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A Good Run of Bad Luck

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A Good Run of Bad Luck
By JJJunky

This is an Old West AU crossover with Laredo which starred Neville Brand as Reese Bennett, Peter Brown as Chad Cooper, William Smith as Joe Reilly, and the recently deceased, Philip Carey as Captain Parmalee.

 

Stopping in front of the entrance to the Texas Rangers' Headquarters, Joe Reilly pushed his Stetson to the back of his head and wiped the sweat from his brow with his rolled-up shirt sleeve. He wracked his brain, trying to decide what crime he had committed to require the summons that had brought him here. But for once, he was guilt free. Squaring his shoulders, he grabbed the door knob. It took several tries before his perspiration-soaked hand could get a firm grip. He uneasily entered the office.

The relatively cool air of the darkened room welcomed him. He was relieved to be out of the hot sun even if he was to be chewed out by his captain. He still couldn't think of anything he'd done to deserve a reprimand but when he saw his usual partners in crime, Reese Bennett and Chad Cooper, standing in front of Captain Parmalee's desk, he prepared himself for whatever punishment was about to come down on him.

"Glad you could join us, Reilly," said Parmalee.

The sarcasm in the captain's voice wasn't lost on Joe. Exchanging a glance with Chad, hoping he could get some indication concerning the reason for their presence, Joe quickly crossed to stand between his two friends. "I came as soon as I could, sir."

"Why do I find that hard to believe?"

There had been times in the past when Joe had dragged his feet, but this wasn't one of them. However, it was obvious his superior wouldn't believe him so he stood at attention and kept his mouth shut. Something he wished Reese would learn to do.

"I have a job for you three."

"Yes, sir," Bennett enthusiastically responded. His left hand slapped the side of his leg raising a cloud of dust. Oblivious, he continued, "Whatever you need, Cap'n, we'll be mor'n glad ta do it."

Joe rolled his eyes at the older man's attempts to impress Parmalee. No matter what Reese tried, it always back-fired.

His hand waving the air to clear away the dust, Parmalee coughed. "I want you to go to Eagle Pass. Contact the sheriff, Marcus Brady, and take custody of his prisoner, Sam Winchester."

"What'd he do, Cap'n, sir?" asked Reese.

"Winchester's accused of murder. Brady doesn't feel he'll get a fair trial in Eagle Pass so he's being transferred to Laredo."

His heart beating faster with the responsibility being given to them, Joe pressed, "Who'd he kill?"

"He was caught kneeling next to the trampled remains of a local farmer by the name of Perkins. Two other men have died in a similar manner in the area in the last week."

Taking the written orders Parmalee handed him, Chad pressed, "Did Winchester say why he did it?"

"He claims he's innocent."

Reese snorted. "They all say that. Ain't a one of 'em knows how ta tell the truth. "

"Once you get him back here, he'll have his day in court," said Parmalee.

When Reese opened his mouth to reply, Joe grabbed his shoulder and pushed him toward the door. "We'll get right on it, Cap'n."

"One more thing." Parmalee picked up a wanted poster and handed it to Chad. "Winchester's older brother, Dean. He's wanted in Missouri for murder, New York for destruction of property, and bank robbery in Wisconsin."

"The guy gets around," said Chad, holding the poster up so his partners could see it.

"Watch yourselves," Parmalee warned, tossing an envelope to Bennett.

"According to this," Chad tapped the document he was holding, "Dean is supposed to be dead."

"Supposed is the operative word. Since his apparent demise, he's been spotted by several credible witnesses in four different states."

Chad grinned. "Even dead, he gets around."

"This isn't a joke, Cooper."

Reese's gravelly voice echoed off the walls of the large office as he fumbled through the envelope, checking the papers it contained. "No need ta worry 'bout us, Cap'n. You've picked the right men fer the job."

The muscles in his arms bulging, Joe dragged Reese outside before he could talk them out of the assignment. Normally, Joe wouldn't mind passing on a two-day ride in the hot sun. This wasn't one of those times. He'd joined the Texas Rangers for this very reason: to bring murderers to justice. He wasn't about to let Reese or anyone one else take this opportunity away from him. If he had anything to say about it, Sam Winchester would hang at the end of a rope or spend the rest of his life in jail.

