written by Sugarberry
"I've really got to get home," Licorice told his friends. He had been helping on the neighboring farm, putting up hay in the barn, but now he was anxious to welcome Snapper who was due to arrive at his parents' bed-and-breakfast.
"Thanks for your help, Licorice," Bonanza, Tie Dye's father, called from across the farmyard. "Keep track of your hours."
"Don't expect me to bill you for something that I've missed doing while being away at college," retorted Licorice. "Besides, with my help, Tie Dye should be able to come back to Birdsong with me now, shouldn't he? I'd like him to meet Snapper."
Bonanza appeared to give that suggestion some thought. "We've still got chores to do... but I guess Calypso and Cameo can help out." His gaze fell on Tie Dye. "Don't cavort all night; tomorrow's going to be a long day."
"Yeah, Dad," Tie Dye agreed, grimacing as he did so. Offering an explanation to Licorice, he said, "Mom expects all of us to go berry picking with her. I'd rather spend the day in the hot hay mow rather than traipsing through the fields hunting up those prickly blackberry plants."
"Now that you mention it, I remember my mom saying something about berries, too. We're all in for it."
The rest of this present day was free, however, and the two young stallions set off over the hill for Birdsong. Not particularly close until the last several years of high school, Licorice and Tie Dye had stumbled on a common interest in role-playing, one activity that Snapper did not enjoy. Licorice's return to his home for the summer months gave him and Tie Dye a chance to renew their imaginary exploits when the time allowed.
The two ponies walked up the hill away from the farm and through an open pasture fringed with trees which took them to the cultivated cornfield that belonged to Birdsong. Following the fence-line to the far side, they had only to climb the hill on which Birdsong was built.
The lovely Victorian home painted a deep pink with purple trim topped the hill like a crown, the twin turrets pointing skyward. Refurbished and outfitted to offer a pleasant interlude for ponies who wanted to vacation in the country, Birdsong was a popular get-away. The enterprise kept Licorice's mother, Lilac, busy with the inside work with the help of her daughter-in-law, Columbine. Tie Dye's older sister, Hollyhock, was often on the premises as well, as she and Licorice's brother, Tramples, were engaged to be married.
The oldest brother in the family, Buck, had a new home deeper in the woods where he and Columbine lived along with their ten-month old daughter, Victorian Violet, Vicki for short. Buck was a teacher at the local high school and was also involved with the museum in Riverside, Window on the Past. During the summer he helped his father with the field work that needed to be done.
Licorice and Tie Dye headed straight for the front door of Birdsong, hoping to avoid being conscripted into helping with the chores currently taking place in the white barn that was situated behind the house and somewhat lower down the hill. They walked in to find that Snapper was there ahead of them.
"Hey, buddy, you made good time!" exclaimed Licorice as he and Snapper had a rowdy reunion. The two had formed a fast friendship in their early days at Pony Pride, Licorice providing needed tutoring to the slow-learning Snapper, and Snapper providing an out-going personality that helped keep Licorice from disappearing behind his books.
"How many times did you get lost?" Licorice taunted after introducing Snapper and Tie Dye.
"Not a problem," Snapper preened. "Boxey has an intuitive sense of direction."
"Boxey?" Licorice squeaked.
"Yeah." Noting Licorice's confused expression, Snapper hurried on to add, "Didn't you know? Mom and Dad were called out of town at the last minute, and they couldn't leave Boxey home alone because... well, because. Anyway, my mom called your mom and decided if my visit to Birdsong wasn't to be delayed, Boxey'd have to come, too."
"Your sister is here... at Birdsong?"
"She's upstairs now with your mom, settlin' in. Columbine's with 'em, too." Having met Lilac and Trendy along with Buck and Columbine when those ponies had come to Dream Valley on the occasion of Wishbone's graduation party which had encompassed a farewell for him and Garnet as well as for Sugarberry and Vanguard, Snapper was comfortable with the Birdsong family. His parents, too, had attended that gathering and had become familiar enough with Lilac and Trendy to presume on their friendship in allowing Boxey to accept their hospitality.
"Snapper, are you expected to babysit your sister all the while you're here?" growled Licorice. As Boxey was sixteen, she really did not need a keeper, but she did have a knack for landing in hot water. In doing so, she proved a nuisance to her brother and his friend.
"She's promised to be on her best behavior." Snapper looked apprehensively at Tie Dye, then continued. "She got herself in trouble with Mom and Dad... that's why they wouldn't let her stay home alone."
"What kind of trouble?"
"Nothin' much, really. She and some of her friends stole off one night to go down by the river. She says it was to spy on a family of raccoons that feed by the swimming hole, but the folks caught her comin' in all wet and tousled and weren't too happy to find she'd spent half the night out with Skittle and Catkin. She got quite a scold." Even Snapper had sympathized with his frisky sibling who oftentimes, though unintentionally, found ways to worry her parents to distraction. Her buoyant nature could not allow her to see beyond her own quest for adventure.
Licorice rolled his eyes. Even though he could commiserate with the filly's desire to observe the animals in their natural habitat- he had grown up experiencing that first-hoof- he could not condone her recklessness. "Just imagine the mischief she'll get into here."
"She knows better than to annoy your folks."
"Dreamer," Licorice drawled.
* * *
Boxey maintained her chastised demeanor for the remainder of the day. She was polite to Licorice's family, obedient to Snapper's suggestions, cordial toward Tie Dye, and pleasant to the other guests currently in residence. She entertained Victorian Violet and helped Lilac in the kitchen. When Tie Dye had left and Columbine, Buck, and Vicki went to their own home and the rest of the family retired, she said goodnight and went to her room on the guest floor, crawled into bed, and slept like a log.
