Characters: Sam, Dean
Rating: PG 13 (language, violence)
Warnings: Spoilers through 5X8, vague spoilers through 5X10; turns AU in the middle of the episode, “Changing Channels.”
Genre: gen, h/c
Disclaimer: Not mine
Word count: 11,000 (both parts)
Author’s Note: A huge thank you to my betas on this one, callistosh65and geminigrl11. Thanks also to Corinna for her expertise on horseback riding.
Summary: In between the commercial and the sitcom, the trickster casts Sam and Dean in a classic TV western.
Excerpt: Sam hopes Dean knows what he’s doing, but Dean is the one who used to watch these shows. He figures he should follow his brother’s lead. It’s been a long time since Sam played a good guy in the real world…
hiatus (noun) : a pause, break, gap, lacuna, interval, intermission, interruption, suspension, lull, respite, time out, time off, recess; informal breather, an interlude...
“I’m doing all I can to slightly lessen the spread of…of … genital herpes…and that’s a good thing.”
Okay, so he’s responsible for unleashing the apocalypse, and Sam knows that the universe is going to come back and bite him, so this is his due. It was only a matter of time.
But Dean is enjoying this a little too much. So Sam steals the ball and drives it to the net for an easy lay-up. It’s a clean shot, and that’s a good thing because it’s one less thing that Dean can hold over him for the rest of his pathetic life.
Barefoot yoga girl joins the game, and she catches it on the rebound, passing it back to Sam with a Zen-like smile. Genital herpes sufferers stick together.
Dean is coming at him, so Sam feints to the left, is going to pass it back to yoga girl when—
Still leaning to pass a now non-existent basketball, Sam loses his balance and ends up sprawled on his hands and knees in the muck of mud and wet straw. He tries to get up, but he’s being jostled and pushed from all sides. Everywhere, he sees dirtied denim and mud-crusted boots, and not just boots but—they look like cowboy boots….
What the hell? Looks like the trickster just changed the channel.
Someone steps hard on his hand, and he jerks it away, only to get a knee in his face. He’s slipping, trying to get up, until familiar hands reach down and haul him to his feet. Thank God, the trickster isn’t splitting him up from Dean—he’s apparently landed in the middle of a mob of enraged cowboys, but at least he’s with his brother. They’re standing in the very dusty center of a town that bears an unsettling resemblance to Cold Oak. But this is no ghost town…
Dean is dressed like a cowboy, hat and boots and absurdly fringed sleeves. Before Sam can start laughing, Dean growls, “You oughta see yourself…so you can just bite me, Sam.”
Looking down, Sam can see that sure enough, he’s in some sort of get-up too. It reminds him of the ridiculous cowboy costume that Dean found for him at a Salvation Army store for the only Halloween party he ever went to—that is, until he met Jess. The trickster has him wearing some sort of leather covering over his jeans, a vest, and a string bow tie. Reassuringly, it looks like his holster comes with a gun, same as Dean’s. At least they’re armed in this one.
“Where do you think we are?” he mutters.
“It’s a classic western, dude—play along.” But Dean doesn’t let go of his arm, as they struggle forward in the crowd.
Sam can’t remember if he’s ever even watched a western all the way through. He knows that Dean used to watch them as a kid.
“Okay boys, let’s string ‘em up,” a deep, unfamiliar voice shouts out, and the crowd lets loose with a raucous cheer. Way up in front, he can see them hoist a man onto a horse and place a noose around his neck. The man turns, and Sam can see that he looks exhausted and evil, all at the same time. All the same, he’s about to die, and Sam doesn’t see anyone else in the crowd raising objections.
“Dean, we have to stop this,” Sam says, and they both try to push forward through the crowd.
They aren’t going to make it. Someone in front whistles, and another man slaps the flank of the condemned man’s horse. The horse snorts and rears, scooting forward just enough that the man slides off the back end. Sam flinches at the snap of the rope and the audible crack of the man’s neck breaking. But the crowd roars and whoops it up, even as the man flails and jerks in his death throes at the end of the rope.
