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.”

“No dogs?”

“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.”

* * *

Tawny sent Quizzer to ask Scuttle a few questions while the police chief ate lunch with his wife. Shimmer had another choice piece of information for her husband.

“Lovelace called this morning,” she began, stirring some cream into her coffee. “She’d heard that Twinkle’s rabbit was gone.”

“I’m sure Twinkle is spreading the news to everyone at school,” Tawny responded, popping a tomato from his salad into his mouth. “I hope she’s not accusing Cocklebur to his face.”

“No, you were quite clear about that. Our daughter may be opinionated and a chatter box, but she’s smart enough to know not to interfere in your investigation... especially when Thistledown is involved.”

“I hope you’re right; the colt is innocent until proven guilty.”

Shimmer lowered her eyes to her plate and moved a cooked carrot around listlessly. “Lovelace had some news of her own,” she finally said. Looking up to meet her husband’s curious gaze, she went on. “It seems her daughter, Rainbow Heart, had gotten a Chihuahua late this summer, and she and the puppy were inseparable. But one evening while they ate on the patio, the dog wandered off; and by the time Rainbow Heart noticed he was missing, there wasn’t a sign of him.”

“There’s more,” urged Tawny, sensing that his wife was holding something back.

“Well, I hope you don’t think I was overstepping my bounds, but I did mention that Twinkle and some of her friends have been having some trouble with that colt, Cocklebur.”


“She had overheard her daughter and Pinstripe talking in a belittling manner about him, and she chided them on such an unkind attitude. Rainbow Heart told her mom that Cocklebur gave as good as he got; I guess they had an altercation at school; and, yes, it occurred the day before the Chihuahua disappeared.”

“As did every other abduction that I’ve investigated so far,” sighed Tawny. “It looks like Cocklebur is the rapscallion we’re looking for.”

* * *

The evidence became more condemning once Quizzer returned from his trek to Scuttle’s place. He had learned that Scuttle was familiar with Cocklebur, having met the youngster when his class had taken a field trip to the farm last spring shortly after Cocklebur’s family had settled in Dream Valley. The colt had been intrigued with the operation of the farm and the care of the animals and had visited often since that original meeting. Unlike the others, however, there had been no altercation between Scuttle and Cocklebur before the raccoon had become absent. Still, calculated Tawny, the colt was the common denominator in all the cases.

And as he had promised to have Thistledown home by suppertime, Tawny motivated himself to approach the root of the matter as soon as possible.

* * *

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” Tawny greeted Bluebonnet when that mare answered the summoning knock on her front door. “I’m Chief Tawny of the Dream Valley Police Department. I have a few questions to ask. May I come in?” The chief’s stiff demeanor softened somewhat as he saw the cluster of foals at their mother’s side.

“Y... yes, certainly. Come on in.” Brushing a lock of mane off her forehead, the mare felt at a distinct disadvantage after an afternoon of baking in the warm kitchen. Untying her apron, Bluebonnet gestured Tawny to a chair. She herself perched nervously at the edge of the sofa with Jellybean, Daffodil, and Cara clambering up beside her. Bluebonnet waited anxiously for Tawny to continue.

“I was informed by one of the shopkeepers at the mall that your son, Cocklebur, was involved in some shoplifting,” Tawny began, feeling out the temperament and veracity of the mare before him, her face flushed and her eyes worried.

“He did take something, sir, but he took it back; he took it out of anger, which is no excuse, I know; but he realized it was a stupid thing to do soon enough and only wanted to make matters right again.”

“Are you aware of anything else he might have taken from other ponies around town?”

Her eyes widening in alarm over what that question implied, Bluebonnet could only shake her head in the negative. She found herself wishing that her husband would walk in the door so that she would not have to face this officer alone, but knew that Firethorn would not be home for several hours yet. There was the sound of hooves at the back door, however, and soon Nugget, Casaba, Cocklebur, and Baby Leafy burst into the room after their day at school. Upon catching sight of the visitor in the living room, the foals all stopped in their tracks and gazed at Chief Tawny with dumbfounded curiosity.

Seeing that introductions were necessary, Bluebonnet named off the children, ending with Cocklebur. Tawny, after asking several general questions of the foals to set them at ease, suggested that they run off to play while he discussed some business with their mother. As the youngest foals slid off the couch and the entire group began to drift out the door, Tawny suddenly said, “Oh, Cocklebur, you might be interested in this conversation as well.”

The eldest colt stopped in the doorway and looked at Tawny suspiciously, his memory vivid with Lemon Treats’ threat to involve the police in his fateful mistake of taking that confounded bottle of cologne. His gaze moved to his mother’s face, and his heart sank; he could see misery in those eyes and knew that he was the cause. In typical fashion, he gritted his teeth and made ready for battle. Moving back across the room, he stood next to where his mother sat. No one noticed that the perceptive filly, Baby Leafy, remained just inside the doorway, sensing that something was not right with her friend.

“Cocklebur, you like animals?” Tawny asked.

“Yes, sir.” Cocklebur’s intense gaze never shifted from Tawny’s eyes.

