written by Sugarberry
“Ya dropped somethin’,” the colt said, coming up behind Rainbow Heart in the crowded hallway of school. The filly looked at the colt with a withering glance and then continued on her way.
“Hey! Do ya want this back or not?” the colt called, holding up a photograph of a furry little dog sporting a pink bow.
Rainbow Heart glanced back once more; upon seeing what the colt held in his hoof, she stopped. “How did you get that?” she said in an accusing voice, checking through her stack of books to verify that she had indeed misplaced the reminder of her new pet who had cried and whined when she had left for school that morning.
“I told ya, ya dropped it,” the colt grinned.
“Give me that!” snapped Rainbow Heart.
“Yeah, Cocklebur,” added an older colt who noticed the altercation. “Give the filly the picture.” He stared at the younger pony with contempt.
Seeing the cold, unfriendly glares from both of the ponies before him, Cocklebur dug in his heals. “How do I know it belongs to her?” he asked, hiding the photo behind him. “What’s it a picture of?” He returned as cold a look as he was given.
Several other ponies congregated around those involved in this minor skirmish, all of them taking Rainbow Heart’s side. Cocklebur knew he was outnumbered, but he stood his ground, the picture still out of sight.
Pinstripe moved ahead of Rainbow Heart to face Cocklebur head-to-head. “You’ve got something of the filly’s; give it back to her.”
“I found somethin’ on the floor; I’m not sure it’s hers.”
“You thought so a minute ago.”
The brash ringing of the bell caused all the students to rethink their priorities, and most of the gathered ponies made a dash for their classrooms. Only Cocklebur, Rainbow Heart, and Pinstripe were left; and Rainbow Heart pushed Pinstripe out of her way so that she could address Cocklebur herself.
“I seem to have lost a framed picture of my pet, Precious; she’s a Chihuahua.”
“I guess this little ball of fluff could be a dog,” Cocklebur stated as he brought the picture forward and looked at it questioningly, “although the ribbon makes it look more like a stuffed animal than the self-respectin’ creature she’d like to be.”
Rainbow Heart grabbed the framed photo from Cocklebur’s hoof. “Precious enjoys looking her best; you wouldn’t understand that, I’m sure.” Her eyes raked across Cocklebur with scorn before she turned and marched away. With a smirk, Pinstripe followed her.
Anger washed over Cocklebur as he stood watching the two ponies disappear into Ms. Radon’s science classroom. All he had done was to try to return something to the filly; why did she get in such a huff about it? And why did everyone else react as if he was somehow trying to cause trouble? He jabbed a hoof into the nearest wall, then heard a distinct, “Ahem,” from a classroom door.
“Is there a reason you’re depriving us of your presence?” Mr. Cambrick, the science teacher asked, one eyebrow raised in inquiry. “We are awaiting your arrival.”
Cocklebur glared at the teacher as he passed him and slipped into the room; the snickers and giggles of his classmates did nothing to calm the colt’s rattled nerves and seething anger. He would have preferred a harsh reprimand from Mr. Cambrick rather than the subtle set-down that had only succeeded in humiliating him far worse than an open altercation would have done.
Nothing about that day’s lesson seeped into Cocklebur’s busy mind; his smouldering indignation about the treatment he received from these senseless ponies that surrounded him filled his thoughts; all he could concentrate on was some way in which to pay them back for their loathsome attitude toward him.
He was so distraught that he did not notice Baby Leafy’s efforts to catch his eye.
* * *
The evening following Cocklebur’s misadventure at school found Tabby, Faline, Thomas, Sugarberry, and Vanguard gathered around a table at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe enjoying some cold treats from Scoop’s bonanza of offerings. Faline’s strawberry ice cream cone fortunately matched her coloring so that the sticky goo she was making with it did not appear too obvious on her.
Sugarberry and Tabby were discussing plans for this year’s apple festival while the stallions talked over local sports happenings when Baby Noddins came up to join them. She giggled as Faline offered her a taste of her somewhat disheveled cone.
“No, thank you, Faline,” the pert lavender filly said. “I already ate.” She laughed as the foal stuck the gooey mass in her mouth anyway. “Have you heard?” the filly directed at the adult ponies as she wiped her mouth. “Rainbow Heart’s precious little Precious disappeared last night.”
“Disappeared?” queried Sugarberry. “That pampered puffball was never out of Rainbow Heart’s sight.”
“They ate supper on the patio, and Precious just vanished; Rainbow Heart wasn’t at school because she feels so bad.”
“You mean they haven’t found her yet?” asked Tabby.
“They’ve been looking everywhere, but there’s no sign of the dog.”
“That’s strange,” said Thomas. “Scuttle was in with one of his cats today, and he told me that his pet raccoon wandered off a week or so ago and hasn’t been seen since.”
“It’s like a conspiracy!” whispered Tabby eerily. “Like, all the animals of Dream Valley will disappear under some evil villain’s magic spell.”
Thomas grimaced at his wife, then at Baby Noddins, then back to his wife. “Don’t start rumors, Tabby. In Scuttle’s case, I assume that the raccoon decided it was time for him to take up his life in the wild. As for Rainbow Heart’s Chihuahua, however, I would see no reason for the animal to want to wander off.”