Sam exchanges a look with his brother…maybe there’s something they can do.
But Dean grabs hold of his arm. “We don’t know what game the trickster’s playing,” he warns. “We don’t even know our parts.”
“So we’re gonna just let the guy die?”
“He’s already dead, Sam. And besides, he’s not real.”
“So why send us here—to watch? What are we supposed to do? We can’t just stand by and watch some sort of a…lynching.”
“I think he was probably guilty—he’s wearing black.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Bad guys wear black on the old shows. What’s your shirt made of?”
“C’mon, Sammy, pay attention. It’s made of polyester.”
“And you call me a girl?”
“It means the show is from the sixties. Westerns were pretty straightforward back then…good guys and bad guys. It’s not till you hit cable that everything gets more complicated.”
“Dean, you watch way too much TV.”
“Don’t have a lot making me happy these days, Sam. How ‘bout letting me enjoy what I can, okay?”
Sam is sucked down by an undertow of guilt that he can’t afford right now. There was a time when Dean found happiness all over the place...
But even so, he can’t help objecting, “So you’re saying the guy is guilty because we’re wearing polyester?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“That’s the most stupid—” But Sam’s protest is cut off by the distinctive jab of a gun muzzle pressed against the small of his back.
Sam freezes, tries to think about how he can elbow the guy in the solar plexus and go for his own gun, but a voice growls in his ear, “I wouldn’t.”
He needs to warn Dean, but when he looks over, his brother is scowling and held in place by a gun pressed against his forehead. There’s no excuse for it…letting two gunmen get the drop on them.
“All right boys…” the guy behind Dean drawls. “Drop your guns. No fast moves, y’hear?”
Slowly, Dean makes a show of pulling his gun out of its holster and very carefully dropping it on the ground. “Drop your gun, Sam,” he hisses.
But Sam doesn’t want to give up the last bit of control that he has. There’s got to be some way that he can create a diversion that would allow Dean to get away.
The guy behind Sam says, “Son, you might want to listen to your friend here…my deputy and me…we can always get ourselves some more rope.”
Dean is glaring, and Sam can’t even pretend to misunderstand him. He sighs and drops his gun.
He can feel the pressure of the gun barrel ease up, and the guy comes around front, still keeping the gun aimed steady at him, dead center. He’s probably in his sixties, grizzled as hell with a bulbous nose straight out of a cartoon, and he has a silver star pinned to his vest. Great. They haven’t been in the scene more than five minutes, and they’ve already pissed off the local sheriff.
Nothing new under the sun.
The sheriff nods toward the hanging man. “You’re too late to save your kin. This one got what was comin’ to him. You Bartleby boys ain’t gonna be terrorizing this town no more—not while I’m sheriff.”
Sam sighs. The chairman of the FCC was right, way back when he warned that TV was a vast wasteland. And the thing is that he and Dean can’t afford to waste another minute of the time they’ve got left. So now, they’re stuck in a classic mistaken identity plot—and who would name a bad guy Bartleby anyway? But more importantly, how the hell can he and Dean prove their identity? It’s not like they have any fake IDs with them, let alone any real ones. Sam doesn’t even know if cowboys carry personal identification. He would check his pockets, but the sheriff would probably shoot him.
Dean has on his best placating smile. “You have it all wrong, Sheriff. My brother, Sam, and me…well we’re the good guys. We aim to see…uh—villains—like the Bartleby boys brought to justice.”
Sam hopes Dean knows what he’s doing, but Dean is the one who used to watch these shows. He figures he should follow his brother’s lead. It’s been a long time since Sam played a good guy in the real world.
The sheriff looks unconvinced. “We don’t like strangers around these here parts. All them Bartleby boys swore they’d get revenge iff’n it was the last thing they did.”
“Well, we’re not the Bartleby boys.”
Dean is staring intently at Sam, obviously waiting for back up—Sam’s always been the designated hitter for calming things down, reassuring people that the two of them aren’t as disreputable as they look. But Sam’s act hasn’t been working so well lately.
