Chapter 1 - 2007
The car keys are warm in Dean’s fist. The serrated edge feels good against the roughened skin of his palm, like scratching an itch. He slides the key into the ignition without looking; hears the passenger door groan open and feels the cushion sink as his brother drops heavily into the front seat beside him. Sam looks better today, a little color in his cheeks, not moving so stiffly.
It’s a challenge they face more often than Dean can count – wanting to get the hell outta Dodge, as far away as possible, but at the same time needing to stop for medical attention and recovery time. Where do you draw the line?
Black Rock? Well, even though they’ve destroyed the cursed rabbit’s foot, it’s too dangerous to stick around. Not with that psycho hunter Kubrick determined to execute Sam, not to mention that trigger-happy bitch Bela. The only good thing about Black Rock had been discovering their father’s storage unit, and the things they’d found worth saving. But for the rest? They’ll put Black Rock in the rear view mirror as fast as they can and head west.
Eventually though, long before Dean has tired of the road and the infamous Ohio speed traps, he notices Sam’s contributions to the conversation becoming more and more monosyllabic, and Sam’s knuckles blanching where they grip his wounded shoulder. Dean takes the exit for Painesville without comment and books a room at the Limberlost Motel. By the time he’s unloaded what they need from the car, Sam has obligingly passed out on one of the beds. He sleeps through Dean’s inventory - scraped and bloodied hands and knees, a concussion, bruises from being tied up and beaten, mild burns on his right arm. And a not-so-mild bullet hole in his left.
Nothing too serious, but the sheer accumulation of trauma means Sam sleeps for most of a day. Not counting the bleary-eyed mumbled answers when Dean pokes him awake every two hours to make sure his brain isn’t damaged. "How many prime numbers between 25 and 50?" (Because Dean totally could have been a mathlete in school, too, if he’d wanted.)
Dean, on the other hand, doesn’t get much sleep himself. He mostly sits on the next bed and watches his little brother breathe.
For someone bigger than a lot of NFL football players, it was amazing how Sam could look like he was six years old sometimes. Black Rock was kindergarten all over again. When they're safe in the motel and the drugs wipe away the lines of pain, Sam snuffles into his pillow and Dean feels like he is ten years old again. Fiercely pretending to be more brave and strong than he really is, so that his little brother will feel safe.
It was never a conscious thought or spoken promise - just something Dean had known all his life. He would stand vigil over Sam, would have Sam’s back, as long as Sam needed him.
And now, he is going to break that promise in just a few more months. Sam will be alone.
But Dean can’t let himself think about that.
Black Rock had put Sam through the ringer, but Dean figures at least it took Sam’s mind off getting Dean out of the Crossroads Deal. They need to find a new hunt now, something mentally challenging to keep Sam occupied, so he won’t persist in risking his stupid neck to save his brother.
That’s always been Dean’s modus operandi: unless it’s something to hunt, if it’s unpleasant or has potentially dire consequences – you ignore it or avoid it. That’s worked pretty well for him, his whole life. He isn’t going to let himself dwell on when his contract is up, and he’s got to distract Sam from that, too.
Dean would never admit this, but sometimes he just lets the Impala pick a direction. He trusts her. And suspects she has a nose for good pie.
And this is how they end up crossing the state line on SR 427 instead of I-90, and are now sitting in a booth at Mrs. Wick’s Pie Shop in the wee village of Hamilton, Indiana.
Sam’s not picky about pie, but he's always been a compulsive reader, reading cereal boxes and bulletin boards when nothing better is at hand. While Dean salivates over the menu with childlike delight, Sam stretches his long arm over the back of the booth and picks up an abandoned copy of the weekly Hamilton News that was left on the cracked vinyl seat behind them.
Hamilton has a population of just 684, so front-page news turns out to be pretty tame stuff. The big exposé is an investigative report on a summer’s worth of vandalism. But one of the incidents reported occurred in the local cemetery. That sort of thing always tickles a Winchester’s curiosity.
Unless, of course, there is pie.
"Hey, Dean. Take a look." Sam passes the paper across the table, folded over to show the photo of a broken limestone slab lying on the ground.
Dean gives it a glance, then returns his attention to his forkful of Mrs. Wick’s famous Sugar Crème Pie, hovering inches from his mouth. A case is exactly what he wants Sam to get interested in. But he knows his brother. The best way to get Sam really invested in the job is to appear disinterested, make his pre-law brother build a case to support the merits of the hunt.
Besides. Dean has his priorities. There’s pie.
"Just because a tombstone falls over is no reason to think it’s something supernatural," he says, around a mouthful of heaven-sent pastry. "It could be erosion." He swallows, closes his eyes in bliss for a moment. Then he digs in for another forkful. "Or maybe the paper is right and it’s a prank," he adds. "Some kids found out cow tipping is just a hoax, so they’re venting their energy in the cemetery instead."
Sam ignores his own slice of Dutch apple pie – Dean had ordered it for him when he’d protested he wasn’t very hungry - and reaches for the coffee instead. "Maybe. But we both know how much work it is to dig up a grave. Would kids have taken the trouble to do that, and then steal the body?"
"There’s no body?" Dean’s eyes light up, crinkling into little crows’ feet at the corners. This has suddenly progressed from being a probable-waste-of-time-but it’ll-keep-Sammy-busy case into something that could be genuine fun. "You think maybe we got some zombie action going on here?"
Dean’s glee is contagious. Sam’s dimples flash as his smile spreads to mirror his brother’s. It’s been awhile, so those face muscles ache at the stretch, but it’s a good ache. "How about we find out?"
The whole village is just a few square blocks. The cemetery sits at one end of Church Street. At the other end is a small whitewashed church, windows and doors thrown wide open to encourage any breeze to relieve the late summer heat. Faint strains of a hymn float toward them.
They decide to leave the car parked where it is, in front of Mrs. Wick’s, and just walk. As they step out of the restaurant, Dean stops on the sidewalk and tilts his head back. The cloudless sky is a rich shade of vivid blue they usually only see in the Southwest. The sun is high and bright and Dean closes his eyes for a moment to savor the warmth on his face. It reminds him of the one summer he got to play Little League. He can almost smell the freshly mown grass on the diamond, the leather of the baseball glove Dad had magically produced.
Looking back, he remembers the Winchester family that the djinn had shown him - and discovering a John Winchester that loved playing softball. Dean believes that memory now. Understands that John wasn’t just indulging Dean that summer, he was sharing something with him.
Sam stops on the curb and waits for his brother but doesn’t say a word. Dean looks happy, he thinks. After a moment Dean opens his eyes and moves on.
Dean likes playing with numbers, always has. When they get to the cemetery, he promptly guesses that the dead outnumber the living in Hamilton. Still, there are less than 1000 graves, he reckons. It won’t take as long to look for the broken headstone they’ve seen a photo of, in the daylight, as it would to try read 1000 stone markers by flashlight at night, looking for a name.
Sam sees it first. Dean swats the back of his head, says with a grin that Sam’s height gave him an unfair advantage.
The tombstone, they discover when they’re crouching beside it, reveals a name for the deceased - Leamon Griffith - but no dates. It’s next to another grave marker, three feet tall, that says ‘John Griffith’ along one side and ‘his wife Jemima’ on the other. John died in 1860; age 47. Jemima was apparently born the same year as John, but lived to the ripe old age of 71. Nearby there are several other Griffith graves, men and women and some children, born in the 1830’s and 1840’s.
It’s clear that something had dug (or clawed?) the earth loose in the family plot, even though the dirt has since been shoveled back. It’s not covered by healthy green grass like the rest of the grounds, but at least Leamon’s grave no longer gapes like an open wound.
Hamilton isn’t big enough to have a library or even a motel, so the boys head for Auburn, the county capital, in search of both. It’s the sort of stereotypical Midwestern city with an old-fashioned town square, dead quiet on a late Sunday afternoon, and Sam tells Dean to pull over when he sees the 70-foot tall monument gracing the center.
"You sure?" Dean wants Sam to get back to hunting, sure, but he doesn’t want him to push it. Sam was too weak to get out of bed without help just a day ago. Who knows what complications might have set in from Sam’s injuries while under the curse of that damned rabbit’s foot? Maybe they should take it easy on their first day out, get Sam tucked into bed (without realizing he’s being manipulated, of course), and then pick up the research tomorrow.
But Sam seems almost back to his old eager, crime-solving self, and just nods emphatically, pointing out a convenient place to park. So Dean concedes and guides the Impala to a smooth stop. He follows on Sam’s heels as his brother jogs across the street to the monument, and Dean quickly realizes it’s a Civil War memorial. He remembers noticing regimental and military company data carved on one or two of the headstones in the Griffith plot, too.
A large bronze plaque is mounted on each of the four sides at the base of the monument. Dean’s fingers brush the engraved lettering on the first one slowly, like a man learning to read Braille.
Sam doesn’t think Dean even realizes he is doing it - savoring the taste and smell and touch of the most mundane activities. He’d expected his brother to be in a constant hurry, rushing to fill each hour of his last year with as much action as he could. But Dean isn’t. It’s Sam who wants to get the business of hunting done quickly, so he’ll have more time to spend looking for a way out of Dean’s deal.
Dean … is lingering. As if letting go of each moment hurts.
That thought hits Sam like a punch to the heart, stealing his breath for a moment.
What they are looking for isn’t found on the south side of the monument. Dean circles to the east. "Found a Griffith," he announces. "Initials B.F. In the 152nd Indiana Infantry."
"Leamon doesn’t start with a B, Dean," Sam reminds him.
"Leamon – rhymes with demon, huh? That’s what convinced you it’s our kinda gig?" Dean pops his head out from behind the monument, teeth flashing in a grin.
Sam just shakes his head. He knows Dean is just trying to provoke him; it’s what they do. A few months ago, Sam would have come up with an equally annoying retort. There was an unspoken familiarity and comfort in the bickering.
But not anymore. It’s not like it used to be. And in a few months, there won’t be any annoying banter at all.
Sam’s eyes suddenly feel hot and stinging and he has to look away. His gaze scans the quaint town square, the historic courthouse, and then travels up the length of the memorial, to the statue of Lady Columbia at the top, brandishing a flag in one hand and a wreath of peace in the other.
Peace. The 1278 names on four bronze plaques listing Steuben County’s Civil War Roll of Honor – they’re at peace now, he supposes. But maybe one isn’t, after all.
When he looks down again, Dean is out of sight, hidden by one of the four statues of Union soldiers standing sentry at the base of the monument.
"Got a Lewis Griffith here," Dean calls out from the north side. "44th Regiment, Indiana Volunteer Infantry."
Sam doesn’t answer, just squints down at his notes. The words seem a little blurry.
"Bingo." Dean stops at the fourth and final plaque. "Griffith, Leamon. 74th Indiana Infantry. Weird-ass name like that – gotta be the same dude. Think all these Griffiths were related?"
"Griffith’s a pretty common name," Sam says, shrugging one shoulder. "If they were brothers, wouldn’t they sign up in the same company?" Because brothers – they belong together, right? They’re supposed to fight the enemy side by side.
"I dunno. The war lasted four years. Maybe each brother signed up at different times, when they each turned 18 or something, and that’s why they wound up in different regiments."
"Does it say if Leamon was killed in the service?"
Dean looks again. "Nope. An awful lot of them were, though. But I guess it doesn’t matter." He straightens reluctantly.
"What do you mean?"
"Dude, even if he died an old man, that was probably 100 years ago."
"So. Not juicy enough any more to be a zombie." Dean shakes his head sadly.
"Oh. Hey, sorry, man." Sam is all sympathy, carefully schooling his features to suppress the fact that new ideas have just started spinning like the faces of a Rubik’s Cube in his agile mind.
At first, the news article was just an idle suggestion for something to do. Force of habit, almost. Suddenly, though, Sam is beginning to see the potential for something much more vital.
The body is missing.
There’s no evidence that anyone took it – or any pieces of it – according to the police report quoted in the newspaper. And it isn’t lurching around the village like an extra from Shaun of the Dead.
The bones are missing, the dates on the tombstone are missing, because …
Possibly because Leamon Griffith was MIA and never made it home from the Civil War at all. Whoever set that headstone probably didn’t know how or when Leamon died. But someone cared enough to want closure that he or she put up a marker, out of grief or out of guilt. It doesn’t matter which.
And now Leamon Griffith is a restless spirit. Why? Sam wonders.
He might have deserted. Abandoned his mates and slipped off to a life of shame that haunted him after his death.
He might have been captured - become one of the thousands of soldiers who died in one of the infamous hellholes of a prison camp, starved and beaten and eventually lost in the paperwork.
He might have been one of the wounded who was trapped in the burning underbrush. Unable to drag themselves to safety, some soldiers in the Civil War had been burned alive, beyond recognition.
Or - he may just have been obliterated … demolished by artillery fire, or fallen in terrain so choked with thickets that his remains were never found, gnawed to shreds by the scavengers of the forest.
A man who had gone through any of those might well become a restless spirit after death.
And Sam – he has plans for a restless spirit. Especially for a spirit without bones in the immediate vicinity.
Without thinking about it, he slides one hand under his jacket, reaching into his breast pocket. His hand shakes a little; he’s probably still a little weak. His fingers close on the suede cover of an old journal he had noticed in their father’s storage room in Black Rock, a slim volume that he’d thumbed through quickly and then slipped into his pocket to be studied later. A book of secrets; a book he is not ready to share with his brother. Not yet.
He sighs and lets his hands fall to his sides as he follows Dean back to the car.
Dean is right – Sam is pretty wiped out by the time they get back to their room, and crashes hard while it’s still light out. Dean figures, no zombie - no case. They’ll probably head out on the road again in the morning. Maybe give Bobby a call later to see if he has any whiffs of a hunt. Meanwhile, Dean can enjoy a beer, find out if there are any hot chicks around, and maybe hustle some pool. They could use some hard cash to restock their first aid kit – patching up Sammy this week really put a dent in their medical supplies.
It’s just past midnight when Sam shifts in his sleep and a sharp pain in his shoulder yanks him awake. There’s enough light getting past the curtains from the street lamps in the parking lot that he can see Dean’s bed is empty. For a moment, he’s disoriented, still caught in tendrils of dreaming that a year has passed and Dean is gone and he's alone. Grief slams into him and he starts to tremble, staring at the empty bed; fights not to fall apart completely. As his eyes adjust to the near darkness, he notices a bottle of Advil on the nightstand, and a note propped against a glass of water.
Sam releases a shuddering breath. He gathers himself together, and buries the shaky emotions deep like he's done most of his life, hidden under a deliberate academic resolve. He downs a couple capsules, clicks on the lamp, and reaches under the bed for the stolen journal. Without any witnesses to object, he fans the pages and finds his place to continue studying the spells inside.
In the morning, with a fatter wallet straining the back pocket of his jeans and almost no hangover, Dean drives them back to Mrs. Wick’s Pies for breakfast. Sam chats up their waitress while Dean’s at the cash register paying the bill. That’s not unusual when they’re working a case, Dean thinks, but he’s not so sure they have one now. It’s not like Sam to be cruising for a hook-up, though.
And it’s not like Sam to hit on young moms with toddlers in the disposable diaper aisle of the village pharmacy (while Dean is juggling an armload of drugs and bandages two aisles over). And Sam definitely wouldn’t have been trying to score with an old pipe-chewing codger named Harlow (while Dean fills the gas tank and checks the oil).
No. Sam is clearly interviewing. Fact-finding. For some reason, the lack of zombies hasn’t discouraged Sam at all. He’s still intrigued.
Dean is glad to have Sam focusing on something other than the Crossroads Deal – but he does have to admit to some reservations. First of all, there are no hot chicks in town. Maybe he hasn’t been looking in the right places, but seriously? It shouldn’t be this hard. Second of all, he still hasn’t seen anything more solid than a broken tombstone and a disturbed grave. Isn’t there supposed to be someone who needs saving? (From something other than boredom?) And finally, he keeps looking over his shoulder, worried about that damn Jesus Freak hunter. Kubrick had shown an uncanny ability to track them down and Dean would feel better if they kept on the move.
"I think there’s something goin’ on here, Dean," is what Sam says.
They're sitting at a picnic table where the country road hugs Hamilton Lake, a little oasis of sunlight, surrounded by trees. Dean enjoys the sun on the back of his ears as he drops his head to open the bags of fast food. "Okay, shoot," he says, passing Sam his order.
"Remember that little clapboard church we saw yesterday morning?" Sam unwraps his burger; feels his stomach rumble and realizes he’s hungry for the first time in days. "They started having flickering power surges. Quit running their fan ‘cause they’re afraid it’s a safety hazard, but they haven’t found anything wrong yet."
"Mmmmm hmmm." Dean has both hands wrapped around a giant burger overflowing with extras and sinks his teeth in.
"There’s an abandoned one-room schoolhouse on the edge of town," Sam adds. "Hasn’t been used in a century. But right after the vandalism in the cemetery, folks started hearing noises coming from it. Seeing shadows at the windows."
Dean uncaps a long-necked beer bottle with his ring, passes it to his brother, and opens another for himself. "Okay. It does sound creepy - like our kinda gig. But nobody’s actually getting hurt or anything, right?"
Sam scratches the healing burn on his arm. "Not yet – unless you count old Harlow. He says there’s something haunting State Road 1. You can’t see it if you look straight at it, but sometimes, out of the corner of your eye, you can catch a glimpse of something coming toward you. Last month, he drove his car off the road when that happened; ended up in the ER in Angola."
"Maybe the old geezer is just too old to still be driving," Dean says.
Sam huffs. "I didn’t think you’d ever admit that it was possible for anyone to be too old to drive."
"Well, of course, I’ll never be too old," Dean starts to say. Then he cuts off as he sees Sam’s smile dissolve; watches him turn away, tight-lipped.
"It’s just," Dean starts again, pauses. "It’s pretty thin, Sammy."
"It’s the timing, Dean. The dates when it started." Sam shoves his food away, looks out over the lake where all is still and quiet and tries to let that sense of calm flow into him. "All these signs started appearing in early May." He turned back to Dean. "Just after we opened the Devil’s Gate."
"You’re saying… What? That Leamon Griffith is - a demon?"
Sam isn’t aware that he is scrunching up a paper napkin. "I don’t know. I mean… look. Not everything that got out was a demon. We saw… we saw Dad…" He looks down, sees the wadded ball of paper in his clenched fingers and shakes them out before he takes a deep breath. "I just wanna check it out."
"Okay, okay." Dean tilts his head agreeably and steals several of Sam’s fries. So maybe other things got out of hell, he thinks. Like what? If a ghost is a spirit trapped between life and afterlife, what is it when it’s not ‘between’; if it’s already in hell? And now that it’s out again – now that it’s ‘between’ (which apparently Sam thinks might be their fault, for opening the gate) - how can they send it back, when there are no bones to salt and burn?
This is making his head hurt.
But Sam seems committed to this, so Dean will give in. He just wants Sam to be happy. And pre-occupied.
Sam exhales his breath slowly. He isn’t sure why Dean is giving in, but he’ll take it. If he’d had to, he would have played the Lisa Braden card. He’d acquiesced that time, let Dean pick a case in Cicero, Indiana that was based on even more skimpy evidence, just so Dean could hook up again with a bendy yoga instructor. Of course, it was Ruby who’d told Sam there really was a case in Cicero… and Sam doesn’t want to mention her.
Ruby is the whole reason Sam wants this hunt. But he can’t let Dean know that.
It’s a warm evening, but not warm enough to warrant the sweat trickling down Sam’s face, especially since he’s left his jacket behind. He’s wearing a gray Henley that had been white once, but he’s not wearing the two or three layers he usually piles on. Dean notices then that Sam is carrying his satchel on his right shoulder, when normally he would throw it over his left, to keep his right arm free. Dean gnaws the corner of his lip, giving a slight headshake. He’ll have to check the wound later. Sam had still been under the rabbit’s foot curse when Bela shot him – it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine complications like infection.
For now, he shrugs off his own jacket and bends to the task of wrestling the broken monument slab until it lies level on the ground. Then Sam draws the two chalk circles across the limestone surface, one inside the other. The five points of the pentagram touch the inner circle, and a votive candle is placed at each point.
The plan, Sam had explained, is to summon Leamon’s spirit. Sometimes a spirit is simply lost or confused, like Molly had been. Like Father Gregory. Sam says he thinks maybe he can talk to Leamon, convince him to ‘let go’, to ‘move on’ before anything more serious does happen to anyone.
Dean isn’t quite so confident that this Griffith will be a friendly spirit. Maybe he’s a whack job who went to hell because he was a traitor or a deserter, and that’s why his gravestone didn’t have his military info etched onto it like so many other veterans’ gravestones did. If that is why, he probably won’t be too interested in baring his soul for atonement. So Dean stands watch, with sawed-off shotgun and rock salt, ready. It’s habit by now. Someone needs to perform the ritual, but someone else needs to stand guard against the things that don’t want to play nice.
He tries not to worry about who will watch Sam’s back after he’s gone.
There is a snap and a flare and a hissing sound as Sam lights the first candle. The air is pungent with some herbs that Dean doesn’t recognize, growing stronger as each candle sparks to life. He looks at his brother; sees Sam regarding him with a familiar wordless question. You ready?
Dean glances quickly at the area surrounding them. Under the full moon, there are no shadows moving. The cemetery is perfectly still. He nods.
Sam reaches back into the satchel, opens a slim leather-bound book. Not Dad’s journal, Dean notices with surprise. An old skeleton key, strung on a thin rawhide strip knotted at the ends, serves as a bookmark. Iron adds protection to spells, Dean knows. Sam kneels beside the grave and dangles the key over the pentagram. It begins to move in slow deliberate circles, counter clockwise, as he reads from the weathered page.
A wind picks up, whipping Sam’s hair in his eyes, but he keeps reading. A sudden gust is strong enough to rock Dean on his heels, and dead leaves and graveyard dirt became airborne, swirling around them, making their eyes water. Still,Sam reads on. The pages in the book flutter; Sam presses the book down with one hand to keep it open where he needs. The key spins faster, twisting furiously on its tether, as if it’s struggling to get free from its bonds.
The sound of the wind rises, like the shriek of a banshee. And then –
In the space between one breath and the next, Dean is completely blind. And deaf. And the next breath simply won’t come.
He is smothering in black wool.
No, steel wool.
Scouring the skin from his bones. But he can’t scream; his ribs strain helplessly to draw air into his lungs.
His blood is sluggish, frozen in his veins, but it’s a cold so sharp it burns, like acid.
His second-to-last conscious thought is that this is hell, and it’s too early.
His last conscious thought is that if it is hell, then he should be alone. Sammy isn’t going to hell; he can’t be in this agony, too.
Chapter 2 – September 19, 1863, 1:00 a.m.
Once, a long time ago, in upstate New York, Dad had gone out for awhile but he hadn’t come back, and Dean and Sammy were lost in a winter storm. A complete white-out. Dean could see the condensation in front of his face with each labored breath. He could see frozen snot on Sam’s sleeve from wiping his runny nose. But he couldn’t see the road, or the ditch that ran alongside of the road. He’d set his foot down where the ground gave way, lost his balance, and tumbled, flailing, down the embankment.
He’d lost hold of Sammy’s hand.
Everything stopped then, too. He didn’t hear the crack of ice, didn’t feel the frigid water starting to soak through his clothes. He didn’t let himself sense anything until he heard Sammy crying his name.
Dean blinked. He was lying on his back, still clutching his shotgun, staring up at the moon overhead. The sky had changed. The moon wasn’t full like it was supposed to be. There were more stars than before.
None of that mattered.
"Dean?" A single word whispered softly as a prayer, close by.
He shut his eyes, relief warming the ice in his limbs, and gave a weak thumbs-up in reply. Then he opened his eyes again. He wasn’t in hell, he wasn’t in a blizzard, and he wasn’t alone.
They weren’t alone.
In the darkness, Dean made out a man-sized lump lying on the ground a few feet away. Just beyond that, another. It made a noise like a snore and burrowed deeper into its shadow. As his eyes adjusted, Dean saw scores of men in dark uniforms sprawled on the ground like a kindergarten class taking a nap. One soldier wearing corporal stripes on his sleeve crept quietly among his colleagues, nudging a knee or a shoulder, urging them to rise again.
"Shoot, Griffith, we just laid down! We ain’t gonna march all night, are we?" one man grumbled, but used his musket to leverage himself up to his feet.
Dean’s eyes widened at the name, and he turned to find Sam reaching a hand out to him, clasping his forearm to help him up. Dean hoped his own face didn’t have the same stupid look of stunned disbelief that Sam’s did.
Another voice cut through the night. "What about your brother? You get word back from Lew yet?"
The corporal paused to snatch something that dangled from his neck like dog tags and tucked it underneath his shirt. His answer was a terse "No" as he moved on to the next shadow on the ground.
Men – hundreds of them - staggered into formation: four across, rows upon rows lining up on a dirt road, as far as the eye could see. Ahead, scouts were setting fire to split rail fences to light their way.
Dean spotted a bayonet and canteen near a particularly heavy sleeper. He made eye contact with Sam, then scooped them up and disappeared without a sound into the trees. A minute later, he heard Griffith shaking the hapless private, and the youngster cursing in a panic because he couldn’t find his gear.
"You got yer musket, Latson?" Griffith grunted at him. "That’s all you need right now. Just git yer ass up and movin’, son."
"But… I gotta have my canteen!" The boy’s hands continued to scrabble through the dry leaves at his feet.
