Rating: PG-13

 

Chapter 8

"The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving."

~ Ulysses S. Grant

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Sulfur Springs, Texas 1870

"I can see the ranch from here," Dean called down from his perch atop the wooden dam. "I mean…it's like…a spec, but I can see it."

Dean looked over his shoulder at the large reservoir of water pooled into a sizable lake on what had once been Tom O'Maera's property. When the solidly-constructed dam gave way, the wall of water was going to be…impressive.

"Told you it wouldn't take long for the water to get there," Zeke replied from below him.

Zeke and Sentenza were setting the sticks of dynamite, then weaving the fuses together so that Sentenza could light them from a protected location. On the East side of the creek bed, tied down behind a cluster of rocks, rested Sentenza's mount and the donkey that had carried the boxes of dynamite. Sam stood off to the West of the creek, holding their horses, and looking increasingly uncomfortable. Dean climbed down from the dam and approached his brother.

"Relax, Sam," he grinned. "This is gonna work."

"You're insane," Sam replied. "This is insane. And I should get a medal for going along with this."

"How 'bout I make you a T-shirt instead?" Dean said, taking the Ghost's reins from Sam and smiling at him. "I Survived the Dam Run with Dean Winchester And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt. Huh? Huh?" He bounced his elbow against Sam's arm teasingly.

Sam reached out and grabbed his sleeve. "This isn't a movie, Dean," he said through clenched teeth. "There's not gonna be music playing as we ride these damn things in and throw our make-shift bombs and rescue the lady and go home. People could die. A lot of people."

"Well, if we do it right, it won't be us," Dean replied, pulling free of Sam's grip and ignoring the block of ice Sam's words shoved into his gut.

"Dean!" Sam barked, reaching out and grabbing the front of his brother's shirt. "I'm serious. This isn't a joke—"

"I know that, Sam!" Dean turned, leaning into Sam's hand and taking a step closer to his brother, thrusting the weight of his words into his eyes and making sure his brother saw it all. "I know."

Sam closed his mouth, blinking, surprise evident on his face as he took in the shift from humor to ferocity in Dean's stance.

"Last time we were at this place? I was barely hanging on," Dean reminded him. "In fact, I was pretty sure that if you made it home, you'd be bringing my body back with you."

Sam swallowed. "Then why do you act like it doesn't hit you?" he asked. "I can see that you're still weak, man. I see your hands shaking. I see how…how pale you are. I see you."

"Well then, look closer, Sam," Dean ordered in a low, dangerous voice. "You said you knew me. Before all of this started. You remember that?"

Sam nodded. "Yeah, I remember."

"If that's true? Then you know there's nothing more important to me than saving Bird's mom, getting Jake, getting us the hell out of here, and keeping as many people alive as we can in the process."

Sam slowly released his grip on Dean's shirt-front, but didn't step away. They were once again toe-to-toe, the scent of the horse's nervous sweat surrounding them, the daylight beginning to turn flat and tired as the afternoon burned away.

"Then why…why don't you…," Sam asked, helpless to find the last of the question.

"Act like it?" Dean replied.

Sam nodded.

"'Cause I can't ever let the fact that we might lose stop me from doing what I know we have to," Dean replied, taking a step back. He shrugged. "So, I joke around. Helluva lot easier."

Sam sighed. "No wonder I can't ever figure you out," he muttered.

"You two done kissing and making up?" Zeke called from several yards away.

Dean waved at him. "We're good."

"Good, 'cause this is all set," he jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "I sent Sentenza that way," he pointed to the East side of the creek bed, "with enough fuse he won't get squished or drowned."

"You sure you got enough dynamite?" Dean asked.

"Kid, I used enough sticks that I could blow The Beacon all the way to Washington," Zeke replied, then looked concerned. "You do know where Washington is…right?"

Dean lifted an eyebrow. "Washington?" he asked, feigning puzzlement.

Zeke paled.

"Don't listen to him, Zeke," Sam said, swooping in for the rescue. "We know where Washington is."

Zeke narrowed his eyes good-naturedly and pointed an accusatory finger at Dean. "You're gonna play the wrong card one of these days, y'know."

Dean nodded with smiling concession. "Probably."

Clapping his hands together and startling the drowsy horses, Zeke took a breath. "You boys ready for this?"

Dean looked at his brother, saw the tension tightening his boyish features. "You still scared, Sammy?"

Sam looked back at him and Dean flipped a mental coin: truth or bravado?

"Hell yeah, I'm scared," Sam replied. "Aren't you?"

Dean smiled softly, thankful for the quiet permission for honesty Sam's admission gave him. "Yeah, I'm scared."

"If you aren't scared, you aren't living," Zeke said, swinging his leg across Hooker's back and reaching down to Sam for the reins. "That's my motto. Or it might be if I start having a motto."

Sam gave the saloon owner a half grin and turned to flip the reins over the neck of his big horse.

"Hey, Sam," Dean called, pulling his brother's attention. "Remember what Dad says."

"Shoot first, ask questions later?"

"No," Dean shook his head. "The other thing."

"Watch out for your brother?" Sam smiled.

Dean chuckled softly, appreciating the humor and the subtle reminder that Sam knew he had his back. "Fear keeps you sharp. Gives you an edge. Use that edge to cut 'em down."

"Oh, right. That," Sam said, then shoved his foot into the stirrup and sat stiffly in the saddle.

Dean climbed aboard the Ghost, wincing slightly as he settled himself in the unforgiving seat and looked toward where Sentenza sat waiting.

"All right, boys, listen up," Zeke said, turning Hooker in a circle. "We start riding. When we hit that tree there, Sentenza lights the fuse. We have about three minutes until the dam blows and then a helluva lotta water is heading our way. You run them horses. Run 'em fast."

Dean nodded, his jaw tense, and moved the Ghost over closer to Sam's mount.

"When we get there," Dean said picking up the cadence of the plan, "Sam and I'll head around the back of the house and throw the whiskey bombs."

"And Zeke turns any horses they've rounded up loose," Sam chimed in. "Then he breaks in through the front, gets Kate out of the house."

Zeke nodded. "We have to assume that Jake's gonna be with the hands rounding up the horses and preparing for the assault on the town. So, you two set the back of the house on fire and smoke everyone out, then circle around and find him."

"And then we head back to town," Dean wrapped up, "using the loose horses as a shield and drawing Ivers with us."

For a beat they sat on their horses, staring at each other, the quiet hum of cicadas offering a back drop to their hammering hearts.

"This is crazy," Zeke spoke first.

"Freakin' insane," Dean nodded.

"No way this is gonna work," Sam agreed.

"Well, that about covers it," Zeke said, gathering his reins.

"Let's do this thing," Dean turned the mare and held her steady alongside Sam.

"YA!" Zeke kicked Hooker in the flanks and the bay horse launched into a flat-out run.

Dean followed suit on the Ghost checking to make sure Sam was keeping up. He felt his body respond to the stretched-out gait of the horse, leaning forward and moving his arms with the up and down motion of her neck. She didn't require much encouragement; the horse loved to run. He just had to keep his feet in the stirrups. Keeping his ass in the seat was a bonus, but didn't seem to be crucial to staying on.

He saw the tree approach and pass them in a blur and within minutes he felt the world rock. Ducking his shoulder and looking back he saw that Sam was right at his heels, and close behind Sam was a wall of churning, rolling water that pounded down the river bed, overflowing the banks, slipping across the rocks and slamming against the small trees that flanked the edges.

"Go, go," he breathlessly encouraged the Ghost.

"Move!" Zeke yelled from in front of him, somehow throwing his old warhorse into fifth gear and powering away from the brothers.

"Go, Sam!" Dean yelled over his shoulder, hesitant to kick the Ghost and leave Sam behind.

"I'm going as fast as I can!" Sam screamed back at him. "What else am I supposed to do?"

"Go faster!"

Dean heard the rush of the water behind them, a roaring scream ripping over the thirsty land. He leaned so far forward the barrel of the gun tucked into the front of his belt dug into his thigh and the saddle horn rhythmically slapped against his belly. His muscles began to shake and he instinctively tangled his hands in Ghost's dread-lock-infused mane.

"YA!" He heard behind him and dared another glance back, watching in amazement as he saw Sam lean low and use the ends of his reins as a riding crop, smacking the flank of the big horse and speeding past Dean.

"Atta boy!" Dean hollered after him, relaxing into the Ghost's run and following his brother and Zeke down the length of the rapidly filling river, the push of water thundering against the air behind him.

Before he was ready for it, they reached the bunkhouse. The shouts of panic and surprise from the men working Ivers' ranch were audible over the sound of the rushing water. Following Zeke and Sam around the far corner of the bunkhouse, Dean cleared the building two strides before the water slammed into it, rushing through the windows, filling the empty spaces, and shifting the wooden building off of its questionable foundation.

The distraction was working. Men were scrambling, running, calling out to each other. Several dozen horses were circling and squealing nervously in the corral as overflow from the rush of water spread beneath their hooves. The earth was soon a mess of red mud. Dean followed Sam around the side of the huge house, catching sight of Zeke as he swept past the corral gate and lifted the latch, once again freeing the horses the men had worked so hard to round up.

Dean pulled Ghost up short, the horse panting as hard as he was, her sides heaving, white flecks of sweaty foam built up along her neck and at the corners of her mouth. She worked the bit nervously, prancing and ready to keep moving.

"Whiskey," Dean gasped, digging into his own saddle bag.

Sam reached down, and Dean saw his hands were shaking.

"You okay?"

"That was a freakin' rush, man," Sam panted, grabbing a bottle of whiskey with a corked piece of Stella's petticoat tucked into the top. "Oh, shit! Shit!"

"What?" Dean looked up and around quickly.

"We left the matches with Sentenza!"

Dean grinned, sweat rolling down the side of his face and along his jaw line. Before Sam could say a word, he pulled his Zippo from his pocket.

"Where'd you get that?"

"Brought it with me," Dean replied. "Aside from my boots…it was the only thing that survived the trip."

"Son of a bitch," Sam breathed, his dimples showing.

