Actions

Work Header

The Gallows Tree

Work Text:

The Gallows Tree
By JJJunky

 

I ducked my head, trying to concentrate on the information displayed on my computer screen. Though the café was crowded, it wasn't passing customers or harried waitresses who were distracting me. It was fingers drumming on the tabletop. Despite every effort to stay focused, I found myself trying to identify the song Dean was tapping out.

Realizing if I said anything it would only encourage him, I gritted my teeth and prayed our food would arrive soon. Instead, my salvation came from another source...a ringing cell phone. Glancing around apologetically for disturbing the other diners, Dean quickly answered it.

While he was occupied, I gratefully took the opportunity to partially lose myself in the report of a monster roaming the Minnesota woods. I did pay some degree of attention to the one-sided conversation since the last time Dean's phone rang it had been Dad.

"Hi, Jerry."

My hopes dashed, I tried to recall the face that went with the familiar first name.

"Don't tell me there's been another plane crash."

These words solidified my belief that the caller was Jerry Panowski, the head mechanic for United Britannia Airlines. He had sought our help after one of their planes crashed. Though Dean was scared of flying, he had buried his fear long enough to help me exorcise the demon. There seemed to be no limit to what my brother would do to save lives. I couldn't keep the smile off my face as I remembered he had hummed Metallica tunes to get himself to relax.

"Dude, what's so funny?"

Noticing that Dean had closed his phone and had turned his attention to me, I hedged, "What did Jerry want?"

"He has a friend who needs our help."

While the memory of our flight had its humorous side, I didn't relish being stuck in the small confines of a plane again with my phobic brother for his sake as well as my own. "Not another Phantom Traveler?"

"No." Dean sighed with relief before ruefully admitting, "When I saw the call was from Jerry, I almost didn't answer it."

I knew how much that admission cost him, so chose to ignore the opportunity to tease him. "What's the job, then?"

"Jerry thought his friend should explain."

Our food finally arrived. Pushing my laptop aside to make room for the plate of nachos, I asked, "Where are we going?"

"Garber, Wyoming."

*****

Considering the size of Garber, it was difficult to believe it was big enough to have any problems, much less one that needed our expertise. Whoever coined the phrase "one-horse town" had obviously visited Garber. It wasn't even on most maps. According to the welcome sign, the population was a whopping one hundred and seventeen. All the businesses appeared to be located on the main street. Signs in their windows advertised a nearby ghost town, everything from T-shirts to dog collars sported the name: Cassidy.

"A ghost town!" snorted Dean. "This better not be why Jerry sent us here."

Silently agreeing, I inquired, "Who're we supposed to see?"

"Dave Myers, the mayor."

"I expect we'll find him there this late in the afternoon." I pointed to a long building. From the signs nailed to a post out front it was not only the city hall, but the police station, fire house and post office.

Dean pulled into a parking space in front. Not a single person walked the sidewalks or strolled in the park adjacent to the municipal building. It was unseasonably warm for the late autumn day; however, the only indication Garber wasn't as deserted as its neighbor were the cars filling the lot.

My curiosity piqued, I followed Dean into the single-story structure. Once inside, I stopped to allow my sun-blinded eyes to adjust to the gloomy interior.

"Can I help you?"

Through the black blobs dotting my vision, I saw a small reception desk with a pretty young girl behind it. I didn't need to look at Dean to know he was impressed by what he saw. The sultry voice he used when confronted by a beautiful woman had become familiar over the last few months.

"I'm Dean Winchester, this is my brother, Sam. Dave Myers asked us to stop by and see him."

"I'll let him know you're here."

Her tone had changed, becoming throatier. I rolled my eyes as she preened behind her desk, leaning much further forward than necessary to grab the telephone receiver and punch a button connecting her with the requested destination.

"Dave, there's a Dean Winchester here to see you."

I wasn't surprised that she had totally forgotten my existence. Her gaze had never shifted off my brother's face.

"Dave will see you now." Disappointment was visible on her face as she pointed down the hall. "It's the first door on your left."

With a hand on Dean's back, I forcibly guided him to the indicated office. His eyes focused elsewhere, he nearly walked into a wall.

I tapped lightly on the door, opening it before receiving permission. I knew from experience that the only way to get Dean to pay attention - when lives weren't in jeopardy - was to remove him from the proximity of the distraction.

Entering the room with my brother in tow, I closed the door behind us. A large man in his late forties or early fifties rose from behind the desk.

"I'm Sam Winchester, and this is my brother, Dean."

"Dave Myers."

I shook the hand he held out to me. The strong grip and callused palm told me he didn't spend all his days behind a desk. His face was flushed a bright red indicative of a man who spent a lot of time in the sun. As he shook Dean's hand, I prompted, "Jerry said you might need our help."