By the time the sun rose in the east, Boxey was up and ready to leave behind her sedate attitude of the previous day. After brushing her teeth, washing her face, and combing her hair, she scooted down the stairs and headed for the barn, for she had seen from her window that Trendy- Licorice's father- and Tramples, at least, were already at work.
"'Morning, Boxey!" Trendy greeted her when she came through the barn door into the stanchioned area where the milking was taking place. "Ready to try your hoof at this?"
Boxey watched as machines extracted the milk and carried it in overhead pipes to the cooling tank, then shook her head. "It's all so... sterile."
Trendy chuckled. "Most ponies want their milk that way."
"I thought you'd milk the old-fashioned way out here... streaming it into a bucket with cats sittin' around waitin' for a taste."
"All this equipment might not be very romantic, but it's quicker and cleaner."
"Is anything done on the farm like it used to be?" queried the filly.
Tramples, coming in on the conversation, grinned. "Here, I'll show you a hooves-on job." He beckoned Boxey to follow him down the barn aisle to the far corner where a door led into another section where young calves were housed. The area was divided into stalls holding different age groups; and in one of these compartments, Licorice was hard at work with a shovel mucking out the... waste.
Boxey wrinkled her nose, as much out of amusement as offensiveness of the smell. "Hey, Licorice. Whatcha up to?"
Hearing the filly's voice, Licorice looked up in surprise. His raven-black coloring obscured any blush that might have shaded his cheeks, but he looked embarrassed at being caught at such a menial task. "You're up early," he said, casting a dark look at his brother who only laughed and left the two alone with the job at hoof. Being the youngest in the family, Licorice often ended up with the dirtiest work.
"Who can sleep on such a beautiful day? Anyways, I thought I could make myself useful."
"There's another shovel over against the wall."
Turning in the direction indicated by the stallion, Boxey was soon earning her keep. As with all new ventures, it took her awhile to get into the swing of things; but she was soon carrying her fair share of the load. Licorice looked at her approvingly when they had finished.
"Not bad... for someone who's probably never been in a barn before."
"It was fun..." Boxey looked down at her messy hooves and grimaced, "...kind of."
"Will you show up again tomorrow?" Licorice teased.
Feeling the wet tongue of a calf licking her hind leg, Boxey jumped, then patted the black and white head affectionately. "To get a chance to see this cutie, of course I will."
She was soon surrounded by inquisitive bovines and laughing happily over their nudges and wet, sticky tongues. Licorice could not help but think of her escapade with the wolves in the Dark Forest and how Vanguard and Wigwam had found her frolicking with the pups like it was an everyday occurrence with no danger involved. He wondered if even now she had any idea of how a kick from one of those hooves would smart; but as he watched her pleasure in making friends with the calves, he had to grin. She might be troublesome at times, but she certainly was a good sport.
* * *
When the crew from the barn entered the house for breakfast, they found Snapper sitting at the kitchen table holding Victorian Violet while Lilac and Columbine gathered together a substantial breakfast not only for the family but for the guests as well. Snapper was startled to see his sister, thinking she was still abed.
"What have you been up to?" he questioned, suspecting the worst after noting that she looked as if she had just scrubbed herself with a brush... which she had.
"I helped muck-out the calf pen," she gloated.
"And she fed the baby goat," Tramples added.
"And gathered some eggs," grinned Trendy.
"Mom and Dad warned you not to get underhoof." Snapper frowned at the filly.
"She really was helping us," Licorice noted fairly, coming to Boxey's defense. "The animals seem to like her."
"You must be hungry," Lilac interjected, bringing a platter of pancakes to the table. She eyed the filly with a motherly inspection. "Did you sleep all right last night?"
"Splendidly!" Boxey enthused. "And I awoke to the robins serenading the new day right outside my window. It was beautiful."
"I heard something howling about midnight," Snapper said, turning the purple foal over to her mother. "What was that?"
"A coyote," Tramples informed him. "They can get kind of noisy."
"And I missed it?" asked Boxey, disappointed.
"You were tired after your journey," Lilac appeased. "Maybe you'll hear it tonight."
"She'll sleep the sleep of the dead after today," Trendy teased. "You are going berry pickin', I understand."
"It's a perfect day for it," Columbine enthused. "It's too bad Buck had to go into Riverside to work at the museum."
"Several of our guests are interested in helping; we'll set them to work on the patch behind the barn where they can't get into any trouble," Lilac planned. "The rest of us will fan out across the pasture and scour the edge of the woods." She bustled from the table, anxious to get started on this berry-picking expedition that would supply them with enough fruit to replenish her frozen supply of pie fillings.
"Well," grinned Trendy. "I wish you all the best." He leaned back in his chair with a smug smile on his face, as this was one day when he was responsible for the internal workings of the bed-and-breakfast as Lilac had determined early in their married life that her husband did not have a gentle enough hoof to pick berries that were not smooshed before they hit the bucket. Whether his hoof was heavy by nature or he had learned early the best way to avoid a hot, itchy day amidst the prickly bushes was anyone's guess.
"Victorian Violet shouldn't be any trouble for you," Columbine assured her father-in-law. "She'll be ready for a nap by the time we leave."
"She and I'll do just fine," Trendy agreed. "Won't we, little darlin'?" He picked up the foal and raised her high in the air, causing the toddler to giggle hysterically. Being the father of three boys had denied him the joy of nurturing a daughter, and he thoroughly enjoyed the experience now with his granddaughter.
Under Lilac's determined guidance, it was not long before the ponies were ready to begin their trek. Trendy was in charge of setting the guests to their task in the closest berry patch while Lilac led her troops to those farther afield. Boxey had attached herself to Columbine, finding the mare to be genuinely interested in her hopes and dreams; they undertook a lively exchange of ideas and opinions that carried them the distance to the first plot of wild berry plants that followed the fence row.
