. "We aim to misbehave."

Zeke's grin was triumphant as he stared at her.

Rory spoke up. "I'm gonna come with you."

"No!" Dean and Zeke replied at the same time.

Rory frowned.

"You stay here with Bird," Zeke said. "You keep that pistol of yours ready and you prepare to defend this town from Ivers and his men."

"But I thought he was gonna go to the Mission," Rory replied.

Zeke glanced back at the brothers. "I think we might be able to convince him otherwise."

The surreal quality of their surroundings that Sam had felt when he'd first woken up in the back of Zeke's saloon had faded as he'd fought to keep his brother alive. It returned in full force as Zeke ordered everyone into action. As he watched, Rory, Bird, and Frost began to move tables and roll barrels in front of windows, creating an effective barricade.

"This will be our front," Zeke told them. "If Ivers and his men follow us, we want them to follow us to this place, understand?"

Dean nodded, moving toward the backside of the bar. If they had been in their own time, Sam knew, they would be heading to the back of the Impala, gathering weapons, gearing up for whatever the fight threw at them. Here, though, he felt out of place, off-balance. He moved to follow Dean, knowing that when push came to shove, his brother would be shoving with weapons in both hands.

"What about Ramirez?" he asked Zeke.

Zeke stopped mid-stride as he approached his store room where Leo's body had once lain. He looked over at Stella, who was busy tearing strips of petticoat and piling them up on the bar.

"You know where your friend Larabee got to?"

"He's not my friend, Sugar," Stella replied, then glanced sideways at Zeke. "But I might know."

"Think you could find him? Ask him to hole up at the Mission with Ramirez until…well, until this is all over?"

Stella turned, resting her hand on a hip and tipped her head sideways as she regarded Zeke. "What makes you think he'll do it for me?"

Dean had been pulling down bottles of whiskey from the shelf behind the bar and handing them to Sam. Both stopped and watched as Zeke approached Stella.

"I suspect there's not many men who'd say no to you," Zeke replied, his voice dropping, turning husky.

"You have," Stella replied softly.

"Once or twice," Zeke conceded, stepping closer to the brothel owner. "When I was foolish enough to think about what I was doing."

At that Sam looked away, turning his back to the couple who were apparently oblivious to the fact that they had an audience. Unfortunately, by turning his back to them, he faced the mirror and it gave him a clear view of the unfolding events. He glanced up at Dean and saw that his brother also had turned his back, his chin down, his eyes up on the mirror.

"You aren't thinking now?" Stella asked, her face impassive, her stance unchanged.

Zeke shook his head. "Thinking just left me lonely," he said softly, his face tipping closer to hers.

Sam jabbed Dean in the side with two fingers as he saw his brother's lascivious grin. Dean met his eyes in the mirror and mouthed what? Shaking his head, Sam motioned for the bottle of whiskey Dean still held by the neck.

"Uh, we're gonna…y'know…go…," Sam mumbled without looking back at Zeke and Stella. He pushed Dean ahead of him toward the store room.

"Dude, they are totally—" Dean started as he strained to see over his shoulder while Sam continued to propel him forward.

"Eyes front!" Sam ordered and used Dean's shoulder to push them through the door.

Chuckling, Dean set the bottles of whiskey he'd been holding on the makeshift table where Leo's body had rested. Sam put his two bottles next to them. Dean pulled out the Colt Navy revolver from his hip holster, spun the chamber and set it down next to the whiskey bottles.

"Five shots left with this one," he said, sobering in a beat. "This gun takes lead balls and combustible paper cartridges. Gonna have to reload on the fly; not like I can fill a belt with bullets."

Sam rolled his lip against his teeth. "I have the Winchester," he said.

"Ammo?"

Sam shrugged. "I'd have to ask Zeke."

"You see any shotguns around?"

Sam shook his head. "We'd have a helluva time making rock salt rounds from a salt lick."

Dean nodded. "We need more weapons," he said softly, running his hand over his mouth. "A few Molotov cocktails and two guns against all those bad guys?"

"We'll have the water from the dam…the element of surprise…." Sam's words sounded weak even in his head.

How the hell are we gonna do this?

They stood for a moment, listening to the waterfall of voices and moving furniture from the outer room, staring in silence at their arsenal. Dean sighed and leaned both hands on the table, hanging his head low. Looking at him, Sam thought about Ramirez's warning that his brother would be weak, that strength would return, but it would return slowly.