"The war ain’t gonna wait for you, son." Griffith tugged at Latson’s elbow, set the boy on his feet. The kid looked like a scrawny scarecrow, with patches on pants that stopped above his ankles. He must have hit a growth spurt after enlisting.
For a moment, Griffith stood there, hovering, while the boy scrubbed his hands nervously on his trousers. Then he took off his own canteen. "Okay, Charlie. Look. Don’t worry about it. Take mine."
The boy stared, and Griffith pushed it toward him. "Go on, take it. You know you can count on H Company, right? We take care of our own."
Latson reached out a tentative hand and took the canteen, slinging the strap over his shoulder.
"I’ll be wanting it back," Griffith said gruffly. "So that means you can’t go getting yourself shot or captured or anything. Understood?"
A weak smile flitted across Charlie Latson’s pockmarked face and he nodded. "I won’t. You think… um... you think we’re gonna run into some Rebs?"
"They’re clear on the other side of the Chickamauga Creek," Griffith told him. "If we’re lucky – if you quit holdin’ us up! – we’ll get wherever we’re goin’ before they can cut us off." He shoved the boy toward the column with a rueful shake of his head and gave the woods one last glance, checking for any other stragglers.
Dean froze in the shadows, knowing that movement would betray him more surely than anything he wore or carried. As soon as Griffith turned his back, Dean melted deeper into the trees.
When he was certain they wouldn’t be overheard, he dropped the canteen and bayonet and spun on Sam, not surprised to find his brother on his heels. "What the hell is going on here, Sam?" he hissed. "We were supposed to be summoning the spirit of Leamon Griffith to us. Not the other way around!"
"This can’t be happening," Sam whispered. His knuckles were white where they clenched the old journal, and his face was so pale Dean was surprised that it didn’t give their position away. "It isn’t possible."
"That book - with the summoning spell. Where did it come from?" Dean grabbed it out of Sam’s hand and the proverbial light bulb snapped on. "Don’t tell me. You lifted it from Dad’s storage locker in New York, didn’t you?" The words were forced through gritted teeth. "Tell me it wasn’t on the same Toxic Waste Dump shelves as those damned Do-Not-Touch-Under-Pain-of-Death curse boxes?"
Sam winced a little.
Dean threw his sawed-off shotgun to the ground. "Well, rock salt isn't gonna do us a damn bit of good here! How the hell are we gonna dispel Griffith’s spirit when he’s not a friggin’ spirit?"
Sam was silent, and Dean had never seen him shocked speechless before. He was staring at the iron key still dangling from his fingers as if it held the answer.
"Look, okay. We can still fix this," Sam said finally. "Griffith’s grave didn’t have any dates on it. Just a name, right? How often do we ever see that?" His brow furrowed, thinking aloud. "That has to be significant," Sam continued. "Someone obviously cared enough to put up a marker, but no regiment, no dates… Why didn’t they know when he died?"
Dean stared at him, slack-jawed.
"What if Griffith never came home? Maybe... what if there were rumors he deserted?" Sam went on, undeterred. "We’ve seen it before – a spirit that's restless because he was falsely accused. Remember the ghost of Lonnie Stephens, in Alabama?"
Dean frowned. Following Sam’s train of thought sometimes was like a particularly exasperating puzzle of connect-the-dots. "I think maybe you should cut back on those pain meds, Sammy."
"I’m not doped up, Dean!" Sam’s arms flew out – wingspan like a condor with a bum wing. "Suppose Griffith’s spirit can’t move on for something like that. We just stick close to him, find out what really happened, and then we can use the reverse spell to go back."
"Yeah, reverse spell. I don’t know what else to call it. The key gives the words the power to open the portal." Sam dropped his arms, ducking his head to drape the key on its rawhide noose around his neck. "The iron is for protection. The first part of the incantation brought us here. The second part should take us back."
"And then what? Etch ‘RIP’ on his grave, so he’ll know he can Rest In Peace and move on? C’mon, Sam!"
"I don’t know. Maybe we carve his death date and regiment on his tombstone! His spirit sees that, he’s appeased, and doesn’t have any reason to haunt the locals any more. He’ll move on, like Molly did. Like Father Gregory." Sam took a deep breath. "Look, Dean – have you got a better idea?"
"Yeah, Sammy, I do. My idea is that this whole thing is just a fevered hallucination because your damn shoulder got infected. And you should just wake the hell up!"
"Keep it down!" Sam batted the air with the palms of his hands. "Fine. Even if you’re right – and you’re not - what harm can there be in trying it my way until I wake up. Okay? Just in case?"
"And I suppose we’ve gotta do this without changing anything? Like that Star Trek episode when Kirk had to let the charity worker chick die, or else Hitler would win?" Dean dropped his head in his hand. "I can’t believe I just said that."
"Actually in quantum mechanics, theories of a parallel universe - like an alternate timeline - are considered at least as plausible as going backward or forward on a single time line," Sam said. "And avoids the whole predestination paradox issue."
Dean clapped a hand over Sam’s mouth and dragged him behind a tree. Sam froze.
Moments passed. There was nothing but the distant sound of the Union Army advancing north. "What did you hear?" Sam whispered, when Dean finally dropped his hand.
Dean smirked. "Nothin’. Just always wanted to do that when you get your Geek Boy act on."
"Dude – what are you? Seven?" Sam hissed.
"Seriously, Sam." Dean lowered his own voice to match. "This is the freakin’ Civil War. People are gonna die here. Excuse me for sounding unheroic, but I don’t want the body count to include you or me."
"You can’t have it both ways, Dean. If your theory is true, and it’s all just a dream, then we’ve got nothing to lose if we try it my way. In fact, if I get killed in my dream, that would just wake me up and you’ll get your wish. Right?"
"Still don’t like it," Dean muttered. But he was confident about being right. ‘Cause if they had traveled back in time, like Sam proposed, then they’d be naked as Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator movies. So clearly – dream sequence here.
Which reminded him… He glanced at the stolen canteen and bayonet at their feet, along with his now useless shotgun. "You grab anything?"
Sam tossed his loot alongside. "Yeah. When one guy stepped away for a call of nature, I sort of absconded with this." There was a blanket and a kepi-style forage cap.
"Absconded, huh? Geek…" Dean thought a second, then tucked the stolen journal under his belt at the small of his back. Next, he took the bayonet and ripped a hole in the center of the blanket, turning it into a poncho. "Saw some of the men wearing these over their uniforms, to keep warm," he explained. He pulled it over his head, welcoming the added protection from the nighttime chill. Normally, he’d have forced it on his younger brother, especially if he was worried about his health. But [a] Sam was still sweating and looking a little flushed, not shivering as Dean was, and [b] someone was going to have to slip incognito to the supply wagons and steal them some real uniforms and gear. Dean was already taller than most of the soldiers he’d seen, but Sam was a full foot taller than most of them. No, Dean was going to have to go undercover alone this time.
"You stay here," he said, settling the Union cap on his head. "You're too conspicuous. I’ll raid the wagon train and bring back what we need."
"Right. You’re going to find me again in 12 square miles of wilderness. In the dark."
"I will always find you, Sammy."
The words were flippant, but Sam swallowed hard, eyes pricking.
The word ‘always’ had caught in Dean’s throat a little, too. He gave a small cough to clear it. "I know exactly where we are, dude," he explained. "Griffith said we’re near the Chickamauga Creek. And I saw the one-room schoolhouse just ahead of us before we left the road. It’s near the Kelly farm."
Sam’s jaw might have dropped a little. "The … what?"
"You don’t remember, do you?" Dean paused to straighten the blanket so it fell evenly across his shoulders. "It’s a National Park now – I mean, in our time. Dad brought us here when you were, let me see… you’d have been just three, almost four. Lots of creepy supernatural stuff was reported hereabouts. Some nocturnal green-eyed monster, with fangs, according to old Cherokee lore. Even the park ranger reported seeing it near Snodgrass Hill. We never did find it, but Dad took the two of us all over the battlefield looking for it." Dean smiled wistfully. "Dad always did like his military history."
"And you remember that? From when you were, what, eight?"
"To each his own, little brother," Dean said. "You fill your gigantor brain with freakazoid stuff like quantum physics. I filled mine with maps and landmarks of places we’ve been. And stories Dad told." Dean slugged Sam lightly on his good shoulder. "Last time you were here, you kept climbing on the cannons. Sure hope you’ve outgrown that."
Dean was back in a couple hours, teeth gleaming in the moonlight in a satisfied smile. There was nothing like the adrenaline rush of not getting caught. But he stopped when he saw Sam huddled miserably under the same tree he’d left him, arms wrapped around his knees, shivering.
"Here." He held out a dark blue flannel fatigue jacket. "I swear, the Union factories don’t make anything near your size. But I heard there was a guy called Tiny in one of the ambulance wagons, and sure enough, he’s Paul Bunyan-size, too. His momma must’ve made him this special. So I stole it from his gear."
Sam climbed stiffly to his feet, wrinkling his nose. "He didn’t have smallpox or anything nasty like that, did he?"
"Measles. Don’t worry – we got our shots." Dean paused when he saw Sam grimace as he slid his left arm through the sleeve. "That shoulder not getting better?"
"It’s fine, Dean." Sam flexed his shoulder carefully, and Dean didn’t see a wince. So the bitchface was just a bitchface. He should be used to that.
"What else we got?" Sam asked.
"I think we can get by with our jeans and boots," Dean said. "But I got muskets." He passed over a rifle that was four-and-a-half feet long. "And all the necessary accoutrements," he added with an exaggerated French accent.
"Hmm?" Dean was inspecting said accoutrements – cartridge case, leather pouch with percussion caps… He looked up.
Sam was frowning; holding the weapon at arm’s length like it was a dead rat or something.
"Look," Dean said. "It’s just camouflage. I know you have a thing against shooting regular people. Doesn’t matter."
Sam quirked an eyebrow, waited for Dean to explain.
"Trust me. Loading and firing these things? It’s too complicated. You couldn’t get off a shot fast enough to do any good, not without practice."
"Annnnd … you know this how?"
"I had to read The Red Badge of Courage in junior high."
"I did, too – and I don’t remember it containing a manual on musketry."
Dean rolled his eyes. "Okay. I confess. I watched the movie instead."
"You watched the movie," Sam said heavily. "Dude – the book was barely 100 pages. You couldn’t make yourself read a book as short as that?"
"It was Dad’s idea. It had Audie Murphy in it. He was a big Audie Murphy fan."
Sam didn’t say anything, his look inscrutable.
"Dad showed me where they goofed and used 1903 Springfield rifles in the scene where they wade across the river," Dean babbled on. It was easier to wallow in old memories than face the fact that they were smack dab in the Civil War now themselves. "Look, just carry it so we don’t look suspicious, and then stay under cover until we figure out what happens to Griffith."
Dean pulled another blue uniform jacket on over his own shirt, tucked his amulet under the layers, and then stripped off his watch and stuck it in a pocket. Sam followed his lead. "C’mon," Dean said. "We got some serious ground to cover if we’re gonna catch up to Corporal Casper before dawn."
There were paths carved in the woods, old traces of Cherokee trails. Other passages had been trampled by cows and pigs belonging to farmers who let their livestock wander. Dean kept them moving roughly parallel to the road that the Union column marched on, but deep enough in the trees to remain hidden.
"You said you remember being here with Dad before, right, Dean?" Sam asked, ducking under a low tree branch.
"Yeah, with you and Dad both. Why?"
"So - what battle is this? Chicka…?"
"Chickamauga, Sammy. You ever hear of it?"
"Uh…" Sam thought. "In Georgia? The South won that one?"
"Right. Dad walked us all over the battlefield – it’s like he had it memorized." Dean smiled as a thought struck him. "You think he had little army miniatures as a kid? You know, the collectible ones that you could paint and stuff?" Wouldn’t it be funny if Sam got some of his geekiness from their dad after all?
"I don’t know," Sam said with a sigh. "I can’t picture Dad as anything but a hunter."
That sobered Dean up. He turned his attention back to the trail, chose the left fork when it diverged.
Sam followed. "What else do you remember Dad telling you about the battle?" he asked.
Dean thought he sounded a little wistful, but he knew Sam really wanted to know what lay ahead for them. "I remember he said the battle lasted two days," Dean told him. He took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly.
"And it was the bloodiest two-day battle in the entire Civil War."
Chapter 3 – September 19, 1863, 7:00 a.m.
Leamon Griffith wasn’t afraid to die.
Lately, when hunger gnawed at his belly like rats gnawing on a bag of feed, when his muscles quivered with exhaustion, and he was sick to death of lice and cramps and being too cold to sleep, then an honorable death – a hero’s death – was almost a welcome thought.
Here’s what Leamon Griffith was afraid of:
He was afraid of making a mistake. He knew he hadn’t really earned his stripes. They’d made him corporal because at 22 he was older than most, and because his brother Lew was a hero at Shiloh and Stones River. Leamon had never really fought in a battle. A handful of skirmishes, sure, chasing Morgan’s Raiders out of Kentucky, taking pot shots at the Rebels at Dug’s Gap, where neither side lost much in the way of casualties. But a major battle? He was afraid he would let the men down, and someone would be hurt or killed because of him.
And there was another thing he was afraid of. He wasn’t afraid of dying, but he was afraid of falling in the field and being left behind. Forgotten, an unknown soldier dumped in a shallow mass grave. No words of comfort sent to his beloved mother who was praying for her sons’ safety back in Indiana.
More than anything, maybe, he was afraid of dying before finding his brother Lew and asking Lew to forgive him for breaking his promise.
Lew’s regiment was here, somewhere. The whole dang Army of the Cumberland had just snuck here through the passes of Lookout Mountain. More than 50,000 men, Leamon had heard.
Wherever they were going, it was going to be big. And bloody. Like nothing he could even imagine.
Sergeant Rummell tapped his elbow with the butt of his rifle and Leamon’s head jerked up.
"Breakfast!" Sarge grunted, and moved on to pass the message to the next man. The sky was blushing with the dawn, Leamon saw; the sun casting a pink ribbon along the horizon that made him think of sweet Betsy, back home.
Campfires crackled and hissed around him, and he knelt quickly to start his own. Ignoring the growl of his empty stomach, he opened his haversack and took out the cloth that held the last of his coffee beans, poured them into his tin cup and set them on the campfire to roast. When they started to crackle a bit, he gave them a stir and inhaled the rich aroma, let it dispel his morbid thoughts. He reached for his canteen, and let loose with a fervent "Goddammit" when he remembered Charlie Latson had it now.
Unfortunately, the regiment’s chaplain was wandering by at that precise moment.
"Dreadful, dreadful language," Reverend Abram Sowle sputtered.
"Well, if I’m gonna meet my Maker today, I guess it’s better to get those words out now, instead of dyin’ with them curses trapped inside me. Don’t you think, Reverend?" Griffith suggested, cocky grin teasing at his lips.
Reverend Sowle shook his head with a frown, clutched his bible more tightly to his chest and moved on.
There was a muffled laugh behind him, and Leamon jumped.
A Union soldier he didn’t know was standing there, tall, clean-shaven, no stripes on his uniform sleeves. Bright green eyes were drawn to the coffee like a hungry dog eyeing a bone. The man cleared his throat when he saw Leamon rising to his feet. "Courier from HQ," he said. "Just delivered a message and your colonel said to report to an NCO here, until he needs me to take a dispatch back."
"Sure. I mean, right. Colonel Croxton said to stick around here."
Leamon offered his hand. "Corporal Griffith."
The man nodded, like he’d already known the name. "Private Winchester." He had a strong grip, a confident handshake.
A second soldier stepped out from behind the courier, amazingly even taller than the first one. "Damn," Leamon breathed out, craning his neck back. Granted, Leamon was on the short and scrawny side, according to Lew anyway, but this man was maybe a good 12 inches taller than he was.
"I’m Sam," the stranger said, all casual like they were meeting in a tavern instead of a Union camp. The hand he held out to shake was as big as a bear’s paw. His sleeve rode up to reveal a muscled forearm and bony wrist with a curious black band around it.
After Griffith shook hands, he sank back on his haunches to tend his small fire. "You got water to share, I got coffee to spare," he offered. "At least enough for one more cup anyway."
The courier swept off his canteen strap without hesitation.
Griffith scraped the roasted beans back onto the cloth pouch lying on a flat rock, and used the blunt end of his bayonet to crush them. "You seen the elephant, boys?" he asked.
Winchester looked amused at being called a ‘boy’. Sam’s face took on a pinched look, like he was searching his brain for the translation of a foreign word he’d learned in school and since forgotten.
"Seen the elephant? Been in battle?" Leamon prompted.
Winchester rooted around in his haversack, seeming more interested in the prospect of coffee than comparing war stories. "We’ve been in a skirmish or two," he said, passing his cup over.
Griffith knew there’d been more than a dozen skirmishes since crossing into Georgia just in the last week. He scraped half the coffee grounds into each cup, wondering what company they were with, what action they’d seen, and why the giant had tagged along here with the dispatch courier. Before he could ask, though, he discovered that Winchester had more to say after all.
"Sam, here, got winged in the last action. It’s gonna be another week or so before he’ll be any good at loading and firing that musket of his."
"Dean," Sam protested. "I –"
"Shut up. You know it’s true." Winchester flicked a soft backhanded slap against his left upper arm and Sam bit off an "ow!" and grabbed his shoulder, glaring at his friend as he curled protectively away.
Winchester shot him a quick look; eyes looking startled and concerned, then recovered. "On the other hand," he went on, "Sam’s not entirely useless. With his head up there in the clouds, he’s like a mobile observation tower. He can see the enemy coming miles before the rest of us."
Griffith recognized the looks they exchanged. Insulting, exasperated, but fond, too… of course! "You two are brothers, ain’t ya?" Regulations or not, he understood now why Sam would be sticking close before a major battle. He would give his right arm to be with Lew right now.
Winchester nodded. "I’m Dean. Sammy here is my kid brother – apparently he didn’t get the memo that he’s supposed to be the little brother."
Get the memo? Leamon wondered.
"You got brothers?" Dean continued, before Griffith could speak. He leaned forward to pour water from the canteen into the two battered cups. The grounds floated up to form a sort of crust.
"Three." Leamon smiled, stirring the water and then setting the cups on a flat rock in the campfire. "The older one, Lew, he’s a lieutenant here with the 44th Indiana Volunteers. Johnny and Frank are still in school back in Indiana." He sighed. "I just pray this war ends before they can enlist."
His stomach growled again and he couldn’t even remember how long it had been since they’d been able to forage for chickens or eggs. He drew some hardtack out of his bread sack, checked it for weevils, flicked at something suspicious with a fingernail, and then offered one to his guests.
They narrowed their eyes, exchanged a look, and shook their heads.
Leamon shrugged and sank his teeth into the cracker. It was hard as sheet iron, but he knew he needed the sustenance, no matter how unappealing.
Chewing deliberately, he considered the men towering over him. Something about them still didn’t ring true. They looked lean but not starving. They didn’t have the appearance of men who had been sleeping in their clothes on the ground for weeks on end. If they weren’t who they said they were…
But why would they lie?
He thought about his own brother Lew before he’d left for the front – innocence and eagerness and confidence shining in his clear, gray eyes. After the battle at Shiloh, Lew came home to recover from his wounds and had nearly died. His eyes were different after that. Still full of resolve, but haunted now. Hiding sorrow, pain. Memories he wouldn’t talk about.
Whatever these Winchester boys were doing here – their eyes reminded him of Lew’s. They weren’t lying about having seen action.
"I don’t mind telling you, I’m glad to have a little more experience at my back," Leamon said slowly. "Most of these boys ain’t never faced anybody shootin’ at them before. Be good for them to see someone stand their ground."
"What about you? Not scared?"
"Hell, yeah," Leamon admitted sheepishly. "But my brother Lew would kick my ass if I didn’t do my job out here. I’m more scared of him than I am of any Johnny Reb."
He leaned forward to stir down the coffee crust again, and wondered if he had any sugar left. Before he could check, though, Sergeant Rummell came jogging back at a quickstep. Rummell dropped his face close to Griffith’s, passing him breathless details, then clapped him on the shoulder with an eager grin, and raised his voice. "Second Brigade is moving out – NOW!" he called to the men all around him. "Leave your packs! We travel light and fast. This is it, boys!"
Leamon leapt to his feet, hands scrabbling for his musket and bayonet.
Winchester grabbed his coffee off the fire just before Leamon kicked dirt over the flames to put them out. The hot tin cup triggered a wince and flutter of fingers on the handle, but apparently it was worth the sacrifice, as Dean drained half the bitter brew in one swallow and offered the rest to his brother.
Sam nodded his thanks and downed the rest of it, then twitched his shoulders to settle the strap of his musket for the march ahead.
Leamon made sure the orders were passed and followed, bullying the stragglers into the column. They were leaving the road, turning down a barely recognizable farmer's lane that wove through the thick pine forest to the east.
Satisfied that the men were on the move, he turned to find Sam and Dean watching him. Their expressions were chilling. Like they knew something he didn’t.
"They say Bragg’s entire Army of the Tennessee is on the other side of the Chickamauga," Griffith told them. "One of their brigades crossed over at Reed’s Bridge to scout ahead. Our side destroyed the bridge last night and now those Rebs are completely cut off. General Thomas wants us to find that orphan brigade and capture the lot of ‘em."
Sarge had laughed, said those damned Secess boys were ‘ripe for pickin’, and Leamon had felt the tingle of adrenaline start to dance through his veins. After months of drills, and marching across Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia, the ball was about to start. He was going to see the elephant. Excitement rippled from his galloping heart down to the tips of his fingers, and he thought he knew now what the phrase ‘trigger-happy’ felt like.
Until he saw the look of dismay on Dean Winchester’s face.
Chapter 4 – September 19, 1863, 7:30 a.m.
Funny, the things Dean remembered. He actually impressed himself a little.
He couldn’t tell you who the president was before Lincoln was elected, or how many states were in the Union then. That kind of information was in textbooks, and Dean could never be bothered to read them any more than absolutely necessary.
But he remembered walking the trails that still wove through the National Battlefield Park, remembered holding his little brother’s hand as they trotted beside their father. He remembered Sammy’s delight at seeing his first deer at dusk in an open glade. Dean remembered the stories their father told over a campfire that trip, not just about monsters but American history, too.
So he knew that General Thomas had gotten bad intel. The rickety wooden bridge that stood near a sawmill on the Chickamauga Creek had not, in fact, been destroyed. He knew that there were something like 70,000 Confederate soldiers on the other side, preparing to cross and fight.
Dean knew, too, that the single brigade he was marching with was going to stumble across them. Or be stumbled across. He didn’t remember which side had startled the other. But he did know that none of the generals were expecting to start a devastating battle in these indiscriminate woods in the middle of nowhere.
With luck, Corporal Leamon Griffith would fall in the first engagement, and he and Sam could slip away and mumbo-jumbo the spell that would take them back. He felt bad, a little, wishing for Leamon’s death. He was starting to like the guy. But it’s not like it wasn’t going to happen anyway. Right?
This was war. It was real. Not a friggin’ T-ball game, where a kid could miss a fly ball because he was busy chasing fireflies in the outfield, and Mom and Dad would be sitting on the bleachers and just laugh.
Get distracted here and people would die.
Skirmishers were deployed to trot ahead, find out where the ‘orphan brigade’ might be lurking, maybe brewing their own pots of coffee that the 74th Indiana didn’t have time to savor.
The rest of the regiment crept through the woods, but it was impossible to be quiet. Canteens and tin cups clattered from their belts; boots snapped the thin dead branches on the forest floor. Voices murmured encouragement or false bravado and here and there, a curse or a nervous prayer.
"Jeez, Sam," he muttered. "Hard to believe that anybody would surprise anyone with all this racket."
"We walking into an ambush?" Sam whispered, sounding tense.
Before Dean could answer, a sudden sharp rat-a-tat-tat, like hailstones on a tin roof, echoed in the distance. Growing louder, like a storm approaching. Closer. Closer.
Union officers on horseback started barking panicked commands.
"RANK AND FILE!" They used their sabers to corral the men into straight lines, as much as they could in the middle of a forest. Hundreds of men across and two men deep, facing east.
"FRONT RANK KNEEL!"
Dean genuflected, heedless of the rocks and roots digging into his knee. He’d watched the other soldiers earlier and had mimicked their actions, loading both of their muskets, figuring Sam could use his one shot for covering fire if nothing else. Dean felt a hand steady on his shoulder and knew without looking that his brother stood at his back.
He cursed softly. It went against all his instincts to push Sam to the front, but he knew he should have. Should have realized that the front row crouches low to the ground – harder to hit. Sam was used to covering Dean’s back; but that meant that Sam was standing behind him – a 6’5" broad-shouldered target for the enemy fire.
It was too late now.
The sound of gunfire stopped abruptly. Like a clock had suddenly stopped ticking, the second hand poised trembling before lurching one more notch.
The skirmishers came tearing back, bursting over the ridge with chests heaving, wild-eyed as if the hounds of hell were chasing them. A deep rumbling sound like thunder swelled and Dean realized that it was cavalry they had stumbled across. The Sixth Georgia Cavalry burst into view and didn’t slow. It was like they never even saw the rank and file of Croxton’s brigade, 1000 rifles, drawing a bead.
The Union front rank followed orders. Rifles coughed and spat fire. But not Dean’s. Dean didn’t move, not a flicker; just watched as some horses reared and some men tumbled from their mounts, and some kept on coming.
He didn’t really want to kill anyone, any more than Sam did. He wouldn’t shoot a man just for the color of his uniform. But if he saw a Rebel soldier drawing a bead on him or his brother, Dean Winchester was going to take the sucker down.