Tramples kept his mother company while Snapper and Licorice loitered behind, hoping to forestall the day's duties as long as possible. Once Snapper saw the luscious berries, however, he set about determinedly to fill his bucket, although a fair amount of the fruit went from his hoof to his mouth. The rest of the ponies, too, took frequent taste-tests of the warm, ripe, darkly-colored fruits.
Throughout the rest of the morning, the troupe moved deeper into the uncultivated acres of Birdsong, ever following the haphazard growth of the berry-bearing bushes, leaving behind the filled containers for later retrieval.
As tasty as the berries were and as good as the conversation was, Snapper and Boxey, unused to so much fresh air and heavy exercise, found themselves drooping. Draining the last water from his canteen, Snapper found himself wishing he was back home where cold sodas waited in the refrigerator and the swimming pool was only a short walk away. He remembered a river when he came to Birdsong, its water looking cool and refreshing, but it was on the opposite side of the farm from where they were now.
Wiping the sweat off her brow, Boxey was thinking similar thoughts and looked to Lilac hopefully when that mare began to speak.
"You've done really well," she praised her crew, "and I'm sure you're tired."
Boxey and Snapper smiled at the mare, anxious to be dismissed. But Lilac instead pointed to a distant spot across another field. "We've only got one more patch to take care of."
Exchanging tired glances, Snapper and Boxey sighed; but they set out dutifully for the green, arching brambles indicated by the mare, Boxey noting the red stains on her hooves and Snapper suffering from the numerous scratches he had received from the brambles.
"My gosh, Snapper, this patch is bigger than any of the others!" Boxey moaned quietly as they neared the laden bushes. She felt guilty over her lack of enthusiasm as Lilac, Columbine, Licorice, and Tramples appeared undaunted and carried on a merry conversation.
At that moment, however, Boxey noticed another pony across the fence that separated Birdsong land from that of Bonanza and Shamrock. This was a light pink mare with yellow hair that Boxey had not seen before, but the mare obviously was on familiar terms with the local ponies as she waved merrily in greeting. When Tramples jumped over the fence to meet the young mare with a hug and a kiss, she realized this must be Tie Dye's older sister, Hollyhock. Soon, Tie Dye himself appeared from behind a stand of berry bushes, and one-by-one the rest of the family, except Bonanza, meandered in, all carrying berry buckets that were practically overflowing.
"This patch overlaps our two properties," Lilac explained to the bewildered filly, "so we try to end here so that we can..."
Just then, a loud hallo echoed from behind them and Boxey turned to see Trendy and four of the current residents of the bed-and-breakfast coming toward them loaded with picnic baskets, and if the way they lugged them was any indication, the hampers were bursting with food. Trendy laughed as he turned Victorian Violet over to her mother. "She can't wait to taste her first berry."
Boxey felt sick. After eating so many berries, she was in no mood to face another. The buns and platters of cheese and salads and deviled eggs were another story, however. She even found the energy to help lay out the picnic cloth and dispensed the eating utensils.
By this time, Bonanza came on the scene, carting a barrel of ice-cold lemonade that had been cooling in a nearby spring. Listening to the chatter around her, Boxey came to realize that this had become an annual celebration of the two families that was much looked forward to. It was a riotous but enjoyable coming together of the two neighboring households, shared by any of the guests who were up to the hike to this distant spot where Birdsong and Veiled Valley land marched side-by-side.
Having enjoyed every moment of the reprieve from berry-picking, Boxey was shattered to learn that once the picnic had been wrapped-up, it was business as usual. Tie Dye noticed the filly's crestfallen expression and invited her to accompany him to a scenic location not far away.
"See that rocky area over where the fence ends? There's a deep ravine there, and the berries that grow at the edge of it are bigger than any others. We can fill a bucket real quick."
Licorice, overhearing Tie Dye's invitation, stepped forward. "Rattler Ravine is no place to take Boxey," he chided his friend.
"Rattler Ravine?" queried the ever inquisitive Boxey.
"It's just a deep, rocky hole in the ground," Tie Dye shrugged.
"It's more than that," Tramples intervened. "Years ago, rattlesnakes lived down in that ravine."
"Not any more," Tie Dye defended.
"Well, maybe no one's seen one since Buck was a colt," Tramples admitted. "I've never seen one. But that doesn't mean they aren't there."
"Have you ever seen one, Licorice?" Boxey asked excitedly.
"No; and you won't either, because you're not going any closer than you are now," the black pony declared. "Everyone with any sense at all avoids it."
"Come on, Licorice. You've been..." Tie Dye began.
Licorice silenced his friend with a scowl. "Zip it, Tie Dye," he said under his breath. Then more loudly, "There's no reason for Boxey to take a chance."
"Chance at what?" asked Calypso, curious as to what was going on. His question caught the attention of the adults and they, too, turned to listen to the answer.
"Boxey wants to see Rattler Ravine, that's all," Tie Dye answered, a bitter edge to his voice. He had confided in Licorice last night when the two had been alone that he found Boxey to be a charmer, and he now found his friend's interference in getting the filly to himself to be a blatant attempt on Licorice's part to muscle in. "But Licorice is making a big deal of it."
"And I'm only trying to protect Boxey for her own sake; if there is a rattlesnake within a thousand miles of Birdsong, she'll find it," Licorice retorted, his glare intensifying.
"Well, now," Bonanza stepped in. "No need to argue. I've been meaning to check out the fence over that way anyway. Trendy, why don't you and I go with the kids? See how the fence to the west seems to be sagging? I'll bet that last batch of thunderstorms eroded out the post."
Finding Bonanza's assessment logical, Trendy agreed; Calypso and Cameo begged their father to join the excursion, and Bonanza consented. None of the others, however, seemed up to walking that far.
