Red Hot Chili
written by Sugarberry

Sugarberry's heart skipped a beat as she saw who was sitting on her front porch steps. She was just getting home after her day as receptionist at The Vet Clinic when she saw the country blue stallion waiting for her. Her face radiating the pleasure she felt, Sugarberry rushed up the sidewalk as Vanguard met her halfway.

"Oh, you are finally in Dream Valley!" she exclaimed as she wrapped Vanguard in a welcoming hug. "It's so good to see you!"

"And you, too!" Vanguard smilingly agreed. "I've missed you."

True to form, Sugarberry blushed. "When did you arrive?"

"Just this morning." Vanguard informed her. "I spent the day checking over my office and the campus at Pony Pride University and moving into the apartment I've rented."

Sugarberry led Vanguard to the porch swing and sat down. Vanguard retrieved a package from the steps before joining her. "For you," he grinned.

Removing the shiny mauve ribbon and white paper revealed a painting of Birdsong, the Victorian bed-and-breakfast where Vanguard and Sugarberry had met the month before. "It's perfect!" cooed Sugarberry. "I can hear the birds singing even now!"

At that moment, a lively little wren exploded into joyous trilling from the birch tree behind them, and the two ponies laughed in delight.

"Hey, Sugarberry, what's for supper?" Unnoticed by the pair on the porch swing, Tabby and Chocolate Chip had arrived. They were eying the stallion curiously.

As Vanguard rose to meet the new arrivals, Sugarberry made the introductions. "Tabby, Chocolate Chip, this is my friend, Vanguard, from Birdsong. Vanguard, this is Tabby." She placed a hoof on Tabby's shoulder. "Tabby is my neighbor to the right, and a dear, dear friend."

"So this is that Van-gerd guy you were telling us about," yawned Tabby as she waved her hoof limply through the air.

Sugarberry rolled her eyes and sighed. Tabby had consistently mispronounced Vanguard's name since Sugarberry had returned home from her vacation at Birdsong and told her friends about the stallion she had met. Judging from the twinkle in Vanguard's eyes, Sugarberry assumed he remembered her telling him about this slightly ill-tempered unicorn.

Next, Sugarberry pushed Chocolate Chip forward. "Chocolate Chip is living with me while she attends Pony Pride University. Maybe you'll have her in one of your classes this fall."

As Vanguard and Chocolate Chip shook hooves, Vanguard asked the sleek brown pony, "What's your major, Chocolate Chip?"

"Still undecided," was Chocolate Chip's response. "I've considered engineering and computers, but right now I'm leaning toward economics."

"You'll need a strong math background for any of those," replied Vanguard.

"So what's for supper?" interrupted Tabby hungrily. She often joined Sugarberry and Chocolate Chip for their evening meal. "Chicken? You haven't fixed that for at least a week."

Sugarberry frowned. "I hadn't given it much thought, Tabby. I've had other things on my mind."

Chivalrously, Vanguard came to the rescue. "How about I take the three of you to Kentucky Fried Chicken?"

"Let's go!" Tabby said as she led the way off the porch.

"Gee, thanks," bubbled Chocolate Chip as she, too, set off.

Sugarberry flashed a smile of gratitude at Vanguard. "This is very thoughtful of you, Vanguard." She slipped her hoof into his, and they followed the others down the walk.

"I treated my first Zubat today," informed Tabby enthusiastically as they walked. "He'd been beaten by a Pidgeot and was at death's door. I, of course, saved him."

"How did you do that?" asked Chocolate Chip, rolling her eyes. Whenever Tabby told a story of treating a Pokèmon, it had always been "at death's door."

"With just the right combination of superglue and potions," Tabby verified.

"Ah... Zubat and Pidgeot?" queried a puzzled Vanguard.

"They are Pokèmon," enlightened Sugarberry.

"You mean you don't know about Pokèmon?" shrieked Tabby unbelievingly. She therefore proceeded to fill Vanguard in on every known fact about Pokèmon, ensuring that no other topic of conversation could be embarked upon.

The animated monologue did indeed enlighten Vanguard to the world of Pokèmon, and the ponies soon found themselves at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Sugarberry and Chocolate Chip dashed directly into the ladies' room, leaving Tabby alone with Vanguard. "So, which Pokèmon do you want?" she questioned. "Pikachu? Growlith? Hitmonchan?" Tabby could be relentless. "You could try to catch a Psyduck, but I haven't gotten one yet, and I have to be the first. Meowths are the best, but there are already two in Dream Valley; and if there were any more, they wouldn't be special. You don't want a Mr. Mime at any cost. Zubats don't have eyes, but you might like one. Get a Digglet," she finally decided.

Unnoticed by Tabby, Thomas, too, was eating at the restaurant tonight and had just gotten his order at the counter. He approached her reproachfully. "I thought you were having supper with Sugarberry."

Tabby's face was open and innocent. "I am."

Meanwhile, Thomas glared at Vanguard who was completely baffled by the hostility.

