Maybe a lot of people would sincerely call Warriors Mark, Pennsylvania beautiful, if those people enjoyed rural scenery, but there wasn't much downtown to it. There wasn't much town to it, down, up or sideways. More like a handful of businesses and houses clustered around the intersection of a pair of two-lane roads, all set in the middle of miles of prosperous farmlands.
Regardless of the aesthetics, the place could have been
"It put itself beside a thrift-store donation bin this time," Dean gritted. "When I find this friggin' thing, I'm runnin' it through a wood-chipper!"
Sam drummed his fingers on the window ledge, as agitated as Dean but more contained. "After it does—whatever it does—to the kid, it plants itself where it'll be found and taken in by someone else. Like a supernatural package bomb."
"Even worse, it's workin' off blind chance," Dean growled. "I'd bet a few teeth those long quiet gaps were times when someone like Silva found it and it had no access to kids."
Sam shot him a glance of angry commiseration. "There's no external logic to the thing's attacks. Even when it's been active, the abductions don't synch up with moon phases or solstices or any other temporal marker I can come up with."
"So we're as likely to spot this evil piece of horse-shit before it strikes again as its next victim is," Dean said, eyes narrowed. "The Nigerian lottery has better odds."
"Maybe it's not quite that hopeless," Sam offered. "It's still an astronomical long-shot, but we do know its geographical limits, and we know it's centered on Goldwood."
"Hooray. That narrows the potential victim pool down from millions to a few hundred thousand," Dean grumbled.
They were both quiet for several miles; each following their own lines of thought to way too many dead-ends. "What, where, why and who," Sam muttered under his breath.
"We can't predict where, we have no clue why, and less about who. 'What' is the only investigation route left at this point," Sam elaborated.
"It's a cursed rocking horse, Sam. We've established that beyond doubt."
"But it's a cursed rocking horse that's practically a piece of sculpture. That thing's the size of a carousel horse, and more finely carved than most of them."
"True. It's not some cheap piece of crap Great-Grandpa Fester could have picked up at Ye Olde Kay Marque," Dean conceded.
"Right. That thing had to cost a mint when it was new." Sam turned towards Dean, his voice brightening as his theory gathered steam. "If we can establish some kind of provenance on it, the information may lead us to what's powering its actions."
"If it was a two-tone '58 Plymouth Fury, I could point you straight to the top car guy in the country and tell you myself how to run the VIN back to the factory line it rolled off of," Dean said with a shake of his head. "But some rampaging antique toy? I got nothin'."
"It's way outside my range of expertise, too," Sam agreed, then gave a rueful chuff. "None of our toys cost more than a buck ninety-eight, and we were lucky if they came from somewhere as upscale as K-Mart."
"Hey, I'll have you know I swiped a deluxe set of Legos for your sixth Christmas, right out of FAO Schwarz," Dean informed him.
"Yep, and by Easter you'd lost some of the best pieces down the defrost vents," Sam answered.
"Guilty as charged, but in my defense, they're the only ones that are still around," Dean countered.
"Point taken. So stop bitchin' about the rattling the next time we turn the heat on."
They took the less than scenic route back, scanning every ditch, dumpster, thrift-store bin and back alley they could find as they meandered their way back to Goldwood.
Whenever he could pick up a wi-fi signal, Sam would continue his digital search for someone who could be considered an expert on Victorian toys. By the time they stopped to grab some dinner, they hadn't seen a hair of the damned horse's glued-on hide, but Sam pinned down a dude in
"I can't believe some joker has devoted his life to studying old worn-out toys," Dean scoffed as they left the restaurant.
"Eugene Poplin not only has, it sounds as though he's made a comfortable living at it," Sam countered. "A lot of people, some of them very wealthy, collect antique and vintage toys. It's a huge business."
"People will blow their money on the craziest crap," Dean muttered as he got into the car.
"Um, yeah, they will. People every day are throwing wads away on old toys, old whiskey, young women, loud music; all kinds of weird obsessions and fetishes, even forty-year old obsolete cars that get about fifteen miles to the gallon. Insane."
Dean cut his eyes at Sam, who smirked back, unimpressed by the Winchester Glare of Impending Destruction, Patent Pending. Dean ignored him then, and stroked the steering wheel like most people stroke their pet cat, or their lover.
"Should I get out on the next corner, so you two can have some alone time?" Sam teased.
"Classic muscle cars are a sound investment, they're awesome vehicles and they're a huge part of the history of the whole friggin' US of A, so shut it," Dean huffed.
Sam shook his head, grinning, and turned his attention back to scanning the shadowy ditches, back stoops, backyards, trash cans, donation drop boxes and dumpsters along every alley-way and street of the whole friggin' city of
Late the next morning, Sam and Dean stood on the sidewalk in front of Poplin's Toy Box. Dean shaded his eyes and peeked in. He drew back in a hurry. "Geez! Do you see the price tag on that train? It's an old beat-up toy, for cripe's sake, not a 427 Chevy power plant!"
"That locomotive's almost two hundred years old, most likely one of the first ever. Probably a bargain for the price," Sam said, peering through the diamond-paned front window at the delicate and colorful toys on display inside the crowded shop. "This place looks straight out of a Dickens' Christmas story."
"It looks like somewhere I'll be worried about my elbows the entire time," Dean said.
"Keep 'em tucked in tight, and look but do not touch," Sam admonished him with a smile as he opened the door.
"I'm not touchin' anything," Dean muttered and followed Sam inside. "In fact, it'll probably be safer if I wait for you out on the sidewalk."
He didn't get a chance to turn and escape, because a round little balding man in a gaudy sweater vest hurried into the front before the bells over the door stopped jingling.
