Unhappy Birthday
written by Sugarberry

"Dumb weeds," grumbled Huckleberry as he pulled yet another smartweed from the soil. So far he had encountered ragweed, dandelion, plantain, pigweed, and sow thistle– and he was only in the first row of pickles. His dad had assigned him the chore of pulling the weeds from the family garden, and Huckleberry was not a happy colt. The hot, humid days of summer were upon Ponyland, and there were a million places that he would rather be than in the middle of the itchy and dusty garden.

Tugging at a particularly big burdock, Huckleberry heard a cheery whistling coming towards him from the lane, and his face brightened. He was quite familiar with the sound as it was the announcement of the approach of his best and dearest friend, Scottie; they had their own system of signals and warnings that they had developed in their lifetime of being neighbors.

Brushing his dirty hooves off, Huckleberry turned towards the garden gate just in time to hail his friend to his location. "Scottie! I thought you were going shopping with your mom today," he called as he ran to the gate to meet his friend.

"Nope," grinned Scottie, his blue eyes twinkling. "I told her to surprise me with her gift; that way I don't have to spend the whole day following her around every store in town while she's picking up the party supplies." He set a fishing pole and a bucket of worms on the ground.

"What kind of birthday cake are you going to have?" Scottie was turning eight years old the next day, and his parents were throwing a splendid party to celebrate. As Scottie's best friend, Huckleberry was nearly as excited about it as Scottie.

"Chocolate with chocolate frosting," Scottie said. "And she's going to get chocolate chip ice cream, too."

"Oh! I can hardly wait!" Huckleberry nearly pranced with the expectation of the fun they would have.

"Me neither," admitted Scottie. "That's why I'm going down to the creek to do some fishin'. Want to come along?"

Huckleberry frowned. "I can't. Dad says I have to have the garden finished by supper time."

"We'll be home in plenty of time for you to finish," Scottie assured the colt. "Get your pole so we get there before the fish stop biting."

Taking one look back at the rows of vegetables that seemed to go on forever, Huckleberry made up his mind. "Okay. But after I catch three fish, I'm going to have to come back to finish this." The colt took off for the shed that housed his fishing gear, and in the process he passed his sisters who were responsible for cleaning the flower beds that were scattered across the lawn.

"Where are you going?" asked the inquisitive Wineberry while Baby Gooseberry pulled out yet another viola plant.

"Fishin' with Scottie."

The words were said on the run, but Wineberry caught them and stood up from her position on the ground and put on an expression that rivaled her mother's sternest countenance. She was ready for Huckleberry when he rushed out of the shed with the pole in hoof. "Dad said you had to have the garden done by supper time," she reminded him.

"I know!" scowled Huckleberry. "And I'll be back in plenty of time to finish it."

"You'd better be, or you'll be in big..."

Huckleberry did not wait around to hear a lecture from his sister. He knew full well that his father expected him to do the job allotted to him and to do it well. "I'll get it done," he muttered under his breath as he came up to Scottie who was still waiting at the garden gate, only now with a hoof full of green beans. "At least you could have pulled some weeds while you were waitin'." Huckleberry admonished him.

"There aren't that many weeds in there; you should see our garden!" observed Scottie. "You'll finish in no time."

A twinge of conscience struck Huckleberry, and he offered a suggestion. "Why don't you help me with the garden now, and then we can go fishin' without having to worry about it."

"Who's worryin'?" chortled Scottie. "I'm goin' to have some fun!" He set off across the meadow in the direction of the stream.

Shaking his head, Huckleberry hesitated only a moment before following his friend. The day which had seemed so uncomfortably hot and miserable when he had been confined to the garden suddenly seemed bright and beautiful with the potential of catching some good-sized fish from the colts' favorite fishing hole just below the riffles where the water dropped gradually down across a spread of large rocks, emptying into a cold, clear pool.

As the two arrived at the grove of box elder and elm that converged near the water at this point, Huckleberry breathed deeply of the sun-drenched smells that met his nose. Clusters of bergamot gave off a rich, minty fragrance and the carrot-like smell of the Queen Anne's lace was vibrant in the air. Over it all reigned the fresh smell of the tumbling stream as it skipped over the rocks in its path before sliding into the rounded pool of slower moving water. Here was the place where the biggest fish fed and slept in the deepest, darkest reservoir under the shelter of the bank.

Throwing down their gear, both colts hurriedly baited their hooks and threw the lines out into the peaceful water. The colorful red and white bobbers floated lazily on the water's surface while Huckleberry and Scottie made themselves comfortable on an old fallen log that served them well as a convenient perch.

"What did you get me for my birthday?" asked Scottie as he pulled a long stalk of grass free from its outer sheathing and put the green, tender stem into his mouth.

Shooting him a secretive glance, Huckleberry replied enigmatically. "It's something you've wanted for a long time."

"I have a lot of wants, so that really doesn't tell me much."

"That's the idea."

"What if it is the same thing that Mom decides to get me?"

"My mom saved the receipt, so you can take it back if that happens.

"How much did it cost?"

"More than Mom wanted to pay; I had to chip in two weeks allowance."

"You parted with some of your own money?"

"Your bobber!" Huckleberry yelled. "You've got a bite!"

The colts' attention was drawn to the action in the water; Scottie landed a big one and Huckleberry soon had a keeper of his own. For awhile, they were kept busy minding their lines; they were proud of the catch, which would make a great supper. Their mothers were always happy to fix the fish their sons brought home.

"We can go home now," Huckleberry said, looking proudly at the catch. "I'll have to get back to the weeds."

"Let's walk down river and cut across through the sylvan glen," suggested Scottie. "We can take a break there."

The thought of the quiet and peaceful spot where Scottie and Huck did a lot of their dreaming and scheming proved irresistible for Huck; the grouping of old, towering trees was his favorite place on his father's acreage, and the colts often disappeared to its solitary tranquility when they wanted to be alone. Although only a small grouping of trees, the place seemed steeped in antiquity which gave it an otherwordly feeling that appealed to their sensitivities.