Slowly reclaiming his seat, Dave rubbed a hand across his mouth. "I'm not sure what to say."

"Why don't you tell us what you told Jerry?" suggested Dean, taking a seat in front of the desk.

"As you probably noticed, Garber's small, and it's getting smaller every year. There are a number of tourist attractions in the area the Oregon Trail Ruts, Register Cliffs, and Fort Laramie. But none of them are close enough to entice drivers to take our exit and spend money here in Garber."

"Which is why it's getting smaller," I said, taking the chair next to Dean's.

"Few of the businesses are breaking even," granted Dave. "To try to draw the tourists, we decided to fix up Cassidy, a ghost town about a mile down the road."

"Fix up?" questioned Dean. "How do you fix a ghost town? Round up all the ghosts?"

I decided I liked Dave when he smiled at Dean's remark. Some people tended to be offended by my brother's less-than-flattering but usually honest observations.

"In this day and age when you can be sued for serving your coffee too hot, we had to make the buildings safe," Dave explained. "We also furnished some of the rooms the way they would've looked it Cassidy's heyday."

"Sounds like quite a project," I said, though I was still puzzled at what our role was in the renovation of a ghost town. "I don't know what Jerry told you, but we're not carpenters or antique dealers."

Dave looked down at his hands, folded on top of his desk. "We've had two men die ..."

"Accidents can happen," Dean observed.

"Both were found hanging from what was known as the Gallows' Tree."

"Suicides?"

"The rope that was used was old. That type of hemp hasn't been sold in these parts for years. Besides, I knew the men they were happily married with great kids and bright futures."

"If you think this is murder, you should call the police."

"The sheriff looked into that possibility. He couldn't find a motive or anything to connect the two men that would point to homicide."

Despite the skeptical expression on Dean's face, I had to admit I was intrigued, and could understand why Jerry thought we might be able to help. "Do you have a library? Somewhere I might be able to research Cassidy?"

Opening the top drawer on his right, Dave pulled out a thin book and handed it to me. "One of our citizens thought visitors might be interested in the history of the buildings and the people. You should find everything you need to know in there."

"I'll read it tonight. Tomorrow we'll visit Cassidy," I said, ignoring Dean's incredulous glare. I knew how he felt, but I was glad he was waiting until we were alone to voice his displeasure. I had to admit, looking for ghosts in a ghost town seemed bizarre.

Rather than tempt fate, I decided it was time to leave. There was a limit to how long Dean would be able to hide his disgruntlement. Rising, I said, "We'll keep in touch."

"Let me know if you need anything," Dave encouraged.

Nodding, I assured, "We will."

I practically had to drag Dean from the office and past the receptionist. Once outside, I let him shake off my arm and vent his discontent.

"Man, why did you say we'd help?" Dean demanded.

"Because people have died."

"But a ghost town?"

The whiny note almost made me smile. "Don't think of it as a ghost town. Think of it as a housing project for spirits."

I could hear Dean mumbling to himself as he followed me back to the car. It was going to be a long night.

******

Scooting my chair closer to the window to take advantage of the early morning light shining through a crack in the drapes, I started re-reading the book Dave Myers had given me. I had read it the night before, but had often been distracted by Dean's attempts to get me to play cribbage. Since he was still asleep, I decided to take advantage of the quiet.

"Are you reading that thing again?"

So much for quiet. "It's interesting."

Stretching as he crawled from his bed, Dean asked, "Anything there to explain why those two men died?"

"Ghosts." From the look on his face, I could tell Dean was about to rip me a new one. Holding up the book so he could see the cover, I said, "According to this almost twenty-five people were hanged from the Gallows' Tree before the town itself died. You know how new construction can awaken spirits. I figure that's what's happened here."

Rubbing his chest, Dean yawned. "Are you telling me we have to dig up twenty-five graves?"

"What fun is a ghost town without ghosts? We just need to find the one who isn't resting in peace."

"How do we do that, Sherlock? It's been over a hundred years since they got strung up."

I didn't know how to answer Dean's question, so I just kept my mouth shut. Silence had worked for me in the past...though not too often.

Dean pulled the T-shirt he had slept in over his head and threw it on the bed. "Let me catch a shower. You can tell me what the book had to say over breakfast."

"Then we'll head to Cassidy?" I asked.

Obviously not happy with the prospect, Dean nodded. "Then we'll head to Cassidy."

*****

"So," Dean took a cautious sip of his black coffee, "who's our first suspect?"

"Ray Spencer. He was hanged in 1898 for shooting a sheepherder."

