“Come on, come on,” Dean muttered, skidding around the corner of a flimsy clapboard building. A shot cracked through the air, the bullet nearly clipping his heels.
The narrow space between the buildings was, at least for the moment, empty. He breathed heavily through his nose, sure fingers refastening the buttons on his shirt, and tried to remember where he’d tied up Baby the night before.
“You boys want to point me in the direction of my horse?” he called, loudly, in the general direction the bullet had come from. Only the creaking of an old wooden sign swaying in the wind answered him.
Taking advantage of the momentary dusty quiet, Dean frowned at the clasp on his pants, realized he’d shoved them on inside out, and bit his lip to keep from cursing at his own stupidity. Shaking his head, he rolled the waistband down over his hips, then began threading his belt through the loops.
By his count, the town square had been completely silent for at least a full minute. Dean was relatively positive that the odds weren’t going to fall in his favor, because if there was one thing that had remained true his entire life, it was that the odds were never in his favor. If he was prone to religion, he would claim that God was testing him for some great purpose; if he’d been a shade more superstitious, he would have probably thought he was cursed. As it was, Dean remained just optimistic enough to consistently be disappointed.
“Okay, fellas,” he yelled, taking a deep breath and poking his head around the corner. “Maybe we can talk this out?”
A bullet splintered the side of the building. Cursing, Dean ducked back into the relative safety of the alley.
“You coward!” someone hollered.
“Worth a shot,” Dean said under his breath, fumbling with his belt buckle until it clicked into place. Pulling his colt from his holster, he weighed his options.
On one end of the alley lay the open prairie and the promise of freedom. Or, to be more specific, freedom as far as he could run on his own two legs without any supplies. On the other was the town square, a small gang of angry men, and, unfortunately, his horse. Unbidden, an old memory of his father’s voice rumbled through his head.
If you’re gonna do something stupid, boy, make sure you’ve got a damn escape plan.
The stupid had already happened; he was still working on the way out. There was no way he’d make it out alive without Baby – of that he was certain.
There was nothing else to do, then, but to make a dash for it.
Dean always functioned better when he had an endgame to work towards; a direction to point in, a goal to focus on. It’s what had made him so valuable over the years – give him an objective, and he could adapt to fit whatever came at him. He wasn’t sure where the skill came from, exactly, although he knew it hadn’t been Dad. Dad had planned everything perfectly his whole life, and never learned how to function in the face of change. And Sam…
Sam had been the same way. Chip off the old block, much as he’d denied it.
Setting his mouth in a tight line, Dean firmly locked away thoughts of his brother and father and focused on the mess he was currently in the middle of.
He remembered tying Baby up late the night before outside the post office at the other edge of town, which, luckily for him, was only about three hundred yards away around another corner. Assuming the town wanted to continue receiving mail, she’d still be right where he’d left her, and the postmaster would have his bags waiting for him.
All of this, of course, assuming Dean would even make it across town. It seemed unlikely, given the odds, that he’d be able to reach the post office without getting shot.
Dean shook out his shoulders and legs, cocked his pistol, and took aim. “No time like the present,” he muttered, and fired.
He started running as soon as he heard the wooden signpost crack under his bullet, the split-second distraction giving him a slight head start on the men grouped in the town square. Not long enough, though; within another second or two a shot whistled over his head. He cursed, willing his legs to move faster, and he cleared the corner as another nearly took off his head.
Baby stood, in all her glory, exactly where he’d left her, and he breathed a sigh of relief as he skidded to a stop next to her.
“Hey, sweetheart, you miss me?” She nuzzled his head, looking for a treat, and Dean bit back a smile as he pulled her reins out of the loose knot around the post. “I’ll be right back – you stay here.”
Flying up the stairs two at and time and through the clapboard door, Dean burst into the post office, startling the postmaster, who glanced up over the stack of papers he was holding.
“’lo Dean, didn’t expect to see you this mornin’,” he began.
“Can’t talk, Howard, I needed to be going five minutes ago. Where’s my other-” Howard tossed him his second saddlebag. “Thanks, man, I owe you one.”
Howard followed him back out the door and leaned on the porch railing, watching him sling the bags over Baby’s broad back. Dean swung into the saddle and reached out to shake his hand. “Anything I can do for you, name it.”
“Already put a few letters in the bag for you, addressed and all.”
“Cousin or mother?”
“Neither, this time. I’ll fill you in whenever you pass through next.” He looked over Dean’s shoulder and frowned. “You best be going, son, they don’t look too happy.”
He slapped Baby’s flank and she quickened into a trot, Dean waving over his shoulder before turning back to the main street, nearly at the edge of town.
Dean paused at the end of the road, nudging Baby around to look back toward the scattered group reforming in the town square. He grinned at the men, pulling off his hat to wave at them.
“Give my regards to your sister,” he called, nearly jumping out of his skin when a bullet flew through the crown of his hat. He yanked his hand back down. “What the hell?”
The man spat in his direction, watery brown tobacco juice running down his chin. “I was aiming for your head, you yellow-bellied son of a bitch! I ever see you back in this town I ain’t gonna miss again!”
Another bullet hit the dust a few feet in front of him, and Baby startled, backing up nervously. Dean leaned forward over his pommel and rubbed the side of her neck. “Easy, sweetheart,” he murmured under his breath, “we’ll be outta here in a moment.”
Straightening back up in the saddle, Dean eyed the group in front of him. They leered back, grimy under the faded brims of hats that might have been considered well-worn a decade ago. The way Dean saw it, there were a few ways this could go: the easiest was to turn tail and get out of town quietly, avoiding any further property damage.