It took him a moment to realize Dean had been talking to him.

"Sam. Earth to Sam. Sam Winchesters wears women's underwear."

"Only when I borrow it from you," Sam retorted, drawing his focus back to the present.

"So that's where it went," Dean chuckled. He'd straightened away from the table and was holding a hand loosely on his side, fingers moving casually along his ribs.

Sam sighed, glancing sideways at Dean. "You think it's weird that none of these guys really sound like they're from Texas?"

Dean huffed a small laugh, tilting his head. "Okay, left field."

"Seriously—I would've expected…I don't know, long drawls and…y'know, cowboy talk."

"Well, Bird and Rory kinda sound like that."

"Yeah, I guess."

"Y'know, Texas is barely a state, man," Dean conceded. "Most everyone here is from someplace else."

Sam bounced his elbow off of Dean's arm. "Look at you, Mr. History."

"Hey, I read."

I'm more than just a blunt instrument, Sam.

Sam didn't often give his brother credit for surviving the life they'd led. He didn't really know how to say, thanks for putting yourself between me and the bad guys. Or even thanks for being my big brother. But he needed to learn how to do that.

He needed to learn how to say thank you and make Dean believe it. They felt…thin to him. As if they were stretching hope over too great a space. He had an irrational urge to reach out and grab Dean's arm, grip it tightly and not let go.

"What's the first thing you're gonna do when we get back?" Sam asked.

"Get behind the wheel of the Impala," Dean answered immediately. "Turn her on, feel her hum, crank up the music, roll down the windows, and haul ass."

Sam couldn't hide his grin. "To where?"

"Anywhere," Dean replied. "Screw this one-horse-power shit. I miss my baby."

"Would I lose my status as your geeky brother if I said I missed her, too?"

Dean half-turned and clapped a hand on Sam's shoulder, the side of his mouth pulled back in a genuine grin. "Your rep is safe, man."

Sam was grateful when Dean left his hand for a moment. "Can we do this?" he asked softly.

Dean squeezed his fingers once, then dropped his arm to his side. "We have to."

Taking a breath Sam nodded. "Dad's never gonna believe this," he muttered.

"I've been thinking," Dean started. "This…weapon that Jake's after. If Ramirez is right…if it's here 'cause of Ivers…and if it's the reason Ivers didn't win…."

"You're thinking we bring it back with us," Sam said, his words feeling flat against his tongue.

Dean lifted a shoulder. "I'm not convinced there is such a weapon, but…well, Dad said he had a lead on a way to kill a demon…and Jake picked this time…this town…."

"I'm following you," Sam nodded. "But, Dean…things happen for a reason."

Dean snorted and turned away, pulling open drawers situated beneath the shelves of liquor and rifling through them.

"No, listen for a second," Sam crossed the room until he faced Dean's profile. "This…weapon had to've…disappeared or something…for who knows how long. Long enough that it turned into a rumor that Dad is chasing."

"We're talking about something that can kill a demon, Sam," Dean snapped, pulling out a bag of small lead balls and tossing it onto the table. He moved to the next drawer. "Assuming we can make it home…just…think about the good we could do back there with something like that!"

"Now you sound like Jake," Sam said.

Dean rolled his eyes, turning away. "Maybe Jake had a point."

"What?" Sam yipped. "He…he killed for this, Dean. He…he ruined lives to get back here for this weapon."

"I know, man, I just…," Dean pressed his lips flat, tossing something back in a drawer, his eyes down. "Zeke said it himself. These guys, in this town…they just let evil run 'em over. They didn't do a thing to stop it."

"They're scared."

"So the hell what?" Dean turned to face his brother. "I've been scared my whole life. Everything we've ever done is to save people like them," he pointed over Sam's shoulder at the door closed between the store room and the saloon, "from things like Ivers."

Sam stared at his brother for a moment. Watching Dean fight against the inevitable, watching him struggle, and hating himself for letting it happen.

"Y'know, whether we're in…1870 Texas, or 2005 Chicago…it's all the same, isn't it?" Dean said, narrowing his eyes a bit. "It's still us against them and there's this whole world of people who don't really give a shit."

"You saying you want it to be different? You want them to know?" Sam felt his brows pull close.