Clueless, Tabby continued her unending Pokèmon tirade until Sugarberry and Chocolate Chip reappeared. "Hi, Thomas!" Sugarberry greeted. "Did Tabby introduce you to Vanguard?"

Enlightenment crossed Thomas' face, and for the first time during this encounter, he smiled. "Vanguard?" He extended his hoof. "So you are Sugarberry's new friend."

The two stallions shook hooves while assessing each other, and both approved of what they saw.

Tabby, craving her chicken and potatoes, ordered first.

"You are the only pony I know who takes both side orders as potatoes," teased Chocolate Chip. "Mashed potatoes and French fries!"

"You got a problem with that?" retorted Tabby. She grabbed her tray and went off with Thomas to find a table large enough for the five of them.

When everyone was seated, the conversation centered on the summer festival occurring the next day, which was Saturday.

"Vanguard, you got here just in time for Summer Celebration," began Chocolate Chip. "Tomorrow, all Ponyland will come together for fun and games."

"There will be swimming races, volleyball tournaments, and carnival rides," continued Thomas.

"And Pokèmon battles!" exclaimed Tabby.

"And a potluck picnic followed by fireworks at the end of the day," concluded Sugarberry.

"Hey, good timing on my part," assented Vanguard. "Any suggestions on what I should bring to the potluck?"

"I'm taking brownies," offered Chocolate Chip.

"Tabby and I are taking chicken and potatoes," divulged Sugarberry, winking at Tabby who hadn't yet given any thought to the potluck.

"How about you, Thomas?" asked Vanguard. "Give me some help here."

"I haven't made up my mind yet," Thomas confessed. "I'll stop by the grocery store tomorrow morning and pick something up from the deli department."

"Mind if I tag along?" queried Vanguard. "I haven't stocked my kitchen yet."

"As if you could cook anyway!" scoffed Tabby.

"Wait ‘till you taste my red hot chili," boasted Vanguard. "And a fruit salad on the side."

Tabby groaned inwardly as she had flunked cooking class-- even failed at fruit salad; but she didn't let that stop her from taunting Vanguard. "I dare you to enter the chili-making cook-off tomorrow-- it's sponsored by Tex's Salsa Shop."

"I can do that!" Vanguard accepted the challenge. "How do I enter?

"You'll have some stiff competition," Thomas warned. "Clever Clover, Butch, and Quarterback are already signed up."

"And I hear that Tamara and Snuzzle are going to compete, too," added Sugarberry.

"I like a challenge. Where is this salsa shop?"

"It's just off Main Street," informed Chocolate Chip. "Just look for the big red pepper."

"It looks really awful," Tabby offered.

"I could take you there," volunteered Sugarberry, "as soon as we're done eating. Tex stays open late on Friday nights."

After finishing the meal, Sugarberry and Vanguard parted company with Thomas, Tabby, and Chocolate Chip as Tabby was determined to have her strawberry sundae at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe before Thomas walked her and Chocolate Chip home.

"Are you sure you want to do this cook-off thing?" Sugarberry worried as they neared Tex's Salsa Shop.

"Why not?" asked Vanguard. "It should be fun, and I'll have the chance to meet more ponies."

Vanguard opened the door for Sugarberry, and they entered the shop. Tex was behind the counter, while Quarterback and several other customers were eating salsa and chips.

"Hi, Sugarberry," Quarterback called as he waved in her direction. He didn't seem to notice Vanguard.

Sugarberry waved back, and led Vanguard over to Tex who was refilling bowls of salsa for his customers' convenience. "Tex," Sugarberry began, "I'd like you to meet Vanguard, the new mathematics professor at Pony Pride. And Vanguard, this is Tex, owner of Tex's Salsa Shop."

Tex leaned across the counter to grasp Vanguard's hoof in a hearty hoofshake. "Glad to meet you, partner!" exclaimed Tex enthusiastically. "What can I do for you?"

"I'd like an entry form for this chili cook-off I've been hearing about," explained Vanguard. "I'd like to try my hoof at it."

Tex chuckled. "Got some mighty fine cooks lined up for this event. But one more is always welcome." He handed Vanguard a slip of chili-red paper. "Fill this out and be here tomorrow at eleven o'clock with all your chili fixings. My kitchen in the back of the shop is where the action will be."

While Vanguard filled out the entry information, Sugarberry glanced at Quarterback who motioned for her to join him. She whispered her intentions to Vanguard, and walked to Quarterback's booth where she slid in opposite him.

"Salsa?" he offered as he pushed some chips in her direction.

"No, thanks!" Sugarberry declined. Quarterback liked the hottest salsa that Tex made, while Sugarberry could only stand the most mild variety.

"Who's the stallion?" questioned Quarterback just as Vanguard approached them. So Sugarberry went through the introductions again as Vanguard slipped into the booth next to her.

"Math, huh?" Quarterback nodded at Vanguard. "Majored in that myself. I'm an engineer, you know." Switching his attention to Sugarberry, he asked, "What time should I pick you up for the fishing contest? It's supposed to start at two o'clock, just after the chili cook-off. Remember the fun we had last year?"