When he was researching Lilith way back when he thought he could save the world, Sam read about Cain and Abel, about the mark God used to separate Cain from the rest of humanity after he killed his brother. Sam wonders if there’s something marking him as other…as untouchable. People don’t instinctively turn to him anymore. Sometimes, he wonders if it’s better this way…to be invisible, unworthy of attention. To follow quietly in Dean’s impressive wake.
To do no harm… that’s really the best he can hope for.
“How ‘bout helping us out Sam?” Dean mutters, and Sam realizes that the lynch mob has turned its attention on the two of them. The surly, sweating, and spitting crowd has them surrounded.
“I say string ‘em up!” someone shouts, and another seconds the idea and then another thirds it. The stench of unwashed bodies and the bodily fluids of the hung man are starting to get oppressive in the full sun.
Looking bored, the sheriff fires a warning shot into the air. “Settle down! This here’s my town, and I’ll say who’s getting strung up and who ain’t! How do I know you boys are telling the truth?”
Sam is wondering if they should just make a suicidal run for it, but Dean blurts out, “We’re not wearing black.”
The deputy guarding Dean uses his gun to scratch his head. “Huh?”
This is probably their best chance to distract them and get away, but Dean looks thoughtful, which is never a good sign for an imminent escape.
“So bad guys wear black… right?” Dean gestures toward the hanging man, and sure enough, the dead man is garbed in black from his boots to his hat.
“Well, it ain’t like you see a bad guy dressed in white,” the sheriff concedes, and Sam stares at the almost nauseous look that briefly passes over Dean’s face.
But he nods. “So take a look at Sam and me. Do we look like bad guys to you?”
The sheriff also scratches his head with his gun, and it’s all so ridiculous…they don’t have time for this sort of thing. According to what Castiel told them when they saw him last on the game show, Sam and Dean have already been missing for days. Who knows what kind of havoc Lucifer has been wreaking while they’ve been gone?
“Ease up, Sammy,” Dean orders under his breath. “Look harmless.”
“I reckon you got a point there.” Incredibly, the lawman holsters his gun and turns to the mob, announcing, “These boys ain’t wearin black. I reckon they ain’t Bartleby boys after all.”
Obviously trying not to look smug, Dean is scuffing the toe of his boots in the dirt. There had been a time it would’ve irritated Sam…Dean being right about something as stupid as this. They’re brothers—they’ve been competing over everything their entire lives, but Ruby excised that part of their relationship and perverted it. When Sam thinks of winning against Dean, he remembers his brother lying on a bed of broken glass in a honeymoon suite.
No…Sam is just fine letting Dean win.
Neither of them take their eyes off the crowd, as they retrieve their guns.
“Let’s get out of here, try and figure out what we’re supposed to be doing,” Sam says in a low voice.
“Not yet,” Dean says. “I’ve gotta give my speech.”
“You know—law and order, that kind of crap. Someone always gives a speech to get the lynch mob to settle down. Gotta play our parts. It’s the only way the trickster’s gonna let us move on.”
Sam’s about to protest, but Dean is already climbing up on some kind of crate—oh, God—can it actually be a soapbox?
“Friends,” Dean says in his FBI voice. “This country was founded on certain principles. The right to a fair trial, the idea that good is gonna win over evil…”
Dean steals a glance at Sam, who tries to nod encouragingly. Dean’s doing pretty well… Sam’s kind of impressed. Sam isn’t thinking so much about what he’s actually saying but more about the fact that Dean would have made a decent politician. Or maybe he’d be a sheriff…or even a fireman. Sam can picture Dean making a life for himself in a little town like this one.
And people are listening, as Dean talks about right and wrong—incredibly, about sin and redemption as well. Dean makes it sound like every bloodthirsty vigilante in the crowd deserves a second chance. It leaves Sam with a funny feeling in his gut…he’d like to believe that Dean is saying what he really thinks, but his brother has always been good at playing his part.