Following a nearly indiscernible path through the thicket of the outlying wild berry brambles and gooseberry bushes with their prickly spines, the two young ponies were soon in the midst of the towering, moss-covered tree trunks; the canopy overhead filtered out the hottest of the sun's rays, making the coppice a pleasant hideaway on a summer day. Toward the center of the cluster of trees was a more open area where wildflowers grew amidst scattered rocks big enough for a pony to sit on and breathe in the fragrant smells of nature undisturbed.

Huckleberry remembered the time he had brought Aunt Sugarberry to this spot; she had grimaced and complained when they had worked their way through the prickly defense of berry bushes, but once inside the heart of the wooded haven, she had been as enthralled by the beauty of the place as Huck himself. "If I had such a place as this to guide my thoughts," she had told him, "I would have written a great novel by now."

The two boys situated themselves in their favorite spots; Scottie always climbed up into a low branch of a gnarled old cedar tree where he was even more isolated by the protecting branches. Huckleberry, however, preferred a weathered rock that had a worn smooth surface that made a comfortable resting place. As he soaked up the refreshing vibes of this magical place, he pondered the idea of writing his own epic novel; someday he would have to come here alone with a notebook and try his talent in that regard. The next time he saw Aunt Sugarberry, he could impress her with the ideas that had flowed through him from this treasured place.

"What are you going to be when you grow up?" Huckleberry asked Scottie. It was a question they often asked of each other; and the answer was always different, depending on the current circumstances governing their lives.

The answer was so slow in coming that Huck thought his buddy had fallen asleep, but finally a well thought-out reply came from the hidden depths of the tree. "I'm going to own a fish farm," was today's answer. "What about you?"

"Maybe I'll be a writer."

A challenging guffaw sounded from the tree. "You'd better learn to use commas and periods before you start." It was true; Huckleberry found that he could not be bothered with details like punctuation when he was putting his thoughts on paper. His teachers had so far worked in vain to impress upon him the utter necessity of proper punctuation. Huck himself preferred working with numbers; you knew where you stood with numbers, unlike words with their multitude of meanings and innuendoes.

"Maybe I'll be a math teacher like Uncle Vanguard," he revised his answer.

"Why don't you want to work with your dad on the vineyard?" queried Scottie, his voice sounding far away and rather sleepy.

Huckleberry contemplated his feelings on that matter. He loved the outdoor existence that tending the grapes involved, but the routine was boring and uneventful. He dreamed of a future with no steady obligations to interfere with his ability to run off to the river and fish when he so desired, to hike across the snow-covered land in the winter, to search out the first signs of spring, and to enjoy the crisp autumn days unencumbered. His dad worked in the company of the land, but never had a chance to really enjoy it– or so it seemed to Huckleberry. As his thoughts progressed along these lines, it occurred to him that a teacher would be no better off; and come to think of it, maybe there was no occupation that was not confining in some respect. So his answer to Scottie was evasive. "I don't know."

No more questions came from the source of the tree, so Huckleberry allowed his thoughts to take him where they would. As he sat in silent reverie, a nimble little chipmunk came out from behind the rock and proceeded to eat seeds from the grasses that lifted their seed-heads skyward. The creature kept his bright eyes on the motionless pony that had entered his domain, but the chipmunk apparently deemed him harmless and continued with his snack. All was quiet.

When Huckleberry lifted his head some time later, the chipmunk was gone. Subconsciously he knew that a block of time had passed, and he realized that he had fallen asleep. The sun was lower in the sky than Huckleberry would have hoped it to be; an uneasy feeling ate at his guts. Suddenly, he remembered what was haunting him– he was supposed to have the garden in tip-top shape by supper time. He sat up abruptly and called for Scottie. A rustle of branches announced that his friend was still in the tree, and soon a sleepy-eyed colt dropped from the lowest branch. Rubbing his eyes, he yawned. "Must have fallen asleep."

Huckleberry was in a panic. "I've got to get home quick; Dad will be comin' home from the vineyard soon!" Without waiting for the other pony, he grabbed his fishing apparatus and took off among the tree trunks, through the bordering ring of bushes, and headed pell-mell across the meadow towards home. Never before had it taken so long to cover the ground between the glen and home before; Huckleberry felt as if he was in a dream, and could accomplish no forward progress. Panting and sweating, he finally rounded the toolshed and came head to head with his father.

"Hi, Huckleberry!" Grapevine said as he put away the shears and spray can that he had been using that day. "Looks like you've been fishing."

So far, so good, thought Huckleberry. Maybe Dad forgot about the chores I was supposed to do. "Me and Scottie went down to the river and I caught these," he said, holding up the string of fish.

"Your mother will be happy to see those," Grapevine said as he tousled his son's mane. "Now, why don't you show me the good job you did on the garden."

Huckleberry's heart sank. He should have known that his father would not forget. With lowered head, he turned to walk to the garden.

Grapevine, oblivious to his son's despondent demeanor, told him of the progress he had made on the vines and how plentiful the crop would be this year. Huckleberry could not find voice to respond, and by this time they had reached the garden gate anyway; words were not needed.

"The pickles look good," Grapevine said approvingly, and Huckleberry allowed himself to raise his head enough to look over the one row he had finished before Scottie and he had taken off for the river.

As Grapevine's line of sight moved on the next row, the tomatoes, he frowned. "You missed a few, son," he stated. As he moved on to the cabbages, his frown deepened; and a quick perusal of the rest of the garden did nothing to improve the look of disapproval that darkened his face. "You were to finish the garden, Huck, not do just one row."

Huckleberry scuffed his hoof through the soil. He could not find the words to say to defend himself, for he knew there were none. He looked forlornly down at the ground and remained silent.

"Huck, I'm waiting for an explanation."

Unable to take the static silence any longer, Huck raised his head to look at his father. "We were only going to be gone for a little while."

"You left before you had finished your job?"

"It was so hot and sticky and going to the river sounded like so much fun." Huckleberry's eyes begged understanding from his father.

"And now the garden work isn't finished." Grapevine's disappointment in his son was apparent, and Huckleberry was devastated.

"I meant to finish it, but we went to the glen and... I fell asleep." It was demeaning to admit such a foalish action.

The set of Grapevine's mouth told Huckleberry more than words could have expressed; he knew his father was holding back from a tongue-lashing. "We'll talk about this later," he finally said, turning to go to the house, leaving Huckleberry standing alone and forlorn.

