From a hundred miles east of Limon, the Rocky Mountains only smudged the horizon, a jagged blue ripple barely discernible from a distant line of thunder clouds. Fifty miles past it, they crowded out the sky completely in the view framed in the Impala's window.
Sam and Dean missed it all. Their gazes were locked on the asphalt, Quik Stop gas stations, and frustratingly bottle-necked traffic. According to the phone book, Abigail Graham lived on the outskirts of Colorado Springs in the borderland between city limits and national forest. The boys stewed and snipped at each other worried that they'd never find her house.
Finally, Dean pulled up to the address they'd been looking for. The squeak and slam of their car doors made him wince. Silence, or what the urban brain interprets as silence, hummed in his ears. Pine and wood smoke mingled in the air. Mountains towering in the west totally obliterated the horizon with range upon range of craggy snow-covered peaks.
Dean looked up and up and swallowed. He inhaled a long, slow breath and glanced over the mirror-black roof of the Impala at Sam.
"I'd forgotten…this." Dean waved his arm, taking in the range, the aspen, the birds, the air. "The Rockies are awesome. And I don't mean that in a valley-girl kind of way."
"I know. Real awe," Sam murmured.
"Yeah." Dean took one more sniff. "Ready?"
Sam nodded. They walked across the street much more circumspectly than they would have moments ago.
A picket fence tangled with wild roses, and raspberry brambles gone dormant for the winter, surrounded the house. The tiny yard inside was neatly divided into beds along a rocky path to the front porch. Wooden labels on spikes identified clumps of withering plants - angelica, horehound, nettle and burdock. The labels stood in rows like cheerful little headstones in a cemetery where the dearly departed were gone, but expected back real soon. A huge stone chimney rose on one side of the little house. Balancing it on the back corner loomed a massive juniper tree.
The boys went through the gate and walked up to the wide, front porch. Dean reached for the brass door knocker and tapped. Along the elegant curve of the knocker, a pattern of runes and pentagrams was etched.
Dean slapped Sam on the shoulder with the back of his hand. "She's a witch," he said.
“Wicca, probably." Sam stood facing the yard. He found something oddly appealing about all the little mounds of dead plants. "Some of these herbs are pretty rare. She might be a healer, maybe some kind of shaman."
"Yeah, and maybe she's into ritual sacrifice."
"No, couldn't be, not if she's Wicca." That just didn't fit the warm, fuzzy feeling Sam was getting from this porch. Oddly, he hadn't felt this…safe, in days.
"Wicca, witcha, what's the difference? She -."
"Hello there," a voice interrupted. An elderly man stood outside the fence almost in the road. He looked out of place at the curb dressed in an old fashioned, business man's hat and an expensive-looking, black overcoat.
Dean glanced back at Sam then stepped off the porch. "Hello."
"Are you boys looking for Abigail?" the old man asked in a rough, but cultured voice.
"Yes, we are." Dean donned his famous two-hundred-watt smile, guaranteed to set a senior citizen at ease. "But she doesn't seem to be home."
"No, she wouldn't be, not yet. She's a ranger up at the Pike National Forest. She works till dark most days," the man said.
As they reached the fence Sam leaned on the gate expecting the man to come closer to talk, but he stuck to his spot by the curb. The boys exchanged a glance.
"No trouble, I hope?" the elderly man asked.
"Nah.” Dean produced another of his practiced smiles and proceeded to lie though his teeth. "We're only in town for a little while. We'd sure hate to miss seeing her. She's an old friend of the family."
"Ah, well. In that case, you're likely to find her at the ranger station up at the entrance to the park. Continue out of town on this road. The national forest starts about five miles up. You'll see a sign.”
"Thanks." Dean opened the gate and the boys walked through.
The old man stepped directly in front of him, his right hand thrust out. "My name is John Smith."
Dean rocked back a step, but took the offered hand. "I'm Dean and this is my brother, Sam."
He found his hand trapped in an icy, raptor-like grip. He was looking up an inch or two into eyes that had been in shadow under the brim of the old man’s hat. They…burned. With an effort, Dean gave his hand a twist against the guy’s thumb and reclaimed it.
The elderly man turned his eager gaze and extended his hand to Sam. Sam, glancing at his brother's efforts to defrost his fingers, tucked his hands in his pockets and made a show of shivering with the cold. "Well, it was nice to meet you, but we'd better get going."
"Right, thanks again," Dean mumbled. Skin crawling, he slammed the car door and sat trying to figure out his reaction, or over-reaction to the old man.
"What was that about? You all right?" Sam asked.
"Yeah…yeah." Dean started the car. "Guy just had really cold hands."
Up the road, the temperature dropped from pleasantly cool to butt-nippingly cold. The boys shrugged deep into their jackets as they crossed the parking lot to the Pike National Forest ranger station.
The large lobby did double duty as information center and souvenir shop. Sam studied a topographical map of the park's trail system posted on the wall behind a welcome desk. Several tiny red flags marked trails already closed to snow in the higher elevations.
