hinterland ∼ an area lying beyond what is visible or known
Sunrise, Wyoming – Sam knew that one way or another, he’d never forget it.
Squat and spare, sepia as an old photograph, it had changed from a one-horse town to a ghost town over the course of a few hours. In fact, Sam was pretty sure if he was to glance out through the open door of the jailhouse there’d be tumbleweed blowing down the street. If he was to strain his ears, he reckoned he’d be able to hear the telltale sound of the Express office sign creaking in the wind.
There wouldn’t be much more than that, though. Every living soul in the vicinity had gone to ground the moment the ghost of Elias Finch drew down on the fool gunslinger who’d called him out. The fool gunslinger who’d seemed to be the new law in town.
Sam could hardly believe he’d even thought those words.
“You know,” he said into the whispery silence. “I actually never liked those movies.”
He wiped one wet hand on an edge of jacket balled up under Dean’s ear, smearing a print that showed up like rust on the canvas. A breeze, smelling unfamiliar and old, ghosted across his face. It made his eyes gritty and he had to blink. Dean was laying limply on the knotty floorboards by his knees, so damn still Sam wanted to scream at him.
The thunder in his ears hadn’t lessened. Ever since the shots rang out his head had hurt with it. He was furious and frustrated that the jailhouse floor was so hard, and that the window was busted and that there was only a stiff duster to use as a blanket.
He jostled Dean’s nearest arm with his knee.
“The ones where the sheriff’s holed up in the jail with some idiot greenhorn, and the bad guys are closing in.”
His voice was a mysterious echo. As if he himself wasn’t quite real.
This was real though. This blood painted on his skin and clothes. It was as real as it had ever been, smelled as coppery and unwelcome as always. Squinting in the poor light he pushed a clump of grit off Dean’s face. A coming beard showed up dark and shadowy against the paper white of his skin. His brother was unconscious.
The impact of a soft lead bullet had knocked Dean clean out. As far as Sam could tell after bundling him out of the duster and ripping open the shirt, the projectile had lodged itself snugly between ribs, shattering impediments as it went. It hadn’t been traveling fast enough to go right through and out the other side. Which was good and bad news. At least there was only one wound, although it would have taken fuck knew what lumps of cloth and bone with it. And hit something, Sam thought. That was the really bad news. Dean surely wouldn’t be bleeding so hard if it hadn’t goddamn well at least nicked something.
“You know…” Sam repeated, stroking down Dean’s face a few times, patting not too softly on the stubbly cheek. A helpless anger tightened his gut.
Castiel should be here. Should have been here.
Swallowing hard several times, reminding himself fiercely that he wasn’t helpless, had plenty of brains, even if it was 1861, he made himself carry on speaking. It was both to keep himself calm, and to encourage Dean back to the surface. He figured, although the notion made his head throb, it was just as important now as it had always been in the future. Or, hold on. Will be. Or whatever the fuck… something like that.
“Yeah, you know,” he tried again. “And those movies where the guy with the bullet in the back tells his buddy where the treasure’s buried. Kind of lame.” Sam rubbed his own forehead with the back of one wrist, keeping up the pressure on the messy wound with the other hand. “The cowboys always shot too many Indians and the women always put up with too much shit.”
No, it had never been romantic to him the way it was to Dean.
Sam waited in the gloom and quiet for a response. For his brother to force out some fall-about funny words, call him Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman—or worse. For the indefatigable spirit of Dean to come back to him from wherever he was.
There was nothing.
Sam swallowed hard again. Felt the dust gathered in the back of his throat. He pawed at Dean’s cheek once more, then stilled his hand, cupped under Dean’s chin as warm and close as he could get.
“And the one-horse towns. I never liked the one-horse towns.”
Still there was nothing. Sam reached to pull the edges of duster more closely around Dean’s midsection. Keeping in what heat he could. Several feet away outside the shattered window a horse nickered. The sound was other-worldly, made Sam feel queasy.
Finch was dead, combusted, immolated, whatever. Somewhere in his head Dean would at least have the satisfaction of knowing he’d outdrawn him. The ashes were still all over the hard-packed earth outside, scattered in macabre remembrance. Sam had been frantically scooping them up, expecting Castiel at any second, when he’d heard the odd thump of Dean’s body hitting the ground behind him. And since dragging him out of the wind he hadn’t dared leave his side to go finish the job.
Castiel would have to deal with that particular glitch in the proceedings.
If he ever turned up.
Time tunnel was bust, and they had nothing.
No morphine, no antibiotics, no fat rolls of sterilized dressings, needles and thread in neat, germ-free packaging. Just a quarter bottle of ‘Ol’ Rattler’, and Elkins in the saloon rustling up what medical supplies he could. He’d said the nearest proper doctor was a day and a half’s ride away, attending a fever-bed. Elkins thought he’d also likely have chloroform and carbolic to hand if they could catch up to him in time. Trouble was, Sam thought, he’d likely have some putrid fever-germ to hand too, some ancient unfamiliar bacterium just looking for a wound to crawl into.