"Killed a guy, got hanged - what's the problem??"

"Back then there was a war between the cattle ranchers and the sheepherders. It was a crime for a shepherd to kill a cattleman, but not the other way around, at least, not in the eyes of the law."

"Then why was Spencer hanged?" Dean drowned his pancakes in syrup.

My teeth ached just looking at the sweet concoction. Dean has always had a sweet tooth. Something I, gratefully, didn't inherit...if such a thing is even passed down through generations. Dad didn't have one. As for Mom, it was something else I hadn't had time to learn about her. Shaking off my melancholy, I said, "It doesn't say."

Taking a bite from a strip of crisp bacon, Dean nodded. "So he figured he did nothing wrong. Who's next?"

"Barry Sutton, accused of killing a dancehall girl. He insisted he was innocent even as they put the noose around his neck."

Dean grimaced, his hand going to his throat. "Add him to the list. Any more?"

"Two." I consulted the book. "Lars Henson was hanged for stealing a horse."

"Hanging would be too good for the bitch who stole my wheels."

I smiled, knowing Dean wasn't kidding. "The hand of justice was a bit too quick on the draw in this case. It turned out the horse belonged to Henson. He was on his way to get the bill of sale."

"Ouch!" Dean shook his head. "I'd be pissed, too. Who's the fourth guy?"

"It's not a guy. It's a woman."

"They hanged a chick?"

"Not until after she'd killed five men. She was a prostitute."

Dean took a bite of his pancake. "She killed her clients? Doesn't sound like good business sense to me."

"Just the married ones. Apparently, she didn't like them cheating on their wives." I put down the book and took a bite from my waffle.

"Talk about mixed messages."

"So how do we figure out which one's to blame?" I asked.

"We may not be able to," said Dean, a resigned note in his voice.

While digging up a grave, salting and burning the bones wasn't an easy job, it wasn't the physical labor that made us vacillate. When you aren't sure what will happen to these souls, you hesitate to do anything needlessly.

"Hello, boys."

I looked up, grateful that Dave Myers had chosen that moment to interrupt. I slid over to make room for him beside me. Dean did the same for the young woman accompanying the mayor. From her sad face, I assumed she was the wife of one of the victims. I wasn't surprised when Dean didn't try to hit on her. My brother had a compassionate nature he usually tried to hide.

"This is Jane Cabot," Dave introduced her. "Michael Cabot was the first man killed in Cassidy."

"I'm sorry for your loss," I murmured.

"Thank you."

She uttered the words automatically. I could tell she had said them so often she wasn't even conscious of her response anymore.

"Dave told me you're going to find out what killed my husband."

"We're going to try," said Dean in a soothing tone.

"You have to do more than try, Mr. Winchester," Jane earnestly implored. "My father and my brother are among the men working in Cassidy. I couldn't bear to lose them, too."

When she wiped a tear off her cheek, I suggested, "Maybe it would be safer if they didn't go to work for a few days?"

"Safe doesn't put food on the table. I'm not sure if you understand how important this project is to this town. My husband died to make our dream come true. I want you to make sure it wasn't in vain."

I exchanged a glance with Dean and saw the same reservation in his eyes that I'm sure was in my own. I wasn't surprised when he pushed aside his unfinished breakfast. I had lost my appetite, too.

"Mrs. Cabot," Dean shifted to face her, "is there anything you could tell us about your husband's death? Even something seemingly insignificant can help."

The look of interest on Jane's face told me Dean had read her as easily as I had read the book about Cassidy. She wanted - needed - to help find her husband's killer.

"My brother, Henry, was the one who found Michael."

Dean leaned closer, offering his support when she faltered.

"He said he saw a shadowy figure at the bottom of the tree. But by the time he got there it was gone."

"Could the killer have gone into one of the buildings?" I asked.

"No, not without being seen. It was as though he had disappeared into thin air."

This, more than anything we had heard so far, told me why Dave had sought someone with our skills. There weren't many people who would take a statement like that seriously.

Dean pressed, "Did your brother see any distinguishing characteristics?"

"Not that he told me. I can ask him."

"That won't be necessary," I said. "We're heading to Cassidy now. We can talk to him ourselves."

Jane slid out of the booth and rose to her feet. "Just be careful. I want to know who killed Michael, but not at the risk of someone's life."

"It's all right," said Dean. "We know what we're doing."

I tried to give the young woman an encouraging smile. Despite Dean's assertion, I knew how dangerous our job could be. But I had also finally accepted its importance. Saving the lives of others was helping ease the ache of Jess' loss.

Dave rose to stand beside Jane. "You won't be alone out there. There's a crew working on the old church if you need help."