One by one, the people in the crowd walk away, apparently returning to their imaginary pre-lynch mob lives. Dean keeps talking, and finally the sheriff and deputy tip their hats to him. Shoulder to shoulder, they begin to amble away.
Dean calls after them, “What are you gonna do with the body?”
The sheriff turns around slowly. Of course, Sam could be imagining it, but it seems like the sheriff is looking right at him when he says, “Sometimes, you gotta leave a body swinging to get the message out.”
Sam stares right back, and for a split-second, he’s looking into the cold, amused eyes of the trickster. Maybe this is why Sam has been allowed to live despite everything that he’s done—maybe he’s the body swinging in the wind, the object lesson of how to screw up your life and the world too while you’re at it.
Dean hops off his soapbox. “Did you hear my speech?” He’s beaming, practically bounding on his heels.
“Yeah, it was a good one,” Sam says, smiling back. He’s never been able to resist Dean when he’s happy like that. But Sam has to ask, “Do you believe any of it? You know, what you were saying…about second chances?”
“Just appeasing the angry lynch mob, Sammy,” Dean says, a little too lightly.
And yeah, he knew that, but it hurts anyway. Sam makes himself look away from the dead man, so ugly in death with his purple face and distended tongue—
“A toast!” A guy with an enormous cowboy hats leans into Sam’s personal space and presses a glass of something brown and murky into his hand. “Kid, may you always make hay while the sun still shines and may all your aces be high.”
Sam grabs hold of the polished wooden bar with his free hand so he doesn’t fall off his stool and stares at the guy. He has no idea where he is or what the guy just said to him. You’d think he’d be getting used to this …
From the looks of it, they’re still stuck in the western, but this time ended up in a saloon that is actually a lot nicer looking than most of the dives they’ve frequented over the years. Everywhere Sam looks, someone is smoking, drinking, or spitting.
“Son? You gonna drink your tarantula juice or ain’t ya?”
Sam almost drops the glass. “Tarantula what?” Tarantula extract is an ingredient in several powerful witchcraft potions, and the last thing he needs is to be poisoned, more than a century away from a Google search for an antidote…
But the drunken cowboy grins. “Tarantula juice…firewater…whatever you wanna call it, it’s the good stuff. Boy, you are a greenhorn… Don’t tell me you ain’t never had whiskey before!”
Whiskey he can deal with, and Sam lifts the glass to his lips.
“You gonna drink that without toasting, boy?”
Sam hates being dropped in the middle of a scene. “What are we toasting to?”
The drunken cowboy cuffs Sam on the arm. “To you two Winchester brothers. Best news this town has had in a long, long time. I reckon the Bartleby Boys ain’t gonna bother us no more.”
“I thought you hung him.”
“There’s always more Bartleby boys,” the cowboy says sagely.
Sam figures that’s probably the truth—what’s a western without an unending supply of bad guys? With some apprehension, he sips the whiskey. It’s as awful as he thought it might be, but at least, it goes down easy. Sam hasn’t been drinking much for the past year, not since Ruby hauled him out of his suicidal bender and set him on the straight and narrow path of destroying the world instead.
The world would’ve been better off if he’d drowned himself in that bottle…
Sam downs the rest of the glass.
The cowboy grins and pours him another. “That brother of yours got the devil’s luck, ain’t he?”
For a second, Sam panics. Dean should always be the first thing he thinks of, and he hasn’t even looked for him yet. But the cowboy points over his shoulder with a knowing grin.
Dean is sitting at a crowded table in the middle of a game of poker. By the looks on the faces of the other players, the game is going Dean’s way. Even though Sam has watched his brother hustle his way through cards and pool his whole life, he decides it’s worth keeping an eye on the massive cowboy who is getting scammed out of whatever passes for a paycheck on this show. He doesn’t like the look the guy is aiming at Dean…
The guy with the whiskey is studying him. “You know, we don’t much cotton to cardsharps around here, even if you boys are heroes.”