Boxey was eager to get going, and she set out with Calypso and Cameo while Tie Dye sent Licorice a glance that said in no uncertain terms that he was angry at the stallion's interference. He tossed his mane and then set out after the others with Bonanza and Trendy bringing up the rear.
Licorice nudged Snapper. "Don't you think you should go with your sister?"
"What? Me? Walk into a rattlesnake den?"
"Actually, I was thinking you'd be protecting her from Tie Dye."
Licorice and Snapper exchanged a glance, then both chuckled. Tie Dye didn't know what he was in for.
* * *
"We'll just go as far as the bushes on the nearest end. Even Mom goes over there when she needs more berries," Tie Dye assured Boxey as they walked, the two younger ponies running ahead and Bonanza and Trendy somewhat behind.
"Please tell me I don't have to pick any more berries!" Boxey complained. "I'd really rather hunt up a rattlesnake."
"Chances are that there are none anymore."
"You didn't kill them all, did you?"
"No, although both Dad and Trendy tell stories of how their dads would hunt them up if they got too close to the farmsteads."
"So they know they're safe as long as they stay in the ravine. All we have to do is find one."
"Boxey. You're not just going to walk up and see a rattlesnake sunning himself. For one thing, they're camouflaged with that pattern they have; and for the other thing, they now we're coming and will have gone into hiding already."
The filly's expression became a pout. "That sounds like something Licorice would say."
Not wanting to be compared to Licorice at this moment, Tie Dye pointed to a tumble of boulders and large rocks that edged a particularly steep section of the ravine. "If we're going to find one, I'd say that's the best place to look."
With renewed energy, Boxey headed straight there.
Ahead of them, Calypso and Cameo had already reached the berry bushes and were picking the fruit with a vengeance, having made a bet to see who could pick the most. Behind them, Trendy and Bonanza were concentrating on the fence that indeed appeared to have suffered from the summer storms and paid the youngsters no mind.
* * *
"This is way cool!" breathed Boxey, balancing on top of one of the boulders and peering over the edge into the ravine. "If I was a rattlesnake, I'd never leave this spot."
The land broke off sharply at this point, dropping into an almost mystical jumble of green vines, lush ferns, and outbreaks of dark rock that melded together, obliterating the floor of the oversized ditch. Here and there, bright blue flowers of a variety that Boxey did not recognize added some color. Several large trees loomed up from the depths and a variety of shrubs and small trees ringed the perimeter for all except this one barren area that was too rocky to support growth. Rattler Ravine was a wild and primitive place.
"Watch your step!" Tie Dye said, hating the fact that he sounded like Licorice again, but feeling nervous over the filly's apparent disregard for her own safety. "Here, grab my hoof."
"But I haven't seen a snake yet," reasoned Boxey. "If they heard us coming, where would they hide?" she pondered.
"Deeper in the undergrowth," Tie Dye ventured, shrugging his shoulders.
Ignoring the proffered hoof, Boxey nimbly climbed off the large rock and moved off to the left where the ground was rich enough to support a virtual garden of greenery. Tie Dye followed, breathing a sigh of relief to have her off her precarious perch. The stallion also noted that they were presently out of sight of the other ponies, which was what he had hoped for when he first made the suggestion to bring Boxey here. He reached up a hoof to touch her braided locks. "Boxey, I think you're..." he began in his most tantalizing voice, but the filly was paying no attention.
"Tie Dye! I just saw something move... a mouse or ground squirrel or something like that." She darted further into the underbrush in pursuit. "Maybe there's a snake out looking for din..."
The rest of the word was lost as Boxey disappeared over the edge of the embankment.
* * *
The hair-raising scream that rent the air caused Lilac and Shamrock to stiffen in alarm. The telltale sound of branches snapping carried quite clearly as the squeal died down, then total silence.
Licorice responded immediately. "Someone went over the edge," he barked, dropping his bucket of berries and racing to the cart that Bonanza had come with; he grabbed a rope coiled along the side and took off toward the ravine at a gallop.
It was only later that Lilac wondered how her son could be so positive of what had occurred, and she recalled times when Buck, Tramples, and Licorice, while growing up, came home from their frequent outings when all three visages held a certain subdued, almost frightened, look that often went unexplained. At those times, she never questioned them, for she knew that Buck, as the oldest, took a proprietary interest in his brothers' welfare and made them toe the mark. The thought would occur to her in retrospect that one of her boys had at some point gone down into the ravine as suddenly as Boxey.
What Licorice found when he reached the site where the scream had come from was his father leaning over the precipice, calling, "Boxey! Are you okay?"
There was no reply, no sound from the ravine, just an impelling silence.
Tramples and Snapper were close behind Licorice, and they turned to Trendy for direction while Tie Dye ran his hoof through his mane in an agitated manner. Calypso and Cameo stood on the edge of concerned ponies, their eyes wide with fright. Licorice took stock of the situation, noting the broken bushes where Boxey had fallen, and immediately went to the edge of the ravine.
"Attach the rope to a sturdy tree," he ordered, as he tossed it to Tramples. "I'm going down; we may need the rope to get Boxey back up to safety."
"I'm going with you," Tie Dye said, feeling responsible for Boxey's accident.
"Me too," added Snapper, putting his fears behind him.
"Let's go!" said Licorice with a grim smile as he began a dangerous slide down over the embankment. Bonanza and Trendy's admonition to be careful was lost in a mini-avalanche of tumbling dirt and rocks that accompanied the stallions.
"Let's hope she's all right," Trendy whispered as Licorice, Tie Dye, and Snapper were lost from view.
"Boxey and all of them," Bonanza added.
* * *
The one thing that worked in the rescuers' favor was Boxey's creamy yellow coloring that showed up even in the dimly lit bottom of the ravine. They found her lying at the base of the ravine in a direct line from where Tie Dye had seen her disappear. Her still body was semi-buried in the plants and soil that had broken loose from the slope due to her weight on an already eroded overhang which had carried her along with them until they had come to a sudden standstill. Boxey's head was butted against a deeply furrowed, ancient boulder.