***

Sam picked at the dry blood coating his right hand. It had been obvious Perkins was dead when he encountered the body: the farmer's skull and chest had been crushed. Still, Sam had wanted to be certain. His fingers had been searching the bloody neck for a pulse when the Eagle Pass sheriff and his deputy rode up. Not even the obvious hoof marks on the body, or that they were too small to have been made by a horse, could convince the lawman Sam had nothing to do with the farmer's death.

Dean was going to be so pissed. He was always saying Sam's compassion would get him into trouble.

To be honest, Sam wasn't worried about himself. He knew three Texas Rangers would arrive soon to escort him to Laredo for trial. He also knew they would reach their destination without their prisoner. Even at three to one odds, Sam was confident he could escape.

What did worry him was Dean hunting a Deer Woman without backup. The creature was dangerous, especially to men on their own. As far as Sam was concerned, Dean's penchant for pretty women made him twice as vulnerable. Sam didn't want the next body he stood over to be his brother's.

The door to the sheriff's office opened, allowing three men covered with dust and sweat to enter. Sam hoped this was to be his escort to Laredo. The oldest man with rumpled clothing would be easy to evade when it became necessary. Turning his inspection to the other men, Sam noticed the youngest of the trio sported a black hat and vest. He was wiry and had intelligent eyes, but Sam was certain he too would be an easy mark if it came down to a physical confrontation. The only one who might cause a problem was also the tallest of the three. It wasn't the muscles straining against the fabric of the man's shirt that bothered Sam it was his appearance. He looked to be part Indian. If he had the cunning and skills of the people, he could prove to be a formable opponent.

"Sheriff Brady?" The older man walked up to the desk and handed the officer sitting behind it a piece of paper. "We're the Rangers you asked fer. We're here ta take the prisoner off'n yer hands. I'm Reese Bennett." Turning to his companions, he introduced them. "This here is Chad Cooper and that 'ne over there is Joe Reilly."

Rising, Brady retrieved a ring of keys from a hook on the wall and crossed to Sam's cell. "You're welcome to him."

Sam raised his arms to show submission as he walked out into the small office. Waving his blood-stained hand to gain their attention, he asked, "Mind if I wash my hands before you tie me up?"

"Jus' don't try nothin'," warned Bennett.

Keeping a safe distance from the prisoner, Cooper asked, "What happened to your hand?"

"It ain't his blood," Brady answered for Sam, the anger on his face clearly visible. "It's from Perkins, the poor bastard."

"Why did you let him change his clothes but not wash his hands?"

"He ain't changed his clothes. He's exactly the way we found 'im"

Cooper pushed the hat off his head allowing the stampede string to catch it so it hung down his back. "Your telegram said Mr. Perkins' skull and chest had been caved in."

"That's right." The sheriff nodded, wrinkling his nose in disgust. "Weren't much left ta tell who he were. If I hadn't recognized the boots, I wouldn't've known it were Perkins."

Scratching his head, Cooper crossed so he could see Sam more clearly. "Then he should be covered in blood."

"Oh, he were. Ain't never seen that much blood on a body."

"I don't mean, Mr. Perkins," Cooper clarified. "I mean your prisoner. If he killed a man and caused that much damage, his clothes should be spattered with blood."

"I don't know nothin' 'bout that. I only know he were standin' over the body. That's proof enough for me and the people in this town."

"More important than catching the real culprit?" Cooper demanded, shaking his head.

Sam was surprised by the ranger's defense. He knew they were good at tracking criminals and bringing order to unruly towns, but he hadn't expected one to analyze facts and come to a logical conclusion so quickly. Unfortunately, from the looks on the faces of the other men, it didn't look like they were willing to accept Cooper's theory. Still, it was nice to know someone believed Sam was innocent.

"I ain't a judge, and I ain't a jury," said Brady. "All I know is if Winchester walks out of here a free man, he won't leave town a live one. I weren't sure I could keep 'im alive 'til y'all showed up as it was."

Reese crossed to a window and looked out. "Ya think them people out there wanna take the law into their own hands?"

"I don't think, I know." Brady handed a pair of cuffs to Reilly. "If'n ya wanna keep 'im alive ta prove 'im innocent, I suggest you git 'im outta town, today."