“My daughter has... had a rabbit... one of those fluffy angora breeds. It disappeared Saturday night.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“And her friend, Snippy, lost a chinchilla; and Rainbow Heart a Chihuahua.”

“So I’ve heard at school.”

“And did you also know that several of the ponies on your paper route have also found their pets missing?”

“No, sir, I didn’t.” His eyes shifting to take in his mother’s disquieted countenance, Cocklebur wished he could transport himself as far away as possible.

“And you know Scuttle?”

“Yes, sir.”

“It seems his raccoon has suddenly taken off and hasn’t returned in days.”

“Ricky’s gone?” Cocklebur asked, truly ruffled by this disclosure, his eyes opening wide.

“You weren’t aware of that, son?”

“No, sir. I haven’t seen Scuttle lately.” A veil came down over his bright eyes once more, concealing their purple depths.

“Yet you had been going out to his farm at least once a week, hadn’t you?”

“I’ve been busy... with school and all.”

“Chief Tawny?” Leafy’s voice broke in. “My cat, Star, is missing, too; he’s got beautiful golden fur. If you should happen to see him, could you let me know?”

“Your cat is missing...” Tawny’s voice faded out as he contemplated the significance of this in regard to the other abductions. His eyes narrowing, Tawny asked, “Leafy, you and Cocklebur are good friends, aren’t you?”

“Yes; I like all his family.” The filly came across the room as she talked.

“Do you and Cocklebur ever have arguments?”

Leafy flashed a grin at Cocklebur. “Oh, all the time.”

“Does Cocklebur get angry with you?”

The grin grew wider. “Of course, he does. He calls me a dim-wit sometimes and says that I have to learn to think with my brain instead of my heart.”

“Venus and Mars,” chuckled Tawny, temporarily distracted.

“What?” asked a confused Leafy, but Tawny only shook his head and transferred his attention to Cocklebur once more.

“Do you have any pets, Cocklebur?”

As if in response to the chief’s question, Chester, the substantial feline, raised himself up from a side chair and stretched his rotund body before jumping down- surprisingly lightly- and sedately walking toward the sound of the foals’ voices at the back of the house. “Well, there’s my cat,” Cocklebur conceded with a quick smile at Leafy.

“Is that all? You seem like a lad who would be surrounded with animals of one kind or another.”

“His father set a limit of one pet in this household, Chief Tawny. He foresaw that if each of our children took it upon themselves to have a pet of their own, we’d be squeezed out of house and home in short order,” Bluebonnet interrupted.

“Do you find your father’s ultimatum a bit hard to swallow, Cocklebur?”

“I would like other pets, but I understand my father’s reasonin’,” admitted Cocklebur.

It was Bluebonnet who offered a better explanation. “Cocklebur has a way with animals, Chief Tawny, and he puts his talent to use when he finds some critter that has been hurt somehow; he has his own little infirmary out in the old shed out back where he sees to them.” The mare smiled proudly at her son.

“So you do have more pets than just that one cat.”

“Oh, no, sir; they aren’t pets. I just take care of them until they’re ready to go on their own again. Like the crow is just about able to fend for himself; so any day now, I’ll release him.”

“How interesting,” said Tawny. “May I see this animal hospice?”

Not being a fool, Cocklebur knew where all these questions were leading, yet he had no choice but to conduct Chief Tawny to the battered building in the back yard. He slanted a look at Baby Leafy that was meant to steer her clear of this interview- but the filly either missed the look or chose not to heed it, for she followed in their wake with Bluebonnet bringing up the rear.

As Tawny’s vision adjusted to the dim light in the building, he noticed that although not in the best of shape construction wise, the interior was neatly arranged and swept clear of any debris. Noting the cages lining the walls, Tawny became aware of any number of eyes gazing at him intently: several cats stood up, pressing their paws against the side walls, begging for attention; a turtle cranked its neck around to stare at him; a rabbit lifted its head and twitched its nose (but a brown wild rabbit, not the fluffy concoction Twinkle owned); a crow strutted across his cage in regal steps; and several furry bundles that Tawny could not identify at a glance curled in sleepy comfort. A box in the corner housed several toads; and an old aquarium was the temporary home of a green snake. “You have a regular zoo here,” commented Tawny. “Where did you find them all?”

“I walk a lot,” shrugged Cocklebur, “and pick up any wounded or stray animals I find. Then I either doctor ‘em to release again or find homes for ‘em.” The colt reached out to pet one of the cats who was purring vociferously, and the feline responded by rubbing against the bars of the cage in delight.

In one of the cages was a golden cat lying on its side, a portion of its body swathed in bandages. Tawny looked at Baby Leafy quizzically. “You said you were missing a golden cat; what about this one?”

Scoffing at the idea that the thin, mangy cat in the cage could possibly be Star, Leafy rolled her eyes. “That’s not Star!” She extended a hoof to touch the animal’s nose. “Star’s a handsome cat.”

