It was a warmer than normal evening in early October, Indian summer they called it, and a soft breeze rustled the field of overgrown grass. A herd of two dozen or so cattle was slowly making its way back to the barn for their last feeding of the day. The sun had set behind the horizon not long ago and the waning moon hung low in the clear sky, barely lighting their way.
An older cow was meandering behind the rest as they walked. She was tired and couldn't keep up with the younger bunch, but she was okay with it. Her ear twitched when a small, dark shape shot out of the nearby forest and headed her way. It wasn't one of the people she knew, nor was it one of the forest creatures with which she was familiar.
Her eyes widened as she suddenly felt an intense pain. Sharp claws dug into her flesh. Bess' frightened bellow was cut short as the creature crawled up her body and hung from her neck, slashing through her tough skin with a sharp object, and then through to her windpipe, cutting off her air. Her legs gave out and she fell to the ground. She knew no more as the darkness closed in around her.
A shrill laugh permeated through the late evening air.
"Hey, Sam. You coming or what?" Dean was packed and ready to go and his brother was still in the bathroom doing…something. Who the hell knew with the kid? (Well, he wasn't really a kid anymore now, was he?) Hopefully he was cutting that long hair of his.
The Winchesters had run dry on hunts as of late. It was almost as if the supernatural world just up and disappeared. That would have been all fine and dandy if it was true, but both men knew that wouldn't happen, not in their wildest dreams. There would always be some ghost, demon, or other nightmarish creature wreaking havoc out there, and it was their job to take them all down.
Nearly a month had gone by, and nothing. Not even Bobby could find anything. Finally last night Sam had found something. There was a small string of cattle mutilations in southeastern Iowa. Three farms had been hit in the last couple of months. The brothers both knew it was a stretch, but they had to do something before they killed each other sitting around in these pint-sized motel rooms.
The bathroom door swung open and Sam came walking out. "Dude, take a pill. I'm coming."
"Daylight's burnin' and I wanna get moving," Dean said as he picked up his duffel.
Sam glanced at his watch. It was only 8:30 a.m. He rolled his eyes. Normally Dean was still sleeping at this time. It only went to show how much his brother wanted to get out of there. "Give me five more minutes and I'll meet you in the car."
"Make it four and you got a deal." Dean smirked and walked out the door, car keys jingling in his hand.
The younger Winchester grabbed his cell phone off the nightstand and stuffed it into the front pocket of his jeans. He then picked up his Taurus and checked the clip before placing it in his waistband at the small of his back. The number one rule of a hunter was to always be prepared.
Once he was done, Sam reached down to retrieve his bag and headed out the door after his brother. It wouldn't end well if he kept Dean waiting too long. The door closed with a soft click behind him.
By the time the black 1967 Chevy Impala rolled into Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, it was a little after five o'clock in the evening. It was a long ride from just outside of Jackson, Tennessee where they had wasted the last few days of their lives. Dean had wanted to check out New Orleans last week and they were just floating around the lower southeastern end of the U.S. ever since, waiting for something to rear its ugly head.
Less than ten minutes out from their destination, they stopped at a Snack-N-Save to change into their suits and clean up a bit in the small, dingy bathroom. Today they were Dean Shaw and Sam DeYoung, agents from the Iowa Department of Agriculture.
The Impala rolled up the driveway to an old farmhouse. Dean tilted his head and looked out the window at the house and its landscape. The house itself was fairly large and box-shaped. It was whitewashed with a large front porch and some of its shutters were hanging a little off kilter. There was a small barn-type garage off to the side which housed a car under a tarp. At second glance, it looked like some sort of classic car might have been hidden under it. (Dean would have to take a look at that later if there was time.)
Down a long gravel driveway out back, maybe some six hundred feet from the house, stood a large barn that housed the cattle at night or during bad weather. Being that it was early evening, the animals were still out grazing in the field beyond.
"How many cows did you say were killed out here?" Dean asked as he pulled the car up next to an old pick-up truck parked just in front of the house.
Sam leafed through the file in his lap. "Um, this particular farm had three killed in the last month. They seem to have had the most so far."
"Huh." Dean eyed the animals out in the pasture. Beyond, he could see a dark forest. Anything could be hiding out there. He put the car in park and pulled the keys from the ignition. "Well, let's go check this out, see what we can find. But before we go…" Dean reached over to the glove box and opened it, pulling out their stash of fake I.D.s. After a minute of sifting through them, he found the proper badges and handed Sam his. "Now we're ready. Come on." He opened the door with a loud creak and stepped out.