Dean wasn’t known for taking the easy way out. He was also, regrettably, not known for keeping his mouth shut, particularly when under duress.
He jammed his hat back on his head, finger catching in the hole puncturing the soft felt. “That,” he drawled loudly, “was my best hat.”
“What’re you gonna do about it?”
Dean shrugged, forcing his shoulders to relax. “Nothing much I can do that ain’t already been done, is there?” The men shuffled silently under the hot sun, refusing to break the standoff.
He tugged at his reins, turning Baby’s head back toward the prairie, and let her ease into a walk before turning to glance back over his shoulder again. “To be honest, fellas, it was damn dark last night,” he called, “and I’m not all that sure which of your sister’s mouths was all over me, only that she was real enthusiastic about sucking my-”
“Damn you, Winchester!” A shot ripped through the air, the crack loud enough to wake the dead, but Baby was already flying down the worn dirt path away from the town, her rider waving his newly holey hat through the cloud of dust.
“You’re late, Winchester.”
Dean froze at the hitching rail, halfway through tying Baby next to an unfamiliar, camel-colored mare. He cleared his throat, keeping his eyes fixed on a knot in the mare’s forelock. “’M not that late,” he grumbled.
A pea pod hit him on the side of his head, and he winced, glaring across the rail at the woman staring at him coolly from the porch.
“You were due back near six hours ago,” Ellen said, with all the authority of a woman who lived directly across from a train and was often displeased by its loose interpretation of a schedule.
She’d been like that for as long as he’d known her, far before they’d lived within a hundred miles of any train tracks. Dean vividly remembered the only time he, Sam, and Jo had gotten home late for dinner – he’d been twelve, and much too confident in his own map-reading skills – because it had only happened once. Ellen, for all her stellar qualities, could put the fear of God in just about anyone. Sam used to swear he’d seen her cuss out a grizzly for stealing the chickens. It was certainly possible.
Dean figured he’d be getting his ass handed to him one way or another, so he shot back, “Got held up.” To his surprise she only sighed at him, shaking her head.
“Bobby wanted to talk to you whenever you got in.”
His stomach sank, and it must have shown on his face, because she softened slightly. “Don’t you start worryin’ before you even know what he wants.”
“Is that supposed to make me worry less?”
She snorted. “If I knew how to stop you from running yourself ragged worrying, don’t you think I’d have done it years ago?”
Dean shrugged, finishing off the knot tying his horse to the rail, and moved toward the porch. Before he could get farther than the bottom of the steps, though, Ellen had a hand up to stop him.
“Finish watering your horse, boy, the old man can wait another minute or two.” She stood, flicking pea pods off her lap, and leveled him with a stare, any hints of her former gentleness banished. “And fix your damn trousers before you come in, Dean.”
“I didn’t – Ellen, come on,” he started, then trailed off as one of her eyebrows crept higher. “Fine.”
“Wash your face, too.”
He sighed. “Yes, ma’am.”
She swept inside with her gingham skirts and bowl of peas, for a moment looking more like a queen than the wife of a station master.
Dean watched from the bottom step as the door swung closed behind her with a dull thud. He stood there for a long moment, squinting against the glare of the sun, and waited for Ellen to come back out and yell at him properly for being late.
A moment passed, and then another, but the station remained quiet save for the rushing of wind along the neighboring train tracks. Behind him, Baby nickered softly, and he forced himself to release some of the tension knotting his shoulders.
“I know, sweetheart,” he said, walking back toward his horse, “you’ll get a good long brushing tonight, I promise.” She butted his hand gently with her nose, and he closed his eyes and leaned against her neck, letting her warm breath ground him for a moment. “You think we’re in trouble?” She nickered again and he finally laughed, pushing away from her comforting heat with a lingering pat. “Yeah, I don’t know either.”
Although he knew Baby wouldn’t have complained – at least not too loudly – if he’d followed Ellen inside and left her to her own devices for a few minutes while he talked with Bobby, he was glad he’d been granted the extra time to get her some clean water, at the very least.
Despite the oppressive July heat, the water pouring from the pump was icy cold, and Dean shivered as the freezing drops trickled down his neck and under his shirt collar. He splashed another palmful on his face, scrubbing away the grime from the last few days on the road. By the time the water was running clear (more or less) off of his face, his fingers and ears were numb, and he figured he wasn’t going to get any cleaner until he could get his hands on some soap and a rag.
He pumped another bucketful for Baby, and, after a moment of deliberation, grabbed a second bucket for the other mare.
With both horses watered, his pockets several sugar cubes lighter, and his face still tingling from the cold water, Dean had run out of ways to stall.
“Alright,” he murmured, giving Baby a final scratch behind the ears. “If I’m not back in an hour, it’s up to you to come rescue me. Got that?” She snorted at him, and the other mare, who had quickly warmed up to both of them after Dean shared the sugar cubes with her, nudged him with her nose. Dean patted her neck. “Baby might need backup, so stand by, ok?”
Leaving the horses companionably flicking their tails at the gathering flies, Dean trudged up the stairs to the front door of the station. Taking a deep breath, he tried to calm his nerves – frazzled despite Ellen’s words – and pushed open the heavy door.
After a day’s ride in the sweltering sunlight, stepping into the station was like walking into a cave. Behind him, the door swung shut with a quiet thud, and Dean blinked rapidly as his eyes struggled to adjust to the dark interior.
There was no call of greeting as he walked in; neither was there any admonishment from Ellen or Bobby. The front room was completely silent, standing empty save for the stale stench of horses and unwashed men. He hung his hat by the door, mournfully eyeing the hole torn through the soft felt, and wandered toward the back of the station.