By the time Huckleberry had gotten the nerve to return to the house himself, his dad had washed up and was sitting at the kitchen table as Gooseberry finished preparing the evening meal. No one made any reference to his misdemeanor, but Huckleberry knew that it had been the only topic of conversation before his entrance; he could feel the tension in the air.

Trying to act as if nothing had happened, Huckleberry placed the fish in the sink and ran cold water over them. He got out the knife for cleaning the fish, hoping that if he showed the initiative to take care of this messy job, his parents would look more kindly upon his previous actions. But his mother stopped him. "Tonight's supper is almost on the table; go clean up and we'll be ready to eat."

As he left the kitchen, Huckleberry cast a glance at his sister; Wineberry was setting the forks and knives at each place, and he noticed that she was being extraordinarily neat about her placement of each utensil; it aggravated him to see it. Whenever he got in trouble, Wineberry would go into her perfect daughter routine which only served to infuriate Huckleberry. She never did anything wrong herself; this only accentuated the severity of the minor offenses that often befell Huckleberry himself.

The atmosphere of the supper hour was strained, and Huckleberry was glad when the dessert had been served and he could make his escape. No one had spoken throughout the meal beyond asking for the potatoes or a slice of bread. Huckleberry was itching to get some time to himself and allow the displeasure of his parents to abate. He was not to be granted that privilege, however.

As Huckleberry prepared to leave the table, his father stopped him. "Not so fast, Huckleberry. We've got some things to discuss. Wineberry, you get Baby Gooseberry washed up and go outside to play."

Nothing more was said until the two sisters had left the room. Huckleberry was frowning in the forced silence once more, but he was to get no rescue from the sentence he received. He stared at his father as Grapevine delivered the punishment.

"It's supposed to rain tonight and tomorrow, and we need to get those weeds out of the garden before the ground gets too wet to work in. Those weeds will grow faster than the vegetable; you know that."

Of course, I know that, Huck griped to himself. A weed will grow anywhere, anytime while a vegetable will fall over and wilt if one so much as looks at it.

"I will help you finish the garden tonight so that the weeds won't get ahead of the good stuff; we'll go out and get started right now." His father pushed his chair back and stood up.

Huckleberry looked to his mother for help, but she only shook her head. "You disobeyed your father and I by running off to the river before your task was finished. You have to pay for your lack of reliability by working this evening and..." Gooseberry looked at her husband as if she could not bring herself to say what still needed to be said.

"You also are grounded for Scottie's birthday party tomorrow. You will spend the afternoon in your room alone." Grapevine said the words, and Huckleberry's face exploded in astonishment.

"No! You can't do that!" He looked from one to the other of his parents, his eyes beseeching them to please not lay down such an unfair judgement.

"You disobeyed us, Huckleberry, and now your father has to finish the work that you were supposed to take care of," Gooseberry said.

"You've got to learn to stick with a chore until it is completed," his father added. "You could have finished the garden with plenty of time to go to the river. This is a good time to learn to set your priorities."

"But Scottie and I have been planning for this party for months, Dad... Mom. I can't miss it!" He wailed out those last words in an agony of spirit.

"There will be no discussion," Grapevine stated. "You and I will go start on the garden right now."

Huckleberry shut his mouth, but his feelings were screaming inside of him. He had no choice but to follow his father from the house and return to the imprisoning garden; his steps were not quick, however, and he fell far behind his father. Wineberry saw her chance. "I told you so!" she said softly enough so that her father would not hear as her brother passed.

Her reproachful smile infuriated Huckleberry even more and he snarled a reply. "Keep your snoopy nose out of it!"

Grapevine heard Huckleberry's angry voice. "Don't be rude to your sister," he admonished.

Huckleberry flashed a hostile glance at Wineberry who only smugly smiled at him in return. Her work had been done, and done properly. If Huckleberry had taken the time to notice, every flowerbed in the yard was perfectly cleaned of any of the menacing weeds that still haunted the garden.

* * *

A thunderstorm drenched the vineyards and garden during the night, and Huckleberry tossed and turned in his bed to have his father's prediction come true. But the next morning dawned bright and sunny; Huckleberry crawled from bed, hoping that his labor the evening before and the absence of more rain today, would soften his parents' chastisement of him.

He picked up the wrapped gift that had been waiting for this day since last weekend when he and his mom had purchased the latest version of Scottie's favorite computer game. The wrapping paper was as bright and cheerful as the morning, and it gave Huckleberry renewed hope.

After washing up and brushing his teeth, Huckleberry grabbed the package and hurried down to the kitchen for breakfast. His dad was just finishing up; he said a curt good morning to Huckleberry, then kissed his wife and daughters before setting off for the endless chores of the vineyard. Baby Gooseberry was playing with the cat, and Wineberry was dawdling over her cereal. She had apparently tired of lording her perfection over her brother and was eager to enjoy his company. "Let's go over to Grandma Berry's house after chores and play in the tree house Grandpa built."

It was Friday, and that meant that he and Wineberry were responsible for dusting all the furniture and all the assorted frills around the house; Gooseberry wanted the house to look nice for the weekend when company would be in and out. Allotting an hour to complete the necessary dusting, Wineberry and Huckleberry should have plenty of time to spend the rest of the morning in carefree abandon; if they were lucky, Grandma would invite them to stay for dinner and an afternoon of taste-testing the assorted pastries, cakes, and cookies that she and Aunt Raspberry would be busy baking, or possibly they would be allowed to help in the attached shop. Gooseberry would do her baking in her own home once Baby Gooseberry was down for her nap.

Huckleberry considered himself fortunate to have his grandparents living next door to the vineyard; he often spent his days roaming through the orchard and berry patches that Gooseberry's father kept. In the other direction down the road, somewhat farther away but still quite accessible, lived Grapevine's parents; their close association provided a limitless amount of fun stuff to do. But this afternoon was Scottie's birthday party, and that was the only place he wanted to be on this special day.

"Mom," he took the opportunity to ask, "the garden is finished and there is no more rain today, so can I go to Scottie's party?" His hoof caressed the wrapped package that he had brought down with him.

Gooseberry turned to him from the laundry she was organizing. "You haven't forgotten what your father and I told you last night, have you? You are not to attend Scottie's party as punishment for running away from your responsibilities yesterday."