Sam reached up and knocked on the door. He looked over at Dean as his brother rocked back and forth on his feet while they waited for someone to come to the door.
"What?" Dean asked when he noticed Sam staring.
"Nothing. Just you seem too happy about a bunch of dead cows."
Dean was about to reply when the door opened and a young girl, who looked to be about six or seven years old, peeked her head out. Her eyes looked up, up, and up until she was finally looking at Sam.
Sam crouched down to get to eye level with her. "Hey there, little girl. Is your mommy or daddy home?" He asked politely.
The girl turned back toward the interior of the house. "MOM! DAD! THERE'S TWO MEN HERE TO SEE YOU!" she shouted into the house. A second later, she took off past Sam and ran out to play on a nearby swing set.
Sam looked back at Dean as he stood up. They both lifted their eyebrows. The girl sure had a set of lungs on her.
"Can I help you?" A man in his mid-thirties with worn jeans and a blue t-shirt came to the door. He eyed Sam and Dean and swept his dark brown hair from his face.
Dean stepped around Sam and flashed his I.D. to the man. "I'm Dean Shaw. This is Sam DeYoung. Department of Agriculture. We're here to check on the, uh, recent deaths."
The man reached his hand out to shake Dean's, and then Sam's. "Joss Weathers." He stepped back and opened the door wider. "Come on in. I'm sure with this heat, you could use a cold one…that's if your job allows it."
Dean smiled. "I think we can sneak one in. I won't tell if you don't," he said cheerfully, looking up at Sam, and then following the man into the house with a spring in his step.
The furnishings and decor were slightly outdated, but they looked like they got the job done. A little boy was sitting in the large living room watching the Looney Tunes on a small television. Dean stopped to see which episode it was, and then turned to Sam and mouthed, "Good one."
Sam just shook his head and smiled. Unbelievable.
As they entered the kitchen, Joss introduced them to his wife. "This is Maddie, my wife. Maddie, these are agents from the Department of Agriculture, Sam and Dean."
"Ma'am." Sam nodded in greeting.
"Hi," Dean said.
The young woman said hello in return as she wiped her hands on a towel. "Can I get any of you something to drink?"
"Could you grab us a few beers, and then maybe go keep an eye on Stella. She's out playing on the swings. I gotta talk to these fellas about the damn problem we're having with the cows." He took a seat at the table and gestured for the Winchesters to sit down as well.
A minute later, Maddie produced three beers and placed them on the table. "I'll be outside. Just remember, dinner's going to be ready in about a half hour."
"Sure thing, honey. Just be careful outside. Stay close to the house."
Sam and Dean looked at each other upon hearing the comment.
Once the woman left the room, Sam asked, "Have you seen something that made you say that?"
"No, I haven't, but you haven't seen my cows. It ain't natural what's going on, and it sure as hell ain't kids playing pranks. I just… I don't know. I hope you can figure it out. For every cow that gets killed, I'm losing money. And just the other day, Stella's favorite, Ol' Bess, bit it."
"How do you know it's not kids or animals?" Dean questioned the man.
"Well, I know what it looks like when an animal attacks. A few years ago we had some problems with coyotes. It's definitely not that. And kids…well, I don't think they're capable of doing that."
"Why's that?" Sam asked, taking a swig of his beer.
"There's too many bits and pieces missing. It's like they're getting killed by something that only wants certain parts. Take Ol' Bess, for instance. She was missing her tongue, heart, and, hell, they even took her brain. Now what the hell would do that? Not some kids messing around." Joss sat back in his chair and took a long pull from his beer.
Sam scrunched up his face. Once again he looked at Dean who shrugged his shoulders.
Dean lifted his bottle to his lips and downed almost half the contents in one draught. He set the bottle down. "Is Ol' Bess still around? Can we take a look at her?"
"Yeah, I hauled her in the next morning. She's waiting out back. I gotta dig a hole for her and bury her. We're going to hold a little service for Stella. My daughter loved that old cow."
Five minutes later, they were standing near an outbuilding which was just beyond the cattle barn. Behind it, there was Ol' Bess, lying there, dead as a doornail.
"You can look all you want, but it just don't make sense to me. My neighbor mentioned devil worshippers and stuff like that, but something in my gut says that's not what it is. And then there were a couple of other killings just north of here a little over a month ago."