“Or at least he was when you last saw him,” Tawny inadvertently said out loud, wondering what kind of handling would reduce a choice specimen into such a haggard looking creature in the course of a few days, for he had no doubt in his mind that this was indeed Leafy’s Star. And the turtle could only be Seabreeze’s Teatime. The brown animal that barely lifted its head could be a raccoon, Tawny imagined; and tangled fur on the animal in the next cage might possibly be an unkept Chihuahua, and the feeble bark from the far corner could be Powder’s spaniel. Not having had any experience with a chinchilla, Tawny did not even try to identify that species. But where is Thistledown? That thought nagged at Tawny, for the long-haired, white bushy rabbit with its jaunty ears would be hard to miss.

Tawny’s comment had unsettled Baby Leafy; she gazed at the sickly gold cat with teary eyes. “Do you think Star could be hurt, Cocky?” she asked of her friend.

“Naw. We’d of found him if he was hurt,” Cocklebur reassured the filly. “Besides, Star has too much spunk to let anything get the best of him. He’s probably havin’ the time of his life.” He patted Leafy’s shoulder awkwardly while inwardly denouncing Tawny for having made such a callous statement in Leafy’s presence. He wished the police chief would say what he had come to say and get this ordeal over with.

Cocklebur got his wish.

Tawny cleared his throat. “On the chance that some of these strays and things are actually the pets of some of those ponies who have recently lost a pet, I’m going to have to step in here and confiscate these animals, Cocklebur. I’ll turn them over to the vet clinic and let the professionals determine how badly injured they are, and I’ll notify the ponies who have lost pets report there once the animals are cleaned up and ready for inspection.” The police chief turned to Bluebonnet who was standing with her mouth open. “If it turns out, as I suspect it will, that your son is responsible for the abduction of these creatures, I’ll turn him over to the juvenile authorities; in the meantime, I expect you and your husband to keep a close eye on the activities of your son. I suggest you keep him at home except for those times he’s at school.”

“But Cocklebur never...”

But Tawny was already in contact with his office, ordering Granite and Quizzer to see to the removal of some animals from 114 Court Street to the veterinary clinic, after which he put in a call to the clinic to notify Thomas that he would be receiving a number of animals in varying condition that would need his prompt attention.

“You don’t understand!” Baby Leafy was wailing as Tawny finished his calls. “These animals really are strays!”

Bluebonnet hugged the distraught filly to her and faced down Tawny. “My son did not take ponies’ pets away from them like some common thief,” she said in a quiet voice that belied the emotions that churned within her. “You have no right to accuse him of such.”

“The facts show otherwise, ma’am. Your son was involved with an altercation with each of the ponies included in this pet-napping scheme the day before the pet disappeared. Finding this array of animals on the premises seems to tie it all together. Once the owners come forward to claim their pets, we’ll know for sure. Until then, I have to work on the presumption that I’m doing the best for those creatures caged here.” He nodded toward the animals which had grown tired of the ponies’ conversation and had gone back to their naps and grooming. “Thomas will give them the best of care.” He flipped open his notebook and turned away, signaling an end to the dialogue.

Brow furrowed, lips slanted downward, and eyes brandishing purple sparks, Cocklebur glared at the chief of police before slipping out of the shed and vanishing. Only Baby Leafy saw where he went, and she smiled grimly.

* * *

“These are Cocklebur’s animals?” queried an astonished Sugarberry as the critters were deposited at the clinic by Quizzer, Granite, and their lackeys. It was nearly closing time, and Tabby, Thomas, and Sugarberry were scurrying to make room for the influx of new patients. “What do the police have to do with them?” The mare was thoroughly disgusted.

“Thomas said that Tawny thinks these animals were stolen from their owners,” Tabby said nonchalantly.

“But they weren’t! You would have recognized them the day we were over there if they were!”

“You know that and I know that, Sug, but Tawny is a suspicious stallion; we have to humor him.”

Thomas grimaced at his wife as he lugged another cage in. “I see no humor in the situation.”

“Nor do I!” griped Sugarberry, unable to comprehend the mind that would abscond perfectly contented pets from the colt who was giving them better care than they would find anywhere else, except here at the clinic, of course.

“Don’t we sound surly!” said a mare’s voice as Elaine entered the clinic. “I got your message, Tabby; what’s going on?” She looked over the mismatched cages that were sitting on every available surface.

“Chief Tawny thinks he’s uncovered a notorious animal thief whom he suspects of mistreating his captives,” Thomas revealed.

Elaine giggled. “A cat burglar?”

Thomas grinned while Tabby looked confused and Sugarberry finally relinquished some of her anger. “Cats, turtles, dogs... you name it, we’ve got it,” she said.

“Can you believe that Tawny thinks this groundhog with the cut on its paw is a raccoon?” asked Tabby, a look of complete disbelief on her face. “And if there’s a chinchilla in the bunch, it’s masquerading as something else.”

“Seabreeze will be upset when she finds out that Teatime has changed from a box turtle to a painted turtle since she last saw him,” Thomas joked.

“Well, I still can’t believe that Tawny of all ponies would suspect Cocklebur of anything so devious as this,” Sugarberry reiterated. “He’s a very agreeable colt, and Tabby can vouch for the fact that he was taking excellent care of these strays.”

“There’s no need to worry about Cocklebur; none of the owners with missing pets will find their darlings here,” Tabby rationalized, holding up the green snake to check on his healing.