"Well, now," Reese argued, "we been on the trail for two days. We was lookin' forward to a hot meal and a soft bed."

Joe put the cuffs on Sam. "Guess we'll just have ta wait 'til we get back to Laredo, Reese."

"Oh, now, Joe." Reese looked wistfully toward the saloon across the street. "Ya know Rosalie is waitin' on me."

Sam's eyes followed the older man's gaze. He didn't see a pretty girl or a saloon. What he saw were a group of angry men grumbling in front of the jail. More men joined the original crowd, growing larger with each passing minute. Obviously, the rangers' arrival had been noted. Sam realized the sheriff was right, if they didn't leave town immediately, he would never leave at all.

"I'll get the horses," said Cooper. "You boys meet me 'round back."

"What if I went and talked to those men?" Reese suggested.

There was no amusement in Reilly's voice or on his face as he replied, "Then Winchester won't be alone on that hangin' tree."

***

Relieved, Dean watched the rangers take Sam quickly out of Eagle Pass. There had been little chance Dean could break his brother out of jail by himself without it costing lives. When he discovered the sheriff had sent for Texas Rangers, Dean knew there was a better chance of escaping unscathed during the transfer to Laredo. Despite what the wanted poster said, Dean wasn't a killer. He didn't want to forfeit lives to save his brother's.

But he would if he had to.

Dean watched to make sure none of the good citizens of Eagle Pass followed the rangers, before he turned his own horse down the trail. It was only a few hours until dark. Which meant the rangers would likely make camp as soon as they thought it was safe. That, Dean decided, was when he would make his move. He just hoped Sam would be ready he would need his brother's assistance. An encounter with the Deer Woman had left Dean with a broken right wrist. Considering what had happened to Perkins' and her other victims, he knew he had gotten off easy.

He hated to admit it, but it was clear: killing her would have to wait until he had backup. It was the story of his life that taking on three Texas Rangers was the easier job.

***

There was an old adage that practice makes perfect, and Joe had a lot of practice tuning out a grumbling Reese Bennett. Even with the man on point, the gravelly voice was clearly audible to Joe from where he was trailing Chad and Winchester. Joe kept a careful distance from the prisoner. He could tell the boy was dangerous. Continually alert, Winchester would be ready if a chance to escape presented itself. Yet, Joe didn't feel threatened. In fact, he was certain Winchester wouldn't hurt the men escorting him if at all possible, which was one reason why Joe agreed with Chad: Winchester was innocent. It didn't seem possible to kill a man the way that had been described without ending up covered with the victim's blood.

"It's gettin' dark," Joe called, loud enough so Reese could hear. "I think we should make camp down by the river."

Turning his horse, Reese mumbled, "Makes no sense sleepin' on the hard ground when we coulda had nice feather beds with willin' companions."

"And a dead prisoner," added Chad. "I don't think that would have gone over well with the Cap'n."

"All we had ta do was talk ta them boys. They woulda seen reason."

Exasperated, Joe snapped, "They didn't want to see reason, Reese. They wanted revenge, and they didn't care if they killed the right man or not."

"Well," growled Reese, "I don't know why you'all are so darned sure the boy's innocent. The sheriff caught him kneelin' next ta the body."

"Without a smoking gun," said Chad.

"Now that jus' shows ya don't know what yer talkin' 'bout, Chad." Reese smiled triumphantly. "Perkins weren't shot, he was trampled."

"I was using a figure of speech, Reese." Shaking his head in frustration, Chad explained, "I know Perkins wasn't shot."

"Well stop talkin' in riddles and speak plain," said Reese.

"Is this plain enough?" Chad demanded. "Winchester is innocent."

"Ain't fer us ta decide if'n he is or if'n he ain't," argued Reese. "He'll git a fair trial when we git 'im ta Laredo."

Finding a small oasis in the rocky landscape near the river, Joe dismounted and tied his horse to a tree. He made a visual check of the area before pulling his pistol and covering Chad as the younger man helped Winchester dismount. Joe's eyes scanned the rocky hills to the north of them. There was no indication they were being watched. Experience told Joe if Dean Winchester was alive, that's where he would be hiding.