Sam approached the cow to get a better look at it. He found he had to breathe through his mouth, the smell was so bad. The corpse was bloated from sitting two days out in the heat. The gases held within the cow's abdomen made it appear as if she was going to burst at any moment. "The others were like this?"
"Yep, same thing," Joss answered. He had another bottle of beer in his hand and took a drink.
"Joss, do you mind if Dean and I speak in private for a few?" Sam asked.
"Sure, no problem. Just come on back up to the house when you're done. I have to help get things ready for dinner." He turned and started walking back to the house, his footsteps sending dry puffs of dust into the air. It hadn't rained for days. Even the corn they had yet to finish harvesting was showing signs of failing. It just wasn't a good year for the Weathers' farm.
"Dean, did you see this?"
"All I see is a dead cow, Sam."
"Well, if you'd get less than ten feet from it, you might actually see what I'm seeing."
Dean took a final pull from his bottle and walked over to stand next to Sam. He frowned when he saw what his brother was pointing out. There were deep claw marks on the underside of the cow, almost as if something was climbing the animal and holding on while it had still been alive. Dean thought it was pretty creepy.
"What the hell is that?" the elder Winchester asked as he continued to inspect the cow more closely. After a minute, he took out his phone and snapped a couple of pictures for future reference. If they needed to, they could e-mail them to Bobby.
"I don't know, but it's starting to look like something up our alley. But did you notice, too, that all of the cuts look like they were made with a very sharp instrument? Look at its neck, and then look at the cut on its chest."
Sam reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of rubber gloves. He approached the head of the cow, putting them on as Dean was following his suggestion.
"Dude, you're not…," Dean started with a disgusted look on his face.
"Well, we might as well look at everything before Joss buries her." Sam swallowed and reached over to pry the animal's mouth open. He tried not to gag as the flies swarmed around him. Once he got the mouth open, he saw that, just as on the neck and chest, the tongue had been cut out with precision. After his inspection of the bovine's mouth, he stepped around the animal and peered into the empty brain cavity.
"See anything?" Dean had gotten enough of a look and had moved away from the cow.
"Nope. It's completely gone." Sam stepped back and snapped the gloves off his hands. "So I'm guessing whatever did this bled the cow first, and then took the parts it needed." He stood there staring at the cow as he processed what he was looking at. "You know, I'd say it was a person that did this if it wasn't for those claw marks. I've never seen anything like them. And they're too small to be from carrion birds."
"Well, unless you're planning on sticking around for some hamburgers, let's take a look around…see if we can find something." Dean needed to get away the cow before he got sick. The smell was just overwhelming. He didn't know how Sam could stay that close to the thing for so long without dying.
"Yeah, alright. Let's go back up to the house first and let Joss know we're gonna be here for a while. I gotta get rid of these, too." He held up the gloves.
As they walked back down the driveway to the house, they passed Stella who was still playing on the swing set. Her mother was sitting on the porch, keeping an eye on her.
"Are you here to find the little man?" she asked as she pumped her feet, swinging ever so high on the swing.
Both Dean and Sam stopped instantly and looked at the child.
Sam walked up to Stella, being careful to stay out of the way as the little girl swung upward toward him. "What little man?"
"He plays near the woods. He's funny looking, too, but Mom doesn't believe me when I tell her about him."
"Stella, can you describe him? Tell me what he looks like?" Sam was all ears. If the "little man" she was talking about was what was doing this, he needed as much information as he could get.
Stella launched herself off the swing and landed on her feet near Sam. She gestured for Sam to get down to her level with a crook of her index finger. Once he was there, she told him a little more about the strange man.
"He's only about this big." She showed Sam by holding her small hand about six inches from the ground. "And he looks like he's made out of wood. My mommy says there's no such thing and I need to stop being so imag…imagina….imaginative. I think that's the word she used."
Sam looked up at Dean and his brother raised an eyebrow.
"Stella, has he ever said anything to you? Have you seen him near the house at all?"
"No. He only stays in the field, but mostly by the trees." She twirled her long blond hair around her finger as she balanced along a wooden beam that was set into the ground, keeping the play area separate from the lawn. "He only laughs…and it's not a funny laugh. I don't like him. Do you think he hurt Bess?"
By now, Maddie had come down from the porch and was walking over to them. She must have heard what her daughter was saying. "Stella, are you telling these men about the little man? What did I tell you about him? There's no such thing." She looked up at Sam and Dean. "I'm sorry. She just has such a vivid imagination. It's not a bad thing, but I try to teach her when it's okay to use it and when it's not."