“This is weird,” Vanguard mused. “Powder was saying that her cocker spaniel didn’t come back to the house after she let it out several days ago; the dog had never gone off before.”
“See? I was right!” asserted Tabby. “Something fishy is goin’ on!”
Sugarberry, however, did not agree. “Remember a couple of years ago when Rex and Nester were in town with their poults, and Little Turk disappeared?”
Vanguard, Thomas, and Tabby looked at the mare, mulling over the possibilities. “Do you think Baby Falling Leaves is up to her old tricks?” Thomas asked.
Sugarberry shrugged. “It’s possible. We know she is capable of doing it.”
The ponies now centered their attention on Baby Noddins who was engaged in a game of peek-a-boo with Faline, both little ponies giggling wildly. “Are you and Baby Falling Leaves still friends?” asked Tabby of the young filly.
“She stole one of the cookies out of my lunch today,” Noddins admitted. “But we walked home from school together, us and Baby Leaper.” Baby Noddins crinkled her nose while Sugarberry and Tabby exchanged a knowing glance.
“She hasn’t acquired any new pets that you know of, has she?” asked Vanguard.
“Pets?” queried Baby Noddins. “She has two goldfish.”
“Her mother hates dogs... in the house anyway.”
The adults looked at one another. “There’s a rather large gardening shed in their backyard.” Sugarberry voiced what they were all thinking.
“Baby Noddins,” Thomas said, “could you make a point of getting into that gardening shed sometime soon?”
“We were in it this afternoon,” Baby Noddins shrugged. In response to the questioning looks from the faces around her, she added, “Baby Falling Leaves and Baby Leaper and I are storing our insects in there for our insect collection. None of our mothers want all those bugs in their houses.”
“What kind of bugs?” Sugarberry winced.
“We have butterflies and crickets and potato beetles and lady bugs... lots of different kinds. And each one is in its own little pen so we have to feed them everyday.”
“How... nice,” Sugarberry shuddered.
“You should see the giant water bug Baby Leaper found,” Baby Noddins warmed to her subject. “It’s this long,” she held her hooves up at an incredible length, “and it has long, creepy feelers.”
Both Tabby and Sugarberry shivered at that information.
“So you don’t think Baby Falling Leaves could be hiding any cats or dogs... or raccoons in the shed?”
Baby Noddins rolled her eyes. “Why would she want to? She’s got allergies to pet fur now.”
“Why didn’t you tell us that to start with?” the four amateur detectives asked as one.
“You didn’t ask,” the filly said, returning her attention to the foal who had now mushed her ice cream cone into the table and was using it to draw designs on the tabletop. “You made a kitty!”
“Well, we’re no closer to solving the mystery than before,” sighed Sugarberry.
“I told you,” gloated Tabby. “There is some dark force at work here.” She paused, a thought coming to her. “I woke up during the night and thought I heard Butch’s evil duck, Quackers, quacking. Now that is really a dark force!”
That statement was met with laughter from all within hearing. Regardless that Butch had abruptly departed from Dream Valley, many ponies still remembered Tabby’s phobia with the stallion’s pet duck. Leave it to Tabby to see a simple quack as an ominous sign.
* * *
Fifi was busy at her shop with Seabreeze in the chair having her tresses curled and ornamented so she would look her best for a presentation she was giving later that day.
“I just wish I knew for sure he was okay,” Seabreeze confided to Fifi as that mare artfully arranged a cluster of curls. “He’s never gotten out of his enclosure before.”
“And you’ve had that turtle for years, haven’t you?”
“Oh, since I was just a filly. Teatime and I have been together forever.” Seabreeze sniffed. “I can’t understand how he got over the walls of his pen.”
“Are you sure he didn’t dig his way under the walls?” asked a sympathetic Fifi.
“The pen was constructed in such a way as to prevent that from happening,” sighed the unhappy mare. “He didn’t dig out and I can’t believe he was able to crawl over the enclosure.”
“Do you think someone took him out on purpose then?”
“That’s the only thing that could have happened,” Seabreeze said, tapping her hoof on the arm of the chair nervously. “I only wish I knew who did it.”
The bell over the door jingled as Prisma came into the shop. “You’re early for your appointment,” noted Fifi with a glance at the clock.
“I know, but I had some time to waste,” grinned Prisma. “Don’t worry; I brought a copy of the newspaper.” She sat in a chair to wait and unfolded the local journal.
“That reminds me,” griped Seabreeze. “Not only do I have to worry about my missing turtle, but I also have to stop at the newspaper office and complain about my delivery pony; he’s been late with the paper time and time again, and my reproaches directly to him haven’t done a thing to improve his schedule.”
“Countdown is quite responsible at getting mine delivered promptly,” Fifi stated.
“Well, Cocklebur is a different story,” complained Seabreeze. “Every time I reprimand him for being late, he gives me that cocky grin of his and says that he had to feed his pets before he left on his route.”
Prisma chuckled. “It stands to reason that a colt names Cocklebur would have a cocky grin.”
“He’s personable enough, I suppose, but he doesn’t seem to worry too much about the conventions of a time table.”
“His family is relatively new to Dream Valley, I believe.”
“They moved in to that old house on Court Street sometime after Christmas,” reflected Prisma. “The dad works at the lumberyard, and the mother stays home with the foals... there’s quite a number of them.”
