The air whipping in the windows of their car du jour was meltingly hot. Dean tried to drain a few precious drops of clean water from the old canteen but it’d been emptied two hours ago; moisture wasn’t going to magically appear no matter how hard he wished. He’d long since abandoned hope that Castiel would be anything but batshit nutty if the angel ever showed up, so there was no sense in praying for help either.
He could practically feel his lips cracking, the arid wind offering not one damned bit of relief. He threw the canteen into the backseat and kept driving.
Another ten minutes down the dusty road, Dean’s stomach announced its hunger loud enough to make Sam startle in his sleep. It was probably just an autonomic reaction to an angry growl, but didn’t change the fact they were not only dehydrated, but fucking starving. And not just “Oh, gee, I could eat” starving but Dean’d had to notch his belt tighter just to keep from flashing his ass to the world. He glanced over at Sam as his brother stirred, bruised eyes slitting open, a hand pulling through his snarled hair.
“Where’re we?” he mumbled, sounding about as cracked as Dean’s lips.
“Utah’s a big state.”
“Doesn’t really matter where in Utah, does it?” Leviathans were everywhere; a healthy Mormon population didn’t thwart the monsters’ numbers, so yeah, what did it matter?
Sam seemed to agree because he settled into silence again, staring at the parched landscape flying past. They couldn’t even kill the quiet with the radio; the crappy Kia Rio they’d jacked in Colorado didn’t have one that worked. They’d have opted for a better model, but the Rio was practically a gift. Its owner had left the car running while he’d wandered off to do … whatever. Probably full to the gills with Leviathan-tainted turkducken and looking for seconds. And thirds.
The grimness of the situation was increasingly difficult to ignore. Sam, Mr. Let’s-talk-it-out, wasn’t even bothering to complain any more. That’s how bad it’d gotten. Bobby and Frank were dead, Castiel was a few bees short of a hive, the Big Mouths were closing ranks, and Dean kept struggling to find a reason to put one foot in front of the other. Hard to work up rebellion when all you knew was hunger and sleeplessness and worry.
His eyes were starting to gloss over when Sam sat upright, glaring out the window.
“There. Turn back. Down that road.”
“Wha—?” Had they even passed a road?
“Think I saw something.”
Dean threw a u-turn across both lanes, the car plenty small enough for such a tight turning radius. Dirt and gravel kicked up into the wheel wells. “What kinda something? Big Foot? A parade? What?”
“Okay, nature boy, if you say so.” But Sam didn’t make observations frivolously these days. If there was something about these trees that caught his interest, it was worth investigating. Besides, it wasn’t like they had anywhere better to be. All the Dick Roman intel was as dried up as the land.
The car rocked down a pitted single lane until the surroundings grew marginally greener. Somehow, the area was getting water. Someone still had the wherewithal to work the land and irrigate it. The trees sat in evenly-spaced parcels and though the weeds were growing tall and unruly, this had all the earmarks of an orchard.
Sam was leaning half out the window, looking hard for signs of life. Dean slowed the Rio, and eventually Sam pointed his long arm towards a side-alley.
“Truck,” he barked. He did kinda look like a big Irish Retriever, Dean mused.
They followed the lead, easing the car between branches. An old Chevy pick-up came into view, and Sam didn’t even wait for Dean to stop the car before he opened the door and rolled out. They weren’t traveling fast, between navigating trees and potholes and thick weeds.
Sam approached the truck and Dean noted his brother’s posture; though bent from riding in the tight quarters of the sub-compact, it wasn’t tense with suspicion. Dean kept the car running, regardless.
Entering the thigh-high grasses, Sam paused and looked up into the cloudless sky. Dean followed his gaze: vultures, overhead. Bad sign. Sam crouched, half-vanishing in the weeds. Dean saw little more than his rawboned shoulders, expanding in a sigh and when Sam stood back up, he looked decidedly grim—grimmer than before, if that was even possible.
“There are bodies,” he said flatly.
“Shit.” Dean cut the engine and got out.
The partially eaten corpses of several workers in ichor-stained overalls were hidden by the bramble, and now Dean could smell the decay. The wind must’ve been blowing in the wrong direction before. From the notably large bite marks on the remains, it was clear how they’d met their deaths. Why the Leviathans hadn’t eaten them completely was anyone’s guess. Maybe it was becoming sport to the fuckers.
Dean’s gut twisted and might’ve tossed its contents had it not been empty already. “Poor bastards. Wish I could say I’m surprised.”
“Yeah. I know.” Sam stepped over a lump of flesh and leaned into the open door of the truck. The ignition clicked but the engine was just as dead as the bodies.