"I'm saying…I want people to be accountable. I'm saying we pay a price for the choices they make. I want…I want to know it matters, dammit. All of it. Because if…if all we've done is for nothing…and people just go on living their lives like evil never walked here…," he shook his head, looking down, the fire dying out of his voice.

"Dean…."

Dean looked up, a strange light in his eyes. "Answer me this. If you had the chance to kill the thing that killed Jess, would you do it?"

"Yes," Sam answered immediately, his gut hollowing out at the thought. "You know I would."

Dean bounced his eyebrows up, one last spark of hope.

"But," Sam said, stepping forward, one hand out imploringly, "I wouldn't change history to stop it from happening."

"You wouldn't?" Dean's face smoothed with surprise.

Sam shook his head. "Everything happens for a reason," he repeated, his lips quivering around the words.

Dean looked down. "Guess that's where we're different, Sammy."

"You'd risk everything? Risk the…the future to change one thing that you think went wrong?"

Lifting his eyes, truth shining in them bright enough to skip against Sam's heart, Dean said, "If it meant I could save someone I love…yeah. Yeah, I'd risk it."

Sam shoved a hand through his hair, real fear gripping him. "Dean, this weapon…it isn't the way…the time…I mean…what if we get back and it isn't our world anymore? What if by taking this weapon out of this time changes the course of history so much nothing we knew is there anymore?"

Dean looked down, his shoulder sagging as the weight of Sam's truth finally hammered him into submission.

"We can't risk…everything for that…we just can't, Dean."

"Yeah, I get it, okay?" Dean snapped. He met Sam's eyes, and his face softened. "I understand what you're saying, Sam."

Sam nodded, swallowing hard. He felt something pang in his heart when Dean smiled at him. It was one of the saddest things he'd ever seen.

"Woulda been nice, though, to have something…y'know…to bring home to Dad besides… possible leads."

What about us, huh? Isn't bringing us home to Dad enough, Dean?

"We gotta get back first," Sam reminded him, his heart sinking at what they would have to do to make that happen.

"Yeah," Dean nodded. "Yeah…," he repeated, softer, his eyes on the floor.

He didn't intentionally assume the task would fall to Dean, but the next question was out before Sam could stop himself. "Do you know how you're going to do it?"

Dean jerked his head up, stricken surprise on his face. Sam wanted to pull his words back, erase them from Dean's mind.

"I don't know," Dean replied honestly. "He's one of Dad's friends, y'know? I just…," his eyes clouded, hiding his heart from Sam. "We gotta get home."

Sam swallowed. "We will, Dean. We'll see Dad again."

Dean's mouth tipped up in a small, appreciative smile. "Hey, think he knows about that Devil's Trap stuff Ramirez was talking about?"

"It's in the journal," Sam pointed out. "He knows something."

"Yeah," Dean nodded. "He knows something…too bad he didn't get a chance to tell us much in Chicago."

Sam shook his head. "Whatever," he grumbled. "Not like the man doesn't have access to a phone. He's had plenty of time to tell us stuff. He just hasn't done it."

Before Dean could respond, the door behind Sam opened. He turned to see Zeke sticking his head in.

"Wondered where you boys got off to," Zeke said.

"Interesting choice of words," Dean smirked.

"Huh?"

"Forget it," Sam covered for him. "Stella know where Larabee is?"

Zeke lifted his chin. "She does. She'll send him up toward the Mission. You ready?"

"Zeke," Sam said. "We don't have enough weapons for this."

Zeke's answering grin was slightly manic.

The new horse was bigger than Little Joe, and about as calm as Hooker, but it was uglier than sin. Sam felt his legs strain at the hip with as wide as he had to spread them to settle his feet in the stirrups. The tan, soft-brimmed hat Zeke had found for him shielded his now-pink forehead and nose from the sun, and he had to admit, he actually felt the part for the first time since they arrived.

"Okay," Zeke was saying. "You follow my lead until we get to the house."

"Yessir," Sam replied automatically, responding to the tone, not the speaker. Zeke rolled with it.

"Sam, you're our rifle man," Zeke said, stating the obvious.

Sam had the reloaded Winchester in the scabbard of his saddle, a Henry rifle strapped just behind his right leg, and another Winchester borrowed from Frost across the front of his saddle. In his saddle bags were two of the whiskey Molotov cocktails. Two more were in Dean's saddle bags, though with the way the Bitch was fidgeting beneath him, Sam wasn't sure those bottles would survive the journey to Ivers' house.