Sugarberry gulped. She hadn't had fun last year. She hated standing on the hot bank waiting for the fish to bite. She hated having to keep quiet. She hated the buzzing mosquitoes and the droning flies. She hated seeing the fish caught on the painful fishhook. "I'm going to attend Summer Celebration with Vanguard," she confessed.

Quarterback stopped chewing his salsa and chips and stared at Sugarberry, then at Vanguard, then back at Sugarberry. "Oh," was all he said.

Sugarberry suddenly felt very confused. Quarterback had been her friend for a long time and she would always value that friendship. But she felt more at ease with Vanguard than she ever had with anyone else, and they had more things in common-- like birdwatching, quiet walks in the woods, and talking over a cup of coffee.

"It's time to be going," Vanguard broke the silence. "I've got some shopping to do before the grocery store closes."

As Vanguard helped Sugarberry from the booth, she smiled at Quarterback. "I hope you catch the biggest fish ever."

"Yeah. Whatever," he muttered.

Once out on the sidewalk again, Sugarberry apologized to Vanguard. "I said I was spending tomorrow with you; but as soon as I said it, I realized we hadn't talked about that yet. So you are free to do what you please."

"And who would I go with if not you?" Vanguard took her hoof in his. "Just one thing, though," he grinned. "Would you go grocery shopping with me for my chili ingredients?"

Sugarberry agreed. "Oakly's Grocery is right over there." She pointed across the street and to the right. "He will have everything you need."

Proceeding to the grocery store, the pair explored the aisles for the best chili components available to ensure Vanguard's success on the following day. He also purchased several dozen dinner rolls to contribute to the potluck.

After paying for his purchases, Vanguard groaned. "I'll have to take this stuff straight home to get the meat in the refrigerator. I was looking forward to walking you home."

"No problem," came a voice from behind them. It was Quarterback. "I'll walk Sugarberry home."

Vanguard started to reject that idea, but Sugarberry placed her hoof on his foreleg. "It'll be okay," she assured him. "I'll see you tomorrow." So a very dejected Vanguard watched as Quarterback escorted Sugarberry out of the store.

Quarterback and Sugarberry walked in silence until Quarterback asked, "Do you like him?"

"Of course I do!" Sugarberry snapped.

"What about us?"

"We are friends, aren't we?" She smiled a warm smile. "You'll still bring boxes for Fluff, won't you?" she teased. Quarterback provided cardboard boxes that Fluff loved to sleep and play in.

They had just reached the end of the block when they nearly collided with Tabby, Thomas, and Chocolate Chip returning home from the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe.

"Watch where you're going!" screeched Tabby before she realized who it was. "Oh! It's you, Sugarberry. Hey, Quarterback!"

"Why are you guys going home so early?" asked Sugarberry. "Scoops run out of ice cream?"

"Tabby remembered she hadn't cleaned Callie's litter box yet this week, and wanted to take care of that little oversight," Thomas scowled.

Tabby scowled back. "She sleeps all the time; I forget she's there."

Chocolate Chip refereed. "Now, now, you two. Callie does just fine with Tabby. She likes as little attention as she can get."

"Yes, you're right about that," admitted Thomas. "She snaps at me every chance she gets."

"Callie... or Tabby?" chortled Chocolate Chip.

"Both," grinned Thomas as he side-stepped a swat from Tabby.

"Sugarberry," Quarterback asked, "would it be okay if Thomas walks you home with the girls? I remembered something I've got to do before tomorrow."

"Okay," Sugarberry replied as Quarterback turned and hurried off back the way they'd come.

"What happened to Van-gerd?" quizzed Tabby. "Did you dump him already? I wouldn't mind; he didn't say he wanted a Pokèmon."

"He had to take his groceries home."

"How quaint," Tabby tormented.

"He seems very nice," Chocolate Chip intercepted.

"And sensible," added Thomas with a sideways glance at Tabby.

"I think we should go to my house and watch a Teddy Ruxpin video." Tabby's thoughts had switched to a more exciting topic than stallions. "How about the ‘Tweeg's Mom' episode?"

"Only if you change Callie's litter first," challenged Thomas.

"Okay," agreed Tabby, "but you have to make the popcorn."

So off they went-- Thomas, Tabby, Sugarberry, and Chocolate Chip-- to lose themselves to the world of Grundo.

* * *

Tex's Salsa Shop was crowded with the entrants to the chili cook-off. Each one was assigned a number, after which they set to work to create the perfect pot of chili. Vanguard was positioned between Butch and Tamara in the kitchen; and as they worked, a strong feeling of competition developed between the contestants-- not withstanding a fair share of friendly taunting and a lot of "horsing" around.

Busily preparing the meat for cooking, Vanguard was approached by Quarterback. "Phone call for ya!" he informed the startled stallion.

Baffled as to who would be calling him at this moment in time, Vanguard left his work station to take the call in the front room. But all that met his ear when he picked-up the waiting receiver was a brash dial tone. "What was that about?" wondered Vanguard as he returned to his chili making.