Dean made a cursory search for anything useful—money, knives, cellphones—but the bodies had already been stripped. Scavenging was standard operating procedure these days.
Sam had found nothing in the cab of the truck either, as evidenced by his empty hands and hang-dog expression. “Damn. Still. I was hoping …”
Dean squinted around the orchard, hands on his hips, and then his brows lifted. “Hey. Might be somethin’ here after all.” He pointed up into the trees. Bunched in the gnarly higher branches, obscured by leaves, were ripe clusters of peaches. The low-hanging fruit had long since been snagged whereas the treetops still hung heavy with unharvested produce.
Sam waded through the weeds to the Rio and clambered up the hood to the roof of the car. It rocked and dented under his weight but he could reach the tops of the trees this way.
You go, you tall freak. Dean found himself grinning.
Sam plucked a single peach and tossed it to Dean, who snatched it from mid-air. His mouth watered wantonly but as much as he wanted to take a bite, he forced himself to wait. He slipped his hand into the pocket of his jeans and removed a tiny vial containing vinegar. It had come as no surprise to people-in-the-know that the Leviathans had leaked tainted pesticides and fertilizers to the farmers. Quite by accident, hunters had discovered that the poisoned crops would foam slightly when exposed to a dab of common, household white vinegar. Prior to cooking, at any rate.
Dean did the dab test and let out a whoop. Then he took a big fat bite. The taste exploded in his mouth and he experienced a ridiculous amount of joy over a lone piece of fruit. It would’ve been embarrassing had he given two fucks but in that moment, peaches were the closest thing to heaven he’d experienced since, well, Heaven.
Sam beamed like a fool from his perch atop the Rio and stripped off his t-shirt. He tied a quick knot in the bottom and began feeding peaches through the neck opening.
“Jesus, you’ve gotten skinny,” Dean hollered with his mouth full.
“Shuddup, so’ve you.” Sam kept collecting fruit, pausing only briefly to take a bite himself.
“Right you are, sir; pass me another!”
Sam lobbed the bitten peach to Dean, who grumbled “This has got your germs on it,” but ate the thing anyway. Two additional peaches later, Dean was finally slowing down when Sam stopped picking, head tilting.
“What was that?”
Dean shrugged and carefully scanned the area in a full circle, eyes keen for any signs of movement.
Then he felt it, a shimmer in the world. The hair on the back of his neck prickled and the air eddied, almost like a sonic boom minus the ‘sonic’ part. “Earthquake?”
Sam softened his knees, readying to jump if need be. “Don’t think so. Kinda feels like when Castiel uses his magical angel trans—”
With a rush of wind and the nauseating pull of g-forces on his gut, Dean lost all orientation, spinning tits over tail. Fierce vertigo made it impossible to think, let alone react. The atmosphere swelled and pressurized until, with an ear-popping wallop, Dean was spit back out.
Where? He hadn’t a stinking clue.
Except that out of nowhere, there was a fist and it was flying straight at his face.
Dean saw white-hot stars and tasted blood down the back of his throat. Then came the pain. A considerable amount of it, centered somewhere in the neighborhood of his nose. He dropped to his knees on a wooden floor, cupped a palm under his nostrils as the red dripped out. He was afraid to touch anything. Probably broke his whole damned face.
“Where the cock-suckin’ fuck did you come from?” The man, presumably on the other end of the fist, gawked down at Dean. The guy didn’t stay confused for long; a boot rocketed up into Dean’s chin and sent him sailing backwards. He smashed into a table and the deceptively cheerful skittering of poker chips rained down around him, rolling off under more tables and booted feet. He couldn’t be sure, what with the throbbing in his face that spread into his brain, but Dean thought he noticed the glint of metal on some of the heels. Spurs.
There were screams and shouts and the dull cracks of more fists hitting bone, but thankfully it wasn’t Dean on the sorry end of the punches this time. He couldn’t stand up—his legs weren’t exactly cooperating—but he could roll away from what was left of the table and find refuge behind some sort of curtain.
The curtain, however, took exception. A woman squealed and spat at him, shifting her layers of skirts and fixing him with a glare full of daggers.
Dean lifted a hand, the less bloodied one, in a desperate signal of surrender. “Sorry, lady. My bad. Just … just don’t get your panties in a wad—”
Those were, perhaps, not the smartest words Dean Winchester had ever uttered. From the folds of the woman’s skirts—which, upon closer inspection, were not particularly clean—she produced a small, old-fashioned snub-nosed gun. Might even have been an antique Derringer, if Dean wasn’t imagining things. It leveled at his head and he back-peddled. Fast.