Sam snorts as much at the idea of being called a hero as Dean being called a cardsharp. He has no idea what he’s even supposed to say to that.
He ends up not having a chance to respond because the cowboy lets out a low whistle. “Now, that’s one might pretty filly.”
Sam decides right then and there that one: he hates westerns. And two: he’s about ready for a new drinking companion. He looks up, expecting to see one of the many young women who are working the place, but the woman who is striding toward them is something else altogether.
Sam is pretty sure he’s never seen her before, but there’s something familiar about her, and it’s not just what she’s wearing, which looks exactly like the dress worn by his senior prom date.
She comes right up to them and is perfectly business-like when she says, “Find something else to do, cowboy. I need to talk to Sam here, alone.”
Of course, she knows his name…that’s the way these old shows work. But there’s something unsettling about the way she’s staring at him… it reminds Sam of Jess at best and Ruby at worst. The woman is looking at him like she knows him.
The cowboy raises his hands in apparent surrender and ambles away.
“Why are you here?” she asks without further ado, taking the stool next to his.
“I’m sorry, do I know you?” Sam says as evenly as he can, even though he can already feel the effects of the whiskey.
She leans close enough that Sam can smell her perfume—lavender and roses…maybe mixed with gun oil and leather.
“What are you doing?” she asks, clearly irritated. “You’re just sitting here.”
Sam has no idea what he’s supposed to say to that—he tries to think of any saloon scene he might have watched that could give him a clue. “I’m waiting for my brother.”
“That’s exactly what you’re doing, and that’s why it has to stop.” She looks him directly in the eye. “That’s been the problem from the start. You’re just wasting time, trying to see how far you get before he comes and gets you.”
“What the hell? What kind of western is this?” he asks, completely forgetting to play his part.
“I couldn’t care less about the show. I’m here for you.”
Absolutely mystified, Sam blurts out, “Why?”
“Dean isn’t the only one who has a role to play. And somebody has to look out for you. God knows you’re not doing it yourself.”
Sam’s eyes narrow. “I know what my role is supposed to be, lady, and I hate to tell you but I’ve already turned it down.”
“I’m not talking about being Lucifer’s vessel.”
His heart pounding, Sam scrambles to pull out his gun, hoping like hell it’s loaded.
“Who—who are you?”
She says quietly, “I don’t have much time before he figures out I’m here. You haven’t fulfilled your destiny, Sam—not even close.”
No wonder he recognized the look in her eyes… not another Jess after all. Just another Lucifer minion delegated to harass or recruit him.
He cocks the hammer and says, “Christo.”
“Christo right back at you,” she says with a smile, and Sam can feel the name seethe under his skin, not pain but not comfortable either. “I’m not a demon. Listen to me Sam—the trickster wants to control you. But the lesson he’s trying to teach you isn’t the one that you need to learn.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do what you do best. What you’re born to do.”
“You mean freeing Lucifer?” He can’t hide the bitterness in his voice, he just can’t. But he puts the gun back in its holster. “Condemning the world because I didn’t know any better than to trust a demon…?”
She rolls her eyes. “Sam—you don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself. The stakes are too high.”
Staring at her furiously, he says, “I’m sorry, but I know exactly what the stakes are. And the best thing I can do is to keep out of the way.”
She shakes her head. “Nope, sorry. Not an option.”
“You don’t know what I’ve done.”
“I know exactly what you’ve done. And I’m talking to you anyway. Now I need you to listen to me. The life you had before is over. It’s no different than any other kind of death—you have to find a way to live again. Otherwise you’re no good to anyone, including your brother.”
“Who are you?” he whispers, but there is a loud crash at the other end of the saloon, followed by shouting and swearing. Sam glances over, and sure enough, Dean is in the middle of it, surrounded by at least half a dozen enraged cowhands who are easily as big as Sam.
Sam says to the woman, “Dean’s your hero—he’s the good guy, he really is. I’m just here to watch his back.”