"That's what I said," Dean replied, flicking the lighter once, twice, three times and catching the end of the scrap of material with the flame.

Tossing the lighter to Sam, he moved the horse toward the back then stood a bit in his stirrups and threw the bottle against the back of the house. It broke with a satisfying burst of flame. In a moment Sam's joined it on the opposite end of the house and they shared a grin as the flames licked the outside of the large, wooden structure, smoke curling in through the windows.

They circled around to the side of the house, hearing the curses and shouts of men in the destroyed yard spread out before them. The side porch of the house was just at their left, a shelter for firewood and an outhouse situated off to their right. Dean looked around for some cover; they were exposed here, caught in an alley with only two exits, and both could easily be cut off. Dean pulled the Colt from its holster and saw that Sam gripped the Winchester. Amazingly, no one had come after them, yet; it appeared that the melee with the water and horses was scattering the men like ants.

"Where's Zeke?" Sam panted.

"Should be in the house," Dean reminded him. "We gotta find Jake. Let's—"

The volley of gunfire seemed to come out of nowhere.

It echoed off the side of the house and spooked the Ghost into bucking. Dean wasn't firmly seated and had no experience staying on a bucking horse. He tumbled from the saddle, landing hard on his shoulder and rolling to his knees in a coughing, gasping execution of awkward motion.

With a shaking hand, wincing from the impact with the ground, he pointed the Colt toward the opening of the alley, seeing only men coming toward them, and fired back, drawing the attention of the men shouting at each other and milling in the yard. Ducking instinctively, he caught a glimpse of three riders heading down from the top of the ridge, firing toward Ivers' men.

"Sam! Plan B! We gotta—" He turned, expecting to see Sam firmly seated on the back of the big black horse.

Instead, the horse was dancing between the shed and the outhouse, and Sam was on the ground, face pale, eyes blinking dimly at the sky, a deep red stain growing across the top of his left thigh.

"SAM!"

Dean's cry echoed more loudly than the gunshots and he was up and running for his brother before he registered that more bullets were heading their way.

www

He'd been shot.

It took him a moment to register this fact. It had never happened before; he hadn't expected it to feel quite this way.

For a half-second, he thought Dean had hit him, knocked him from his horse. It had literally felt like a slap on his leg—hard, like being hit by a two-by-four—and then he was on the ground, blinking at the sky.

"SAM!"

For a brief, suspended moment there was nothing but the sound of his name caught in his brother's anguished voice.

And then the pain rolled over him. A spike of bright agony as if someone had shoved a white-hot needle the size of his arm into his leg.

Oh, shit…shit…Dean, I've been shot…Dean….

"I gotcha…I gotcha, Sam," Dean was saying, gasping, his voice trembling like he couldn't get enough air.

"M-my leg…," Sam tried before the nausea hit him. He instinctively sucked in a lungful of air through his nose.

"I know, I know," Dean said, grabbing him and pulling him up against his chest. Two things always struck Sam about his brother when Sam was hurt: Dean seemed to become unnaturally strong, and he repeated everything. "I've gotcha, kiddo…lemme look, lemme see it."

"Bastard shot me," Sam muttered, looking down at his leg. A red stain was growing across his thigh. His vision blurred and narrowed until for a moment all he saw was smears of light and all he heard was Dean's voice.

"Okay…okay, yeah, it's not bad. Not bad at all."

Dean maneuvered behind Sam until he was crouched at his back. He hadn't touched Sam's leg, or given it more than a passing glance as far as Sam could tell. He felt Dean tip sideways and in moments he saw the white bandages that had been wrapped around Dean's ribs, protecting his still-healing cuts, whipped out and Dean's hands descending toward the red mark on his leg.

"It's not bad, Sammy," Dean repeated just before he turned Sam's world white as he pulled the bandage tight in a make-shift tourniquet.

"Jeeeeeeesus," Sam cried out in a breathy whimper.

"I'm sorry! Sorry, kiddo."

"That…hurts."

Dean tucked his hands under Sam's shoulders. "Here, lemme have your arm, Sam. There you go, okay. Gonna lift you."

"Lost m'horse," Sam said.

He felt dizzy, drunk, sick. As Dean lifted him up, the world swayed around him and he groaned.

"N-Not getting on a horse," Dean grunted, tucked up under him, taking the weight off his bad leg.

They shifted, and Sam felt Dean reach for something, heard him curse, and then they were once again balanced. He tried to focus on what Dean was doing but it was all he could do to keep from rolling into the beckoning darkness and way from the lurch of pain that was climbing his leg with hot fingers.

Sam jerked, surprised, when Dean suddenly fired two shots toward the confusing mess of people that seemed to be four million miles away. He blinked dully when he saw two people fall.

Better not be Jake…or we're screwed, he thought dimly.

"Let's getcha inside," Dean gasped, tugging on Sam. "Need you to work with me here, okay?"

Dean fired two more shots and Sam heard an answering cry. Someone else was shot. Someone else was feeling the white-hot fire burning in them. Someone else was feeling the twisted spin of the world. And his brother had made it happen.

Good…Kill 'em all, Dean…don't let 'em win….

"Sammy! Sam! Hey! Hey! Don't you pass out on me."

"'Kay," Sam replied, blinking his eyes wide. "Why 'er we goin' inside? Zeke's 'posed to go inside."

"Plan B, kiddo," Dean said, forcing Sam to move. "We gotta find Zeke. Get you some help. I need you to move, Sam. Move with me, okay? Sam!"

"Move. Gotcha." Sam nodded, working to obey.

The disorienting dizziness was starting to pass and in its place grew a clear-headed, pain-filled panic. He started to see everything with sharp-edged lucidity, feeling his heart pound with the adrenalin rush from before and the realization that if he didn't help Dean now, it was Dean who would be taking a body back to 2005, not him.

He moved his good leg forward, helping Dean limp toward the porch and awkwardly climb the steps to the main door. Dean fired his weapon again, then clicked on an empty chamber. Tossing the now-useless gun away with a curse, he reached into the front of his belt and pulled out one of the spares.

"The rifles are on my horse," Sam said, thankful that he no longer sounded three-sheets to the wind; however, the cold fire in his leg was starting to heat up and the roll of pain made it hard to catch his breath.

"We'll get 'em later," Dean grunted.

Sam tried to pull some of his weight away as Dean struggled through the doorway, but found he needed his brother's stocky support if he was going to avoid face-planting on the expensive-looking rug spread across the floor in the room they stumbled into. Keeping up with Dean was an exercise in focused determination.

His whole being narrowed to the rhythm of step, lean, drag, step, lean, drag.

"Zeke!" Dean yelled. "ZEKE, goddammit," the curse was executed on an exhale, "where the HELL are you?"

Sam looked blearily around. The front half of the house was empty; all of the noise, confusion and gunfire was outside. The front door was shut; he wondered if Zeke had even made it inside.

"Too many guns," Sam said suddenly, realization simmering to the front as Dean continued to move them through the house.

"Huh?"

"Outside," Sam said. "There's too many guns. Who're they shooting at?"

Dean stopped and Sam saw his sweaty, dirt-streaked profile whip to the side as he looked out through one of the tall, curtained windows. "That's a good point, Sam," Dean complimented him. "We've got company."

"Hope they're on our side," Sam muttered.

"Help! Up here! Help!" A woman's voice cried out from a room at the top of a narrow staircase tucked into the back corner of the front room.

"Hello!" Dean called back.

"Help us!"

Smoke from their whiskey-triggered fire was beginning to roll into the front room. Sam couldn't feel or hear the flames just yet, but he knew they didn't have much time before the smoke them out part of the plan affected them. Dean turned them toward the stairs.

"Hang on a sec, little brother," he said breathlessly.

In a flash, Sam realized that Dean was about to set him down to go investigate the cry for help. He reflexively gripped Dean's shoulder, pulling his brother close to him.

"No."

"Sam, c'mon, just—"

"Don't leave me here," Sam pleaded.

He hadn't meant for it to come out so pathetic. He'd meant to calmly and clearly explain that it made more sense for them to stick together; that he couldn't fight off anyone who came through the door. But when he opened his mouth, the voice of a twelve-year-old emerged.

He felt Dean's shoulders square up and he was adjusted against his brother's body. "We gotta get up these stairs."

"'Kay," Sam nodded, saving his breath for the journey.

It felt like each step took them forty years, but before Sam realized it, they had breached the top and Dean was calling out to the woman.

"Tell me where you are!" he demanded. His voice sounded crusty, as if he'd put it away a long time ago and was just getting it out now because he had nothing else to use.

"Here! We're in here!"

Sam resumed the rhythm of step, lean, drag, step, lean, drag, working with Dean to get to the door. He was surprised when Dean turned the knob with the hand holding the back-up weapon and the door opened. Boxed-up heat and the smell of burned flesh and sweat rolled out of the room in a sickening wave and Sam tucked his mouth against his shoulder in retaliation from the nauseating lurch of his stomach.

Dean coughed once. "What the fu—"

"Oh, thank God," the woman's relieved voice interrupted Dean's curse. "Please, please, untie us! Before he comes back!"

Dean hauled them both through the door and across the room, leaning down and easing Sam away from him and to the floor in a protected corner facing the door. Next to Sam was a small fireplace with glowing coals and what looked like a couple of branding irons buried in it. Without looking back at the woman, Dean met Sam's eyes. It was then Sam realized his brother had been carrying one of the extra whiskey bombs with him this whole time.

He set the bottle next to Sam, then pulled the third Colt from his waistband and handed it over, his eyes flat-out serious as he stared directly into Sam's.

"Keep that pointed at the door," he said. "You shoot anything that's not Zeke."

Sam nodded, pushing the moral objections and fear of killing a human to the back of his brain. Dean's sole focus in this fight was their survival; Sam was determined to back him up.

Dean shifted away and Sam caught sight of the other occupants in the room.

"Oh, God," he breathed, fear and horror lacing his words. "Jake."

Jake Brand was tied to a chair in the opposite corner, his hands behind him, his shirt ripped open, his chest displaying the angry welt of a pentagram that had been burned into the flesh. His face was craggy with pain and exhaustion, white stubble covered his cheeks and jaw line, his graying hair was greasy and unkempt and spun about his head in a wild swirl. His eyes were fever-bright. And they were pinned on Dean.