"FIRE AT WILL!"
All the soldiers were firing now, fast as they could. Two and sometimes three shots a minute, the men exposed and vulnerable as they fumbled through the nine distinct steps needed to re-load their muskets.
Dean heard a cry of pain from the man on his left; flinched from the splash of the man’s blood across his own face, before the soldier toppled face-first into the dust. Rifles behind him barked while the men in the front rank scrambled to re-load. Acrid smoke filled the air and made Dean’s eyes water. He blinked and saw a Confederate soldier galloping out of the black haze straight toward them.
The slight rider was skilled, keeping his horse under control with just his legs, while he raised a double-barreled shotgun.
Dean’s hands were clammy, slick with sweat, as he gripped his rifle and watched the distance between them shrinking rapidly. It was like playing chicken. Shoot too soon, from too far away, and the odds of missing were high. Wait too long, and risk the enemy getting his own shot off first. There would be no time for a second shot.
He flexed his finger against the trigger and sighted down the long barrel.
All the sound and the fury of the battle that raged around him seemed to fade away.
The soldier’s hat flew off as he pounded nearer. Nearer. The rider took aim at the bigger target looming over Dean’s shoulder.
Dean fired. So did the enemy. It was impossible to tell who shot first.
Chapter 5 – September 19, 1863, 8:00 a.m.
A branch overhead exploded in a shower of splinters and pine needles over Leamon’s and Sam’s heads. Leamon cringed and ducked, spilling his gunpowder on the ground instead of down the muzzle of his rifle. He fumbled blindly in the cartridge box at his hip for more, glancing up to see where the enemy fire had come from. Twenty yards dead ahead, he saw a young Confederate rider’s head snap back, his bright red hair tossed like a halo around his face. The trooper slid from his saddle in slow motion; one foot caught briefly in a stirrup, then his foot slipped free of his boot as the horse reared. By the time he hit the ground, lax fingers still curled around his shotgun, his horse was thundering away.
Smoke curled from the barrel of Dean Winchester’s rifle.
The Confederates, badly outnumbered, were in full retreat now.
"RECOVER ARMS! HOLD YOUR FIRE! HOLD YOUR FIRE!"
Colonel Chapman’s horse danced excitably as the commander of Indiana’s 74th Regiment shouted and waved his sword from the saddle. Leamon could barely make out the words over the blast of a musket being fired inches from his face. He screamed the message into the ear of the man at his left shoulder, and like a game of telegraph, the new orders were passed down the line. The sound of gunfire trickled away like popcorn popping to a staccato halt.
Griffith bent down to grasp the shoulder of the body lying at his feet. He rolled it over and had to fight not to gag. The man’s face was shattered. His hair, matted with blood, was the color of gunmetal. It was Isaac Crawford. The boys in the company had called him Pappy, because of the gray in his beard and hair.
Pappy. Leamon sighed. Pappy had a wife and a cabin full of youngsters waiting for him back in Indiana.
Winchester was sitting on his haunches next to the dead man, calmly re-loading his musket. Sam loomed over him, and tucked a finger under his brother’s chin to better see the blood on Dean’s face. Dean shook him off and wiped his jaw with his sleeve.
It was probably Pappy’s blood.
Griffith suddenly remembered his responsibilities to the rest of his squad. Forcing himself to his feet, he made his way down the line to check on his men. George Vose was wiping his spectacles; he was alright. Tasker was unhurt, too. Young Bennett was shaking like a skittish colt, but he settled with a calm word of encouragement. Geer, though. Private Geer was lying on his side, crying for help. He’d been hit in the hip and the bottom of his uniform jacket was saturated with… apparently, water from his punctured canteen. He’d have a bruise, but nothing worse.
And then there was Latson. They didn’t call Charlie ‘Lost-it Latson’ for nothing. Griffith saw right away that the boy had lost his cap. Worse, he’d lost his ramrod. He must’ve panicked when he fired his musket and forgotten to remove the ramrod first. It had shot out like an arrow and was now stuck in a tree 10-15 yards away.
None of his men had ever shot at another man before. But each of them had stood his ground. "So," Leamon said, his voice rough like gravel, when Sam and Dean walked up. "So – that’s what a battle is like." He lowered his rifle butt to the ground and leaned heavily on it, arms shaking a little with fatigue and excess adrenaline bleeding off.
"So on they fought like a swirl of living fire -
You could not say if the sun and moon still stood secure,
So dense the battle-haze that engulfed the brave
Who stood their ground…"
"The Iliad, right?" Sam held out his canteen. "Were you a teacher before the war?"
Leamon took it sheepishly, not meaning his quote to be heard. He unscrewed the cork stopper, and drank deeply, Adam’s apple bobbing as he chugged. "I wanted that, once," he said. "But my plans changed. Even before the war."
Charlie came up behind him, then, tugging nervously at the corporal’s sleeve. "What am I gonna do without my ramrod, Griff? I can’t load my rifle without it." He pointed helplessly at a cluster of branches, where they could see one end of the long metal rod jutting out, ten feet off the ground.
Griffith saw Dean look at Charlie, his lips twitching to hold in a laugh.
What would Lew do? That’s the question Leamon asked himself nearly every day. The answer was clear enough. Lew would tell the boy to go get Pappy’s ramrod. He wouldn’t be needing it any more.
But Leamon didn’t want Charlie to see what was left of Pappy’s face. He didn’t think he could bear to look at it again, himself.
Dean had seen the body, had acted like it wasn’t the first time he’d seen someone die a violent death. Maybe he… Leamon glanced back at Dean, saw him share a look with his brother and raise an eyebrow. Sam nodded. It was like the two men didn’t even need to use words.
Sam broke into a jog, then took a couple long strides and he leaped up, at least a couple feet off the ground, and grabbed the ramrod with his right hand. It jostled free. He landed lightly on his feet and trotted back to hand it to the astonished boy. Dean grinned and ruffled Charlie’s hair.
Leamon took one last drag from the canteen and handed it back to Sam, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Thanks, friend," he said. "I think you might be my Guardian Angel!"
"For bringing you water?" Sam shook his head. "I’m pretty sure the Angel job description requires higher qualifications than that."
"It does," Leamon agreed. "But it looks like you’ve got ‘flying’ covered, too." He cracked a smile, almost overwhelmed with relief that he was still standing after his first battle. His men were alright – all but Pappy anyway. And Pappy, well… if Lew were here, Lew would tell him he couldn’t feel guilty about that.
Except Lew wasn’t speaking to him.
"FRONT LINE, FIX BAYONETS!"
There was no more time to recover. The bugle call to deploy skirmishers rang out and the weary scouts jogged ahead. The regiment was ordered to chase those damn fleeing Rebels and round them up.
They advanced 100 yards down a shallow ridge and then up another, the 4th Kentucky on brigade left, the 10th Indiana in the center of the line, and the 74th Indiana on the right.
It was when they crested the second ridge that all hell broke loose.
The air suddenly crackled with the deafening sound of musket fire at close range.
Leamon dropped instinctively, looking frantically over his shoulder for orders from an officer. He saw Dean on the ground, crawling on his elbows faster than Leamon thought possible, till he reached a hollow log and rolled safely behind it. Clods of dirt sprayed up in his wake as the enemy bullets just missed him.
Taking cover seemed like a damn good idea.
Leamon raised himself into a crouch and then took off in a dash for the biggest tree he could find. Just as he reached it, he tripped over the exposed roots and fell sprawling across Sam’s legs. Sam had beaten him to it; already sitting hunched with his spine against the trunk, making himself as small a target as he could. Leamon flinched as bits of bark ricocheted around them, and Sam leaned forward and grabbed him, pulling him back into the shadows.
Leamon was starting to think maybe Sam was his Guardian Angel, the way he appeared out of nowhere and always seemed to be there when he was needed.
"It’s Infantry!" Dean yelled at them.
Not the Cavalry they’d been pursing?
Not just the one lone orphan brigade?
Where had they come from? What if the bridge hadn’t been destroyed after all? Griffith thought wildly. What if there was nothing to stop General Bragg’s entire dang Confederate Army from crossing the Chickamauga Creek and coming after them?
Staring east into the sun, Griffith couldn’t even see the enemy’s line. The Rebels were hidden in the trees and tangled thickets ahead; he had no idea how many there were.
What would Lew do?
Suddenly, Dean appeared beside them, huddled in the cramped shelter of the big oak tree. "I’m thinkin’ you got three choices," he shouted over the cacophony of gunfire. It was almost as if he’d read Leamon’s mind and come to tell him what to do. As if he was a big-brother-substitute for Lew. "You can surrender now," Dean told him. "You can lie here and wait for them to get close enough to kill you. Or you can put up some covering fire to keep them from advancing, and hope your generals get their heads out of their asses and send reinforcements!"
And just like that, he was gone again, scrambling back to his hollow log. His musket was braced against a notch where a dead limb jutted out, and Griffith could see him take aim and fire. Then Dean rolled onto his back, pulled the rifle back alongside him and began the awkward process of trying to re-load while lying down.
Covering fire. To stop the Rebels and keep them busy taking cover. Griffith could do that.
Just nine steps.
Snag a cartridge from the cartridge box at his utility belt; and use your teeth to tear the paper holding the powder and minie ball. Pour the black powder down the muzzle of the barrel and spit the minie ball down the muzzle after it. (Flinch, when a spent bullet ricochets off the tree too close to his face.) Grab the ramrod from the pipes to push it in deep. Then hook the ramrod back alongside the barrel. (Ignore the cry of pain close by, the thud of a body falling. Don’t let yourself wonder who it is.) Raise the musket to eye-level and half cock the hammer. Grab a copper percussion cap from the leather cap pouch and place it on the cone of the weapon. Fully cock the hammer. Aim. Fire.
In between one shot and the next, Griffith glanced down the line and saw that Johnny Bennett was following his lead. The rest of his squad, Latson and Geer and Tasker and Vose, had gotten the idea now, too.
For long minutes, the air was filled with the acrid smell and harsh, barking sounds of unrelenting musket fire. It became harder to see, thick smoke hanging heavy over them. He could feel Sam coughing beside him, right hand clamped on his shoulder. Men cried out, and fell, and bled, but the line held. And then Griffith made out the sharp retort of more rifles, shots being fired from the north, and he realized that another Federal brigade was advancing down Reed’s Bridge Road to join the fight. Slowly, the Confederates started to fall back. The Union brigades pressed forward, and the enemy skedaddled. The woods fell quiet again.
The pale gray smoke didn’t float away; it seemed to hover over the battlefield, like a curse in the air. Some soldiers buckled under the weight of it, hands to knees and gulping for air. Others tried to raise their arms over their heads in triumph but lacked the strength.
The Winchester brothers looked as haggard as the rest of the regiment. They had their heads bent, conferring in low voices, and didn’t see Leamon coming as he made his way back to them, hoping to tap Sam’s canteen again.
After an hour of teetering on the raw edge of life-and-death, the lack of danger now seemed to leave the brothers with pent-up energy that came spilling out in angry words. "Your job was to watch him, not pull him to safety!" Griffith heard Dean hiss.
"I didn’t have time to think!" Sam protested. "And it’s not like you wouldn’t have done the exact same thing!"
Dean huffed. Didn’t deny it.
"And what about suggesting he put up covering fire until reinforcements come? That’s not saving his life?"
"Our lives, Sam. Firing blind kept the Rebels off our asses, too, not just his."
Leamon shifted his weight and a dead branch cracked under his shoe. The Winchester brothers’ heads snapped up, tense and alert, like they’d developed a sixth sense for unpleasant surprises. Leamon gestured toward Sam’s canteen and tried to look like he hadn’t been eavesdropping.
"Sure." Sam shrugged off the canteen strap and took a step toward him. Leamon noticed that Sam’s face looked pallid and sweaty, and he remembered that Sam had been wounded recently. Probably should have stayed with the ambulance wagons until he was stronger. Leamon understood, though, the need to be with his brother. What he didn’t understand was the conversation he’d just overheard.
He didn’t have time to ponder it.
The floor of the forest shook then, under a thunderous roar. More explosions followed, no space to breathe in between. Artillery. Half of a body flew through the air past Leamon, just head and arms and torso, and then, the screaming started.
There was nowhere to hide. Nowhere was safe.
He wanted desperately to outrun it, but he couldn’t think clearly. Grapeshot and canister shrieked overhead and the tree behind him exploded. A tremendous weight slammed into his back and drove him to his belly.
It was suddenly dark.
His ears felt full, like he was under water, and all he could hear was his own pulse hammering. He wondered if he was going deaf. Strangely, he didn’t hurt much.
Something moved over him. A hand felt warm on the back of his neck and then some of the weight lifted. He could hear someone calling now, frantic; heard the name "Sam!" And then a cough and a reply. "Here! I’m okay."
There was cursing and then a rustling sound Leamon realized was evergreen branches being shoved aside. More light spilled into his cocoon and he discovered a heavy pine tree had fallen, trapping him and Sam in its boughs.
Sam crawled out first and Leamon could see Dean’s face, pale, in the gap he’d carved with his bayonet. "You’re alright – really?" Dean asked.
Sam nodded, putting tentative fingers to his cheekbone where a scratch curved like a thin whiplash, forming a letter ‘L’ from the edge of his eyebrow down and then curling toward his ear.
"What about Griffith?"
That was his cue. Leamon wiped a trickle of blood off his face and scrambled out after Sam.
Dean looked a bit shell-shocked to see him emerge unscathed, then recovered to grin cheekily. "Damn. I was sure that was gonna be it!"
The assault raged back and forth for two more hours, the lines fracturing into chaos in the maze of evergreens and black oaks.
Three times, the Federal soldiers drove their enemy off the ridge. Three times, the Confederates poured more regiments over the bridge and clawed their way back.
There had to be five brigades raining lead upon them. Enemy fire was erupting from their right now. They were getting outflanked. The Union line started to fold like a jackknife. Soon, they would be caught in the crossfire, maybe surrounded.
Behind Griffith, a man screamed in pain, a long, shrill, wailing sob that hurt Leamon’s heart to hear. A second minie ball shut the man up, and Leamon hoped the man was dead, because nobody who screamed like that would want to stay alive. And that was wrong, to think something like that, but he didn’t care. In the moment when the screaming stopped, he could hear a faint bugle call to retreat.
Spinning on his heels, Leamon hurdled over the dying man, not stopping in the hail of bullets to see who it was. Guilt no longer checked his step.
One soldier ahead of him was hit, stumbled, then fell. George Vose ran to him, tried to pull him to his feet.
George had a young wife back in Indiana, and a baby he hadn’t seen in over a year. A baby who needed his father. Leamon grabbed George’s arm and shoved him ahead, barked at him to leave the wounded man and keep running. George did, and Leamon almost followed right on his heels, but after a step, he stopped. He turned and bent to grab the wounded man, a mutton-chopped soldier he didn’t know, hauled him up, and propelled him toward the rear.
Briefly, Leamon wondered about Sam - the mysterious angel on his shoulder, and about Dean - his big-brother-substitute-for-Lew. But he couldn’t bring himself to stop to look.
Chapter 6 – September 19, 1863, 10:00 a.m.
Dean dug his fingers into his cartridge box and came up empty.
He was out of ammo.
The next second, he was blown off his feet by a concussive blast.
At first, he couldn’t feel anything but the heavy weight of his limbs sinking boneless into a cushion of dead leaves. Thick smoke settled over his mouth and nose, and crept into his lungs, smothering him. Faintly, he heard bells ringing. He realized it was a bugle call, thin strains that had to be calling a retreat.
Dean choked. Gasping, he batted away the smoke and filled his straining lungs with air. Painfully, he rolled over and climbed to his feet, creaking like an old man rising to leave a pew back in Pastor Jim’s church. And then he froze.
In the haze of artillery-raised smoke, he had lost sight of Sam.
A stampede of Union soldiers, heavily out-numbered and frantic to get out of the crossfire, came hurtling through the fog, one and then another crashing into Dean, knocking him off-balance.
He fought to stay on his feet. "Sam!" The single syllable bellowed out, scraped his throat raw.
He saw Griffith tugging one soldier away from the fallen body of a friend, pushing him back to join the surge of the retreat. But no Sam.
Dean knew nothing would have made Sam willingly leave Griffith’s side.
The Sixth Georgia Infantry crept closer and their aim improved. Shards of trees, bark and leaves and splintered branches, showered down on him. But he wasn’t leaving without his brother. He whirled, not watching the enemy advance, but searching desperately for a flash of blue uniform, more tall and broad and agile than the rest.
Unless he had already fallen…
Dean stumbled into a small clearing, his frantic gaze sweeping the bodies lying twisted on the ground. Sparks and cinders fluttered in the underbrush and then burst into flames. Dean stared in horror as one of the wounded began to drag himself away from the hungry brushfire. The flames were faster.
Dean never saw the burly Union sergeant that came up behind him, running him over as if he was the last defense against a touchdown. Dean was flattened.
Rolling onto his back, wind knocked out of him, he saw a wave of Confederate infantry charging forward with wild Rebel yells. Black puffs of smoke burst around them as the men fired and dropped to a knee to re-load. More soldiers in gray uniforms rushed past them.
The sun was blocked suddenly by the silhouette of one Rebel soldier, looming over him from out of nowhere, bayonet catching the rays of the sun.
Dean scuttled backward on his elbows, flailing for his musket to at least try to parry the blow.
The steel blade dipped, thrust forward and down, and then was suddenly swept aside, plunging into the dirt and scoring a deep groove in the earth scant inches from Dean’s neck, as something big and fast barreled into the soldier wielding it.
The two bodies fell to the ground and rolled and the rifle was wrestled between them. Grunts and curses flew and then there was a sickening crack and one of the men went limp.
"Dean!" Sam scrambled to get his feet under him again. Somehow, they pulled each other up and shoved each other a quarter mile to the rear, under the covering fire of the 10th Kentucky Volunteers.
Finally, finally, when Dean didn’t think his aching muscles could carry him another step, the sound of musket fire and artillery began to fade. They were safe now. He stopped, wavering, and planted himself in front of his brother to grab Sam’s elbows with both hands. Sam searched his eyes, looking worried, but Dean ignored that.
"Where’s Griffith?" he panted, unable to get out any more words than that.
"I don’t know," Sam said, craning his neck to look around. "I was looking for you."
"I was fine!" Dean didn’t count the fact that he felt like he was one massive bruise from head to foot. "Your job was to keep an eye on Griffith!"
"My job, Dean?" Sam sounded pissed. Like he’d get sometimes when he’d been keeping an argument pent up inside too long. "My job? You just don't get it, do you?"
"What?" Dean felt his own annoyance rising.
"Your whole life, you watch out for me. You still don’t get that it works both ways." Sam pulled away, ran a shaking hand through his hair. "My job, my job, is to keep you safe, too. At least – in the time we have left. Thisother job, the hunt, the case… it doesn’t mean anything if I lose you."
Dean’s anger bled away. If he was honest, it was the dregs of fear at losing Sam that had his own nerves on edge. Much as he tried to ignore it, wouldn’t let Sam even talk about it, Dean knew that his Crossroads Deal was eating away at his brother.
"Okay," he said. Not that he was going to talk about it. He wouldn’t tell Sam that he didn’t want him risking his life to save him. That Sam couldn’t save him. But he reached out with one tentative hand, let his fingers brush Sam’s sleeve, an unspoken I know. He started to turn away, then he stopped cold. There was blood on his fingertips.
"Sam? Are you hit?"
Dean simply held up his hand, letting the red streaks make his case.
Sam fingered his sleeve. It wasn’t ripped. "I think I just tore my stitches," he said. "It’s okay. I’m okay."
Dean rummaged in his uniform pocket. He remembered a piece of cloth wadded in the bottom of it when he’d tucked Sam’s stolen spell book there. Pulling out a red bandanna, he shook it out and grabbed Sam’s elbow to draw his arm closer.
"Dude, it’s probably already stopped bleeding," Sam protested.
Dean ignored him, wrapping it around his brother’s upper arm. "I don’t care," he said. "This is in case we get separated again. I’d tie a bell on you if I thought I could hear it." He tied it off and stepped back. "This is like a red cargo flag, to see you better."
"How about we just stick together, instead," Sam suggested, though he left the bandage in place. "I think we’re pulling back anyway."
Dean nodded. It was a two-day battle, he remembered. If everyone else was out of ammo, the regiment ought to be done for the day, until the ammunition wagon could bring up a re-supply when they made camp for the night.
"Let’s see if we can find Griffith," he said. Maybe, just maybe, the war was over for Corporal Leamon Griffith. And the Winchester boys could go home.
Chapter 7 – September 19 1863, 11:00 am
Sam had been searching for Leamon Griffith, not studying the landscape. He raised his head a little and twisted to look where his brother faced.
He saw trees. Lots of trees. Pines and oaks and black maple saplings. Sam turned slowly and scanned the ground carefully. The terrain was uneven but unremarkable. He saw underbrush, flattened in places, exposed roots… and corpses.
A dead horse. And dozens of dead men. Broken, bloody, some pressed into the earth, trampled. Sam knew if he looked closely, he would see some soldiers with wedding rings, others who were only boys. He swallowed. He didn’t want to look closely.
No matter how much death, how much slaughter he’d seen in his years of hunting, the sight still made his chest tight.
"Sorry, Dean," he said, shrugging, lifting his eyes again. "Should it look familiar?"
"This is where the battle started this morning," Dean told him.
Sam didn’t bother asking him how he knew.
Dean’s voice was roughened by smoke and Sam noticed then that his brother wasn’t too steady on his feet. "Here, sit," he ordered, steering Dean toward a tree stump. At Dean’s glower, he changed his expression to make it more of a suggestion and Dean grudgingly folded.
Dean hated hovering, though. Sam knew that, so after surreptitiously checking for any obvious bloodstains, he decided Dean was just shaken up, maybe mildly concussed. He shoved Dean’s canteen in his hands and left him to recover in peace.
There were other men in need of more help. A lieutenant limped toward him, but shuffled past without stopping. Blood streaked the side of the man’s uniform along his ribs, but he seemed ambulatory enough to stagger toward the road they’d left just after dawn.
"He’ll be alright," a voice came from behind him. It was Leamon. "The field dressing station ain’t far now."
The next wounded man they saw wasn’t as fortunate.
"Help me?" This soldier stumbled toward them and then fell to his knees. His hands were covered in blood and cupped in front of his stomach, trying to hold his intestines inside. Before they could reach him he toppled completely and lay on his side, twitching helplessly.
He looked young, vaguely familiar. One of the men in Griffith’s squad?
"Water, please…" the boy croaked, both hands still digging into the hole in his belly.
"Here you go, Johnny." Leamon knelt to reach for the boy’s canteen, but Sam stopped him with a hand to his arm. "You shouldn’t give water when there’s an abdominal wound. I can help you get him to the aid station."
Leamon pulled away from the boy. He tucked his head down by his shoulder, his voice lowered so Johnny wouldn’t hear. "They can’t help him there. They can’t do no more than slap a dressing on you there and send you back into combat."
"What about – there’s a hospital right? A field hospital? You have doctors there."
"He’s gut-shot, Sam."
"I can see that!"
"Even if he lived long enough to get there – and it’s near a mile away – the surgeons wouldn’t do anything for him. That’s a mortal wound. There’s nothin’ to be done when you’re gut-shot." The bitter words were forced through clenched teeth.
Leamon turned his attention back to the boy, raised his head and worked the cork stopper out of the canteen, to let some water trickle over his lips.
"We made them Rebels run, didn’t we, Griff?" Johnny asked weakly.
"We sure did," Leamon said with a tight smile. "You did a good job out there today. Held your ground like a man. Your daddy woulda been proud of you."
The boy’s eyes fluttered shut, lashes the color of coal against skin the color of chalk. His chest continued to rise and fall, labored breathing shallow and erratic.
Griffith led Sam aside. "That fella there is John G. Bennett, a good neighbor of mine. We enlisted together a year ago," he told Sam. "He was just 19, the same age as my sister Lydia. I used to tease him that he was sweet on her. Johnny never did get up the nerve to say anything to her."
Leamon swept at the corner of his eyes with the heel of his hand. "He never will have a sweetheart now. Never see home again. So if the last thing he asks for is a drink of water, I’m damned well gonna give him that much."
"Griff?" The boy called out feebly.
Leamon dropped to Bennett’s side again, and took his hand. "What is it, Johnny?"
"You’ll come back for me, won’tcha? After you kick the Rebs off the field?" Bennett stopped to cough, face screwed up in pain. "You’ll see that they mark my name when they bury me? And tell my Momma where she can come find me; take me home and bury me next to Pa when the war’s over?"
Leamon looked around and Sam followed his gaze, noting the fallen log nearby, and a hollow tree 20 feet to the south. He realized Griffith was fixing the position so he could return to the spot. "Sure, Johnny," Leamon soothed his friend. "You know I will. H Company looks out for our own."
Bennett sighed, and Sam wished he could say that the boy died with a look of peace on his face. But he didn’t. His features were pinched in agony in his last moments before his fists slowly uncurled and fell away.
"Johnny was a brave lad. He deserves to be laid to rest with his kin," Leamon said somberly. "Maybe I can come back, find him again." He blinked back tears and turned to Sam. "Get the ones who can walk moving toward the field dressing station." Griffith gestured over his shoulder.
"And the ones who can’t walk?" Sam asked quietly.
"If anyone ain’t hurt too bad, and can help the others get back, let ‘em try. If not, just bring ‘em as close to the trail as you can, in case we can get an ambulance wagon through these trees. Not that there’s much chance of that…"
Sam nodded and turned, but Leamon stopped him, clutching at his sleeve. "Look, I don’t know how I got you stickin’ to me like my shadow anyway, but since y’are…" he broke off, gnawing his lip.
