written by Sugarberry

"I'm having second thoughts about this," muttered Vanguard as he and Wigwam prepared to go on a winter trek into the Dark Forest.

"Come on; you'll be glad you did."

Vanguard frowned down at the snowshoes he was fastening to his hooves. "I've only been on these things once before," he complained. "And now you expect me to hike all the way to Butch's cabin?"

"Manitou needs the exercise. Besides, with all the snow we've been getting, it's a perfect time to do this." Wigwam stood up, snowshoes in place, and called for Manitou. The big grey wolf came bounding across the snowy landscape, stopping at Wigwam's side and raising a shower of the newest snowflakes that had fallen overnight.

Admiring the striking animal, Vanguard smiled. "He's a beauty. Sugarberry says he's always on his best behavior when he comes into the vet clinic."

"I suppose she wouldn't say that about me."

Vanguard grinned. "I believe she said Elaine feels safer turning her back to Manitou than to you."

"Ha!" Wigwam scoffed. "Elaine doesn't trust any stallion! And besides, she has nothing to fear from me... I'm not getting involved with any mares after getting dumped by Chocolate Chip."

"I'm sorry that happened."

"Not nearly as sorry as I am." Wigwam glanced at Vanguard. "Are you all set?"

"As ready as I'll ever be," Vanguard stated uncertainly, trying to keep himself balanced as he took the first few steps. He was concentrating so hard on getting the feel of the unaccustomed hoofwear that he didn't notice Manitou playfully loping toward him; when the wolf was nearly upon him, Vanguard looked up to see the wild furry beast headed straight for him and tried to sidestep him which caused the stallion to topple over in a jumbled mix of hooves and snowshoes. Manitou swerved at the last second, always in full control of his movements. He stopped several yards from Vanguard and looked at the downed pony with a gleeful expression on his face.

Laughing, Wigwam came to lend his friend a helping hoof. "Come on, Van. This is no time to be sittin' around!"

Once righted and with his shoed hooves firmly planted on the sparkling snow, Vanguard was finally ready to follow Wigwam away from the city across the covered land; large amounts of snow had fallen this winter-- more than normal-- and the white flakes had piled themselves into undulating drifts of brightness that spread as far as one could see until they met the barrier of trees that signaled the start of the Dark Forest.

The two stallions crossed the pristine miles with Manitou bounding like a playful pup, taking himself in carefree abandon wherever his whim directed him. Sometimes he would circle his traveling companions; other times he would run away so far that he would become only a dark spot against the never-ending whiteness, only to turn and come charging back to touch base with his equine comrades.

Breathing deeply of the cold, fresh air, Wigwam pointed to an opening at the fringe of the forest. "Butch's place is just beyond those tall evergreens; think you can make it?"

"I've got the hang of it now," Vanguard replied. "No problem." They soon covered the distance and entered the relatively sheltered forest. Here the snow had been held back by the spreading branches of majestic evergreens and the bare shoots of innumerable lower-growing bushes of various kinds.

They found Butch hard at work splitting firewood; he stopped when he saw his visitors and came forward to greet them. "Just what I need... wood haulers."

Vanguard took note of the stack of neatly placed firewood already looming next to the cabin. "How much of this stuff do you go through anyway?"

"Lots, when the winter is as cold and blustery as this one," Butch replied.

Just then, all three stallions stopped to watch a confrontation between Manitou and Butch's high-strung pet duck, the mallard-like rouen named Quackers. The drake had taken offence at the appearance of the wolf, and had lowered his feathered head in its drab winter plumage aggressively while quacking loudly.

Manitou, enjoying the challenge from the feisty little creature, dropped his front end low to the ground as if mimicking the duck, his nose resting in the snow between his huge paws, his tail waving high in the air.

The posture only seemed to infuriate the duck, who charged the wolf. This made the episode more entertaining than ever for Manitou; he jumped to a new position, his tail verifying his amusement.

"Doesn't that duck realize that Manitou could swallow him whole?" Wigwam asked in disbelief.

"That duck is spunky," Butch admitted. "There's nothing he won't take on."