"That's good to know," I said.

Taking a quick sip of his coffee, Dean slid across the booth and drawled, "Let's ride, Cowboy."

Despite the grave situation, I was unable to suppress a smile. Trust my brother to find something amusing in the direst circumstance. Throwing some bills on the table, I followed him out of the restaurant.

******

About a half-mile out of Garber the paved road ended, changing to a graveled track. Dust coated the black surface of the car. I was sure Dean would turn back when a rock clanged against the frame. Gritting his teeth, he slowed to a crawl. I would've told him he was making a mistake, a faster speed rolled the wheels over the shallow potholes instead of into them, but I knew he was already aware of that. Sometimes, common sense took a backseat to protectiveness.

My first sight of Cassidy buried all my pre-conceived notions concerning old west towns. It didn't look like something from Bonanza or Gunsmoke. The buildings were smaller in scale, and instead of bright, pretty colors, the wood slats were gray and weathered. The structures were situated in a box formation, not on a single main street. They were spread out in what seemed to be a random arrangement. It wasn't until we got out of the car and started walking around that I saw that what had appeared to be gaps between the buildings were filled with rubble from shops that had lost the race with time. Streets were overgrown with bushes, making it impossible for modern vehicles to pass. It wasn't hard to imagine ghosts walking the dusty streets, or haunting one of the saloons looking for a drink, a good time...or a new victim.

I pulled out the book and turned to the back page with a map of the old settlement. We could hear hammering to our right. Consulting the diagram, I saw that was where the church was located. The cemetery was beside it.

"Sam," Dean said, "you check things out to the right. I'll go left."

"Do you think we should split up?"

Exasperated, Dean pointed out, "We'll only be a street width apart. We'll meet by that tree at the end."

Really hating this strategy, but with no rational reason why, I said, "That's the Gallows' Tree."

"Since there aren't a lot of trees out here, I kinda figured that out for myself."

This was one of those times when I wanted to smack my brother upside the head.

"After we check out the tree, we'll take a look at the graveyard and talk to Jane's brother." Dean walked away, the EMF meter pointed at the buildings as he passed.

I really wanted to reverse the order of Dean's plan. I was sure he wouldn't accept "bad feeling" as an adequate excuse. Though he tried to pretend he wasn't, I knew he was still spooked by the recent revelation concerning my visions.

Reluctantly, I started down my side of the street avoiding a tumbleweed blowing across my path. There was no wind, making me wonder where the bush had come from. My senses even more attuned to the atmosphere of the deserted town, the buildings only received a cursory glance. Most of my attention stayed focused on Dean. Several times, I thought I caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure following him. I wanted to shout a warning but there was nothing to substantiate what I saw. It could be a figment of my imagination. You can't protect yourself from a trick of the light.

For my own peace of mind, I tried to keep pace with Dean but got held up skirting the debris of a collapsed building. I was just stepping over some boards when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye.

Dean was stepping off the plank sidewalk onto the dirt street when the figure suddenly appeared beside him and slipped a rope around his neck. The EMF meter screeched a delayed warning as it flew away. Dean's hands frantically tugged at the noose. I could see his eyes searching desperately...for me?

Somehow, I managed to yell around the lump in my throat. Throwing off a paralyzing fear that could cost Dean his life, I started running, hoping my actions would distract the spirit.

Struggling to pull free, Dean was jerked off his feet onto his back. Harsh gasps and loud wheezing told me the air had been knocked from his lungs. He rolled from side to side in a desperate attempt to escape. When the shapeless shadow started to drag him to the tree, I saw him dig his heels into the ground to halt the momentum. Grooves plowed the ground marking his passage.

Willing my legs to run faster, I screamed for help, hoping I would be heard above the sounds of construction. I had almost reached Dean when I felt myself lifted into the air and flung backwards. My journey was halted when by back struck a railing. It made me feel as though I was being broken in two. My left arm hit the post. I heard the bone crack before the blinding pain drove me to my knees.

Through blurred vision, I watched in helpless horror as the end of the rope around Dean's neck was flung over a branch. His eyes bulged in terror. He was pulled up until his feet no longer touched the ground. Legs kicked uselessly as the nails of one hand dug into the flesh around his neck, trying to loosen the tightening noose. His other hand tried to reach his boot where I knew he kept a knife.

Groaning, I pushed to my feet and stumbled towards him. His movements had grown weaker and I could see a bluish tinge to his lips. When his arms fell limply to his sides, I knew he was seconds away from death. Praying nothing would intervene this time, I reached my brother and wrapped my arm around his waist, trying to take some of his weight. Filling my lungs with air, I yelled for help. In between cries, I could hear the creak of Dean's leather coat. It competed with the scraping of the rope against the bark of the tree. These were sounds I would not soon forget.