"Just - don’t let me die behind enemy lines. Alright? If I fall, well, can you try to find my brother Lew? He’s here – he’s a lieutenant with the 44th. We – we haven’t talked in a year. But I have to believe he’d come for me. Wouldn’t just leave me here to be rolled into a mass grave."
A shiver crawled down Sam’s spine. "You have my word."
Griffith nodded his thanks, straightened his musket strap over his shoulder, and walked away.
And that promise right there snapped Sam’s attention back to the whole reason he was there. He and Dean both. He squinted through the haze. His brother was just one of hundreds of men in Union blue uniforms, but Sam found him easily, always would recognize him, even in a crowd. He saw his brother moving among the fallen soldiers, too, the ones who would never get up, and realized that Dean was refilling his cartridge box with their unspent ammunition.
Sam admired that about Dean, more than he would ever admit aloud. Dean had a gift for living in the moment, doing what was needed to survive. Sam, though, he struggled to resist the urge to lose himself in his thoughts, to just sink down at the bottom of a tree and close his eyes and try to understand how they could possibly be in Chickamauga, Georgia, in 1863.
He couldn’t stop his thoughts from churning, even while he was searching for more wounded soldiers.
He’d expected some risk in the ritual. Had to be risky, because it called for iron to protect the user. Not to mention the fact that their father deemed the spell book ‘toxic’ and too dangerous to have around. This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill summoning. He’d deliberately sought something more powerful than the simple séance he’d used to bring Father Gregory to him.
The spells in this journal were darker. They promised a way to cross a divide over time and space.
That was exactly what Sam was looking for.
Somehow, demons like old Yellow Eyes and Ruby seemed able to appear when and where they wanted, without relying on corporeal transportation. Sam wanted something that powerful. Most spells to summon spirits required something of the host nearby. He wanted to be able to call forth someone by name and intent alone, no matter where they were.
He wanted a way to summon Ruby. Ruby – with her claim to know how to save Dean.
In the months since… since he’d died and Dean had traded his own life for his brother, Sam had scanned every volume in Bobby’s library. He’d contacted any hunter who knew anything about demon lore. Spent sleepless nights exhausting every lead Internet search engines had to offer.
It didn’t matter if he had eight months or eight days left. It didn’t matter because he was out of ideas. He had nowhere else to look for a way to break Dean’s contract.
The only hope he had left was Ruby.
She was the only link he’d found to saving Dean. And she couldn’t be trusted.
He needed a way to control her, like the Reverend LaGrange’s wife had controlled the reaper. A spell that would both summon Ruby to him and bind her to his will.
Mojo that powerful was dangerous. Sam wasn’t stupid. He knew better than to leap in unprepared, buoyed by nothing more than naïve hope. He wouldn’t try for Ruby yet. He’d take it in small steps. See how the ritual worked summoning a simple spirit by the power of its name alone. Learn from that, adapt it, and experiment with some other spells in the journal. And then, when Sam was ready, he would summon Ruby.
He was more than eager to collar the black-eyed bitch.
But Dean couldn’t know that she was the reason he wanted this case.
When Sam had read the words of summoning, when he had named the spirit, he’d expected to come face to face with Leamon Griffith.
It went without saying he’d expected to see Leamon Griffith in 2007. Not 1863.
1863. Where a private in bloodstained Union blue was refusing to set aside the regiment’s colors so Sam could check his injuries. The young man’s arms were rigid, both hands locked defiantly around the flagpole. Sam gave up and just wrapped a cloth around the man’s scalp wound, his thoughts still on the spell and Dean, his eyes mindlessly tracking his brother.
With a jolt, he realized that Dean had stopped moving from corpse to corpse. He was standing frozen over a body.
Sam sent the standard-bearer to the rear and he made his way to his brother’s side. A redheaded soldier was sprawled motionless on the turf in front of them, just skin and bones in tattered gray cavalry uniform. One foot still wore a dusty boot; the other was covered only by a much-darned sock. Dirt streaked the trooper’s thin cheeks; no hint of the whiskers or stubble so prevalent on his peers. He looked barely fourteen years old. A child, still clutching a shotgun in one loose-flung hand.
"I shot him." Dean’s voice was raw, shattered, and Sam knew it wasn’t due to the smoke.
Dean hadn’t knelt yet to check for a pulse. Sam knew he was still summoning the strength to do that, still gathering himself tightly together so that he wouldn’t unravel if his trembling fingers found no sign of life.
It was a small thing, but it was something Sam could spare him, and Sam did it without thinking, dropping to his knees and setting his long fingers gently against the boy’s pale neck. Neither man spoke. Sam sat back on his heels and looked up. "He’s alive, Dean."
Dean met Sam’s look, eyes conveying what his voice could not, and then he bent, scooped up the boy in his arms, and began carrying him back to the aid station, Sam at his heels.
To his credit, the army doctor didn’t object when Dean lowered a Confederate soldier to the ground at his feet. Instead, he paused in arranging a sling around someone’s elbow to glance down at the boy, who was beginning to stir. "I’ll get to him next," he said wearily. "You’re alright?"
Dean nodded, and Sam thought he probably wasn’t lying much. He looked liked he’d gone a few rounds with a poltergeist, but their usual remedy (booze, a hot shower, and 12 hours of solid sleep) wasn’t really an option here.
The doctor turned to a pair of Federal musicians, one a bugler and the other a drummer by their gear, and gestured toward another man waiting on a stretcher. A bloody blindfold covered the patient’s eyes. "Take him up to the regimental field hospital," he told them. "It’s on the main wagon road, go half a mile north and you’ll find it at Cloud Church."
Sam saw Leamon was kneeling beside the wounded soldier, talking to him quietly. He squeezed the man’s shoulder and stood back when the litter-bearers approached.
Griffith came over to stand beside Sam, and the doctor turned to them next. "What about you two? Either of you wounded?"
The corporal was watching the men lift the stretcher, a worried look on his face. When he realized the doctor had spoken to him, he shook his head. "No. I’m not hurt."
Sam realized that Dean was waiting on his answer, more intently than the doc, and he took a moment to think about it. His healing shoulder had flared in protest when he’d tackled the bayonet-wielding soldier, but that pain had mostly subsided. The bleeding had stopped. He’d had enough experience with infection to recognize a low-grade fever was simmering, but it wasn’t anything to worry about.
"I’m fine," he said.
"You two match. Almost like cattle brands," the doctor said, amused, pointing casually at the scrape on Sam’s cheek. The boy Dean had brought was now struggling to rise, and the doctor turned to steer him toward a chair.
Puzzled, Sam looked over at Leamon, and saw a red welt cutting a right angle down his cheek and curling toward his sideburns. His own skin felt tight across his face in the same place.
Dean arched to stretch his back, the muscles no doubt giving him grief after carrying the boy, and then he reached over to offer Leamon one of the canteens he’d collected from the dead. He gave their scratched cheeks a curious look, but if he was going to comment on it, he was interrupted.
An officer came riding up to the field dressing station. Not in a hurry, he reined in his horse and dismounted. He was probably someone important, Sam guessed by the embroidered eagles on his shoulder insignia. He didn’t look much older than Sam, despite the thick, wooly beard. With his high forehead, he looked more like a Yale-educated lawyer than an Army colonel.
"I’d like a word with the prisoner, Dr. Higbee," he said, a light Kentucky lilt to his tone.
The boy had regained consciousness; he was alert enough to sit upright. The doctor was winding a bandage around the boy’s head; when he finished, it stood out against his reddish-orange hair like a white cotton crown. Higbee nodded. "Of course, Colonel Croxton," he said, and moved aside.
The colonel rested one hand on the hilt of his sword and looked down at the prisoner, eyes narrowing in study. The boy’s face was splattered with an equal mix of dirt and freckles; he squared his thin shoulders and looked up, unafraid.
"Just how old are you, son?" Colonel Croxton asked.
"I’m Private Matthew McDonald, First Georgia Cavalry," the youth answered proudly. "And I’ll be fifteen my next birthday." His chin tilted up in defiance. "How old are you?"
The colonel pressed his lips together in a smile. "Old enough, boy. Old enough…." He considered Matthew’s threadbare appearance, and asked, not unkindly, "You don’t have slaves at home, do you?"
"Then why?" Colonel Croxton asked. "Why do you fight?"
"Because you’re here," was the boy’s simple answer.
"Not sure I can blame him, entirely." Sam heard Griffith’s voice low, near his elbow. Too low for the colonel to hear. They stepped further back, away from the interrogation. Found a clump of trees and eased themselves down to the ground to lean against it.
"He’s a Georgia boy," Leamon explained as Dean joined them. "We’re invading his land. He’s just defending it. Probably thought being a soldier would be a glorious adventure, an honorable action."
Sam glanced at Dean and thought. Dean’s been a soldier his whole life. Since he was four years old. And it was never about adventure or even honor for him.
It was about family.
"So, why do you fight?" Dean asked.
Leamon rubbed his jaw. Thought a minute how to answer. "You heard of the Underground Railroad?"
Not many did, at the time, Sam supposed. But he nodded. Dean did, too.
"One of the lines runs through Steuben County, where I’m from," Leamon went on. "Lew’s got a friend there, Marion Butler. His house was one of the stops on the line. I saw my first slaves there when I was 16."
He paused, a long unbroken minute, and then twitched, shaking himself free of the vivid memory. "We mostly never knew when they were smuggling a slave or two out of the county. But one time, it was about six years ago, he had a big group. About 28. Too many for his family to feed and shelter. So they needed our help." Griffith’s eyes darkened, remembering. "I saw one of the men. His back. He’d been whipped so bad he had scars like a washboard on his back."
Sam cringed and he shared a look with Dean.
"There were women and children in that group. I heard their stories. Babies taken from their mamas. Children sold. I’d never really thought much about slavery before that. Anyway, we gave them food. Escorted them in the dead of night, to the next station on the way to Canada."
"So, when an abolitionist like Lincoln asked for volunteers to rein in the slave states, you enlisted," Dean suggested.
"I should have then – in ’61, with Lew and Butler. I wanted to. But, no, I didn’t. Not then, and not for that reason."
"No." Leamon’s hand drifted up to the thin chain around his neck, and Sam saw that it held a locket. Something that could carry a piece of tintype or a cherished lock of hair. Leamon noticed Sam watching his movement and his hand dropped back to his lap. "I enlisted," he told them, dropping his eyes, "because I’m a coward."
"Corporal!" Colonel Croxton’s shadow fell across them. "I need a runner to carry a message to General Thomas."
Griffith scrambled to his feet. "Private Winchester, here, he’s a courier from HQ", he said.
"Winchester!" Croxton barked.
Dean used his musket to lever himself to his feet, clearly a little stiff, but he managed a crisp salute. "Sir!"
Croxton passed him a folded sheet of paper. "You can find the Kelly farm? On LaFayette Road?"
"On your way then! No reply is expected." Colonel Croxton returned the salute, and then turned to his adjutant with further orders.
Sam took a step away when Dean did, his eyes wide with worry. They’d separated countless times while working a case, that wasn’t the problem. But they’d almost always had cell phones to reach each other, had a mutual motel room to meet back at, or had a plan to rendezvous according to a code applied to the local phone book.
Dean turned to his brother, voice lowered so no one else would hear. "The 74th is pulling back. But we don’t know where they’ll bivouac yet. So after the company settles for the night, slip away to the field hospital; they won’t re-locate it. You heard where it is?"
Sam nodded. "But… are you okay?"
"Just got my bell rung earlier. I’m fine! I’ll meet you there after dark. I’ll find you." Dean tucked Colonel Croxton’s message in his uniform pocket, gave Sam a quick pat on the chest, and started trotting west toward the road.
Sam felt cold iron pressed over his heart – the key dangling from the rawhide thong around his throat. He remembered then that Dean still had the journal. If he had several hours R&R to recover from the morning’s action, he’d have liked to spend them studying the mysterious rituals and often cryptic notes in the margins.
The book had had several owners over the years, if the handwriting in the notes was anything to go by. He remembered that the ink and script had changed again after this ritual, and Sam wondered, belatedly, if the owner had attempted the spell and disappeared. If he’d never returned.
Sam was a Winchester – he was used to things not going according to plan. But this? This was something he hadn’t thought possible.
The ritual they’d performed was more than just a summoning. It was black magic - a binding spell. Binding the one summoned to do his will – that was what Sam needed. For Griffith, it was supposed to be straightforward. By his name, summon and bind him; command Leamon’s spirit to depart. If this binding spell had worked, then maybe when he summoned Ruby, he would have power to command her. To make her divulge the key to Dean’s salvation.
But with this ritual, ‘summoning’ apparently didn’t mean what he’d expected. Sam worried now what else ‘binding’ might mean, and how this might go wrong, too.
Chapter 8 – September 19, 1863, 11:00 am
The forest was a freakin’ labyrinth. Dean knew there were more than 100,000 soldiers in this battle, and yet there wasn’t a man in sight. Not even a squirrel, for that matter. Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…
Sam would never let him live it down if he knew Dean could quote that.
A sense of wrongness was thrumming through his veins. There was a pressure in his chest that had nothing to do with how fast or far he was running and everything to do with the fact that he was moving further away from Sam with each stride.
Logically, he knew that Sam should be safe. The brigade was out of ammunition and dropping from exhaustion. They were done for the day; the generals had to see that. He’d heard the officers say they were pulling back, far out of the enemy’s artillery range, to be held in reserve. And yet…
Nothing about this day was following rules of logic.
Logic told him he couldn’t really be in 1863. Logic told him that this whole nightmare was just a figment of Sam’s fevered imagination. Had to be. Right? Sam’s bullet wound in Black Rock had gotten infected. He’d been under the effects of the rabbit’s foot curse when Bela shot him – of course there would be complications. This had to be one of them.
Why couldn’t you have fever dreams about hot chicks, huh, Sam? But no … even your subconscious runs amok with Latin incantations!
And wasn’t that a stretch, Dean thought, that he himself, here, was part of the hallucination. The Dean back in the motel room would have no memory of this tomorrow.
Huh. A man could go crazy trying to think this through.
And yet, Dean was no stranger to being trapped in a dream world. It was a first, though, to be caught in someone else’s nightmare, not his own.
It occurred to him, as he wove his way through the woods of Sam’s imagination, that this hallucination was revealing things about Sam’s subconscious – and wasn’t that an interesting thing to examine?
The Dean in Sam’s mind was smart. Knew stuff Dean didn’t think he would really remember. Could figure out whatever he didn’t know. Somehow, Sam had faith that Dean could recognize bugle calls and figure out how to use a musket and find his way around a forest he hadn’t been in since he was eight years old.
Sam had always played the academic role on their team. Their dad had given him research assignments long before he was allowed to hunt. Dean had always ragged on Sam for being too bookish; when he got older, Sam razzed Dean for not being bookish enough. It’s what they did. But deep down, it seemed that Sam really did know that Dean was smart, too, just in different ways.
In Sam’s imagination, John Winchester had been a normal dad once. Sam obviously believed that Dean had shared in things a regular dad might do with his kids. T-ball? Telling campfire stories, watching movies together…
With a pang, Dean realized that Sam’s subconscious created these moments between their dad and Dean. Sam wasn’t included. Sammy wasn’t even born the summer Dean played T-ball. The campfire stories occurred before Dad turned into a drill sergeant, when Sam was too young to remember. Watching war movies together? Something Dad did with Dean, not Sam.
That wasn’t Dad’s fault. Sam could have chosen to stay home and watch TV with them. It wasn’t that Sam was mad at Dad, Dean decided. Sam’s subconscious was creating events where Dad acted like other dads, because Sam wanted to believe that John Winchester was like that once, too, or could have been.
What was sad was that Sam wasn’t imagining something where he remembered sharing good times with Dad. He only imagined them between Dad and Dean.
Hell, Sam’s subconscious even had Dean analyzing crap like this… and that was so NOT Dean.
Which was just further proof that all this was just a dream.
It was never a good idea to leave Dean alone with his thoughts too long. Why and What If were Sam’s constant companions, not his. When and Where and Who and How were Dean’s strengths.
He focused on those now, legs burning with fatigue as he began to hear sounds of troops up ahead.
Dean didn’t know what General Thomas looked like. But, he knew that wherever there were saddled horses clustered together, there would be officers. And only the most senior officers would have a table and chairs brought to the battlefield to enjoy a comfortable breakfast.
So when he found a noisy tent all set up like a church picnic, the scent of bacon and coffee wafting toward him, and a dozen horses tied up outside it, he went right in. "Message for General Thomas," he announced.
A captain strode up to him, but Dean noticed that all eyes in the tent had turned toward a square-shaped officer in the back. The man had a square face under a salt-and-pepper beard, and a block-shaped body in a double-breasted Union coat with shiny brass buttons grouped in threes. Dean shook off the captain’s approach and stepped forward to face that man in the rear with the stars on his shoulders.
"With Colonel Croxton’s compliments, sir," Dean said.
General Thomas set down his fork, and inclined his head to invite the messenger closer. "Croxton, eh? Sent him off to capture that orphan brigade," he reminded his fellow officers, in a distinctly Virginia accent that seemed out of place with the Union blue. "Reporting a successful outcome, I trust?"
Dean extended the handwritten note. "Excuse me, sir, but exactly which one of the four or five brigades attacking our front was it that you wanted captured?"
"Four or five!? The hell you say!" The general shot to his feet, nimble enough despite his girth, and his chair clattered to the ground in his haste. He scanned the note quickly, and compared its information to a large map spread over a table beside him. Then he spun around to command his orderly. "Fetch my horse! I must see this for myself!"
The tent emptied just like that, like nickels pouring out of a slot machine. The hubbub moved outside where the horses were tethered. Orders were shouted to prepare to ride forward, to assess the sounds of the battle closer to the front.
With everyone’s attention diverted, Dean sneaked a hand toward the forgotten plates. He was just sinking his teeth into a still-warm strip of bacon when he felt eyes on him. Pivoting slowly, he discovered General Thomas standing poised at the edge of the tent’s canvas roof, studying him.
Maybe there was a reply to be delivered after all, Dean thought. He had every intention of returning, of course he did. But he’d marched all night, hadn’t eaten since God knew when, and every bone in his body ached from the morning’s battle. He wouldn’t mind a chance to take five, first.
The general didn’t say anything for a moment. Just reached for an apple from a bowl on the nearest table and silently inspected Dean.
Dean was abruptly conscious of the fact that he was grimy with soot and dirt and sweat. Pappy’s blood still matted his collar and he had Matthew’s blood on his sleeves, too. He was slouching in front of a goddamned general, gaping mouth full of stolen food. His dad would have court-martialed him if he could see him treating his commanding officer with such disrespect.
Dean straightened immediately and swallowed, offering a crisp, albeit belated salute.
General Thomas looked him up and down, and his eyes softened. "At ease, son," he said. "What’s your regiment?"
"Seventy-fourth Indiana Volunteers, Company H," Dean answered promptly, giving the name of Leamon’s unit. "We fought all morning until we ran out of ammo, sir. Then the Colonel ordered us to fall back when the 10th Kentucky relieved us."
Thomas nodded. "No doubt you’ve missed a meal or two." He cut the apple into pieces and set the core and knife back on the table, then turned back to Dean. "You can rest up here, boy, and then head out with the ammunition train when it departs to re-supply your company."
"Sir. Thank you, sir!"
Thomas returned his salute and turned away. A junior officer brought up a big bay war-horse, dark in color. General Thomas fed the apple pieces to his mount, scratching its muzzle as he said a few words in its ear. Apparently, no matter how urgent the situation, General Thomas liked to take his time, Dean thought.
Then the general stepped up from a judiciously placed crate to the stirrup and swung a leg over to settle heavily in the saddle. "Let’s go, Billy," he murmured to his mount. They backed away and trotted deliberately down the road toward the distant sound of artillery, a handful of anxious officers gathered around them.
The commander’s tent was deserted then. Dean gave a sigh of relief and pulled up a folding wooden chair. Taking a seat, he dug into the abandoned bacon and eggs, licking his fingers, and helped himself to the coffee. It was bitter and hot. From a neighboring tent he heard a prayer service underway, led by a chaplain’s strident voice announcing a reading from the Book of Isaiah.
"Therefore, hear the word of the Lord. Because you say, ‘We have made a covenant with death, and with hell we have made an agreement…."
With a shudder, Dean blocked out the sermon. Leaning back in the chair, he pulled out the journal lifted from their dad’s secret storage locker and stared at the worn suede cover. Why did their dad think the spells in this book were too dangerous to use? And why did Sam think he needed something that risky?
For the first time, he actually opened the book. Some pages were working loose from the aged binding. It was much older than their father’s journal. With not nearly as many pictures, he was sorry to see, though he was amused to discover the author was a better artist than John Winchester, master of the stick figure Wendigo.
Dean started thumbing through the pages. The author of the journal seemed to be a scholar, the volume little more than a collection of rituals. The spells included notes on their source, but few had entries describing actual attempts and results. Where such comments were found, they were scrawled in the margin, in different handwriting than the author’s, an enigmatic shorthand.
The collection seemed to be divided by chapters, maybe based on originating culture. The first section described defixiones, curse tablets from ancient Rome – like the spell cast on your opponent in a chariot race so he would let you win. Dean snorted at that one. Not so practical these days.
The Chinese ritual referenced in the Baopuzi, written by Ge Hong, looked much more useful.
"But among the bandits there was one man who was good at using spells. Whenever they were about to fight, the general's troops could not pull out their swords and their arrows always return to them…"
Unfortunately, the actual spell was written in Chinese calligraphy. Those pages fluttered loose, the glue at the spine old and rotting. Dean tucked them back in place and continued leafing through the fragile chapters.
There were spells to make someone love you. Spells to make someone faithful. Spells to tie someone’s destiny to your own, to be united forever. There were several pages on voodoo spells and voodoo dolls. A chill started to creep down the nape of his neck as he paged forward.
Every single spell in the book was a * binding * ritual.
This was Black Magic - spells to bind the summoner and the summoned. The person named was bound, or cursed, usually to fulfill the spell caster’s will.
Their father had taught them how to summon spirits, conduct simple séances, and other types of rituals. But in typical John Winchester fashion, he’d completely shut down when Sam once asked him about binding rituals.Binding rituals were too dangerous, he’d growled.
That had led to another shouting match. Dean remembered it well, Sam protesting that ignorance and secrets were more dangerous than answers. Sam always had a thirst for knowledge, and their dad too often tried to control it. It never worked.
What did Dad know that he refused to share?
Dean shook his head. It was so typical of Sam to try something he knew their father would forbid.
He found the section of the book with Latin incantations, and browsed through the brittle pages until he came to text he recognized. It was the opening line of the spell that Sam had read over Griffith’s empty grave.
He scanned the two parts of the ritual and his fingers tightened on the page as he read the notes in the margins - cryptic comments warning of "mirror consequences" and "residual effects".
There was no mention of literally crossing barriers of both time and space. Yet they had skipped back more than 100 years. More than 500 miles.
Which made Dean pause.
Since when did spirits travel so far from their place of death or burial?
If Leamon’s remains were here somewhere at Chickamauga, then it wouldn’t be his ghost haunting Hamilton, Indiana. It had to be someone else’s tormented spirit loose in Hamilton. Someone who was searching for something he lost, and couldn’t rest until he found it.
And suddenly, Dean realized whose spirit was responsible for the disturbed grave that first caught their attention. He was gripping the page so hard it came loose in his hand.
The spirit wasn’t Leamon. It acted like it was looking for Leamon. Searching his grave, near the church and school, around a rural road – in that not-thinking-too-clearly way that ghosts often had.
Dean wasn’t much for Roman Catholic catechism, but he knew the lore about Purgatory. When the Devil’s Gate had opened in Wyoming, what if it opened the door from Purgatory, too? And a lost soul, not damned to hell but paying penance for his sins for 100 years, had somehow slipped out. How would that be different from a ghost with unfinished business?
Dean rubbed his forehead. This was so much more Sam’s kind of thing than his.
Gut instinct was Dean’s kind of thing. And his instincts told him who it had to be who was searching for Leamon. Whose guilt for something tied to Leamon’s disappearance had condemned him to a century or more of suffering.
This was the penance of an older brother. The restless spirit was Leamon’s brother Lew.
Chapter 9 - September 19, 1863, 2:00 pm
There were butterflies.
As horrifying as the morning had been, full of carnage and panic and agony and grief, Sam had seen all of that before. He’d grown up in a family of hunters; it came with the territory.
What was startling here was the sight of butterflies dancing in the cedar glade where what remained of the regiment was now recovering.
He caught Leamon enjoying the view, and they exchanged sheepish looks. Their big brothers would have given them hell about it if they’d been there.
Leamon was sitting on the ground with his knees bent, capturing the scene with a stubby pencil on the back of a hand-drawn map. Sunlight spilled through the trees like a waterfall of pale yellow gauze. It was strangely peaceful. Normal. Behind them, hundreds of men clustered in the clearing, like ticket-holders milling around a stadium, waiting for the gates to open.
"I’m gonna make the rounds," Leamon announced abruptly, putting away his sketch and picking up his musket. He climbed to his feet. "I’ll make sure everyone’s…" He waved a hand helplessly, at a loss to describe his intentions.
"It’s too cold to just sit here," Sam said. "I’ll come, too."
It was cold, that was a fact. And Sam was used to wearing more layers than just the Henley and a wool Union jacket over it. But he was also curious about what Leamon had told him and Dean about enlisting. About being a coward.