A slug cracked into the floor beside him.
“Jesus! I didn’t do nothin’!” Dean shielded his face with a shoulder and scrambled away from the crazy lady, soles slipping in the dirt and sawdust and now, blood.
Tables were being flipped and more punches thrown. A spray of liquor followed the crash of breaking glass and Dean kept moving, low to the floor, until he found shelter between a piece of furniture and the corner of the room.
Room? Where the hell was he? Where the hell was Sam?
He touched his nose gingerly, assessed that the bleeding had mostly stopped and it probably wasn’t broken after all. He smelled iron and whiskey and the sour stench of unwashed bodies, but not peaches or death. The slant of the sun through the windows, what little he could see from cover, was late-day and long-shadowed. He rocked back against a wood paneled wall, and the furniture he’d hidden behind twanged and jolted when a body bounced off it. Several piano keys sprung loose like busted teeth.
He waited until the piano stopped shuddering before peering around the corner again. It seemed to be a good ol’ bar brawl, which Dean had suspected, but this wasn’t just any bar. It was rugged and filthy and lit by kerosene lamps suspended from ceiling beams. There were antlers and tin-type photographs on the walls and the clientele, mostly male, wore hats, suspenders and a week’s worth of grime.
This was a saloon. And it looked suspiciously like one he’d visited before. In a very different time.
Dean started to move away from the safety of the piano. Sam had to be here somewhere; he’d felt the temporal quiver too. He had to have been caught in the same Magical Mystery Tour that dragged Dean to Dodge City, or wherever the hell this place was.
As Dean took a step forward, a voice hissed at him from the other side of the piano: “Don’t.”
He pulled back just as a brass spittoon soared past his head and whumped into the wall, chunks of soggy tobacco and dark, disgusting syrup splattering the area, the piano and Dean.
“Aw, what the hell?” Dean flicked his fingers, brushing black stuff from his shirt. At least it wasn’t Leviathan bits, but man, this was so not helping.
“Things got all bag o’ nails right quick, didn’t it?” The voice spoke again, sounding a touch amused at Dean’s situation.
“S’pose it did,” Dean groused, looking down the piano.
The guy was roughly youngish, the same way he and Sam were, and marginally cleaner than the other patrons. He adjusted his bent, wire-rimmed glasses and grinned at Dean; his teeth were crooked but still free of rot. City slicker, Dean guessed, or younger than he looked.
“Columbus McCallum.” The man reached across the piano, spidery fingers extended in a risky gesture of greeting. “You’re welcome to call me Lom.”
Dean grabbed his hand, pumped it twice before ducking back behind the piano. “Dean Winchester.”
“Winchester? As in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company?”
“Um, maybe? Couldn’t tell ya.” Dean flinched as the window behind the piano blew out from something small and fast piercing the glass. Bullet, from the sounds of it. “Where are we?”
Lom shook shards from his dark, poorly-cut hair and coughed. “In a peck of trouble?”
“No, no. What town?”
“You must’ve gotten brushed in the noggin but good, Mr. Winchester. We are in Mongrel, Nevada. Specifically, at the Sweetwater Saloon. Or whatever will be left of it …”
Christ. Not even in the same state, anymore. Could this make any less sense? Dean scanned the barroom purposefully, searching for anyone taller than the norm and probably shirtless. Possibly even bearing peaches.
The saloon wasn’t large but it was chock full of flailing arms and legs, furniture being knocked every which way, and the din was such that he couldn’t hear Sam calling, even if he wanted. And Dean wanted to hear his brother now with all his being.
“Lom. Have you seen another guy here, dressed kinda like me? Lotsa hair, stupid tall?”
“I cannot say that I have, Mr. Winchester. But then it is a tad difficult to tell one scrapper from the next, presently.” Lom winced as a shot glass bounced off the wall over his head. “Was he here with you?”
“Well. That is extraordinarily unhelpful.”
“Yeah, yeah, tell me something I don’t know.”
Lom pressed his lips tightly, his eyes wide behind the distortion of his glasses. “I take it you would not be adverse to availing yourself of the establishment’s back door?”
Dean still didn’t see Sam anywhere; maybe he got dropped outside. It was the best Dean could hope. “Sounds like a plan, Mr. McCallum.”
“Then I suggest you high-tail it this way.” Lom timed his sprint judiciously and took off like a jackrabbit, behind a wall of men in a stubborn grapple.