Quackers, either realizing the futility of his endeavor or growing tired of the energetic wolf, waddled his webbed way over to where the ponies stood and began shuffling his bill through the snow searching for something to eat; bits of wood chips seemed to please him, and he lost all interest in Manitou who, in turn, went on to explore the sights and smells of Butch's homestead.

"You guys help me stack what I've got cut, and I'll warm up some apple cider for ya'." Butch bargained.

"It's a deal," Vanguard replied, looking forward to a chance to sit down for awhile.

After the wood stacking, all three ponies were ready for a break. The interior of Butch's cabin was simple, but warm and snug. Butch heated the spicy cider over his log fire, and offered them some applesauce bars topped with creamy frosting.

"You're becoming quite a baker, Butch. I thought you stuck to the bare essentials," Wigwam observed.

"Sparkler made these," Butch admitted. "She seems to think I'd starve out here without her donations."

"Sounds like Sugarberry," Vanguard and Wigwam stated simultaneously.

"She's always sending care packages home with us," Wigwam clarified.

"Didn't I hear that you're going to tie the knot?" Butch asked of Vanguard.

"Yup! Come June, Sugarberry and I will be married," Vanguard verified.

"Where are you going to live?"

"We'll stay with Sugarberry's house at first; my brother is an architect and wants to design our dream house for us eventually."

"I've been thinking about updating this place soon," Butch confided. "Make it bigger, more modern."

Vanguard and Wigwam grinned at each other. "Your plans wouldn't involve feminizing the place a bit, would they?" teased Wigwam.

"Well, things have been going good at the casino and if they keep up, I should see about improving my lifestyle, don't you think?" defended the stallion.

Vanguard looked around the cozy cabin. "The rustic decor appeals to us guys, Butch, but a city-bred mare might like some of the conveniences of life-- like indoor plumbing."

"Electricity would be appreciated, too."

"And a telephone would be a nice touch."

Butch glowered at them. "I'm not stupid. I know there's improvements need to be made. That's why I've been planning."

"Have you asked Sparkler what she'd like?" Wigwam queried, noticing a stack of home improvement magazines on a table in the corner.

But Butch changed the subject. "I heard a wolf howl in the night; would that have been Manitou out roaming?"

"He was curled up at the foot of my bed all night," Wigwam responded. "I didn't think there were any other wolves in the area, though."

"That's going to change," Butch predicted. "The rabbit population in these here woods has skyrocketed; the predators are sure to follow."

"What caused the rabbits to multiply?" Vanguard wondered. "More so than normal, I mean," he added as the other two gave him a "duh" look.

"It's weird," Butch admitted. "With the winter as harsh as it has been, they just seem to be coming out of nowhere, as if by magic."

"That's it!" Vanguard realized. "Baby Noddins has found her magic power-- she can summon up bunches of rabbits. From what I hear, they go off into the forest when she's through with them."

Butch shook his head. "Foals now-a-days..."

"You're right about the predators-- a good food source will bring them in for easy hunting," Wigwam stated with a glance at the clock. "And as much fun as this has been, Van and I better get moving."

"You're right," Vanguard agreed. "If I sit here too long, I'll never move again." He grimaced as his muscles fought against activity.
Traveling onward-- yet staying within the confines of the great forest for some distance to enjoy the winter scenery-- the stallions caught sight of a coil of smoke rising above the trees off to their left. "Must be Dreamcatcher's homesite," observed Wigwam.

"Want to see if she's home?"

"Just to get berated by that sharp tongue? I think not."

They had left the woods behind and were crossing the snow-covered meadows once again when Manitou, who had been exploring every interesting inch of the great outdoors, suddenly came to a stop and, with raised head and alert ears, sniffed the air curiously. What he discovered with his keen senses seemed to intrigue him, and he began a steady march toward an isolated evergreen that sat apart from its comrades like a green island in the vast sea of white.

"He's found something interesting," Wigwam commented as he watched the majestic animal. "Let's follow him."

Manitou now stood near the conifer, his every fiber of being honed in on something sheltered in the copse. As Vanguard and Wigwam reached the wolf, they could see that numerous dogwood bushes had spread their red branches in a cluster around the cover of the spruce, creating a miniature woods-like expanse around the tree. Manitou, his sight focused on an area under the spreading branches of the evergreen, slowly moved forward until he was directly under the tree. There, he stood stock-still for a long moment, then dropped to the snowy ground and began whimpering.

