By: Ridley C. James
"Shooters" was a backwoods bar and grill on the outskirts of Manning, Colorado. The place was the first sign of civilization they had come across, not counting the converted Texaco fifty miles back boasting the best cup of coffee, top of the line adult movies and reading materials. To Dean Winchester’s disappointment the Texaco was closed. When they came across the bar and Dean’s father said they were stopping for something to eat and a drink, Dean jumped at the chance to escape the cramped confines of Bobby’s Tahoe. Shooters was more up to his speed than the hybrid gas station. There were a couple of pool tables, some ancient video games, sawdust on the floors and the smell of deep fried food overpowered the musky scent of sweat and leather that usually came with such fine out of the way establishments.
A brunette in tight jeans and a tee that read ‘Jingle My Bells’ across the front in glittery red greeted the foursome as they entered. “Grab a booth and I’ll be with you in a sec, dolls.” Dean stomped snow from his boots, dusting the white stuff from his hair and coat. He was sick of snow and sick of Colorado. Damien was just sick.
Caleb coughed, nudging Dean before pointing to the only empty booth in the back. Dean followed the older hunter, casting a glance over his shoulder to make sure his father and Bobby had made it inside. Caleb slid into the booth, laying his head on the scuffed wooden table top with a groan.” Wake me up when we’re done.”
Dean took the seat beside him. “Hang in there, Germ Boy. The worst is over.”
Caleb lifted his head, glaring at the younger man. “If there is a god then this plague is contagious,” he croaked. “And Johnny will catch it for the hell he put us through these last three days.”
“Dad’s not going to let a little flu stop him.” Dean forced a grin, not exactly thrilled with his father’s decision to drag them through the Colorado woods at the end of December in a freakin’ blizzard either. Caleb tried to beg off, playing the sick card, but Dad would hear nothing of it. Dad trumped Damien with The Knight spiel every time.
“It’s not the flu,” Caleb said. “I have a cold, a bad cold.”
Dean rolled his eyes at his best friend’s dogged belief he was stronger than the most recent influenza virus. “Sure you do.”
“Order me a burger and a beer, Ace.” John tapped on the table as he passed them by for the restrooms in the far corner. “Make sure Junior gets something.”
“Now he’s concerned,” Caleb muttered under his breath. He rested his head on folded arms once more.
“Don’t flatter yourself, Kid.” Bobby climbed into the other side of the booth, sliding his gloves and hat off. “John doesn’t want to end up on the bad side of another one of your daddy’s lectures about the proper care and feeding of Caleb Reaves. Trust me, they’re boring as hell.”
Dean frowned at the mechanic. “Dad didn’t know the job was going to keep us out in weather for three days.”
“No.” Bobby rubbed his hands together. Dean’s own fingers were still numb. The Tahoe was one of the mechanic’s spare part Frankenstein projects with a bad heater and no radio. “He was counting on five or six. Consider us damn lucky the thing he got wind of turned out not to be a Wendigo. You and your buddy, Junior may actually make it back to civilization for your New Year’s Eve blow out.”
Dean snorted. Those plans were shot to hell. He gestured to Caleb. “Like anyone is going to want to kiss that at the strike of midnight,” Dean said. “I might as well take Pastor Jim as wingman.”
Caleb mustered enough strength to give him a universal hand gesture. “You’re the wingman. Always.”
The original plan had been to crash at Caleb’s place in New York after Christmas, celebrate Damien’s birthday and the New Year in style. Dean was more than ready to put the past year behind him. Now he would settle for watching a game at Jim’s in a pair of dry socks and with some of the pastor’s home brew. After a week freezing their asses off in Colorado, it sounded like heaven.
“I’m Kelsey. Welcome to Shooters.”
Speaking of heaven, Dean turned to the brunette standing by their table, brightening as the waitress batted her baby blues at him. Kelsey was way easy on the eyes, but someone needed to let her in on the fact that Christmas was five days gone. A set of reindeer antlers accompanied the holiday shirt stretched over her ample figure. Dean tried not to stare at her ‘bells’. “Hey, Kelsey. Merry Christmas.”