Dean smiled. "That's okay." He looked down at Stella who now had an arm wrapped around her mom's leg. "You've been a big help, Stella. Thank you." The little girl smiled at him and then pressed her face to her mom shyly.
"So what do you think? Pinocchio?" Dean asked as they were heading out to the edge of the field. They had decided to forego the Weathers' property and scope out the forest where Stella had mentioned seeing the "little man".
Sam was eying the tree line in the distance. The field was large and they still had some ways to walk before getting to it. The sun was low in the sky and it was already getting dark. "Dean, stop screwing around. We don't know what we're dealing with out here. And this thing seems to make a habit of coming out at dusk, so watch your ass." He stopped walking when he thought he saw something in the distance.
Dean was about to say something about his fine ass, but checked up behind his brother instead. "Dude, what is it?" He looked into the trees where Sam was staring.
"Just thought I saw something is all." Sam started walking again, narrowly avoiding a pile of cow droppings.
As they approached the forest, the brothers slowed their pace.
"So, we going in?" Dean asked as he pulled his flashlight out of his back pocket. "It's getting late, so we're probably not gonna find much tonight." He stepped over the line from the field into the trees. As he did, the sounds of the crickets died off and the few birds who were still brave enough to be out hushed.
Sam hadn't moved yet. He continued to stand at the edge of the woods. "Dean, you hear that?"
The elder Winchester was already several long strides into the forest. He looked back at Sam. "I don't hear anything," he replied as he strained to listen.
"That's just it, Dean. As soon as you walked into the woods, it got quiet." The brothers looked at each other. Sam's eyes widened. "Dean, get out of there now!" Sam yelled, suddenly remembering a bit of lore he had come across a few years ago.
Dean didn't question his brother. The tone in Sam's voice had him turning on his heel and running back toward the field. Suddenly, there was a shrill laugh, and then something that never happened did. Dean tripped and fell ten feet from the edge of safety. "Shit!" he yelled out as he hit the hard-packed earth.
Sam ran over the imaginary line and helped Dean from the ground. "C'mon!" he said hauling his brother up and they ran until they crossed back over into the field. They didn't stop until they were halfway across the pasture.
"You alright?" Sam asked breathlessly when they came to a halt. He looked over at his brother who was scraping his shoe on the ground.
"Dammit! I stepped in shit." Dean looked up at Sam who was waiting for an answer. "Yeah, I'm good, but Pinocchio's gonna pay." He glanced back over his shoulder into the shadows of the trees, and then to his brother again. "Dude, what the hell was that? It felt like something stuck their foot out and tripped me." He blew out a deep breath. Dean still didn't see anything, but he knew they had both heard the laugh.
Sam bit his bottom lip, knowing Dean was going to balk at what he had to say. "You know about Elementals, right?" Sam was almost embarrassed to say it.
"You mean nature spirits, like gnomes and faeries?" Dean asked as he continued to scrape his shoe off on the grass.
"Yeah, pretty much."
"That shit's just made up, Sam. You know that." But Dean started looking at the trees with renewed interest.
"Tell that to everyone who's ever been to Leap Castle in Ireland. That's one nasty piece of work over there. But anyway, Stella said the 'little man' looked like he was made out of wood. Certain Elementals can do that. And what's worse is these things are territorial and attack on sight. They can be pretty deadly."
"So, if this thing's a brownie or some crap like that, do you know how to kill it?"
"Um, no, not really," Sam admitted. He continued to watch the trees along with Dean.
"Well, just when I thought you knew everything," Dean teased his brother. "You know what, let's just get outta here for the night. It's not like we can see anything anyway." Dean slapped a hand to the front of his brother's shoulder, bringing him back from wherever his mind was. "C'mon. We'll come back tomorrow with our gear. We still have to find a room somewhere."
Sam broke his gaze from the forest and looked at Dean. "Yeah, okay." He turned to follow his brother back to the farmhouse, looking over his shoulder one last time. Something was watching them; he could feel it.
Fifteen minutes later found the hunters back in the Impala. They had said goodnight to the Weathers' and explained that they would be back tomorrow. Joss was kind enough to give them the okay to come and go as they pleased from his property. He wanted the "pest" taken care of just as much as they did.
Stella watched from the bay window as the big black car rolled out of the driveway, kicking up gravel in its wake. "Mommy, look! The little man is in their car!"
"Stella, honey, what'd I say earlier? I don't want to hear anymore about your friend, dear."