Wigwam looked at Vanguard with a puzzled expression. "I've never seen him react this way to anything. Let's check it out!"

Approaching the wolf cautiously, they soon found what was affecting Manitou in this unusual manner. On a blanket of needles under the protecting branches of the spruce lay another creature, the mirror image of Manitou except that this wolf was lying on its side as if very soundly asleep.

But at the arrival of the ponies, the eyelids flickered and opened for a second, fear shining forth; the creature tried to pull away but found the effort too great and merely slumped again into an inert furry heap.

Manitou moved closer to the injured wolf, resting his body next to it; he licked the passive face and emitted worried whines as if encouraging the animal to fight for its life.

Wigwam cautiously dropped to the ground to get a better look, and Vanguard moved in to the opposite side. They could see by the matted coat and hear by the rasping breathes of the wolf that it had been in trouble for some time. Wigwam ran a gentle hoof over the sickly body; Manitou watched his every move.

"The front leg may be broken, and the paw is cut badly," Wigwam determined. "It looks like she's got a bad infection." He rested his hoof lightly on the wolf's fur. "She's burning up with fever." His eyes met Vanguard's.

"So what do we do?" Vanguard asked.

"She's in bad shape; Thomas needs to see her."

"Do you want me to go into town to get him?" Vanguard asked, standing and preparing to leave.

"No offense, Van, but I think I can make better time than you. I'll get Thomas." He looked down at Manitou. "It appears that Manitou will guard his new friend; you can wait with him." But after taking several steps away, Wigwam turned back. "Maybe you should go back to the forest and look-up Dreamcatcher. If she's as good as she thinks she is, she might be able to do something with her Native Pony medicines."

Vanguard looked back toward the Dark Forest where the ribbon of smoke still marked the location of the tepee hidden in the trees. "I'll give it a try."

Going their separate ways, the two stallions hurried to fulfill their respective missions. Having the shortest distance to travel to his destination, Vanguard tried to hurry but only ended up tripping over the snowshoes. He determined that a slow and steady pace would pay off in the long run.

Gaining the cover of the forest, Vanguard found that the trees blocked his vision of the smoke which was acting as his guide; but he remembered hearing that Dreamcatcher's tepee was near the river, so he set his steps in the general direction of the stream. Coming upon the frozen estuary, he turned to his right and followed the winding course until he came to a clearing that opened out into a protected glade; standing off at a distance from the water on a slight rise was the tepee.

Vanguard approached the dwelling in wonder. The size of the structure was striking on its own; he had not envisioned it to be so large. On the side of the skins that covered the frame was painted a glorious eagle in flight, a mountain peak stretching up behind the bird. The feathers were so intricately painted that they looked real.

Following the path that led to the closure of the tepee, Vanguard smiled wryly. "How does one announce his presence in the absence of a doorbell-- or even a door, per se?" he said out loud. But he found his concern misplaced, for a leather cord from which dangled cone-shaped silver bells was hanging on the flap that covered the entrance to the tepee. He picked up the length of cord, and the bells emitted a clear tinkling sound.

There was no response from the tepee, however, and Vanguard reverted to calling out Dreamcatcher's name several times before accepting the fact that she was not at home. He walked back down the path towards the river and noticed that a set of hoofprints in the fresh snow went off across the clearing and into the woods; if Dreamcatcher was just out fetching food or water, he might be able to overtake her. He set off following the trail she had made.

The track at first seemed to be meandering as if the mare was just out to enjoy the pleasures of the winter day; Vanguard realized that he was deeper in the forest that he had ever been before all alone and felt a quiver of apprehension. But he came upon a spot in the tracks where it appeared that the unicorn had changed her mind-- and her direction-- for the trail abruptly made a sharp turn and headed to the edge of the forest.

Breaking through the cover of trees and brush, Vanguard found himself some distance beyond where he had originally entered the forest in the search for the tepee; but as he looked down the line of tracks that stretched out into the frosty meadowland, he realized that they were leading directly to the lone pine that harbored the wounded wolf. Apparently Dreamcatcher had somehow or other found out about the situation already and had gone on to lend a helping hoof. Vanguard shrugged and followed the direct line of prints to the evergreen.