“What can I get you boys?”
“Two burgers all the way, extra fries and a couple of whatever you have on tap.” He glanced to Caleb. “Damien?”
Caleb coughed, not even attempting to ogle their hot server. “Water.”
Dean sighed. He was not being a witness to a bloody battle of wills between his father and Damien. He’d been through that particular ringer with Dad and Sammy too many times, and the past week had given him a refresher course of what the time right before Sam left was like. Dean missed his little brother, but he didn’t miss being hit by shrapnel in the war between Dad and Sammy. He Dean returned his gaze to Kelsey. “You got any soup? My friend has the flu.”
Caleb still didn’t lift his head. “I do not have the flu.”
“Not on the menu, but for you I could probably scrape up a can of Campbell’s finest. Can’t promise it will be chicken noodle, but I’ll nuke it for no extra charge.”
“That works.” Dean gave her a winning grin. “Bring a kiddie drink with it.”
Kelsey touched the tip of her pen to her glossy pink lips. “Does he need that in a sippy cup?”
“He’ll have that in a big boy glass, Darlin,” Bobby interrupted the flirting. “Give me a basket of wings, extra sauce and a coffee, black.”
“Sure thing.” Kelsey gave Dean another smile before disappearing behind the bar.
“So far, that’s the best game I’ve seen in these woods,” Dean said. He stretched his legs out, purposively bumping Caleb’s knee. “How much do you want to bet I could have her mounted by tomorrow? I could hang her antlers around the rearview of the Impala.”
“We’ll be in Kentucky by tomorrow,” Caleb said, not rising to the bait. He sneezed, bringing a hand up to rub his forehead. “Your libido be damned.”
Dean strummed his fingers on the table, glancing out the window. It was completely dark now, but a lone light in the parking lot showed that the snow hadn’t let up. It explained the amount of travelers holed up in the out of the way establishment. “Keep telling yourself that, Damien.”
“I’d say the chances are pretty grim,” Bobby said.
Dean looked at the mechanic. “You talking about me bagging Bambi or us making it to Jim’s in the next twenty four hours.”
Bobby smirked. “Unlikely on both accounts, Kid. Your doe-eyed deer is playing you for a big fat tip.”
“Like you know anything about women.” Dean grinned. “Speaking of big and fat, Fiona still working that bearded lady gig with the circus?”
Bobby grunted. “I may not be Casanova, but I know your daddy.”
“Speak of the devil,” Caleb said.
Dean glanced up as his father took the seat beside the mechanic, forcing Bobby to hug the wall. He could see the weariness around his father’s eyes. Dad rarely slept while on a hunt, depending on steel will and determination. He expected the same unyielding dedication from those around him. “Where’s the beer?”
“Coming up.” Kelsey put the tall amber-filled glass in front of Dad before sitting Bobby’s and Caleb’s drinks down. She saved Dean for last. “Soup’s on. Can I get you anything else why you wait?”
“We’re good,” John answered for his son.
Kelsey gave a disappointed shrug. “I’ll check back.”
“Don’t bother,” Caleb said. He waited until her back was turned before he elbowed Dean. “Deuce isn’t allowed to come out and play. Ever.”
“Shut up.” Dean took a long drink from his beer.
“We’re on a hunt, Dean.” John said. He picked up a handful of peanuts from the basket in the center of the table. “Keep your head in the game.”
Technically the hunt was over, but Dean wasn’t going to push his luck tonight. It had been a long week and despite the situation, he had enjoyed hunting with his father. “Speaking of that, what’s the plan?”
Dad crushed a few shells, picking nuts from the wreckage. He tossed a couple into his mouth before answering. “I figure we find the nearest motel and hole up until the weather improves.”
“I veto that,” Caleb said. “Let’s just keep moving. Bobby’s beast has four-wheel drive.”
“Who gave you a vote, Junior?” John raised a brow. “Last time I checked senior hunter calls the shots.”
“That would be Bobby.” Caleb pointed at Singer and Dean shifted his gaze to the mechanic. “He has the most seniority. Bobby wants to go home.”
