Two weeks later …
Nate Wallace was a wiry gnarled imp of a man. A jockey for the best part of his life, he struggled to scrape five foot three in his mud-caked boots and his weatherbeaten face, battered by a lifetime of balancing precariously on skittish half-ton creatures travelling at high speed, made him look far older than his 57 years.
Retiring at 39, with the intention of spending some quality time with his remaining teeth, he had branched into farming, but had always retained his strong links with the animals which, over many years, had earned him a handsome living.
He currently stood in his damp yard dwarfed by the two smiling goliaths either side of him; one sporting a sling and patches of freshly healed pink skin along his stubbled chin, the other fresh off crutches, walking cautiously with a pronounced limp.
Sam had explained at length the sad story of how Hannibal, spooked by the unfortunate buck, had bolted; decanting his inexperienced rider and then running headlong into the 'cougar'.
Wallace looked up to his visitors. "The Parks Authority said they found the cougar's body when they went back to take care of Hannibal's remains." He said, "biggest damn critter they'd ever seen – twice the size of any other cougar anyone's ever caught," he smiled; "they said you'd damn near blown it's head off, so there wasn't a lot they could tell except that it was one godawful ugly sonofabitch. Reckon it must have been riddled with mange or something; it didn't have a patch of fur left on it's body. Looks like you did the miserable bastard a favour."
"I know you did all of us a favour," he sighed, "the damn thing's been slaughtering livestock wholesale, this area's lost more livestock in the last year than I've known taken throughout my entire life." He slipped a hand under his cap and scratched his balding head; " it's put two good friends of mine out of business. Others have lost over half their flocks an' their livelihoods are jus' hangin' on by a thread."
The three men fell into a short silence.
"Jus' a shame we hadta lose a great ol' boy like Hannibal doin' it," Wallace reflected quietly.
"He was getting' on an' all, and I would have probably retired him soon, but he never deserved to end up like that."
"What would you have done with him?" asked Sam.
Wallace smiled, "well, my business head would have told me to offload him. Animal which ain't earnin' it's keep got no place on a farm." He turned to Sam with a wry smile, "but seein' as my wife, my two daughters, my son and my seven grandchildren would have probably never spoken to me again, I guess I would have kept him as some kinda gigantic pet and then stood by and watched as the fat bastard ate me out of business instead of the cougar!"
Both brothers laughed quietly at the thought of Hannibal and his bottomless appetite.
Dean cut in. "The, uh, guy from the Parks Authority told us about what your wife saw – or thought she saw."
Wallace shook his head, and took a sharp intake of breath.
"She refuses to talk about it; denies she ever saw anything. Says it was one of the other horses, and she just glanced at it quickly out of the corner of her eye." He looked up at Dean with a shrug.
"What do you think?" asked Dean softly.
Wallace scratched his head under his cap againand both brothers reflected how he looked like a shrunken, slightly shrivelled up Bobby when he did that.
"I dunno," he began, "Hannibal was the only dun in the stable; twice as wide as any other horse here. Pretty hard to mistake for anything else." He huffed in exasperation; "I'm telling' ya, that paddock was locked, no horse could get in there without human help, and when we went out and checked the paddock, it had only just been raked. No prints, horse or human. There weren't nothing had been in that paddock."
The Winchesters remained silent to allow Wallace to gather his thoughts. "If I didn't know better, I'd have said that was Hannibal's ghost come back to warn us that you were in trouble. 'Cept I don't believe in that sort of crap."
"Well, I guess we'll never explain it, "smiled Sam, "but whatever it was, I'm just glad your wife called the authority because that damn, uh, cougar took us by surprise, an' things were looking real bad for us."
"Was Hannibal insured?" Dean asked cautiously, wanting to be prepared in case a compensation claim was heading their way.
Wallace nodded, "he was, for what pittance that was worth, but here's the thing." He added, "the local papers and radio stations got calls, no idea who from, to say that two of my horses were used by the campers who killed the cougar. My horses are local heroes. I've been interviewed by the Daily Herald and on the radio, and a photographer came from the Herald last week; took some photos of Indiana for this week's issue."
He patted Dean on the back, "with the money I got from the interviews, I could ha' bought Hannibal five times over. I don't know who did that, but I sure wanna shake his hand."
The brothers glanced across to each other and a single thought passed between them.
The three men talked a little more until Wallace excused himself; "sorry guys, I gotta go; vet's on his way; I think I may have an outbreak of footrot".
Sam glanced down at Wallace's boots.
He laughed, "not me, my sheep …"
"Ah…" Sam flushed with slight embarrassment, hearing Dean sniggering behind him; but was distracted as he looked away from Wallace and noticed a familiar long, chestnut face staring back at him with knowing, chocolate-brown eyes.; "ok, um, could we go and see Indiana? Promise we won't get under your feet."