Satisfied there was no one in the vicinity, Joe decided he'd had enough of a grumbling Bennett. "Chad, can you handle the prisoner while me and Reese make camp?"

"I'll be fine." Chad led Winchester to a tree and helped the bound man sit down.

"Reese, you gather wood for a fire," instructed Joe. "I'll see if I kin find somethin' ta cook over it."

A hand rubbing his stomach, Reese agreed, "Now that's the best thing I've heard all day."

Taking a rope from his saddle, Chad tied Winchester to the tree. "Behave yourself, and I'll see you get out of this all right."

Joe frowned. While Chad could lie with the best of them, Joe knew he was being sincere. Silently, he asked himself: how far would Chad go to keep his promise?

***

Looping his reins loosely over his saddle horn, Dean left his horse hidden behind some rocks. Bandit wouldn't move until he was called. In their line of work, a smart, well-trained mount was essential. Dean had gotten lucky when he found Bandit. They had been together since Dean was a teenager. And while the animal had a tendency to live up to his name when it came to food, in all the years they had been together, he had never let Dean down.

His injured arm supported by the holstered gun on his right hip, Dean pulled his other pistol and crept slowly forward. He could hear the grumblings of the older ranger, easily pinpointing his position. However, the other officers weren't as easy to detect. The discharge of a rifle off to Dean's right told him one of the men had found dinner, which meant there was only one ranger left in camp. Dean knew now was the time to free his brother.

He crept forward, listening for any sound that would tell him the other two men were returning. It wouldn't do Sam any good if he got caught or killed.

The sun started to slip below the horizon, making it more difficult to see. But Dean's other senses were not impaired. The smell of wet hide made him quicken his pace. He cleared the trees to see the Deer Woman had mesmerized Cooper and was advancing on him. Sam was shouting a warning and tugging at the ropes binding him to the tree with such strength, Dean knew the tender flesh of the unprotected hands would be torn and bloody.

Oblivious to his danger, Cooper stared enthralled at the enchanting woman emerging from the river.

Dean didn't need to look to know that while beautiful on top, the woman's legs resembled a deer, he knew first hand. He had received the broken wrist when she struck out at him. Her hoof had hit his arm instead of the intended target: his head. The pain had been enough to break the spell, allowing Dean to escape the same fate as Perkins.

But if he didn't do something quick, Cooper wouldn't be as lucky. Angling so he had a clear shot, Dean fired. The lead bullet couldn't kill a Deer Woman, but it did distract her. Her hoof glanced off Cooper's chest, dropping him to the ground where he writhed in pain. Firing a second shot, Dean heard the rangers shouting in anger as they crashed through the bush to come to their friend's aid.

Blood trickling from the two bullet holes in her chest, the Deer Woman glared at Dean as she slipped back into the water. There was barely a ripple to show where she had been.

The tallest of the three rangers appeared in front of Dean. "Drop your gun!"

Dean didn't hesitate to obey the order. He could tell by the rage in the deep voice that if he made one false move, he would be dead.

"Get your hands up."

His left hand quickly complied with the request. Wincing with pain, the right slowly followed.

"Drop your other gun."

Dean started to reach across with his left hand.

"Not that hand. You're right."

"Can't." Dean cleared his voice, hoping it would mask the quiver. "It's broken."

"All right. But if you so much as breathe funny, you won't see a new dawn."

Using his thumb and index finger, Dean slowly lifted the gun from his holster and let it drop to the ground. It wasn't the way he had been taught to treat his weapons, but right now, he was more worried about staying alive than having a clean pistol.

"Reese, how's Chad?"

"Looks like he's got some broken ribs, Joe," replied Bennett.

The shock on Reilly's face made Dean smirk.

"He ain't been shot?" Reilly pressed.

Bennett lifted Chad to a sitting position so he could inspect his friend's back. "I can't find no bullet holes. Alls he's got is the broken ribs, though he keeps staring at nothin'."

"It'll wear off in a minute," said Dean. "The Deer Woman mesmerizes her victims before she kills them."

"Deer Woman?" Reilly's gaze shifted from his downed friend to his newest prisoner.

"It's the thing that hurt your friend. He got off lucky, though. She usually kills her victims."