“I think I can speak for myself,” Bobby said.
“I don’t give a shit what Bobby wants.” Dad gave a rare grin, his voice holding no edge. A successful hunt often bought out the best in his father. “I outrank him.”
Bobby snorted. “You know exactly where you can put your sword, Knight Winchester.”
“Sour grapes?” Dad laughed. “Not a good look for you, Bobby.”
Dean smiled. His father had been more sullen and withdrawn over the past few months, going off on his own to work jobs he refused to talk about. It was good to catch a glimpse of the old Dad, prior to Sammy leaving and the ever deepening obsession that seemed to be taking his father further away from their friends and Dean.
“Maybe I’ll just hitch a ride,” Caleb mumbled, miserably.
Dean winked at his Dad. “Like anyone is going to pick up that on the side of the road.”
Dad laughed again, and Dean forgot all about the shitty Christmas. He was even willing to let Damien’s overlooked birthday slide.
“He’s a poor sight, that’s for certain.”
“I was thinking the same thing.” The new voice drew all eyes to the edge of their table. The man who had spoken was close to six feet, broad shouldered and soft around the middle. His hair and beard were mostly gray, but Dean guessed he was close to Dad’s age. “I thought it was you when you came in, but I wasn’t for sure until I heard that laugh.” He stared at Dad with a cross between bewilderment and anger. “I wouldn’t forget that laugh.”
“Do I know you?”
Dad sounded calm, genuinely perplexed even, but Dean didn’t miss his face blanched and his hands left the table in easy reach of weapons.
“You should, Winchester.”
“Sorry.” Dad shook his head. “You must have me mistaken for someone else.”
“It’s been better than twenty five years…” The stranger slurred, pointing an accusing finger at Dad. “But my mind’s as sharp as it was back in basic. You’re Corporal John Winchester.”
“Like hell I am.” The man raised his voice, drawing attention to their booth. He swayed slightly on his feet bracing his hands on their table to regain his equilibrium.
Dean stiffened, felt Caleb tense beside him. “Dad?”
The stranger swung his gaze to Dean and Caleb’s side of the booth, bloodshot, watery eyes searching Dean’s face before turning to John again. “These your boys?”
“Look, just move on,” Dad said. His voice was low, but Dean recognized the dangerous sharpness to it. “There’s nothing here for you.”
The man didn’t move, which told Dean the guy might have known his father in the Marines, but didn’t know what he was capable of now or maybe he was too drunk to care. “Don’t sell yourself short, Corporal. If I remember it right you’re a military genius. Not many men make Corporal as quickly as you even if they do it climbing up on the backs of the fallen.” He awkwardly flung his arm towards a table several feet from them near the video machines. “Hey, fellas, you’re never going to believe who we’ve got here in our very own town of Manning. John Winchester.” He was practically shouting. The entire place was looking in their direction. “He’s a real American Hero.”
One of the guys stood. “Come on back and sit down, Terry. Your beer’s getting warm.”
Another man, this one younger turned to look at Dad. “Did he serve with you and Dom?”
“Served with us?” Terry grunted. “This is the fucking genius who marched us right into slaughter.”
“That’s enough, Connely,” Dad said.
Terry gripped the table again leaning closer to Dad. The man reeked of alcohol. Dean glanced to Caleb whose gaze was on the man’s buddies at the other table.
“So you do remember me?”
“Yeah.” Dad nodded. “Watching you make an ass of yourself has brought it all back.”
“You always were a smart mouth know it all sonofabitch.”
Kelsey arrived with their food just as Terry stepped back to throw a punch at Dad. He bumped the stacked tray she was holding, sending wax paper lined baskets of fries, burgers and ribs to the floor. The mug of hot soup tumbled off, the contents splattering Dean’s shoulder and chest, splashing across his lap.
“Shit!” Dean stood awkwardly, brushing at the steaming liquid as it seeped through his shirts, scalding his skin.
“Oh my God.” Kelsey dropped the serving tray and it clattered to the floor. She rushed to Dean’s side. “I’m so sorry!"