Positioning herself behind the counter away from the snake, Sugarberry helped Elaine inspect several kittens who were still huddled in a corner of their cage after their abrupt removal from the only safe haven they had known. She was cuddling one of the soft black cuties when Vanguard came into the room.

“This is a busy place for quitting time,” he commented as he took in the cramped quarters with a raised brow. “Is there some sort of epidemic I haven’t heard about?” His gaze settled on his wife’s face, and he saw the anger smouldering there.

“It’s some sort of stupidity that’s rampant with Dream Valley’s finest right now,” Sugarberry revealed. As she and Tabby and Thomas took turns conveying the events of the afternoon, Vanguard listened in amused interest.

“Tawny’s daughter’s rabbit is missing,” he stated at the end of the story. “That would explain why he’s so hot to find the scoundrel.”

“How’d you know that?” asked Tabby.

“Roland heard it from Becca who heard it from a friend of Shimmer’s.”

“Tawny certainly doesn’t think that wild rabbit is Twinkle’s pedigreed angora, I hope,” grinned Elaine with a wink at her brother.

“He did seem kind of nervous about something,” remarked Thomas with a chuckle. “I can just imagine his showing up at home tonight without Thistledown in his forelegs; Twinkle has never seemed to me to be a patient foal.”

“She’s a little brat!” offered Tabby.

“I do have to feel sorry for her, though, if her rabbit is still missing,” admitted Sugarberry. “But I feel even worse for Cocklebur and his family. They must feel like they are being unjustly persecuted.”

“When you’re done here, maybe we should walk over and see how they’re doing,” Vanguard suggested, knowing that was the route his wife would take anyway.

“Could we?” Sugarberry lightened. “I’d feel better touching base with them.”

“You two go on your way,” said Thomas, closing up the crow’s cage after a quick look at Cocklebur’s handiwork on the now nearly healed wing. “We can handle the rest of the work here.”

“Oh, thanks, Thomas.” Sugarberry grinned her appreciation and made good her escape. “Good night, Tabby... Elaine. See ya.”

* * *

Dusk having settled its ashen curtain over the land, Baby Leafy whistled as she approached the gnarled old oak tree in the backyard of Cocklebur’s house not because she was trying to build up her courage but to warn Cocklebur that she was approaching his private domain. The filly stopped momentarily beneath the tree, then deftly grabbed onto the lowest branch and swung herself up. The colored leaves that still remained rustled in the gentle evening breeze, a soothing sound. Leafy could understand why Cocklebur had hidden himself here to escape the accusations of Chief Tawny and the repercussions those accusations would have on his family.

Leafy could just make out the shadowy shape of Cocklebur on a branch above hers, but the colt had as of yet not spoken a single word to acknowledge her presence; the filly waited in silence for several minutes, then could contain her curiosity no longer.

“Cocky, please say something!”

Several leaves rained down on the filly as Cocklebur shifted his position on the branch. “Somethin’,” the colt then said.

Grinning, Baby Leafy looked up at the vague figure. “You missed supper.”

“Yeah. I couldn’t have eaten anyway.”

“No one ate much.”

“You were here all this time?”

“Sure; I couldn’t leave not knowing when you’d decide to come out of hiding.”

“I’m not hidin’.”

Baby Leafy shrugged her shoulders. “It looks that way to me.”

“I’m just thinkin’, that’s all.”

“Your mom and dad are getting worried about you.”

“You’d think they’d be glad if I disappeared... just like those pets did.”

“Why would you think that?” Baby Leafy stared up at the dark smudge that was Cocklebur; night was falling fast.

“Chief Tawny thinks I caused all this trouble; that’ll make trouble for my folks. I can’t prove I didn’t take those animals, you know.”

“But you don’t have any of those pets and you never did; Chief Tawny will find that out soon enough.”

“Yeah, but no one ever liked me as it was; they’ll believe what they want to believe.”

“Hey! I like you, and so does Falling Leaves and Leaper and lots of ponies.”

“Okay, maybe, but most ponies will think the worst of me.”

Leafy gave that some thought. “Some will, like Twinkle and Rainbow Heart and Snippy; but who cares? They’re always obnoxious anyway. Sugarberry and Vanguard don’t believe you took the animals.”

More leaves showered Leafy as Cocklebur made an effort to peer down at her. “How would you know that?”

“They stopped in to let you know that your animals had gotten to the vet clinic safely and were being watched out for.”

“So Tabby’s the one they went to?”


Slightly confused, Cocklebur remarked, “Chief Tawny said he was sendin’ them to some Thomas.”

“That’s Tabby’s husband; he’s a vet, too. They’re both in charge of them for the time being; and even Elaine, who is Thomas’ sister and a vet herself, came over from Friendship Gardens to lend them a hoof. Sugarberry says the animals were nervous at first but were settling down okay.”

There was a deep silence for a time as Cocklebur mulled over this information until his voice floated down with a return of more of its usual enthusiasm. “Get out of the tree; I’m comin’ down.” The scuffle of hooves against bark was the next sound heard until both young ponies were on the ground. “Tabby knows about my patchin’ up those critters, so she would know that Chief Tawny doesn’t know what he’s talkin’ about.”