"Like Perkins?" asked Reilly.

Dean nodded. "Like Perkins."

"What do you mean by 'thing'? And why is it called a Deer Woman?"

"I promise, I'll answer all your questions." Dean slowly lowered his left arm, hoping he wasn't reading the other man wrong.

***

Even though Joe had matched the face he had seen on the wanted poster in Laredo with the man standing before him, he trusted Dean Winchester, a man who'd had a $500 price on his head for murder before he was supposedly killed in Missouri. Joe's instincts told him Dean was no murderer. And he definitely wasn't dead. Somehow, though, Joe knew if he didn't listen to the man they would all end up like Perkins. With only a slight hesitation, Joe handed his knife and the handcuff keys to Dean. "You git yer brother, I'll help Reese with Chad."

While he believed Winchester, Joe wasn't stupid. He kept his gun in his hand and an eye on the two boys. If they tried anything, he would be ready. As he knelt next to Cooper, he was glad to see his friend's eyes were clearing. The look of enchantment was fading, giving way to pain. "Can you tell us what happened, Chad?"

"I heard a shout and when I turned around there was a beautiful woman coming out of the water." Chad cried out as Reese probed his chest. Panting, Chad added, "I noticed she had animal legs. But before I could react, she had me in some kind of spell. I heard a gun fire and you guys talking, but I couldn't respond."

Rising to his feet, Joe fixed his gaze on the Winchesters. "You boys got some explainin' ta do."

"As soon as we wrap Chad's chest and set Dean's arm," said Sam.

Dean pointed to his brother's hands. "And bandage those cuts."

Even though he was afraid it would make him look weak in the eyes of their prisoners, Joe agreed. Right now, he was more worried about Chad's injury and the strange story he was telling.

Living in the west where doctors were few and competent doctors even fewer, Joe was impressed with Sam Winchester's knowledge and skill as he set the broken bones. Any town would be happy to have him as their healer. Both patients were sweating and weak from pain by the time he was done, but Joe had never seen a better splint job than the one Dean now sported. While Chad's chest had been wrapped tight enough to keep the broken ribs from puncturing a lung, it wasn't so tight he had trouble breathing.

As soon as Sam finished, Dean started digging through their medical supplies with his left hand.

"Dean," Sam caught the roll of gauze his brother threw at him, "what are you doing?"

"It's time to fix your wrists."

"You can't do it one-handed."

"Watch me."

Feeling a little foolish, Joe holstered his gun. "Tell me what to do and I'll do it."

Dean handed him a clean cloth and a bottle. "Clean the cuts out good, then wrap them with the gauze."

With Dean scrutinizing his every move, Joe did exactly as he was instructed. When he missed a bit of dirt, he thought he would spontaneously combust from the fire blazing from Dean's green gaze. Though he had about ten years on the elder Winchester, there was something about the brothers that made them seem older than their years.

Joe had just tied-off the bandage on Sam's left hand when a piercing whistle made him jump. Sam grunted at the pull on his injured limb. This time, it was Reilly's turn to glare at a contrite Dean.

The noise of an animal moving through the bush had Joe drawing his weapon and moving to shield Chad. He relaxed when a red and white Appaloosa stepped close enough to be illuminated by the firelight.

"Sam," said Dean, crossing to the horse and rubbing him behind the ears, "could you take off my saddle? I haven't been able to since I broke my wrist. I think Bandit's about ready to rub it off himself."

"He'd do it, too." Sam shook his head as he loosened the cinch. Sliding the saddle off, he winced at the weight pulling on his sore hands and put it near the fire before using the blanket to groom the horse.

"You're lucky he didn't run off," groused Reese.

Removing the bridle, Dean turned the animal loose, allowing him to graze on the tall grass near the river. "In our line of work, we have to have horses that can handle anything."

Given the opening, Joe pressed, "What exactly is your line of work?"

The brothers looked at each other. As Joe watched, they seemed to have an entire conversation without a single word being spoken out loud. Finally, a satisfied smile curving his lips, Dean crossed to relax against his saddle near the fire. With an obvious reluctance, Sam followed, looking far from comfortable as he lowered himself to the ground.