“I haven’t seen her around,” Fifi frowned, wondering why any mare would forego her expertise in the beauty department.
“I see her at the grocery store from time to time,” Prisma revealed, “but she’s not much for talking. She’s always got a foal or two in the cart and another one clinging to her legs.”
“I suppose,” mused Seabreeze, “that if Cocklebur comes from such a household, he may be excused for being late occasionally. I’m almost sorry I lashed out at him for being late.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” assured Fifi. “Reprimands run off a colt like water off a roof.”
“Or a turtle’s shell,” said Seabreeze on a long sad sigh.
* * *
The following weekend, some of the youngsters were enjoying their reprieve from school studies by cruising the mall. Baby Snippy, Baby Falling Leaves, Baby Noddins, and Baby Curlylocks had visited each of the establishments that carried filly-type embellishments with only Lemon Treat’s Boutique left to scour. The sunny chatter of the group filled the shop with tinkling melody.
“Ooh! Look at the colorful ribbons!” squealed Snippy as she draped an autumnal hued swath against her hair.
“It clashes with your pastel-ness,” Noddins critiqued. “Try this one.” She handed Snippy a ribbon with deep shades of teal and purple.
As Snippy looked in the mirror with the brighter ribbon over her curls, Baby Falling Leaves modeled the autumn-colored reject.
“It’s just your style,” determined Curlylocks as she wrapped a shimmery gauze shawl around her own sea green shoulders.
“You look funny,” a mocking voice said from behind the cluster of young fillies. They turned to find Cocklebur grinning at them; he was in the company of several of his siblings.
“Do not,” spat Snippy, returning to her image in the mirror. “It makes me look more grown-up.”
“That’ll be the day,” shot back Cocklebur. “You’re barely weaned.”
“At least I’m not still in diapers.” She looked with disgust at the foal at Cocklebur’s side.
“Jellybean is just a baby!” Cocklebur defended his little brother. “Besides, he smells good like baby powder instead of some toxic fume from a bottle.” He sniffed the air disgustedly as Noddins, Curlylocks, and Falling Leaves dabbled with the cologne samples on the shelf. “It’s enough to make a pony sick.”
“Well, you make me sick,” responded Snippy; she followed it by sticking out her tongue, then turning her back on Cocklebur.
“You’re disgustin’.” Cocklebur grabbed up his little brother, knocking into the cologne display as he did so and causing a number of the bottles to totter and fall, and stalked out of the boutique.
Lemon Treats, who had been watching and listening to the interchange, shook her head; her clientele seemed to be getting younger and younger... and with fewer and fewer jangles to spend.
* * *
After church on Sunday morning, many in the congregation gathered in the church basement for coffee and donuts. Sugarberry was talking with Roland and Becca when Vanguard returned to her side carrying Faline.
“Hi, sweetie,” Sugarberry cooed, exchanging a hug and a kiss with the foal who nonetheless clung to Vanguard. “You were a very good girl in church this morning.”
“Tabby says Faline is hungry; and as she and Thomas are hung up with Kyrene discussing a problem her hamster is having, Tabby asked if we could get in line and get Faline some milk and a donut.”
“I’m starving, too,” Sugarberry readily agreed. “Roland? Becca?”
Soon they were seated at a table with their food; Faline had chosen a powdered donut, and now looked rather powdered herself... and she shared with Vanguard. Sugarberry grinned at him. “You’ll both be sugar coated by the time Faline’s through.”
“It looks better on her than it does on me,” Vanguard returned, brushing some of the clinging powder off his body before winking at his wife. “She’s a sweet little thing, after all.”
“Sugar and spice and everything nice,” quoted Roland with a laugh. “Although I’ve known some little fillies who were more frogs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails.”
“Speaking of little fillies,” said Becca, “I got a call this morning from a friend of mine; her daughter has a pet chinchilla that they keep in a cage on their back porch; the chinchilla was gone this morning, and her daughter was heartbroken.
“Who is this friend?” asked Sugarberry after a quick glance at Vanguard.
“Lavender Lace. Her daughter, Snippy, is sure she latched the cage last night after she fed and watered the animal; but this morning, the latch was unhooked and the chinchilla was gone.”
“There have been other disappearances of pets around town as well,” Sugarberry said with a frown. “It can’t be coincidental.”
Another voice broke through Sugarberry’s somber thoughts. “Why so serious?” came a query from Dreamcatcher as she and her husband joined the group. Fetish was carrying Tamarack, the foal who had first faced the world on a snow-covered day in May. The little yellow bundle with whispy blue hair was currently sound asleep, and Fetish relinquished him to Sugarberry’s care where the foal was warmly received.
Faline, leaning close to Tamarack, touched his forehead with a powdery kiss. “Baby slee-py,” she said, looking at Sugarberry with large eyes. “Shhh!” The one-year-old put a hoof to her lips to command silence.
But Tabby and Thomas came to widen the circle of friends; and in the ensuing shuffle of chairs to accommodate all the ponies, the young colt was awakened. Taking one look at the strawberry-patterned mare holding him, he began to cry.
“Uh, oh, Sug,” Tabby teased. “You’ll have to hone your mothering skills. November’s not that far off.”
“Tamarack’s hungry, that’s all,” Dreamcatcher observed, handing a warm bottle across the table to Sugarberry. The foal reached eagerly for the sustenance and was soon contented.