Dean scuttled close on his heels. Over his shoulder, he heard the distinct rise of voices. Great. He should’ve known it would only be a matter of time before the law showed up. Some patrons froze in their boots. Others with apparently more to lose went diving for the exits, obstructing Lom’s path.
Didn’t matter much anyway. By the time they got to the doorway, a thickset man with a frown and a badge had a pair of revolvers trained on the both of them. His expression was impassable; clearly he wasn’t going to take any of their crap unless they wanted to bicker with the business ends of his guns.
Dean did the smart thing and kept his cakehole firmly shut.
Come to find out, Lom McCallum was the piano player for the Sweetwater Saloon, recently transplanted from all points east of the Mississippi. The man was a bit vague with his reasons for relocating to Mongrel, and Dean was content to let it stay that way. He wasn’t exactly eager to justify his own appearance in Nevada, let alone in 1873, but they found themselves conversing guardedly in the same hot, airless jail cell. Three other men—though Dean would’ve labeled them more animal than man—shared their quarters and the reek was enough to singe nose hairs. The other three knew each other and hung together like a pack of vultures. Or flock. Or whatever the hell a group of vultures was called. Sam would’ve known.
He’d already scoped out the jailhouse, assessing his chances of escape. They weren’t bad, truth be told, except he was rapidly losing daylight. This wouldn’t have been an issue if he’d had the chance to get a better look at the layout of the joint before being thrown inside.
And then there was the sheer number of civilians to contend with: the three sharing his cell, Piano Man, and another half-dozen behind bars on the other side of the room, not to mention the deputy on watch. He couldn’t trust a one of them, except maybe Lom, and that was a long shot at best. The deputy had already taken a few jabs at Dean’s attire and ‘pretty boy’ cleanliness, but Christ, let him jab. At least Dean didn’t smell like armpits and horseshit.
“So what started the brawl at the Sweetwater? I missed that little detail.” Dean spoke in hushed tones to Lom, really just making small talk to keep his mind from wandering to myriad ominous places.
Lom inclined his head slightly, gesturing to one of the prisoners in the cell, a ropey black-haired man with an easy smile. Suspiciously easy. “That’s Billy Harper. I would give him an especially wide berth, Mr. Winchester—”
“Dean, then.” Lom dropped his gaze when Harper angled their way in vague curiosity. “He does not, as they say, play fair.” Lom’s voice had gotten so quiet Dean nearly missed the comment.
It seemed, however, Billy Harper didn’t need to hear Lom McCallum to know he was being gossiped about. Or perhaps he was simply arrogant enough to believe everyone talked about him—good, bad or otherwise. He unhitched his hands from the bars and wandered, as casual as a Sunday stroll, to an empty wooden bucket sitting maybe five feet from Dean’s boots. He began humming to himself, sounded like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Without a lick of self-consciousness, he unbuttoned his trousers, took out his dick and pissed into the pail. The stink was impressive. He looked over at Dean and Lom, smiled that easy smile—uneven teeth flashing behind a layer of coarse stubble and grime—and then splattered Dean’s boots with urine. There was nothing in his demeanor to indicate it was an accident, either.
Dean hopped back out of reflex, and Billy chortled. Lom had a hand on Dean’s arm before a single fist could be lifted.
Billy put himself back in his pants and took his sweet time returning to his corner of the cell, where the other two men where lounging and laughing bold-faced. Lom gripped Dean’s arm tighter and whispered, “No, sir. It would be most unwise to engage—”
Dean shook off Lom’s hand and fixed Billy with a pointed stare. “What? He’s just a dumb-ass horse fucker; if he wasn’t with his girlfriends, I’d feed him his own balls.” Said loud enough, of course, to be heard by the entire jail. The deputy watched with his feet on the desk, uninspired. Hoots came from the other holding tank and Billy hoisted eyebrows, feigning shock. The tallest of the three, a man who seemed to be painted in every shade of dull brown, elbowed Billy.
“Why, I do believe he has besmirched your fine reputation, Mr. Harper,” the lackey said into Billy’s ear.
“Has he now, Mr. Bales? I ain’t sure I should be frumped by such a Nancy-boy. He did let me piss on his shoes—”
Dean grinned and Lom’s face dropped all color, nervous fingers plucking at Dean’s t-shirt. “Mr. Winchester—Dean—I fear you might well be bitin’ off more than you can chew, here.”
“My mouth is bigger than it looks. And I’m hungry,” Dean said almost pleasantly, pulling against the feeble restraint and making a point to flex his chest; he was still better fed than these yokels and had no doubt he could whump them, bare-fisted. It would be … therapeutic. He wouldn’t even have to pull the bootknife he still felt pressing stiff against his ankle, missed by the deputy’s cursory pat-down.