He doesn’t look to see if she’s sticking around—he needs to help Dean. It’s already an all-out melee—chairs flying, saloon girls screaming, oaths and fists flying. Sam barrels through several minor league brawlers, until he makes it to Dean who is inelegantly sprawled across a table.
Accepting a hand up, Dean grins. “Now this is our kind of gig, ain’t it, Sammy?”
Sam is about to answer, when someone breaks a chair over his head. It makes him blink, but it doesn’t hurt, so he turns on his heels and lands a solid roundhouse punch in retaliation. The guy goes down hard.
“That’s my boy!” Dean crows, and Sam can’t help but grin in return.
“Why are all these people fighting?” Sam shouts over the din. “Did you cheat all of them?”
Dean yells back, “No—just a few! Guess they’re just in for the fun of it.”
Before Sam can answer, someone grabs his shoulder and spins him around.
And you know…fun works for Sam. He likes a good fight as much as Dean, and it’s been a while, so he lets loose with a solid uppercut to the guy’s jaw. Like any nameless extra, the guy drops onto the floor and doesn’t get up.
“You take the guys on the right, I’ll take the ones on the left,” Dean orders. Normally, Sam would demand to get the guys on the left, just to be a pain in the ass, but he’s in a good mood now, so he plows into the dozen or so men who are already coming at him.
It’s like old times. He and Dean fight shoulder to shoulder and don’t hold back. It’s been a long time since they had a fight they could actually win.
There’s a guy about to break a bottle over Dean’s head, so Sam reaches back with the roundhouse punch that hasn’t failed him since the day Dad taught it to him and—
Sam is dazzled. He can’t see anything in the blinding sunlight, and he can’t tell what he’s sitting on. His balance is off, and crap, the whole world is moving out from underneath him.
Sam lands hard on his ass and hears Dean shout his name.
The situation makes sense a little too late, as he scrambles to get out of the way. Same show, different scene. And Sam just fell off his horse.
“Are you okay?” Dean rides over to him. And of course, Dean doesn’t fall off. He’s making it look easy, even though Sam is pretty damn sure Dean has never been on a horse in his life. He looks worried though, so Sam makes a point of not wincing as he brushes himself off.
“I’m fine,” Sam lies. His legs are numb but his ass hurts like hell—he landed on a rock, and it must have hit a nerve. “Damnit, why are we still here?”
“Because you and Dean gotta track down the Bartleby boys!”
Sam shields his eyes from the sun to see a boy grinning crazily at them from atop a small, gray horse. He’s got freckles all over his face and is beaming at the two of them like they are the second coming.
“The Bartleby boys again?” Dean moans.
“Yes sir. Them Bartleby boys ain’t up to no good, that’s for dang sure.”
The boy is holding the reins of the horse that Sam is apparently supposed to ride, but Sam’s in no hurry to get back in the saddle. He tries to stall for a few minutes by taking a look around. They’re in the middle of nowhere—lots of desolation and tumbleweed but not a town in sight.
“And you’re saying the Bartleby boys are out here somewhere?” Sam asks skeptically.
“You bet they are, those no-good, cattle-thievin’, black-hearted…” the boy’s tirade goes on and on, clearly entertaining Dean, so Sam takes the opportunity to try and get his foot in the stirrup without landing on his ass again.
Dean asks, “So kid, what exactly are the Bartleby Boys up to now?”
“Cattle rustling, sir.” The boy is staring at them both, looking a little unsure for the first time. “Y’all are the ones who tracked them down, don’tcha remember?”
“Of course… that’s what we do. We…we track down…rustlers.” Dean sees Sam struggling to get back on and rides over to take the reins from the kid, while Sam tries to get his leg over the saddle—Sam feels his face flush, but it’s harder than it looks. He finally manages it and takes hold of the reins for himself, praying he doesn’t fall off again. His horse is the biggest that Sam has ever seen, ridiculously oversized in his opinion, and it’s a long, long way down to the ground.
Dean’s horse, on the other hand, is black and sleek and looks fast as hell. Dean glances at Sam and says to the boy, “Hey kid, why don’t you ride ahead and be a…lookout or something… I need to talk with my brother.”