“Deuce?” Caleb slid out behind him. He gripped his arm, one hand reaching out to steady Kelsey as she slipped on one of Bobby’s barbecued ribs. “You okay?”
“Look what you’ve gone and done now, Winchester,” Terry growled. He gestured towards the floor and took a step closer to Dean. “You made another fucking mess! At least your boy’s not covered in blood.”
“Get the hell away from him.” Caleb placed himself between Dean and Terry.
“Caleb,” Dad ordered. “Take care of Dean.”
“I’m fine,” Dean said, taking the napkins Kelsey offered, feeling like an idiot. He jutted his head towards the group of men moving their way. “We have bigger problems.”
“Hate to cut the reunion short, but maybe we should hit the road.” Bobby pulled out his billfold and tossed a couple of twenties on the table. “That should about cover the mess.”
Dean had no doubt they could handle the local yahoos gathering around them, but a run in with the area cops was not something they needed, especially after tangling with a game warden the day before.
“Don’t rush off now, Corporal.” Terry got in Dad’s face. “You haven’t told the story of how you earned your stripes, how those chevrons cost my buddy Dominic his life.”
“Don’t make me hurt you, Connelly.” Dad shoved the man hard. “Just walk away and we’ll forget this happened.”
“Like you forgot about that mission…like you forgot about Dom. What happened to no man left behind?”
“Terry, let it go. It’s over.” Two of the men from Terry’s table were at his side, the younger one hanging back. Dean didn’t like the way the skulking guy was sizing Dad up. The dude on Terry’s right gave an insistent tug. “Come on. Leave the man and his family alone.”
“Dominic never had a chance to have a family!” Terry shouted as his friends manhandled him away. “You hear me, Winchester? His blood is on your hands.”
“Let’s go.” Dad grabbed his coat, giving Bobby a nod. “We don’t need this kind of trouble.”
“I’m so sorry,” Kelsey said. “If you give me a few minutes, I can get you a new order boxed to go.”
“No,” Dad said. He inclined his head. “I apologize for the mess.”
“Thanks, Kelsey.” Dean handed her the pile of napkins back with a smile. “The soup was nice and hot.”
“I told you not to order me anything.” Caleb pulled a flannel shirt from the bag stuffed at his feet and tossed it to Dean. “You could have prevented the first degree burn and spared us the boiled chicken fat smell if you’d only listened to me.”
“Your concern and gratitude is touching, Damien.” Dean took his wet shirt off, flashed the reddened skin, then slipped the clean one on. He quickly put his jacket on. “You owe me a meal when this fucking trip is over.”
“Me?” Caleb glanced towards the front seat. “I think that will be on Johnny’s tab.”
The front cab of the Tahoe had been silent since leaving Shooters. Bobby was driving, John hunched in the passenger’s seat. Caleb might have tried for a reading if his head hadn’t felt like one giant cotton ball. Using his abilities back at the bar had notched up the pounding in his skull, and he still hadn’t been able to pin down who was thinking what.
“It wasn’t Dad’s fault.”
Dean’s quiet declaration reclaimed his attention. It was a patent answer with Deuce, one that could grate on Caleb’s nerves at times, but one he understood. Dean needed it to be true. “That dude was definitely getting a jump on celebrating the New Year.”
“Maybe he had a shitty past year.”
John’s old Marine buddy wasn’t the only one. For Dean, the holidays marked the one year point for absolutely no contact with Sam. Caleb cleared his throat, trying not to sound as sick as he felt. “We can still ring in the new year, Deuce. Denver isn’t out of the realm of possibility.”
Honestly, Caleb didn’t even know which direction Denver was from Manning. He’d slept most of the trip from Ferris where they had been hunting, hoping to awake about the time they got to Kentucky. “There’s always Aspen, too.”
Dean gave him a half grin he could barely make out in the darkened Tahoe. “Yeah, skiing and snowboarding is just what you need, Damien.”
“Who said anything about skiing?” Caleb had been to Vail and Aspen countless times and not touched the slopes. “I was thinking mountain lodge, roaring fire, and lots of lots of women willing to share body heat.”