Leafy grinned. “And if Tabby knows the truth, everybody else soon enough will!”

* * *

Tabby decided something needed to be done about the elusive thief. After careful consideration, she hit upon the perfect trap to set. That night, one of her various Furbys was set out on the porch as bait. Tabby stationed herself by the window and kept an eye on things.

She was not disappointed. Shortly after midnight, an ominous sound could be heard echoing through the neighborhood: the quacking of a duck. Absentmindedly, Tabby recalled that a duck’s quacking does not echo, which just went to prove how evil the source of the sound was.

The steady flopping of webbed feet suddenly halted at the steps to the porch. The rouen duck paused and cocked his head, searching for something. His gaze lit on the unblinking Furby staring out into the night. Excitedly, the duck scurried up the stairs and began quacking intelligibly at the Furby.

“Whodoh, wah?” said Toh-Loo Kah XXVI (Tabby had begun adding numbers behind the name of each Furby, since so many of their names were duplicates). The Furby was answered by more violent quacking. “O-kay,” she consented and floated off onto the ground. Eagerly, the duck sped off in the direction of the Dark Forest; Toh-Loo trailed along behind, as were Tabby’s orders.

Tabby smiled grimly to herself. So it was Quackers who was behind all this. How typical of such a demonic creature! Apparently, Butch, after fleeing the country, had left his pet behind. Tabby knew how intrinsically evil the creature was: Hadn’t he chased her out of the examining room on his first visit to the vet clinic? And hadn’t he forced her to spend a night locked in the bathroom while he tried to access her home? Not to mention that he had also accosted her at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe. His pet thievery only went further to prove her point. Now the only thing left to do was to confront the villain at his lair and liberate his prisoners, as surely all the lost pets would be where Quackers was.

Come morning, Tabby, with visions of a classic village mob scene complete with pitchforks and flaming torches, tried to rally the involved ponies to march against the evil villain in the Dark Forest. No one really believed her story, however, and did not want to join what they termed a “wild duck chase”. In the end, Tabby gained only one supporter and that was in the form of Baby Noddins.

* * *

“Dreamcatcher, your cabin in the woods is wonderful!” exclaimed Bluebonnet. Sugarberry had gently coaxed the mare and her family to come to the celebration as a means to make some new friends; it was the night of the housewarming for the cozy dwelling that had materialized out of the Dark Forest. The hours of labor to erect and finish the domicile had been well worth it, everyone agreed. Rustic yet practical, the home nestled into its arboreous surroundings, far enough back from the river to be spared any flooding, yet close enough to be serenaded by the tremulous flow of the water.

Sharing the site was the tepee that had been Dreamcatcher’s first home in the area, the home that she and Fetish had shared after their marriage. Now, with the addition of Tamarack, the family was encompassing some of the conveniences that would bridge their Native Pony heritage with current day Ponyland. To celebrate that passage, all of the ponies who had helped shape the timbered cabin had come together with Dreamcatcher and Fetish to set the home on its course of accumulating pleasant memories.

“Do you think we’ll have enough food?” joked Fetish as he surveyed the spread of potluck dishes that had accumulated on the makeshift tables that had been erected under the trees to accommodate the large number of ponies, Bushwoolies, and others who had come to share the festivities.

“Just give me time,” said Clever Clover, nearly drooling over the variety of dishes that were begging for consumption.

“Reminds me of the stories of the first Thanksgiving,” mused Hubert, “although the autumnal ritual of the mountain-dwelling Ferines also comes to mind,” he added as Faline wiggled our of his forelegs and joined a cluster of apparently famished foals who were helping themselves to the offerings. “It was said that as many as thirty kine were consumed over the three-day festival as well as untold amounts of ear corn that was cooked not unlike the pit method used here tonight.”

“Yes, dear,” Agatha responded to her husband, winking at Sugarberry as that mare joined the group.

“Thomas tells me that Tabby didn’t come tonight,” Sugarberry stated in some annoyance, “although he wasn’t clear as to what she had to do that was so important she had to miss this party.” She looked quizzically at Agatha.

“Something came up,” Agatha vaguely. As Sugarberry tried to question Agatha further, the blue mare dismissed the conversation with a wave of her hoof. “You know Tabby.”

Yes, Sugarberry did know Tabby, and she found herself- for a brief moment- unsettled.

* * *

As everyone else of their acquaintance gathered to enjoy Dreamcatcher and Fetish’s hospitality, the two unicorns met each other, prepared to fight the demonic duck. Baby Noddins, who had been unable to find a pitchfork in her family’s gardening shed, armed herself with a basic kitchen fork; and Tabby, who was deathly afraid of fire in any form, wielded an unlighted candle. Thus prepared, they set out into the Dark Forest to confront the enemy.

They determined that the best place to check would be Butch’s former place of residence in the Dark Forest, once a shack but later converted into a comfortable home by Butch for the purpose- everyone had supposed- to provide a suitable domicile for a wife; Butch’s clandestine departure from the area, however, had put an end to that theory. If Quackers had been left behind, he could potentially still be in the area.