“Bobby?” Dean poked his head through the doorway leading to the main office.
He was answered by a loud grunt. “Well, if it ain’t the damn Queen of England.”
Dean grinned at the figure hunched behind a desk, silhouetted by dirty windows. “You fit to curtsy, old man?”
“I’d sooner whup your ass, boy, if I thought it’d do a lick of good.” Bobby sighed loudly, and Dean felt rather than saw the disappointment etched in the other man’s face. He shuffled, letting his grin fade, and stared at his feet.
“You can’t keep doing this, Dean,” continued Bobby, softer. “You’re one of the best riders we’ve got, but a delay’s a delay. I can’t keep making excuses for you.”
Biting his cheek, Dean nodded. “I know.”
“Did you run into Indians?”
“Bummers Gang giving you trouble again?”
“Last I heard they were back out in Colorado.”
“You didn’t piss off any more prostitutes, did you?”
Dean flushed, desperately wishing he was still outside with the horses. “Not this time.”
“Damn it, boy, then what?”
“It was an accident.” He stared at his boots, toeing at a stray clod of dirt. “Lost track of time, is all.”
“Dean.” Dean finally looked up at Bobby, who was leaning across the desk with his hands folded in front of him, his face an uncomfortably unreadable mask. “Do you still want this job?”
“Yes, sir,” he said quickly, then froze. The word had slipped out, the habit still ingrained even after two miserable, lonely years. He and Bobby stared at each other for a moment, as Dean silently willed Bobby not to mention it.
“Bobby, can we just… not talk about this right now?” Dean scrubbed his hand over his face. “I’ll be better, I swear. You don’t need to worry about me. I can – I can do the job. No more delays.”
Sighing, Bobby settled back into his chair. Although his jaw was still tight (Dean, who had been no stranger to that particular face as a boy, didn’t need to be able to see him clearly to know), the dark line of his shoulders outlined against the windows relaxed. “I’ll be holding you to it.”
“Yeah, I know.” He swallowed around the lump that had lodged itself in his throat. “I’ll, uh, be out as soon as the train comes in tomorrow morning. Baby’ll be rested enough for the first leg, and if the weather holds, I can probably make Rock Creek by supper so long’s Jesse’s ready for me this time.”
“You’re not taking the mail tomorrow,” said Bobby, interrupting Dean’s rambling. He gaped at him, waiting for the punchline, but Bobby only stared back impassively.
“I’m not - what?”
“You heard me,” he repeated, standing up from the desk to look Dean fully in the eye. “You’ve got yourself a different assignment.”
Dean’s knees threatened to buckle beneath him. “You can’t just – what about the mail, Bobby?”
“Garth’s taking over for a week or so.” Rounding his desk, Bobby moved toward the bookshelves in the corner of the room, scanning the ledgers intently.
Dean stumbled after him, mind racing. A different assignment… they weren’t supposed to have different assignments – that was the entire point of the job. The mail had to move west from the rail station in St. Joseph as quickly as possible, and so there was no room for trading assignments or posts like penny candy from a corner store. Another thought cut through the fog threatening to overwhelm him. “Wait. A week or so?”
Bobby slammed the book shut and switched it out for a new one. “It ain’t permanent, just a side job.”
“Thought we weren’t supposed to have side jobs.”
“We’re making an exception.” He pulled another two ledgers off the shelf and strode toward the next room, Dean at his heels.
“Are you punishing me? Is this because I was late again? I already told you, I’ll -”
“No, you idjit,” said Bobby, stopping suddenly enough that Dean nearly ran into him. He sighed again, turning to look at the younger man. “Dean, I could try to explain, but you’re too damn thick-skulled to listen, so it’s probably easiest for you just to meet him.”
“C’mon,” called Bobby over his shoulder, disappearing around the corner into the kitchen. “Wasted enough time yammering already.”
“Wasted enough time yammering already,” Dean mimicked under his breath. Something else was nagging at him, and he stood between the wooden table and secretary, trying to figure out what it was. It hit him after a moment.
“Hey, Bobby, you didn’t say Garth, did you?”
Getting no response, he hurried toward the kitchen, grumbling under his breath about the damn injustice of giving away another man’s job (however impermanently) with no prior warning. In the thirty seconds or so it took to reach the kitchen, Dean had at least three arguments ready for why, exactly, Garth of all people should be nowhere near Dean’s route.
He got as far as the kitchen threshold and stopped short.
Two pairs of eyes blinked at him from the old table – Bobby’s familiar bushy scowl and another, younger gaze of a man he didn’t recognize. Ellen hadn’t bothered looking up from the chicken she was deboning. She did, however, use her rather wicked-looking cleaver to gesture toward a bowl of bread dough sitting on the window sill.
Dean paused for a moment, waiting to see if anyone was going to introduce him to the man still staring at him from across the room, but Bobby had already gone back to his ledgers, and Ellen was still preoccupied with the chicken, and the strange man himself didn’t seem to be particularly keen on clearing up any of Dean’s questions. Huffing, Dean rolled his sleeves to his elbows and moved to the old sink, scrubbing his hands and forearms with the harsh lye soap before dumping the dough out of the bowl with more force than was probably necessary.
Arranging himself so that he could knead while facing the table, Dean took the momentary quiet as an opportunity to study the man in front of him.
The kitchen faced the east, and so while breakfasts were often almost unbearably bright thanks to the two windows over the butcherblock counter, the room tended to dim considerably by suppertime. This didn’t usually bother him – after all, he knew what the room looked like, and it wasn’t likely to change between mail runs. Besides, he tended to be far more interested in whatever sat on the plate in front of him than the state of the kitchen itself, particularly after a long day in the saddle.