He found Dreamcatcher kneeling next to Manitou and the injured wolf, her hoof resting softly on the lame animal's shoulder. She looked up at Vanguard as if she had expected him to come. "Go back to the tepee and fetch my medicine bag and water bottle; you'll find them both hanging to the right of the entrance."

The she-wolf opened her eyes at the sound of the voice, and Vanguard noticed that the fear was no longer present in those eyes; it had been replaced by what he could only fathom as confidence in the mare who hovered over the listless body. Manitou, too, seemed to have placed his trust in the Native Pony.

"I'll do that," Vanguard found himself saying. As an afterthought, he added, "Thomas will be coming."

Without looking his way, Dreamcatcher responded, "I know."

Vanguard retraced his original path to the tepee as quickly as he could; he was somewhat in awe of the Native Pony, having heard Wigwam's tales of her high expectations. He envisioned being reprimanded for his slow showing when he returned, but he knew that he had done his best. Upon arriving at the tepee, he found the items that Dreamcatcher had requested; grabbing them off the hook upon which they were hanging, he only briefly noted the interior of the tepee and its primitive yet homey style. He grinned as he realized that Butch's home, although not up to Sparkler's standards, would be too upscale for this mare.

Feeling as if he was traveling in slow motion, Vanguard was encouraged to finally find himself approaching the thicket of dogwood bushes once more. Remarkably, Wigwam was just arriving, too, from the other side. Vanguard heard the voices before he saw the ponies.

"I should have known you would be involved with this," Dreamcatcher stated, her voice cold and unforgiving.

Wigwam's temper was short after the events of the day. "It wasn't one of my traps that this animal got her paw into, was it?!"

Thomas' voice intervened. "Let's check the patient, Elaine." He pulled the pack off his back, and got down to work.

Dreamcatcher moved aside to allow the two veterinarians to do their job, but she reached for the items Vanguard brought and delved into the contents of the medicine bag for the potions that she considered necessary. Vanguard was aware that she was condescending to Thomas and Elaine, allowing them to use their modern medicine; but he felt sure that when they were finished and she had the chance, Dreamcatcher would wield her natural remedies on the wolf... and who would ever know whose methods had worked?

Vanguard went to stand at Wigwam's side. The stallion had not said a word since his exchange with Dreamcatcher; he stood now in an attitude of defiance. Sugarberry had told Vanguard of the bitterness that had marked the acquaintance of Wigwam and Dreamcatcher from the start, but Vanguard was still surprised to see the continued animosity between the two who shared common roots.

Thomas and Elaine worked quietly and efficiently; the few words they spoke to each other were deftly responded to as they worked succinctly as a team. The onlookers, too, were silent; but everyone watched closely as the wolf's paw was cleaned, cauterized, and stitched and the leg bone set. While Elaine administered an antibiotic, Thomas talked to Wigwam.

"She's going to be okay, but it will be awhile before she can take care of herself again. Plus, she's going to need to be monitored for the next few days, so we'll have to get her back to the clinic."

Before Wigwam could respond, Dreamcatcher spoke. "We will take her back to my tepee."

Thomas looked at the mare, considering her suggestion. Then he turned back to Wigwam. "That might be a good idea; the wolf won't be as traumatized to be cared for in an environment that she's more familiar with, and I'm sure Dreamcatcher is capable of continuing treatment."

Wigwam scowled at the Native Pony for a moment, but grudgingly acceded to the plan. "If that's what you think is best for the wolf, then let's do it."

The ponies soon had the lethargic animal loaded onto a stretcher; and with Wigwam, Vanguard, Thomas, and Dreamcatcher bearing the burden and Elaine and Manitou hovering nearby to guarantee the she-wolf's comfort and safety, the entourage threaded its way slowly back toward the Dark Forest and the shelter of the tepee.

The day was winding down, and a bank of grey clouds hung over the west causing the absence of the sunlight to drape the floor of the forest in a gloomy half-light. No one spoke as they carted the load; the forest seemed eerily quiet except for the sound of their movement over the snow.