Tabby knew the track fairly well, and soon she and Baby Noddins came to Butch’s old home. Lights blazed through all the windows and the sounds of merriment could be heard from within.

Motioning for Baby Noddins to stay quiet, the two advanced stealthily towards one of the back windows and cautiously peered in. A wild scene met their eyes: a menagerie of different animals were hanging out dancing, eating, playing games, and partying. Quackers was seated at the head of the full dining table, in the process of proposing a toast with the rest of his companions while quacking wildly.

“Wow, that looks like fun!” Baby Noddins said. “Ooh, and see? There’s Precious, and Teatime, and Thistledown... everybody’s pet is here!”

“Quackers is most assuredly the culprit,” Tabby agreed. “Come on; let’s storm the joint!”

* * *

“Faline is definitely enjoying herself,” Sugarberry commented as she nodded to a group of foals who had made short work of an array of finger jell-o shapes that had once graced the table.

Laughingly, Sugarberry responded. “Fern will be happy to know her contribution was so well received.”

At that moment a gong sounded, signaling the start of the pastoral buffet-style meal; and Agatha reclaimed Faline as family and friends came together to savor the multitude of flavors and aromas that beckoned. Vanguard, in company with Thomas and Elaine, came across the grassy clearing and grinned at his wife. “Wigwam says to remind you of your promise to try his mother’s recipe for pemmican. I gave you an out by telling him you had been feeling rather queasy again lately, so he can’t hold you to it.”

“You are so considerate,” Sugarberry returned his smile. “But right now I’m so hungry, I think I could eat anything.”

“How are all your patients at the clinic doing?” queried Becca, stumbling to a stop to chat as she and Roland passed by.

“As no one was able to find their missing pets among the bunch, Chief Tawny had the good grace to remove them from my care and return them to Cocklebur,” explained Thomas.

“And still no idea who is responsible for taking all those missing pets in the first place?” wondered Roland.

Thomas coughed nervously. “Nothing definite that I’ve heard.”

“And your new Friendship Garden clinic must be prospering,” Becca turned to Elaine. “I was talking to Merry Moments and Quarterback earlier today, and they said you were heaven sent.”

Blushing, Elaine murmured, “It was the right decision for me, and Secret Tales has been a big help.”

Beaming proudly at his sister, Thomas concurred. “Elaine saw a need and filled it, and she’s shown a tremendous amount of Fairfax determination throughout.”

Elaine looked to Sugarberry and Agatha to rescue her from the effusive praise; Hubert, however, got in the next word. “The publishing firm should be ready to move into their new building shortly by the looks of it; I see that the landscaping has been taken care of.”

“Macarius plans on beginning operations the second week in October; that, of course, means that Alan will be soon moving into our area.” Thomas flashed a teasing grin at Elaine, causing an even deeper blush to redden her cheeks.

“Yes,” Becca smiled at Elaine. “I’ve yet to meet that fine stallion, but Macarius has assured me that Alan will be my contact pony for incorporating the business into our local Chamber of Commerce.”

“Alan’s looking forward to working with the Dream Valley ponies,” Elaine verified.

“That’s not all he’s looking forward to, I’m sure,” grinned Roland knowingly.

“I think we should get in line for the food,” Sugarberry advised, drawing Elaine off toward the tables.

Greetings were exchanged with Wishbone and Garnet as Sugarberry and Vanguard began to load their plates. “I’ve never seen so much food in one place!” Garnet admitted, taking small servings so as to sample as many dishes as possible.

“Mom and Dad would love this,” owned Wishbone. “They’re always looking for new recipes to use at their restaurant.”

“I wouldn’t mind having the recipe to this concoction,” admitted Whisk, the current manager of the Estate Manor. “I wonder who made it.”

Thinking back, Sugarberry was able to give him an answer. “I’m sure it was Miranda who brought that, Whisk. It’s rather elegant, isn’t it?” she added as she inspected the perfectly molded salad.

“Just like Miranda,” grinned Wishbone.

From across the table, a foreleg appeared with a dollop of a bland and unappetizing portion of something that plopped onto Sugarberry’s plate. Looking up in surprise, Sugarberry found herself regarding Wigwam’s laughing eyes. “Mom’s specialty,” he said.

The mare sighed a sacrificial sigh. “I guess I did promise.”

“It tastes better than it looks,” offered Wigwam.

“Especially if you eat it in combination with something good,” essayed Chocolate Chip, who had been introduced to the dish on several occasions when dining at Wigwam’s folk’s house.

“And it’s nutritious,” Wigwam added.

“I’m sure I’ll enjoy it,” grimaced Sugarberry, thinking of some of the dishes she had made for herself that had fortified her in those early days of living life away from her own mother’s fine cooking.

“It’s great with salsa,” stated Clever Clover, taking a generous helping of the Native American dish and causing several ponies to groan at the thought.

“Oh! My favorite!” Spike, too, loaded his plate with the unappealing mixture, adding a squirt of hot sauce.

“I’ve got to rethink my criteria for judging a good recipe,” Sugarberry commented softly to Vanguard.