“Yeah,” he said, in defensive explanation, even though Dean clearly wasn’t listening. “And I’m not about to double your sorry ass cross country.”
You don’t sit a gravely wounded man on a saddle and jiggle him around mercilessly for fifteen hours, John Wayne be damned. Especially when you still don’t quite know your way around a horse and you were never so great navigating by the stars anyhow.
“It’ll be OK though. Just… you just need to hang on, Dean.”
Simple. Just hang on for the angelic ambulance.
They shouldn’t have to wait too much longer. Surely. This should all be over in… Sam’s head drooped. Shit, this should all have been over about two hours ago. He didn’t know what the freak had gone wrong back at Bobby’s but something had. The precious ashes were blowing uselessly about outside, a cool mist had drifted down over Sunrise, and he and Dean were one hundred and fifty unbridgeable years from home.
It had been a long span since Sam had been able to acknowledge any such place. Very briefly, in another life and another past, it had been Stanford. More often and more clearly it had been riding shotgun in the Impala, a place and a happiness currently lost in the sulfurous mists of time. But ‘home’ now spoke to him, made him hurt deep in his chest. It was a junkyard in South Dakota. It was Bobby in his oily cap looking at him and Dean like they were morons with no other purpose on this earth than to piss him the hell off.
Dean sighed then, but he didn’t wake. The fingers of one hand curled against the floor, a single, jerky motion. Warmth was leaching from him by the second—Sam could feel the chill, even without touching.
“I’ve got a plan,” he began with confidence, even though he hadn’t. Not hardly.
Before Dean could come back to him on that, even if he’d been able to, there was a steady clomp of shoes along the boardwalk.
It was Darla, the percentage girl. Elkins had said he’d send her over.
“Thank God,” Sam said. She was framed in the doorway, hair even more askew than it had been when they first walked into the saloon yesterday, although she was wrapped up in a thick shawl, held another one over her arm, along with a small leather bag. Sam felt a wave of relief to see her, swiftly followed by an acid rush of anxiety.
She approached with care, strangely unhurried. Then she bent towards Dean for a second.
“Honey,” she said. Sam didn’t know which one of them she meant. There was a lumpen sympathy in her voice he didn’t care for at all. She picked something out of the leather pouch she was holding and offered it to him.
Sam looked at it and felt his stomach plunge. A white earthenware pot with a lid, about the size of her palm. He didn’t really know what medical supplies he’d been expecting, but it wasn’t a jar of face-cream.
“Great,” he said, confused by her lack of urgency, feeling like his own was getting him nowhere. “Thanks.” He turned the item over in his hand.
OK, so not face cream. Dr. Dabney’s Miracle Salve.
“Uh-huh… what’s in it?”
She looked at him like he was simple as well as being some outlandish stranger she didn’t cotton to. “Medicine. You know, and… well, plants I guess, and oil.”
“Snake oil?” he couldn’t help blurting out, because that… that was almost funny.
Darla narrowed her eyes.
Yeah, it had to be snake oil. Or worse. It was probably one of those mixtures that had mercury in it as well. They always used to put mercury in shit like this. Sam’s head spun. Crap, they still put mercury in shit like this.
Figuring she needed the encouragement, Sam gave Darla a tight smile. She was the only help he had.
“Great,” he said again.
She eyed him for a second more and then shrugged, easy. “Doc left us plenty last time he was in town. Somethin’ brand new from back east. He reckons it’s some pumpkins all right.” There was another hesitation. She was clearly unsure why Sam was looking at the pot so dubiously. “And there’s this.” Darla fished into the bag and brought out a knife. It was handed over calmly, handle first.
Sam put the pot down and took hold. Damn thing was heavy, even though it was small, and he examined it in dismay. It wasn’t dirty exactly, but it sure wasn’t… clean. Not the bright and shining clean he needed, that was for sure. A blade well dunked in antiseptic, or at the very least scalding hot water. Under the hilt it was faintly crusty, although the blade looked sharp, at least, and recently wiped.
“Elkins said you was gonna cut him, get the bullet out.” Darla gave him another strange look as she spoke. Then she patted his arm. “Hell, don’t worry, honey-pie, you ain’t doin’ nothin’ no different than Doc Galloway.”
The bleak thought came over Sam that she was humoring him, Elkins too. Folk shot in the chest in Sunrise didn’t have much of a prayer, as far as they were concerned. Why waste energy pretending they did? Life was life. Best stay out of the way of bullets, that was all. To them, the tall stranger who’d ridden out to find crazy Samuel Holt was the one behaving oddly, not them.
“Can you help me, Darla?”
Her brow wrinkled. She hesitated again, as if she thought Sam was asking the wrong question. Then she took a deep breath. “You gonna do it right here on the floor?” Her head jerked towards the doorway. “We got us a pool table in the saloon.”