“Another pet disappeared last night,” Vanguard shared with the new arrivals.
“What’s this all about?” asked Fetish, taking a bite of donut.
When the listing of disappearances had been mulled over, Dreamcatcher admitted, “We’ve been so busy with the cabin, we haven’t kept up with the news.”
The big project of the summer for Fetish and Dreamcatcher was to build a cabin in their clearing in the Dark Forest that up until now had housed only a teepee as the Native Pony mare had insisted on leading a life in line with the way of her ancestors. Fetish, also a Native Pony but without the strict censure of all things modern that guided his wife, had bowed to her desire to live a simple life in conjunction with their contemporary work among the ponies of Dream Valley. Both ponies had been satisfied with their close-to-the-earth existence until that day in May when Tamarack’s delivery had forced the issue that without the intervention of up-to-date medical knowledge, Fetish would have been hard pressed to save his wife and son.
That depressing thought had caused some soul-searching changes for Dreamcatcher and Fetish, the most obvious being that plans were made for the construction of a solid house, a log cabin, that would benefit from the comforts of electricity and plumbing and a telephone, even though the teepee would remain as Dreamcatcher’s haven for her Native Pony crafts and arts. Dreamcatcher was still dragging her hooves over the addition of a computer in their log cabin, but Fetish was slowly breaking down that barrier, too.
The previous several weekends had found the Dark Forest clearing filled with willing ponies to help get
the cabin up and ready before the cooler days of autumn descended upon them, and the old adage that many hooves make light work had proven true. Building on the foundation that Fetish had slaved over, the Dream Valley volunteers had learned much about the construction of a log building by the time they had seen the walls close in the living space and a roof top it off with snug protection. Now the inside finish-work took all of Fetish and Dreamcatcher’s free time.
“If you’re still in need of any help, I’d be happy to put in a few evenings this week,” Roland volunteered.
Dreamcatcher and Fetish exchanged a glance. “Everyone’s been so helpful already, we hate to impose any further,” Dreamcatcher admitted.
“No imposition at all,” Roland revealed. “Becca’s all wrapped up in the upcoming apple festival promotion, so I’m in need of a diversion.” He grinned at the mare next to him.
“Roland knows I’m better at house demolition than house construction,” Becca grimaced, causing laughter from those who had seen her attempts to help at the building site. Her ability to spill, stumble, drop, fumble, botch, and misjudge had quickly gained her a spot away from the cabin helping Sugarberry, Whisk, Fern, and others to prepare a lunch for the ponies that were so busily working.
It was soon decided that the next couple of evenings would be set aside for anyone who desired to help to once again put his or her carpentry skills to use to converge on the Dark Forest clearing. The interest in this project pushed the problem of the missing animals to the backs of everyone’s mind.
* * *
Monday morning found Tabby and Sugarberry with some time off which they put to good use by exploring the newest purchases of the merchants at the mall, in the company of Faline, of course. A quick stop at Lemon Treat’s Boutique to check over the newest fashion statements from Ponyland’s top designers was followed by the toy store which was perused with great care as well as the book store and Dreamcatcher’s kiosk. Always a hit, the pet shop was lingered over before the trio stopped at the food court for something to eat.
Taking a table with Faline while Tabby went to procure some food for an early lunch, Sugarberry was dismayed to note that the mare at the corner table next to theirs was softly weeping into a handkerchief as several foals sat sadly next to her, their concentration forlornly centered on their mother. Sugarberry’s heart went out to the mare who seemed to have the weight of the world on her shoulders. As soon as Tabby returned with their orders, Sugarberry nodded toward the teary-eyed mare.
“I’m going to see if there is anything I can do for that poor thing,” Sugarberry confided.
“Who is she?” Tabby hissed.
“I don’t know,” Sugarberry admitted, standing up. “But she certainly looks like she could use a friend.”
Moving to the corner spot, Sugarberry cleared her throat, causing the two diminutive fillies and the young colt to look her way with wide, frightened eyes. The mare, sensing the tension of her offspring, looked up over the dampened hanky with the same expression on her face. “Can I help in any way?” Sugarberry asked.
Several more tears brimmed over at those softly-spoken words, and Sugarberry took that as a need for her presence. She gently picked up the littlest girl and slipped into her chair, placing the child on her lap. “What’s caused you this grief?” Sugarberry tried again to make contact with the mother.
The mare sniffed. “My son... has done something... his father will find... unforgivable,” she managed to say.
Sugarberry’s gaze swung to the little colt at the table. “What mischief did he get into?” she asked with a smile; the colt met her eyes and innocently grinned in response.
“Oh! Not him!” the mare gasped. “No, not Jellybean. This was my oldest son, Cocklebur.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Jellybean,” Sugarberry smiled again at the engaging little colt. “My name is Sugarberry. And what’s yours?” she asked of the oldest of the two fillies.
“Cara,” the filly answered shyly.
“And your little sister’s?”
Sugarberry smiled and looked over the soft yellow foal with even paler yellow hair- she certainly did resemble a springtime flower- before centering her attention on the foals’ mother. “What charming children you have,” she tried to break the tension of the still distraught mare.
“Thank you. You’re very kind. But I really must get home now.” She made to get to her hooves, but more tears escaped to slip down her cheeks.