Behind him, a woman was hogtied on the ground, her skirts rucked up to her knees, her black hair spilling around her shoulders and sticking to her face in sweaty ringlets. Her face was pale with fear, but her gray eyes were intense as they bounced between Sam and Dean.

"Kate?" Dean asked, moving toward her first. "Kate O'Maera?"

"Yes," she breathed, sagging into the floor. "Yes, that's me. Please, untie me."

Sam watched Dean reach into his boot for his throwing knife and come up empty. He winced: he'd used that to cut away Dean's wraps the day prior and hadn't replaced it in the confusion. Not slowing, Dean reached up to the table on the wall next to the door and slapped the unlit hurricane lamp sitting there to the floor, shattering the glass and spilling the fuel held in the basin. He picked up a sizable shard and started cutting through the rope that kept Kate's feet attached to her hands.

The moment she was in a better position, Dean went to work on her hands.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"We're, uh…friends," Dean said, his jaw tightening as he worked to cut the ropes and not Kate's skin. "We know your daughter."

"You've seen Hannah?" Kate's voice was liquid with relief. "Is she okay?"

"She's fine," Dean reassured her. "Your boy, too. He's back in town. At the saloon."

"Oh, thank God," Kate breathed and Sam heard her breath hitch as she fought back tears. "I thought for sure he killed Rory to get that gun."

"Gun?" Jake suddenly rasped.

Sam tore his eyes between the hunter and the mother.

With a grunt of effort, Dean finally got the ropes at her wrists free and moved to her ankles. Kate immediately started to rub feeling back into her hands. Sam could hear the gunfire that had served as so much background music begin to grow louder outside.

"Tom's gun," she said, her eyes moving to Sam and worry tightening the corners of her mouth as she saw his bloody leg. "Last thing he told Rory before Ivers…," she stopped, swallowing, then continued, "was to keep that gun safe. No matter what."

"A Colt?" Jake asked, his voice so thick with pain and madness that Sam felt himself shrinking away from it. "Made special?"

Kate reached down and began to help Dean pull the ropes from her ankles. "Yeah, I think so. I never wanted to know."

"Son of a bitch," Jake growled. "A fuckin' kid had it."

"Shut up, Jake," Dean snapped as he tossed Kate's ropes away and moved to the wounded man's bindings.

Kate scrambled quickly across the floor toward Sam and gently pulled away the tourniquet. Sam hissed as the numbness he'd begun to enjoy gave way once more to fire.

"Slide one of those pieces of glass this way," Kate ordered.

Dean obeyed without question. Sam looked at his brother, saw the tension in his face, the paleness of his skin. He couldn't see his hands. He could always tell all he needed to know about whatever Dean was hiding if he could see Dean's hands.

"Dean?" he called out, seeking some kind of reassurance.

"Hang in there, Sammy," Dean replied. "Lemme just…get these…damn ropes."

"Ivers is a demon," Jake said needlessly.

"No shit, Sherlock," Dean muttered. "You and your freakin' brilliant plan got my brother and me stuck in this hell hole. Think we figured out we were dealing with a demon awhile back."

"It's worse than you know," Jake told him.

"It usually is," Dean sighed, gaining freedom for one of Jake's hands and moving to the other one.

As Kate cut open Sam's pant leg around his wound, Sam looked beyond Dean's unprotected back to the hallway. He couldn't tell if he saw a shadow moving, or if it was smoke from their whiskey bombs finally curling its way to the upper floors of the massive house.

"He's managed to turn half the men on this ranch into monsters," Jake was saying, his voice ragged, his words rambling. "And not our kind of monsters, either. These sonsabitches are doing it for power. I'd rather die…."

"I won't stop you," Dean muttered.

Sam narrowed his eyes, lifting his weapon and pulling back the hammer as the shadow moved again. The shadow stopped and Sam took a breath. Dean brought his head up at the sound and half-turned, but Sam knew he wouldn't be able to draw his last weapon in time.

Sam fired through the door and heard the grunt as his bullet found its mark. A fat man fell through the doorway, unconscious, blood blossoming on his shoulder.

Kate all-but hissed at him.

Dean looked at the fat man in surprise, then over at Sam. "Thanks, Sam."

Sam smiled back weakly, dropping his head against the wall as Kate moved away. Without a word, she grabbed the ropes that had bound her and shoved the fat man over, pulling his hands behind him and with the speed of a modern-day rodeo cowboy had him hog-tied and was returning to Sam.

"Wow," Sam murmured.

"You don't grow up on a ranch without learning a few tricks," Kate commented. "This leg doesn't look so good, honey," she glanced up at Sam.

Sam looked past her to his brother. "Liar."

"Dammit, Sam, I'm a hunter, not a doctor," Dean tried, his half-hearted grin not reaching his worried eyes. "That's why we need Zeke."

Kate looked over her shoulder at Dean. "Zeke McAdams?"

"He's with us," Sam told her. "I think…."

Dean cursed and pulled his hand back, shaking it and flicking blood to the floor. The shard of glass he was working with to cut Jake's ropes was slipping in his grip.

"Hurry up, kid," Jake growled, shaking his hand against his ropes.

Kate shook her head and began to tear up her petticoat, creating a compress and tying it down against Sam's wound. Sam tried to hold still under her ministrations, but the fire had rolled into a bone-deep ache and it was all he could do to keep from whimpering aloud.

"Listen," Dean growled at Jake. "The only reason I'm saving you right now is because we need you to get home, and I can't go home until I know these people are safe from Ivers. You're nothing but a ticket, get me?"

"I hate to break it to you, kid," Jake returned, his lips pulling back in a snarl. "But there is no way home."

"Yes, there is," Sam spoke up. "It's your blood."

Jake frowned, then looked at Dean as if for conformation.

"That's right, chief," Dean said, standing and tossing the blood-slicked shard into the pile of glass and looking down at Jake. "My blood might've brought us here, but you're blood's taking us home."

"What's all this about?" Kate whispered to Sam, leaning close.

"Try not to pay too much attention," Sam implored. "It's all gonna be okay."

"You're sure my children are safe?" she asked.

Sam met her eyes. "They're more than safe. They're amazing," he told her. "You've done a great job with them. They're gonna be real happy to see you."

Kate's eyes filled with tears and she put her face in her hands.

"You weren't even supposed to come back with me," Jake was saying. "It was just supposed to be me."

"Yeah, well," Dean replied, "that's what you get for messing with black magic, you moron. Should've maybe done a little more research, huh?"

"It worked, though!" Jake shouted, lurching toward Dean, then falling back into the chair where he was still bound. "I got back here, didn't I?"

"And your got your friend killed," Dean reminded him. Sam watched Jake's face pale at this. Dean pressed his anger forward. "Yeah! You got him killed and now my brother's been shot and the only way we're getting back is through your blood and don't think I'm not going to use it!"

"Who?" Jake asked tightly, grief slicing through his question. "Who…was it?"

"Leo," Sam informed him. "Max wasn't there, remember? He wasn't in the Mission."

"Leo," Jake almost sobbed. He put his free hand over his face and Dean looked away for a moment. "Dammit, Leo."

"I'd say I'm sorry," Dean said softly, his voice still carrying an edge of anger, "but it's your own fault."

Jake dropped his hand and lifted red-rimmed eyes. "If he hadn't have called John, none of this would've happened!" he shouted. "I would have been there by myself, finished the ritual, and no one else would have been…caught. No one else would have had to die!"

"Except the girl you were planning to kill," Dean reminded him. "And while we're on the subject of insanely stupid ideas, if you had no way home, what the hell were you going to do with this weapon you're after?"

"I had a plan," Jake said, his eyes manic.

"Sure you did," Dean commented, kneeling once more at Jake's ropes and cutting with a new piece of glass. "Bet it was just as brilliant as this one."

"Well, well, the gang's all here," came a snake-slick voice from the doorway.

Sam brought his Colt up and Dean jerked back and away from the door. Ivers stepped into the light, his eyes sliding to onyx as his cold smile took in the room.

"We have the whore, the liar, the hunter, and, oh dear…looks like the brother isn't doing too well."

Dean moved to stand between Sam and Ivers. Kate pressed her back against the edge of the fireplace, her hand fumbling for one of the branding irons.

Ivers tsked at her. "Now, don't do that," he said, and flicked his fingers. The branding iron she was reaching for flew free and across the room, the glowing end in the shape of a pentagram smoking against the wooden floor. Kate gasped and flinched back closer to Sam.

"After all our…touching, intimate moments?" Ivers said to Kate. "One might think you weren't…appreciative."

Kate gasped and Sam and Dean looked at her. She began to claw at her throat.

"Hey!" Dean barked. He took a step forward.

Ivers jerked his eyes away from Kate and she sagged against the wall, coughing.

"Well, look who's finally ready to play," Ivers said, tilting his head to the side and stepping closer to Dean.

Sam felt his stomach tighten and he eased the hammer back on his weapon. Ivers spared him a glance and the Colt flew from his grasp across the room. Sam snarled, watching Dean's rigid back as the demon stepped closer to his brother. His leg throbbed at even the thought of trying to get up.

"Y'know…I've heard things about you," he said to Dean, his tone almost conversational.

"Yeah?" Dean replied, his voice controlled, snarky, but Sam heard the undercurrent of we are so screwed rolling just beneath the surface. He wished he could see his brother's face. It was hard to tell Dean's exact level of fear by the set of his shoulders and the tilt of his head.

"Seems your family likes to create a bit of a…ruckus in our world," Ivers said. "Gotta say…a few of my brothers are really looking forward to meeting your dad."

"What the hell do you know about my dad?" Dean snapped.

Sam saw Jake tug at his still-bound hand and Ivers flicked his fingers in that direction. Jake's chair slid across the room, slamming against the wall. Kate covered her mouth, trying to hold back a scream. Sam thought furiously, trying to figure out a way to distract Ivers long enough he could at least help Dean get Kate out.

It was then he realized he couldn't move.