It wasn't until hands tried to pull Dean away from me that I realized I had been heard. Feebly, I watched as someone cut the rope and Dean was lowered to the ground. Dropping to my knees beside him, I frantically tried to loosen the noose. I only allowed someone else to take over the chore when I realized they could do it faster with two good hands.

"Dean?" Placing trembling fingers on his chest, I felt for a respiration. There wasn't one. "He's not breathing!"

"Can you breathe for him?"

Somebody knelt at Dean's side. I stared blankly at him, trying to process what he was saying.

"Can you?" the man growled at me.

When a hand tried to push me aside, I slipped out of my shocked state and shook him off. Laying Dean's head flat on the ground, I made sure his airway was open. "I can do it." My back protesting, I bent and blew two breaths into Dean's mouth.

The man kneeling on Dean's other side clenched his hands in the prescribed method and started CPR. He counted each compression out loud. When he reached fifteen, I put my mouth over Dean's and blew two more breaths. As the man started counting again, I put my hand back on Dean's chest. I couldn't criticize the man's technique, he was doing everything right. But I wished I had been physically able to perform the task. It was difficult trusting Dean's life to a stranger. I felt tears fill my eyes, blurring my vision. I couldn't lose my brother. As much as I wanted to find Dad, I knew Dean was the most important person in my life.

Two more breaths. Dean's chest rose and fell, but I knew it wasn't doing so without assistance. His face was lifeless, something I had never seen before, and it made me feel ill. I leaned back to indicate the man should start compressions again, when I realized there was a heart beating beneath my hand. "Stop!" I ordered. "He's breathing."

The man sat back on his heels with a sigh of relief. "Thank God."

I silently repeated the sentiment. Staring at my brother's lax face, my fingers closed around Dean's shirt, as though my grip would keep him in this world.

"Are you hurt, son?"

A hand on my shoulder made me realize the question was addressed to me. My own injuries could wait until Dean got the help he needed. Help I couldn't give with a broken arm. "We need to get my brother to a hospital."

"Chet's getting his truck. We only got a clinic in Garber, but it's got the best doctor in the state. He'll take real good care of you and your brother."

Focusing on the man across from me, the man who had saved Dean's life, I realized he was about my own age. There were enough similarities to his sister to identify him as Henry, Jane Cabot's brother. Shifting my gaze to the man standing over me, I decided this must be Jane's and Henry's father.

A third man came into view, standing at Henry's shoulder. "If yer the two boys Dave was expectin' ta save us, ya ain't doin' a very good job. Ya can't even save yerselves."

"Shut up, Luke," ordered Henry. "We all know what you think of this whole business."

My gaze shifted to the older man, and regarded him with disdain. Anger giving me strength, I attempted to regain my feet. No matter how hurt I was, no one insulted my brother and got away with it. The hand that had never left my shoulder gently kept me at Dean's side.

"I don't think you need a broken hand along with everything else," Henry pointed out.

Henry's words didn't stop me, it was the sadness on his face. This wasn't the first time he had found someone hanging from the Gallows' Tree. "You're Jane's brother," I said.

"You met Jane?"

"Dave introduced us this morning."

"I'm not surprised she wanted to meet you. There are those," Henry glared at Luke, "who've tried to tell her Michael committed suicide."

Luke snorted. "And there are those who are takin' the description of Cassidy as a ghost town too literally."

I ignored him, we'd seen his type far too often in our job, and returned my attention to Dean. His raspy breathing made me realize he could still be injured worse than I thought. When he moaned in pain, I actually felt relief. It was a sign he was still alive.

No matter what Luke thought, no one wanted to destroy this spirit more than I. Once I knew Dean would be all right, I would be back.

*****

I slouched in the plastic chair, its hard edges making me feel every bruise and sore muscle. I had been lucky. My encounter with the hitching rail had resulted in a broken left wrist and a bruised back. Though, as much as my back hurt, I wondered if the X-ray machine was defective.

Dean was equally as fortunate, so far. Neither his trachea nor his larynx was crushed, only bruised. What was worrying me was that he had yet to regain consciousness. I had been warned there could be brain damage due to the fact that he was hypoxic for an undetermined length of time.

If it wasn't for the bandage around his throat, you wouldn't think there was anything wrong. He looked as if he were sleeping. He would know differently once he woke up. He had a couple of cracked ribs from the CPR that would give him trouble for a few weeks. I couldn't feel mad at Henry for saving Dean's life. However, I knew Dean was going to be pissed when he woke up. His extracurricular activities would be hindered for the next month or so.