* * *

Back at Butch’s place, the two unicorns crept along to the front door. Tabby whipped it open and stood framed in the doorway, a look of malice upon her face. This interrupted the party spirit; and Quackers, recognizing his foe, slowly got down from his chair and waddled towards her.

“Quackers,” Tabby said forcefully, “this is the outside of enough! How dare you rob the townsponies of their beloved pets? This behavior is unforgivable! You must unhand- ahh, unfoot- them immediately or else face our wrath!”

Quackers only quacked back angrily and made wild gestures with his wings. The other animals, seemingly upset by the disruption of their party, all gathered around their leader. Tabby’s eyes widened as Quackers thrust his wing towards her with a fierce battle cry, and all the angry pets came rushing towards the ponies.

Tabby- and Baby Noddins, who had been peering over Tabby’s shoulder- promptly began screaming and tried to turn around to run, but only tripped over each other. The animals almost upon them, the two regained their footing and took off in a streak through the Dark Forest with the pack of enraged pets on their heels.

* * *

Sitting comfortably on one of Dreamcatcher’s hoof-woven rugs under the hanging lanterns that bobbed gently on the sporadic breezes, Sugarberry relaxed in easy conversation as now sated ponies mingled from group to group. Agatha had settled snugly in company with Sugarberry while Hubert and Vanguard walked with the sleepy Faline.

“Your mother called to share her busy days; she couldn’t be happier with her new grandfoals,” Agatha said as she accepted a mug of coffee from Baby Leafy who, in the company of Falling Leaves and Cocklebur, was serving refreshments. Sugarberry was relieved to see that Cocklebur had been able to put Chief Tawny’s aspersions behind him; she also noted that Baby Noddins had not been around asking her inquisitive questions.

“I can’t wait to visit Berryville myself,” admitted Sugarberry. “With Raspberry’s twins arriving so soon after Gooseberry’s little colt, things are really hopping there.”

“Refresh my memory; Gooseberry’s brood now consists of...”

“The oldest is Wineberry, then Huckleberry, followed by Baby Gooseberry, and the newest arrival is Loganberry.”

“And all twice-as-fancy, I’m given to understand.”

Sugarberry smiled broadly. “Gooseberry and Grapevine have a knack for that.”

“And it’s obvious that Driftwood was responsible for his foals’ names,” chuckled Agatha, thinking of the little twins, Custard and Cream. “Food drives that stallion’s life.”

Fern and Toby stopped to chat, too. “This housewarming turned out to be quite an event,” Toby began as he scanned the crowded grounds approvingly.

“I haven’t seen your Aunt Maisie, Fern,” Sugarberry observed.

Giggling, Fern revealed the reason for her great-aunt’s absence. “Aunt Maisie has met someone.”

“Someone? You mean a stallion?” asked Sugarberry, her eyes widening.

“Isn’t it grand? You know how much time she spends volunteering at the hospital to help out Snuzzle; well, one of the patients took a liking to Maisie.”

“How sweet!”

“He was able to return to his home, but he still needs special care; and Maisie is quite devoted.”

“Excuse me for interrupting you girls,” Toby chimed, turning to Fern. “Chocolate Chip is gesturing that we’re to join her crew over by the tepee; I believe Dreamcatcher and Fetish have some entertainment planned.”

Vanguard and Hubert returned with Faline just as Toby and Fern were leaving, and Vanguard dropped down at Sugarberry’s side while Hubert settled next to his wife; Faline, very close to sleep, contentedly snuggled up on the blanket by her grandparents.

Everywhere around them, ponies were taking up positions to enjoy their hosts’ special thank you to all those who had helped them get a sound roof over their heads before the winter weather settled down on the land. It was Jalap, Fetish’s cousin, who spoke, silencing the chattering guests; a drum added a provocative background beat as the campfire before the tepee cast its flickering light over the setting.

“The past is left behind, but the future beckons. The Native Ponies wish to connect all of us to the history of this favored land, to our bothers and sisters who have shared the path of perseverance with dignity. This homestead of Fetish and Dreamcatcher and their little son, Tamarack, is a living symbol that connects the primal traditions with the contemporary culture of Ponyland. It is not a giving up but an adding on, a uniting of two worlds.

“And to express their gratitude for the help given to them to make this transition, Fetish and Dreamcatcher wish to give you a glimpse of the Native Pony spirit by sharing with you their music. Listen, then, for the sounds of your ancestors.”

As Jalap’s voice faded away, the haunting and beautiful sounds of Native Pony flutes gently swelled, imbuing the resplendent eventide with haunting yet pure melodies that evoked long-forgotten images of natural harmony. Sugarberry closed her eyes to absorb the passion and the mystery of a spiritual dimension that flowed like a living force from the talented ponies who could elicit such emotions from their simple instruments.

Conscious of Vanguard’s foreleg encircling her and the unborn foal within, Sugarberry opened her eyes to smile at her husband and hold his gaze while savoring the impressions of the moment. She and Vanguard, too, were adding on- a connection of the past with the future. “I love you,” she whispered to the stallion who was her life-mate.