One thing all the ponies in the contest seemed to have in common was a desire to make the hottest chili possible-- "Hot equals best," as Butch phrased it. Every kind of chili powder imaginable was present in Tex's kitchen that day and the combination of peppers would have brought tears to the eyes of most ponies. Maybe that's why Vanguard didn't notice the change.

The preparations were going along smoothly; Vanguard had added the precise amount of red hot pepper to his concoction to make it the perfect chili; and after allowing it to simmer and meld, he gave it a quick taste-- and gasped. He stared blankly at the bubbling pot of choice elements that should now be a masterpiece for the palate. Instead, it had become a vile-tasting failure.

Oblivious to the continued activity around him, Vanguard stood completely still, contemplating his dilemma. Once more he raised a spoonful of chili to his lips, and gingerly tried another sample. He hadn't imagined it-- something was definitely wrong. He nibbled once more off the spoon, and a glimmer of understanding broke through his insensibility. He grabbed the bottle of chili pepper he'd used, and tore off the lid. Holding the container to his nose, he first smelled it, then dipped in a hoof and tasted it. His suspicion was right. This wasn't chili pepper-- it was cinnamon!

Vanguard surveyed the kitchen full of bustling activity; everyone was currently engrossed in his or her own preparations. No one seemed to be aware of his predicament. Or did Quarterback seem to be darting wary glances in Vanguard's direction? Vanguard looked over the pepper jar carefully-- was this an innocent packaging error, or sabotage? He shook his head disbelievingly.

At that moment, Tex approached Vanguard. "You look to be a million miles away. Anything wrong?" As sponsor of the cook-off, Tex was responsible for a smooth-running, successful affair.

Vanguard simply held out the chili pepper to Tex, who took it questioningly. "Taste it," Vanguard suggested.

Tex did just that, and gaped at Vanguard in surprise. "Was this deliberate?"

"You tell me," countered Vanguard. "You know these ponies better than I do."

Tex glanced around the room, and shook his head. "I wouldn't want to think any of them would stoop this low... not even Butch."

"Well, what's done is done," philosophized Vanguard. "Maybe it was an accident, although what are the odds that one jar of chili pepper would be filled with cinnamon at this time and place?" He sighed. "Irregardless, I'm out of the cook-off." He took his ill-fated mixture to the trash barrel and dumped it in.

"I'll keep my eyes and ears open to any clues on who did this," consoled Tex. He and Vanguard stood back and again scrutinized the remaining contestants. Most were finishing up their concoctions and cleaning up their spaces.

"Guess I'd better clean up my mess, too," surmised Vanguard as he left Tex to wonder about the cinnamon switch. Tamara to his left had already polished her area, and had only to move her kettle of chili out to the tent where the judging would occur. Butch, on the other side, was surrounded by heaps of dirty dishes and oozing dribbles of chili fixings. Vanguard noted that Butch had used the same brand of chili pepper as he had-- Spiceland; it would have been a simple thing to switch containers. But for what reason? Who had a reason? wondered Vanguard as he scrubbed the counter. And who had the opportunity?

Remembering the phantom phone call, Vanguard looked in Quarterback's direction. The stallion was totally concentrated on his chili, busily fussing over the final stages-- too busily, perhaps? Vanguard shook his head to clear his thoughts. "I'm out of here," he said to no one in particular.

Coming into the fresh summer air was a relief after the heavy smells of chili in the kitchen. Vanguard breathed deeply as if to purge himself of the morning's madness, and put it all behind him as he caught sight of Sugarberry at the edge of the crowd gathering for the chili judging. He headed straight to her, and realized that the pony next to her was none other than Merry Moments, a Friendship Gardens filly who had shared their Birdsong adventure. The three pals reunited joyfully.

"Where's this blue ribbon chili that Sugarberry's been telling me about?" inquired Merry Moments. "Do we get a taste?"

Grimacing, Vanguard related the happenings that befell him.

Sugarberry was slow to comprehend the implications. "Spiceland better improve their quality control," she began. "That spice jar looked fine last night at the store... wouldn't we have noticed? The color variation would have been subtle, but..." Suddenly a shocked look crossed her face. "Do you think someone tampered with it?"

"Who knows?" responded Vanguard lightly. "Let's not worry about it. No sense crying over spilled... chili," he quipped

Merry Moments giggled. "Let's hang around and see who the winner is! Personally, I'm rooting for Clever Clover," she admitted as she waved at the only contestant from Friendship Gardens who stood with the rest of the ponies now lined up behind their prized pots of chili waiting for the judges'-- Steamer, Pinwheel, and Rocky-- to make their decision.

Poetic justice prevailed as Butch's chili was chosen number one; and Tex, who harbored not a little animosity toward Butch over some occurrence in their hidden past (Bolivia, was it?), was forced to hand over the five-hundred jangle prize.

Getting an exuberant hug from Butch's sister, Sundance, helped to mellow the moment for Tex, however, and he magnanimously presented Butch with the prize and the blue ribbon.