Dean held his good hand out close to the fire, his eyes fixed on Joe. "We're Hunters."

Somehow, Joe knew Dean wasn't referring to the occupation in the normal definition of the word. But he didn't know why he should feel a chill creep along his spine.

"What do you hunt?" One arm wrapped protectively around his waist, Chad let his gaze shift from one brother to the other.

"Whatever we can find," said Dean.

Even to Joe's ears the response was evasive. "And did you just happen to find that Deer Woman?"

"No we were looking for her," Sam admitted.

"What is she?"

"She's a monster."

Joe would have been less shocked if Sam had said she was the Queen of England. "So, that's what you do, hunt Deer Women?"

"Among other things."

"What other things?" questioned Chad.

Exchanging a glance with his brother, Sam said, "Ghosts, shapeshifters, vampires, werewolves, you name it, we've probably hunted it."

"Now I know you're jus' funnin' us," growled Reese. "Them things ain't real; they're jus' stories told ta scare youngun's."

"These broken ribs feel pretty real to me," Chad countered.

"Didn't say they weren't."

"Only what caused them isn't," said Chad.

Reese slapped his thigh. "Exactly. You was jus' hallucinatin' or somethin'."

"I know what I saw, Reese." Chad glared at his friend.

Tuning out the argument, Joe turned his attention to the brothers. "How do we stop this thing before she kills again?"

"Lead stops everythin'." Reese spun his revolver's cylinder to emphasize his point. "Real or imagined."

"It won't stop her," Dean quietly contradicted.

Aiming his gun at Dean, Reese said, "Ya just didn't shoot it in the right place."

"I don't miss."

There was no air of bragging in the firm voice. Trying to keep Reese from finding out just how accurately Winchester could shoot, Joe asked, "So how do we kill it?"

"Silver bullets will slow it down, but they won't stop it," explained Dean.

Sam continued, "We have to cut off her head and then salt and burn the corpse. That's the only way to make sure she's dead."

"So how do we get her to show herself?" inquired Chad.

"We set a trap." Dean said.

"What do we use as bait?"

Dean smiled. "Me."

***

Sam wasn't happy with his brother's plan, but without an alternative, he knew better than to argue. Not only would the Deer Woman see his injured brother as an easy mark, she was already angry with Dean for interrupting a kill. So, unfortunately, Dean was the perfect target. He was also a target with only one working arm.

After burning sage to mask their scent, Sam and Joe had taken cover in some rocks near the camp Dean had set up, a short distance from where Chad and Reese waited. A man alone would be hard for her to pass-up. Though he was only a few moments away, Sam knew it would less than that for Dean to die. But they couldn't be too close or the Deer Woman would sense their presence.

His voice low, Reilly asked, "How did you and your brother get inta huntin' monsters?"

"I guess you could call it the family business." Sam didn't want to elaborate. What had happened to his mother was private. He had no memories of her, but he still found it difficult to talk about. Turning the tables, Sam said, "Why are you so willing to believe there are monsters? Most people react like Reese."

Reilly looked away. He was quiet for so long, Sam thought he wasn't going to answer the question.

"I saw something when I was ten," explained Joe.

"What?"

"I don't know what it's called. I only caught a glimpse, but it looked human. It was standin' by our cow. The next mornin' my father found the animal's carcass she had been torn ta pieces. My pa thought it was a wolf that done killed her. He and my older brother went out ta hunt it--"

"And never came back," Sam finished.

Joe closed his eyes and laid his head against the pistol he held tightly in his right hand. "I should've gone with 'em."

"If you had, you would be dead, too. It sounds like they ran into a Mute."

"Ain't that someone who can't talk?"

"It's also the nickname for Cattle Mutilators. It appears lead won't stop them, since one has never been caught."

"What will?"

Holding up the machete he was holding, Sam said, "This might have done it."

"Behead it?"

"It's the way to kill a lot of things," said Sam. "But to be sure, you want to salt and burn the remains."

"Why salt?"

Smiling, Sam shook his head. "To be honest, I don't know. I just know if you don't, you can have more problems."

"I suppose there's a lot of trial and error in your job."

"We're lucky. Our father taught us what he knew, and we have his notes. They've saved our lives more than once."

"But not your father's?"