Unsettled by the sight of the unmoving filly, the three stallions were making haste to reach her side when Licorice hissed, "Don't move!" His hooves invariably shot out to stall Tie Dye and Snapper, and the forward motion of the three stopped short of the unconscious Boxey. "The rock..." Licorice whispered. "Look on top of it."
Tie Dye and Snapper had to strain to see what Licorice was referring to, but once they spotted the object of his concern, they both had to stifle a gasp of dismay. For on the summit of the boulder, looming over Boxey, was a coiled and agitated timber rattlesnake.
The heavy-bodied rattler, his broad head staring intently at them, was wrapped into a loosely woven pile of muscular beauty. His rust-orange body with dark brown crossbands was tense, and the rattle at the end of his tail was lifted and was vibrating out its warning sound. The snake was majestic and powerful and potentially deadly. The three stallions would have been duly impressed if not for the tenuous position of Boxey.
"What do we do with the snake?" Snapper said in a smothered voice as his eyes flicked over the short distance between his sister and the reptile.
"He's been frightened by the landslide," Licorice correctly observed. "Otherwise, he'd be long gone. Maybe he was scared out of his den by the commotion."
"We don't need a nature lesson," Tie Dye grated. "We need a plan!"
"It shouldn't be too difficult to scare him away," whispered Licorice. "Snapper, there's a rock by your hooves. Reach down and grab it... slowly!"
Moving in frustratingly slow motion, Snapper gained possession of the rock. Again, Licorice assumed command. "Tie Dye, you have the most accurate pitch of any of us. Throw the rock to the right of the snake. If he's going to strike, let him strike at it."
Snapper transferred the weighty stone to Tie Dye while none of the stallions took their eyes off the serpent. With studied precision, Tie Dye launched the rock to hit the boulder on the side of the snake away from Boxey. The snake watched the trajectory, his head held high, but the heavy thud next to him gave him no reason to strike. Quite the opposite. He turned the other way and slithered off the boulder, directly over Boxey's senseless body.
The three stallions inhaled as if one body and held the breath until the yard-long snake had crossed the yellow filly and continued on his way into the underbrush that had escaped the avalanche of dirt from above. As his rattled tail disappeared from sight, the ponies erupted into action, crossing the distance to Boxey and dropping to her side.
Snapper reached his sister first. "Boxey," he pleaded, patting her cheek with a trembling hoof, "wake up." His effort was rewarded by a flutter of eyelashes and then the sudden opening of the filly's violet eyes which appeared very dark against her pale skin.
"Wh... what happened?" She immediately tried to sit up, but dropped back as her head retaliated with a spinning sensation.
"You fell into the ravine," Snapper explained, caressing the filly's forehead. "Are you okay?"
"Just... just a little light-headed," Boxey said. "Help me up."
While Tie Dye and Snapper eased the mare upright, Licorice scowled at her. "Did it ever occur to you that we issued those warnings for a reason, Boxey?"
"So I fell. It wasn't the first time." She brushed at the dirt and leaves that littered her body. "It's not like I was bitten by a rattlesnake."
The stallions exchanged a bemused glance, which Boxey caught and questioned. "What? I wasn't... was I?" She began examining her skin for a paired puncture wound.
"You think we'd be standing here jabbering if you had?" grated Licorice. "You weren't bitten, Boxey, but you did strike your head on that boulder and were unconscious while a rattler did keep guard over you... and used you for a pathway to make his escape when he saw we meant business."
Boxey's eyes widened and she struggled to her hooves. "You guys saw a rattler? Where is he? Don't tell me I slept through my first rattlesnake sighting..."
Tie Dye grinned, Snapper shook his head, and Licorice turned his back in disgust. The filly had not been tamed in the least by her adventure.
* * *
"He was really shaking his rattle?" Back at Birdsong, Boxey was still keyed-up over her close encounter with the snake. Lilac had bandaged her head where the impact with the boulder had caused a bloodied abrasion and commanded her to curl up on the couch with a cup of tea to sooth her nerves. Snapper was keeping her company while the others carted the day's harvest back home.
"Yup... He held it up and shook it and it made a... rattly... sound."
"And he was how close to me?"
Snapper held up his hooves to show a comparable distance."
"Oh, Snapper, I wish I had seen him!" Boxey whispered, her eyes alight.
"It's a good thing you were unconscious or you would have been bitten, most likely," Snapper warned.
"Oh, but I missed such an opportunity!" the filly sighed, leaning her head back against the cushions.
"Here, drink your tea," her brother commanded. "Lilac said it would make you sleepy."
"But I don't want to sleep!" Boxey jerked upright. "I want to..."
"How's the patient?" queried Tie Dye, coming into the room. He came to the sofa and sat next to Boxey. "You gave us a fright," he grinned at the filly.
"I'm sorry I caused you all so much trouble," she said, her gaze taking in not only Tie Dye and Snapper but also the others who had now come into the room. "I hope I didn't ruin your berry-pickin'."
"Not a chance," Trendy reassured her. "Lilac says she's never seen such a crop."
"You'll get to taste them in a pie tonight," smiled Tramples.
"If you're awake," added Licorice. "You look beat."
The truth be told, the day was catching up to Boxey; and she did now feel like a nap might not be such a bad idea. With a wry grimace, she admitted, "Maybe I'll close my eyes for a bit."
Tie Dye picked up a light blanket draped over the sofa back and tucked it around Boxey. "I'll come over and see how you're doin' tomorrow." The ponies shared a private smile.
This cavalier attention on the part of Tie Dye was duly noted by Licorice.