After sampling several of the chili choices accompanied by big glasses of cold white milk, the threesome decided to walk through the carnival grounds. The shrill screams of baby ponies enjoying the fearsome rides punctuated the warm July air with a festive sound.

Merry Moments prattled on with Vanguard about his move to Dream Valley and about a future visit to Friendship Gardens. "Sugarberry, you do plan on coming to our town-wide rummage sale next month, don't you?" she ended. "Sugarberry?"

Sugarberry's thoughts were hung up on the chili contest. "Who would have played such an underhoofed trick on Vanguard?" She knew well all the ponies who were there, although Butch less than the others. "Would Butch do such a thing to ensure a win?" she wondered out loud.

Vanguard groaned. "So, you're playing Sherlock Holmes with our little mystery, are you?"

"Does that make me Dr. Watson?" squealed Merry Moments. "I've always dreamed of working with Sherlock Holmes!"

"We need clues!" asserted Sugarberry. "Something that would point us in the right direction!"

"I have the chili powder, alias cinnamon, here in my backpack," offered Vanguard. "But there's no way of knowing who changed the contents-- or if anyone did, for that matter."

Sugarberry looked at the Spiceland label on the bottle. "Everyone uses Spiceland spices," she worried.

"Was the seal broken when you opened the jar?" wondered Merry Moments.

"No, I'm sure I had to remove it," verified Vanguard.

"Then it was planned ahead of time,' deduced Sugarberry. "Whoever did it removed the chili powder, replaced it with cinnamon, and re-affixed the seal to the top. That would take a certain amount of time and privacy."

"But it leaves no evidence," concluded Vanguard. "Whoever made the switch only had to bring in the phoney chili powder, and switch it for mine. They could go ahead and use my jar of uncorrupted chili powder themselves."

"So who had opportunity?" asked Merry Moments bluntly.

"Well, Tamara and Butch were on either side of me, so they could have pulled it off easily."

"And Butch would be worried that your chili could beat his because he never had a chance to try it in the past!"

"But even at that, I was always right there... except for..." He glanced at Sugarberry cautiously.

"Except for what?" Sugarberry bristled.

"Quarterback came and told me there was a phone call, so I went to the front room to take it, but no one was on the line," he spilled out rapidly.

Sugarberry's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. "Quarterback?" she gasped.

"Who's Quarterback?" piped-in Merry Moments. "Fill me in!"

"We was the stallion at the end of the row of contestants, the blue one," informed Vanguard as he kept his eyes on Sugarberry. "He's a good friend of Sugarberry's."

Sugarberry's mouth tightened in a straight line. "Was a good friend!" she fumed.

"We don't know if he did it, Sugarberry. He had the opportunity, but maybe there really was a phone call," soothed Vanguard.

"Yes, Sugarberry," agreed Merry Moments. "You still don't have any evidence."

"But it all fits, don't you see?" Sugarberry argued. "Quarterback was at the grocery store while we were shopping, Merry Moments. He saw everything Vanguard bought."

"Even so..." Merry Moments began, but Sugarberry was unstoppable.

"And on the way home, Vanguard, he suddenly left me with Thomas because he had ‘remembered something he had to do'. Don't you see? He was jealous of you, and thought of a way to get back at you."

"I don't know, Sugarberry," frowned Vanguard.

"Dr. Watson says you need more proof," stated Merry Moments. "You're too emotionally involved to think straight."

Sugarberry thought that over, and calmed down a little. "You're right, Watson. I let myself get carried away." She grinned sheepishly.

"Okay. Let's put that behind us and enjoy the rest of the day," suggested Vanguard.

"Good idea!" agreed Merry Moments. "What's going on over in the meadow?"

"Oh, the Pokèmon battles! I almost forgot!" exclaimed Sugarberry. "Come on!"

By the time they arrived at the roped-off area that served as an arena, the trio had succeeded in putting the chili cook-off behind them. They watched as Likatong and Wartortle competed, with Wartortle coming out a sure winner. Then Clever Clover's Rattata battled Merry Treat's Spearow. Rattata came out on top. As more events took place, Vanguard, Sugarberry, and Merry Moments moved around the field to the tent where Tabby, as Pokèmon nurse, was stationed in case any Pokèmon were injured. Thomas was also there to lend a hoof if needed.

"Keeping busy, Tabby?" asked Sugarberry.

"Actually, no," replied Tabby. "No one is getting hurt. And Meowth ran off with Tess to ride the ferris wheel."

"Sound like fun," hinted Thomas.

But Tabby had caught sight of Vanguard. "Who won the chili cook-off?"

"Not me," responded Vanguard. Then he looked quizzically at Sugarberry. "Holmes, is this Tabby-pony capable of the foul deed that was perpetrated?"

Confused, Tabby queried, "You made your chili out of chicken?"

"F-o-u-l, not f-o-w-l," corrected Sugarberry.

"What did we miss?" asked Thomas.