"But Scottie is expecting me!" Huckleberry's voice rose in anguish. "I can't miss his birthday."

His mother sighed. "When you and Wineberry are finished with your chores, you can take the present over to Scottie; but I'll expect you back within half an hour."

Huckleberry stared unbelievingly. "You can't mean that!" he cried.

"I do mean it, Huckleberry, and you know why. You made a wrong decision yesterday when you went with Scottie before the garden work was done."

"I won't do it again; I promise! Just let me go to Scottie's party!" He looked at her with pleading eyes. "Please, Mom?"

"You and Wineberry get busy on the dusting; then come back here to get Scottie's present." She lifted the gift from the table and put it out of reach on the refrigerator as if expecting him to bolt out the door with it.

With a wrathful glance at his mother, Huckleberry muttered, "Yeah, for half an hour."

"Come on, Huck," Wineberry urged. "We can get done really quick and you can see Scottie." Even she was feeling sorry for the severity of the discipline.

Huckleberry trudged out of the room to the supply cupboard, and he and his sister loaded themselves with furniture polish and cleaning rags. Wineberry kept up a constant chatter while the two worked their way through the rooms, but Huckleberry was poor company. He thought about Scottie's party and all the fun that would go on at his house today; he was in no mood to be cheerful if he was barred from attending the festivities.

When they were finished with their work, Huckleberry reported back to his mother. "I can take the package to Scottie now," he said despondently.

She fetched the gift and handed it to her son. "Half an hour now, you hear?" She sounded anxious, but she smiled at him as he took the present.

"Half an hour," he repeated, but he could not smile.

* * *

After lunch, Gooseberry reminded her son that he was expected to spend the afternoon in the privacy of his own room, the final awful result of his lack of responsibility yesterday. He opened his mouth to try one more time for a reversal of his parents' decision, but thought better of it when he saw the determination in his mother's face. Without a word, he left the kitchen for his bedroom.

The house was very quiet. Wineberry was off to Grandma's house, and Mother had Baby Gooseberry outside playing in the sandbox so that she would be ready for her nap later. Huckleberry threw himself down on his bed and for the first time since this fiasco had started, he let the tears fall unrestrainedly down his cheeks.

His mom and dad knew how important he and Scottie's friendship was; they were as close as real brothers and they shared all their deepest secrets as well as their most important milestones. And this was one of those occasions. He remembered Scottie's disbelief when he had told him this morning that he was not allowed to come to the party as they had planned. "They can't do that!" Scottie had reacted much as Huckleberry himself had done. "The party won't be any fun without you here!" That was the only thing that gave Huckleberry any reassurance– he would be missed.

A sudden idea came into his mind with that thought... If Scottie would miss him at the party, what would happen if his own family had to do without him? The seed of a plan began to sprout in Huckleberry's mind. At first he fought the idea, because he knew in his inherent knowledge that it would hurt his parents even more than his irresponsibility yesterday. But he was angry at them both for denying him this special day with Scottie; the more he thought, the more strongly he desired to hurt them for the way they had treated him. As the minutes passed, Huckleberry made his decision. He would run away.

Sliding off his bed, Huckleberry went to the window and looked out over the backyard. His mother and baby sister were still at the sandbox, but he knew that it was almost time for Baby Gooseberry to take her nap; once the baby was asleep, Gooseberry would get busy baking for the country store that was connected to Grandma and Grandpa's orchard; she would be busy the entire afternoon. His dad would also be away in the vineyards until supper. All Huckleberry had to do was to sneak away and no one would miss him at least until his mom called him down for supper. "If they allow me any supper," he muttered under his breath. "Maybe they won't miss me until morning." That thought both elated and depressed him.

Huckleberry busily set to work loading his backpack with his most important and necessary belongings. He packed his toothbrush and the prayer book Grandma had given him; he added his notebook and a pencil and his favorite plush animal– a marmalade-colored cat with jointed legs that hugged like a teddy bear. Aunt Raspberry had given it to him on his third birthday, and it had become the guardian of his life; he could not leave Whiskers behind.

"Food would be good," Huckleberry suddenly realized. A quick check out of the window revealed that his mother and sister were still outside, so he hastily but quietly went to the kitchen to retrieve an apple from the fruit bowl and a hoof full of cookies from the cookie jar. He had just started up the stairs when he heard the door open; he had to scoot back to his room in a jiffy to avoid being seen.

Loading the food in with the other articles for the journey, Huckleberry grabbed the satchel and slowly opened the door of his room. No one was in sight, and he could hear cookie sheets being removed from the kitchen cupboard. This was his chance.

Looking back at the room he was about to quit almost ended the trip before it could be started; this was his own space, and he was not happy to think of never seeing it again. He hardened his resolve, took a step out of the room, and softly closed the door.

The kitchen was at the back of the house, so it was no problem creeping down the staircase and easing open the front door; Spot, the house cat, almost spoiled his exit by running over to beg for some attention, but Huckleberry ignored him, although it cost him nearly all the willpower he had left. He went through the door and closed it in Spot's face.

By the time Huckleberry had stolen around the corner of the house and gained the cover of the shed, he was beginning to enjoy the adventure; he only wished that Scottie could be with him. Having freed himself from the house, he had also left behind some of the apprehension that had begun to gnaw on him. For the first time, he saw the chance for success.

To avoid using the lane which would take him by a grandparents' house in either direction, Huckleberry set off across the meadow on the same path that he had returned home yesterday. When he came to the sylvan glen that meant so much to him, he almost allowed himself to be drawn into its welcoming embrace; but once more he steeled himself to go on. If his parents could stop loving him over a few weeds, he wanted no part of them either.

It was only after he got to the river that Huckleberry realized something– Where was he going to spend the rest of his life? He could not cross the river here; he had to go right or left. Pondering the situation, Huckleberry broke out in a smile. Of course! He knew where he could go! He turned to the left and set his course for Dream Valley.

By following the stream, Huckleberry knew that he would come across the road that would take him to his desired destination. He enjoyed the day as he walked along; the rain the night before had lowered the temperature so that it was not too hot; the sun felt good on his body. The river flowed happily beside him and the chirping of insects kept him company. Before he knew it, he had reached the road.