Dean leaned against the seat, rolling his head to look at Caleb. “You forgetting about the contagious plague you’re carrying around, Petri Dish?”
“If you can overcome your permanent ugly disability and score a babe, then I think the chicks will overlook my temporary condition.” Caleb fought off a shiver. “A little sneezing and a slight fever won’t stop Caleb Reaves.”
“You were singing a different tune yesterday. I think you mentioned your eminent death. You said I could have Tri-Corp, the New York apartment, and your little black book.”
“Yesterday your dad dragged my ass out of a warm sleeping bag to go chasing after a hell beast. I was delusional.” Caleb crossed his arms, hoping to trap in some warmth. “Motivation is the key to recovery.”
“Funny, but Mac, who is the only doctor in the family, says the best thing for the flu is plenty of fluids and lots of rest.”
“Scotch is a fluid,” Caleb countered. “I was counting on spending some time in bed. And I don’t have the flu.”
“Will you two cut the chatter,” John said.
The boys shared a look. Caleb dejectedly slumped against his door, deciding now was not the time to challenge his mentor for treating them like ten year olds. He had already strayed into that pit more than a few times on the last hunt. He hadn’t hunted with the man in over four months, working some jobs with Dean while Johnny was mysteriously working his own agenda. Caleb found it harder and harder to follow blindly as John’s absences seemed to only add to Dean’s insecurity about his family.
“We picked up a tail.”
Bobby’s voice had him refocusing on the cab of the Tahoe. John leaned forward, looking in the side mirror. “You sure? I can’t see a damn thing in this blizzard.”
“I’ve caught headlights more than once. We didn’t pass a car on the way into this place. Little convenient, don’t you think?” Bobby took his eyes off the road long enough to glance at John. “That man hate you enough to follow us out into this storm?”
“He might.” John looked out his window again. “But he could barely walk, let alone drive.”
“The young guy,” Dean spoke up. He gripped the back of his dad’s seat. “He didn’t seem happy about the situation.”
Caleb turned, trying for a glimpse out the muddy back glass. There was only blackness and swirling snow.
“Can you sense anything?”
He met John’s gaze with a shake of his head. “This cold’s fucked with my abilities. I’d have to know them or have a direct line of sight.” The lack of sleep and food probably wasn’t helping. It took energy to read, energy he didn’t have to give at the moment.
“It’s your lucky day, Junior. You might get a better look,” Bobby said. The back of the Tahoe was flooded with light. “Hold on.”
Caleb didn’t have a chance to comply before the first impact. It was more of a tap, bumper kissing. The next jolt was harder, nearly sending him and Dean into the floorboard. The Tahoe fishtailed towards the guardrail. Caleb didn’t want to think about the drop off that lay beyond the barrier as he braced himself for the next assault. “Deuce, your fucking seatbelt.”
Dean ignored Caleb, turning to climb over the backseat into the hatch area where their weapons were. “We can take out their tires.”
“What?” Caleb’s sluggish mind was one step behind the younger hunter. “Are you crazy? Get your ass back up here.”
These weren’t spirits they were dealing with but people. He tended to agree with his mentor, the latter was much worse.
He managed to get his hand on Dean’s arm, but the monster four by four had eaten up the distance between them. It slammed into the old Tahoe jerking Dean from Caleb’s grasp and sending the older hunter sliding across the bench seat into the side where his best friend should have been sitting. Pain erupted along his shoulder when he smacked the door side panel.
“You boys alright?” John barked.
“Fucking sonofabitch!” Bobby gunned the Tahoe again, trying to escape the vehicle barring down on them.
Caleb looked over the backseat. Dean was sprawled among the gear, but made it to his hands and knees. He glanced up. “My head found the fucking jack.”
“I hope you didn’t break it.” The Winchester hardheadedness was legendary. “We may need to change a tire after this.”
He reached out a hand to help Dean back over when another lurch had the Tahoe spinning like a top and then they were airborne. Crashing through the guardrail felt like a rough take off in a crop duster. The old cliché of time standing still proved true. Caleb didn’t see his life flash before his eyes though. He saw Dean’s.