Besides, Sam couldn’t bring himself to watch butterflies any more. They reminded him of the Butterfly Effect – the theory that you can’t change history. People die here, Leamon will die. And he couldn’t change that.
"Hey, Griff!" The words came out in a chorus from a pair of infantrymen. Not all brothers look alike – Sam and Dean Winchester were certainly evidence of that. But these fellows had such identical curly hair, deep-set eyes, and broad noses, they had to be related.
"Howdy, fellas. Where’s George?"
"Tennessee Quick Step," the older one answered, with a nod toward the bushes. "Say, Griff, when are they gonna bring up our gear? Been so long since we ate anything, I’m about hollowed out."
His companion piped in, rubbing his hands. "Desecrated vegetables weren’t never so appealing before. Hey, Cuz," he added as the third member of their group emerged, fastening his pants. "Embalmed beef sounding good to you yet?"
George pressed one hand to his belly and gave him a swat with the other. "Wouldn’t mind being reunited with my bedroll," he answered the corporal. "Got me a patchwork quilt from back home and I don’t wanna lose it."
"Hey, that reminds me," Not-George-Number-1 said. "When are we getting mail delivered again?"
"Or payroll?" Not-George-Number-2 piped in.
"Griff don’t care about payroll," George cut in. "He just sends the whole thirteen dollars a month home to his Ma anyway."
Griffith snorted. "If I didn’t, I’d just lose it to you card sharks playing poker. Look, I’ll go find Lieutenant Gates and see if he knows where our packs are." He tossed a wave in their direction and moved away.
"That was Nelson and Samuel Cole," he told Sam. "And their cousin George Geer."
Sam slung his musket over shoulder and thrust his hands in his pockets, shortening his stride to match Griffith’s. "So, there aren’t any rules against family serving in the same unit?"
"Of course not." Leamon’s eyebrows drew together, puzzled. "Why would there be?"
Sam couldn’t exactly tell him that the modern military discouraged it, so a family would be less likely to lose more than one son in the same engagement. But it did lead into asking Griffith the question he was wondering about. "So, if the Cole brothers could enlist together, why didn’t you enlist when Lew did?"
"Lew made me promise." Leamon sighed. "The year before the war started, our Pa died. We got us a farm to run in Steuben County; someone had to stay and help Ma. My two older sisters were married and gone, but there was still four boys and my sister Lydia at home. You remember, I told you how Johnny Bennett was sweet on her?"
"So, yeah. Besides Lyds, there was me and my brothers," Leamon continued. "Lew was 22 when the call came for volunteers. Then me at 19. Frank was 14 and Johnny was 9." He rubbed his chin, no doubt at that itchy stage when it wasn’t exactly a beard yet but there hadn’t been time to shave in several days.
"I’ll be honest," he said. "After helping those fugitives, I was all fired up and ready to do anything Lincoln asked! I thought I’d sign up and Lew would stay home. I knew he was courting Betsy. The school marm? I figured they’d get married when she turned 17 and then he’d stay on the farm with her. But I was wrong."
"Oh, he married Betsy all right. He and his friend Butler went to Auburn that summer of ‘61 and enlisted together. Then he came back and married Betsy and a few days later he left to muster in." Leamon took off his cap and ran his hand through stringy unwashed hair. "Before he left, he made me promise to take care of Ma and the family, and to take care of Betsy, too. Of course, Betsy just stayed with her folks after Lew left."
Leamon stopped, but it sounded like there was more he wasn’t saying.
"But…?" Sam prompted.
"Well, I kept an eye on her, like Lew asked. Made sure they were doing all right. Her daddy’s a preacher and they have a passel of girls, so they ain’t exactly prosperous."
Unfortunately, they didn’t get to continue the discussion. Another soldier joined them. The new man didn’t seem older than most of the enlisted men Sam had met, but Sam had learned a thing or two by now. The man carried a saber and pistol; that meant he was an officer.
"Lieutenant Gates!" Griffith said, not bothering with a salute. "The men were wondering when our packs were gonna catch up with us."
"I hear the ammunition train will arrive first," Gates said, familiar with the, well, familiarity. He spoke with a thick German accent. "I am here for the casualty report. "
"Yes, sir." Leamon straightened. "I regret to report, sir, that Pappy was killed. Isaac Crawford, I mean. In the very first exchange of fire."
Lieutenant Gates pulled out a notebook and began jotting the information in pencil.
"And Private Bennett." Griffith kept his voice steady, but Sam could hear the slight tremor underneath.
"Yes, sir. He fought bravely, sir."
"I knew his parents," Lieutenant Gates said. "I will write to them. And to Isaac’s widow. Anyone else from Company H?"
"Not that I saw," Leamon replied. "Do you want to know about the wounded?"
"I will collect that information from the medical staff," Gates said. "What about Private Latson? Is he...?"
Leamon turned; saw the lanky boy, still bareheaded and missing his cap, sprawled under a tree. "He’s just tuckered out," he told Gates, smiling. "Never saw a body who could fall asleep so quick ‘n easy. Just like my ol’ tabby cat at home. Any time she found a slab of sunshine, you’d find her curled up asleep in it."
A flurry of motion drew their attention to the edge of the clearing. Several officers on horseback materialized from the trees, looking worried. Sam recognized Colonel Croxton from the aid station. He was in charge of the brigade, Leamon explained to him, then pointed out Colonel Chapman, senior officer of the 74th Indiana, and Lieutenant Colonel Myron Baker.
Chapman broke away, and guided his horse toward Lieutenant Gates. "The ammunition has just arrived," he told him. "Have your men collect 60 rounds each. We must leave immediately in support of Scribner’s brigade."
Gates saluted. "Now, sir?"
"The bugler will sound Assembly in five minutes. You have something to say, Corporal?"
Leamon gulped. Clearly his reaction to the unexpected news hadn’t gone unnoticed. "You know, sir, the men are played out," he ventured to say. "They haven’t eaten since yesterday. They haven’t slept since Thursday."
"Colonel Scribner has already lost half his brigade!" Chapman controlled his voice but his agitation was evident. Even his horse pawed the ground, as if she felt the urgency through her rider’s tense legs. "At least one battery was overrun – five or six cannons lost." Chapman stood in the stirrups, peering east as if he could see the danger coming. "They’re coming at us now like a pack of wolves. We have to hold that ground, or go to heaven trying!"
"Understood, sir! We will be ready!" Gates held his salute, mirrored by Griffith and Sam, until the Colonel returned it. Then Chapman tugged his reins to the left, and kicked his heels to start his horse toward the next officer in the glade.
Several enlisted men staggered out of the trees, straining to carry the heavy crates of ammo. "Sixty rounds for every man!" Griffith shouted. "Looks like we ain’t done yet, boys!"
Sam took his share of the ammunition. He’d paid attention that morning, watching the competent, steady, nine-step rhythm Dean and Griffith used to load and fire. He knew he could do it now, too. At least, he had the know-how. He wasn’t sure about killing people whose crime was defending their country from what they considered armed invasion.
It was a repeat of the early morning, Sam thought, forming a long blue line to creep through the woods. The difference between this morning and now was that they knew now that they were marching into the crucible. They could already hear the gunfire to the southwest, had been told it was the Confederates from Arkansas tearing into the retreating Union forces.
The brigade line stretched through the trees for more than a quarter mile. Sam and Griffith were at the far north edge of it.
But unlike this morning, Sam thought, Dean wasn’t with them.
After advancing 300 yards, they crested a ridge and that put them dead into the enemy’s sights. Sam’s height made him an inviting target. He flinched and ducked, Union cap spinning off his head, as he heard the snap-crackle-pop of enemy muskets and felt the brush of hot lead whiz past his ear. Behind him, the regiment’s flag was being peppered with holes. Colonel Chapman shouted orders they couldn’t hear. He pushed his horse down the line, repeating his commands and a bugler sounded… something. Probably ‘Commence Firing’, Sam assumed, as the line immediately began shooting back.
Thirty minutes passed in a blur, both sides holding their ground, steadily firing. This wasn’t a battle of strategy by generals. This was a battle of foot soldiers, a battle to see who would run. Who would stand. Who would fall.
Who would endure.
"You see anything from up there?" Leamon shouted, with a grin to show he remembered Dean’s earlier comments about Sam’s height being useful.
Sam started to shake his head, and then paused. Not many of the trees here had branches low enough, or sturdy enough, to support what he had in mind, but one just 15 feet away did. If he grabbed the branch close enough to the trunk, he thought it would be thick enough there to hold his weight. Slinging his rifle across his back, he ran up to the tree and leaped.
His right hand caught the branch and held. His left hand caught, and the shock of pain made him immediately let go. Bela’s bullet had carved a path through the muscle in Sam’s upper arm and shoulder, and that torn muscle wasn’t healed.
It wasn’t a bad tear, Sam told himself firmly, and he forced his left arm back up to take hold. Still bearing most of his weight with his right arm, he swung his legs up and found a notch where he could wedge his feet. Within seconds, he was safely settled on a sturdy limb, grateful for years of tree climbing races his Dad had foisted on him and Dean.
In the time it took him to slide his musket off his back and into his hands, he saw a pair of Confederate soldiers creeping up within 20 yards. Part of a patrol, maybe, to find out how far their left flank extended.
Griffith saw them, too; Sam could see him point them out to Charlie at his side. Griffith had just grabbed a fresh cartridge; it would be 20 seconds or more before he could get a shot off.
Charlie shot and missed, getting just close enough to let them know they’d been spotted. The Rebels promptly turned on Charlie and Leamon.
Sam raised his rifle. Aiming quickly down the sights, he fixed a spot between the two skirmishers, and fired. They flinched, dropped flat and scrambled for cover.
When the smoke from his musket thinned, Sam caught sight of a small clearing beyond the trees. The ground was littered with Union dead: horses and gunners and cannoneers. Their five cannons still faced east, untended… but Rebel soldiers were rushing toward them, several men on each cannon now, straining to push them around to face west.
To point at the Union line.
Sam dropped lightly out of the tree. "Artillery!" he yelled. "They’ve got our cannons; they’re turning them around!"
It was enough. Leamon had heard and understood. He ran to Lieutenant Gates, the nearest officer, and within moments the bugles sounded. By now, Sam recognized that call.
There were two ways to get out of artillery range. Retreat. Or rush forward so that you’re in hand-to-hand combat range.
The bugle sang a ‘Charge!’
Colonel Chapman raised his sword and kneed his horse to race forward, passing many of his men. It inspired them; they cheered as they ran in his wake, flags snapping in their midst.
A lead minie ball struck the horse, high in the breast, and she went down hard. For a minute Sam couldn’t see the Colonel at all, just a handful of horrified men rushing to his aid. Finally Colonel Chapman crawled out, minus his sword, and stood with the help of Lieutenant-Colonel Baker. One of his arms hung crooked. Chapman drew his pistol with his good arm and lurched valiantly after his men.
They were within 40 feet of the Arkansas regiment now and still charging, still screaming. Sam could see the look of surprise on the faces of the Rebels. Some of the men rushed to fix bayonets, fast as they could, forming a row of cold steel like jaws of death.
One minute Sam was running behind Griffith along the edge of the ravine and the next he was sent flying. The gully was short but steep. Sam spun in the air, landed hard at the bottom, rolled once, and then the pain hit.
Chapter 10 - September 19, 1863, 4:00 pm
Lieutenant Lew Griffith sat very still with his back against a tree. He’d already figured out that remaining absolutely motionless helped lessen the nausea and the throbbing in his skull. That big sergeant from Alabama had swung his rifle butt at Lew like he was driving a railroad spike, and Lew figured he was lucky his head was still in one piece.
The poor bastard lying next to him was in worse shape. He’d been knocked out in the same attack, but there was blood trickling from his ear in addition to the goose egg just behind it. He hadn’t regained consciousness since, maybe never would.
Lew didn’t even know who he was. He wasn’t in Lew’s company. Lew had been with the same group of infantrymen since the war began in 1861. Enlisted as a private, promoted up the ranks to 1st Lieutenant. He knew all ‘his boys’.
The stranger had just shown up out of nowhere, asking around the regiment for a Lieutenant Griffith. Before Lew could confront him and find out who he was, they were given orders to probe the enemy lines. "First platoon - as skirmishers! On the left file – take intervals! Double quick – march!" And the newcomer had just been swept along.
Now it was quiet, the sounds of battle echoing far away.
A rustling noise caught his attention, and Lew lowered his eyes to find the wounded man starting to stir. The soldier’s face, surprisingly clean-shaven, was very pale. Even more surprising was his hair, short and spiky like a hedgehog. Bruising was starting near his left eye – soon it would look like the Amish quilts back home, vivid purple and blue and black. Lew touched his own eye socket, felt the puffiness there that suggested his would be the same.
"What happened?" the man croaked.
"You’re not dead! That’s good news!"
"I think so."
Lew snorted. "Well, enjoy it while you can," he said. His gaze slid toward the next tree over. A burly soldier in shabby clothes and unkempt beard was pacing barefoot in front of the tree, wiping blood off his bayonet with the sleeve of his gray uniform jacket. Never taking his hostile eyes off them.
"’Cause the bad news is," Lew said, "we’ve been captured."
The man lying on the ground put a shaky hand to his head. "I don’t…I don’t remember what happened."
Lew frowned, the year-old scar near his mouth blanching as it was pulled taut. "That happens with a head wound sometimes," he said in a calming voice, masking his concern. "It’ll probably come back to you soon. Got a name, soldier?"
The other man struggled to sit up, then gave up and dropped back down. He looked confused, his fingers exploring the swelling that stretched the skin from his eyebrow to his ear.
Lew had seen men brain-damaged from injuries that looked no worse than this. Soldiers who couldn’t remember who they were, where they were. Reduced to the mental capacity of a child. He prayed that wasn’t the case here and tried for a note of levity instead.
"Can’t remember your name?" Griffith prompted again. "Or are you trying to come up with a better one?"
The private gave him a sharp look, considering. "Dean," he conceded in one syllable, his voice scratchy.
Terse, but it was still a relief to hear it. Dean seemed coherent. He looked like he had his wits about him, even if it must’ve felt like he had a bass drum playing ‘The Long Roll’ inside his skull. God knew, there was an annoying drummer boy playing behind Lew’s eyes, too.
If Dean did have memory loss, Lew hoped that maybe he was only missing an hour or two. Would he even remember coming to look for a certain lieutenant that afternoon? Because Lew wanted some answers.
"I’m Lew Griffith." Lew decided it was past time to introduce himself. "Lieutenant with Company A, 44th Indiana Regiment."
Dean was already pale, but he blanched at this. His eyes seemed to get bigger, but they darted away from Lew, attention turned inward, distant. It only lasted a moment, and then he pushed himself up on one elbow. The big Confederate corporal glared at them from under his worn broad-brimmed hat, but didn’t object.
"Easy, there." Lew put a hand on his shoulder, steadying Dean when he wavered. Lew took off the kerchief around his neck and leaned forward to blot at the gash at Dean’s hairline. It seemed to be clotting well enough, and he stuffed the cloth back in his pocket.
Lew watched Dean squint, getting things into focus, as he looked around the area they were being held. They were deep in the north Georgia woods. There was nothing to see but trees, dark and close, almost menacing in the afternoon gloom. No sign of cabins or other structures. No creek in sight; no trails.
Not even any dead soldiers, Lew was relieved to see. Lew’s platoon had been deployed as skirmishers, ordered to flush out the Alabama brigade like a covey of quail. A covey of angry, musket-wielding, bloodthirsty quail, as it turned out. They were lucky the ground wasn’t littered with Union dead.
Instead, the Rebels had rushed their attackers, clubbed Lew and Dean senseless, and driven the company back to the battle line, where the rest of the brigade was waiting.
The sounds of fighting seemed to grow more distant as time passed. That wasn’t good; it meant the Union line was being driven back. If they were pushed across the main road, if they lost control of it, the Union Army would be cut in two.
Here, it was quiet. Only Lew and Dean - and one Rebel corporal who was pissed off that he had to stay behind to watch the prisoners.
Dean drew his legs under him, survey completed, and climbed up to a wobbly stand. "Thank God!" he told the Confederate soldier. "I’ve been looking for you!"
"For me?" The guard’s voice was deep, the tone challenging. He was a big fellow, even bigger than Dean, and Lew hadn’t seen many men who could make that claim. It wouldn’t be a good idea to make him even more agitated than he already was. What was Dean doing?
"Looking for your army," Dean clarified. "I need your help."
What the hell? Lew got to his feet, too, more quickly than his own precarious equilibrium would advise, and stumbled. The corporal sent a warning glance his way and Lew stilled.
"My brother and I – we’re Kentucky boys," Dean explained. "I didn’t exactly run to enlist for the Union. I needed money to pay off a gambling debt and someone offered me $300 to replace him in the draft." He shrugged. "After I left, my little brother Sammy volunteered for the Confederacy. I know he’s here somewhere. I need to see him. To talk to him."
"Yeah," the Rebel said, surly. "What do you want me to do about it?" He had a Tennessee twang.
"Take me to see your commander. He can help me find Sam."
Their guard didn’t move. "I’m not taking you anywhere. My orders are to stay here with you until reinforcements come this way."
Dean was quiet a minute. Lew was watchful. Wary. Then Dean asked the corporal, "Do you have any brothers?"
The other man tightened his lips. "I did. He was killed at Pittsburg Landing."
"Then you understand. You’ve gotta help me," Dean pleaded, his voice rough. "I’ve got information to trade. I can tell them where General George Thomas is. I just came from delivering a dispatch to his headquarters. I’ve seen their maps; I know their troop movements."
Lew charged Dean then, grabbing the front of his uniform jacket. "You’re nothin’ but a damned traitor!"
Dean didn’t try to defend himself. "It’s my brother," he said simply, like that justified everything.
"Back off!" their guard snarled, pushing Lew away from Dean with the barrel of his musket. His other hand still gripped the bloodied bayonet.
Not everything, Lew thought. Family doesn’t, it can’t justify everything.
The guard’s glare was as sharp as his bayonet blade, and Lew stepped back. "I can’t believe I’ve been helping a damned deserter," he muttered. He would have to find a way to silence Dean, he knew, and that thought made his blood crawl. He’d never killed an unarmed man before. A man whose name he knew, a man he’d talked to. But a lot more Union soldiers might die if he didn’t.
The Southerner was considering his options, too. Finally, he nodded. "Guess that knowledge might be worth somethin’, and the sooner, the better. Might even get me another stripe on my sleeve, bringing in a prisoner with that kind of information." The idea of a promotion almost erased his scowl. Almost. He waved the back of his hand in a shooing motion. "Move out."
"Thank you!" Dean nearly stumbled in his haste to cooperate. "You won’t regret this!" He took a step, another, and then the Rebel stopped him.
"You’re goin’ the wrong way!"
"No, I’m not." Dean sounded very certain. "We came from the other direction. So this way will take us to your army. We need to go this way." Dean pointed in the direction he’d been heading.
"You. What?" Their guard stopped dead, pivoted on his heels, and gazed at the trees all around, uncertainty scrawled across his face.
For a moment, Lew felt the same bewilderment. Mouth open, question on his lips, he caught the quick quirk of Dean’s eyebrow, noticed Dean carefully schooling his expression back to honest trustworthiness when the Rebel turned back to them. In a flash, Lew wiped his own expression clean.
"Trust me," Dean said earnestly. "I don’t know exactly where my brother is, but I know for a fact his army is this way."
"Alright." The Tennessean waved his musket in that direction. Dean led, Lew followed him, and the Rebel brought up the rear.
There was no one in sight, not from either army, as they made their way through the forest gloom. Lew was pretty sure he didn’t need to strangle Dean after all.
But he still had some questions he needed to ask him.
If they lived long enough.
Artillery made the air rumble around them, a distant drumbeat, but they couldn’t tell whose side it came from. They couldn’t hear musket fire anymore. Wherever they were heading, it was away from the current action. Of course, if there were patrols creeping through the trees, trying to ascertain the enemy’s movements, they would be quiet, wouldn’t they?
A shout came from the north. "Halt where you are!"
Lew had never been more glad to hear a thick German accent. Or maybe it was Swedish. Or Norwegian. He couldn’t tell the difference, but as far as he knew, nearly all the immigrant regiments were from Northern states.
The Confederate soldier behind them didn’t seem to think much of prisoners. He hadn’t acted that pleased about guarding a pair of prisoners, and he sure as hell wasn’t about to become one himself.
Lew saw Dean spin around, start to rush the Tennessean, but he was too far away.
Lew wasn’t. He pivoted and lunged for the Rebel’s musket, just as it was being raised to fire. The shot went wild.
Unfortunately, it drew the attention of a squad of Texans moving roughly parallel to the Union patrol, about 60 yards apart, and both sides opened up on each other.
Lew and Dean were caught in the crossfire.
For the second time that afternoon, Lew watched Dean wake up. It was fast this time. Like an outlaw, maybe, used to sleeping with a weapon under his hand. Who was he, really?
Dean’s eyes flew open, startled. He raised his shoulders off the ground, curling up to a right angle, and then forward further, pressing his left arm over his ribs and wincing. "What happened?"
"Again?" Lew grinned. "You have a terrible memory."
"I’m having a bad day," Dean said. "It’s Lew, right? Tell me."
"Darnedest thing I ever saw," Lew told him. "I mean I’ve heard about it happening, but I never saw it before."
"A minie ball hit you, right in the chest."
"What!?" Dean’s hand fluttered over his ribs and found the small hole in the blue wool, directly over his heart.
"I felt your jacket, Dean. Your Bible, there, it saved your life."
Dean reached inside his jacket and drew out a suede-covered book. A neat round hole pierced the cover. He fanned the pages and several floated loose to the ground. They could both see the path the bullet had tunneled, marble-sized holes punched through each page. The bullet dropped out of book and landed with a soft thud on Dean’s leg.
"No wonder my chest hurts so much," Dean mumbled, rubbing his sternum. He gathered up the pages and stuck them back inside the book.
"We brought you to this here dressing station," Lew told him, waving at the dozens of men who were clustered close by, quietly bleeding. "You wouldn’t wake up. Been waitin’ for an ambulance to take you to the field hospital. But you’re awake now; maybe we don’t need to?"
Dean pondered it, rubbing his chest and wincing. "I’ve been hurt a lot worse," he decided. "I don’t need a doc."
"So, Dean. Got a last name yet?"
He nodded succinctly. "Winchester."
"I always thought so."
Lew looked around at the wounded men waiting to be seen by the doctor, the litter-bearers coming and going. He had questions for Dean, but he had a feeling he’d have a better chance of getting an honest answer if he waited till they were alone. So instead he pulled out a canteen, took a drag, and passed it over to Dean. "Doc had an extra one," he told him. Lew didn’t like to think about the fact that it might have come from someone who’d made it as far as the aid station and wasn’t going any further.
Damn Rebels had taken his canteen, and Dean’s, of course. And his pistol and sword, and Dean’s musket and cartridge box, too. Lew was glad he still had his bedroll, wrapped around his torso from shoulder to hip like a parade sash and fastened with a leather lace at the ends. And they still had their boots. A number of Confederate soldiers wore shabby footwear or none at all. It was probably a blessing their guard’s filthy feet were so big he wasn’t tempted to steal their shoes.
Lew leaned back on his elbows, wiping the sweat from his brow with a weary hand. He’d put a cold compress on his eye when they got there, and the percussion section behind his eyes had finally quieted. The headache that remained was the kind that comes from going 56 hours with only occasional catnaps for sleep. His chest was sore, and he felt weak with relief at being ‘uncaptured’. Lew needed a few minutes to regain his strength and was pretty sure Dean did, too. "You know who else has a good name?" he asked, knowing he was rambling a bit, but too tired and sore to care. "General States Rights Gist."
"Confederate general. From South Carolina. When he was born, his folks named him States Rights. Now he’s a general. General States Rights Gist. They say he’s here somewhere." Griffith peered west.
"Crazy Southerners," Dean muttered. His eyes narrowed against what was probably the residual pounding in his skull or the bone-deep ache in his ribs.
"Oh, we’ve got our share of outrageous names in our cause, too," Lew said, leaning forward again to peer at Dean’s eyes. They seemed alert enough, able to focus and track. The black eye was starting to be spectacular, as he’d expected. Lew took the canteen back, then wadded up a cloth and poured the last of his cold water on it. "Put that on your eye," he said. "Try to keep the swelling down."
Dean took it with a grateful nod.
"Yep," Lew continued. "My wife Betsy’s family are all strong abolitionists, like my family. She has an aunt who just this year named their baby girl ‘Emancipation Proclamation’."
"What?" Dean’s face screwed up, mouth twitching in pain or disbelief. He pressed the cold compress against his eyebrow. "You aren’t serious."
"Emancipation Proclamation Coggeshall. They call her Prockie."
Dean snorted. "Wish Sam was here to hear that. His weird-ass brain loves obscure stuff like this."
"So there really is a Sam?"
For the first time since Lew had met Dean, he saw Dean smile.
"Yeah. But we’re on the same side. At least, most of the time." Dean’s smile faded. He was thoughtful a moment, then asked, "You have brothers?"
"Three. Frank’s 17 and Johnny’s 14 now. I pray this war ends before they’re old enough to get into it." Lew had been almost 8 when Frank was born, 11 when Johnny came along. He’d been old enough to remember them when they were just knee-high to a grasshopper, as troublesome as a pair of puppies, and just as funny. He started to smile, lines of weariness and pain easing, as he reflected back on those days. He remembered their Pa gathering the four boys around the fireplace while a blizzard stormed outside one winter, and telling them stories about his own grandpappy Hezekiah Griffith in the Revolutionary War. In the morning, they’d all tumbled outside and re-enacted the battle with snow forts and snowballs.