It was with relief that they finally reached the tepee and could set down their load. Dreamcatcher opened the tepee to allow Wigwam to carry the wolf into her domain and quickly spread a woven mat on the floor at a safe distance from the fire as a bed for the dormant form. Manitou stayed alert to the proceedings. He watched as Elaine once more listened to the wolf's heartbeat; and when his charge had been comfortably situated, he took up his place at her side. Assuring himself that she was at ease, he rested his head on his paws, keeping his ears alert to any sound.

"Well, that's all we can do for now," Thomas stated. "I'll come out again tomorrow to see how she's doing."

"She'll be fine," Dreamcatcher murmured, dropping to the floor next to the two wolves and resting a hoof on both of them. "We'll see to that, won't we, Manitou?" Manitou lifted his head for a moment and his golden eyes looked upon Dreamcatcher intensely; then he settled down once again, burying his nose in the fur of the companion at his side.

Vanguard glanced at Wigwam and saw the look of sadness as the stallion realized that Manitou had lost all interest in him and had moved his affection and trust to Dreamcatcher. Wigwam stared at the intimate trio by the fireside, then turned and left the tepee. Vanguard followed him out, and Elaine was not far behind.

"It's a good thing you found her when you did," Elaine softly directed to Wigwam. "You saved her life."

Wigwam looked at her as if just now noticing her part in all this. "No. You and Thomas saved her life." He realized that she had shown no hesitation in coming to the rescue of the injured creature and had acted professionally even in difficult circumstances. Maybe he had underestimated her courage.

Thomas came out alone, and the tired foursome headed back to Dream Valley. Now that the crisis had been resolved, conversation flowed.

"Vanguard, I sent Tabby over to spend the afternoon with Sugarberry. Tabby wanted to come out here, but I thought it would be better for her to stay safely back in Dream Valley."

"Has she been feeling okay?" The news of the impending birth had been joyously received by all who knew the unicorn couple.

"She's fine," Elaine giggled. "It's Thomas we have to worry about."

"It's a huge responsibility to be a parent!" Thomas justified.

Wigwam brought the group back to the events of the day. "What do you think caused the wolf's wounds?"

"We'll probably never know for sure, but it appears that something hard and heavy crushed her leg," Elaine responded.

"Like a trap?"

"No. The flesh wound wasn't caused by anything as sharp as a steel trap. It was more ragged, like... well... like as if she got caught in a rock slide or something," Thomas elaborated.

"She would have had to been in the hills for that to happen," mused Wigwam. "At that rate, she's traveled a ways."

"By the amount of infection in the paw, she has been in a weakened condition for some days now," Elaine verified.

"I can't thank you guys enough for what you did for her," Wigwam affirmed.

"See if you can still say that after the bill comes!" Thomas laughed.

Snowflakes had begun to fall by the time the city came into sight, and the talk moved on to other things. Vanguard noticed that Wigwam often looked behind him as if expecting to see Manitou come romping up; but there was no sign of the furry beast anywhere. As they neared Sugarberry's house, the stallion was noticeably depressed.

Gratefully stepping out of the snowshoes outside the backdoor, Vanguard grinned as Sugarberry appeared with Tabby close behind her. "How did it go?" they both wanted to know.

"Mission accomplished," Thomas stated as he took Tabby into his embrace. "And how are you?"

"Same as the last two million times you've asked me that in the course of the week," she answered.

"You can tell us all about your adventure over supper; I plan on all of you staying-- I made enough to feed an army," Sugarberry informed the crew. "And then Chocolate Chip called to say that she and Wishbone won't be home because they got invited to a skating party."

"What a perfect night for a skating party!" exclaimed Elaine, watching the snowflakes from the window.

"I invited Agatha and Hubert to join us, too, to make up the difference."

Wigwam shied away from the talkative bunch of ponies and found himself staring at an assortment of magazines on the counter: Today's Bride, Ponyland Baby, Wedding Bells, and Foal Facts. Sugarberry and Tabby had been busy making plans. Wigwam's life felt very empty as he saw the smiling faces of perfection taunting him from the glossy pages.

Sugarberry and Vanguard had just crossed the room to talk to Wigwam when Tabby's parents came in the back door. "I saw the arrival of a gang of ponies and thought you might need help getting the food ready," Agatha laughed, seeing the crowd in the kitchen; she carried several enticing dishes of her own.