Sugarberry turned a pleading glance toward Tabby whom she saw was paying no attention to the drama in the corner; the pink unicorn was staring off into space nibbling on her French fries while Faline was dunking her own fries into a glass of soda. Seeing there would be no help from her friend, Sugarberry turned back to the mare. “You haven’t told me your name yet,” Sugarberry prodded.
“Okay, Bluebonnet. I’ve been told that I’m a sympathetic listener.”
For the first time, Bluebonnet’s eyes really looked at Sugarberry. After a pause, she said, “I could use a friend about now.” A brief smile crossed her lips. “But not here; the foals will be getting fidgety. You wouldn’t have time to come to my home, I suppose?” she asked.
Checking Tabby’s progress with her lunch, Sugarberry noted that she and Faline seemed to be close to finishing. “Yes, that should work out, but I’ll have to check with Tabby,” she nodded to the next table, “to see what her plans are.”
Tabby at first eyed the situation with some misgivings; but noticing that Faline was delighted to meet up with some new friends, she acquiesced to Sugarberry’s plan to accompany Bluebonnet to her home. Sugarberry’s uneaten lunch was soon divided among Jellybean, Cara, and Daffodil and the cold coffee dumped in the trash; and the troupe moved on.
By the time they reached Bluebonnet’s home, Sugarberry and Tabby had been informed of the entire problem that haunted the mare. Cocklebur, her eldest, had a dispute with a young filly of his acquaintance at a shop in the mall and in his anger had mindlessly lifted a bottle of cologne when he left the shop. His conscience had soon revealed to him the senselessness of taking something from the innocent shopkeeper to get back at the filly who had been shopping there and had riled his temper. Bluebonnet had insisted that Cocklebur return the item to Lemon Treat’s Boutique.
That had been the purpose of her visit to the mall this morning. Bluebonnet had accompanied Cocklebur to make sure that he would not get cold hooves before he had admitted his wrongdoing to the owner of the shopping establishment. That experience had proved to be intimidating.
Lemon Treats had not been as unforgiving as Sugarberry would have expected, and that was what had caused Bluebonnet to break down. “Cocklebur was not at all repentant,” Bluebonnet admitted as she told of the meeting between Lemon Treats and Cocklebur. “He apologized, but not in such a way to garner faith in his future actions.” Bluebonnet had looked mortified at the remembrance and went on to tell how Lemon Treats had reprimanded Cocklebur so severely-- to the extent of threatening to report Cocklebur to Chief Tawny-- that the colt had dashed out of the boutique ahead of his mother and disappeared. Bluebonnet had been horrified to think that she must now admit to her husband that their young son had gotten himself in serious trouble.
“Lemon Treats has been concerned over her daughter,” Sugarberry mused as she fixed coffee in Bluebonnet’s kitchen. “Limelight has been teething, and Lemon Treats and her husband haven’t been getting much sleep. I imagine that’s why she reacted so inflexibly.”
At that moment, a topaz colt walked in, his apricot hair in smouldering disarray, his purple eyes flashing as if daring anyone to speak to him. He crossed the room in an effort to disappear into the depths of the house when his mother said in a soft voice, “Cocklebur, mind your manners.”
The colt stopped and looked as if he was going to say something not at all mannerly, but then took a deep breath and looked fleetingly at Tabby and Sugarberry. “Good afternoon.” He next looked at his mother. “May I go to my room now?”
“I would appreciate it if you would help me get a light lunch on.” Glancing at Sugarberry, she added, “Some of us haven’t had a chance to eat yet.”
An unexpected grin crossed the colt’s face. “I’m kinda hungry, too,”
With Tabby and Sugarberry’s help along with Cocklebur, Bluebonnet soon had a simple but tempting lunch on the table. Faline, who had been whisked off by the other foals and the remainder of Bluebonnet’s children (Nugget, an orange and ivory seven-year-old, and Casaba, a lanky ten-year old), could be heard giggling and prattling in the next room amidst a plethora of other playtime sounds, but Cocklebur rounded up the energetic bunch of foals and herded them to the sink to wash their hooves before helping the youngest ones onto chairs. Sugarberry marveled at his patience and sense of humor in watching over the moppets. He seemed to find Faline delightful (he had never known such a young unicorn, he admitted to Tabby), and Faline idolized him as did all his younger brothers and sisters.
In addition to the foals around the table, there was one cat that lurked around the edges to confiscate any leavings that happened to fall his way, and even Tabby was impressed with the size of the animal as he was larger than either of Thomas’ slim siamese or Sugarberry’s overweight longhair. Yet the cat appeared to be not so much overweight as oversized; he was simply a big cat.
When lunch was finished and Tabby had the chance to get her hooves on the cat- whose name was Chester- and Cocklebur found out that Tabby was a veterinarian, the colt was full of questions. “If I find hurt animals, I nurse ‘em back to health,” the colt admitted. “Right now I have a cat and two kittens and a crow and a rabbit and a couple frogs... among other things.”
“Where do you keep them?” asked an interested Tabby.
“Mom and Dad let me keep them in a shed out back. One of the kittens doesn’t seem to be getting better.” Cocklebur dropped his gaze to the floor an instant before he asked, “Could you take a look at him?”