Then again, it wasn’t often that they had an honest-to-god dandy sitting in the kitchen.
Normally, Dean would have hesitated before branding someone with such a strong characterization without having at least spoken to them first; Lord knows he’d been on the receiving end of enough unkind monikers to be wary of snap judgments.
This man, though. Dean just… had no other real way to describe him. Everything from his clothing to his demeanor to his goddamn matching luggage stacked in the corner behind him spoke of a far more luxurious life than Dean had or would ever know.
It shouldn’t have grated at him the way it did. And yet, this dude in his stupid tan duster that probably cost more than Dean made in a year had the guts to sit here, in his kitchen, screwing up his job and the life he’d built here, and he didn’t even have the common decency to look the least bit sorry about it.
Dean seethed in the heavy silence for an excruciating three minutes and thirty-eight seconds, which he knew because he’d counted to try calming down (it hadn’t worked), before he thwacked the dough onto the table, hard enough that the stranger startled in his seat. “Alright, someone want to tell me who the hell this is?”
“You done stewin’, or do we need to find something else for you to beat on?” Bobby grumbled at him from behind a ledger.
“Is he some kind of accountant?” Setting his jaw, Dean pressed on, waiting for the bad news he figured must be coming. “Bobby, you’d’ve told me if you were having trouble with the bank again, right?
Bobby opened his mouth, but whatever he was going to say was cut off as, at long last, the other man rose from his chair and strode forward with his hand outstretched.
“Hello,” he said in a voice far lower than Dean had been expecting, based on the slightness of his body under that giant coat. “My name is Cast-” The man swallowed away the second syllable and tried again. “Cas. Cas Novak.”
Dean set the dough back in the bowl and grabbed a rag from the counter, wiping his hands for a long moment before deigning to respond. “Oh, so you do speak.”
The man – Cas – narrowed his eyes, but his hand remained extended and unwavering. The part of Dean’s brain that had previously convinced him that it would be a good idea to tangle with several different sheriff’s daughters wanted to wait him out and see how long he’d keep his arm hanging in the air between them. Ellen’s pursed lips and tightening grip on her cleaver quickly disabused him of that notion, however, and so with a shrug and a muttered, “Dean Winchester,” he took the other man’s hand.
“So I’ve heard,” Cas replied easily. His palm was dry under Dean’s, the pads of his long fingers unblemished by the callouses of a poorer man. Dean was suddenly very conscious of the shreds of dough still stuck to his own scarred hands.
He dropped Cas’ hand and stepped back from the other man, immediately wished he hadn’t let go quite so quickly, and then mentally kicked himself for that completely irrational thought.
Cas was still staring at him. Dean cleared his throat, more so out of habit than any real necessity.
“What’re you –”
“I want to hire you as a guide,” blurted Cas, “to take me west.”
That answered exactly none of his questions; if anything, it raised more. Dean frowned, glancing between him and Bobby, who’d finally set down his ledgers and was watching their conversation intently. “I’m gonna need that run by me again.”
“There ain’t much more to it,” said Bobby, gesturing to an empty seat next to the one Cas had vacated. “But you may as well sit down while he explains it.”
“Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure what needs to be explained,” began Cas once they’d settled at the table. “It’s a relatively straightforward job.”
Dean rolled his eyes. “How about you try starting at the beginning, ‘stead of the middle.”
“That is the beginning,” Cas shot back, “and the middle.” He held up a hand before Dean could raise any more objections, and relaxed slightly in his chair when no one else interrupted. “Truthfully, the details aren’t particularly important. I arrived here by rail last night and would like to continue my journey into the Nebraska Territory as soon as possible. I’ve been informed that you’re one of the better horsemen riding out of St. Joseph, and I’d like to hire you as a guide. What I’d like to know is whether you’re interested, or if I’ve wasted my time here.”
Despite his best attempts at the contrary, Dean found himself leaning forward, his interest sparking. “What’s got you heading west in such a hurry?” he asked. “You running from a bounty or something? ‘Cos I’m not getting caught up in all that.”
Cas shook his head. “No – nothing illegal. I’m just-” he lowered his eyes, studying the scratched surface of the table with furrowed brows “-looking for a change of scenery, so to speak. A fresh start.”
Dean studied him for another moment, then flicked his eyes to Bobby, who nodded once. “Let’s say I agree to this,” he said. “What’re you offering?”
“Fifty now,” Cas said, and Dean scoffed, ready to tell him to get lost, but Cas raised his voice and continued speaking over him. “And another hundred fifty when we get there.”
Dean gaped at him. “You know what, we’re gonna come back to that,” he rasped, trying not to think about what he could do with that much money. “Where, uh. Where are you headed?”
Shifted uncomfortably, Cas raised his eyes to meet Dean’s. “I don’t know, exactly. I was hoping for suggestions.”
Both Dean and Bobby opened their mouths, whether to offer guidance or to gripe at Cas’ lack of direction, he wasn’t sure, but it was Ellen who spoke up first.
“Edlund,” she offered, hacking at the unfortunate chicken’s backbone. All three men winced at the loud crack, but she continued, undeterred. “Joanna’s living there now.”
“Jo is Ellen’s daughter,” Dean interrupted. “She’s my –” My brother’s age. My little sister, or as good as. He bit the words back, reburying them down between his ribs where they belonged. “She’s a few years younger than me. We grew up together.”
“Mm. Surprised they didn’t raise the devil himself, what with the trouble the three of them got into.” She set the cleaver down and leaned on the counter, her dark eyes thoughtful. “Edlund’s about 600 miles down the trail. It’s on Alfie’s route, Dean,” she said, answering his unspoken question. “Last I heard, she and her fella were keeping a road house of sorts, somewhere for folks to get one last hot meal before heading into the mountains.”