"You said - three brothers?"
"Yeah. Lee. Leamon, that is. Three years younger than me." Lew sighed, brow furrowed, and he studied his boots like Leamon was something he could scrape off the bottom of them. "He’s with the 74th Indiana Volunteers."
Dean looked surprisingly unsurprised. "You don’t sound so fond of him."
"I’m not," Lew said heavily. His eyes flashed with a temper he’d never let himself vent. "When I married Betsy, it was Leamon’s job to take care of the family. Pa had died just the year before, you see. Leamon promised he would take care of Ma, take care of the farm, and the young ‘uns."
"How old was he?"
"Nineteen, when I left."
"He didn’t keep his promise. Damn fool just got tired of the responsibility after a year or two, I guess. Last summer Lincoln called for 300,000 more volunteers, and Lee just signed right up without a second thought."
"And you haven’t seen him since?"
"I haven’t seen him, or answered his letters either." Lew’s hands balled into agitated fists. "When I left Betsy behind, I knew she had her father to support her. A woman needs a man around. But Ma? Leamon left Ma alone. I just can’t forgive him for that."
"Yeah – I know." Dean sighed companionably. "Younger brothers! They have a way of insisting they know what’s right for them, and the hell with what the family needs. Pain in the ass if you ask me."
"You, too?" Lew felt a little relieved to have someone to confide in after all these months of pent-up anger. Someone who understood. "Was it Sam? He walk away from the family, too?"
"That’s Sam, alright. He walked out, and I didn’t talk to him for, well, longer than you’ve been punishing your brother." Dean threaded his fingers, locked them around a knee and leaned closer. "But you know? I think maybe – it sure didn’t seem like it at the time, but I think maybe leaving was the right thing for him to do after all."
"Well, then, your situation was different from ours." Lew was back to being bitter. "Ma’s health got bad, and she had to farm Johnny and Frank off to board with the local school teacher, because she couldn’t take care of them. There is no reason Leamon could offer that would be good enough to excuse him leaving Ma like that, with no one to support her."
And that was all there was to say. He was done talkin’ about it.
Dean waved off the doctor who was finally making his way toward them, and Lew helped him to his feet. Together they joined the parade of walking wounded. Those who didn’t need the hospital were making their way to the nearby Dyer farm and tanning yard where the brigade would bivouac for the night.
They reached the camp before dark. Lew left Dean with the empty canteen by a small cattle pond and went in search of Colonel George Dick, to give and get a status report. The field was full of chaos – officers trying to locate their men, soldiers who had been cut off now trying to find what remained of their regiments. Lew found the colonel convening with other officers at the tanning shed. As an officer himself, he was able to pick up a spare Colt 49 revolver and ammo there, too.
He listened to the thin strains of harmonica music as he made his way back, stopping for a word whenever he found another refugee from company A. The order had been passed that no campfires were to be lit, so’s not to give away their position. Lew figured the Rebels knew darn well where they were in general, and the music certainly confirmed it, but he supposed a tune wouldn’t be as much of a bulls-eye as sitting illuminated by the glow of an orange fire in the night.
Still, he was damned cold and getting colder by the minute. And he missed hot food, like seedlings in a drought miss the rain.
Lew found Dean was sitting on the ground where he’d left him, knees bent and arms wrapped around them. Listening. Watching. Every now and then, his eyes drifted skyward, toward the north. There was an edginess to him, Lew thought.
"You get water?" Lew asked him.
Dean shook his head.
Lew walked over to the pond, and could see why. The water was murky, tainted with a layer of scum that looked like blood. The carcass of a dead horse was lying in the weeds at the edge of the pool to the south. There were other bodies in the shadows of the pond. Maybe livestock. Maybe men.
Lew dropped cross-legged beside Dean and handed him a raw potato. It was all he’d been able to scavenge.
Several soldiers nearby had started singing along with the harmonica now and Lew recognized the melody. It was a new song, just making the rounds that year. He hummed softly along with the final verse.
We've been fighting today on the old camp ground,
Many are lying near;
Some are dead and some are dying,
Many are in tears.
Many are the hearts who are weary tonight,
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts that are looking for the right
To see the dawn of peace
Dying tonight, dying tonight, dying on the old camp ground.
Dean shifted restlessly beside him. He had the air, Lew decided, of a man watching and waiting for the moon to rise so he could make his escape. But they had already gotten free. Where would Dean want to go? For that matter, where had he come from and why had Dean come looking for him to begin with?
"Where did you come from, Dean?" he asked, now that there was finally time for such things. He shook out a blanket, wrapping it around Dean’s shivering shoulders.
"Where’d you get this?" Dean asked, pulling it tighter. Stalling?
Dean looked puzzled. "From where?"
"A cavalry officer."
"A Union officer? You stole from your own side?"
"He’s got a horse." Lew shrugged, and reached for the leather lace that tied the ends of his own bedroll together. "When he discovers it’s missing, he can get to the supply wagons a helluva lot easier than we can."
"Huh." Dean tugged the blanket tight around him, looked up and then suddenly grew still. "What’s that?"
Lew saw where Dean’s gaze lingered. "Yeah." He fingered the hole that pierced the rolled up blanket strung across his chest. Shaking it out, he saw that the bullet had torn a path through nine layers of folds before it finally stopped. "Same thing that happened to you," he told Dean. "Only a Bible does make a better story than a bedroll, don’t you think? I heard that Sam Houston’s boy was saved at Shiloh by the Bible his mama gave him. It stopped lead right at the 70th Psalm: ‘O God: Thou art my help and my deliverer.’"
"Jesus," Dean breathed.
"The dangedest thing isn’t that a bullet got stopped by my bedroll," Lew added. "It’s that the same thing happened to both of us, at almost the same time and place! Can you beat that?"
Dean just stared at the frayed edge of the bullet hole and then shuddered, like he’d suddenly taken a chill.
"So – what are you doing here, Dean?" Lew repeated. "Where did you come from?"
"I wasn’t lying when I told that Rebel I came from General Thomas’s HQ," Dean told him. "It was less than a mile from where I caught up with you."
"But why were you looking for me? Where do you really belong?"
"Where do I belong? That’s a good question…" Dean gave a short laugh. "I came from your brother’s outfit," he started. "Leamon didn’t send me. He doesn’t know I’m here," he clarified quickly. "But after I delivered the dispatch from Colonel Croxton, I saw the maps in the General’s tent. I realized how close you were, and I just decided to find you. Had something to say to you, I guess."
What had Leamon said about him, Lew wondered. He had no interest in being lectured and he was half-tempted to get up and walk away. But he couldn’t, not without asking something first. "You were with Lee? Was he alright?"
"He was fine," Dean reassured him. "And he was doing a good job leading his men. Which makes me want to ask you. When you left him in charge of the family in Indiana, was he reckless? Selfish? Undependable?"
"No, of course not." Lew thought back to their days together. Lee pleading to be allowed to help Butler’s family smuggle the fugitive slaves toward the Detroit River and Canada. Working shoulder to shoulder in the fields. Giving up his dream of college to work the farm after Pa died. "I wouldn’t have asked him to do it if I didn’t think he was responsible."
"So what makes you think he’s changed?" Dean challenged him. "If he’s responsible and he still decided to leave home, maybe he had a valid reason. One you should at least listen to."
Griffith chucked his potato away. Didn’t matter how hollow his gut was, he didn’t feel like eating. "I just – I couldn’t take the worryin’. I miss Betsy like you wouldn’t believe, and I’ve got an entire company to worry about here. I just needed to know that Lee was managing things at home. Because I don’t have anything left in me to worry about that, too."
Lew sighed, weary. "He put that burden back on me. Worryin’ about Ma and the boys. And now worryin’ about him, in the fightin’… I got a right to be mad at him for making me carry all that on my shoulders, don’t I?"
Dean tossed his disgusting potato after Lew’s. "Not saying you can’t be mad. Me and Sam get mad at each other all the time. Throw a punch if that’ll help. I’m just saying you can still talk to each other."
Lew didn’t have an answer to that, and didn’t have time to think of one.
"He’s over there!" They heard a raised voice, coming from one of the men who’d been singing a few minutes ago. C.Q. Miller, the harmonica player, was pointing in their direction, and the next thing Lew knew, a distraught soldier was running up to him. Lew stood up, compelled by the youth’s urgency.
"Lieutenant Griffith, God, I’m so s-s-sorry," the newcomer stammered, eyes wild, hands shaking.
Dean stirred beside him and climbed slowly to his feet, blanket falling forgotten to the ground.
Lew peered at the private. "Latson, isn’t it? Charlie Latson? I remember you. You were in my Betsy’s Sunday School class, back home."
"Yes, sir. That’s right." Chest heaving, Latson made an effort to recover his breath, straightening his spine.
"You’re in my brother’s company, aren’t you? Company H in the 74th?"
"That’s what I came to tell you, sir. It’s Leamon, sir. He – he’s dead."
All the color leached from Lew’s face. He staggered a moment. Dean caught his elbow, gripped it tighter than needed.
"What? Where? Did you see –" The words burst from Lew in broken sentences.
"In the woods, west of the sawmill. Jesus wept, it was awful."
"Charlie!" Dean grabbed his arm, yanked him so their faces were close. "We pulled back from there. We were out of ammo. The regiment pulled back and Leamon was fine!"
"No. It was l-later." Charlie was shaking. "First they said we was gonna be in reserve for the rest of the day, but then the Rebels kept coming. Like a pack of wolves, the Colonel said. We had to go back in, he said. And then the ammunition came, and so we went back."
"What happened to Leamon?" Lew growled through clenched teeth.
"Those damn Johnny Rebs captured our artillery and turned it back on us. Colonel Chapman led the charge and then he fell and his horse was dead… And that’s around where I saw Leamon fall."
"But – not a fatal wound? Surely not…"
"He went down like a scarecrow cut free of his post, sir. He just went down and slid down a little gully and he didn’t get up. And then…. Gawd…"
"What?" It was Dean who forced the word out.
"We was in the middle of the charge. I couldn’t stop. We pushed the Rebs back and they pushed us back and we just fought over the same patch of dirt for about 30 minutes. No matter how many we killed, more kept comin’. And then they finally drove us back. We was retreatin’ and I saw down in the gully where Griff had fallen."
He gulped. "The brush had caught on fire, sir. Everything was burning. All the bodies… There weren’t no way I could get down there. I couldn’t get to him." His voice broke. "Honest, sir."
Lew just stared, breath caught between his lungs and his throat.
Dean found enough air to demand, "What about Sam?"
"The guy who got you your ramrod back – remember? He was with Leamon. You had to see him - Sam’s like ten feet tall!"
"Oh. Yeah. Yeah. I think he was there. He fell, too. With Leamon, I mean. Yeah."
Dean grabbed Latson by the front of his jacket and Lew had to restrain him from shaking the boy. "You could be wrong, though! You were on the run. It was hard to see, right?"
"I didn’t see anyone left alive down there. I’m sorry."
"Where? Where did you last see him?"
"Not that far from where we fought this mornin’ – in the woods near that ol’ saw mill. In the afternoon we clawed our way further south aways – till we could see a played-out cornfield just ahead of us. That’s where the artillery was. We were runnin’ toward it, alongside a little ravine runnin’ east-west."
Dean shut his eyes a moment, then opened them and nodded. "We’ll need water," he told Lew.
"What?" Griffith’s head was bowed. Whether or not Lew forgave him, Leamon still deserved a prayer for his immortal soul. Just a few silent words, but Lew found he couldn’t even manage that. He couldn’t pray, couldn’t form words. Just pictures. Remembering the years together, before Pa died. Before the war.
Teaching Leamon to tie his shoes. To snap his fingers. To whistle. To read…
He blinked. Eyes wet.
"Water! We need canteens."
"We’ve got to go. Find our brothers." Dean bent to roll up the stolen blanket he’d been given, wincing at the strain on his bruised ribs.
"We can’t…" It was too much.
"It’s too late," Lew said. Cold reason started to reassert itself. It’s what made him a good leader, got him promoted. In the heat of the moment, he always made good strategic decisions. "We can’t help them now. And it’s too dark to find them."
"We’ll take lanterns."
"It’s behind enemy lines, Dean. It’s too dangerous."
"I’m not leaving my brother there." Dean stood unmoving, staring Lew down.
"I’ve got obligations to my company," Lew finally protested. He was a lieutenant, after all, and his men would need him soon. But it was starting to sound like an excuse, even to him.
"Is what Leamon did – whatever his reasons – so unforgivable that you’ll turn your back on him now?"
"No." Lew straightened. Winchester was right. He repeated it louder. "No. I’ll come with you."
"C’mon, then. Let’s go," Dean said. "We’ll find them."
It sounded like a promise.
Chapter 11 - September 19, 1863, 2:30 pm
Sam Winchester wondered about a lot of things. But one that had never crossed his mind was wondering what it would feel like if he sat on the corner of the Impala’s hood, his right leg dangling over the front bumper, and another car crashed into them headfirst at 90 miles an hour.
He didn’t need to wonder now. He knew exactly how it would feel.
He didn’t know if he’d been hit by a bullet, or shrapnel from artillery. If he looked, he didn’t know if he’d find anything below his knee or not.
He was afraid to look.
He recognized that voice, even though it was weak.
Sam opened his eyes and the first thing he saw was a patched jacket the color of lead. It was worn by a Confederate soldier lying on his side with one arm outstretched, palm open like he was begging. The other hand was curled around his neck. By the pool of blood surrounding him, it was likely he’d been shot in the jugular and bled out. He was dead.
More bodies lay scattered in the dry streambed beyond him. Some in factory-made union blue. Others in uniforms that appeared more irregular, handmade, in shades of gray or mustard or butternut squash.
"Griff?" Sam called back.
The voice came from a spot near a tangle of thickets on the far side of the wash. He was going to have to move.
Sam pushed himself up on his elbows, and realized that landing on his left shoulder was a mistake. He could feel his shirt grow wet with fresh blood. That arm wouldn’t bear much of his weight. But the right leg… that wasn’t an option at all.
He had to look. He discovered his leg was still attached after all. All of it, from his hip to his toes. Pain flared along the whole long length of his leg, but it all erupted from the bloody mess where it looked like his kneecap had exploded.
If he’d had anything to eat all day, he might have lost it then.
Sam crawled across the drought-parched earth and stones, on forearms and left leg. The dry creek was about ten feet wide, before he hit grass. He might have passed out once along the way.
Sam recognized the next body he found. It was the one of the Cole brothers, or maybe their cousin George. They all looked so much alike. The eyes were open, staring, but he was gone.
"Is that George Geer?" The voice came from his left, close by.
"I think so," Sam told him.
"Is he dead?"
"Yes." Sam raised his head. He smelled something new, something different seeping through the dissipating cloud of gunpowder. The smell reminded him of his first memory of sitting around a campfire with Dean. Dad never agreed to buy them marshmallows, but somehow Dean had produced a bag out of nowhere…
"Sorry. I’m coming." Sam had to roll George out of his way to get to Leamon. Finally, he reached his side and found the corporal white-faced and jaw clenched. His hands were bloody, clutching his right leg.
Leamon’s face was tight, but his eyes widened, white showing all around the pale blue pupils, when he took in Sam’s condition. "Shit," he breathed. "We are both screwed."
Sam huffed a laugh. "You remind me of Dean."
"I reckon that was meant as a compliment?"
A grin lit Sam’s face for a moment. Then he noticed a crackling sound and the smell of a campfire grew stronger. It made the skin crawl along the healing burn on his arm from that motel fire a few days ago. Or 140 or so years in the future. Whatever. He turned his head, saw flames flickering in a thicket not far away. Not nearly far enough away.
"Griff, we gotta move. Now!"
"I can’t, Sam." Leamon flopped back. "I tried. I can’t."
Sam glanced back at the burning bush, saw cinders fly off and spark to life in a nest of dead leaves.
He had to get out of there.
This brushfire, this, must be what had happened to Corporal Leamon Griffith. And no one ever knew. This is why his spirit wasn’t at rest, Sam thought.
It was time to go home. Add ‘74th Indiana Volunteers, H Company’ to Griffith’s tombstone, and ‘died with honor September 19, 1863’, and maybe the ghost would see that and be appeased and move on.
Sam shifted his position on the ground, turning to drag himself back across the wash. To go up the steep ravine. Back to his brother. He wasn’t supposed to save Leamon, he reminded himself. Just find out what happened to him.
You can’t change history. The Butterfly Effect says it’s too dangerous to try.
But. There was no way to know, really, what the consequences would have been if Captain Kirk had saved Joan Collins, after all. Ah, Dean…
The pain in his knee was making it hard to think clearly. Sam decided one thing was sure. He couldn’t leave a man to burn alive.
Sam grabbed Leamon’s arm. "You can crawl, dammit. C’mon!"
Leamon did try. He really did. But dragging his injured leg was excruciating, and after four or five feet, he passed out.
Sam towed him the remaining distance, like a swimmer rescuing a drowning man. It took a long time. He could feel the shards of bone grating against each other in his knee. But he kept on. Somehow, in his fuddled thinking, saving Leamon from burning here got mixed up with saving Dean from burning in hell, and that kept him from letting go.
By the time they were across the dry wash, the fire had consumed a ribbon of cracked leaves and was licking at the bare feet of a dead Confederate.
Sam wasn’t sure they were safe where they were, but it was rockier here and dry as a bone, except for the dark red streamers of blood that trailed behind them. As long as the wind didn’t shift…
He could still hear the faint sounds of the battle, but could tell that the combat had moved further south and west. He could rest now. He wanted to rest. He wanted to sleep, and not feel anything anymore.
"Sam?" Leamon had come to again. He sounded tired, almost dreamy. "Do you have a girl, back home?"
Back home. That was a laugh. Sam lay sprawled flat on his back, panting hard. Above, he could see a clear sky, no clouds. The sun had passed overhead and was already beginning to arc toward the horizon and sunset. He was cold. "No," he said after a minute.
"Did you ever? Love a girl, I mean?"
"Yeah." He didn’t think of Jess every day any more. At first he’d felt guilty, but he’d made his peace with that awhile ago. Sometimes, something made him think of her, and the memories made him smile. And sometimes he still felt the bitter stab of grief.
"That’s good. I loved a girl, too. I wouldn’t want to die without ever knowing love."
Somehow that sounded earnest, not sappy, in the nineteenth century. "You aren’t going to die," Sam said, but he knew it lacked conviction. It was enough that he’d moved Leamon out of the path of the flames. Maybe too much. He couldn’t process time travel paradoxes any more. Leamon would probably still die here, but maybe this time his remains would be found.
Sam didn’t plan to die here, though. He looked at the sharp rise of the gully that he would have to haul himself over, and knew he’d never have been able to get Leamon up it. He wasn’t sure he could make it himself, but he was going to try.
But not yet. God, his leg hurt! He needed another minute or two to summon the courage to move. "Your girl, is she waiting for you back in Indiana?" he asked.
Leamon wheezed a bitter laugh. "No. She’s waiting for her husband. Not for me."
"Her - husband?"
"Yeah." Leamon covered his eyes with one hand. "I made the mistake of falling in love with a girl whose man was off fighting for his country."
"Oh." There was quiet for a beat. Then, "Does she know?"
"No. I couldn’t… I wouldn’t…" Leamon sighed heavily. "Remember when Dean asked me why I enlisted? Well. That’s why. She… she’s so smart and sweet and pretty and good. I couldn’t just see her every day and stop loving her. I know my Ma needed me to stay and work the farm, but I just couldn’t do it any more. I send Ma my pay, as soon as I get it. But I know that’s not enough."
Sam sat up, touched Griffith on the arm. "I’m sorry, man." What else could he say? Leamon didn’t need, didn’t want Sam’s forgiveness.
It was time to go. He groped around for his musket, and then started to draw the ramrod out of its pocket alongside the barrel.
Leamon lowered his hand, looking puzzled when he saw what Sam was doing.
"I’m gonna try to splint my leg," Sam explained.
"Oh." Leamon looked around. His own musket was still where he’d fallen, but he could see a dead Confederate’s just out of reach. "I’ll get you a second one." He rolled to his other side and pushed the man’s body flat on its back so he could reach across him to grab the musket.
Sam watched his faltering progress, and made himself look at the corpse dispassionately, trying to think practically like Dean would. "I can use his suspenders, too," Sam told Griffith.
Leamon tried, but after yanking the ramrod free, he was done in. He didn’t have the strength left to unfasten the heavy twill suspenders and he was trembling when he gave up.
Sam grabbed his own ramrod and dragged himself awkwardly the six or so feet needed to pull up beside them and finish the task. He wrestled the soldier out of his jacket and reached around the dead man’s grimy checkered shirt to unhook the suspenders, front and back. Once they were free, Sam sawed them into two strips with the man’s bayonet, and then took the ramrods and braced his leg between them. Taking a deep breath, he secured them in place by tying the suspenders tight above and below his knee. By the time he was finished, he was shaking as badly as Leamon. It would have to do, he told himself, breathing hard. Steadying himself for the next move.
"You’re leaving." Leamon sounded frail, not recovered from his exertions, but Sam didn’t think he sounded afraid.
"I have to meet Dean," Sam said. "He gets cranky when I’m late."
"But - how will you find him?"
"Oh, he’ll probably find me first. He’s got a GPS in his brain."
Sam smiled ruefully. "Never mind."
"You need. You need the division’s field hospital," Leamon told him. "Follow the creek that way." He pointed the opposite direction from the ridge where Colonel Chapman had led the fateful charge. His breath shuddered, growing weaker. "It curls north. Should take you to Reed’s Bridge Road. Follow that – follow that west. At the first crossroad, go right. The hospital is just north of that point, on LaFayette Road."
"Thanks." Sam grabbed a sapling and pulled himself up on one leg, using the Rebel’s musket as a crutch. Black danced at the corners of his vision and he swayed.
"Yeah." His knuckles blanched around the rifle and the tree. He lowered his head until some daylight returned, but still felt dizzy.
He heard Leamon talking to him again, as if far away, speaking in a tunnel. "You remember?" Leamon was saying. "You promised to look for Lew. You’ll tell him… tell him how to find me."
"Here." Sam gestured at the bayonet he’d been using, then fanned his hand toward himself for Leamon to pass the bayonet up. That, Leamon could just about manage.
Sam affixed the blade to jut out from the end of the musket, then turned the rifle upside down and drove it hard, point-first into the ground, like a fence post. Then Sam fumbled to untie the red bandanna around his arm, damp with new blood. He laced it through the trigger guard, and knotted it off.
"I’ll find Lew. I’ll tell him," he pledged.
Leamon’s bloodstained fingers caressed the locket around his neck. Suddenly, he swept off his Union cap and then looped the thin chain over his head and off. "In case Lew doesn’t come… can’t come… Can you give this to him? Betsy gave me this to deliver to Lew." His voice wobbled. "I probably shouldn’t have worn it…"
Something told Sam there was more left unsaid. "Betsy?"
Leamon looked away. And Sam had his answer. He took the locket. "I can… want me to try to bandage your leg before I go?"
Leamon shook his head. "I don’t think I could stand to have anything touch it."
"Well," Sam tried again, "you should at least take that guy’s jacket for yourself." He pointed at the dead Confederate. Sam had already pulled the jacket off him when he’d taken the suspenders, and had covered the soldier’s face with it. "Take it. It’s getting cold."
"Ain’t gonna matter much longer, Sam. Quit worryin’ about keeping me alive." Leamon saw Sam start to protest and cut him off. "Look, I ain’t gonna die with no Confederate uniform on me!" He was stubborn and proud.
Leamon may have thought he was a coward for running away from home and Betsy, but he couldn’t be any braver about dying, Sam thought. Leamon was meant to die there, he reminded himself sternly. Maybe Leamon would slowly bleed to death, or maybe he would die of exposure. Sam couldn’t prevent it, and he needed to stop wasting time worrying about it.
It was hard to leave Griffith there, to spend his last hours alone. But Leamon stuck out his hand, offering a handshake between men, and they said goodbye like that.
With the help of the nearby sapling, Sam hobbled back to his own musket and retrieved it to use as a crutch. Then he limped off. It was an agonizingly slow process. His knee was a volcano; the least weight on his right leg made it erupt with pain and sent fiery hot lava coursing along his nerves.
When Sam glanced back, he saw Leamon lying curled on his side, like a little boy sleeping. The underbrush across the creek bed was blazing now.
Sam kept moving. Sometimes he stumbled and fell. When he did, the pain of it took his senses for awhile. Each time he woke, it was darker and colder. His face and hands were getting chapped. His body felt sluggish. He had to fix his thoughts on something, something more complicated than just willing his body to keep moving, dragging one leg. The pain threatened to swallow him up, and a part of him really wanted to let it. He fought that by trying to focus on problem solving, anything to take his mind off the fire in his knee. Something to keep him alert.
He thought about the spell book that really was too dangerous to use. His father had been right. And that irritated Sam. He was surprised to find that being annoyed at Dad again was actually a comfort, and he felt almost warmed by that for a few precious minutes.
Then he remembered that if the journal was a toxic bust, he was no closer to finding a way to break Dean’s contract than he was before. He couldn’t make Ruby help them.
Dean was really going to hell, and there wasn’t anything Sam could do to stop it.