"It's just like a party," commented Hubert while searching out Tabby's face. "How are you feeling?"

Tabby rolled her eyes. "I'm fine, Dad; really I am."

Amidst the new chorus of cheerful greetings, Wigwam found the congenial surroundings too much to take. "I'm outta here," he stated as Sugarberry smiled at him. He turned and left the kitchen, headed for the less-crowded front entrance.

Sugarberry looked questioningly at Vanguard. "Go talk to him," Vanguard advised, motioning her to follow the stallion. She caught up to him just as he was opening the door. "Wigwam! Wait!"

"For what!"

"What is wrong?"

"The question, 'What is right,' would take less time to answer." He opened the door wider, but Sugarberry pushed it closed again and stood in front of it.

"What has gotten you so upset?"

"It's none of your business, Sugarberry!" he muttered angrily, then immediately regretted his words. "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for." He slumped his way to the couch and sat down as if thoroughly defeated.

"Would it help to talk about it?" Sugarberry asked softly as she sat next to him.

"Don't be so nice; you're making me feel like a naughty colt who just threw a tantrum."

"If the wolf is going to be okay, why are you so down?"

"Because Manitou stayed behind with Dreamcatcher."

"Oh." Sugarberry could well imagine that would not set well with Wigwam, but she could not believe that it would throw him into this dark mood. "Is that the only thing?"

"... the only thing?" Wigwam jumped up and began pacing. "I'd raised him from a pup, Sugarberry. For two years we've been soulmates of a sort." He sat down again and leaned back, covering his face with his hooves. Sugarberry remained silent, waiting for him to collect himself.

"It all goes back to Chocolate Chip, you know," he finally admitted. "I thought we were soulmates, too." He uncovered his face, and grimaced. "It's not easy to stop loving someone when you don't want to."

"She may change her mind."

Wigwam looked at her skeptically. "She's with Prime constantly; I don't foresee any big breakup looming in the future."

"She's not with him constantly; she still works and studies just as hard as ever."

"Well, you get my meaning. She's hung up on the guy. And then there's..."

"There's what?"

"There's you and Vanguard with all your wedding plans, and Thomas and Tabby with their baby on the way... even Butch has stars in his eyes over Sparkler!"

"So you feel left out?"

"More than left out. Stepped on is more like it. And let's not forget Giorgio, who-- you may recall-- precipitated my breakup with Chocolate Chip; he got a mare when all was said and done. At that rate, I might as well throw law and decency to the wind." He tossed his mane in exasperation.

"Are you through?"

"Now that you've asked, no. I could bring up the problem of Dreamcatcher who appointed herself as judge, jury, and executioner in my case. Talk about feeling downtrodden! And then my own pet deserts me for the enemy." He glanced at Sugarberry pensively. "Now I'm through."

"I was hoping you'd go on because at this point I have no idea what to say to you."

Wigwam looked at her worried face and broke out in a grin. "You know, this reminds me of the night I delivered your Christmas present."

Sugarberry smiled in turn. "You were in good spirits then, weren't you?"

"Yeah," he pondered. "Maybe I thought there was still a chance that Van wouldn't propose to you himself."

"So what am I to believe... that you love Chocolate Chip, or that you are pining away for me?"

The stallion grew serious again. "I was building up an entire lifetime of dreams with Chocolate Chip by my side. I don't want to believe that none of them will ever come true."

Sugarberry sighed. "I don't understand the filly. I know she thought the world and all of you, and I'm equally sure that she doesn't feel the same way about Prime even if she is with him const... a lot."

"I'd like to believe that, but every chance I've had to try to smooth things over has ended in just another put-down. I think she's been influenced by Dreamcatcher."

"Chocolate Chip has lunch with her every Friday, so you might be right," Sugarberry giggled.

"Half of me wants to keep trying to make things up to her, and the other half says to put it all behind me and move on; it's tearing me up."

"Give it more time," Sugarberry advised. "Concentrate on your work; as long as you don't meet someone else, what have you got to lose?"

Agatha peered in from the kitchen. "Food's on and everyone is hungry, so don't dally too long."