"Any change?"

I glanced away from Dean's face long enough to confirm the visitor was Dave Myers. While I appreciated the man's concern, I really wanted to be alone. The doctor had given me some pretty powerful drugs to combat my physical pain, but they were also heightening my mental anguish. I didn't need to look under the bandages to see the scratched, discolored flesh, and the rope burn on Dean's neck. My mind saw it clearly enough to bring me to tears.

Taking a deep breath to rein in my emotions, I said, "He's still unconscious."

"I'm sorry I brought you here." Dave played with the cowboy hat in his hand. "I should've stopped the work in Cassidy when Michael Cabot was killed."

Logic breaking through the fears for my brother, I said, "Do you think that would've stopped the killing?"

"It's a little hard to commit murder when there isn't anyone there to kill," snapped Dave.

Understanding the man's rage and disappointment, I said, "The killing won't stop until we stop that spirit."

"I repeat--"

"Can you guarantee no one will deliberately or accidentally stumble into Cassidy?" I asked. "Because anyone who does will end up hanging from that tree. Without Cassidy, Garber will die. There won't be anyone here to keep people out of the spirit's clutches."

Dave's eyes rested on Dean's face, and he sighed. "How do we stop it?"

"We may have to dig up all twenty-five graves, salt and burn the bones. We'll start with the four main suspects first and go from there."

"Will you show us what to do?"

I didn't want to leave Dean, but I knew he would be furious if I allowed anyone else to get hurt. "In the morning, bring strong backs, shovels, salt, gasoline, and matches."

"I'll pick you up after breakfast."

Dave looked determined. Knowing the Impala was in the Cassidy parking lot, I agreed. "Good night."

After one last glance at Dean, Dave left as quietly as he had come. I wasn't sorry to see him go. I would need every minute between now and his return to build up my courage - not to face the spirit again, but to leave Dean's side. There had been times since I left Stanford when I felt I couldn't spend another moment in his presence. It seemed as though his one joy in life was tormenting me. Now, all I wanted was for him to wake-up and give me hell for wasting time sitting at his bedside. A slight smile curved my lips...until my gaze rested on Dean's pale face.

I put my hand on his, needing the contact. Exhausted, I felt the pull of the potent drugs coursing through my system, and closed my eyes.

I instantly snapped them open again, feeling guilty for succumbing to the lure. Dean wouldn't fall asleep if I needed him. Yet, as hard as I fought it, I couldn't keep my eyes open. My neck felt as though it was supporting a bowling ball. Hating my weakness, but unable to fight it any longer, I laid my head on the bed. I wouldn't sleep; I just needed to rest my eyes.

*****

"Oww!" Sharp pain in my shoulders brought me instantly awake. Jerking up, I regretted the motion as agony rippled along the muscles in my back. I gasped, my good hand reached back to try to massage the ache away.

"You all right?" The question was spoken in a raspy voice that was barely more than a whisper.

My vision still blurred with sleep, I quickly sought Dean's face. It was still pale, and his eyes were bloodshot, but they also glowed with the intensity I had always associated with my brother.

"Are you?"

Trying but failing to understand what Dean was asking, I said, "Am I what?"

A look of exasperation was immediately followed by a wince. "Are . . . you . . . all . . . right?"

I frowned, unsure if Dean was speaking slowly because his throat was bothering him or because he thought I was being dense. It was probably a little of both. "I should be asking you that. I'm not the one who was hanged."

"I don't have a cast." Dean tapped the plaster encasing my arm.

"The spirit threw me against a hitching rail." I knew Dean would hate it but I was unable to keep the guilt from my voice. "That's why I wasn't able to get to you right away. You almost died."

"I'm gonna burn that son of a bitch."

When Dean threw back his blanket, I quickly rose and replaced it. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Just what I said."

Even though Dean glared at me for asking what he obviously thought was a stupid question, I didn't get angry. His voice was getting rougher, and I could tell it was becoming more painful to talk. "Dave Myers is going to pick me up soon. If we have to, we're going to dig up all twenty-five graves."

"Wasn't someone who hanged."

As bad as Dean looked, I hated to press him, but I also wanted to get the spirit that had almost killed him. And it sounded like I couldn't do it without him. "What do you mean?"

"Sheriff."

The gruff reply made my own throat hurt. I was tempted to get the doctor, but I could see Dean had something important to say. So important it was conceivable he might try to follow me. This wasn't my first experience with my brother's stubborn nature. It was difficult remaining at his side knowing how much pain he was in.

"Badge."

"You actually saw the spirit?" I couldn't keep the excitement from my voice.

"Impression."