One of the guys from the other cell, the same bruiser who had slugged Dean at the Sweetwater, clattered at the bars. “Hear that, Billy? He reckons he’s got a big mouth …”
This spurred a round of mean laughter from Harper and his cronies. There was something odd behind the taunts, something conspicuously unsaid. Dean mulled over the ‘big mouth’ comment, a sour feeling oozing up from the bottom of his stomach.
Finally the deputy stood, planted his feet, settled his hands on the guns at either hip. His brow was thrown into shadow as the sun squatted on the horizon, dusk fast approaching. One flickering lantern sat on his desk, providing the only useful light which was hardly useful at all.
“That’ll be enough,” he slurred. Dean wasn’t sure whether the lawman was tired, indifferent, or half-drunk. With luck, all of the above, then maybe Dean could find occasion to jimmy the lock. Lom’s glasses might just do the trick, if bent the right way.
The room begrudgingly quieted and the men drifted into their companionable groups, eyes glittering at each other in wariness and threat. The night air, dry as dust, cooled quickly and mercifully lessened the stink in the jailhouse—or else Dean was just getting used to it. His belly complained, having long since digested the peaches, and it didn’t look as though the deputy was fetching dinner anytime soon. He might’ve considered nodding off—except Harper was still humming to himself, still prowling and smirking, and Dean didn’t dare shut his eyes.
Lom actually did fall asleep; this wasn’t his first spin in the pen for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he’d told Dean earlier. Fact was, there weren’t very many ‘right places’ in Mongrel. It was an ill-mannered, mischievous town, born of opportunity. Over the ridge, a vein of silver had been discovered and Mongrel had grown up around it to service the mine. The pretense of law kept a loose rein on crime, key word being “loose”.
Dean fell into the familiar role of guardian, as Lom’s head drooped and the piano player began to snore softly. The job felt, at once, comfortable and annoying. His worry for Sam nagged insistently, but he couldn’t do squat from inside a jail cell so Dean began the habitual weighing of allies and antagonists. If a window of opportunity showed up, he had to know whom to trust, whom to use, whom to knife in the back.
From overheard conversations, Dean figured out the guy with Harper was named Tanner Bales. Bales tended to use fifty-cent words and made like an educated man, but fat lot of good an education did in the middle of the Nevada desert. His clothes might’ve been fancier than Harper’s, had they not been just as worn and dusty. Their third wheel, a scrawny younger good-for-nothing—who looked almost shriveled, he was so thin—was often the butt of their jabs but he suffered the abuse eagerly. His colorless hair hung in long, greasy strings from under his hat, and he reminded Dean of a subway rat.
The deputy busied himself playing solitaire with a deck of cards, chugging from a flask and occasionally spitting onto the floor. Charming.
Nobody had much of anything to say as the night went on and the moon climbed, so when one of the prisoners spoke from the other cell, Dean startled.
“D-deputy. There’s somethin’ wrong with … with the Polak here. I think – I think he’s got the conniptions ‘er somethin’.” The man pressed his face to the bars and Dean took keen notice; he recognized the sharp edge of panic in the prisoner’s voice. A huge body hit the floor, writhing and choking in the other cell. The so-called Polak appeared to be in sincere distress. The lighting was shit and Dean couldn’t be 100% positive it wasn’t a ruse, but he was certain enough to pay close attention. Genuine or no, this could be just the distraction he needed. He nudged Lom awake.
Naturally, Harper and Bales showed interest too. Not that they’d been sleeping themselves, but now they jostled each other and pointed and slung arms over the scrawny, unnamed kid in almost-ownership.
“Lukasz?” The deputy grunted and stood, scrubbing a hand over his scalp.
The downed man was caught in a puddle of moonlight pouring through the small barred window on the east wall. His back was broad and hunched, shirt straining at the seams as he raked the floor, filthy straw caught between his fingers. Dean blinked and stared; the shoulder blades shifted. They shifted wrong. He wanted it to have been a trick of the shadows but, no. The bones, they were relocating; now he could hear the joints popping over the man’s gasps and spasms. Fabric tore, and Lukasz shuddered powerfully.
Lom moved to Dean’s side and sucked in breath. “Holy Mary, Mother of God …”
“I don’t think she’s gonna do us a damned bit of good right now,” Dean murmured.
Sam woke up with sand in his mouth. He was fairly certain he hadn’t put it there himself.
For a muddled moment, he thought maybe he was so dehydrated, so wicked thirsty, his spit had dried up and turned to grit. But that was stupid, wasn’t it? He couldn’t be sure; his brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders. It hurt like hell just to think, and Sam knew Hell.