He paused for a moment under the bridge; it was as if a voice in his head had urged him to turn back to his home. But the colt remembered the cold, seemingly uncaring faces of his mom and dad as they denied him the right to attend Scottie's party, and he boosted himself up over the bank and stood determinedly on the lane. He could see no one coming from the direction of his home or no one going in the direction that he intended to take; that was to his advantage. He did not want to be found out now. He took a deep breath, and turned his face toward Dream Valley. Aunt Sugarberry and Uncle Vanguard would be happy to see him, of that he had no doubt. His journey had seriously begun.

* * *

When he traveled with his parents, Huckleberry's mom always knew when he was hungry; and his dad would slow the pace when he saw the foals were lagging behind; on his own, Huckleberry could go at his own speed; but he did not know how fast or slow he was going. He was getting hungry and was glad that he had packed some food, but where should he stop to eat? He was afraid of being seen even though he was getting farther and farther away from home, and he waited to take a break until he had entered the cover of a woods that lined the lane on both sides.

He searched until he came upon a little brook that offered some refreshing water; he chose an out of the way hollow to eat one of the cookies and found ripe berries on the bushes to eat. His legs wanted him to allow some time to rest, but he was worried that he would fall asleep and miss the daylight hours for travel; he was a brave colt, but he did not look forward to spending a night alone in the forest. Soon he was on the trail again.

The woods had always been an exciting place when he had been in the company of his family, but today Huckleberry found the close-packed trees to be rather intimidating. His imagination began to play tricks on him, and he often thought that he was being followed; twigs cracked and leaves rustled. Rodents, surprised by the colt, would suddenly scurry across his path. Crows cawed at him from their lofty perches; and the canopy over his head blocked the sunlight that would help to lighten his spirit. Huckleberry found himself jumping at every unexpected sound or sight that met him.

The lane was now following the curvature of a knoll that rose upward swathed in a mantle of trees, bushes, and vines. There were also a number of boulders sprinkled here and there; Huckleberry remembered his dad telling him and Wineberry and Baby Gooseberry a tale about a troll that had lived beneath a big rock, and Huckleberry could not help thinking that someone– or something– was watching him. He shivered as the sun went under a cloud, and the woods became even darker than before.

It was then that he heard the snap of a branch; it was not the brief cracking sound of a twig being broken in the breeze, but a hard, oppressive sound as if a heavy foot had been placed unknowingly on a branch on the ground. Glancing in the direction of the sound, Huckleberry thought he saw something disappear behind one of the boulders.

Huckleberry gulped. He was alone in the middle of a big woods and something unidentified was following him; he felt very small and helpless. The trip that had always seemed like a pleasant trek was now beginning to oppress him; and he had no idea where he was or how far he still had to go. He managed to control his rising fear, however, and forced himself to continue to his goal.

Every sense was tuned now to the sounds around him; Huckleberry was sure that there was indeed a footfall mimicking his own. If he stopped, the sound stopped; when he started up again, so did the tread of another's feet. He tried to maintain his composure, but his nerves were strung to the breaking point. He did not allow himself to look toward the sound but to continue putting one hoof in front of the other, hoping he would soon see something safe and familiar.

It appeared to the struggling colt that the trees were thinning out; if that were the case, whatever was following him would have nothing to hide behind eventually and would give up his quest. That truth was consoling until Huckleberry realized the other side of the situation; with nothing to hide behind, whatever was following him would have to make his move soon. The colt had just grasped that fact when he heard a rustle that could not be ignored.

Spinning around to face his attacker, Huckleberry prepared himself to meet a relentless and fearsome pursuer; but what met his gaze was so comical that the colt laughed. A raccoon was staring at him from the top of a large rock; he was posed on his hind legs, his front paws hanging in front of him, his thick fur surrounding him, and with a look of genuine curiosity lighting his masked features.

The raccoon watched Huckleberry, and Huckleberry watched the raccoon; eventually, the coon lost interest and went his way. Huckleberry, too, continued his journey. He wondered what the ponies at Scottie's party were doing by now. Had Scottie really missed him? Everyone from their class would have been there, and Huckleberry knew that Scottie would have been too busy to give him a second thought. Maybe the party was already over in which case someone might stop by the house to ask about him and his mom would find him missing. Thinking of that, Huckleberry quickened his steps.

It occurred to Huckleberry that although the trees were definitely thinning out and the woods would soon end, the gloom of the forest still hung over the land. Looking up, he saw that dark clouds had covered the sky; he hoped it would not rain. But he had no sooner cleared the trees which could have offered him some shelter that a shower pelted him with large raindrops that soon had him soaking wet and miserable. It lasted only for several minutes before moving on, but Huckleberry felt like a drowned rat.

As the clouds cleared, the air heated up in the aftermath of the front that had moved through. The sun coming out from behind the clouds was now a scorching heat that only added to Huckleberry's misery. His hair dried, but the humidity following the rain was stifling; he yearned for a glass of cold milk; the cookies still in his backpack held no appeal without something refreshing to wash them down; and the colt still had no idea how far he yet had to go.

After plodding along for another mile or two, Huckleberry was pleased to recognize features of the landscape that let him know that Dream Valley and friendly relatives were not far away. With a renewed burst of energy, he was making good time down the road when he became aware of a shadow passing over him; looking up, he gasped. Swooping through the sky above him was the largest bird Huckleberry had ever seen.

Huckleberry watched the black bird as it stopped its downward momentum and soared higher into the sky; he knew enough about birds to know that this one was a carnivore; he had seen the sharp, curved talons and the hooked bill as the bird had lifted up. He felt compassion for the little meadow creatures who had to be on the alert at all times for just such a predator.

Resuming his path, Huckleberry forgot about the bird until he felt the chilling pass of its shadow once more; he realized that the bird had not left but had simply circled to come in on him once again. He looked up to see the bird pass over him so closely that he could make out the individual wing feathers; he saw the glint of light in the bird's eyes and the ugly featherless red head of the hunter. It was then that he recalled Aunt Sugarberry's stories of the turkey vultures that frequented the meadows around Dream Valley, sometimes in flocks of eight or more; she had described them as majestic, powerful creatures; but Huckleberry could not, at this time, see anything good about them. To his horror, he saw that the bird was circling again and this time coming in much lower yet.