The kid nods enthusiastically and tips his hat. “Yessir. You can count on me.”
Dean waits until the boy is gone. “Cute kid. You sure you’re okay, Sammy?” There’s no mocking in his voice, so Sam allows himself an honest answer in reply.
“Ass hurts, pride hurts,” Sam says, offering up a half-smile. “I really don’t like horses.”
“Just relax dude—play your part.”
“I already told you,” Sam says, tipping his hat down to try and keep the sun out of his eyes. “I don’t have a friggin’ clue what I’m doing. I’ve never watched a western before.”
“Sam, I don’t know why you keep saying that. We used to watch them all the time.”
“You watched them—I didn’t. I was doing my homework.”
“Well, it serves you right then, so quit bitchin’ about not knowing what you’re doing.”
The kid rides back, kicking up enough dust that Sam understands why cowboys have bandanas. His eyes are watering like crazy, and his throat is sore and dry.
Bouncing up and down in the saddle, the kid says, “It’s them Bartlebys all right, and they’re holed up in that there box canyon. Dirty lousy rustlers.”
Dean rubs his hand over his eyes. “So you’re sure they’re rustlers?”
The kid nods enthusiastically.
Sam clears his throat from the dust. “And…what are we exactly supposed to do about it?”
The kid’s eyes widen. “Ride in and kill ‘em, of course.”
Sam starts coughing. The air is so dry, and the last thing he remembers drinking was the whiskey.
“How many of them are there?” Dean asks, handing Sam a canteen from his saddlebag.
“I counted at least twenty.”
Twenty against two… Sam shakes his head. It figures that their odds would stay the same, no matter what universe they’re in.
“Okay.” Dean purses his lips, fiddling with his reins. “What d’you think, Sam? Think we can take them?”
“Dean…I don’t know how to ride a horse. You don’t know how to ride a horse.”
“Maybe it’s like the game show. If we just try, we’ll know how to do it. You gotta admit, that would be pretty awesome, Sam.”
Sam does not think it would be pretty awesome. He is aching all over, and now Dean expects him to get into some sort of shootout with a bunch of rustlers. Sam is sick and tired of the trickster’s game. The friggin’ apocalypse is on them, and he’s supposed to give a crap about a bunch of stolen cows?
His reluctance must be showing because the kid pleads, “Please mister, you gotta help get back our cattle. You and Dean are the only ones who can. My daddy died in the mines, and me and my ma’s gonna starve iff’n…”
Sam doesn’t need to hear the rest…the world is full of hard luck cases, and he and Dean can’t ever save them all. But Sam knows the look on Dean’s face…he has always been an easy mark when it comes to kids.
“Sam. It’s like you said—we gotta play our roles. And right now, our role is fighting against these Bartleby dudes.”
“Bartleby boys,” the kid corrects helpfully.
Dean is staring at him, waiting for him to give the okay. He knows Dean is trying to avoid giving the orders and expecting that Sam will submissively follow. It’s the new pact between them, and Sam does appreciate the effort. But Dean wants to do this. He wants to play hero and help this fictional kid get his cows back.
Sam’s never been one to say no to Dean…not when it’s something that Dean really wants.
But he needs to have a better handle on the details before they just go riding in.
Sam asks, “So…once we get the cows back—what do we do then?”
“What do you mean, Sam?”
“You want us to charge into some canyon and have a shootout over a herd of cows. What do we do with the cows once we stop the Bartlebys?”
Dean looks confused. “The old westerns never showed that part.” He turns to the kid. “What do we do with the cows?”
Like he’s talking to half-wits, the boy says slowly, “You ride herd to the high country.”
Dean crosses his arms over his chest. “I could’ve told you that, Sam.”
Sam rolls his eyes. “Oh, please.”
But Dean turns back to the boy. “Kid, you ride to the town and get help. Sam and me…we’ll take care of the rustlers…how about you take care of all the riding herd to high country stuff when you get back.”