There was a buzzing by his left ear, and under his nose was the pungent smell of fruit that’d been left out in the sun too long. Apples. Nope, peaches. Sam distantly recollected picking peaches, putting them in a pillowcase until it drooped heavy and strained at the seams. His mouth would have watered if it could’ve worked up the moisture. Wasn’t that last week? No, had to be today; he could still smell the peaches. Close by. And there was the buzzing again, the tickle of flies at his face, attracted by the stink of spoiling fruit.
Sam cracked his eyes open. The sun hovered fat, hot and low on the horizon. Setting, not rising, he suspected. The light was too golden. Morning light was cool; dusk was red and yellow and violet, turning to Prussian blue. The color of bruises. Sam knew bruises, too. He could feel a particularly spectacular one pulsing at his temple.
He dragged his knuckles through the dirt and tried to push up. The other arm wasn’t cooperating because he’d been lying on it and the limb had fallen asleep. Now it was beginning to burn with pins and needles. His skin burned, too. Somewhere along the line he’d lost his shirt and when his shoulder blades compressed, when he moved to stand, the flesh pinched tight and raw, making him hiss. To add insult to injury, the wind kicked up sharp and cool, sending gooseflesh over his stinging back.
He got his knees under himself, muscles rubbery, pausing for the world to quit pitching. He lumbered upright and planted his feet; even then, remaining vertical was a matter of abject tenacity. He locked his knees and swallowed back the familiar momentary wave of nausea that followed ‘teleportation’. Nerdy terminology, but he didn’t know what else to call it or what had actually happened, but clearly he was not in Utah anymore. Well, not in the abandoned orchard that had been Utah.
Desert expanded in all directions, an eternity of arid earth and stone ghosting into oncoming night at the edges of his vision. Great monolithic juts of wind-worn rock dotted the landscape like tombstones.
“Dean,” he choked out. Sam spat onto the ground and repeated his brother’s name, louder, stronger. But he knew he was alone, save a pair of turkey vultures that looked up from picking at a sack of what Sam presumed were the peaches. The birds glared at him with beady, baleful eyes. He was the stranger in their land; how nice of him to bring them a gift.
“Shit. Get lost.” Sam stumbled forward and swept his arms wide, cringing as the skin pulled. He might need those peaches to stay alive and the vultures could go eat carrion for all he cared. They launched away, kicking up more dust.
Sam dropped to his knees and began salvaging what he could of the fruit. It was then he realized the pillowcase was actually his t-shirt, and he remembered knotting the bottom to make a catch-all. But the shirt was going to have to be a shirt now; the sun was fast disappearing and this was desert: the parched air held no moisture and therefore, no heat. He was already starting to shiver and the sunburn didn’t help. He shook out the filthy t-shirt and carefully slipped it over his shoulders, dooming himself to stink like over-ripe fruit for the foreseeable future.
As it turned out, most of the peaches were ruined anyway. What little the birds hadn’t consumed was either teeming with flies, covered in dirt, or pulverized beyond edibility. Sam brushed off what he could and ate, then and there. It helped settle his stomach, despite the grind of sand between his teeth and the hollow worry of Dean’s absence.
With patience, his thoughts began to organize and clear, though he still felt like a wrung-out sponge. He took stock of his resources, which wasn’t a particularly heartening exercise. No matter which direction he turned, his cell phone registered nothing. No service.
He had a Bic lighter, a money clip with a sad thin layer of folded bills pinched in its jaws, the paperback he’d been reading—The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest—tucked into a back pocket, a Swiss Army knife, a Smartphone that didn’t seem particularly smart at this moment, and a small plastic pill bottle of salt. At least he had plenty of things to burn and a corkscrew, just in case he happened upon a nice bottle of merlot.
Sam started walking. If he couldn’t find Dean, he had to find shelter. The unforgiving earth produced equally ruthless vegetation, and it only took one false step into a copse of squat cactus to remind him to watch his footing more carefully. The spines needled through his socks and forced him to stop and pick them out for a good ten minutes. It wasn’t like he was in a hurry to get somewhere, since he didn’t know where he was going, but all the unanswered questions stuck in his craw and made him compulsively push forward, into the new and unknown.