“Cocklebur!” his mother reprimanded. “You can’t expect Tabby to make free house calls.”
But Tabby was already on her hooves. “Let’s go check this kitten out.”
“Casaba, you go with Cocklebur and Tabby; the rest of you, play in the yard but don’t interfere with the animal shed.”
The house quickly emptied; and Sugarberry and Bluebonnet were left to straighten the kitchen, giving them a good chance to talk without interruption. Bluebonnet’s mouth dropped open in amazement when she heard that this mare washing dishes was the author of novels. “I remember now seeing books at the store with your name on them, but I don’t have much time to read,” Bluebonnet admitted.
Sugarberry found out that Bluebonnet’s husband, Firethorn, worked at the local lumber yard which led to a description of the log cabin going up at the fringe of the Dark Forest. Bluebonnet laughingly told Sugarberry about the house that she and Firethorn had left behind when they had come to Dream Valley, a home that had obviously seen better days. Bluebonnet looked around her kitchen ruefully. “This house isn’t the best, but it’s a far cry better than the one we left behind.”
Sugarberry looked at the unfashionable but homey room subjectively and commented that her own home, after seeing itself through six foals, would probably look the same. “Cats create enough havoc; I can only guess what an energetic foal will do.”
“So this will be your first,” stated Bluebonnet.
“Well, if you have any questions after your foal is born, feel free to ask; the six have given me enough experience to share.”
“I will definitely keep you in mind; you have a lovely family, so you must know what you’re doing.”
“Not everyone can see that, Sugarberry; some notice only a bunch of rowdy foals who use their vocal cords too much.”
“No one could accuse Cara of that,” Sugarberry grinned.
“She’s thinkin’ all the time, that one.”
They were interrupted as a neighboring foal, Baby Leafy, trotted into the house. “Cocky sent me to fetch a lettuce leaf for the rabbit,” the filly announced, then grinned self-consciously as she saw that Bluebonnet had another guest besides Tabby. “Hi,” she greeted Sugarberry.
“Hello, Leafy. I suppose Star is keeping your days from being too dull.”
Baby Leafy laughed. “She ate some of my bugs for my insect collection.”
“I guess Star thought so.” Star was Baby Leafy’s feline companion.
“Here’s your lettuce,” Bluebonnet said, handing the filly the crisp green leaves. “Was Tabby able to figure out what ails the kitten?”
“She told Cocky to stop by the office tomorrow to pick up something for it,” Leafy responded as she scampered off.
Frowning, Bluebonnet tapped her hoof on the table. “That colt has a hard enough time staying ahead of his expenses for feeding those animals he doctors; this medicine will set him back some.” She sighed. “He’ll think of something.”
When Tabby was finished with her perusal of Cocklebur’s makeshift medical center, and Faline could be pried away from her newfound friends, the visitors made their goodbyes with Sugarberry extending an invitation for all of Bluebonnet’s family to join her and Vanguard for a meal Friday evening; Tabby and Thomas and Faline were included in the invitation, too.
As soon as Sugarberry got the chance, she called Lemon Treats to promote Cocklebur’s defense in the shop-lifting incident; but Lemon Treats, unfortunately, had already discussed the colt’s offense- albeit repaired- with Chief Tawny.
* * *
Placid days went by. It was warm for September, the adults all said. Cocklebur only knew that the hot days and the mild nights were beneficial for his healing creatures; he was worried about what he would do with them when the cold winter nights were upon them; the old shed was not weather-tight by a long shot. He would have to get on his dad about the promised supplies that he could get at a discount rate from the lumber yard. The colt looked pensive as he closed the rackety door on the building; his hoof remained on the rusty knob while he stood in deep thought. Before long, his peace was inundated with a noisy onslaught by Nugget and Casaba.
Ready to make the most of their Saturday now that their chores were done and their mother had granted
them their freedom, the colts were soon engaged in their favorite sport. They had been throwing a softball around in the backyard when Casaba called out a warning. “Noddins and Leafy are comin’.”
Cocklebur turned to confirm his brother’s report and to wave a welcome at the two fillies, for wasn’t Leafy the best friend he had, if not the only one? This action causing him to miss Nugget’s tossing of the ball in his direction, the sphere hitting him with a thud. Cocklebur scowled at Nugget while Casaba had a good laugh. Cocklebur, recovering the errant ball, had no time to throw a stiff pitch at Nugget before Leafy came to him.
“Star got out of the house! I don’t know where he’s gone!” The sad and worried look on the filly’s face was enough to stifle even Casaba’s enthusiasm.
“How’d you let him get out?” Cocklebur asked harshly, not wanting to admit the feeling of dread at hearing that Leafy’s cosseted feline who had never been outside of the safety of the house was now on his own in a foreign environment.
“I didn’t let him!” Leafy was indignant. “It was too warm to sleep last night, so I opened my window. I didn’t know that Mom had taken off the screen when she was doing the housecleaning.”
“So Star slipped out without you knowin’ it,” Cocklebur mumbled. “He shouldn’t have gone far.”
“Noddins and I have looked everywhere in our yard, but Star must have gone farther than that. You’ve got to help us find him!” The filly looked pleadingly at the three brothers. “Star’s declawed, you know, so he can’t defend himself.”