~~ CRACK!!! ~~
Sam processed the realization that it was a gunshot at the same time a branch flew off a tree, just a few feet from his head. He dove to the road’s shoulder and slid down three or four feet to the bottom of the ditch that ran alongside, biting back a scream at the jarring of his bad leg.
"That’s right! Run, ya damn Yankee!"
It didn’t seem to be a patrol, he thought when his mind cleared. Maybe a lone sentry. Maybe even a wounded Confederate who was just picking off any enemy that passed until his own company returned for him.
Waiting now for Sam to reappear.
He couldn’t chance the road now. Sam hauled himself behind some thickets, and came to a shaky, stooped-over stand. No more shots were fired. He staggered on, in the shadows of the trees along the ditch a few feet from the road.
When he couldn’t stay upright any more, he crawled. Even if he couldn’t save Dean, they still had a few more months together. He wasn’t going to give those up. Lying on the ground, dragging himself forward, he could feel the earth shudder with artillery hits far away. He hoped Dean was safe.
When night fell, and the stars came out, the artillery stopped. The shuddering didn’t, and Sam realized it was his own shivers wracking his body. His fingers were marble-white with frostnip. He fumbled to unfasten the top brass button of his uniform and then crossed his arms. One hand snagged on the antique key hung around his neck. He brushed it aside, in a hurry to tuck his tingling fingers inside the jacket and under his armpits to try to warm them.
Exhausted, he lay there for several minutes, simply counting the stars. One with each throbbing beat in his wounded leg. One for each day left in Dean’s contract. He counted out the days and when they were up, there were still a million more stars in the heavens.
Then, slowly and deliberately, Sam took off the rawhide strip that held the antique skeleton key. He held the key in his palm and studied it, the cold iron of the bow and the shaft, the rough edges of the bit that would open warded locks.
With one numb hand, he scraped a hollow in the soil beside him. Then he gently laid the key inside it, folded the leather cord over the key, and then brushed the dirt back on top.
Taking a deep breath, Sam turned his back on it and continued clawing his way northwest to his rendezvous with his brother.
Chapter 12 - September 20 1863, 1:00 a.m.
It was almost the autumnal equinox. The air held a chill that warned of the first frost, no clouds in the sky to hold in the lingering warmth. It was cold and clear, with a million more stars above than Dean remembered back home. The moon was in its first quarter and cast just enough light to keep them from walking into tree trunks and low branches. Enough light to see their breath crystallize in front of them.
To the south, Dean saw bobbing lights, floating balls of fire darting left and right that looked like the Quapaw spook lights in Oklahoma. Here, he knew the lights were lanterns or candles, other people looking for someone, too. He heard a woman crying, harsh grief-wracked sobs. There’d been about 25 families living in the area when the fighting broke out. He remembered Dad telling him that all those years ago. Some of those families lost more than their homes here, Dean realized now.
He was not going to join the ranks of people who lost family today. Opening the glass window on his lantern, he struck a match and lit the candle inside. If it drew enemy fire, well, screw it.
A single beeswax candle didn’t cast much illumination. It flickered and made shadows appear to writhe on the ground, which made Dean’s gut churn and writhe, too. They couldn’t delay to see if any of those shadows were wounded soldiers who might need help.
He knew he should stop; hell, he wanted to stop for them. He’d spent his whole lifetime rescuing people, not turning his back on them. They didn’t have any water to ease their suffering, Dean reminded himself, even if they could stop. Everyone’s canteens were empty by the time the fighting had stopped for the day. The Rebels held Chickamauga Creek; they could refill theirs. The Federals were in more desperate straits. Some of the 39thmounted infantry from Indiana had collected thousands of canteens, riding back and forth to Crawfish Springs all night long to refill them. But Dean and Lew hadn’t had time to wait for them.
For every dark shape they passed that lay still, not making a sound, they found another man moaning in pain. Or begging for water. Or worse, just a boy, crying for his mother.
Lew slowed, lingering to a stop at that one.
"What if Charlie was wrong?" Dean pressed him. "What if your brother is still alive, Lew?" He gripped the baling wire handle of the lantern so tight it cut into his palm. "I’m not gonna stop until I find Sam. I can’t." Dean didn’t wait to see if Lew followed him. He pushed on, trusting the constellations to keep him heading east, keeping an eye out for the cornfield Charlie had described that would tell him he had gone too far.
A murmur of voices floated toward him. Too low to make out the words or an accent, but likely to be Southern sentries. Dean knelt behind a tree and quickly blew out his candle through the brass smoke hole at the top of the lantern. The voices came closer, two shadows moving over a rise in the terrain and coming right toward Dean.
The figures strolled past, illuminated only by the moonlight and the pinpoint glow of a pipe. Dean tracked their progress west until they faded into the darkness.
A hand fell on Dean’s shoulder just as he was starting to stand. He hadn’t heard footsteps. Spinning around, he grabbed his assailant’s forearm and yanked him off-balance before he recognized him. Lew.
Dean let go and put a forefinger to his lips.
"I saw," Lew mouthed. "And something else." He tugged Dean’s sleeve and Dean followed him, leaving the lantern unlit for now.
Lew led them north to a slope where the moon shone brighter, the canopy of trees punched full of holes by artillery. "Here," Lew said, stopping a short distance before a large, dark mass. Dean squinted to see better and winced, his left eye still swollen. Lew took the lantern from him, re-lit the candle, and held it out, walking closer.
It was a dead horse.
"Charlie said Colonel Chapman fell during the charge. His horse was killed," Lew said quietly. "If this is his horse, then this is near where… where Leamon was hit."
Wisps of smoke hovered here, the stench of gunpowder still lingering hours after the battle. Lew stepped back and nearly tripped on a soldier, body broken, eyes open and lifeless. He raised the lantern higher and faltered. The ground was covered with the dead, so many that they couldn’t walk ten feet without having to step aside.
This had to be the right place.
‘Down a little gully’, Charlie had told them. Dean wandered, trying to find a dip in the terrain when he could barely see a dozen feet in front of him. Then he stopped, so abruptly that Lew came up to him to see why.
Dean knew fire. Knew the smell of a house on fire. It was different than the kindling-and-pinecone scent when they used to fall asleep in front of a fireplace as kids, savoring the only heat they had. Later, he’d learned the smell of old, dry bones set ablaze in the bottom of a grave. He wished he could forget the creepy hillbilly Bender family that had taught Dean the smell of human flesh being charred to the bone.
This smell, here… made him think of the Benders. Made him feel sick. At the same time, it drew him closer.
This had better all be Sam’s fevered hallucination. Dean clung to that thought. Please let it be a dream.
A minute later, they reached the lip of a short hollow and looked down. Ashes coated the ground, thick as a snowfall. Dead leaves and branches had caught fire first, sheared off by artillery and musket fire and fallen to the forest floor. But the smell that twisted his gut came from the remains of a dozen soldiers.
One of these blackened corpses might be Leamon Griffith. Might be the reason he was MIA and his grave was empty back in Indiana.
Dean looked at Lew, saw him standing frozen, eyes wide with shock, holding the lantern high with his right hand while he covered his nose and mouth with his left.
The candle’s glow caught Lew’s black eye, and Dean knew it was mirrored by his own shiner.
Sammy, please. It’s time for you to wake up now. Before I have to go down there…
Dean skidded 10-12 feet down the short but steep incline. Then he moved haltingly across the dry creek bed to where the soldiers lay, twisted and mangled under the scorched thickets and trees.
Cinders still smoldered, here and there, but the fire was mostly out. The light from the lantern cast a small pale puddle of light that scraped the ground as Lew joined him, moving from body to body. Some in blue, others in gray. For some of the victims, the flames had eaten away so much it would be impossible to identify the remains. Of the others, Dean could tell that some had died in agony, burned alive, trying to crawl away.
"Sam!" He didn’t care if any Confederate pickets heard him. He had to find Sam. He’d lost his brother once before, and he couldn’t do it again. Wouldn’t let it happen again.
Not like this. "SAM!" He whirled around and called again.
No one answered.
The light dipped erratically. Each time it moved away, the darkness of night drew back over a soldier’s face like a shroud. Lew turned, the lantern revealed a flash of red, and Dean’s heart stopped still for a moment. "There!" he called.
A body lay on its side at the far side of the wash, where the flames couldn’t cross a swath of hard-packed dirt and stone. Dean saw the back of a dark uniform jacket, the rest in shadow. Beside the body, a musket was driven into the ground, bayonet first, and a red bandanna was tied through its trigger guard.
Red, like a cargo flag, so Dean could find him.
Dean didn’t breathe, couldn’t move. Then he saw for sure.
The body wasn’t big enough to be Sam.
Lew jogged over to him, the lantern’s light bouncing back and forth in his haste. They crossed the dry stream together and Lew handed Dean the lantern before falling to his knees. His hands trembled as they reached over the body and rolled it toward him.
Dean watched as Lew cradled the soldier in his lap and bent his head low, calling his brother’s name.
He didn’t expect to find Leamon alive, so hearing the corporal’s raspy voice was a shock. "Lew. You came." Leamon’s voice was weak, but audible. "You’re not mad anymore?"
Lew flicked a glance at Dean, then turned back at his brother. "Maybe. Maybe you had your reasons," he admitted. "And maybe if I heard them, I’d still be fit to be tied." His hand cupped the nape of Leamon’s neck, and squeezed lightly. "When we get back home, I’ll listen to your side. And if I don’t like it, I’ll break your nose."
Leamon reached a weak hand up to protect his nose and hide a hint of a smile. "Wouldn’t be the first time," he said. Then he looked between Lew and Dean. "Sam found you, right? He gonna be okay?"
Dean dropped to a knee beside Lew, ice in his veins. "No," he said. "No, we haven’t seen Sam. Tell us what happened."
"Sam saw the flames." Leamon’s voice was starting to fade. Dean had to lower his head close to Leamon’s to hear his whispered answer. "He dragged me here..."
"Where is he now?" Dean was desperate.
But Leamon was drifting off. "I couldn’t… couldn’t go… He said I’d be safe here, till Lew came." A look of peace smoothed the pain lines in his face, like a child settling in his parent’s arms.
"Where did Sam go?" Dean demanded again.
Lew clutched his brother tighter, as if to protect him from Dean, but he didn’t try to stop the questioning.
"Toward the road." Leamon roused slightly, struggling to answer. One hand flapped weakly toward the north. "He went to find you."
"Was he – was he hurt?"
But it was too late. Leamon was out. Like a dead flashlight. And no amount of shaking would revive him.
Lew handed Dean the lamp so he would have both hands free to skate over his brother’s body. No apparent head wound. They hadn’t seen any blood on his back before Lew rolled him over. His chest looked okay, too.
Dean moved to stand at Leamon’s feet with the lantern and Lew couldn’t help a small moan when he saw. Leamon’s right knee. It was… a disaster, Dean thought. Soaked with blood. Pulpy like raw hamburger, with pieces of bone jutting through the skin.
Dean’s breath caught, heart hammering. Nobody could get far on a leg like that. Then again, just try telling Sam he couldn’t do something. It usually just made Sam more determined than ever to prove he could. Just ask John Winchester.
Dean reached over to untie the bandanna that Sam had left as a marker. He’d given that to Sam; it was all he had left of Sam – that and the damned journal. The magic in it was dark, perverse, and Dean was sorry their dad hadn’t just destroyed it when he’d found it.
"Give me a hand here?" Lew called.
Dean looked around. He saw broken tree limbs on the ground, long enough and sturdy enough for the poles. They could take a couple jackets off a pair of the corpses, and thread the branches through the sleeves. "We could make a stretcher," he suggested.
"No, we’re still behind enemy lines. You need to be able to handle this." Lew pulled his revolver out from his belt and passed it to Dean. Then he took off his bedroll and shook it out. Found the pockmarked bullet holes and ripped the one nearest the center into a hole big enough for a man’s head. He draped the new poncho over Leamon, tugged it into place and then pulled his brother up by his arms until he was upright. "I can take him piggyback. I’m strong enough to carry him."
Song lyrics. Dean was reminded crazily of song lyrics. If Sam were here, Dean could accuse Sam of knowing all the emo words to "He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother". And Sam would accuse Dean of knowing all the lyrics to Weird Al Yankovic’s "He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Hamster."
If Sam were here.
He was going to get his brother back.
Dean set the lantern down and held Leamon while Lew turned so his back was to Leamon’s front. Then Lew bent his knees and Dean draped Leamon’s arms over his brother’s shoulders. Lew grabbed the back of Leamon’s thighs and lifted, leaning forward enough to keep his brother from falling off.
Leamon was a little guy, but Lew wasn’t much bigger. He wouldn’t be able to carry him far, Dean thought. No point in trying to tell Lew that, though.
If it had been Sam, no one could have told Dean he couldn’t do it, either.
Dean forced himself to the grisly task of checking the bodies to see if any carried any water. He consolidated what he could find into two canteens with long cotton straps, filling each more than half full. One he gave to Lew. He ducked his head to sling the other across his chest.
Picking up the lantern, Dean led them along the creek bed, following it as it carved its way along the bottom of the ravine. As it curved north, it wasn’t totally dry anymore, and they stepped through large puddles of water frozen under a thin layer of ice.
Dean ached with the cold, wanted to rub his arms for warmth, but he couldn’t with the pistol in one hand and lantern in the other. He saw Lew shivering, too, unable to fight the cold, with both hands tucked under his brother’s legs.
The terrain rose gradually and soon they emerged on Reed’s Bridge Road. Dean knew the saw mill was east of that point and the field hospital – the rendezvous point – was west. He hoped Sam was aware enough to realize that.
They turned west. Dean walked down the middle of the road, swinging the lantern like a pendulum to illuminate the dark corridors of trees along each side. He heard musket fire erupt, not close. It was south and west of them, he decided, but it still made him feel like he had a target painted on his back.
He was alert for any movement, any noise. Any noise besides the harsh breathing of Lew, stumbling now and then under his burden.
When he first heard the sound of rustling, he thought it might just be the crackling pressure in his ears, finally equalizing after that artillery blast that morning that had knocked him off his feet. But this sound didn’t go away. And now, he realized, it was accompanied by a low noise, a grunt or a moan.
Dean gestured his intentions to Lew, and he slipped off the side of the road, into the thickets. Whoever it was seemed unaware of his presence. He crept nearer to the source of the noises and when he got close enough, he raised the candle lantern high.
There was a dark shape, barely moving in the shadows. As the light skimmed over it, Dean took a step back, cringing. He saw coarse, bristly hair, beady glowing eyes. Tusks.
It was a wild boar. Gnawing on… a human torso.
Dean didn’t stop to think about it. He raised the Colt and fired.
The beast rocked back, absorbed the hit. Then it trampled across the corpse it had been feeding on, and galloped into the darkness.
Dean was staring at the body when Lew skidded to a stop beside him. "You alright?"
Dean lowered the gun and turned away. It wasn’t Sam. It was some other poor bastard, killed by a bullet to the head hours before. Lew took his elbow and steered him back toward the dirt road, and Dean realized that Lew had set his brother down and come after him when he’d heard the shot. Even though he wasn’t even armed. "Thanks," he muttered, and Lew nodded.
A shallow ditch ran alongside the road. As Dean prepared to vault up it to follow Lew back to Leamon, he stopped. The weak light from the lamp caught a boot print in the dry mud. A very large boot print.
He shone the lantern at the ground, took another step west.
There was another clear boot print. Just one. A left foot, just like the last one. The ground grew rockier and Dean lost the trail. The thickets here had broken branches, leading into the wilderness away from the road. But there had been too much action that day to assume it was from the same source as the footprints.
A branch snapped behind him and Dean whirled. It was Lew, who had wrestled Leamon over his shoulders now in a fireman’s carry. Lew tripped on an exposed root and grunted, and Dean threw out an arm to help him stay upright.
"The road would be easier," Dean pointed out.
"Figured you found somethin’ to track and could use another set of eyes," Lew told him. He cracked his neck, settling Leamon more evenly over his back.
For the second time, Dean murmured, "Thanks."
They walked until the woods began to thin, but there was no further sign. Soldiers had moved through here; soldiers had moved all through the wilderness, but there was nothing to indicate Sam. Lew suggested he cover the other side of the road, and Dean agreed, much relieved. He felt guilty, leaving Lew without light or weapon, but he also knew he could move faster on his own.
He walked on, trapped in a nearly colorless world. Charcoal black trees reached their skeletal arms out toward him, against a sky that was black and cold. Shadows were empty. Even the green caught in the candle’s glow was dark and sickly. The candle sputtered and Dean looked down to see how much wax had melted; how much time he might have left. And there, on the ground, he saw a splash of red.
"Dammit, Sam!" Dean’s voice broke.
The voice was too weak to come from far away, and Dean didn’t care how much noise he made scouring the woods for the source. He found Sam, curled into a ball on his side underneath an evergreen tree.
Dean sank to his knees to pull his brother into his arms, but something stopped him. Congealed blood had pooled around Sam’s knee and frozen there. Dean tugged gently but the ground wouldn’t relinquish its icy hold on Sam. "Dammit, Sammy!" he swore. "I turn my back and you turn into a popsicle."
"Think the c-cold helped to s-stop the bleeding, though" Sam stuttered. Frost sparkled on his lashes and eyebrows; the tip of his nose was white. Dean stared at his brother’s leg. Sam’s injury was an exact mirror of Leamon’s.
Dean didn’t couldn‘t speak for a moment. Just took Sam’s red-chapped hands in his for a minute trying to pass some his own warmth to his brother.
"Knew you’d come," Sam said softly. He was shivering violently. Dean pulled off his blanket roll and spread it over his brother.
Dean needed a bayonet. Why didn’t he have a bayonet? He couldn’t just yank Sam free; that would start the wound bleeding again and by the look of it, Sam had already lost more blood than he could spare. Dean glanced around wildly. He saw some broken branches on the ground nearby, but nothing small enough to use for kindling. He couldn’t bring himself to leave Sam to go in search of what he needed.
Frustrated, inspired, he scraped what wood he could reach toward them, then pulled out the journal and started tearing pages out.
"Dean? What are you doing?"
"Building a fire." Dean found the tattered page with the spell that had brought them there – the words that would take them back. "I’ll keep this safe," he reassured his brother, and tucked the page into his pocket. The rest he wadded in a ball and lit from the candle in the lantern.
He’d expected more of a protest as he built the fire, but Sam was silent. Maybe that was a bad sign. When Dean got the fire going, he swept off his canteen and uncorked it, putting it to Sam’s lips. Sam reached up with his right hand to help hold it, and drank greedily. When he stopped to breathe, he nudged the canteen back toward Dean and then reached his hand toward Dean’s face. "Your eye," he said, concerned. "You okay?"
Dean didn’t take any water himself; he wasn’t sure how long they’d be out there and he needed to be sure Sam had enough to replace his fluids so he wouldn’t go into shock. Dean screwed the cork back in and answered, "Yeah. You know what Dad always said. My head’s hard as a rock."
"You sure it wasn’t ‘rocks in your head’?"
Dean couldn’t help the relieved smile that slipped across his face. Sam was fine. Was gonna be fine.
There was movement beside them and Sam startled, seeing another soldier lurch alongside them and then struggle to set down a heavy burden.
"It’s okay," Dean reassured him. "This is Lew Griffith."
"Lew?" Sam raised his head weakly.
"Leamon’s brother," Lew himself explained. "Saw your fire. You must be Sam." He didn’t offer to shake hands – one hand was resting on his brother’s jaw, checking his pulse. The other absently carded through Leamon’s hair. But he held Sam’s gaze and then said, "Lee said you helped him. I’m grateful to you."
"He’s still alive." Lew turned back to his brother, trying to coax some water between unresponsive lips.
Sam tilted his head back to face Dean. "Lew? How? Why?" he stammered. "What happened after you left?"
Dean slung the canteen back over his head. "I found General Thomas okay," he answered. "His HQ was right about where we… uh…" he lowered his voice, enough that Lew wouldn’t hear. "Where we first got here, I guess. At the Kelly farm. The general wasn’t very happy with the news and he rode off to see for himself."
The puddle of frozen blood was starting to soften. Dean took out Lew’s sidearm and started tapping on the surface of it. "Everyone else in the tent took off when he did. I had the place to myself for a few minutes," Dean added. "There was a table covered with maps and charts of troop movements. I knew Lew was in the 44th and it turns out they were less than a mile away." Dean remembered running his fingers over the map. Maybe Leamon had told them his brother’s unit, but if he had, it didn’t stick. Dean had grazed his fingers over the plaque on the monument back in Indiana, recalled the feel of the carved letters and numbers under his touch. Griffith, Lewis. 44th Reg. Ind. Vol. Inf. That, he remembered.
"But why? Why’d you go looking for him, Dean?" Sam wanted to know. He shifted his weight on the cold ground as the ice splintered and cracked. Winced as he tried to pull away.
Dean chipped away at dark red ice. "We’ve got time to talk about that later, Sammy. Let’s get you out of here first." One more blow and Sam was loose.
Suddenly, they heard the sharp ~crack-thew~ of a rifle and the lantern shattered in a shower of glass and sparks. Lew dove across Leamon’s body to shield him. Sam shoved his blanket at Dean and Dean quickly smothered the campfire with it. They lay very still, breathing hard. Waiting.
"Did you see where it came from?" Dean whispered to Sam.
"I saw a flash. At eight o’clock," Sam said. "If Lew was at twelve o’clock."
Dean nodded and belly-crawled over to Lew. "What do you think?"
"We’re in No Man’s Land. I think they’ll shoot if they see us, but I don’t think they’ll chase us, ‘cause they aren’t exactly sure where our sentries are, either."
"Okay. I’m gonna draw his fire. Wait till you hear me shoot, and then take off. Fast as you can."
Dean scooted back to Sam and repeated the plan. "If there’s just one guy, he can probably only get off one or maybe two shots a minute. I’ll move about 20 yards east of here and get him to take a shot at me. That’ll give me time to run back here and get you out of his range before he can get a second shot off," he added.
"What if there’s two of ‘em, Dean?"
Dean grinned. "I’ll run twice as fast."
"That doesn’t even make sense…"
But Dean didn’t stick around to argue. He slipped away, barely catching Sam’s tersely whispered "Be careful, Dean!"
In the next 60 seconds, Dean fired from down the road, a Confederate soldier shot back at the flash from Dean’s gun, and then Dean was at Sam’s side again, throwing Sam’s arm across his shoulders and half-carrying him deeper into the woods.
Sam’s right foot dragged on the ground for a second, and he grabbed Dean’s arm so hard Dean thought the bone might crack. They wavered for a second, but Dean held on tight and wouldn’t let Sam fall. They caught up with Lew and Leamon under an old black oak tree. Sam’s breath rattled out of his lungs in a shudder. Like a body falling downstairs, Dean thought grimly. He waited until Sam got control of his breathing, and then he started them up again. They staggered on.
Until Sam fell, when he’d passed out and dragged Dean down with him. Dean wet the bandanna and wiped Sam’s face with it. The water was cold and Sam blinked fuzzily, droplets clinging to his lashes. "Stay with me, Sammy," Dean said.
"I’m not the one who’s leaving," Sam muttered, sounding muzzy. Confused.
Dean was worried. Sam seemed to be growing disoriented, and shock or hypothermia were real dangers. "Talk to me, Sammy," he said. "You get a free pass tonight. Anything you wanna talk about." He made Sam drink more water, rubbed his hands. "Anything, Sam. Bore me with stuff you learned at Stanford. Chick flick moment. Anything you want."
"D’ya ’member goin’ campin’, Dean?"
The words were mumbled, but Dean’s ear was close enough to Sam’s lips. He heard. "Yeah, Sammy. We camped a lot," Dean said. Whether we wanted to or not. "What’s the first time you remember?"
"I ‘member… ‘member roasting marshmallows."
Dean smiled. He remembered that time, too. He was nine. And a half. Those halves were important back then. Sammy was five. It was summer and they were camping because Dad was checking into another Lady of the Lake sighting. It was safe enough to leave the boys in the woods in the afternoon for an hour or two, while Dad went to interview someone at a nearby cabin. He couldn’t very well pass himself off as a fake reporter or park agent with a couple kids in tow.
"You shoplifted those marshmallows, Dean." Sam sounded pleasantly drunk, which was not a good sign. But at least he was conscious.
"Heh! I did." Dean also remembered teaching Sammy how to pick the best sticks for roasting. He’d been so sure the evidence would be gone - eaten - before Dad came back. "Man, I thought Dad was gonna be so pissed when he caught us!"
"Dad found out?" Sam asked, fuzzy. "I don’t. I don’t remember. What’d he do?"
"He went back to the trunk and dug through our grocery bags. Came back with a box of graham crackers. That was a staple, remember?" Dean checked Sam’s splint, made sure it hadn’t come loose in the fall. "Then Dad reached in his pocket and took out a Hershey bar. You really don’t remember this?"
Sam sucked air between his teeth as Dean tightened the splint, then shook his head slowly.
"Dad taught us how to make s’mores that trip, Sammy!"
Sam’s dimples flashed. "I like that story," he said, sounding pleased as a six-year-old with a good bedtime story.
Dean’s worry ratcheted up a notch. He pulled Sam up carefully and set them on their way again. Thinking, as they stumbled along, how many memories he had with Mom, with Dad, that Sammy was just too young to really remember. Those memories, those stories would be lost soon, and they were things Sammy needed to have. Things that Dean could give to him. While he still had time.
When they caught up with Lew, he was carrying Leamon like Dean remembered their Dad carrying Sammy up to bed when he was little, hugging him to his chest while Sam clung like a sleepy little monkey.
Very gradually, the sky started to lighten. Sometimes they heard the bark of muskets in the distance, someone breeching a picket line, but it always came from the south. Maybe they were safe now.