* * *
Not one to be kept down for long, Boxey was her usual self by morning. Tie Dye did arrive to spend some time with her, and it was then that she learned of the fair that was coming to the nearby town of Riverside. Offering to take her to the festivities on Friday night, Tie Dye was pleased to receive an enthusiastic and affirmative answer, after which the filly rushed off to find Lilac and verify that it was okay for her to do so. She came across Lilac and Columbine in the kitchen, baking bread.
"Tie Dye invited me to go to the fair with him Friday night," she enthused as she danced into the room. "Is it okay if I do?"
"Well, it looks as if you've recovered from yesterday's mishap," Lilac responded, smiling at the filly's exuberance. "I don't see any reason why you can't go."
"I'll keep a close eye on her so she doesn't fall off the roller-coaster," Tie Dye promised, following Boxey.
"I heard Licorice and Snapper talking about the fair, so they'll probably be there, too,"
Columbine said rather wistfully.
"You and Buck might as well go along, Columbine. Trendy and I'll watch Victorian Violet," offered Lilac. "You've hardly been off the place other than to get groceries for weeks now."
"Oh, Lilac, that would be great! Boxey, we'll have such fun!" Columbine now looked as delighted as the filly, although Tie Dye appeared just a bit crestfallen to have his date with Boxey turned into a family affair.
"What's all this talk of fun?" queried Tramples, coming into the kitchen to grab a quick snack.
"The fair!" exclaimed Boxey. "We're going Friday night."
"Cool! Hollyhock and I might as well join up with you guys."
Tie Dye's smile faded even further. All it needed was his big sister.
* * *
"You aren't afraid of it... are you?" Boxey taunted Hollyhock as the Birdsong ponies stood staring at the most acclaimed ride at the fair, a dizzying roller coaster that was new this year and attracting a goodly share of attention from the local ponies.
Hollyhock shuddered. "Yes," she stated honestly. "There's no way I'm getting on that."
Grateful to hear Hollyhock's refusal, Tramples turned to Buck and Columbine. "What about you two? Are you goin' to brave it?"
Exchanging a sparkling glance with her husband, Columbine grinned. "Of course! Why come to the fair if not to live dangerously?"
Snapper, however, opted to sit out this ride along with Tramples and Hollyhock, so Licorice invited Dreamscape, a fellow graduate of Riverside High School, to brave the roller coaster with him. Tie Dye, of course, was paired up with Boxey, over whom he showed a proprietorial interest
The ride proved to be as exciting as Boxey had anticipated and as heart-stopping as Hollyhock had foreseen. While Boxey's thrilled squeals came back to them, Hollyhock buried her face against Tramples shoulder, unable even to watch the others enjoying the ride; and Tramples took advantage of the situation to guide her to a vacant bench where he could hold her close against his side. Snapper, finding himself alone, took himself off to the nearest caterer to purchase some nourishment.
While enjoying his triple-scoop double-chocolate ice cream cone, Snapper heard his name called from the milling crowd; turning, he saw a familiar face from Pony Pride and shivered uncontrollably. It was Tessa.
The young, blueberry-blue mare had also been a local classmate of Licorice's; and like Licorice, she had chosen to continue her education at Pony Pride. Although Tessa and Licorice still maintained their friendship and had been enrolled in some of the same classes, their personal lives did not often cross. Therefore, Snapper was aware of her existence, but not especially comfortable to be faced with her alone without Licorice's backup. He had classed the pretty mare as someone beyond his reach, a prima donna in the ranks of students. He now found himself tongue-tied...with a tongue that had just taken a hefty lick of the delicious ice cream he was holding. He swallowed, coughed, and stuttered, "T... Tessa. H... Hi."
The blue mare smiled and broke away from the group of ponies with which she was hanging out, causing Snapper to panic. What was he going to say to this beauty without Licorice next to him to carry the brunt of the conversation? Snapper groaned inwardly. He was going to make a perfect fool of himself in front of the prettiest coed at Pony Pride.
"What are you doing at Riverside?" Tessa asked as she came to a standstill in front of Snapper. She looked around as if expecting to see someone. "Visiting Licorice, I suppose."
"Yeah." Snapper lowered his head as if he was unworthy to gaze into the mare's warm brown eyes. "He's on the roller coaster ride." Hopefully, the mare would head in that direction.
But Tessa made no move to leave. "That ice cream looks mighty tempting," she hinted instead.
Snapper looked up as if seeing the confection- the ice cream- for the first time; and he only remotely noticed that it was beginning to melt- a dissolution he was sharing under Tessa's sultry gaze.
"I'd like some myself, except in vanilla," she prodded more directly.
"You want an ice cream cone." Fortunately, Snapper's mind began to function.
"That would be nice," the mare responded, deftly turning Snapper back toward the food booth.
Not quite sure how he accomplished it, Snapper soon saw that a tasty vanilla cone was delivered into Tessa's hoof. He smiled, proud that he had pulled it off without a hitch, when he became aware of a wet, sticky, chocolate substance running down his foreleg. "Napkins!" he called to the vendor. Snapper had been so caught up in his errand for Tessa that he had forgotten his own cone.
As he cleaned off the rivulets of ice cream, Snapper was relieved to see Licorice and crew approaching, although he also noted a smug expression on Tessa's face as she greeted the hometown crowd. Having never had the pleasure of making Boxey's acquaintance in Dream Valley, Tessa was now introduced to her, after which she excused herself and went in search of her earlier companions. Snapper watched her as she walked away enjoying her ice cream treat.
"The least she could of done is thanked me for the cone," grumbled Snapper. "The prices here ain't cheap."
"She maneuvered you into paying?" chuckled Licorice. "Well, you've learned a valuable lesson."
"And just what's that?" asked Dreamscape, overhearing.
"Never trust a pretty face," winked Licorice.
"But Snapper trusts me, surely," pouted Dreamscape, eying the stallion through flirty lashes.