“I sure will, Dean! Thank you!” The boy’s face is aglow with blatant hero worship. Sam recognizes it right away. When he was a kid, Sam knew that Dean could do anything—he was that kind of big brother. The kid rides off, still smiling.
Sam hopes his horse knows what it’s doing. He’d been hoping that the trickster would decide they’d passed the test and would turn to a different show before he actually had to do any riding. But he flicks the reins, and his horse starts after Dean’s. Riding a horse isn’t as hard as Sam thought it would be. Oddly enough, his body seems to know how to sit in a saddle, even though his mind is no help at all, as they ride along the edge of the canyon.
The wind is picking up, and Sam suddenly smells it—the stomach churning smell of decay drifting over the ridge. The Bartleby Boys must not care much about the cows they steal because from the smell, there are a lot of dying cows in the canyon.
On the other hand, he can understand why a box canyon is a good place to set up a defense. They stop near the entrance to the canyon and take stock of the situation. There’s only one way in, one way out—no way to sneak up from behind. They don’t have a choice but to launch a full frontal attack.
Dean looks over at him. “You sure you wanna do this?”
Sam shrugs. “Don’t see we have much of a choice.”
Dean nods, and they ride in.
Once in, the smell is much worse. Sam figures that the steep walls serve as a windbreak. With all the heat, the air is practically fermenting with death and rot. Dead cattle are everywhere, the bodies of newborn calves lying next to their mothers. He and Dean ride at a hard gallop past the bloated carcass of a horse lying in a dried up river. Living cows sway in the wavering heat. Not enough water for anything living, human or animal.
It makes no sense—Sam can’t understand why anyone would steal a bunch of cows only to let them die by not bringing them to a place with adequate water. They slow to a trot, riding side by side, looking for any signs of human life in the canyon.
“Okay, Bartleby boys,” Dean says in a low, dangerous voice. “Show your stuff.”
It looks deserted, but out of the corner of his eye, Sam tracks movement near a wooden lean-to built up against the rock. Dean sees it too and grabs his arm.
The first bullet sings past his ear before the retort echoes through the canyon.
Dean dismounts, motioning to Sam to do the same. They scramble across the clearing until they come to an outcropping of rock. Sam can’t see his horse any more—he hopes it’s all right.
“Where are they?”
“They’re everywhere!” Dean mutters.
“Great.” Sam struggles with the loading mechanism of his ancient firearm. “I think all my ammo is in the saddlebag.”
“I think it’s already loaded. Let me try something—check this out.” Dean braces his own gun in a chink in the rock. He fires, and across the canyon, Sam can see a man clutch his chest and fall to the ground.
“How’d you hit him? They’re way out of range.”
“Don’t know.” Dean’s forehead is creased with concentration. “But let’s see if I can do it again. Watch this.”
He fires off several shots in rapid succession without having to reload, and every bullet finds its target. Sam is impressed.
“Let me try.” Sam gets a Bartleby boy in his sight and squeezes the trigger. The man drops his weapon and collapses, lying motionless on the ground. Dean claps him on the back. “This is better than a video game.”
“Told you that westerns are awesome. You never have to load your gun, and you hit your target every time.”
They keep firing, even though Bartleby bullets are pinging off the rocks all around them. It’s almost like they’re charmed, invulnerable—not a single bullet hits them, even though there are more than a few near misses. Every time they fire, a rustler goes down.
Sam could seriously get used to this.
“That’s some mighty fine shootin’ little brother,” Dean drawls.
Sam rolls his eyes. “Save it for your audience.”
“Just staying in character.” Dean smirks. “You gotta admit this is kind of fun.”
It’s a hell of a lot better than the STD commercial, so Sam’s not complaining.
Obviously getting bored, Dean starts taking wild shots, whooping it up when his bullets ricochet off the rocks like a pinball machine. They’re almost out of rustlers.
“Crap, I think I hit a cow.” Sam wipes the sweat out of his eyes with his bandana. “Are we done?”
“Yeah…no, wait. I think I see one more—”