The black feathers seemed to streak toward Huckleberry with unbelievable speed, and the colt was filled with dread. Like an ebony arrow, it was heading straight for the vulnerable pony. Huckleberry felt frozen in his fear, but as the ugly head of the bird approached him, he found the presence of mind to drop flat on the ground and cover his head with his forelegs; he dared not look up, but he knew when the bird passed over him by the rush of wind from the wings as it lifted once more into the sky.

Huckleberry was petrified. What if the bird made another attack? There was no way he could fight this creature off. He remained motionless where he was and held his breath, waiting for the next onslaught.

* * *

Sugarberry and Vanguard's house was alive with activity as an after work supper was being prepared for a number of ponies: Tabby, Thomas, and Faline were there as well as Wigwam; Chocolate Chip and Wishbone were home for the evening, too. Everyone was assembled in the kitchen, and Sugarberry admonished, "The spaghetti will be done in five minutes; and if the table isn't set soon, it will get all soggy by the time we sit down to eat."

"And what does the table getting soggy have to do with anything?" queried Wigwam.

"'It' refers to the spaghetti, not to the table," clarified the mare.

"Face it, Sug; you used bad grammar." Wigwam was relentless.

"You don't seem to have a problem with my grammar when you have a box full of notes for me to check," she countered.

"Apologize," advised Thomas as he and Tabby put the dinnerware on the table, "or you will be doing your next book without any professional assistance."

"Which would suit me just fine," added Vanguard. "It would leave her with more time for... other things."

"Like what, for instance?" asked Wishbone with a smile on his face.

"The spaghetti is done," announced Chocolate Chip as she tested one of the wiggly pastas, putting an end to the current conversation as everyone bustled to get the finishing touches added to the table setting. Faline cooed from her baby seat at the edge of the room, happily interacting with Fluffy-- who was just as happily receiving her wet caresses-- and Raptor– who sat watching her antics as if wondering what kind of creature this tiny pink beauty was.

The back door opened to reveal Agatha and Hubert, and Agatha was scowling at her husband. "I told Hubert we would be late, but he couldn't leave poring over some ancient maps that Clever Clover brought over for him to study." That having been said, she set a salad on the table and went straight to Faline with only a peremptory greeting to the congregated ponies. Gathering up the foal, Agatha was lost to the never-ending thrill of having her first grandchild.

"We're just sitting down now," Sugarberry assured her guests and directed everyone to their places, although the group was together often enough to know by now where they were expected to sit.

"But it is a good thing you got here when you did; Sugarberry was afraid the spaghetti would be soggy," volunteered Wigwam.

"Soggy spaghetti is horrid," Tabby shuddered.

"I like soggy spaghetti," Hubert revealed. "It reminds me of a rather enticing dish they served at the Tibetan monastery which was made, of course, from..."

"Hubert!" his wife interrupted him as she carried Faline to the sink.

"Please sit down and eat, Agatha," Hubert entreated his wife. "After Sugarberry went to all this work, you shouldn't stay away from the table."

"This foal is covered in cat fur," Agatha frowned. "Orange cat fur," she added with a particularly disgusted look at Fluffy who slunk from the kitchen, properly chastised.

"What are Clever Clover's maps of, Hubert?" Vanguard asked, passing the garlic bread around the table.

"Well, when I first saw them, I thought they represented the early days of Angmoor, but the more I examine them, the more I think they may be of Ing-Man-Too instead. I wish I could discuss this with Lord Cobblestone; ol' Rocky Road would know what they were. Of course, Clever Clover was hoping they would shed some light on the beginnings of Ponyland, but I highly doubt that... unless, of course, ..." Hubert mentally drifted off, considering yet another possibility in the mystery of the maps.

"The bread smells delicious," commented Agatha, joining them with Faline in her forelegs.

"That was my contribution to the supper," Wishbone admitted. "It's an old family recipe."

"Sure, it is," smirked Chocolate Chip, holding up the wrapper from Oakley's Grocery behind Wishbone's back for all to see.

"How's your long-distance friendship with Petal coming, Wishbone?" asked Tabby. She may have missed the wedding, but she had been filled in on every detail.

Wishbone's color camouflaged the blush, but his cheeks darkened nonetheless. "We've been in touch a time or two," he conceded.

"A time or two a day," enlightened Vanguard with a grin.

"She's coming to school here this fall," revealed Wishbone. "She had previously been accepted at Binks because she was too afraid of having Van for a teacher to think of coming to Pony Pride."

"Your reputation is that bad, Vanguard?" winked Agatha.

Wishbone clarified the facts. "Petal doesn't think she's that good at math, and she was afraid she'd be an embarrassment."

"Are you going to take in another boarder?" wondered Thomas. "You might need those spare rooms for something else some day." His glance fell on Faline who had fallen asleep in Grandma's forelegs, and the pride in his daughter shone from his eyes.

"One of Petal's classmates is coming to Pony Pride, too, and they will be sharing a dorm room," stated Sugarberry as the phone rang.

"Maybe that's Petal now!" said Wishbone as he jumped up from the table and rushed to the phone.

"Hello? Sure, she's here. I'll get her." He held the receiver toward Sugarberry. "It's Gooseberry," he said, "and she sounds upset." Sugarberry hurried to the phone, worry already lining her brow. Wishbone went to stand behind his sister, not now feeling in the mood to continue with his meal. "She sounded really upset," he confided to the other diners, his own face marred with uneasiness as well.

"Gooseberry, what is it?" Sugarberry asked, and the answer she received caused her to tremble. "Run away? Are you sure?" She looked at Vanguard in anguish. "Huckleberry ran away from home," she advised him.

No one could eat any more as they sat and listened to the one-sided conversation, each of them commiserating with the distraught mother and father. From what Sugarberry repeated, they had a fairly full story of the events of the last day and a half; when Sugarberry hung up, they were all prepared to help in the search.

"They think he might have headed to us here in Dream Valley," sniffed Sugarberry as she filled them in on the missing details. "They've called everyone they can think of where he might have gone and checked all his haunts, but no one has seen him since lunchtime. And his toothbrush and bedtime animal are missing."

"Why would he run away?" asked Wigwam. "That family seems to have it all together."