After what had to be several miles of the same vista, Sam concluded there was nothing new and unknown. Or if there was, it was well hidden. The piercing silence was a vast thing, almost alien to modern man. No ambient traffic sounds or thrum of humanity or jet trails in the sky. The moon couldn’t get any fuller, and it lit the landscape with cruel brilliance. Sam treaded a course from rock formation to rock formation. He climbed up on a massive boulder to get a better view of the land and call again for Dean, and at one point, swore he saw something glowing on the horizon. He prayed it was a town or a camp, not just wishful thinking tricking his eyes into seeing things that weren’t there. He’d had quite enough of hallucinating in this lifetime. Though, after Lucifer’s running commentary on every fucking aspect of Sam’s tragic existence, the quiet of the desert was practically a vacuum, unsettling in the opposite way.
The stars drifted overhead, indicating Sam was heading north. His feet were beginning to drag, catching on corners of rocks, scrubby tufts of flora and sometimes, thin air. He had long since passed the point of hunger—now it was just a dull, bilious ache in his middle—but he was desperately thirsty. And God, he was cold. Something howled far off in the aether, and while Sam wanted it to be a wolf, he couldn’t call it that with much certainty. The sound was too human. He’d read somewhere that coyote or fox could sound human, but he also knew monsters could too. Wendigo were especially crafty mimics, and don’t even get him started on skinwalkers.
The third time he nearly face-planted into the earth, Sam decided to call it a night before he knocked out his own front teeth. He headed toward a substantial outcropping of stones and when he got close, he was guardedly encouraged to find a gap in the cleavage of two giant boulders and through that gap, a cave. It was deep and narrow, and he just barely fit through the opening without leaving some of his blistered skin behind.
The cave widened into a larger passage, though still too low for Sam to stand upright. He kept his hand to one wall, creeping forward as the thinnest ribbon of moonlight trickled through the dark. It was cramped and dotted with bats, but it was shelter and it finally dead-ended into a bulbous space almost six feet tall, ten feet wide. It would have to suffice as Sam’s dive motel for what remained of the night.
He pulled out his phone and flipped on the handy flashlight app. The device provided enough light to ensure he wasn’t sharing the cave with dangerous critters and allowed him to start a small fire with Chapter One of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and a small collection of dead plant material. Once the chill had been chased away, Sam’s camp was almost cozy. Guano notwithstanding.
It was so damned quiet. The small fire managed to crackle and spit occasionally, but silence overwhelmed it and not even the echoes off the cave walls stood a chance. Sam felt smothered and dizzy and his nose stung from the unvented smoke. He settled carefully against one wall, at a smooth spot, struggling in vain to find comfort. Exhaustion tugged at his eyelids but he managed to set the alarm on his watch. Five hours rest, and then he had to keep moving while it was cool.
He wondered about Dean, where he was, if he was making his way through the desert too. If he was still in Utah, bedded down for the night in a derelict house, staring at the walls, sleepless. If he’d found a liquor store the Leviathan hadn’t touched and was drunk into oblivion.
Mostly, he just missed him. And wondered.
No one knew what was going on but Dean, and even he was stunned silent. He’d seen skinwalkers drop their hide into piles of snotty matter and hair, seen corpses move in ways bodies really shouldn’t, but this was … this was a man shedding his humanity and becoming a mindless, rabid thing, made of muscle and magic and hate, right before his eyes.
The man’s torso churned and expanded to the sound of flesh stretching, creaking. His wails lowered into guttural snarls and the clothing split into shreds, away from the sheer bulk of what he was becoming.
And what the fuck was he becoming? Dean’s brain raced through its mental tome of monsters and there was simply nothing that matched this description. His best guess was werewolf, so that would have to work as a starting point. But this hairy-scary was far unlike any werewolf he’d hunted before.
The men in the far cell pressed themselves against the bars and screamed. They begged for release but the deputy wouldn’t come within ten feet of the locked door. He had taken the keys off his belt, however, and was gripping them in a trembling fist. He’d also pissed himself, a dark stain spreading from the crotch of his trousers.
Metal rattled and wood groaned, but the cell held firm. Dean felt Lom quivering beside him, and one glance confirmed the piano man was a heartbeat away from passing out.
The probable werewolf made a low noise in its throat that almost sounded like amusement, and raised itself up to stand on twisted hind legs, newly-formed eartips brushing the ceiling. Hair—stiff, mangy and thickening—was visibly sprouting from what remained of its human flesh and Dean saw the flash of claws, each as big as his thumb, swipe at one of the screaming men. In a spray of red, the screaming stopped.
That was bad enough, but what bothered Dean further was the man who had come up behind the creature, the same guy who’d busted Dean’s nose when he’d first timewarped into Nevada. The asshole wasn’t terrified or fixing to crack the werewolf upside the head with a piss bucket. He was cupping his hands in the beam of moonlight, like it was a mountain stream. He began trembling and breathing rough. And then he grinned with a mouth full of long, sharp, yellowed teeth.