Sam bit his lip and looked away. "We don't know, we haven't heard from him for several months."

"I take it that's unusual?"

"Hey!" Dean loudly whispered. "Will you two knock it off? I don't want to spend another night out here."

Though he was embarrassed, Dean had overheard their discussion, Sam was glad his brother had given him a good excuse not to answer Reilly's question. He didn't want to explain that while their father had only been missing a few months, Sam hadn't seen him in years. Not since he went East to school. Strangely, it was easier to talk about monsters, than it was trying to explain his relationship with his father.

***

Dean had heard more of the other men's conversation than Sam realized. It was why he had chosen to put an end to it. He had lost count of the number of times he'd had to end an argument by stepping between his father and his brother. While he had never questioned their love for each other, a stranger wouldn't be as understanding.

Settling back against his saddle, Dean stretched out his legs. He let a loud sigh escape to show how comfortable he was, something he knew his watchdogs would envy. Dean also knew Sam would interpret his action as a means of rubbing in the differences in their situations. In his annoyance, Sam wouldn't realize his anger and concern for John Winchester had slipped away.

Big brother had a lot of tricks up his sleeve that little brother never knew about.

Despite the danger, Dean found it difficult to keep his eyes open. The warmth of the fire leeched his energy. He hadn't dared take more than a few catnaps while Sam was in jail. Shifting to get himself less comfortable, Dean knocked his injured wrist. The pain coursing up his arm and down to his fingertips drove the drowsiness from his body and mind. Straightening, he panted through the pain.

As he drew a deep breath, a familiar odor invaded his nostrils. Off to his right, he heard the sound of dripping water. With a minimum of motion, he eased his gun from its holster. The silver bullets Sam had loaded in it would give the other men time to come to help Dean.

Light from the fire reflected off polished hooves. The identity of his visitor confirmed, Dean fired his pistol. As each bullet entered her body, the Deer Woman fell back a step. Knowing he only had six shots, Dean kept them well spaced to give Sam and Joe time to get into position. The deadly monster was uncomfortably close by the time Sam appeared behind her and swung his machete.

Severed from the back, the woman's head flopped forward. The weight drove the body to the ground. With another swing, Sam separated the head from the neck.

"What kept you?" grumbled Dean, rising to his feet.

Sam's smile showed the relief his words denied. "We were bored and decided to take a nap."

Taking a can of salt from his saddlebag, Dean tossed it to Reilly. "You can have the honors."

Reilly caught the container in mid-air. Opening it, he started shaking the contents on both sections of the body.

"You missed a spot." Dean pointed to a glistening hoof.

A frown showing his displeasure, Reilly shook the can until the offending appendage was buried beneath a mound of white crystals. "How's that?"

"Good enough." Dean smirked at the older man.

Sam dumped alcohol down the length of the corpse.

Taking a match from the pocket of his shirt, Dean struck it on the bottom of his boot and threw it onto the corpse. When flames shot uncomfortably close to where he was standing, he quickly jumped back. "Get a little generous with the moonshine there, Sammy?"

"I didn't want you to be worried if I missed anything."

Dean didn't need to see the smile Sam exchanged with Reilly. The reaction was all part of Dean's plan. Even though the Deer Woman was a monster and had killed countless people, Sam would lament having killed her – unless Dean directed his brother's attention elsewhere. Mission accomplished. Both of them.

***

Staring into the fire, Sam could still feel the sensation of the knife striking flesh. He rubbed the fingers of his right hand, wishing the action would erase the numbness. Killing was necessary in their line of work, but it was something Sam would never get used to. At least, he hoped he wouldn't. However, despite what Dean might think, remorse wasn't Sam's main concern. There weren't any handcuffs around his wrists, but technically, he was still the Rangers' prisoner. "What happens now?"

"What do you mean?" asked Cooper.

"Am I still your prisoner?" Even without looking, Sam knew Dean had his hand resting on the handle of his gun.

"Ain't nothin' changed," said Bennett.

"Of course it has," Cooper contradicted. "Come on, Reese, you can't still think Winchester is guilty of murder."

"Ain't a one of ya in yer right mind. The Cap'n sent us ta bring the prisoner ta Laredo and that's what I aim ta do."