"We'll be right there," Sugarberry laughed, accepting a helping hoof from Wigwam. "Are you feeling better?" she asked of the stallion.

"Yes. It helped to talk about all this stuff."

"Then smile!"

When the two re-entered the kitchen, the other ponies were already seated except for Agatha who had taken over as hostess. She authoritatively directed Sugarberry to be seated when the strawberry-patterned mare tried to help with the last minute details, and Sugarberry obeyed, slipping into the vacant chair next to Vanguard; she squeezed his hoof to acknowledge that everything was all right, and winked at Wigwam across the table where Agatha had positioned him next to Elaine.

Sugarberry was grateful that no one had questioned their private tete-a-tete and that the flow of conversation went on uninterrupted. The talk centered on the wolves and on Dreamcatcher's isolated existence in the Dark Forest.

"And you, Wigwam, how did you ever end up with a wolf anyway?" Hubert wanted to know.

Wigwam didn't answer immediately; a faraway look crossed his face, and he appeared to be lost in thought. "He was just there," he finally voiced as his friends around the table watched him in various degrees of concern and curiosity. The stallion came back to the present, and grinned sheepishly. "I'm sorry. It's been a long day."

"Tell us your story," Elaine stated softly.

Everyone waited to see if Wigwam would comply; he appeared hesitant until he caught Sugarberry's supportive smile. Maybe it is time to talk about this, he reasoned silently. He then began his own personal tale.

"Several years back, I was feeling kind of restless about my life and the direction it was taking; I'd always been fascinated by the Native Pony dream quests, but had never had the desire to go through one myself. But I figured it couldn't do any harm, so I went up into the hills to face my destiny."

"From my readings on the subject," offered Hubert, "plenty of harm could have come to you if you followed some of the more extreme methods of inducing a dreamlike state. Some ponies went so far as to..."

"Hubert!" Agatha cautioned. "We're eating here." Rebuked, Hubert shut his mouth.

Wigwam continued. "Don't worry. I wasn't up to any body torture or anything of that kind. I simply fasted from food and water for four days, sleeping out on the open ground. It was out near where the Native Pony cave is." He directed the last part of that information to Sugarberry who had accompanied him along with Baby Noddins and a group of college ponies including Chocolate Chip on a venture into the past on a gorgeous day last summer.

"Did anyone know where you were... in case something happened?" questioned Elaine.

"I told my dad where I'd be and what I was up to."

"Sounds boring to me," yawned Tabby. "What did you do for those all those days away from electricity?"

"Thought a lot," admitted Wigwam. "There was plenty of time to meditate on things surrounded by the peace and quiet of nature. And as the days went by, it was very easy to imagine the spirits of all those ponies who had lived their lives there keeping me company."

"And did you have your dream?" queried Thomas.

"Every night, I dreamt of wolves. At first, the dreams were very elusive; I'd know in the morning that I had dreamed, but I couldn't remember anything."

"Don't you just hate that?" interjected Tabby.

"But each night, the dream became more real and went into more detail. By the fourth night, it was as if I was actually living the dream."

"It must have been very powerful," Agatha gently prompted as the stallion relived the events in his mind.

"It was," he stated simply. When he continued, it was as if the scene was playing out before his eyes once more. "I was surrounded by a pack of wolves; at first, they were healthy and aggressive-- nothing could intimidate them. They were beautiful animals with their thick coats in shades of gray with some of them almost black. Their eyes were like intense yellow lights that could stare on forever. But slowly I began to notice that there were fewer and fewer of the wolves, and those that were left seemed weak and distressed. Their coats had become shaggy and they paced as if there was danger surrounding them, but I couldn't see what was causing them to be so disturbed. Soon there was only one wolf left, an old she-wolf. But she died, too."

"Oh! How sad," Sugarberry empathized.

"Was that the end of the dream?" Vanguard asked.

"No... no it wasn't." He halted, looking at the group around the table. "The she-wolf vanished, and in her place was a chocolate brown filly who came to me in the dream with food and water; her mane was braided with feathers entwined with her hair. I reached out to take the items she offered me, but she disappeared; and I woke up."

Sugarberry gasped, her eyes wide. "You didn't know Chocolate Chip yet then."

"Fascinating," Hubert sighed. "But where does Manitou fit into all of this?"