So Sugarberry and Merry Moments relayed the unsolved mystery to them.

Tabby immediately blurted out, "Tex! It had to be Tex!"

Now it was Vanguard's turn to look confused. "How do you figure that, Tabby?"

"The worms," Tabby offered.

"The worms?" Vanguard was becoming more puzzled by the second.

"Tex put worms in Tabby's lunchbox back in sixth grade, and she hasn't trusted him since," clarified Sugarberry.

"If he's capable of putting worms in my lunch, he's capable of substituting cinnamon for chili."

"Our list of suspects grows," grinned Merry Moments.

At that moment, Blue Belle's Hitmonchan soundly defeated Dainty's Raichu who subsequently was in dire need of Tabby's nursing talents. Vanguard, Sugarberry, and Merry Moments left Tabby and Thomas to their work, and moved off in the direction of the river.

Dotting the bank were the fisherponies who hoped to pull in the biggest fish of the day. Current, one of the Brilliant Brothers, was there, as well as Sky Skimmer from Friendship Gardens. Even Baby Bright Bouquet was there with her parents, and Wigwam, and Pinwheel. Further down the stream, they came across Quarterback silently watching his fishing line.

Sugarberry was unsure as to whether or not he would mind being interrupted, but Quarterback caught sight of them and waved them over. "It's too early for the fish to be biting good, but the big ones are down there." He looked closely at Merry Moments. "Have we met?"

Sugarberry realized her oversight and introduced the two. Merry Moments was intrigued with the possibility of catching a fish and Quarterback was soon demonstrating the proper technique to throw out the line and how to reel it back in.

"Not bad," he complimented Merry Moments as she made her first cast. "Now just wait quietly for a fish to bite." He then set about explaining all the finer points of fishing, with Merry Moments being an apt pupil. She was genuinely enjoying this experience.

Sugarberry and Vanguard bid farewell to the two as Quarterback and Merry Moments progressed from their fish discussion on to baseball. "I think Quarterback has met his match," whispered Sugarberry to Vanguard as they moved off back to the bustle of the festival grounds. Once there, they ran into Tabby and Thomas who were on their way to the ferris wheel.

"Come with us," urged Tabby, who well knew Sugarberry's fear of heights. "It's only a little ferris wheel!"

"Let's go!" exclaimed Vanguard, steering Sugarberry in the direction of the towering circle.

Oh, great, thought Sugarberry as she silently wished she'd stayed at the riverbank with Quarterback and Merry Moments. At least sports talk was only boring, not scary.

But before she knew it, she was seated next to Vanguard on the ferris wheel. He valiantly drew her within the comforting embrace of his foreleg as the wheel began turning. This isn't so bad, thought Sugarberry as the contraption moved up the backside of its circular path. She had just relaxed to enjoy the ride when the seat crested the top, and nothing but emptiness hung before her. Sugarberry turned her face into Vanguard's shoulder, and closed her eyes. She was faintly aware of hearing Tabby's voice screaming in terror. "Serves her right," Sugarberry muttered as she remembered Tabby's words-- It's only a little ferris wheel!

"Hey, Braveheart, you're missing the scenery," teased Vanguard. "Look over there-- you can see Pony Pride University."

Stealing a peek, Sugarberry grudgingly had to admit that the view was rather pretty from this height. By looking to the distance rather than down, she was able to survive the ride. Even Tabby's shrieks became less frequent. And then the ride was over.

Sugarberry and Tabby fell into each others forelegs in relief once they were on solid ground. Thomas and Vanguard chuckled uncompassionately, but led the girls to an empty park bench nearby. "Ready for the next ride when your are," taunted Thomas. He and Vanguard shared a smug male moment while Sugarberry and Tabby caught their breath.

"Humph," grumbled Tabby. "I'd rather be battling Pokèmon."

"I think I need to rest awhile," stammered Sugarberry. "Maybe a cup of coffee?" she pleaded.

As Thomas and Vanguard went off in search of a refreshment booth, Tabby and Sugarberry managed to calm down and regain their composure. They were spiritedly discussing suspects in the chile mystery when the stallions returned not only with soda and coffee but also with a box of cinnamon raisin bars to nibble on. "Tamara and her show cat group were selling these for a jangle raiser," explained Thomas.

"These are very good," said Sugarberry between bites. "Excellent with coffee."

"But you know I don't like raisins," complained Tabby.

When the ponies were sated, they went their separate ways to prepare for the evening picnic. Tabby went with Sugarberry to help fix fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy, although Tabby's assistance was-- for the most part-- simply to stay out of Sugarberry's way in the kitchen.

"What if everybody brings chicken and potatoes? Not that I'm complaining, but it could happen. All chicken and potatoes-- no salads, no desserts, no veggies, no bread. Did you even think of that, Sugarberry?" chattered Tabby.

"Yes, I guess that could happen," agreed Sugarberry. "But I've never known it to. Tabby, get your hooves off of those brownies!"