Sam's eyes flew to Ivers and he saw that the demon's hand was stretched toward him and Kate. He remembered this feeling well. He remembered being pinned to the wall in their childhood home, unable to move, barely able to breathe, as his mother's spirit approached, her eyes large and luminous, her face achingly sad.

He remembered the fire in her voice, the determined set of her shoulders as she turned from him and demanded that the spirit holding him against the wall release him and leave. He saw that same determination in his brother's stance as he stood between Sam and this demon.

"I know he won't live to see your destiny play out," Ivers informed him, his tone placid.

"You son of a bitch," Dean snarled and launched at the demon.

Ivers pushed against the air, flinging Dean across the room and slamming him against a wall. Sam grunted in sympathy, watching helplessly as Dean slid to the floor, his face fisted in pain. He saw Dean start to push himself up; Ivers lifted his hand, rocketing Dean's body to the ceiling and slamming him against it hard enough Sam heard the air vacate his brother's lungs in a pain-filled rush. Ivers curled his fingers into a fist and Dean fell to the ground, unable to do more than desperately thrust his hands in front of his face in protection.

"Dean!" Sam cried, his voice crawling up from his gut. "Leave him alone, you bastard!"

"Wait your turn, kitten," Ivers said over his shoulder. "I'm not done playing."

"I'm gonna…gut you…," Dean rasped, getting to his knees.

Sam saw blood trace a path down the side of his face and more staining his lips red.

Ivers bent over Dean's trembling form. "Oh, are you? Really? And how exactly are you planning on doing that?"

Reaching down, Ivers picked Dean up by the throat with one hand, slamming him bodily against the wall. Sam struggled against the invisible ropes that held him in place as he watched Ivers lift Dean off his feet, his fingers digging into the soft underside of Dean's jaw.

Dean's fingers clawed at the demon's black-gloved hand, his breath slipping free in a choked, struggling gurgle. His pale face grew red as Ivers slowly cut off his air, and his eyes began to flutter as he struggled.

Sam saw Jake pull lamely against his ropes, his hate-filled eyes pinned to Ivers.

"You hunters…you're all alike," Ivers was saying as Dean squeezed his eyes shut.

Sam saw one of his brother's hands drop away from the grip Ivers had on his throat and his heart lurched.

Don't give in, Dean…fight him!

"For hundreds of years you've fought against us. Finding new ways to get yourselves killed. Maybe you manage to send one or two of us back to Hell. But in the end, we will always win."

When Dean's hand slammed into the side of Ivers' neck, Sam gasped. Ivers cried out and backed away, dropping Dean into a heap of loose bones on the floor. Dean's cough was wet, wounded; he visibly worked to drag in air as Ivers grasped his bleeding throat, backing away. Shocked, Sam saw the shard of glass Dean had been using to cut Jake's ropes sticking out of the side of Ivers' neck.

"Didn't win this one," Dean rasped from his hands and knees, his eyes pinned to the staggering demon.

Half turning, Ivers ripped the glass from his neck, blood spurting from the wound. He dropped the glass on the floor and stumbled to the doorway. Sam felt his body suddenly free from its invisible bonds and he automatically leaned forward.

"This isn't over!" Ivers declared, then stumbled from the room, leaving a smear of blood on the doorway.

"Fuckin' demons always did talk too much," Jake declared.

"Dean?" Sam started to push away from the wall, the pain in his leg halting him.

Dean's head hung low and Sam could hear him wheezing. He held up a gimme a minute finger in Sam's direction. When he lifted his head once more, Sam flinched. A cut on the side of Dean's head, near his hairline, was bleeding enough that Dean had to wipe blood out of his eye as he gained his feet.

"Are you broken?" Sam asked, remembering the crash into the ceiling and again on the floor.

Dean shook his head. "Shaken. Not stirred." He stumbled forward, holding a hand to his side. "Now, I really want that bastard dead," he said, bending over to pick up the shard of blood-covered glass. He fell to his knees beside Sam. "You okay?"

"You look like hammered shit, man," Sam said honestly.

"Yeah? Well, I feel fantastic," Dean snarked.

"Dean!" Zeke's voice echoed from below.

Dean called back through the door, his voice sounding gutted and reminding Sam oddly of their father's. "Zeke! Get up here! Sam's hurt!"

Sam heard Zeke's footsteps as he pounded up the stairs, then swung into the room, breathless.

"Where the hell have you been?" Dean demanded.

Zeke's eyes tracked quickly from the fat man hog-tied in the corner, to Sam and Kate next to the fireplace, to Jake still partially tied to the chair, to Dean kneeling next to Sam, blood running down his face and neck and burying itself beneath the collar of his shirt.

"I, uh, ran into some…friends," he said. "What the hell happened to you?"

"Ivers just about beat him to death," Kate said, her voice trembling.

"Kate," Zeke nodded at the woman.

"Zeke," she replied.

"Friends?" Dean pressed.

"Larabee made it to the Mission," he informed them. "He had some friends with him. Sent them our way. Good thing, too, 'cause…well, it's a mess out there."

"Where's Ivers?" Kate asked.

"Forget about Ivers," Dean said, motioning to Zeke. "You need to take a look at Sam. Now."

"What about you?" Zeke's worried eyes traced the path of blood running down Dean's face.

"I'll be fine! Sam was shot," Dean snapped.

Sam watched his brother use the back of his hand to wipe more blood from his eye. He could see finger-shaped marks on Dean's neck where bruises would eventually blossom and he could hear Dean working to swallow.

"Dean…," he tried, but the closed-lipped glare he received in return silenced him.

Zeke licked his lips, sliding his weapons in his holsters, and moved across the room. He knelt next to Sam, tipping his head toward Jake. "That your friend?"

"If you define friend as a maniac who traps you in a spell and gets your brother shot, then yeah, that's him," Dean replied, gingerly touching the tender skin beneath his jaw.

Sam grimaced watching him.

"Still tied up, here," Jake reminded him.

Dean turned and tossed the piece of glass that had saved his life toward the older hunter. "Knock yourself out," he said, then face Zeke. "What do you think?"

Zeke lifted Kate's bandage and frowned. Pulling Sam's sliced pants wider, his frown deepened. He looked up, then around the room, running the back of his hand over his mouth. Suddenly, Sam started to smell the smoke. He closed his eyes.

We have the worst timing. Ever.

"Zeke?" Dean asked, his voice tight.

"Well, I got good news and I got bad news," Zeke said. "Sam, I want you to look at me."

Sam obeyed, too tired in the moment to do much else.

"Good news is, the shot went clean through your leg. It doesn't appear to have broken bone, though. Clean through the meat. Were you on your horse at the time?"

Sam nodded.

"Well, the bullet's either buried in the saddle, or we owe Frost another horse," Zeke sighed.

"What's the bad news?" Dean asked.

"Bad news is, he's lost a lot of blood and we have to get the bleeding stopped. Now."

"How?" Sam asked, his voice sounding young and scared even to his ears.

Zeke looked over his shoulder at the fireplace, then at the whiskey Molotov, then back at Sam. "Sam, listen to me. I don't have my tools…I don't have any chloroform."

"Kinda figured you didn't…keep in your pocket," Sam replied, wincing as Zeke probed the wound again. "You trying to tell me this is gonna hurt?"

"I want you to…forget everything I said about whiskey and losing too much blood," Zeke said. "You don't have a fever, so we've got that going for us."

Sam felt himself begin to panic. He couldn't catch his breath. "Dean?"

Dean's hand was gripping his within seconds and Sam's eyes flew to his brother's.

"Hey," Dean said, turning Sam's whole world into one connection.

Dean twisted Sam's hand around and pressed the back of it against his chest. It was an instinctive, natural move and one that had anchored Sam to the belief that they were going to be okay more than anything else had in his youth.

"You remember when you were a little kid? And Dad'd be gone for weeks?"

Sam nodded, staring at his brother, feeling Dean's heart beating against their clasped hands. He was aware that Zeke and Kate were moving around him, that there were other voices in the room, that something was happening with his leg, but the only thing he focused on was Dean.

Not the pain, not the panic, not the heat, not the fear. Just Dean. Battered, bloody, and currently his whole world.

"Remember what I told you when you'd have bad dreams and it was just us?"

"You said you weren't going anywhere," Sam whispered.

"That's right, Sammy," Dean nodded, his pupils large as he kept his eyes on Sam's. Large enough Sam barely saw any green. "I'm not going anywhere without you, okay? I'm not gonna leave you."

Sam nodded, taking a breath, smoke tickling the back of his throat, but not enough to make him cough.

"Dean," Zeke was instructing. "I want you to sit behind him. Hold him, okay? When I tell you, I want you to put this in his mouth and help him hold on."

Sam looked up. "That better not be a bullet," he said.

"Look who still has his sense of humor," Dean said from behind him, the waved a long piece of white material in his face. "It's Kate's unmentionables."

"Swell," Sam grimaced.

"Kate, you hold his leg down. Sit on it if you have to," Zeke told her.

"You got it," Kate replied.

"Jake?" Zeke called.

Sam looked up, surprised, and felt Dean go still behind him.

"Yeah?" Jake replied, hesitantly.

Zeke pulled his gun and handed it to the older hunter. "Make yourself useful and guard the door."

Sam didn't have time to wonder if arming Jake was such a good idea. Zeke was pulling the corked fuse off the bottle of whiskey and handing it to him.

"Take a long pull on that," he instructed.

Sam obeyed and coughed as the fire from the liquid burned down his throat and into his belly.

"Another one," Zeke ordered.

Sam's eyes were watering and his head was swimming. He felt buoyant and sick at the same time. Now he knew why Zeke wouldn't let Dean go this route when he'd already been burning up from fever.

"Okay, hand it back," Zeke said. "Dean? You okay?"

"I got him," Dean said and Sam felt his brother at his back, pulling him up against his chest.

Sam couldn't seem to calm his breathing; he felt it skittering against the edges of his lungs, hammering out through his clenched teeth. He needed something to focus on, something to distract him, and currently, Dean was behind him, out of his field of vision.