Vanguard leaned to kiss Sugarberry as the last poignant notes of Dreamcatcher and Fetish’s melody trembled on the air when, with a rush that erupted across the bewitching mood like a well-brandished saber, came a piercing scream.

* * *

Obviously the kidnaped pets had all been enjoying Quackers’ hospitality immensely and did not wish to leave his haven. Quackers led the charge of various animals, exciting them all with more energy with which to pursue the intruders, who continued to scream their heads off. The two ponies, who had lost all sense of direction, were completely surprised to suddenly stumble upon the scene of the housewarming.

“Somebody help!!!!” Baby Noddins yelled.

“They’re going to destroy us!!!!” Tabby shrieked.

The animals for the most part slowed down as they neared this conglomeration of ponies, suddenly recognizing former housemates. Quackers tried to urge them forward to hunt down their enemies, but the charge had lost steam. Dogs, cats, and everything else started gravitating towards their original ponies, realizing that their true place was at home, not with Quackers.

Quackers stomped his webbed feet angrily, but everyone was so busy being reunited with their pets that no one paid attention to him. After seeing this, he let out a few outraged quacks before sulking off back into the forest.

* * *

“Tabby, are you all right?” questioned Thomas as he supported his wife, concern in his voice but an amused twinkle in his eyes.

“I told you that duck was evil!” Tabby countered with a gasp, still out of breath from her and Baby Noddins’ cross-country escape. “And wipe that smirk of your face!”

Thomas chuckled. “I would never smirk at you, Tabby; however, you must admit that it was rather humorous to see you being chased by that hoard of rampant fur-balls- I mean, did you see the sharp, pointy teeth on that angora rabbit?” The stallion could not contain his laughter.

“The spectacle took me back to the time the Kerants were assailed by their neighboring tribe, the Motars,” Hubert shared. “Although the Motars were small and furry, the Kerants were driven into the hills by the ferocity of the attack; I’ll admit, the Motars did have quite a nasty bite to them, but...”

The quelling look on Tabby’s face ended Hubert’s discourse; and Thomas, knowing when enough was enough, took the pink unicorn into his forelegs and pulled her close. “You were very brave to track down the nefarious Quackers, sweetheart; everyone owes you a debt of gratitude.” Thomas paid his portion of that debt with a long and lingering kiss that left Tabby breathless once more.

* * *

As the stimulating evening wound down and Tabby, Thomas, Faline, Sugarberry and Vanguard walked back toward their homes in Dream Valley in the company of Bluebonnet and her family, Tabby took advantage of a break in the conversation to enlighten the others about some information her Furby had gleaned from the night’s activities.

“From what Toh-Loo found out while she was there,” she began, “Quackers was suffering from loneliness after his mate was taken from him. You see, she was a mallard and he a rouen, and her family did not like to see her consorting with their rival species. Henceforth, she and Quackers were forced to part; and in order to avoid the extreme isolation of being alone in the forest after Butch left, he resorted to petty thievery to gain more companions.”

“Do I sense a note of compassion for the evil duck in your voice, Tabby?” queried Sugarberry.

“Well, I’ve been thinking; if we could find a companion for Quackers, maybe he’d mellow out and wouldn’t be trying to chase me all the time.”

Cocklebur, who had been following this conversation, spoke up. “Aren’t rouen ducks the kind that look just like mallards, but they can’t fly?”

“Yes,” answered Tabby. “They’re meatier and too heavy to lift off for very long distances.”

“I’ve seen some of those on Scuttle’s farm; I was wondering... maybe he’d be willing to let Quackers have a mate from his flock.”

Tabby stopped and grinned at the colt. “Why, Cocklebur, that’s a good idea! And since you seem to be a good friend of Scuttle, maybe you would talk to him about it.”

“Sure,” beamed Cocklebur. “I have to go out tomorrow to visit Ricky anyway; that raccoon is swell, isn’t he?”

“Once you get past the teeth and the claws,” agreed Tabby, remembering the growling bundle of fur that had been so close behind her and Baby Noddins in their swift flight.

Running up to join her big brother, Cara suddenly cried out. “Ugh! I got some of those cockleburs stuck in my mane, Cocklebur.”

Cocklebur laughed. “I told you not to walk too close to them, brat; they stick like velcro this time of the year.” He helped his sister pull the obstinate prickly fruit of the burdock plant out of not only her mane but also her tail.

“He’s a fine colt, Bluebonnet,” Sugarberry confided as she watched the tenderness that accompanied Cocklebur’s aid for the timid Cara.

Bluebonnet shared a glance with her husband. “He does stick to an idea once he’s gotten something in his head.”

“And he doesn’t give up without a fight,” said Firethorn, “just like those cockleburs stuck in Cara’s hair; that’s what tends to get him in trouble occasionally.”

“Listen!” commanded Tabby, pricking up her ears. “Did you hear that? It’s more of Quackers’ evil quacking!”

“I didn’t hear a thing,” admitted Thomas and agreed to by the others.

Tabby did not argue the point, but she knew that Quackers would some day come to haunt her once more. She tossed her mane back and smiled. Whenever that day came, she would be ready.

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