Snapper was thoroughly discomposed. He could not disavow it, or he would be insinuating that Dreamscape was not pretty... which she was. But he was also too shy to admit openly that he found her pretty. "I... um... I..."
Licorice took sympathy on his friend. "Snapper knows that any friend of mine is a friend of his," he said. "Come on, guys." He motioned to the others. "Let's get something to eat." He eyed Snapper's pathetically drooping ice cream cone and punched the stallion in the shoulder. "Maybe you can trade that in for a fresh one." While his companions laughed at Snapper's dismayed realization that his once delectable dessert was now no more than a soggy shell, Licorice advised so only Snapper could hear, "Forget Tessa, buddy. Dreamscape thinks you're cute."
Snapper's green complection visibly paled, then reddened, and he stuttered, "Sh... she... d... does?"
"She admitted it," Licorice whispered, grinning at his friend's discomfort, then adding conspiratorially, "If I were you, I'd make my move now... while the fire's hot... so to speak."
Paling again momentarily, Snapper suddenly squared his shoulders, dropped his ruined cone in the garbage, and looked Licorice in the eye. "I think you're right," he agreed and moved off to engage Dreamscape.
He left Licorice speechless.
* * *
Tie Dye had found the evening much more enjoyable than he had earlier envisioned. None of his and Boxey's chaperones had gone out of their way to inhibit a good time, and he had found the younger pony equal to any of the challenges offered by the fair. In fact, if she had one fault, it was that she was too... energized. Tie Dye himself would have liked to spend some quiet time with the fresh-faced filly and found it to his satisfaction when the rest of the group decided it was time for a ride on the towering but unpretentious Ferris wheel.
As Snapper was now paired with Dreamscape, Licorice was left to his own pursuits while the others boarded the Ferris wheel. He fell into conversation with some of the local ponies who had not seen him since his return for the summer to Birdsong, so he was not bored. Meanwhile, Tramples and Hollyhock, Tie Dye and Boxey, Buck and Columbine, and Snapper and Dreamscape, among others, were happily ensconced on the high-circling ride.
The first revolution of the machine carried the ponies higher and higher until they crested the arc and came back down; Boxey, with Tie Dye sitting close beside her, found the ride soothing and did not object when the stallion claimed her forehoof. In fact, she was grateful for the chance to sit quietly and let the cooling evening air brush her warm skin. She had been enjoying the rides- she and Tie Dye had not missed a one- and now she realized that she might have pushed herself past her limit. She definitely should not have eaten that last ice cream cone, for her stomach was now uncomfortably churning.
As the motion of the Ferris wheel carried her up toward the sky, Boxey settled against Tie Dye, grateful for someone solid to lean on. The stallion draped his foreleg around the filly, and nuzzled a gentle kiss against her ear. Boxey did not notice. She was feeling more miserable by the second and could only look forward to the Ferris wheel coming to a complete stop.
Which it did, all too soon.
With a grinding of its gears, the monstrous wheel came to a sudden halt just as Boxey and Tie Dye's car dangled at the precipice of the downward arc. What at any other time would have been a dream come true for Boxey was now a nightmare. Whether it was the result of too many hot dogs and too much cotton candy or the fact of being suspended in the air with nothing beneath her, the combination of sensations froze Boxey. She cried out in alarm when Tie Dye removed his support from her and leaned forward in the seat to enjoy the panorama of the fairground; she clung fearfully to the edge of her seat and closed her eyes. "Tie Dye," she whispered mournfully, "I'm goin' to be sick."
The stallion looked at the young filly in mortified surprise. "Sick?" he croaked, realizing in a flash of insight that Boxey had been unnaturally quiet since boarding the Ferris wheel... and obviously not in anticipation of a stolen kiss or two. "Boxey, you can't be sick... not now!" He jerked away from the filly, causing the car to lurch crazily; Boxey felt as if the whole universe was reeling around her.
"Don't move," she pitifully begged, her eyes now staring into unending nothingness and her head held rigidly against the back of the seat. "I'm goin' to die."
Tie Dye reached out to touch her forehead with the back of his hoof as his mother had done innumerable times with him and his siblings. "You feel clammy."
As Boxey now felt as if her body was on fire while a cold wind buffeted it, she was not about to argue the point. "You're tellin' me," she whispered, closing her eyes again, only to be treated to a burst of brightly colored fireworks behind her shuttered lids. "Oh, no, I'm goin' to..."
* * *
From his position on the ground, Licorice could not see Tie Dye and Boxey, nor did the time between the Ferris wheel's unscheduled stop and its subsequent start-up after a quick repair of the problem seem long; but when the machine finally brought Tie Dye and Boxey's car to the unloading port, the look on Boxey's face plainly spoke of a long and difficult torture.
"What's wrong now?" he grated, taking the burden of the weakened Boxey from Tie Dye and helping the filly to a nearby bench where she sat heavily and dropped her face into her hooves.
"She was sick," Tie Dye explained, grateful that someone had stuffed an empty popcorn container under the seat they had been on. He quickly disposed of it in the closest garbage receptacle and brushed his hooves off distastefully.
"Boxey, are you okay?" Licorice asked, sitting next to the filly and brushing her mane in a comforting gesture.
Moaning, the filly shook her head. "I'm so embarrassed!"
"Licorice, what's wrong with Boxey?" queried a worried Snapper as he and Dreamscape hurried up after exiting the ride.
"She cast up her accounts," Licorice grinned. "Too many rides and too much food, I'd guess," he added as he left Boxey's side to allow Snapper to sit by his sister.
"You poor dear!" Columbine coddled as she and Buck joined the ponies. Hollyhock, too, commiserated with the filly; and Tramples asked if she was up to walking home or if they should take her to Columbine's folk's house to rest a bit.