"Easy," Dean was saying, and Sam found himself instinctively tuning in the sound of his brother's voice. "Easy, Sammy. I gotcha, okay?"

He suddenly felt an odd kinship with Dean's horse; there was something calming about hearing Dean speak in such a reassuring, confident manner. His brother's body was strong and solid beneath him and Sam felt him breathing. It was a familiar, constant rhythm and had him ignoring the intermittent sound of gunfire and pushing back on his fear of what was to come.

"Use the rag," Zeke said.

"Here, Sammy," Dean said, easing the cloth into his brother's mouth.

Sam saw Zeke tip the mouth of the whiskey bottle over the wound in his leg and he instinctively reached up, grabbing Dean's bicep. Dean held him tight as fire licked his leg, chewing through his flesh and eating away at any brave resolve he might have fantasized he had.

He cried out against the cloth in his mouth. He heard words murmured against his ear as heat spread from the bullet holes through his leg and up into his belly. His head swam, his heart beat at the base of his skull, his leg ached to the bone.

And then Dean's grip tightened. Sam heard something clang to his left. Where the fireplace was. The fireplace with the other branding iron resting in the hot coals.

"Zeke?" He heard Dean say.

He heard Zeke take a breath. "Hold him tight," he said in a low voice.

Oh God, oh God, oh God….

Sam squeezed his eyes shut and reached up with his other hand to dig his fingers into Dean's shoulder, pulling his brother as close as possible. Dean's cheek was pressed against his ear and Sam felt the tremble of their bodies as heat from the branding iron singed the hairs on his leg.

"Easy, Sammy. It's okay. It's gonna be okay. I've got you. I've got you. I'm here, I'm not gonna let you go, okay? I'm not gonna let you go."

Sam concentrated on the stream of words coming from Dean's mouth. When the heat touched the open wound, his scream sounded as if it were coming from miles away. The sound was muffled with the twist of cloth, but he felt it. He felt his heart crack with the weight of his own scream.

He bucked against the hold on him—thrashed in desperation to escape. He was aware that the grip on his leg and arms tightened, aware of his brother's breath on his face, but it all felt as if it were happening elsewhere. He was tumbling away, slipping into the dark.

The heat was gone almost as quickly as it came, but then his leg was rotated and the heat returned. His throat felt raw, his body spiked into overdrive to get away from the pain. He wanted to throw up, explode, cry, pass out.

With Dean's voice in his head, Sam gave into the last option, finding solace as he finally sagged back against his brother.

www

"It's done," Zeke was saying, panting as he tossed the branding iron back into the fireplace. "It's all over."

Dean was shaking.

He'd never heard Sam make a sound like that before. That strangled kill me now scream.

He wondered if he'd sounded anything like that when they'd poured the Holy Water over his wounds. Sam was pliant in his arms and Dean was relieved. He knew Sam needed the healing rest and honestly, he needed a minute. It was all too much; Sam was not supposed to be this limp, this still, this pale. Sam was not supposed to scream like that.

Sam was not supposed to be bleeding, branded, broken.

"He gonna be okay?" Dean asked, listening to the razorblades of his voice slice against the air.

Zeke nodded tiredly. "Keep the wound covered. Don't let it get infected. He should be fine."

"Here," Kate said, crouching next to them.

Dean saw she'd been crying and found himself wanting to apologize to her for having to be part of all of this. She handed Zeke another strip of her petticoat. Dean wondered if she had any of it left. Zeke carefully wrapped the sealed wound on Sam's leg until it was thoroughly covered.

"We have to get out of here," Zeke said softly, his eyes on Sam's pale face.

"How?" Dean asked. "He can't ride."

Zeke rubbed his forehead, then glanced at Jake. "He might have to."

Dean frowned, watching their friend. "What aren't you telling me?"

Zeke looked back at him, his eyes tracking to the cut on his head. He reached for it with a piece of petticoat. Dean knocked his hand away. Zeke scowled, his expression clearly stating he was unimpressed with Dean's stubbornness.

"I made it in here just as Ivers and a few others rode out—toward the Mission," Zeke informed him.

"You said Larabee was there, right?"

Zeke nodded. "Yeah, he's there. Protecting Ramirez."

"What about his friends that showed up?" Dean asked. "They still alive?"

"Far as I could tell."

"They probably went to back up Larabee at the Mission, then," Dean surmised, shifting Sam's boneless form against him to get a better hold.

Zeke looked at him for a moment, then said. "I can't leave them to fight him alone, Dean," he said softly. "I gotta be there."

Dean looked down at his brother's closed eyes, still face; he felt the responsibility of Sam's full weight heavy against him. He glanced over at Jake who was finally free of the bindings and simply standing there, body hunched in instinctive protection of his burned chest, watching them.

"It could be all over for us," Dean said softly, feeling exhausted emotion choke off the strength of his words. "I could…I could get Sam home."

"I know," Zeke replied. "I know."

For a heartbeat of time, nothing was said. Then Kate stood, using the wall for support.

"I need to get to my children," she said softly. Dean lifted burning eyes to her. "I don't understand any of this. Not one bit," she shook her head, "but I hope you make it home. Wherever that is."

Zeke glanced once at Sam, then back down at the ground. "Dean…." His eyes were sunken into his face, despair and helplessness evident in his expression. "I gotta see this through," he said finally.

He stood, joints popping with the motion, face drawn with regret. Slowly, he turned to follow Kate from the room. Dean felt as if time were slowing as he heard his own heartbeat slamming hard inside of him.

What if this is the way it was all supposed to happen?

He hurt. He was scared.

Sam lay unconscious in his arms.

But he couldn't let Zeke walk away.

What if we were the ones to defeat Ivers all along?

Dean closed his eyes, feeling Sam's weight against him, feeling the slow ticks of pain in his own body, feeling the world shift around him.

You have to promise me something…Ivers has my Mama up at the house…I ain't leavin' until she does…This is our fight…I think it's time we finished itif you promise, I'll believe you….

He couldn't leave these people to fight a demon alone. Ramirez was right: he was a part of this now. Whether he liked it or not.

"Wait," he called. Zeke stopped, turning to face him with almost comedic eagerness. "Will you…can you help me…get Sam?"

"You got it," Zeke said quickly, his face smoothing as he quickly crossed the room.

"I, uh, can't lift him offa me," Dean grunted as he tried to push Sam gently forward.

"What about Jake?" Zeke asked as he cradled Sam against him, allowing Dean to slide free.

Jake looked at Dean. "Yeah. What about me?"

Dean spared the older hunter a derisive glance. "You're coming with us. You started this mess. You can help end it."

"Hey, I didn't start—"

"Shut up!" Zeke and Dean shouted together.

Zeke took one of Sam's arms, hefting the lanky hunter up and over his shoulder. Dean grabbed the discarded Colt Sam had used to shoot the fat man, then grasped the wall and the stones from the fireplace to help pull himself to his feet. The world tilted crazily for a moment and then reluctantly settled, his perception dialed a little too bright, alerting him to the fact that movement was going to be an interesting adventure. He felt each bruise, each place his body had forcefully impacted the wall, ceiling, and floor as he walked forward.

His vision blurred with every other step and his head pounded. As he passed Jake, he reached out and jerked the borrowed Colt from the older man's grasp, practically willing the hunter to resist. He was in the mood to be mean.

Jake simply released the weapon and followed behind.

As they reached the top of the stairs, Dean found himself wondering about the fire. It should have eaten through half of the house by now. Frowning, he followed Kate and Zeke down the stairs, keeping an eye on Sam swaying over Zeke's shoulder as he did.

Just smoke…no fire…what the hell?

"Did Ivers' men put out the fire?" Dean finally asked, swallowing as the smoke tickled the back of his bruised throat.

Zeke frowned, looking as confused as Dean felt. "I don't know," he said, glancing back toward the back end of the large house.

Dean followed his glance and saw a heavy door beneath the staircase separating the front entrance where they stood with the back end of the house. He moved toward it, cocking his head to the side, listening. He could hear what sounded like…popcorn popping. He put his hand on the door and felt an unmistakable surge of heat.

In an instant, scenes from multiple movies flashed through his memory. He looked down and saw smoke curling under the door and stepped back hurriedly.

"Go," he said, waving to Zeke. "Go, the fire's in there—on the other side of that door."

"But—" Zeke started.

"Just go!" Dean ordered. "First bad guy that opens that door is gonna be blown to kingdom come, I promise you."

Frowning, Zeke hurried to the front door and stepped through as Kate opened it. Jake followed and Dean was the last one out, staring around the ruined yard in a fair amount of awe.

"Look what we did," he said softly, gaping at the chaos of the trampled corral, ruined bunkhouse, and at least a half dozen prone bodies.

"Ivers' men are gonna do worse if we don't get moving," Zeke said. "It looks like everyone's gone…or dead."

They moved through the muck of red mud. Zeke whistled a sharp, three-note call and Dean saw Sam flinch from his position over Zeke's shoulder. Hooker appeared out of nowhere. Trailing behind him was the gray mare and Sam's big horse.

"Looks like the saddle stopped the bullet," Dean said, relieved that they had at least these three horses. "Gimme a sec to climb on and then you can help me with Sam."

"I'll hold Sam," Zeke said, shaking his head. Dean opened his mouth to protest, but Zeke cut him off. "I can tell just by looking at you that you're barely hanging on, Dean. Let me help you. I'll get your brother back safely."

Dean closed his mouth, looking at Sam's pliant form hanging limply over Zeke's strong shoulder. He didn't really have much choice; his first priority was making sure Sam was okay. His pride could come in second this time.

"Fine," he snapped, narrowing his eyes at the saloon owner. "But you better hang onto him. Kate, you ride with me."

Kate nodded silently, her focus clearly on getting the hell out of there and back to her kids. Jake wordlessly swung up on Sam's horse, his quiet obedience worrisome to Dean. He hadn't said a word about the disfiguring wound on his bare chest; once more, all he seemed focused on was the weapon—that was apparently in the possession of Rory O'Maera.

He didn't allow himself to think much about it, though, as he pulled his weary body up into the Ghost's saddle. Kate effortlessly swung up behind him. They turned their mounts toward the Mission and weren't more than thirty yards away when the world behind them exploded.