“Oh, hell no.” Dean made a snap decision. “Open the doors,” he yelled at the deputy, but the man stumbled into his desk, almost toppling the lantern. “Open the God-damned doors!”
“Open the doors, Seth!” Lom pleaded, trying to be brave and the fact he spoke at all boded well for his untested courage.
Deputy Seth’s glassy-eyed gaze skittered over to Lom and he threw the keys. They jangled across the floor, stopping short of the cell, and then he ran. He bolted out of the jail like his ass was on fire.
Dean lunged his arm through the bars but his bicep stopped him cold, the ring of iron keys a good foot out of reach. He strained until his already battered face throbbed and the bars pressed bruises into his arm. No dice. Shitty time to be well-muscled. Across the room, men were still screaming and Dean smelled the cloying odor of blood and ammonia in the air. His throat tightened with the urge to vomit. Hissing, he pulled back and quickly rolled the ache out of his shoulder. He shot a glare to Harper and his gang of two.
“Please tell me one of you fucknuts have got … uh …”
They were all staring at him with eyes that glimmered gold as though caught in the headlights of a truck. Reflective. Like wolves.
Dean snapped his bootknife free of its ankle sheath and prepared to be knee-deep in bad luck.
He figured from observation that direct moonlight was an accelerant. Since the sole pair of windows in the joint was on the opposite wall, he had time before the other infected men—though he definitely balked at the notion that they were human any longer—morphed into killing machines.
Without taking his eyes off of Harper and company, he reached back and grabbed Lom by his thread-bare shirt, pulling him forward. A fleeting look confirmed that Lom was still just a regular joe, albeit on the verge of full-blown panic.
“Do you have anything silver on you, anything at all?” Dean said, low and fast.
Lom tore at his collar and pulled free a chain with a crude charm on the end. St. Jude. Funny.
Lom bobbled his head.
“Awesome.” Dean sniped. “Get the keys. I’ll buy us time.” He bounced the weight of the knife in his palm and forced himself to push the sound of men dying in the other cell out of his mind.
Harper leered at Dean and his knife. He didn’t look the least bit concerned; he looked twitchy and eager, eyes the color of doubloons and getting lighter by the second. “Dandy pigsticker,” he lisped, distorting mouth making speech slippery.
“Come get you some,” Dean taunted.
Harper, coward that he was, shoved the nameless kid forward into range and Dean didn’t waste the opportunity. The kid was off-balance and scratching at his own skin; Dean sliced without discretion. The blade caught Nameless under the chin and it sizzled when the silver plating touched the magic in the werewolf.
Harper and Bales had the smarts to back off. The kid shrieked, wild-eyed. Blood fountained out of the gap in his throat, through clutching fingers. He made gurgling noises and red bubbled bright over his lips. Dean grabbed a fistful of greasy hair and forced him onto his back, pinning him to the floor with a knee to his bony chest. The knife clutched in both hands, Dean plunged it into Nameless’ heart. He felt ribs snap. The glow fell out of the kid’s stare like a streetlight flickering dark.
Dean yanked the knife out of the body and leveled the dripping blade at Harper and Bales. “Lom … keys …”
“Al-almost!” Lom sounded breathless and Dean figured the piano man had been lanky enough to squeeze more of his arm through the bars. He heard the clink of metal and the scramble of boots.
Harper snarled, incapable of forming words any longer, his shoulders beginning to lump and roll on their own accord. Bales was already tearing at his coat, his face some smeary combination of beast and man. Both were markedly filling the space with muscle and the powerful stink of dog.
Swaying the knife and balancing lightly on the balls of his feet, Dean was readying for the next volley of stupid when the whole building rocked. Lom gasped and fumbled more desperately with the keys in the lock. The fully formed werewolves in the other cell were launching themselves at the bars. Prison, circa 1870, was not in any way prepared to contain giant, man-eating, pissed-off fleabags.
Another slam, and mortar flew in bits across the jail. Wood splintered. Dust rained down from the roof. Bales howled and the pitch made Dean’s skin prickle.
The fiend that had been Harper shook itself, slavering. As Lom flung open the cell door, the jail house careened one last time and the other cell exploded outwards, ruined. The force sent the deputy’s lamp crashing off the desk; it struck the floor, kerosene splashing wide and fire devouring the dry wood.
The werewolves flinched away from the flames, almost as one unit, and this gave Dean and Lom the opening to run like madmen.
And run, they did.