Dean coughed, loudly. “Wait – Jo’s married? When did that happen?”
Ellen snorted. “Now that’ll be the day. No,” she continued, “Jo’s still claiming that she’s not cut out for matrimony. It’s a damn dangerous way to live out there, but the girl is as stubborn as her father, God rest his soul.”
Glancing across the table, Dean caught Cas shifting awkwardly in his chair. He cleared his throat, interrupting Ellen’s muttering. “You were telling Cas about Edlund?”
“Yes, and I’ll keep telling him about it if you ever stop interrupting me,” she fired back. Dean raised his hands in surrender and she rolled her eyes, but moved from the counter to settle at the table next to Bobby.
“Look, son, it’s about as far west as you can get without getting into the Rockies. Ain’t a big town, but they’re used to folks passing through, so you shouldn’t run into trouble. And so long as you tell Jo I sent you, you’ll have a place to stay.”
“I – Ellen, thank you,” Cas said, nearly painful in his earnestness.
She waved him off. “Don’t be thanking me yet. You’ll want to hold off until after you’ve dealt with Dean’s attitude after a week on the trail.”
“Still. You’ve been more than generous. It’s - ” he shrugged slightly, “- well, I appreciate your kindness.”
“You’re not the first wayward boy to walk through our doors, and you won’t be the last,” muttered Bobby. “Dean’ll see you safely west.”
Dean, whose annoyance with the whole affair was slowly creeping into anger, lurched from his seat, the chair squeaking across the floor and nearly overturning. “Bobby, can I talk to you?”
Grumbling, Bobby followed him back to the front office, his arms folded tightly across his body. “Alright, spit it out,” he grunted.
“I’m not taking him.”
“Oh, you’re not, are you? Wanna tell me why, or did you just drag me out here to yell at?”
Dean glared at the kerosene lamp in the corner and resisted the urge to throw it against the opposite wall. “Because I have a real job to do, Bobby! I don’t have time to babysit damn greenhorn for a full week while goddamn Garth is mucking up my route.”
Bobby stood for a long minute, staring silently at him, then dropped into his desk chair with a sigh. “Garth isn’t going to muck anything up.”
“He might. It’s my head if he does.”
“It’s 200 dollars, Dean. Twice what you’d make in a month, and you’d only be gone a week.”
Dean scowled at him. “You think I don’t know that? Jesus,” he said, falling into the chair across from the desk. “I haven’t stopped thinking about it. But if something goes wrong, if he gets killed out there…” Dimly he was aware of blood on his fingers, and folded his hands before he could do any more damage to his already ragged cuticles. “I’ve already lost one person who was depending on me. I can’t do it again.”
“There ain’t a guarantee that it’ll come to that,” countered Bobby. “If you’re dead set against it, though, I won’t force you. But there’s something I want you to do before making a decision.”
“It’s not going to make a difference one way or another.” Under Bobby’s glare, Dean rolled his eyes but relented. “Fine. What?”
“Just go talk to him a bit before you decide he’s a lost cause.” He raised a placating hand before Dean could argue further. “I’m not asking you to be blood brothers, boy, but if you’re gonna turn him down you may as well have a decent reason for it.”
“And if I come back and tell you I have a decent reason?”
“Then you stay here and Garth takes him and his money.”
Garth, sweet man though he was, was possibly the last person who should guide anyone anywhere, particularly when that someone was as inexperienced as Cas looked. Dean sighed heavily, feeling the fight begin to drain out of him, and stood.
“Alright,” he said wearily. “I’m not promising anything, but. We’ll talk.”
He left Bobby behind the desk and trudged back to the kitchen, where Cas and Ellen still sat at the table. Cas glanced up when he walked in.
Dean took a slow breath, then addressed him. “You got a horse?”
“Yes,” Cas replied, showing no sign that he’d heard any part of the conversation in the office, though it hadn’t been a quiet one. “Tied to the beam by the porch.”
“Okay, well, let’s go.”
Cas only hesitated for a moment, then stumbled after him toward the back door. “Where are we going?”
It was easier not to look at him when they spoke. Dean grabbed the door handle, waving him through. “Gotta put the horses up.”
They stepped together into the waning evening sunlight and headed for the hitching rail. As they approached, Baby’s ears perked up, and she nickered softly in greeting.
“Good news, Baby, you don’t have to organize a search and rescue after all,” he said once they reached her. “Let’s go get you settled, huh?”
Dean had nearly forgotten that Cas was behind him and startled when he spoke. He clenched a hand in Baby’s mane. “People generally refer to horses by their names, Cas,” he said, turning to meet the other man’s eyes. “Why, what’s –”
The shadows in the kitchen had done a disservice to Cas, who, as it turned out, had the clearest blue eyes Dean had ever seen. He was exactly the type of guy Dean usually liked to look at, which was unfortunate given the circumstances of their meeting, and so he quickly dropped his gaze to stare somewhere over Cas’ left shoulder. “Um. What’s, ah, yours? Your horse’s name, I mean.”
“I’ve decided on Lincoln,” Cas replied, working out the knot in her reins.
Dean hesitated; the name, almost familiar, tickled the back of his mind. “Well. It’s different, I’ll give you that.”
Grabbing Baby’s reins, he led the way behind the station and into the old stable, pointing Cas toward an empty stall before leading his own mare into the one next door. He watched with mild amusement as Cas tried to sweet talk his horse into entering the stall, and then moved onto various nonsensical threats when she remained firmly in place.