"He's angry over a punishment he received," admitted Sugarberry. "He was relegated to his room until supper time; that's when they realized he was gone."

"There's only one road for him to take to get to Dream Valley," speculated Vanguard, "but once within the city he could have taken any number of paths. We should spread out and cover as many possibilities as we can."

A knock sounded on the back door, and Driftwood was admitted. "Raspberry called me and I came straight here to check on your strategy," he said. "We've got to find Huck before it gets dark, or his mother will be wild."

Tabby looked at her mother who hugged Faline closer to her. "Yes, we've got to find him," the pink unicorn said. "Thomas and I will take one route."

The others settled on their circuits with Agatha opting to stay at the house with Faline; they soon were on their way to intercept the young stallion who had taken a drastic step to solve his unhappiness. Vanguard and Sugarberry walked swiftly across town, meeting up with the others at the city limits where the road to Berryville began. No one had seen Huckleberry, and all of them were distraught.

"We'll continue on from here," Vanguard stated, "but if any of you have other responsibilities to attend to, you're free to go." No one left the group; they were all too involved now to leave the hunt until Huckleberry was safely located. Vanguard remembered the utter desolation that had engulfed him when Sugarberry had disappeared in Vulcanopolis, and he was determined to find Huckleberry as soon as possible to spare Gooseberry and Grapevine that torture of soul.

They had just topped a small hill and were half-heartedly admiring the majestic flight of a large, black vulture when Wishbone called out, "Over there, along the path! There's something white!"

All eyes focused on the spot that Wishbone indicated, and Sugarberry cried, "That's him!" They took off at breakneck speed, and the white spot grew bigger and the green vine design became apparent as Huckleberry, who had spotted them from his precarious position on the ground, ran toward them as fast as his little legs could carry him.

If Huckleberry was surprised by the size of the welcoming party that met him, it was covered by his obvious relief to find Sugarberry, Vanguard, and Driftwood in their midst. "Aunt Sugarberry!" he called while still some distance away. "Uncle Vanguard! Uncle Driftwood!"

"Huckleberry!" Sugarberry hugged him to her when they finally reached each other. "Oh, Huckleberry, we were all so worried about you!" Her tears ran down into his mane, but Huckleberry did not mind as it felt too good to be safe again.

"That big bird tried to eat me!" Huckleberry informed them, pointing to the black speck in the sky that was rapidly disappearing. "I felt his feathers on my back." He slipped out of his aunt's embrace and turned to Vanguard. "Could he have eaten me?"

"No; you're too big for him; but he must have been awfully curious as to why a little colt like you was out in the big world all by yourself," Vanguard responded, giving the colt a heartfelt hug.

Driftwood in the meantime had used his cell phone to call Berryville and notify the anxious parents that Huckleberry was located and in fine shape. He handed the phone to Huckleberry. "Your mother wants to talk to you," he grinned.

"Will she yell at me?" Huckleberry asked, taking a step backward.

"I highly doubt it," Driftwood assured him. "She just wants to know for herself that you are okay."

Huckleberry took the phone and said, "I'm okay, Mom," rather sheepishly. He listened to his mother briefly, then handed the phone to Sugarberry. "She's cryin'," he explained and went to stand beside Vanguard as if to gain his protection.

Vanguard, Huckleberry, and the group moved some distance away from Sugarberry so that she could talk to Gooseberry privately, and so that they could discover some of the interesting facts that only Huckleberry was privy to concerning his departure from home. They laughed with him over the adventure with the raccoon, and Chocolate Chip cried with him when he relived his experience with the vulture. Tabby shuddered and moved closer to Thomas and Hubert. "I never ran away from home," she whispered to her father, who was absent from her life until only within the last several years.

"Thank goodness for that," he whispered back to her. "Your mother would not have stood up to that very well."

"I ran away once," Wigwam admitted. "I stopped at my best friend's house to say goodbye, but I never got the chance. His family was just sitting down to eat and his mom invited me to stay for supper. So I did, figuring it wouldn't hurt to run away on a full stomach. After supper, Sprinter asked me to help him with chores and by the time we finished with that, it was getting dark and running away didn't seem so smart after all. Sprinter's mom called my folks and told them I was spending the night, and the next morning I walked myself back home; I never attempted to run away again."

"Why did you run away?" asked Huckleberry with a yawn; the exercise of the day was catching up to him, and he leaned against Vanguard for support.

"I had made a diorama of a Native Pony village, putting a lot of work into all the details, and I had a lot of fun setting up realistic scenes with little figures I'd found in the attic. One day when I had been playing with it, Splinter came by in the evening to catch lightning bugs. We ran out and by the time we had gotten bored with the bugs, it was time to go to bed. I forgot completely about the diorama still set up on the living room floor.

"That was an accident waiting to happen," observed Wishbone.

"Now you tell me. Anyway, my older brother came home later and walked through the living room in the dark and tripped over my village and fell down, squashing almost everything. I was so mad when I got up and found it destroyed that I went to Mom and Dad and asked them to punish Teepee for what he had done. They reminded me of the house rule– no toys were to be left out after bedtime. As I had disobeyed the rule, the blame for my ruined diorama fell entirely on my shoulders. I knew Mom and Dad were right, but that didn't help me feel any better."

"So you tried to run away?" asked Huckleberry.

"Yes, but I was fortunate enough that my parents never found out about my failed attempt, not even to this day."

"I'll keep that in mind," Chocolate Chip grinned, filing the tidbit of information in her memory for future use.

Finishing her conference with Gooseberry, Sugarberry rejoined the group, handing over the phone to Driftwood. "We decided that it would be best to keep you here tonight, Huckleberry; it seems that Uncle Driftwood is planning a trip to Berryville tomorrow anyway, so he will accompany you home."

"Great!" said Driftwood. "Then I won't have to face the raccoon and the vulture by myself."

Hubert called back to Agatha to let her know the good news, and Sugarberry invited everyone back to the house to have dessert, at least. "Raptor will have cleaned all the food off the table by this time," she sighed.

As the crew started the return trek to the house, Vanguard and Sugarberry fell back with Huckleberry. "Why did you run away from home, Huckleberry?" Sugarberry asked.