The thought flashed through Sam’s mind that digging a bullet out of Dean on a green baize table-top out back of a genuine wild west saloon was probably about as perfect and as ridiculous as it could possibly get.
Super, Dean should have said. Let’s get the fuck on with it. But he said nothing, and all of a sudden the way he was lying there, the way he was saying nothing, made Sam’s breath catch.
He watched Dean’s fingers half uncurl again, and then relax strangely against the floor. Teeth clenching, he pressed down on the wound once more, hard. A horrible, gut-deep feeling was coming over him. His chest was tight as almighty fuck and his mouth dry as a dust-bowl. Darla was staring, still calm but with her light eyes clouded by some emotion he couldn’t read. Wouldn’t.
“Yeah, get Elkins.” Sam whistled in a breath, let it out in a steadying puff. He looked straight at her. “Anyone else you can find. We’ll carry him over. I can do it, stitch up a bullet wound. I’ve done it before.”
He had, plenty.
Confidence came back to him in a rush.
“Oh honey,” Darla said, her voice soft and sorry.
Like it was being sucked out of him, the confidence vanished again.
Sam dropped his gaze down.
Dean’s body was slumped against the boards, jaw slack. His lashes were stark against his cheeks, utterly still. Like permanently closed shutters.
Oh Jesus God.
Frantic, Sam moved his hand, numb and unresponsive, to Dean’s neck. He sank two fingers in deep through layers of familiar skin and muscle and sinew. Knew there was nothing even as he searched for it.
Sam thought his own pulse was going to burst right out of his head.
“No, no,” he said out loud, decisive, like it would be enough. ”No, no, no.”
“Oh,” Darla said again. Her voice sounded different, and the word was stretched out in some kind of breathless horror. As if she wasn’t looking at him and Dean anymore but at something new in the room. Something unimaginable. “Oh Jesus Mary mother of God.”
Sam registered the sudden clench of a hand on his shoulder. He knew it wasn’t Darla, or anyone else from Sunrise, Wyoming. The touch was bruising, full of power, and he knew he should fear it. Instinctive, he threw himself forward, protecting. He curled hard around Dean, felt blood and cool skin against his face. Wind, hot and dry like it was coming in from the desert, whipped across the back of his head and he squeezed his eyes shut against the abrupt sting of tears.
Then he heard the wanted posters flap fiercely on the wall, Dr. Dabney’s pot of snake oil rolling noisily back and forth across the floor, hitting items of furniture as it went. The door banged shut and rattled in its frame. And above all that, Darla was having a conniption fit somewhere behind him, screaming like the Devil himself had come to get her and drag her away.
The very foundations of Sunrise rocked.
For long moments Sam had absolutely no clue where he was, just that Dean was lying dead underneath him, and they were somewhere neither here nor there.
And then Sunrise, Wyoming, was gone. Or rather, then they were gone. Leaving Darla, the jailhouse, the one horse town and the goddamn ashes fifteen decades in the past.
Sam took a huge breath, hardly dared open his eyes. The speed of re-entry left his insides a coil of confusion. All that way, all that time and they still had the Mother of all problems. He was aware of that. Somehow, between them they’d fucked it all up. But, in that moment, with Dean’s chest rising and falling under his own, Sam couldn’t have cared any less.
Somewhere in the background came the distinct sound of Castiel groaning in protest, as if all his stuffing had been forcibly evacuated.
“What in the hell are you idjits playing at?” Bobby was demanding overhead, voice as worried and cranky as Sam had ever heard it.
The sounds were of the here and now. Their weird world. They were back from beyond.
“Sammy,” Dean complained, muffled and breathless under his shoulder. Sam felt a healthy jab in his solar plexus. “What the hell? Would you get your freakin’ arms the freak off me?”
Sam didn’t though. He kept his eyes shut and hugged Dean to him as tight as he could and for as long as he thought he could get away with.
“Holy shit,” Bobby was saying, over and over. Sam felt him get a hand to the back of his shirt, give it a thankful tug. “Whatever the hell’s been going on with you two, I think you need to let go now, Sam.”
Sam did. But he loosened the hold on his brother gradually, scared to lose the feel of Dean’s heart thumping its steady, indignant beat against his chest.
“All right, Bobby, all right. It’s all right.”
And it was. Somehow it just about was.
“You OK?” Dean demanded gruffly. He’d stopped trying to shove his way free of his brother’s long, enfolding limbs. Almost as if he understood something had happened which made Sam’s wild embrace allowable.
Sam made as if to push him away, bad-tempered and good-natured all in one—to get them back to normal as fast as he could.
“Yeah I’m fine,” he said, although his throat still felt clogged with dust. Or something.
And when they finally unrolled from their tangle on the floor, grubby and almost ready to crack a smile, the ancient tears were still wet on his face.