Dean and Kate instinctively ducked, the mare hopped, bucked, and jumped, nearly unseating her riders. Dean darted his eyes quickly forward to see Zeke's broad back covering Sam's slumped one as splinters of wood rained down around them. Straightening, gasping, holding the mare as still as he could, he hazarded a look over his shoulder and saw the large house light up in a fireball, flames and smoke billowing out from the windows on both floors.

He thought of the fat man they'd left tied up in the room and of Kate's venom as she pulled the knots tight. It was hard to muster up much sympathy.

"Guess not everyone was gone," Zeke called back to him.

The ranch was destroyed. There was no home, no men, no horses. Nothing to indicate that this was a place that could be owned, possessed. Dean wondered with a blush of raw hope if that was enough to break the hold Ivers had on the five locations.

Maybe it doesn't matter if he gets the Mission anymore….

It didn't change anything, though, he knew. There was still a man to save from a demon and a town to protect in their efforts at resistance of evil. He kicked the Ghost into a run behind Zeke and Jake, heading directly for San Jose de Valero. He tried to keep an eye on his brother's slumped form, worried for the moment Sam woke with Zeke behind him and not Dean, but after awhile, it was all he could do to stay astride the anxious mare.

His body wasn't cooperating with his need to be superhuman. He hadn't been fully healed from the Daeva attack; Ivers beating was taking its toll. He didn't register exactly when Kate let go of his waist and reached around him to hold the reins; he only realized that she'd done so when they pulled up to an exhausted stop in front of the Mission.

The ground around the stucco and wood structure was torn up; evidence of a battle was held in the bullet holes and broken fence that the starlight easily exposed. Dean saw that Bird's make-shift herb garden was destroyed and part of the barn had been burned away.

"Where is everyone," Dean heard Sam asking.

His spirits immediately picked up at the sound of his brother's voice—despite the weariness held tight inside the words. Sam was awake. Sam was alive. Anything was possible. He took the reins back from Kate, squaring his shoulders.

"You okay, Sammy?"

"Peachy," Sam grumbled. "You?"

"'Bout the same," he replied, though he was willing to bet Sam was in a unique world of hurt; he didn't want to imagine what it felt like to have a cauterized wound rubbing against a saddle—regardless of padding.

"Figured," Sam replied.

"Ramirez?" Zeke called, bringing them back to point.

"I am here," came Ramirez's voice.

The slim priest emerged from the shadow of the arched Mission doorway.

"Ivers?" Zeke asked.

"He…paid us a visit," Ramirez nodded. "We were prepared."

"Where'd he go?" Dean asked.

"Town," Ramirez informed them. "He was led to believe I was there."

"Who led him to believe that?" Sam asked.

Behind Ramirez, Dean saw Chris Larabee standing in the open doorway, leaning casually against the edge. He would have been irritated by the gunslinger's nonchalance if he didn't think the man looked so bad-ass.

"I might've said something," Larabee drawled.

"You think about warning the town he was coming?" Kate asked from behind Dean.

Larabee straightened at the sound of her voice and Dean saw his bright eyes track to her. He tipped his chin down. "Yes, ma'am. I did. Sent a couple of friends down ahead of him as…well, decoys."

"How many friends you got?" Zeke exclaimed.

"Enough," Larabee commented dryly.

"You had Ivers follow your friends?" Dean concluded.

"What about the ones at Ivers' ranch?" Sam asked.

Larabee nodded. "They went on ahead to join in the fun. I stayed back here to make sure Pablo was covered."

"The ranch is gone," Dean said, looking at Ramirez. "Blew up."

"You…blew it up?" Ramirez stepped away from the mission into the starlight.

Dean nodded. "If it's gone, and you chased him away from the Mission…he can't—" he stopped, feeling Kate shift behind him, remembering Sam's plea to keep them innocent. "He can't do what…he was planning…y'know…to do."

Ramirez looked down, a frown shadowing his face. "This could very well be true. If you've destroyed one of the points, and we've denied him another…."

"He doesn't know that, though," Zeke pointed out. "He wants Ramirez. And he aims to get him."

Dean swallowed, nodding. The town was in trouble. Those people were about to be in the fight of their lives. He looked at Sam hunched over in Hooker's saddle. He couldn't see his brother's face clearly, but he felt his resolve bridging the distance between them.

"Okay, let's—" Dean's order was interrupted by noise of a high-pitched whinny and the clatter of hooves departing into the night.

He looked around, confused at first.

"Jake!" Zeke called out.

"Son of a bitch!" Dean exclaimed at the dust trail. "He's going after that goddamn weapon."

"We have to get there first," Sam exclaimed.

"Think you can make it, Sam?" Zeke asked.

Dean's eyes flew to his brother profile.

"I'll make it," Sam stated, false bravado securely in place and ready to challenge anyone who dared said differently.

Dean looked back at Larabee. "Thanks, man."

Larabee put a finger to his hat brim. "Anytime."

The ride to town was a blur for Dean. He had no energy left to be worried for Sam's pain. He could only work to block out his own and focus on two things: how they were going to stop Ivers and how he was going to kill Jake. He had no clear plan for how they were going to accomplish either one.

And he hated not having a plan.

The noise from the fire fight greeted them before they'd reached the back end of the town. Immediately, Dean saw that the Livery was on fire.

"Dammit!" He cursed, trying to control the frightened mare as they approached the burning structure. "Bird!"

"My Bird?" Kate cried from behind him. "She's in there?"

Dean felt cold, helpless fear slip through his bloodstream the likes of which he hadn't felt since the spirit had trapped Sam in their home in Lawrence, shutting him out with a slam of the front door.

"No!" Zeke shook his head, pinning Dean with his eyes. "No, Dean. Listen! Listen!"

At first Dean's fear clouded him to the logic of Zeke's demand. But then he realized what the man meant: he couldn't hear any frightened whinnies or crashes emanating from the interior of the structure. Dean surmised that the horses had either been freed or were being used. And if the horses were free….

"She's in the saloon," Zeke declared. "With Rory. Has to be."

Hoping the saloon owner was right, Dean followed him to the blacksmith's shop, three buildings down from the burning Livery. Shouts and gunfire echoed off the seemingly-abandoned buildings of the town, the burning Livery tossing specters of shadows along the walls. The majority of the chaos seemed to be focused on the main street and the saloon, just as they'd hoped it would be.

At least something's working in our favor.

The grey mare danced in place, the flames working her up. Hooker, however, lived up to his status of a war vet and stood still as Zeke dismounted, easing Sam off and catching him as Sam's wounded leg buckled beneath him.

Dean swallowed as his gut jumped at the sight of his brother's pain. He helped Kate slide off the back of the Ghost and then dismounted, taking Hooker's reins and moving stiffly to the hitching rail in front of the shop, tying both horses there.

Any of the natural fluidity of movement Dean prided himself on was gone. In its place was a stiff-gaited lurch that telegraphed pain to anyone that looked his way. Sam stood next to Zeke, his arm across the saloon owner's shoulder.

The brothers nodded at each other and Dean offered Sam a small smile, sliding into that expression every small moment of hope he could muster.

"I know," Sam whispered back.

Their voices hushed and hurried, wanting to be ready, but not wanting to draw attention, the battered warriors huddled quickly, gathering weapons as shouts, breaking glass, and quick pops of gunfire sounded in the distance over the roar of the flames eating through the Livery.

Zeke gave Dean a revolver. "I lost everything else back at Ivers."

Dean held up the Colt he'd taken from Ivers' place. "I have this."

"Ammo?"

"One shot down."

"Give it to Kate," Zeke instructed.

Dean glanced at the slim woman who was tying her long hair back in a twisted knot at the base of her neck. "You know how to use one of these?"

Kate lifted an eyebrow, her eyes saying words he doubted she'd ever speak out loud.

"Okay, then," he whispered, handing over the weapon as an act of apology.

"What about me?" Sam asked.

"You just stay upright, kid," Zeke instructed. "Though, I do wish we had that Henry rifle."

"Was the Henry on the saddle of the big horse?" Kate asked.

"Yeah," Dean grumbled. "That Jake rode off with."

"That big horse right there?" Kate asked, pointing past them to a horse wandering, rider less, down the street, away from the flames.

Zeke moved quickly. Handing Sam over to his brother, he jogged down the street, catching the reins of the horse. Dean hefted Sam's weight, trying to take as much pressure off of Sam's wounded leg as possible, and watched as Zeke tied the horse, then pulled a rifle free from the saddle scabbard.

Jogging back, he said, "Jake must've taken the other one."

Dean handed the revolver to Sam, then took the rifle. Thus armed, they hobbled, limped and loped toward the rear entrance of the saloon. Zeke paused at the door.

"When we get in, Kate, you find Rory and Bird. Don't worry about anything else."

She nodded, looking behind her to the brothers. "Good luck," she whispered.

"You, too," Dean said.

Zeke looked at Dean. "If this works…."

Dean felt a torrent of words catch against the back of his throat, fighting against each other for dominance. At the behest of no one and with the encouragement of nothing but his own conscience, this man had joined their fight, made it his own. This man had put himself at risk, had saved him—saved Sam.

No matter what he said in this moment, it wouldn't be enough.

Zeke swallowed, his hazel eyes slipping from Dean's face to Sam's, then back again, filled with a symphony of unspoken sentiment. "Well, it's been interesting."

"We're gonna miss you, too," Sam said quietly.

"Zeke," Dean said quickly. "Thanks…thanks for saving our lives."

Zeke tossed him a half-crazy, half-genuine grin. "Something tells me I was doing everyone a favor."

"Let's roll," Dean said.

Zeke opened the door and led the way into the firefight.

www

He'd never once pictured himself in such a situation. But here he was, and he was determined to survive.

Moving through the back room where Leo's body had once lain, the foursome stepped through the door and Sam almost choked on the smell of gunpowder and blood. It was impossible to tell where everyone was at first, but as Dean tightened his grip and brought them both down into a crouch, his vision cleared and he saw his way through the smoke.