Tabby had found the brownies Chocolate Chip had ready for the pot luck and had helped herself to one. Sugarberry scowled at her, but the brownies looked so good with their chocolate frosting that she ended up snitching one herself. "Chocolate Chip will never notice," declared Tabby.

"Notice what?" Chocolate Chip entered the kitchen from the living room. Seeing the two ponies with guilty faces and half-eaten brownies clutched in their hooves made her break out in laughter. "You two are worse than baby ponies!"

"How dare you compare me to a baby pony!" retorted Tabby.

"Your brownies were just too good to resist," admitted Sugarberry as she finished hers off. "And besides, Tabby made me do it!"

The smell of chicken frying on the stove reminded the ponies that there was still work to be done if they were to be ready for the picnic. Sugarberry mashed the potatoes while the chicken finished cooking; Tabby and Chocolate Chip sat at the counter arguing over which eighties toys were the neatest.

Before long, the food was ready and packed into the picnic basket. The three friends took off for the park where the picnic was being held. They deposited their food items on the already loaded serving tables, then hunted for a spot to settle. Chocolate Chip wanted to spread the picnic cloth directly on the ground while Tabby and Sugarberry held out for a picnic table-- "to avoid the nasty bugs." Chocolate Chip won out, however, as the last available table was snatched up by a group of princess ponies while the girls were still debating.

"The nerve of those princesses!" ranted Tabby as she prepared for a showdown. Luckily, Thomas and Vanguard showed up in the nick of time with the news that they had reserved a table across the way; Prime was watching it for them.

"Prime's here?" brightened Chocolate Chip. "I'll go wait with him if you ponies want to go get your food now." With that, she set off across the park.

Sugarberry and Vanguard, along with Tabby and Thomas, headed for the food tables where they loaded up their plates with every type of culinary dish that Little Ponies could desire.

"Hmm," observed Thomas as they reached the dessert table. "I think we'll have to come back later. There's no more room on our plates."

"Yeah," Tabby consented. "I hate mashed potatoes stuck to my brownie."

The others agreed, so they continued on to where Prime and Chocolate Chip were holding down their place, now joined by Friendly and Spike.

"This is great!" exclaimed Sugarberry. "It's almost like an evening at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe." She had no sooner said that when Clever Clover showed up with an overloaded plate of food. He was followed by Merry Moments and Quarterback.

"How did the fishing contest turn out?" asked Vanguard of the two sunburned fisherponies.

"We lost, thanks to me," complained Merry Moments. "Quarterback had hooked a humongous fish, but he let me reel it in. I lost it," she ended dejectedly.

"Sounds like a typical fish story," harassed Thomas.

"It was a big one," Quarterback confirmed. "Merry Moments did a good job trying to land it." He looked at Merry Moments admiringly.

"It looks like the only winner today in this group was Clever Clover in the Pokèmon battle," observed Spike.

Sugarberry looked around at the eclectic group gathered together. In a burst of sentimentality, she pronounced, "We are all winners because of our friendship!"

Tabby groaned. "Enough already, Sugarberry."

"But I agree with Sugarberry," Vanguard defended. "I just arrived yesterday, and I feel like I've known you all forever." His gaze swept over the group, ending with a special wink at Sugarberry.

"That does it!" bewailed Tabby. "I'm out of here! Anyone want dessert?" As Tabby took off for the dessert table, Thomas shrugged his shoulders and tagged after her.

Friendly and Chocolate Chip began cleaning up the used plates and carting them to the trash can. Merry Moments pulled Sugarberry aside to ask, "Any more clues as to who messed with the chili powder, Holmes?"

"Why, Watson, I'd been having so much fun, I'd completely forgotten about it," admitted Sugarberry. "It doesn't seem to matter anymore."

"You mean my first case has to remain unsolved?" Merry Moments grinned. "That won't look good on a resume."

Just then, they heard Tabby complaining as she and Thomas returned to the table. "I hate raisins! Why would anyone put them into an otherwise perfectly tasty dessert?"

Thomas, carrying a tray of cinnamon raisin bars, explained. "All the desserts were gone except for this batch of Tamara's bars. She had to hurry and make more after selling all her others this afternoon. That's why she was late with them."

"Lucky for us!" exclaimed Sugarberry. "Those bars of Tamara's were delicious... especially with coffee." She frowned as she realized there was no coffee at the picnic.

True to form, Clever Clover and Spike grabbed greedily for the bars; Clever Clover took a bite of his, and began choking. Spike did the same.

"What's wrong with you two?" Tabby tormented. "Choke on a raisin?"

"Water..." croaked Clever Clover as Merry Moments handed him a cold soda and Prime whacked him on the back. Friendly did the same for Spike.

"You guys are very funny," chided Sugarberry. "Make them look bad so you can eat them all yourselves." She defiantly took a bite of her bar; but after one chew, she ran to the trash can and spit it out. The sweet, cinnamony taste she'd expected had in actuality been a hideous hot pepper flavor. She gulped down a glass of milk provided by Vanguard. Her eyes were big, if not a bit teary, when she exclaimed, "That's chili powder in the bars, not cinnamon."