"Easy," Dean said softly, putting the flat of his hand on the horse's shoulder. He looked up, glancing quickly over at Sam. "It's gonna be okay. You're gonna do just fine."

Sam opened his mouth to reply until he realized his brother was speaking to the horse. He watched, amazed, as the animal quieted, her ears twitching back toward Dean's voice.

"You'll just slip into that bastard's lair like a…a ghost. Quiet as death and just as dangerous." Dean patted the supple, gray shoulder, then moved his fingers beneath the tangled black mane.

"That's what you should call her," Sam suggested. "Ghost."

Dean grinned, then straightened. "Would be kinda ironic, huh?"

The Colt Dean had all-but inherited from Tom O'Maera was fully loaded and resting in its holster. Big Bob and another man had donated two other revolvers and Dean had tucked them in the front and back of his waistband. When he patted the mare one last time, the afternoon sun glinted off of the firepower that surrounded him.

"Ghost," Dean said softly. "Suits you."

Sentenza arrived silently astride a small, black Mustang, a donkey laden with two boxes of dynamite followed him, a rope fixed to its halter and tied to Sentenza's saddle. Sam smiled hesitantly at the Mexican; he wasn't sure if the answering expression was a smile or a grimace, but he saw the man's face shift and nodded back before averting his eyes.

"Dean," came a small voice from the recesses of the Livery.

Sam twisted slightly in his saddle to look over his shoulder as Bird emerged, her gray eyes large and red-rimmed, her short dark hair curling up around her face in sweaty ringlets. On an unspoken cue, Sam and Zeke pulled their mounts to the side. Dean leaned down, a creak of leather accompanying his motion.

"Hey there," he greeted her softly.

Bird licked her lips and in a flash looked so achingly young that Sam felt tears burn the backs of his eyes. It was always the young that were burned deepest by the touch of evil. This man they'd declared to be not their problem had killed her father, stolen her mother and her brother, and forced her to live in fear. He knew better than anyone how deeply something like that could burn into a soul.

He knew how impossible it was to fully return from a wound like that.

"I know you're not…not an angel," Bird whispered, her voice almost adult in its husky seriousness and combating the naked need to believe in something that shone from her large eyes like a beacon. "I know that you're…you're just a person. My…Papa, he was just a person, too."

"Bird," Dean started. "I'm not gonna let Ivers do to me what…what he did to your dad."

Bird stepped forward, gripping Dean's calf. "I don't want you to die," she said softly. "But…more than I want that…I want my Mama back."

Sam blinked, pulling back slightly as Bird voiced his own secret wish buried deep within him and forgotten over the years. Dean, however, didn't move. His eyes stayed locked with Bird's, his body rigid as he leaned toward her.

"I know you do," Dean replied. "I'm gonna bring your Mom back to you, Bird."

"He won't let her go," she shook her head. "Her or Rory. He'll always have them. Here." She pointed to her head. "He'll hurt them forever."

"Aw, dammit, kid…," Dean breathed.

"But he can't hurt them…if he's dead," Bird finished.

Promise me…. Sam remembered her voice the last time they'd ridden away from her. Promise me….

"I hear you, Hannah," Dean said, gripping the girl's attention with the use of that name. "I hear you."

Taking another moment to pin Dean with her soulful eyes, Bird nodded, then glanced at the other two men. Zeke tipped a finger to the brim of his hat; Sam offered her a small smile. Wiping her face with the back of her hand, Bird simply blinked at them, then turned and walked with stiff-backed resilience into the Livery.

"Hey, Sam?"

Dean's voice was rough, edges of sound turning to ash against Sam's ears.

"Yeah?" Sam replied, hearing the same pain echoed there.

"I wanna take this son of a bitch down."

Sam nodded, finding it hard to swallow around the lump lodged in his throat.

It knows I'm gonna kill it. Not just exorcise it or send it back to hell—actually kill it.

His father's declaration echoing in his memory, Sam looked at Zeke, noting edge that cut across the man's eyes. He looked over his shoulder at The Beacon and the small group of resistant town's people he could see clustered together through the window.

He turned finally and met his brother's bright eyes. "Me too."

Dean gathered the mare's reins in his hand and pulled the horse around. "Let's remind this demon what Hell is like."