“We’ll help, Leafy. You know that. But I think we’ll have to start at your place and work our way outward from there to make sure we don’t miss any spot Star could be hidin’. Nugget, go tell Mom we’ll be at Leafy’s house.” With that, Cocklebur set off with the others falling into step beside him.
“Who else can you get to help?” Cocklebur asked. “The more of us lookin’ for him, the better chance we have of findin’ him.”
“I’ll get Falling Leaves,” Noddins volunteered, “and Leaper.”
“Good. Then we can cover the neighborhood.”
The crew also picked up Curlylocks and Rowdy as they went by their houses, and the search began in earnest when all had been gathered at Leafy’s house and given a direction to go. The colts and fillies scoured the neighborhood until lunchtime, working out in ever widening circles, but with no success. They disbanded long enough for everyone to go home for lunch and lost half of their team to afternoon commitments. Those who were able to keep up the search, however, left no hiding place uncovered; they also found no golden-coated cat.
“He can’t just have disappeared!” wailed Leafy as the hopelessness of the situation got the best of her toward mid-afternoon. She turned a desperate face to Cocklebur, willing him to think of a solution.
The colt felt the weight of the world at that look. He would never admit that he was becoming extremely worried that something was preventing Star from returning to Leafy; the cat would never willingly stray far from his loving companion. Cocklebur felt that something harmful might have befallen the young cat, but would never voice such an opinion to his worried friend.
“Star’s probably curled up asleep during the heat of the day,” he remarked casually. “I don’t imagine he’ll come out to be found before evening, and then he’ll probably plop himself on your doorstep as if nothin’ happened.” He grinned at Leafy in an effort to reassure her.
“Cocky’s probably right, Leafy,” Noddins backed up the colt. “You know how Star likes his naps.”
“Could he have gotten as far as the river?” Falling Leaves questioned, spoiling the hope that Cocklebur and Noddins had just garnered.
“The river?” Leafy whispered. “Oh, do you think he’s fallen in?” That idea brought ready tears to her eyes.
The look that Cocklebur gave Falling Leaves was enough to make even that senseless filly shut her mouth. “Why would Star head for the river? It’s not like he’d want to go for a swim or somethin’. That’s the last place a cat would go.” Cocklebur hoped he was right.
“But maybe you could check?” Leafy asked.
Cocklebur sighed. “If it’ll make you feel better.” He sent his brothers home and trudged off in the direction of the creek, knowing that it was a futile effort.
* * *
It had been a long afternoon, and Cocklebur was not looking forward to returning to Leafy to report that he had seen no sign of her cat. The colt was wandering through a residential section on a street that was unfamiliar to him in an effort to delay the moment when he would have to face his friend with his discouraging news when he heard a depreciating voice call out, “You’re in the wrong part of town, Cockle-bum.”
Cocklebur did not want to acknowledge that he had heard the retort, but he could not resist turning to identify the one who had insulted him. He forced a sunny look to mask his annoyance as he caught sight of the tormentor. “Oh, it’s you, Snippy. I thought that whiney voice sounded familiar.” He noted that Snippy was with another filly from school, Twinkle, and that the two had a white angora rabbit hopping about on the ground between them where they sat. The rabbit was the only one in the group that impressed Cocklebur.
Both fillies frowned at the colt, but it was Twinkle who responded. “At least Snippy doesn’t sound like some sort of country bumpkin.”
“A country bumpkin could beat out a couple of air heads any day.”
“If you’re so smart, how come you flunked your spelling test yesterday?”
“I at least knew what the words meant... do you know what imbecile means?”
“Idiot, half-wit, simpleton... should I go on? Seeing you brings lots of words to mind... moron, fool, yokel...”
Cocklebur cut Twinkle off, a menacing growl in his voice. “And who was it who was such a ninny as to leave her chinchilla’s cage open?” he rumbled, glancing at Snippy, then settling his gaze on Twinkle. “And if I were you, I’d keep an eye on that rabbit.”
Both girls turned their attention to the fluffy lagomorph, only to find that the pet had taken advantage of their argument with Cocklebur to hop off to enjoy the fruits of Twinkle’s mother’s vegetable garden. And hadn’t Shimmer specifically said that she did not want to ever find that rabbit in the garden’s vicinity?
“Eeek!” squealed both fillies in unison as they ran off to prevent any noticeable damage.
“Dumb-bunnies,” muttered Cocklebur as he strode away.
* * *
“But, Daddy!” wailed Twinkle on Sunday morning. “I did lock Thistledown in the cage after I put in the pellets last night!”
Tawny closed his eyes and rubbed a hoof over his face. He did not need this. It was Sunday. It was his day off. He was tired. He did not like rabbits all that well. He had hoped for a long nap after church. He opened his eyes. He sighed.
“So the rabbit can undo his lock now, can he?”
“Thistledown’s a she, not a he. Anyone should know that!” Twinkle stamped her dainty hoof.
“Tawny,” Shimmer moderated, “the rabbit can’t have gone far; we’ll be glad to help our daughter find Thistledown, won’t we?” Her look at her husband said it all: The chief of police should not let a little thing like an escaped rabbit get the best of him.
An hour later, however, even Shimmer’s patience was wearing thin. “That rabbit’s nowhere around, honey. And we’ve got to get to church.”