Everyone was speechless as their thoughts whirled. If someone had switched the chili powder for cinnamon, it would stand to reason that the someone would have ended up with a cinnamon jar full of chili powder. And who else but Tamara? She had the opportunity to make the switch as she had been next to Vanguard in the contest. And she had admitted to being rushed at baking the bars this afternoon.

"Tabitha! Sugarberry! Everybody!" came Tamara's voice as she and Tex came toward the stunned group still sorting out the implications of what had transpired.

Even Tabby was at a loss as to what to say to Tamara. Why was her cousin involved in this cinnamon-chili switch?

Tamara was too excited to notice the silence hanging over her friends. "I've been so busy today! We raised two thousand jangles for our show cat building fund. I haven't had a chance to eat!" She snatched a cinnamon raisin bar from the table and took a huge bite. Everyone watched in anticipation and were aptly rewarded as Tamara clutched her throat, screaming for water. Chocolate Chip handed her a glass, asking, "Didn't you know about the chili powder?"

After gulping down the water, Tamara was able to choke out a response. "What chili powder? What happened to my bars? Is this some kind of joke?" she glared threateningly at Tabby.

"If you didn't put the chili powder in, then who did?" questioned all the onlookers.

Now it was Tex's turn to add some information. "This is getting really strange." He shook his head. "We all know about Vanguard's mix-up this morning, but only Tamara and I know where her cinnamon came from." He stopped and took a deep breath. "She was in a hurry to get home and make those bars, but knew she'd used the last of her cinnamon when baking the first batch of bars this morning."

"And Tex had a jar of cinnamon at the salsa shop which he gave to me to save time!" Tamara continued, stopping quickly when she realized where this was leading.

"That's all the proof we need," declared Tabby, pleased that the guilt was falling on her antagonist. "Why would Tex have cinnamon at his salsa shop unless he was hiding the evidence?"

"Not so fast!" petitioned Tex bewilderedly. "I keep other spices on hand other than chili spices. Dessert salsas contain cinnamon."

Clever Clover backed Tex up. "Yep! Tex makes some mighty weird combinations in that shop of his-- I've tried them all."

"Are you saying that you don't know how that counterfeit cinnamon got in your supply cabinet?" quizzed Vanguard.

No one moved or spoke as they curiously awaited the outcome of this strange run of events. In the dead silence, Tex's answer came through loud and clear-- "I don't know."

Everyone was so intent on the drama before them that no one noticed that Sundance and Butch had joined their cluster until Sundance's voice caused them to turn in surprise. Events were moving swiftly along to an unknown conclusion; all ears were strained to hear the next detail.

"Butch has something he would like to say about this matter," Sundance announced evenly. She turned expectantly to her brother, and her eyes flashed fire.

Butch stepped forward and cleared his throat. He appeared to be in control of the situation, and directed his first words to Vanguard. "The cinnamon that ended up in your chili? That was my doings."

"But why?" questioned the mystified stallion.

"I knew my chili could beat all the local cooks, but I never had the chance to try yours. So when I saw you shopping at Oakly's, I though I'd give myself an advantage." After a pause, he added, "Guess I should say I'm sorry."

"You owe me a fair contest."

"Name the time and place. I'll be there," grinned Butch. "Remember, I saw you make your chili now. Mine's better."

"We'll see about that!" countered Vanguard.

"What about my cinnamon raisin bars?" spoke up Tamara. "Why did you mess with those?"

"For that I'm really sorry," Butch admitted. "I should have quit while I was ahead." He took a deep breath and continued. "If I'd have only substituted Vanguard's chili pepper with cinnamon and stopped at that, no one could have traced it to me... or anyone else. But rather than throw out the empty cinnamon jar, I refilled it with the chili pepper and resealed it."

"And planted it in my supply cupboard to cause me trouble in the future," Tex finished for him.

"Seemed like a good idea at the time." Butch glanced uncomfortably at Tamara. "Never meant to involve you in this," he finished.

The suspense that had frozen the observers was ended. They began excitedly discussing the details of all they had heard, milling about, and then rehashing it again.

Sundance approached Vanguard and Sugarberry apprehensively. "You're not angry, are you?"

"No, Sundance," Vanguard assured. "I'm just glad to have all my questions answered."

"Oh, thank you," she gushed. "Butch has a strange sense of humor sometimes-- I think he spends too much time alone in the Dark Forest."

Tabby intervened. "It's that green-headed duck he's got." Sugarberry and Sundance laughed while Vanguard looked lost again.

"That's another story," Sugarberry gleefully informed him. "I'll enlighten you another time."

Evening had settled over this gala event of Summer Celebration. A bright orange starburst of fireworks exploded high in the sky at the edge of the park. Revelers hurried to find comfortable vantage points for the coming show. The vibrant bursts of colored lights elicited a chorus of "oohs" and "aahs" from the entranced onlookers. And from her place at Vanguard's side, Sugarberry had never seen her world look brighter.

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