One step. Another.
Lew stumbled and Dean shot him a glance. Leamon sagged lifelessly in Lew’s arms, head lolling. Eyes closed.
"Do you need -?" Dean wanted to ask Lew if he needed a break, but what he really meant was to ask if they should stop and see if there was any point to Lew driving himself to collapse. To see if it was already too late for Leamon.
"No," Lew gritted through clenched teeth. He turned and met Dean’s look with defiance and Dean knew that Lew had understood the unasked question. "It doesn’t matter," Lew said. "I’m not leaving him behind."
Dean nodded. Even though Sam was trying to bear some of his own weight, he had to outweigh Leamon by nearly 100 pounds. Dean’s shoulders and back screamed with the strain of keeping his brother upright. But his answer would have been the same.
They stumbled on some exposed roots and Sam’s weight dragged Dean to the ground again. Sam’s breathing was harsh in Dean’s ear. Dean could see his breath, condensing in agonized clouds of air.
"Almost there, Sammy," Dean urged.
Sam lay on his back, clapped a big hand over his eyes as if that could hide his pain. "Just. Give me a minute?" he panted. He sounded less muddled. Like the shock of pain had revived his senses a little.
"Whatever you need," Dean told him. "You with me again?"
"You were kinda out of it for awhile."
Lew’s sudden voice interrupted them. "Hear that?"
"Axes. Chopping trees?" Dean said.
"Building breastworks," Lew explained. "Not far to our lines now," he added, breathlessly.
He was right. Dean was concentrating on picking a path over the least hazardous terrain, and when he finally looked up, he could see Cloud’s Church ahead of them.
The property actually held a small log church, a cooper’s shop, a cabin, and several outbuildings. Despite the pre-dawn hour, they were all filled with noise and movement. Lanterns cast an eerie yellow glow from inside. Under the shattered window of the church, Dean saw a massive pile of amputated limbs, stacked like cords of wood.
Lew fell to his knees, unable to take another step. Leamon’s body started to slide to the ground, and Lew twisted to catch and cradle his brother’s head. Out of the shadows, two hospital attendants appeared, exhaustion creasing their faces, blood saturating their clothes. They looked just long enough to confirm that Leamon was still alive, and wasn’t gut-shot or suffering from a head wound. Satisfied, one took him by the shoulders; the other took his ankles, and they slung him up toward the row of soldiers waiting for the operating theater.
Sam could go no further. The orderlies had dismissed him in their hasty triage, trusting that those who were conscious would live a few more hours. Dean felt his brother start to slide from his numb grasp. He steered them toward a big oak tree at the edge of the clearing and they crumpled to the ground together.
Lew made his way over to Dean. His face was lined with exhaustion. "I have to get back," he told them. "My men – they need me. There’ll be another attack soon." Dean pulled Lew’s Colt from his belt and passed it over, but Lew grabbed his hand, too, and gave it a grateful handshake. "I’m obliged to you, Dean Winchester.," he said. "Thank you for my brother."
Leamon had looked near death. Dean had seen dying men before, knew Leamon wasn’t likely to survive. It was an effort to accept Lew’s gratitude. But he did, and saw in Lew’s gray eyes that he knew the truth, too. He wasn’t deluding himself. "Whatever happens,'' Lew whispered, "he knows I came back for him."
Sam still had the strength to raise his voice. He sat up, propped on one elbow, and held out his hand, arm trembling. Lew bent over to shake his hand.
"No. This," Sam said. He opened his fist and a locket dangled from his fingers. "I almost forgot. Leamon’s been carrying it. Since he left Indiana. Hoping to see you."
Lew took it, using both hands to gently extract it from Sam’s stiff and fumbling fingers.
"Betsy gave it to Leamon. For you," Sam told him, sinking back to the ground. "He gave it to me. In case." Sam’s voice faded.
Lew thumbed open the locket and stared at the image inside for a minute. Then he closed it gently, brushed the corner of his eye with the heel of his hand, and drew it over his head to rest against his heart. "Thank you, Sam," he said. "For everything." Then he moved reluctantly away, marching stiffly down the road, disappearing into the fog of dawn.
Nearby, a long scream tore the air, faded to muffled sobs, and then there was a soft thud as another limb hit the pile.
Sitting next to Sam, Dean cringed and pulled the tattered journal page out of his pocket. "Where’s the key?" he asked, glancing around to make sure they were alone. "We’ve done what we came for – we need to get back."
He felt Sam’s grip around his wrist, weak but tenacious. "I lost it."
"What?" Dean stared at his brother. The key had been resting in the hollow of Sam’s throat, the rawhide strip strung around his neck. It was gone.
"Sam – no. How …?"
"It’s okay, Dean. It’s okay." Sam clutched Dean’s sleeve. "We don’t have to go back."
"What are you talking about?"
"It’s the answer, Dean. It’s the only answer."
Sam was shivering, more than before. Dean shrugged out of his jacket, sat back against the tree trunk, and pulled Sam’s back up against him, ignoring the twinge as Sam’s weight settled on his bruised ribs. Sam’s long legs stretched out beside his own. Dean used his jacket to cover Sam like a blanket and then wrapped his arms around Sam’s chest, and tried to will some of his body’s warmth into his brother.
"The contract comes due in 2008, Dean." Sam explained slowly, like he was too cold to form words easily. "So we don’t go back. We stay here in 1863 and they can’t collect your soul. The deal hasn’t even happened yet."
"How are we gonna do that, Sam? We aren’t soldiers. This isn’t our fight."
"So desert. Only it’s not deserting if you weren’t really in the army." Sam’s teeth chattered. "You could go to Wyoming, Dean. I always pictured you a cowboy."
"Sam." Dean clutched him tighter. "I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but you’re not really in shape to slip away to Wyoming right now."
Sam tilted his head and gave him a look. The one from when they were kids that said Duh, Dean. I’m not as dumb as you make out. "You go," Sam explained. "I’ll find you. After."
"After?" Dean pulled back, grabbed Sam’s shoulder to turn him so Sam could see his face. "After – what? After they take off your leg?"
There was another thump as another limb was added to the growing pile outside the church window. Sam flinched, but not with shock. He had thought it through, Dean realized. Sam knew what would probably happen, when he came up with this crazy scheme.
But he didn’t know everything Dean knew. "Sam, you know what I remember best, when Dad brought us here, back in ’87? We went to a mansion that served as one of the field hospitals here. I don’t remember now why Dad took us there. Maybe he had to interview somebody. All I remember was seeing the bloodstains they couldn’t get out of the floor, even after 120 years. And seeing lead bullets with teeth marks in them, because the surgeons amputating arms and legs ran out of chloroform."
Dean continued in a harsh whisper as he tried to keep his voice from rising. "You do realize, don’t you, that the South is gonna win this battle today? They’re gonna capture all the field hospitals? If you stay, you could end up in a prison camp till the end of the war? If you even survive?"
Sam’s eyes held his, steady and fever-bright. "I just – I don’t know any other way to save you, Dean."
"It’ll work, Dean. It has to."
"Sam." Dean turned his head at a sound, saw a shadow moving, nosing at a pile of amputated limbs. It was another wild boar. "Sam, I’m not leaving you. You know better than that."
"I’ll find you, Dean. Go to Wyoming, and when I can, I’ll come find you." Sam curled forward a little to claw at his knee uselessly, riding out a spasm of pain. When he could bear it, he sagged back against his brother. "You could always find me. You think I didn’t learn from you?" Sam actually cracked a smile. "I found you tonight, didn’t I?"
Dean scoffed. Forced the words out of his tight throat. "Dude. I found you."
"I saw you first!"
This wasn’t getting anywhere. The stars were starting to blink out, the sky fading to the color of a bruise. Dean rested his hand on Sam’s shoulder. His fingers brushed the warm skin of Sam’s neck. "Sam, if you think. If you think I’m going spend the rest of my days out West, without --- without the Impala, then you just don’t know me at all."
Sam shivered harder. Eyes glistening. "Dean. Please."
"Look, Sam. We don’t have to do this. There’s still time to find a way out of the contract."
"I’ve looked. Everywhere. I don’t know what else to try."
"I know you, Sam. I believe in you. You’ll find a way." Dean’s voice cracked. "Another way."
"You don’t believe that…"
"I do. I trust you. Just like I trust that you’ll remember the rest of the incantation." Dean unfolded the page with the ritual and passed it to Sam. There was a rough and blackened hole, bigger than a dime, where the end of the spell should be.
Sam glanced at it, and his eyes grew round as he realized the implications, how the book could have gotten like that. ‘Yeah, I can do it," he said. "But, Dean. We can’t. We can’t go back without the key. The other stuff - the candles and herbs and sigil and iron – they were just needed to initiate the rite. But we need the key to open the portal both ways."
Dean chewed his lip. "Was that key from somewhere special?"
"No. It was just one of a bucket of things we keep on hand when we need iron."
"Well, then, I’ve got a key we can use, if it doesn’t have to be iron this time." Dean reached into his jeans’ pocket and pulled out his own set of keys.
"The Impala, Dean?"
Dean put the keys in Sam’s hand. Closed his fingers around them, then put his own hands around Sam’s fist. "It’ll take us home, Sam."
Sam put his other hand over Dean’s, still holding the page. He leaned back to rest his head against Dean’s breastbone, closed his eyes, and began chanting the words. A gust of wind picked up, fierce, like it had been summoned. It whipped the page out of Sam’s hand, but he kept on chanting all the same and Dean felt his bones slowly turn to ice.
Once, a long time ago in upstate New York, Dad had gone out for awhile and hadn’t come back, and Dean and Sammy were lost in a winter storm. A complete white out. Dean couldn’t see the road, or the ditch that ran alongside of the road. He’d set his foot down where the ground gave way, lost his balance, and tumbled flailing down the embankment.
He’d lost hold of Sammy’s hand.
Everything stopped then, too. He didn’t hear the crack of ice, didn’t feel the frigid water starting to soak through his clothes. Snow came sliding down, tumbling on top of him, heavy wet snow that buried him, smothering him, and he didn’t know which way was up. Which way was air? He couldn’t see. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move.
Until he heard - - something - - and he made himself reach toward it.
"Dean?" A single word whispered softly as a prayer, close by.
chapter 13 - 2007
Their hands had been clasped when the spell was invoked. All Dean has in his hands now are his keys. Warm. Solid. Familiar. But not enough.
They speak in tandem. Synchronized. Like when they were kids and Dad came home to find the place trashed and demanded, "Who –". They’d always spoken as one, pointing fingers. "He did it."
This time, they did it together. To be honest, it was usually both of them all those other times, too.
Dean’s head pounds, like it does every time he regains consciousness after being knocked out. His eyes crack open, just enough to freeze-frame a cemetery scene, not a battlefield. He sees a sliver of Sam, just his boots, at the edge of the frame. Then the bright sunlight feels like it’s driving a bayonet through Dean’s eyes and his eyelids slam shut again.
There’s no rush. Sam is here; that’s enough for now. Dean’s hand brushes his throbbing head, but there’s no swelling any more, no torn skin. His ribs are still sore, but Dean suspects there won’t be bruises. Everything will be as it was before. This is just residual pain.
The spell in the journal warned about residual effects.
Just as that thought crosses his mind, he hears a whimper - a moan that’s squeezed out despite lips tightly pressed together.
Dean scrambles up, raising one arm to shield his eyes from the sun as best he can. He sees his brother sitting propped against a tombstone in the shade of a tree, both hands clutching his leg above the knee. "Sam? What is it?"
"I don’t know." Sam’s jaw is clenched. His leg looks fine. There’s no blood, no bullet hole, no bone sticking through the denim now.
Dean puts his own hands next to Sam’s, fingers and thumbs digging into the spasming muscles. "Phantom pain," he suggests. "You heard of that? People who lose a limb sometimes still feel pain where the limb used to be. Maybe this might be something like that."
Sam lets his hands drop, fingers digging helplessly in the dirt while Dean works the cramp. "How - do you know about that stuff?" he pants.
"Dad and I worked a haunting at a VA hospital when you were at Stanford," Dean tells him. "Met some vets there. And a nurse named Katie," he adds, grinning. "She had the most amazing hands."
Dean continues babbling about Katie while he works muscles and tendons and ligaments tensed tighter than a guitar string. He doesn’t know why massage works, exactly. Katie had told him experts weren’t sure what caused phantom pain. But stimulating circulation helps, he remembers. Warmth, too. Touch.
Distraction is supposed to help, as well. But Dean can see that Sam isn’t following his rambling about a long-ago conquest. His eyes are scrunched shut, face taut, and sweat drips along his sideburns. It might work better to make Sam talk instead of just listening.
"How’s your shoulder, dude?" Dean asks. "You still runnin’ a fever?"
Sam’s eyes blink open, and Dean can feel Sam’s leg quiver underneath his hands. He hopes that’s a good sign.
"A fever?" Sam’s fingers start to loosen their grip on the grass, not clenched any more. "You know how high a temp has to get to cause hallucinations, Dean. I’m not that sick." A meaningful pause. "I haven’t been that sick."
Dean stops rubbing when Sam’s leg stops twitching. He reaches into his jeans pocket and pulls out his watch, slides it on his wrist. It takes an effort to focus, but soon the numbers stop blurring. It’s nearly noon. They’ve lost some hours. It’s a good thing they’re near the edge of a cemetery in a small village; no passersby question their presence.
"So you’re sayin’ – what?" Dean asks. "We pulled a Sam Beckett?"
Sam scrunches his eyebrows. "Waiting for Godot?"
"Didn’t you ever take your nose out of a book? No, man, I’m talking about if this wasn’t a dream, then…" Dean stops mid-sentence when he realizes his brother is trying to suppress a smirk. Of course he’d seen that time travel TV show, recognized the name of the main character. Dean shoots him a glare of fond exasperation.
"Think you can walk now?"
"Yeah." Sam holds out a long arm and Dean takes his hand and hauls him to his feet. Sam comes up with all his weight on his left leg, gives a tiny hop, then his right foot settles on the grass. He leans into it and it holds. Relief rolls off him like sweat.
Sam is walking around a tiny circle, trying his knee out, eyes on the ground. It takes him a moment to look up and then pivot to see what Dean is staring at.
It’s Leamon’s grave.
It had been covered with recently shoveled dirt before, not grass, like it is now. The tombstone had been broken. Now, it’s whole. It had carried a name, nothing more. Now a carved flag is draped across a corner. Leamon’s name is followed by "died April 8, 1866 - age 25 years".
Dean is wincing against the sun as they make their way to the Impala, and Sam’s gait is still a little unsteady. But they each pretend nothing’s wrong. By Winchester standards, nothing is. The sunglasses help when Dean gets behind the wheel.
There is so much to say. Even more to ask. So they say nothing.
That’s a Winchester standard, too.
When they get back to their motel, Sam’s slow getting out of the car and Dean’s just gotten the motel door open when he hears Sam bite off a curse. Dean turns to see Sam’s leg buckle. He moves without thinking, has his shoulder tucked under Sam’s arm before Sam can face plant. "I gotcha."
Sam lets himself be manhandled until he’s stretched out on top of the floral comforter, head on the pillow. He doesn’t like being manhandled; it makes him feel six years old again, when all he wants is for Dean to accept him as an equal. But right now? If Dean can make his knee stop screaming, Sam will gladly let Dean treat him like a needy little brother.
Dean flings his sunglasses on the nightstand and sits on the side of Sam’s bed. He pulls Sam’s right leg out flat, making the muscles stretch and making Sam hiss, before feeling for any knots. He’s so intent on trying to find the most effective spot to apply pressure that he almost doesn’t hear Sam’s voice grating out a strained question.
"You never. Explained. Why you tracked down Lew."
Dean finds a trigger point and presses. That hurts; he knows it does, so Dean talks the whole time he’s leaning into it with his knuckles, giving Sam’s attention something else to hold onto. "I got to thinking," he tells Sam. "If restless spirits stay close to their remains, then maybe it wasn’t Leamon’s ghost. I think the grave was disturbed because someone else’s spirit was looking for Leamon." Dean feels the muscle relax; Sam’s whole body sags limply into the bedding.
"Lots of lore ‘bout ghosts like that - mothers searching for their lost child." Sam sounds drowsy.
"Right. But I had a feeling…"
Dean checks for other trigger points, doesn’t find any. The phantom pain isn’t lasting as long this time. "Lew was there, at Chickamauga," he continues. "But he wasn’t with his brother…"
Sam nods. He gets it. He knows if he was reported missing and presumed dead, nothing would stop Dean from searching for him. Not even death.
Dean keeps talking, hands warm on Sam’s knee, explaining why he went looking for Lew, how he found him, but Sam drifts off on the resonance of Dean’s comforting tone.
Dean doesn’t get to ask if Sam found out why Leamon broke his promise and enlisted. He doesn’t get to ask Sam why he wanted to use a forbidden binding ritual instead of a simple séance. But they have time. Not years. But – time.
Dean takes Sam’s shoes off and grabs a blanket from the closet to toss over him. Now that he doesn’t have Sam’s immediate needs distracting him, his headache is back, like a bullet boring relentlessly through his skull. It’s like the aftershocks of an earthquake, he thinks. Random, smaller attacks. By tomorrow they’ll be gone. He hopes.
He struggles to the bathroom and shuts the door. With no window, it’s perfectly dark. Dean wets a washcloth with cold water, drapes it across the back of his neck, and sits down, head in his hands, kneading his temples. Waits for this aftershock to pass.
Eventually, it does. Dean emerges, and finds Sam is still out cold. So Dean puts his shades back on and goes to bring in another duffle from the Impala, the one that contains heating pads and ice packs and their med kit. There’s a mini-mart attached to the motel and he heads there next to pick up some other supplies in case they’re stuck there for a day or two and don’t really want to move around much.
There’s no way of knowing about these residual effects. It’s not like they can go to the nearest clinic and explain what happened.
The short excursion takes less than 15 minutes, but Dean’s exhausted when he returns. Maybe Sam has the right idea - a nap sounds good. Or maybe inevitable, whether he wants one or not. It feels like he hasn’t slept in days. Dean leaves the duffel where Sam can easily find it, drops his sunglasses on the nightstand, and sprawls on his stomach on top of his bed.
When Dean wakes up, the room is dark. He squints at the clock, but the numbers are blurry. There’s a faint blue/white glow coming from the room’s small table by the window. The drapes are pulled shut. There’s a shadow hunched over the light, and Dean knows it’s his brother.
"Sam." His voice is sleep-slurred and rough. "Why’re you workin’ in the dark?"
"Dean. How’s your head?"
"Same as the last time you asked me," Dean says. He rolls onto his back, one hand to his temple, and adds, "No. Actually, it’s better now. But you didn’t answer my question."
"Figured the light might bother you." Sam lowers the laptop screen a little, diminishing the glow.
Dean feels a damp washcloth on the back of his neck, wonders for a fraction of a second where it came from, before figuring it out and tossing it on Sam’s pillow on the other bed. "What exactly are you looking up?"
"I was wondering about Leamon. And Lew," Sam says.
"Me, too." Dean stops short, remembering something. "We weren’t supposed to change anything. Did we?" He sits up. "The Butterfly Effect? Dude, tell me we didn’t somehow prevent Metallica from getting together."
Sam rolls his eyes. "At Stanford, in my Chaos Theory seminar –"
"Chaos Theory?" It’s Dean’s turn to roll his eyes. "Could you be any more of a geek?"
"Shut up." Sam isn’t deterred. "There’s this theory called the Novikov Consistency Principle. Basically, Novikov conjectured that if time travel were really possible, the odds of being able to succeed at any action that would change the future would be zero. It’s only possible to take actions that are basically inconsequential."
"I think Lew would consider finding Leamon still alive pretty consequential." Dean sits up gingerly, rolls his shoulders. The pain is gone, he’s relieved to discover, but the exhaustion lingers, deep in his bones.
"It’s all just theoretical, Dean. Scientists don’t really know." Sam raises the laptop lid again, since Dean seems awake enough to be interested in his results.
"So," Dean looks over hopefully. "We still have Metallica?"
"Yes, Dean." Sam smiles. "I’m sure your Master of Puppets tape is fine."
"You find out what happened to Leamon? And Lew?"
"Yeah. We got lucky. One of Lew’s descendants pulled a bunch of information from their military records at the National Archives. She posted her findings on a genealogy web site."
"Casualty reports. They tell us Leamon was wounded at Chickamauga on Saturday, September 19, 1863. Gunshot wound resulting in a shattered knee joint." Sam can’t help wincing as he reads. "The Confederates won the battle the next day, and they captured all the field hospitals, like you said. They had over 13,000 wounded of their own, and not enough supplies to care for their wounded, much less their prisoners. Some prisoners got no medical treatment for 11 days. They ended up exchanging about 1750 of the most seriously wounded under a flag of truce on October 1st. Leamon was one of them. He spent the next few months in Army hospitals."
"What happened to Lew?"
"His regiment was one of the last ones to leave the field on Sunday, defending Snodgrass Hill so the rest of the Union Army could retreat through McFarland’s Gap. His unit was so decimated by their losses that once Chattanooga was firmly in Union control by the end of November, the 44th remained there on provost duty until the end of the war. They never fought another battle."
Dean gets up, grabs a six-pack out of the mini-fridge, and takes two beers. He opens both, passes one to Sam, and notices that Sam has showered and changed into sweats and has the heating pad on his knee. Good boy. Dean considers a shower, but he doesn’t think he could stand up for even five minutes without falling over. He sits back down on his bed and asks, "So. Anything on what happened after Chickamauga?"
"Yeah. In early 1864, they both got to go home on furlough for a month or two. Then back to the Army till the war ended. Looks like Leamon wasn’t fit enough to rejoin his regiment; he had limited duty at headquarters." Sam pauses in his reading and smiles. "Betsy had a baby in November. But Lew didn’t meet his daughter till she was 10 months old. They named her Emma," Sam tells Dean. He takes a swig of the beer before continuing. "In 1865, Lew got promoted to captain. Their brother Frank enlisted when he turned 18, but then he got measles and the war ended before he saw any action. By Christmas 1865, all three boys were back home in Indiana for good."
"Huh. So, Leamon survived. They didn’t amputate his leg after all?"
Sam is scanning other links. He finds their mother Jemima Griffith’s application for a pension as Leamon’s dependent. "Looks like Leamon might have been better off if he had lost his leg," he says, frowning. "According to this, Leamon was in pain and bedridden for the rest of his life. He died at home the next spring, just before midnight, April 8th, 1866. Cause of death was blood poisoning due to the gunshot wound." Sam sighs. "Leamon knew he was going to die. He made out a will two months before that. Left one dollar to each of his brothers and sisters, and the rest to his ‘beloved mother’. Lew was the executor of his estate."
Sam stops reading, his thumb scraping absently on the label on his beer bottle. Dean soaks the information in. He’d hadn’t put it into words, hadn’t really thought about it much, but he’d felt good about helping Lew rescue Leamon. When he saw the grave, yeah, he’d processed the new information. But honestly, he’d been overwhelmed that he and Sam made it back. Kinda surprised that the tombstone had changed, but mostly he’d just realized that it was different, not what it had actually said. He’d been more worried about Sam than anything else.
Now it sinks in.
Leamon didn’t live long enough to have a wife and children; in the grand scheme of things, Leamon didn’t matter. The fact that he survived didn’t really change history. Lew’s action had merely bought them a few more months together. But they were months filled with Leamon’s pain and suffering.
If Leamon had been given a choice, would he have chosen to die quietly in the night, to fall asleep and not wake up? Or would he have chosen to be captured, to lie on the ground without medical attention for 11 days and spend his last year disabled and in pain? Just for a few extra months with his family?
Dean has to believe that Leamon would have chosen more time, even at that cost. He knows Sam would have; Dean’s throat hurts at the thought of the price Sam was prepared to pay a few hours ago.
He pinches the bridge of his nose, doesn’t want to go there. Suddenly he feels very very tired.
"You need something for the headache?" Sam asks.
"Nah." He sets the beer down next to his sunglasses. "How about you? The aftershocks winding down?"
"The after…? Oh. Yeah. Better. I found that if I get up and walk around at the first twitch I can nip it in the bud."
"Sitting in the car all day probably isn’t a good idea for your leg, then," Dean suggests, yawning. "Maybe we should stick around until you’re jitterbug-free for a day."
Sam sees the dark circles under Dean’s eyes, the tight lines around his eyes. Figures Dean could use the break, too, although he would never ask for it for himself. "Sure, Dean," he says.
They don’t talk about binding rituals or time travel. Knowing Dean, Sam suspects they never will. And that’s okay with him.
Sam watches as Dean slides down on the bed and drifts back to sleep. Maybe it’s like a concussion; Sam wonders if he should wake Dean every two hours. He can do that. If they kept track of stuff like that, it would probably be his turn, Sam muses.
He’ll spend all night surfing for any new leads on crossroad deals. There’s no reason to have hope that he’ll find something. But the fact that Dean said he believed in Sam – that’s lifted the despair that had felt like it was crushing him. Knowing he doesn’t have to hide his activities from Dean any more gives him a little more strength, too.
Coffee, Sam thinks. Coffee would be better than beer if he’s going to stand vigil all night.
He gets up quietly, rubbing his leg, and checks out the grocery bag set on top of the mini-fridge. There’s a bag of marshmallows inside. And there’s graham crackers and chocolate bars, too. It rings a bell with Sam, something on the fringe of memory, but he can’t pin it down. Maybe Dean will know.
In the morning he’ll ask him.
~ The END ~