The loving kindness was too much for Boxey who could not believe that her tough constitution had been defeated by a Ferris wheel. "Just dump me in a ditch and forget all about me," she wailed plaintively. "I'll never hold my head up again... ever!"
* * *
Sleeping later than normal, Boxey awoke with her stomach settled. She could even laugh over her misadventure with the rest of the ponies. Tie Dye, however, sent his regrets with his sister, telling Boxey that their plan to go fishing in the river was for nothing because his father had decided that today was the day they would repair the fence by Rattler Ravine. Boxey was suspicious that the stallion was making an excuse to avoid her until she heard Lilac telling Columbine that Licorice and Tramples had gone with their dad to work on that same project.
Tie Dye told Licorice that he was sorry that he could not take Boxey fishing as planned, but he did not divulge the fact that he had decided that Boxey was too young and immature for him. After the Ferris wheel ride, he could no longer look upon the filly with the same lovelorn feeling that he had previously felt toward her.
Lilac and Columbine made sure that Boxey was occupied for the rest of her visit with more feminine pursuits like a shopping trip and a visit to the museum and helping at a church fund-raiser.
It would not have done Tie Dye's ego any good to know that Boxey laid awake at night thinking not of him but listening for the bark of a coyote; more than anything else, she wanted to add the Canis latrans to her list of personal sightings. However, all too soon, it was time for her and Snapper to return to Dream Valley; and Boxey realized that her chance to see a coyote hinged now on this one last night at Birdsong.
Having sat by her bedroom window until nearly midnight waiting to hear the cry of the coyote, Boxey had fallen asleep with her head resting on her forelegs braced against the windowsill. It was almost two o'clock in the morning when an eerie wail jerked her awake.
The filly smiled to herself. She would not have to leave Birdsong without seeing the coyote after all.
* * *
Boxey was not the only one who had been awaken by the animal's howl. Licorice was brought out of a vibrant dream; and he sat up, rubbing his eyes, trying to separate fact from fantasy. That was one thing about role-playing... it planted seeds in the subconscious for some awesome imaginings.
Just as the stallion settled back in his bed, he heard the creaking of the back stairs- the third riser from the bottom, he knew from experience. Someone was up and about in the middle of the night. Not unduly worried because even the guests had been known to raid the kitchen at all hours, Licorice buried his head in his pillow; but a thud and a rattled umph! brought him upright again. He had no doubt as to whom that voice belonged. It was Boxey; and at this time of the night, she was certainly up to no good. As he slipped out of bed, he heard the back door- latch click, and knew the filly had left the house.
Licorice was concerned, and it had nothing to do with the coyote. He had been aware since the night at the fair that Tie Dye had been unable to visit Birdsong and therefore had not had a chance to see Boxey. Any invitation extended to Tie Dye had been met with the excuse that his dad needed his help on the farm; and as it was a busy time of the year, Licorice saw no reason to doubt the validity of that statement.
However, knowing that Tie Dye had been highly interested in the young filly, Licorice had expected his friend to manipulate situations in which he could spend some time with her. With Boxey and Snapper leaving in the morning, this would be Tie Dye's last chance to see her. Therefore, Licorice expected Boxey to be on her way to a scheduled rendezvous with Tie Dye; and as his parents were responsible for Boxey while she was at Birdsong, it was imperative that this clandestine meeting not take place. With that in mind, Licorice made his stealthy way out of the house with the intention of intercepting Boxey.
* * *
More than one coyote was yipping, Boxey realized once she was clear of the house, and the sound was coming from the general direction of the gazebo that sat in a clearing of the woods west of the sweeping front lawn. A full moon hung over the trees and cast its magical glow over the countryside, lighting her way as she quickly but quietly made her way across the yard and under cover of the trees where a meandering path directed one to the hospitable wooden shelter perfectly located for personal reflections. Boxey glided along like a shadow of the wind, keeping her presence hidden from the clever coyotes. So intent was she on what lay ahead that she did not realize that she, too, was being stalked by Licorice.
Just before breaking cover from the woods, Boxey stopped under cover of the trees' shadows and peered through the blue-tinted night toward the gazebo, for that was where she determined the coyotes' calls had been coming from. Now, however, the night was devoid of any sound at all, except for her own racing heartbeat.
That peace was suddenly interrupted when another series of yelps and howls erupted from the open space ahead of Boxey; straining her eyesight, she was finally able to discern three shapes on the grassy clearing, two sitting and one standing and all three engaged in a chorus of enchanting melody. The moonlight glinted off their tan fur and caught the glimmer of their dark eyes. Boxey held her breath as she listened to this canid concert held under the smiling lunar orb overhead.
As suddenly as it had begun, the coyote chorus ended; and the three animals pricked their ears in Boxey's direction before turning tail and slinking off into the night. Boxey stood mesmerized, storing up all the impressions that pervaded the scene she had just witnessed. So lost was she to these memories that the touch of a hoof on her shoulder felt like a lightening bolt, and she jumped accordingly. Barely able to discern Licorice's dark coloring against the backdrop of likewise darkly-colored tree trunks, Boxey was about to scream when Licorice's voice brought her reassurance.
"You should have had your brother come with you."
"Snapper?" scoffed Boxey. "He'd be scared."
"I think he'd have put his fears aside to protect you from danger."
"What danger? The coyotes aren't dangerous."
"I wasn't talking about coyotes."
Boxey's mouth gaped open. "What's Tie Dye got to do with anything?"
"You're out here to meet him, aren't you?"
"I'm out here to see coyotes, which I've done." She glared at Licorice. "And now, I'm going back to bed."
"Hold on," Licorice ordered, blocking the path. "Can you honestly tell me you aren't here to meet Tie Dye?"
"I've already honestly told you that! Why would I bother with Tie Dye? He thinks I'm a puky little brat."