"Good morning, gentlemen!" the man greeted them with a clap of soft, pudgy hands, as if their arrival really had made his day. "Welcome to my Toy Box! How may I help you today?"
"Good morning," Sam smiled at him. "You're Mr. Poplin, I assume?"
It was almost impossible not to smile at the guy. He gave off cheer like strong cologne.
"Poplin the Younger, yes," Poplin nodded with a chortle and extended his hand to them both. "Eugene Poplin, at your service."
Sam shook the man's hand, and showed him his badge. "I'm Agent Tyler. We spoke on the phone last night. This is Agent Perry."
His round face drew up in concern. "Obviously, I want to do whatever I may, to aide you in returning these children safely to their homes. You said something about rocking horses being involved somehow?"
Dean lifted an eyebrow. "You haven't heard about the kidnappings in Goldwood and Warriors Mark?"
"No, I haven't."
"We understand that sentiment," Sam assured him, "But this is something you need to know about. Someone may try to pass this particular horse on to you, and it's vital evidence."
"Please, gentlemen, come with me to the back. We can discuss this more comfortably,"
After they were settled in plush chairs with rich coffee, Dean drew out the photo of Ethan on the horse. "Can you tell us anything about this rocking horse, Mr. Poplin?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so," Sam answered.
"Such a charming little boy. I would be driven absolutely mad if one of my own had been--"
"So you've seen one like this before," Dean pressed.
"Oh no! I dare say there is no other like this one. It's quite unique in several ways."
"Such as?" Sam urged.
"The way the horse is mounted to the rocker base, for one."
"Our horse isn't," Sam agreed with a nod.
He peered closer at the picture. "Oh my, oh my! Even the bottoms of the hooves are accurately carved. I've only seen one that detailed in my entire career. And the leather tack, its saddle and so forth, it appears to be nineteenth century as well. Just look at that delicately wrought bit, the engraving on the stirrups and the gilt rosettes on the bridle and martingale!"
Dean had to glance away. He was pretty sure he was about to see
If the circumstances weren't so grim, Dean would egg ol'
"That'll be more reliable information than we have," Sam assured him.
"All right then,"
"The prime evidence of that is the condition of the hair-on-hide covering,"
"Most horses, however, were marked by their carver in some way,"
"How much would a horse like this be worth today?" Sam asked. He was genuinely interested. Dean took notes because he knew he'd forget half of it before he got out the door.
"Now there's a difficult question. Estimating the value of a unique piece is more a guess than otherwise. I would put an auction estimate on this horse of around six thousand dollars, but it could easily go for almost twice that, depending on collector interest."
Sam looked shocked and Dean let out a low whistle. "Quite a yard-sale find, then."
Dean couldn't resist. "Yeah. It was sold for two hundred dollars."
Sam leaned forward because
"That's… that's extraordinary! The stuff antique dealers' legends are made of,"
"The stuff other sorts of legends are made of, too, unfortunately," Sam added, his tone soft and darker.
"You've been very helpful," Sam assured him as he rose. "If you think of anything else, please give me a call."
"Oh, of course! And please, if you recover this horse,"
"If we can swing that,
"Oh, I would wear a thick bib. Drool might damage the hide,"
"So, what do you think of Poplin the Younger?" Sam asked after they'd merged into
"I think he's a helluva nice guy," Dean muttered, scowling at a jerk who was forcing his way into their lane ahead of them, regardless that there was only about a quarter-car-length of empty space. "And if he had his shop in Goldwood, I'd be hopin' he had a real strong alibi, because a dude that age still playin' with kids' toys is freakin' creepy."
"What would be his motive?" Sam looked over with half a smile.
"Crazy doesn't need one."
"No, but cursed objects always do," Sam said.
"Then let's figure out My Little Possessed Pony's motive."
Tom Cooper had never been in this neighborhood before, which amused him a little. His construction firm took him all over the upper eastern US, but his own town still had unexplored corners. If it hadn't been for a wreck snarling traffic and prompting his impulsive detour, he wouldn't be here at all.
He glanced at the houses on both sides of the quiet street with professional assessment. Most of them were older, built in the post-War housing boom, and pretty much cookie-cutter clones even now. Tom was reaching for his GPS when something up on the next corner caught his eye, something half-hidden by a couple of trash cans.
"What the heck?" He pulled to the curb and got out. "I'll be danged, it is a horse." Tom stroked the proudly curved, hide-covered neck of the wooden toy. It felt uncannily like a living animal with the late afternoon sun warming it.
The trash cans were stenciled with a house-number. Tom went up the walk of the house marked with the same, and rang the bell. A woman barely cracked the door. "Yes?"
"Hello, ma'am. I was just passing by and saw that rocking horse you have out by the street. Are you really throwing it away?"
"Huh? Rocking horse? I didn't put anything like that out on the curb. If you want it, take it." The woman closed the door. Tom heard a chain rattle and a deadbolt click as he turned to step off the stoop.
Tom dropped the tailgate on his truck and hefted the rocking horse, the muscles in his arms and back bunching against the unexpected weight of the thing. "Hope you weren't hopin' to retire to that big pasture in the sky," he chuckled as he slid it back towards the cab and stepped up into the bed to tie the toy down. "With my two, you'll be ridden hard and put up wet for another year or two at least."
A breeze ruffled the horse's heavy forelock across an amber glass eye, for a crazy second making it look like it winked. He gave the rocking horse a playful swat on its wooden rump and jumped down out of the truck bed.
"Julie's gonna freakin' kill me for draggin' this thing in," he muttered, then grinned and headed for home.