The one-word answers were another indication of the pain Dean was enduring. Hoping to ease his suffering, I pulled out the book on Cassidy and looked for the information I needed. The town had only existed for ten years. In that time it had three sheriffs. There were no details pointing to what had happened to the last one, Jed Layton, but Cole Martins and Edward Camden were buried in Cassidy's graveyard. "Dean . . ."

When I didn't receive a response, I looked up to see Dean was either asleep or unconscious, again. My heart in my throat, I checked his pulse. It was a little fast, nothing to worry about.

I pulled the blanket up to his chest and returned to my seat. My stomach growled, reminding me I hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast the day before. If I was smart, I would try to find some food. However, I didn't want to leave Dean's side. When it comes to my brother, I tend to let my feelings rule my actions. I guess we're more alike than I thought.

*****

Standing over the two open graves, I could see the Gallows' Tree...and I knew what I had to do to ensure we terminated the right spirit. I wanted this over. I didn't want Dean to have any excuse to come back here again.

While I was waiting for Dave Myers, I had done more research. The two allegedly innocent men, Barry Sutton and Lars Henson, were hanged while Edward Camden was in office. Apparently, justice was not important to Camden. As certain as I was that the spirit was Sheriff Camden, I knew there was only one way to be absolutely certain - offer it one last victim.

And I knew who that person had to be.

Pouring salt and gasoline into Camden's and Martins' graves, I handed my Zippo to Dave. "I'm going down to the Gallows' Tree. When that thing grabs me, light Camden's bones. If nothing happens, then torch Martins'."

"And what if that doesn't work?" Dave nervously inquired.

My eyes rested on Henry, Luke, and Chet, before returning to Dave. "Then I'm going to need help." I tried to smile, as though it was a joke. We all knew it wasn't.

Henry patted me on the shoulder. "Good luck, and thanks."

"I don't like this," said Dave.

I didn't, either, however I was sure my reasons were different from Dave's. If Dean was here to back me up, I would have no reservations. Without his solid presence at my side, I was more than a little scared. It wasn't that I couldn't do this alone. I had hunted a number of times without my father's or Dean's assistance. I just hadn't done so since leaving Stanford. I had come to depend on Dean's support - maybe too much? But I wouldn't let fear stop me.

This thing had almost killed my brother. I wanted it destroyed. My dreams would be haunted by the image of Dean hanging lifeless from a tree for weeks to come. I didn't need any more nightmares disturbing my sleep - particularly this one.

"You know what to do," I reminded Dave.

Without waiting for confirmation, I started walking down to the street leading to the Gallows' Tree. I thought I had prepared myself. However, the closer I got to my destination, the more I began to question my plan. More than ever, I missed having Dean to exchange ideas with. On the other hand, if Dean had been here, he would have insisted on acting as the bait. As much as I would argue that we were in this together and should share the risks, he would ignore me, forcing me to watch as he put his life in danger - again. Maybe it was a good thing he wasn't here?

Tripping over a tumbleweed, I realized I had almost reached the spot where the spirit had taken Dean. It was time to focus. My nerves getting the better of me, I paused and glanced back up the hill. I saw Henry had followed me. He was close enough to help, but not close enough - hopefully - to earn the spirit's attention as I had. Dave had the lighter in his hand. It was hard to tell from this distance, but I think it was already lit.

With a deep breath, I took the last few steps. A black shape appeared at my side. Before I could react, a rope whispered through the air and swooshed around my head. Fear gripped me so strongly my heart beat against my chest until it felt like it would escape. I grabbed at the noose as oxygen escaped my lungs. I was slammed to the ground from a strong pull on the end of the rope. Dizzy, I knew I was in trouble when the branches of the tree blocked the sun. For a brief moment, I thought I saw a badge which explained why Dean had the feeling the spirit was a sheriff...and then it was gone.

I almost panicked when hands tugged at the noose around my neck, until I realized it was Henry. He pulled it loose and threw it disgustedly to the ground. Later, I would have to make sure it and the rope that had almost taken Dean, and those that had killed the others, were also burned. They were a direct link to the spirit. There could be nothing left that might allow him to return.

Looking up the hill, I saw flames shooting up from the grave that had held Edward Camden's remains. Half-dead and barely conscious, Dean had given us the clue we needed to save the lives - and futures - of the people of Garber.

*****

All I wanted was a meal and a soft bed, but I knew I wouldn't enjoy either until I checked on Dean. My feet dragging, I walked the clinic's short hallway to his room. I wasn't surprised to find Jane was with him, being the only nurse in town. It must have been very difficult for her when they brought in her husband.