Wallace smiled, "take as long as you like guys."
The brothers said their goodbyes and made their way over to their friend who was undeniably pleased to see them. Looking over his stable door he tossed his head, snorting and whittering as he beckoned the two figures towards him.
"Hey, keep your hair on, big man, we're comin'!" Dean laughed, as he watched the horse's antics.
Smiling broadly, Sam said nothing, as he grasped the big chestnut head, leaning into it as he fussed and ruffled the horse's smooth face.
Dean joined in, rubbing long velvet ears as they twitched and swivelled, even laughing as a hot wet snort caught him square across the face.
"You're a hero, dude;" he smiled, "'course, we knew that long before the radio did."
Indiana tossed his head and kicked the bottom of the door; "see, he agrees," Dean grinned at Sam, slapping the muscular chestnut neck.
As he glanced over Sam's shoulder, something caught his eye; a whitewashed stable block at the end of the yard, and at one end of it was an empty stable. The sign on the wall beside it said, 'Hannibal'.
He gave Indiana a last pat and walked slowly over to the empty stable, picturing his fat buddy standing in the stall, peering over the door. He'd be making a fuss of Dean, but not because he wanted Dean's love, he'd be seeking out something edible. A sly mint secreted in a jacket pocket or something equally appetising.
Dean leaned on the dusty door, brushing a cobweb away of his face and stared into the dark space.
Dean jerked up at the sound of Sam's voice next to him, he'd been so lost in his thoughts, he hadn't even realised Sam had joined him.
Dean smiled, and rummaged in his pocket pulling out his hipflask.
With a minimum of fuss, he unscrewed the lid, and tipped it upside down, pouring a trickle of whiskey onto the dusty floor of Hannibal's stall. "Respect big dude; you saved my hide."
Taking a swig from the hipflask, he raised it in tribute over the stable door.
"Wish I could have done the same for you."
Dean handed the flask to Sam. "have a drink to my fat buddy's memory."
Sam took a long draught of the burning liquid and raised the flask.
"Big dude …" he announced, "hope you've found yourself some pretty little mare up in horsey heaven!"
The brothers' trip back toward the nearest town took them along a high deserted escarpment. Miles and miles of open grassy ridges, looming over the distant sprawls of the surrounding low-lying towns.
Sam turned to Dean as he pulled the Impala over onto a grass verge, and rolled to a halt. "You okay man?"
Dean turned to him with a smile, "yeah, I'm good, jus' wanna look at the view for a bit."
Sam frowned in concern. "You sure you're okay?
Dean pushed open the Impala's door, and climbed out, "dude, I'm fine - what I can't sit on a hill to watch a sunset now?"
Sam watched as the Impala's door shut in his face and blinked. Even after all these years, Dean never lost his capacity to surprise and confound his brother.
Sam had to hand it to Dean, as the brothers sat cross-legged on the grass beside the Impala sharing a giant bag of chips and a bottle of Coke, it was a stunning fiery sunset. He smiled as he grabbed a fistful of chips, and glanced beside him to see Dean leaning back against the Impala's front wheel, his eyes closed in peaceful reflection.
Suddenly he spoke.
Sam shrugged. "Yeah …"
"I've been thinking."
"steady on, dude."
Dean glared dangerously. "Listen smartass, I've got a coconut, an I'm not afraid to use it."
"Apparently my ass wasn't the one that was smartin' dude." Sam grinned evilly.
Dean leaned across and punched his grinning brother in the shoulder, then settled back against his baby again, making a point of draining the Coke. He looked up at the darkening twilight, the Sun's last tendrils of light slowly disappearing below the horizon and shading the distant sky in a dusky, tan glow. Same colour as Hannibal's coat, Dean reflected with a soft smile.
He gazed up into the blackness above his head, squinting at the tiny pinpricks of light which looked back down at him. Lulled by the chirruping of the crickets and the summer breeze; they were far enough away from civilisation to catch the scent of Honeysuckle and Dog Rose, not diesel fumes.
Taking a deep breath, he watched intently as a moth fluttered lazily across his field of vision.
"I get it;" he murmured softly, eyes following the little moth on it's meandering flight path, "I get what you see in this nature stuff."
Sam turned, "huh?"
"I get it." Dean smiled, picking up a chip; "it's quiet an' relaxing an' sorta pretty." He shrugged, "sometimes, like now, it smells nice, and the horses were cool, they were fun to be around." He cleared his throat; "yeah, I see why you like it."
Sam stared. "Wow … and you haven't even started on the beers yet!"
Dean snorted; "forget the smart comments, bitch; I'm having a friggin' apostrophe here!"
"It's epiphany, Dean"
"Yeah whatever; you pitch the tent while I brew the coffee."
Sam's face lifted into the broadest grin.
"You betcha bro'!"