Dean approached the counter. "Hi. We're looking for Abby Graham. Her neighbor said we might be able to find her here." A trim, young ranger in crisply pleated, dark brown pants and a khaki Forestry Service shirt bounded to the counter with puppy-like enthusiasm. Dean was sure if he'd had a tail, he would've wagged it.
"Abby? Sure. She came in from patrol about an hour ago. I think she's still doing some paperwork. I'll go get her." Ranger Friendly, strode purposefully back to the inner offices.
Dean turned to Sam with eyebrows raised, "…out on patrol?"
Sam suppressed a grin and strolled over to pull a map from the rack on the wall.
Dean leaned against the counter and lazily surveyed the other offerings of the souvenir shop. There was a small kiosk with a sign inviting him to "Discover the Power of Crystals.” He ambled over. Some were mounted on rings, others hung like charms from bracelets or necklaces. Decorative little cards explained that crystals had unique powers. He gave an amused sniff as he fingered one claiming to give the wearer the ability to discern truth from lies. Let 'em try, he smirked.
"So, Ms. Graham is a ranger by day and a witch by night," Dean said.
Sam automatically corrected him, "Follower of Wicca by night."
The floor creaked behind them. "Witch, is fine with me, but it's Ranger Graham."
The boys turned at the sound of the woman's voice and met a formidable glare. Abby Graham strode around to the front of the counter. She was their age, attractive in a stormy kind of way. A thick braid of dark hair ended just below her shoulders. It had probably started the morning neat and controlled, but a day outdoors had freed a halo of curls that stood out against the pale skin of her face and neck. She was about five-foot-six and even in her boxy, brown ranger uniform they could see that she had a slender, athletic body; a body that Dean might have enjoyed speculating about, if she hadn't opened her mouth again.
"I told you two to turn around," she said with the same annoying command in her tone that Sam remembered from the phone.
Dean faced her. "Look, Ranger Graham, we’d just like a little information here."
She jerked her chin up. "Turn around and get out of here. That enough information for you?"
Dean held his hands out, palms up and put a bewildered look on his face. "I'm confused. What–makes-you-think-we'd-take-orders-from-you?"
"If not from me, then from your father," Ranger Graham spat back. "Do you always ignore his orders when he's not around?"
Dean opened his mouth and closed it again with a snap. He stared at the obviously addled woman. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Abby’s dark eyes flashed. She lowered her voice and asked fiercely, "How could you bring Sam here?"
Bring me here? A tight, little knot started in Sam’s chest. What orders from Dad? The knot pulled tighter and he clenched a fist. "First of all, Sam is standing right here. Second, nobody brought me. And third, we don't take orders from anybody, including our father."
Dean's eyes widened at this, but he recovered his game face quickly.
"How do you even know our dad?" Sam asked.
"How do I know him?" Ranger Graham repeated, then stopped. "Wait, wait.” She shook her head and backed up a step. "Your father is John Winchester, right? And you're Sam and Dean?"
"Last time we checked." Dean crossed his arms over his chest, his scowl fading. Sam's outburst had taken the wind out of his sails. Besides, his curiosity was getting the better of him. "And you are Abigail Graham? You called my cell phone a couple hours ago?"
"Yeah, that's me," she said, confusion clear on her face. "How could you two not know who I…?"
At that moment, Ranger Friendly stepped through the office door. The first thing he saw was the hostile expression on Sam's face. His smile wilted.
"Abby, is everything O.K. out here?" He asked coming up to stand next to her protectively.
Abby looked from Sam to Dean, "Yes, Henry. Everything's fine. We just seem to be having a bit of a misunderstanding."
"Ya think, Ranger Graham?" Sam spat.
"Sam, chill," Dean warned.
Not taking her eyes off of Sam, Abby asked "Henry, would you mind locking up the shop tonight?"
"No," Henry said, “Not if you're sure you're all right."
"I'm sure,” Abby said. John had obviously told them nothing about her. That stung a lot more than she would have thought, but it was hardly their fault. Damn it, this is such a mess! Why would they come here now? She drew in a deep breath and tried to let go of her doubts and irritation with the exhale. "These are old friends of mine," she said to Henry, and then whispered, "They just don't seem to know it." She patted his shoulder.
"Look, we got off on the wrong foot," Abby said. She could sense their mistrust. She carried some of her own, but she had ways of putting that to rest back home. Though it was dangerous for them to be here, she couldn't help a little thrill. Finally, the Winchester boys in the flesh! She'd been hearing about these two since she was a teenager. Abby had a million questions.
"Would you join me for dinner?” Abby asked. “I can't promise you five stars, but it’ll be home cooking." The Winchesters looked skeptical. "Just dinner. Come on, you must have as many questions as I do."
The decision was made with a glance between them and a curt nod of assent from Sam.
Dean flipped on his hundred watt smile and said, "Sure, Ranger Graham, dinner would be terrific! I'm starved."
The young ranger rolled her eyes. “Call me Abby.”