My compassion turned to rage when I saw she was holding Dean down. His head was tossing from side to side, while sweat coated his brow. "What the hell's going on?" I crossed swiftly to the bed and pushed her hand off him.

"I had to," defended Jane, her voice quivering. "When he woke up and found you gone, he tried to go after you. I found him stumbling down the hall. I managed to get him back to bed, but I was afraid to leave him to get a sedative."

Knowing my brother, I believed her explanation. But I didn't have to like her solution. With his cracked ribs, the pressure against them must have been excruciating. "I'm here now he'll be all right."

"You're exhausted, you need rest," argued Jane, wrapping her hand around Dean's wrist.

"I won't get any if I'm worrying about Dean." Grabbing a towel from the bedside table, I gently wiped his face.

"I'm sorry."

I could tell she was upset. After all she had been through, I couldn't stay angry. "I'm sorry he gave you so much trouble."

"Sam?"

The voice was hoarse and painful to hear but it was a welcome sound to my ears. Bending closer, I put my hand on the side of Dean's head to try to quiet him. "I'm here." When his eyes opened to rest blurrily on me, I forced a smile.

"You all right?"

"I'm all right," I confirmed.

"Get that son-of-a-bitch?"

"We got him. You were right it was one of the sheriffs." I relaxed when Dean's eyelids slid closed, and pulled the chair closer to his bed.

"Sam?"

"Yeah?" I said surprised.

"I think I'll take a nap now."

I thought he had already fallen asleep. As usual, Dean had surprised me. "You do that. I got your back."

Wiping the sweat from his face and neck, I waited for him to react. When he didn't, I knew he was finally asleep. I smiled at Jane and settled onto the hard plastic chair. I would pay for my vigilance with a stiff back and aching muscles, but right now, even the promise of a soft bed and a hearty meal couldn't lure me away from Dean's side. He would never admit it with words, but he wanted me here. It felt good to be needed.

*****

I pulled the car into Cassidy's parking lot and shifted into park. Turning off the ignition, I opened my door and climbed out. By the time I reached him, Dean had already pulled himself out of the car. I wanted to put my hand under his arm to offer assistance, but I knew he would shake it off. I tried not to, but I knew I was hovering. "You don't have to do this."

"Yes, I do," Dean said with conviction.

I kept pace with him, ready to lend a hand. The doctor, Jane, and I had all felt Dean should give himself a little more time to recover before we headed out. The fact that I was walking down Cassidy's dusty street was proof we had failed. I had been prepared for him to ignore all medical advice. I hadn't been prepared when he said he wanted to go back to Cassidy.

When we reached the Gallows' Tree, he stood staring at it for so long, I was beginning to worry.

"You almost got yourself killed here, Sammy."

Surprised by the accusation, I pointed out, "So did you."

"Why didn't you just torch all the graves?"

"You said you thought the spirit was a sheriff. I trusted you."

"I was outta my head when I said that. How could you risk your life on something I might have hallucinated?"

My own throat started to hurt listening to Dean talk. I wished this wasn't so important to him.

"What if I had been wrong?"

"You weren't," I reminded him.

"But what if I was? I'm not right all the time."

I knew what that confession had cost Dean. He liked to believe, or at least make me believe, he was never wrong. It had something to do with the whole big brother thing.

"You should have just torched all the graves," Dean repeated.

I heard the concern beneath the gruff words. "Is that what you would've done?"

"Hell, yeah!"

"Liar."

Dean finally tore his gaze from the tree and rested it on me. "What did you say?"

"You heard me. Your throat and ribs are bad, not your ears."

Dean shook his head. "What are you going to do the next time I get laid up?"

"Exactly what I have to do to get the job done." I shot him a smirk worthy of Dean.

His left arm protectively across his sore ribs, Dean carefully turned and started walking slowly back to the Impala. I would have to keep a close eye on him for the next week to keep him from overdoing it. Just another part of the job.

"Sam." Dean snapped his fingers. "Car keys."

"You're not driving." I put my hand in my coat pocket and closed it firmly around the key ring.

"Who else can?"

"Me. I drove here, remember?"

"You only have one good hand."

"You can't even turn without having to stop to breathe."

"You're not moving a lot better with that back of yours."

"So we should stay in Garber another couple of days," I triumphantly pointed out.

Dean nodded unhappily. "I guess."

When he suddenly smiled, I knew I was in trouble.

"Now, I'll have time to look up Dave Myers' receptionist."

"And do what? You can't even tie your own shoes."

"That's not what I had in mind."

Despite myself, I had to smile at the lecherous grin on his face. Only Dean could find something good in a bad situation. It was a skill I lacked, but with time - and the right teacher - I would learn.