"'Cause Mommy and Daddy don't love me anymore." He made the statement as if it was an irrefutable fact.

Sugarberry was horrified. "Huckleberry, you know that is not true! Your parents love you very much! They've been worried sick..."

Vanguard quieted his wife's outburst with a glance. "Why do you think your folks don't love you?" he asked of Huckleberry.

"They didn't let me go to Scottie's birthday party, and they know Scottie and I are best friends."

"Did they give you a reason why you couldn't go?"

Huckleberry darted a quick glance at Vanguard, then hung his head. "I didn't do what I was supposed to do."

"And what was that?" Vanguard asked gently. The ensuing explanation lasted until they had reached the house once more, and the band of rescuers were met by Agatha who had been busy watching Faline and cleaning up the kitchen. "Raptor certainly helped," she commented.

The strawberry shortcake that Chocolate Chip had made for dessert was now brought forth, and everyone feasted and rehashed Huckleberry's adventure with additional details being added by Huckleberry as he remembered them. Relating his lunch of a cookie and wild berries, Sugarberry once more became distraught. "They could have been poisonous berries, Huckleberry!"

"I know my berries, Aunt Sugarberry!" the colt had replied with a roll of his eyes.

When the youngster could not hold his eyes open any longer, Sugarberry took him off to run a bath for him and show him which room would be his for the night. That accomplished, she returned to her guests and verified with the departing Driftwood that he would be back for breakfast in the morning, after which he and Huckleberry would proceed to Berryville. Hubert and Agatha returned to their home, and Tabby and Thomas and Faline were soon to follow. Wigwam said goodnight to Chocolate Chip, and Wishbone disappeared to make a call to Petal.

"We'd better go check on Huckleberry," Vanguard said to his wife when they were alone. "He's tired, but he might have too much on his mind to sleep."

"He asked if he could talk to you," Sugarberry smiled. "I think he has some serious thoughts running through his head. I'll leave it to you to temper his worries."

"Thanks," grimaced Vanguard. "What am I supposed to tell him?"

"You'll think of something." Sugarberry gave him a quick kiss. "I'll take care of the kitty chores for the night."

Vanguard knocked softly on the bedroom door before going in to find Huckleberry sitting up in the bed, hugging Whiskers to his chest. "How are you doing?" he asked of the colt.

"It feels good to be clean, and I'm awfully tired; but I can't sleep."

"Maybe there's something you need to talk about." Vanguard sat on the edge of the bed. "Are you worried about something?"

Huckleberry looked at him with dark, pensive eyes. "If Mom and Dad kept me away from Scottie's party just because of those stupid weeds, what will they do to punish me for running away?"

"Whatever they decide, I'm sure they will be fair about it."

"Why don't they love me anymore?"

"They love you, Huckleberry. They punished you to help you see the seriousness of living up to your responsibilities."

"They could have kept me home from Grandma's or from going fishing again; why did they have to take the fun of the party away from me?"

Vanguard looked at the forlorn colt and shook his head. "I don't know. But think about it... will you leave your garden work the next time your mom or dad tells you to do it?"

"No way!"

"Then maybe that's your answer; they gave you a punishment that would really make you think. And if you've learned from it, I think it was worth it."

"Will they love me again?"

Smiling, Vanguard replied, "They've never stopped loving you; sometimes parents have to be tough– believe me, it probably hurt them as much as it hurt you."

Huckleberry grew thoughtful. "When Dad helped me finish the garden, he looked really sad; I thought it was because I had been bad and made him do extra work; maybe it was because he knew how much I wanted to be with Scottie on his birthday."

"Your parents want you to be happy, but even happiness has its price."

"You really think that Mom and Dad will be glad to see me tomorrow?"

"They would have liked to see you tonight, but your mom as all worn out from worrying about you."

"I hurt her, didn't I?" Huckleberry frowned and sat in silence. Suddenly brightening, he asked, "Would you let me call her right now?"

Standing up and offering Huckleberry his hoof, Vanguard grinned. "I think that is an excellent idea." He took him to the phone in the master bedroom where Sugarberry sat with paper and pencil, but no words appeared on the lines. Her eyes questioned Vanguard as he and the colt came in, and he apprized her of the situation.

Dialing the number, Huckleberry pulled himself up into the armchair opposite Sugarberry; Whiskers was still clutched in his left foreleg. When the ring was answered, a smile lit his face. "Hi, Dad. It's me, Huckleberry." After listening to his father's greeting, he stated, "I'm sorry that I made you and Mom worry." What followed brought tears to his eyes. "I love you too, Daddy," he whispered.

His mother obviously came on the line. "Yes, Mommy, it's me. I just wanted you to know that I'm sorry I ran away, and that I love you very much." He listened with intent concentration while nodding his head in agreement with what was being said and then responded, "I won't be any trouble for Aunt Sugarberry and Uncle Vanguard at all; goodnight, Mommy."

Setting the receiver down, Huckleberry pushed himself out of the chair. "Mommy said to remember to thank you for taking care of me." He looked shyly at his aunt, who drew him to her for a suffocating hug sprinkled with tears.

"We're happy to have you with us, Huckleberry; you and Aunt Raspberry will have to come and spend the weekend before school starts." Sugarberry held him at forelegs length and smiled. "We can walk out to the Native Pony cave and have a picnic lunch."

"Could we really do that?" Huckleberry asked eagerly.

"If your parents say it's okay," she said, hugging him once more.

"I'm tired," yawned Huckleberry. "I think I can get to sleep now." He held out a hoof to Vanguard, indicating that he intended to be tucked in. Vanguard winked at Sugarberry and went with the colt back to his bedroom where he was soon nestled in under the covers with Whiskers cradled in his forelegs. His eyes were drooping, but he managed to say to Vanguard, "When I grow up, I want to be a teacher just like you."

Vanguard brushed a forelock of hair out of the colt's eyes and admitted, "When Aunt Sugarberry and I have a colt of our own, I hope he's just like you."

Huckleberry came further awake for a moment. "Except that he won't ever run away from home; I'll explain to him why he never should."

"Aunt Sugarberry and I would both appreciate that," Vanguard said, patting the colt appreciatively. "Good night, now, Huckleberry."

Vanguard smiled, for Huckleberry was already fast asleep.

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