The big mirror behind the bar was shattered and sprinkled across the floor of the saloon, light from the lanterns reflecting off the slivers and dancing around the room. The front windows were broken out, the red and green letters that had once boldly depicted the name of the saloon were now tattered bits of color along the boardwalk and the tables being used as cover. A few people lay prone and still, their bodies pulled to the side of the room. Sam saw Frost among them and he felt a pang of remorse for this man's death.

Sam's leg refused to hold him, shooting electric bolts of hot pain up through his hip and into the base of his skull each time he tried to put weight on it. Dean seemed to instinctively pick up on how to hold him, shoving his sturdy body beneath Sam's shoulder and tucking his hip against Sam's side.

As they found temporary shelter along the side of the large wooden bar, Sam saw several men he'd not encountered before—and hadn't seen among the small group of Sulfur Spring resistance fighters earlier that day—tucked up against windows, firing through the broken glass. Big Bob was near the door, Stella in the far corner, a rifle in her hands. The deafening noise stuttered for a moment as the embattled townspeople rolled for cover and reloaded.

The brothers moved through the melee to find cover behind one of the tables. They dropped down, side by side, their backs to the outside, facing the destroyed interior of the saloon. He'd lost sight of Zeke, and peered through the smoke.

"Mama!"

Sam craned his neck just in time to see Bird fling her little body directly at Kate. He swallowed hard as he saw Kate wrap her up and duck into the shelter of the bar. He could hear the woman's happy sobs.

"Are you okay, baby? Are you hurt? Let me see…let me see you."

"I'm okay," Bird assured her breathlessly. "I'm okay, Mama. Sentenza took care of me. He watched over me, until Dean came."

"Until Dean came?" Kate asked, voice thick with tears.

"He ain't an angel," Bird sniffed. "But he kept his promise."

Rory dashed from the protection of a window, finding his way to his family. Sam was surprised to see a rifle in his hands and not the old Colt he'd been charged with protecting. Remembering Jake's words, he glanced quickly around, but didn't see the Colt lying discarded in the melee.

"Good," Dean breathed. "Least we did one thing right."

Sam looked at his brother and saw Dean's eyes were wet as he watched Kate kiss her son's face while maintaining a firm grip on her daughter. Bird darted her head out from the protection of her mother's arms long enough to find Dean with her eyes. Sam watched her mouth thank you and looked back in time to see Dean's answering smile.

The moment of peace was not to last, however.

As the brothers watched the small reunion, Ivers' men were reloading. Another volley of gunfire swept through the saloon sending people ducking for cover and Sam saw a man he'd played poker with flinch and fall beneath the hail of bullets. He brought his weapon around and fired two rounds blindly through the window behind them.

"Send out the priest!" Ivers bellowed.

"Go to hell!" replied a man wearing a colorful brocade vest and sporting a gold tooth, a Southern drawl evident even in just those few words. Sam had never seen him before.

One of Larabee's friends? He wondered.

Dean exchanged a look with Sam. "This is not going well," he said.

"You see Jake?"

Dean shook his head.

"Send him out, or the Mexican dies!" Ivers declared.

Sam felt the room full of people take a collective breath as everyone glanced around them in puzzlement. Firing ceased; murmuring began.

"No! Sentenza!" Bird's heartbroken cry was like a bucket of cold water on the room.

"Son of a bitch," Zeke growled from somewhere off to the side of the main doors.

Sam looked up to see Zeke crouched next to Stella, hurriedly reloading his pistol. He watched as Dean peeked over the edge of their cover to look outside.

"He has Sentenza," Dean confirmed.

"What the hell?" Zeke snapped. "How'd he get ahold of him?"

"He…he was going for help," Stella informed them in a low voice.

"Is Sentenza okay?" Sam asked Dean.

"I can't tell," Dean said. "He looks like he's unconscious."

"Really, what's one more scar," Ivers was saying as his voice drew closer to the saloon. "The man isn't really much to look at, is he?"

Dean sagged for a moment, his face pinched with worry. "I can only see about four other guys out there."

"Lot of bullets for five men," Sam muttered.

Dean looked toward the back of the room. "I know…."

"You let him go!" Bird screamed, her voice desperate.

Sam looked at the O'Maeras huddled together in the shadow of the heavy, wooden bar. Kate gripped the girl tighter, trying to hush her.

"Is that…a child?" Ivers almost laughed.

Dean twisted once more, keeping his body covered by the table, peering out through the broken front window. Sam pushed himself to his good knee to see what Dean was seeing. Ivers had wrapped a cloth around his neck where Dean stabbed him. He was holding Sentenza against him like a human shield, a gun at his temple. The mute Mexican looked as if he might already be dead, until Sam saw him slowly roll his head.

"You'd rather risk a child than this priest?" Ivers asked. "Don't you see? You send out Ramirez, I get what I want…and then we're all happy. I can bring you peace, people!"

"That ain't true!" Rory shouted, standing and cocking the rifle in his hands. Kate looked beside herself trying to rein in her willful children. "You're gonna kill everyone. I heard you say it!"

Ivers stepped up to the boardwalk, Sentenza in his arms, a revolver pointed at the man's head. The four men that had been flanking him closed ranks and stayed in the street, their weapons raised. Shocking all inside except Zeke, Kate and the brothers, Ivers lifted a hand and slammed the saloon doors back against the wall, stepping boldly through with Sentenza as his shield.

"You're right, of course," he said calmly. "I am going to kill you all. But, then you'll be at peace."

"You bastard!" Bird yelled. Kate wrapped her arms tightly around the girl.

"Such language," Ivers shook his head, his cold eyes finding Kate and Bird easily. "Kate, I really thought you'd teach your daughter better."

"At least she tells the truth," Rory said.

Ivers leveled dark eyes on Rory. "She'll have a special place in Heaven, then," he snarled, backing the boy down.

"Dean," Sam hissed, nodding to the other side of the room. In the group of bodies where Sam had seen Frost, there was movement. "Look."

"Son of a bitch," Dean whispered. "It's Jake."

Sam looked again and saw the older hunter rise from the floor and try to move, undetected, around to flank Ivers. Dean frowned, thumping his back against the table in frustration.

"What the hell is he doing?"

"I don't know, but he's gonna get Sentenza killed," Dean whispered back, drawing his legs under him.

"What the hell are you doing?"

"I can't just sit here," Dean snapped.

And in that moment, Sam knew what his brother was about to do. He reached out to stop him, but before either of them could move, Bird finally broke free of her mother's grasp and darted forward, desperate to get to the person who'd been her protector all this time.

"NO!" Kate's cry was ripped from her heart as she reached for Bird.

Time seemed to stutter, both moving too fast to absorb and too slow to react. Looking back, Sam remembered taking a breath in that moment and then couldn't recall breathing again until it was all over.

Bird rushed toward Sentenza. Ivers lowered the weapon he'd been training on Sentenza's head to track the slim figure of the girl. Dean dropped the Henry rifle and sprang up from the protection of the table, moving faster than Sam thought possible, and ran for Bird.

Without stopping, Dean scooped up the little girl, the bullet from Ivers' gun burying itself harmlessly into the base of the bar. His momentum carrying him across the length of the room, Dean hit the floor and Sam heard him cry out with the impact before he rolled away, his body curled around Bird's.

Before Sam could force his wounded body to react, Zeke took advantage of the distraction and launched for Sentenza, pulling the wounded Mexican free from Ivers' grip and diving clear from another bullet fired from Ivers' gun.

Sam grabbed the Henry rifle, pushing up on his good knee and without pausing to think, fired at Ivers. A volley of gunfire echoed his. The sound was deafening, filling the saloon with declarations of rebellion, defiance.

Ivers' body jerked as bullets from half a dozen guns burrowed into and through him.

When he fell through the doorway of the saloon, the ensuing quiet roared across Sam's ears. Shaken, he tracked his gaze from Ivers' body around the saloon, seeing Stella lowering a revolver, Big Bob holding a rifle, two men Sam had played poker with and two others Sam didn't recognize holstering their weapons, Kate dropping the weapon Dean had given her, and Rory gripping his rifle. He didn't see Jake anywhere.

Sam sank forward, catching himself on his free hand, his leg screaming at him.

Rory dropped his rifle with a clatter, his face ashen. "Bird?" he called out in a weak voice, his eyes searching for his sister's petite form.

"'M okay," came the muffled reply.

Sam shot his eyes over to his brother. He could see Dean's back; he wasn't moving.

Oh, God….

"Dean?"

"I think…I think he's okay," Bird replied.

"Dean!"Sam barked, fear turning his voice sharp. "Answer me."

Slowly, as if he were using someone else's body and not his own, Dean rolled to his back, freeing Bird. The little girl popped forward, then wrapped her arms around Dean, helping him sit up. Dean looked over at Sam and swallowed.

"You okay?" Sam pressed.

"It's been a helluva week," Dean said softly.

Kate's strangled scream wiped the relieved grin from Sam's face and he and Dean twisted in unison to see Ivers mirroring Dean's stiff movements: rolling to his side and awkwardly gaining his feet. Every person in the room who had bravely stood against the man shrank back in horror at the reality of the evil.

Ivers' eyes were solid black. Blood poured from the multiple bullet holes that had felled him. And his expression was one of cold fury.

"I've been patient," Ivers said in a low, dead voice as he looked around at the people in the saloon. "I've played by your rules. More or less."

Sam watched as Zeke backed up, holding the still-unconscious Sentenza in his arms, herding Stella behind him toward the group of men by the bar. He turned to see Kate push Rory behind her, her eyes pinned to her daughter, who was across the room. He looked back at Dean and saw his brother struggling to gain his feet, lurching with fatigue.

"But I'm starting to think you people don't appreciate the tolerance I've shown you!" Ivers bellowed. "So, now we play by my rules!"

The men who'd stood in the street behind Ivers began to back up until Sam could no longer see them. The firelight from the Livery tossed disorienting shadows on an empty street and suddenly he wasn't in a firefight. And this wasn't the Old West. And there was nothing surreal about this moment.

He was a hunter facing off a demon. He was doing his job, what his father had trained him to do. It just so happened to be taking place in the middle of a saloon.