“Y’know, it helps if you stand closer to them when you try to lead them anywhere,” said Dean. Cas huffed at him and glared at the horse, who blinked balefully back.
“Lincoln,” he said sternly, “go in the stall.”
“Christ, give me that, will you?” Dean snatched the reins from Cas and pulled gently, and she walked forward without a complaint. “Lincoln, you’re not so bad, huh? Bit stubborn but nothing we can’t handle. Hey Cas, why’d you pick such a weird name, anyway?” In the span of a minute or so, Cas had disappeared, and Dean frowned. "Cas? We're gonna have issues if you're skippin' out on me already."
From around the corner, he heard Cas’ muttering, then the man himself reappeared, smudged with reddish dust and cobwebs. “I don’t know what to feed them.”
“Oats, other end of the barn. Explain the name first, though.”
Cas was already walking away when he called over his shoulder, “Mr. Lincoln is a brilliant politician.”
“Lincoln is?” It clicked, suddenly. “Hold on a second – Abraham Lincoln? The lawyer? Isn’t he running for president?”
Cas turned and pursed his lips, looking every bit as annoyed as Dean felt, and nodded stiffly.
“You named your poor horse after a lawyer?”
“A lawyer who’s going to be president, yes.”
“Confident,” Dean muttered, then raised his voice for Cas to hear. “Still, weird name for a mare.”
Cas furrowed his brows, his blue eyes catching Dean’s own. “A mare?” At Dean’s nod, he flushed, breaking Dean’s gaze to stare at the ground.
“I –” he stopped, and Dean was suddenly hit by the somewhat foolish relief that the dirt was on the receiving end of his glare, not Dean. “I was not aware that it – she – is a female horse.”
“You didn’t notice that you bought a mare,” Dean said flatly.
If possible, Cas’ face got redder, and he staunchly refused to look at Dean. “The salesman assured me that I was buying a gelding.”
“And you didn’t think to check? The equipment varies from male to female, it’s not hard to tell which is which.”
Cas finally looked up at him. “It didn’t occur to me that the salesman would be untrustworthy.”
Dean snorted at the dismayed look on Cas’ face as he took in his squat mare. “You should always know better than to trust a man selling a cheap horse. Better hope that’s all he lied to you about.”
“You think something could be wrong with her?”
“Besides a stuffy, high-falutin’ name? Dunno. There’s always a possibility. Can I…?” he trailed off, gesturing vaguely toward Cas’ mare. The other man nodded, still pink at the tips of his ears.
Dean stretched a hand out toward Lincoln, inviting her to sniff his palm. She nosed him eagerly, mouthing for another treat, and he reached up to scratch her ears as she gently took the sugar cube from him. “Atta girl. Gonna behave for me?”
Cas watched him carefully as he stroked down her nose and held it gently in place, checking over her nostrils and gums, and then brushed her forelock back to get a better look at her eyes.
“You’re very good with her,” he remarked.
“I’d better be, at this point,” Dean said, brushing a hand along her neck and back, and then bent to put one ear to her flank. He listened for a moment, concentrating, then patted her gently. “Well, Mr. Novak, I still need to take a look at her hooves, but right now it looks like you got awful lucky.”
Slowly, Cas let out a long breath. “She’s healthy?”
“Healthy as a horse,” Dean replied with a grin, and threw his head back to laugh when Cas’ expression soured again. “C’mon, pal, loosen up a little,” he said, still wheezing slightly. “You look like you’re being strangled with your own cravat.”
Cas rolled his eyes and turned away, muttering something unintelligible under his breath, but Dean noticed (with no small amount of satisfaction) that his hand crept up to tug at the knot at his throat.
“She likes you better than me,” Cas said after a few minutes of silence. Dean glanced at him, ready with a retort, but Cas’ face was placid, as though he was simply stating a fact.
“You’ve barely touched her,” Dean pointed out. “How would you even be able to tell?”
“I can tell.”
“That’s bull, no you can’t –”
“Damn it, Dean. No,” he snapped, then slowly deflated under Dean’s stare. “I don’t… I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Dean took a deep breath, counted to ten, and reminded himself that everyone had been new at this, once; though, admittedly, most people were not in their mid-twenties when confronted with the care and keeping of their horses for the first time.
“Alright, listen,” he began firmly. “Horses are just like big dogs. Better than, really. Friendly, loyal as the day is long, would probably try to sit in your lap if they thought they could get away with it.” He nodded fondly at his own mare. “Baby over there started following me around as soon as she could walk, and the rest is history.”
Cas remained unconvinced, eyeing his mare warily from his spot a few paces away. “Just like big dogs?”
“Sure,” Dean said, bending to pick up one of her front legs. “If you can keep a dog alive, you can keep a horse alive.”
He grimaced. “I’ve never actually owned a dog.”
“No?” Cas shook his head slowly, and Dean tiredly rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m gonna assume this is your first horse, then, too.”
The man flushed again. “It’s – she is, I suppose, the first I’ve owned personally.”
Dean straightened up and leaned against Lincoln’s wide flank. “Man, please tell me you actually know how to ride.”
“I was not raised in a barn, Dean,” Cas replied, his blue eyes icy despite the lingering heat of the evening.
Shrugging, Dean went back to his examination. “Honestly, around these parts it’d probably be easier if you had been.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, for one we wouldn’t be having this conversation, because you’d already know how to keep your mare.”
Cas glared at him and Dean sighed. “It ain’t an easy country out past the end of the railroad. You gotta be prepared for just about anything – gangs, Indians, coyotes… Easier if you’ve grown up with it.”
“Did you?” Cas asked.