One giant tear rolled down Twinkle’s cheek. “But we’ll keep looking when we get home, won’t we?”
Tawny sighed heavily. So much for a quiet Sunday. So much for a nap.
Where was that recipe for hasenpfeffer?
* * *
“What do you mean... you think that stupid colt took your rabbit?”
Tawny had been beating the bushes for the confounded rabbit for hours and he was hot, tired, and bothered. He did not appreciate his daughter’s sudden enlightenment as to what she personally thought had happened to her dear Thistledown.
“He threatened Thistledown yesterday, Daddy! He as much as said that he’d take my rabbit away.”
Tawny raised an eyebrow. “What were his exact words?”
Twinkle raised her eyes heavenward in deep thought. “He said he had his eye on my rabbit. And it was just after he said he knew about Snippy’s missing chinchilla, too.”
“That doesn’t mean he was planning to take your rabbit.”
“But he’s such a creep, Daddy! It’s just like something he’d do!”
Scowling at his daughter, Tawny admonished, “I don’t want to hear you using terms like creep when referring to another pony, Twinkle.” As Twinkle lowered her head in false contrition, Tawny had to ask, “Who is this colt anyway?”
“His name’s Cocklebur; he’s a real...”
“Cocklebur?” Tawny interrupted, instantly alert. Had not Lemon Treats just warned him about that colt’s propensity for stealing? “You think Cocklebur is involved?”
Pleased to see that her father was finally listening to her, Twinkle made good use of her advantage. “He’s always pickin’ on me and Snippy. Nobody likes him.” A sudden brainstorm hit her. “And Snippy told me that Cocklebur was tormenting her at the mall just before Chinchee disappeared.” Now it all made sense to Twinkle. “And he was tormenting me and Snippy yesterday! He had to be the one, Daddy!”
“I have to admit that it’s an interesting coincidence, darling, but...”
“Daddy! You’ve got to do something to get Thistledown and Chinchee back from that meanie!” The filly planted her hooves on the ground in such a manner that Tawny was forcefully reminded of his wife when she was determined to have her way over something.
“It’s too late today, Twinkle, but I’ll ask some questions tomorrow. If Cocklebur is involved with this pet-napping, I’ll have that rabbit back to you by suppertime.”
* * *
The following morning, Tawny started his investigation with Lemon Treats, who was able to verify that Snippy and Cocklebur did indeed exchange some rather heated words in her shop, after which the colt had taken a bottle of cologne which he did eventually return in the company of his mother. Lemon Treats was not aware that Snippy’s chinchilla was missing, but she had heard that Seabreeze’s turtle had been abducted. Tawny thanked the yellow mare and continued to follow this lead.
Tracking down Seabreeze was no problem, and that mare was impressed that Dream Valley’s chief of police was willing to trace lost pets. “I’ve been terribly worried about Teatime; he’s been in my care for years and years- since he was hatched, actually- and I’m not sure his instincts are sharp enough for him to forage for food on his own,” she admitted.
“And you’re positive that the turtle didn’t just escape on his own?”
“Positive. His pen was rebuilt and heightened this spring for just that reason.”
“Was there any sign of who might have been in your backyard?”
“Nothing that I noticed; grass surrounds the pen, so there were no tracks; and I never observed anything out of the ordinary.”
“Well, I’ll see what I can come up with,” Tawny finished, closing his notepad. As if in an afterthought, he asked, “Do you know a young colt by the name of Cocklebur?”
“Cocklebur? Sure. He’s my paper deliverer.”
“Nice kid, I’m told.”
“Well, he’s polite enough, and he does get the paper delivered; but I did have to upbraid him for setting his own time-table for the paper’s arrival.”
“I remember my days as a paper deliverer,” Tawny chuckled. “I suppose Cocklebur didn’t take kindly to your admonition.”
Seabreeze smiled at the memory. “His eyes revealed that he was not too happy to be brought to task, but he swallowed any retort he might’ve wanted to make; and the paper has been arriving at the same time every day since then... if not an hour later than I’d like to see it.”
“Did your turtle disappear before or after you talked to Cocklebur?”
Frowning at the unexpected question, Seabreeze hesitated. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Just curious, that’s all... as a former paper deliverer, you understand.”
“Oh, well, then... I think, yes! I’m sure that I talked to Cocklebur before Teatime vanished.”
Thanking Seabreeze for her cooperation, Tawny took his leave of her and headed for the newspaper office. In short order, he had a list of Cocklebur’s customers in his hoof; and after a number of phone calls, he found what he was looking for. Powder had lost her cocker spaniel two nights before Seabreeze’s turtle had shown up awol; and the mare had admitted that she had reproved her young paper deliverer for dragging his hooves in getting the paper delivered in a timely fashion. “It’s not called a newspaper for nothing, I told him,” Powder related.
“Have you heard of anyone else losing a pet?” Tawny asked.
“Funny you should ask,” nodded Powder. “I was talking to Seafarer at the bowling alley a couple of days ago, and he mentioned that his brother had a pet raccoon that took off; he said Scuttle had the raccoon since it was a baby, and it was no different than a cat in its affection. Scuttle was disappointed that he never got a chance to say goodbye... he had no idea that the raccoon was going to go back to the wild like that.”
“Scuttle lives south of town on that dairy farm, right?”
“Yes. That’s him.”