Reilly threw a branch on the fire. "Then yer doin' it alone."

"You've seen how wily Winchester is, I can't take them boys in by myself," whined Bennett.

Scrambling to his feet, Dean growled, "Wait a minute --"

"Easy, Dean." Sam quickly put a hand on his brother's arm to keep him from drawing his gun. "Let Chad and Joe handle it."

A frown curving his lips and furrowing his brow, Dean slowly knelt next to his brother. Sam wasn't concerned; he knew Dean wouldn't shoot an officer of the law… though Joe and Chad weren't privy to the same knowledge.

"Reese," said Chad, "I'm not putting an innocent man in a situation where he could be hanged."

"If'n he's innocent, he won't git hanged," Reese triumphantly declared.

Rubbing a blade of grass through his fingers, Joe asked, "So, you've never seen an innocent man hang?"

"No."

"Well, I have." Joe's eyes met Sam's. "And I ain't gonna see it happen again."

Bennett pulled his gun and pointed it at Sam. "I ain't lettin' 'im go."

Only Sam's hand on Dean's arm kept the older Winchester from countering the move with his own pistol. For the first time, Sam began to worry that someone might get hurt or killed.

"Put it away, Reese." Chad painfully climbed to his feet and stood between him and the Winchesters.

The barrel of Reese's gun dipped, pointing to the ground. "Ah, Chad."

"Come mornin'," Joe said, "we're headin' south and the Winchesters are headin' north."

Reese angrily holstered his weapon. "And what'll we tell the Cap'n?"

"Chad'll think of somethin'." Joe smiled at his friend.

Cooper shook his head and carefully eased himself back onto his bedroll. "Thanks a lot."

Letting the air in his lungs ease out through his nose, Sam relaxed back against his saddle and closed his eyes. Despite Reese's obvious misgivings, Sam was certain the older ranger would go along with his associates' plan. For the first time since he knelt at Perkins' side, Sam allowed himself to relax. With not one, but three men to watch his back, Sam decided to take advantage of the rare opportunity to get a full night's sleep. Or what was left of the night.

***

Joe stood at attention in front of his captain's desk. His eyes were fixed on the map on the wall. One hand gripped Reese's arm, squeezing hard whenever the older man tried to "help" Chad explain how they had lost their prisoner.

"The older brother got the drop on us, Cap'n," said Chad. "There was nothing we could do."

Parmalee confirmed, "You were three against one."

"Yes, sir." Chad shifted showing his discomfort.

"And I had warned you to be on the lookout for this dead brother?"

"Yes, sir."

"And he still got the drop on you?"

Chad licked his lips. "Yes, sir."

"All right." Parmalee pulled a report in front of him and started to read, before off-handedly ordering, "You're dismissed."

"Sir?"

"Do I need to repeat myself?" Parmalee rested his gaze on each of the men.

"No, sir." Chad turned on his heel and crossed to the door.

Keeping a firm grip on Reese's arm, Joe echoed, "No, sir."

"I don't understand," protested Reese, trying to pull free.

"We'll explain it to you." Chad grabbed his other arm. "Now come on."

Once he was certain Reese wouldn't try to re-enter the office and confront Parmalee, Joe released his hold. Flexing his fingers, he walked across the street and entered the saloon. He sat at the first empty table and held up three fingers until the bartender nodded his understanding.

"Will you fellas tell me what the hell is goin' on?" pleaded Reese.

Taking the seat to Joe's right, Chad said, "The captain knew Sam was innocent all along."

"That's why he sent us," added Joe.

Reese frowned. "'Cause he knew we'd lose the prisoner?"

"No." Chad nodded his thanks as he accepted the mug of beer and took a long swallow. "Because he knew we'd listen to Winchester."

Keeping his voice low, Joe asked, "Do ya think the Cap'n knows monsters are real?"

"The Cap'n would think no such thing," objected Reese.

"He knows." Chad confidently nodded.

Joe took a drink, enjoying the taste of the beer as it rolled over his tongue and down his throat. For the second time in his life, his world had been turned upside down. At least this time, he knew the truth. And he knew how to fight these new monsters. The scale of his job as a Texas Ranger had grown. He just hoped he was ready for the challenge.