Dean looked up from his place behind Lincoln, his brows furrowed. “Did I what?”
“Grow up with it.”
“Um. More or less. Doesn’t really matter, I’m here now. Okay, sweetheart, halfway done, let’s see how your back shoes are looking.” He ducked his head and gently pushed Lincoln until she shifted her weight and allowed him to pick up her foot. “That’s my girl,” he murmured. “Hey, Cas?”
“What is it?”
“Get over here and hold her bridle for me, keep her head still.”
“I – okay,” Cas responded, his low voice hesitant. “I’m not sure I’m doing this correctly.”
“Gotta learn somehow. Okay, let her sniff you first – no, damn it, don’t make her walk to you, Jesus, I’m gonna get kicked in the head back here –” After a brief shuffling she finally settled back down, and Dean sighed under his breath. “There you go. Just keep her there.” He finished checking over her feet and stood up to glare at Cas. “It’s not that hard, pal.”
Cas’ face twisted into a frown, and Dean felt a slight pang of sympathy for the man who was so obviously out of his element. “You’re doing better than you were, I guess,” he offered, and Cas’ shoulders loosened slightly.
“You think so?”
“Yeah, you’ve stopped looking like she’s gonna bite you, so that’s a pretty good step in the right direction. Although,” he continued, “you’re gonna have to give her a better name.”
Cas squinted at him. “Why?”
“Lincoln’s a man, for one. And your horse is…” he waved a hand at her before finishing weakly, “…not.”
“You’re right,” Cas replied, deadpan. “She’s a horse, not a man.”
Dean stared at him for a moment. “Did you – was that a joke?”
“Absolutely not, I never joke.”
His eyes, crinkling at the corners, betrayed amusement in his otherwise stony poker face. Dean shook his head, smiling slightly. “Just humor me. You’ve gotta be able to come up with something better.” He snapped his fingers. “Hey, I’ve got it – Rusty. No, wait. Dusty.”
“You have a terrible taste in names,” commented Cas dryly. “Besides,” he continued, “you named your horse after a human child. I hardly think Lincoln is improper by comparison.”
“What – Baby? Nah, that’s not really her name.” At Cas’ raised eyebrow he bit his lower lip and wished, briefly, that he hadn’t mentioned anything. “My dad named her Impala – he saw one, once, way before I was born. Used to say it was the prettiest damn animal he’d ever seen. Real graceful. But,” and he paused to grin affectionately at his horse, who nickered delicately from her neighboring stall, “she kept following me around like a big baby, asking for attention, so I started calling her that, and, well. It stuck.” It had also pissed off his dad, however unintentional the renaming had been, but Cas didn’t need to know that part.
Cas cleared his throat. “Both names fit, I think,” he said, gazing softly at Dean, who was experiencing the not altogether unpleasant feeling that he was being studied.
He looked back at Cas – really looked, for the first time since he’d met him.
Altogether, Cas should have been unremarkable. He had the distinctly harried look of a man who spent too much time hunched over a writing desk, far more comfortable experiencing the world through paper and black ink than living vicariously in full color. He was thin and pale and composed of more sharp edges than soft ones, though he moved with the kind of genteel grace that spoke of years of tutors and starched collars.
In short, he was everything Dean was not.
There was a wildness to him, hidden carefully beneath the ill-fitting overcoat.
It could have been in the strength of his long fingers or the unruly curl of his dark hair, or in the solid, straight lines of his shoulders and back. He carried himself like a soldier, or a mountain lion: coiled and ready to spring.
And then, of course, there were his eyes.
God, his eyes.
Dean wasn’t a poet, not by any stretch of his imagination. He’d simply never had the time – and besides, Sammy had been the dreamer, of the two of them, and so Dean had resolutely kept both feet firmly on the ground where they belonged and let his little brother wander with his head in the clouds.
All the same, he found himself trying, desperately, to form some metaphor of Cas’ eyes. They reminded him first of the prairie sky, then of the blue of half-remembered fields of delicate Texas bluebonnets and his mother’s favorite glass bowl, where she’d kept stray brass buttons and packets of seeds.
They were the color he’d always thought the Pacific Ocean would be, if only he could make it there to see it. Staring into them felt both like drowning and coming home.
He liked it – those eyes and that wildness – far too much, and made an awkward, hasty retreat, dropping his gaze to the worn floor. Backing out of Cas’ space, he made for Baby’s stall, and began unbuckling her saddle.
Some of his earliest memories were of the insides of stables; the scent of leather and hay, his father’s rough hands lifting him to pet the noses of whichever mares they were keeping at the time. Even when he was too small to ride alone, he’d still been his father’s shadow as he’d cared for and curried the animals.
It had been the single constant in his short and miserable life, and he usually found it meditative, even more so than riding itself. Baby’d been his sole confidant for going on two years, now, listening to his complaints, his fears, and his dreams.
The current situation with Cas practically breathing down his neck made it difficult to relax, though, and completely eradicated his normal routine. The two men spent the next quarter hour in an awkward shuffling dance as Dean tried to both groom Baby and ignore Cas’ murmuring to his own horse.
“Well,” Cas finally said, breaking the tension. “I suppose she could always be Mary.”
Dean froze from his place behind his horse. “You are not going to name her Mary,” he said, a bit more harshly than was probably warranted, and desperately hoped that Cas wouldn’t pick up on the waver in his voice.
“Is it that bad?”
Dean grunted as he took a pick to Baby’s hooves, glad of an excuse to keep his face hidden. “Doesn’t really roll off the tongue,” he concluded after a slightly too-long pause.