"I want that fuckin' priest, and I'm going to take each of you apart, piece by piece, until I get him," he growled, his voice tripping down a couple of octaves. "Starting with you."

He flung his hand out toward Dean, who was standing more-or-less upright near the center of the room, Bird tucked behind him. The demon curled his fingers into a fist. Sam gasped as Dean cried out, his body bowing backwards as it was yanked across the floor, away from Bird. Sam saw the young girl reach out, fingers digging into Dean's calf, trying to pull him back toward her.

Ivers brought his hand toward him and Dean came with it as if tied to an invisible string.

"Dean!" Sam yelled.

Dean's eyes rolled closed and Ivers tightened his fist, his scarred face showing delight as Dean cried out, helplessly.

"No!" Sam breathed, bringing up the Henry rifle, knowing it wouldn't stop the demon, but desperate to do something to stop his brother's pain.

"Ivers!" Jake's voice was a shock of sound in the suffocating quiet of the room.

Sam's eyes flew to the shadows of the room near the stairs that led up to Stella's brothel. Jake stood there, his shirt clinging to his wounded chest with blood too fresh to be from the pentagram branding, his eyes wild with pain and insanity, his body solid and still as he held Rory's ancient Colt on Ivers.

"I told you I was here to watch you die," Jake said.

Before Ivers had time to mock him, Jake pulled the trigger.

The bullet slammed into the side of Ivers' skull and the demon collapsed, dropping Dean into a crumbled heap. Bird immediately ran to him, tearfully tugging his shoulders upward and wrapping her arms around his neck.

Sam began to crawl to his brother, his wounded leg dragging uselessly behind him. Just before he got to Dean, he stopped to watch in arrested shock as Ivers' skeleton glowed a bright orange, his eyes lit up unnaturally, his ears smoked, and his body shook.

It was as if the bullet fired from that weapon had lit the demon on fire from the inside.

Trapped by the unreal reality he was bearing witness to, Sam reached out blindly for Dean and found his brother reaching back instinctively. Their eyes were pinned to the body before them, shocked by the realization that they were watching a demon die.

In moments, Ivers stopped twitching. And he didn't move again.

No one spoke. Sam barely dared to breathe.

Dean's fingers curled against Sam's shirt, the tremble there not of weakness or fear, but of exhausted relief.

"Is…is he dead?" Bird finally asked.

"Yeah, kid," Dean rasped, using his grip on Sam's wrist to pull himself to a sitting position. "He's dead."

Bird released her hold on Dean's neck. The brothers sat very still, breathing in tandem as they stared in disbelief at the body of a demon. Sam heard the shuffle of boots against the gritty wood floor and saw Rory O'Maera crouch next to his sister, pulling her slim body to him and wrapping his arms around her. Sam felt Dean flinch as the girl finally gave in to tears, sobbing quietly against her brother's chest.

The slam of a door snapped Sam's attention away from Ivers' body.

"Oh, shit," he looked at Dean with a sickening realization. "Jake."

Dean's eyes caught his and in them Sam saw time slipping through their grasp. If they lost Jake now….

"We have to go after him," Dean said.

"He went out this way…out the back," Zeke called to them from his position near the stairs that led up to Stella's brothel. "C'mon, I'll help you."

"No," Dean shook his head, looking over at their friend. "You've done enough, man."

Sam watched as he looked over at Stella who was huddled on the floor, holding Sentenza, then at Bird who was tucked against her brother's chest, her tear-streaked face peering back at them. Kate moved from the shadow of the big bar and found her children, sinking to her knees behind them and pulling them close to her.

Lifting his eyes back up to Zeke's, Dean said, "You take care of them. We got it."

Sam knew what his brother was thinking. If they found Jake…and if they figured out how to get home…there was no way they were going to risk taking anyone back with them. It seemed too fast, too soon. They'd been through so much with these people just to walk away from them.

But walking away was the only chance he and Dean had.

Dean got to his knees, then with a groan and a grimace pushed to his feet reaching down for Sam. Grasping his brother's forearm, Sam allowed himself to be tugged upwards until he was basically on his feet, listing away from his throbbing, wounded leg. They leaned against each other, neither having enough strength to stand on their own, both determined not to fall.

In unison, they faced Zeke. Sam swallowed as the saloon owner stared back at them, a revolver in one hand, a rifle in the other. Swallowing audibly, his lips pressed tight against words Sam imagined he wanted to say, Zeke nodded at them, then moved aside, allowing them space to pass. Sam moved forward, clutching his brother with a desperate grip.

"Hey," Dean called, pausing and looking back over his shoulder.

Sam saw Zeke lift his chin in question.

"Take care of my horse," Dean implored him.

Zeke's mouth twitched in an appreciative grin and he saluted Dean with the barrel of a familiar-looking weapon before the brothers turned once more toward the back door. Sam's heart was beating a tricky cadence.

This is it.

They had to find Jake and they had to make a decision.

"Jake!" Dean called out as they stepped through the doors of the saloon into the Texas night. Light from what seemed like a billion stars turned the empty side street silver. "Where the hell are you?"

"He was bleeding pretty badly," Sam said. "He couldn't have gone far."

"Sam…," Dean started as they lurched down the boardwalk. "If we're gonna make it home…."

"I know," Sam said, his throat closing around the words. After so much death…there was still one more. "Jake!"

"Stop yellin' already," came a voice from the shadows.

Sam stumbled, grabbing Dean for support. Dean went to his knees under Sam's weight. And they were suddenly eye to eye with Jake Brand.

He'd fallen into an alley behind the saloon, then apparently dragged himself up against the side of the building. The brothers crawled to either side of him, peering at his pale face. Shadows from the dying fire dancing across all three of them. Sam saw that the entire front of Jake's chest was black with blood.

"God, Jake…," he murmured, easily able to imagine the pain the man must be in now that he knew what it felt like to be shot.

"Don't hurt much…anymore. Caught a bullet when the fighting first started. Thought I was dead. Guess…guess I still had some fire in me," Jake chuckled weakly. "I can tell you, though…if you have the choice…being shot hurts a helluva lot less than being branded."

Says you, Sam thought.

"Jake," Dean asked, resting a hand on the man's shoulder. "Where's the weapon? The…the Colt?"

Jake swallowed. "Y'know…it's funny. My plan to get back…I thought I could do it all again. I thought I could kill again…. Keep moving through time…. Take these sonsabitches out one by one…. Maybe Max and Leo…maybe they were right. Maybe I ain't some bad-ass killer."

Sam felt his heart twist.

"I…wanted to make it right…for m'boy," Jake wheezed. "Couldn't save him…."

"Jake," Sam leaned forward. "You saved us. All of us."

Jake's cough was wet and Sam realized the man was trying to laugh.

"Fuckin' ironic, ain't it?" Jake coughed. "All this…just to find that Colt…and now…."

"Jake," Dean pressed. "Where is it?"

"I left it," Jake rasped. "I gave it to…to the doc." He looked toward Sam. "The one that fixed you up."

"Zeke?" Dean asked, surprised.

Sam blinked, remembering the weapons Zeke'd held when they passed him, wondering if the man had any idea what it was he held in his hands.

Jake nodded. "Figured…if anyone could protect it…it'd be him."

Sam looked at his brother. Dean's face was tight and pale in the silver glow of the stars. He grimaced as he pulled apart Jake's shirt and sympathy rolled through his expression as he exposed the older hunter's wounds to the night.

"Jesus, Jake…all this…all this pain…for nothing." Dean shook his head, his voice choked.

"No…not nothing," Jake whispered. "I killed a demon. I killed the thing that took my son away from me. I…I was cursed…used the blood of another man's…another man's son. But, I killed the bastard. I did it for Sean. Eye for an eye. My…my boy can be at peace now."

Sam swallowed, thinking of John, of the look of utter relief in his father's eyes when they first glimpsed him standing at the window in the hotel room in Chicago. He suddenly, desperately missed his dad.

Jake exhaled slowly, a wet rattle in his chest. Sam looked at Dean and saw his brother's chin tremble. He realized what was causing the look of sick understanding to claim Dean's expression: Jake had taken the decision out of Dean's hands.

His foolhardy—yet heroic—actions had claimed his life and with that, he would send them home.

Where will we land? What if we're not together? What if what happened to Leo happens to us?

"You boys…you tell your Dad…," Jake whispered. "You tell him…to hang on to you…. Nothing…nothing as strong as family."

"You got it, Jake," Dean promised, pressing his hand on the man's mangled chest, Jake's blood coating his palm and bubbling up between his fingers.

Sam found that it was suddenly hard to breathe. He felt the hairs on his neck stand up.

Oh, God, this is it.

He reached out, and placed his hand on top of Dean's, Jake's blood smearing between his brother's fingers to run down Sam's hand. Looking at Dean, he saw that his brother's eyes were already on him.

Sam was suddenly afraid. To his bones afraid.

The first time he hadn't known what was happening. This time he knew not only what to expect but what to fear. And he almost pulled his hand away.

He almost let go.

But electricity had begun to snap around them, humming between them, turning his skin into a live wire and rushing the blood through his veins.

He meant to take a breath. He meant to say something to Dean. Good luck. Good bye. Thank you for saving me. Thank you for being my brother.

But before he could open his mouth, he felt Jake's breath leave his body and with that surrender, time sparked and Sam's world turned white, Dean's eyes an image burned into the back of his brain before everything stopped.

Everything.

Time, breath, heartbeat, meaning.

And then in a dizzying rush, a vortex of truth folded around him and the ripping sensation of being eaten by silk teeth tore through him and he was suddenly overwhelmed with images of everyone he'd ever loved and everything he'd ever felt and all of the death he'd caused and all of the lives he'd saved and he was burning.

Fire screamed through him and rendered him powerless to do anything but scream back until light was cutting him with its brilliance and he was falling.

The impact rocked through him and he tasted tears and blood and he felt himself sobbing, shaking, reaching. A hand gripped his and he opened his swollen, gritty eyes to see the blood-smeared face of his brother lying next to him before he succumbed to the quiet peace that was darkness.