Cas hummed in agreement, either not noticing the stutter in conversation or choosing to ignore it. “True, but Mrs. Lincoln is lovely, and quite vivacious. A well-suited namesake, I think.”
“Have you… met her?”
There was a pause. Cas opened his mouth, then shut it again, and fixed his eyes on his horse.
That was enough of an answer for Dean, who let a whistle out between his teeth. “Guess that answers my question.”
“It was a very long time ago,” he mumbled. “My mother was friends with her stepmother when they were in boarding school together. We were invited to celebrate Christmas with their family one year.”
He trailed off, and Dean glanced up from the horse. “And?”
“What happened next? You pull her into a dance? Flutter your eyelashes, steal a kiss?” He waggled his eyebrows at Cas.
Cas’ eyes crinkled at the corners. “Hardly,” he said around a small smile, “since I was about five years old at the time. I was, by far, the youngest person there, and from what I remember, I spent most of the party miserable and bored. Mary, though, and her friends, found me amusing, and they slipped me sweets throughout the evening. It was kind of them, to pay me any attention.”
“They slipped you sweets,” Dean repeated. He stared at him for a moment. “We had very different childhoods, man.”
“That was the only time we visited them,” Cas continued. “It’s a good memory.”
“Yeah,” said Dean softly, and wished he remembered his own early Christmases more clearly. He’d been so young when his mother had died, and every Christmas after losing her was colored with his father’s grief and anger. “You, uh. You could call her Mary Todd? I know it’s a little formal, but –”
Cas cut him off. “It fits, I think. She’s a formal horse, after all.”
“She’s a mustang, man.”
“She is a lady, Dean.”
“God help me,” Dean muttered. “Well, Cas, your lady needs a good grooming before supper, so,” he tossed an extra brush across the stable, “make yourself useful.”
They lapsed again into silence, but the tension that had previously thickened the air between them was gone. It was, if not quite comfortable, at least companionable; Cas had evidently gotten over his apprehension for his mare and brushed her attentively, the way Dean had demonstrated for him.
It was… nice, Dean thought as he filled the feeding troughs, to share the routine with another person again. He set the buckets back down and opened his mouth, his decision made.
“Alright. Here’s how it’s gonna go. I’ll take you,” Cas looked for all the world like he was going to interject something, but Dean raised a hand, stopping him, “but I have a few conditions.”
Cas’ features tightened, but he nodded. “Understandable.”
“Ok, well, first off, you gotta leave some of your luggage here, man. I am not making the horses carry all of that.” Cas frowned, but nodded again without arguing. “Secondly, I’m not trying to be your friend, so let’s keep the chit-chat to a minimum, capiche?”
A hurt expression flashed across Cas’ face, but it quickly hardened into his familiar glare. “I am positive that will not be an issue,” he replied icily, and Dean grimaced back at him. “Is that everything? No luggage and no bonding?”
“No, there’s one more thing.”
“What? Do you want me to rename my horse again?”
“I didn’t – you know what, shut up. Mary Todd is a better name, anyway. Listen,” Dean continued, “you’re paying me to be the expert, here. So I’m gonna need you to follow my lead out there and do what I tell you without arguing.”
Cas shrugged. “Fine.”
“You’re okay with that?”
“Yes,” he repeated. “I’d like to leave as soon as possible.”
Dean stepped out of the stall and latched the door behind him. “We’ll head out first thing in the morning.”
“Actually, I think we have a few hours of daylight left, so we should get started now, before the sun sets.”
“Damn it, Cas, what did I just say? Rule number three?”
“Goddamn it, no. Believe me, city boy, I would love nothing more than to be rid of your company as soon as possible -” Cas snorted, but Dean pushed on, steadfastly ignoring him. “- but the prairie ain’t exactly safe at night, and I’m not willing to take any unnecessary risks, no matter how much you’re paying me. Plus, I don’t know about Ms. Mary Todd over there, but Baby’s been out all day and needs the rest.”
Cas’ jaw ticked as he stared at the ground in front of him, one hand clenching his overcoat and the other flexing at his side.
“Hey, hey, look at me,” Dean said, trying to speak as gently as possible. It was almost like talking down a spooked horse. “Look, I don’t know what you’re running from, and to be completely honest, I don’t care. But you’re paying me to keep you safe, man. You gotta let me.”
At his words, Cas’ eyes gradually moved up to meet Dean’s. Distantly they heard Bobby’s voice, drifting into the barn from the station. “Quit hazing the tenderfoot, Dean, and get inside for supper before Ellen has your hide.”
Neither man moved, despite the threat.
“Well?” Dean finally said, breaking the silence. “Those’re my terms. Do we have a deal?” He stretched out a hand.
After a long, tense moment, Cas’ face broke out into a small but genuine smile, his first since Dean had met him. “You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Winchester.”
Dean blinked back at him, trying to process both his words and his abrupt change in demeanor. “What the hell does that even mean?”
Cas took his hand and shook it firmly. “It means we have a deal, Dean. I’ll be ready to leave at dawn.”
Nodding, Dean slowly retrieved his hand. “No arguments?”
“None,” he responded, solemn but for the hint of a smile still playing behind his eyes. “You have my word as a gentleman.”
“Oh, great, the word of a gentleman,” Dean grumbled, and gave Baby one last pat on the nose before heading for the door. “C’mon, food’s gonna get cold if we stay in here any longer.”
He turned back around, furrowing his eyebrows at Cas, who was still standing between the two mares. “What now?”
Cas tilted his head. “I meant to mention something earlier. Are you aware that your trousers are inside out?”
Dean threw his hands in the air and stomped out of the stable back toward the main station, leaving Cas squinting in the dust floating through the golden evening light.