"When I woke up, it was just at dawn; the morning light was dim yet, but I became aware of something by my side. And there he was, curled up against me as if seeking some warmth after the coolness of the night hours."

"You mean that Manitou came while you were sleeping and never left?"

"That's right. There was only him. I couldn't find a trace of his parents or any other wolves in the area; I stayed out there an extra two nights after my dad had brought me some food hoping that the pup's pack would come back to claim him. But they never did."

"So the two of you stayed together," stated Vanguard.

"Yup. He followed me wherever I went; and by the time I came back home, he had adopted me as his family."

"That was almost as good as catching a Pokemon," determined Tabby.

"No wonder you regretted leaving him behind today," Elaine offered. "But why now is he ready to part from you?"

"One of Dreamcatcher's spells, I suppose," muttered Wigwam.

Thomas grinned. "I think it's more down to earth than that. Manitou is grown-up now in wolf years, and he met his first female wolf-- one that needs protecting, at that. I would imagine he knows what to do from here."

"You think they'll start a pack of their own?" wondered Wigwam.

"Manitou will watch over the she-wolf until she's healthy again; at that point, I would imagine they will go off to start a life together."

"Can I go out with you when you check her tomorrow, Thomas?" asked Tabby. "I'd like to see her."

Thomas deliberated before answering. "If you get a good night's sleep and promise to rest once you're back home."

"What's the fun in that?"

"The fun in that, young lady, is that you will have a healthy foal," Agatha reminded her daughter.

"Oh, yeah," Tabby grinned. "I was just kidding, Mom."

"Thanks for sharing your fasting dream with us, Wigwam," remarked Elaine.

"It's the first time I've ever talked to anyone about it besides my dad. It always seemed too unbelievable. And now with Manitou gone, it all really is just a dream."

"But how many ponies have had the experience you did, to share these last couple of years with Manitou?" reminded Hubert. "You brought him to this point where he can continue on with his part of this scenario-- to re-introduce wolves into this area."

Wigwam thought a moment; then his face brightened. "You're right! I've been so caught up in worrying about my losing Manitou that I lost sight of the full picture; this was Manitou's destiny from the beginning!"

"Does anyone want dessert?" asked Agatha as she cleared dirty plates off the table. "It's that sugary cherry concoction that Tabby likes so well."

When the cherry cobbler had been polished off to the last crumb, the ponies cleared the table and made short work of the clean-up. From the window, the gently falling snow looked so inviting that Agatha suggested a plan. "Why don't we all go over to the skating rink and watch the youngsters?"

"Yes, let's!" agreed Elaine. "Although I'd rather skate than just sit back and watch!"

Everyone responded positively to the idea, and they were soon on their way. Elaine and Vanguard had become engrossed in discussing educational opportunities in Ponyland, so Sugarberry took the opportunity to drop back to talk with Wigwam.

"If Dreamcatcher knew about your vision quest, she wouldn't be so hostile," she teased.

Wigwam scoffed. "I highly doubt that; I didn't cut slits in my chest."

Sugarberry shuddered. "Thank goodness you didn't. I think your quest succeeded quite well without the brutality." They both became lost in thought until Sugarberry broached the subject of the brown filly. "How do you read Chocolate Chip's appearance in your dream?"

Wigwam sighed. "There was a time when I saw her bringing me sustenance as a sign that we were meant to be together for life. But she disappeared, didn't she, just like in the dream?"

"She's not gone, just out of reach. For all you know, her coming to you is still in the future."

"Well, I can wait and see. My life's going nowhere anyway," the stallion observed wryly.

"Just don't expect too much too soon. You've got to be patient."

The sounds of music and laughter met their ears as the group neared the skating rink. The accumulated snow from the previous storms ringed the perimeter of the ice. The shelter was brightly lit and the smell of hot chocolate enticed many of the skaters to take a break and enjoy the warmth. Among those so occupied were Chocolate Chip and Prime.

Sugarberry and Vanguard went immediately to the college ponies. "Hi, guys," Sugarberry called, surprising Chocolate Chip enough that she spilled her hot drink down her hoof.

"I never expected to see you here," the filly explained to the newcomers while allowing Prime to fetch her a napkin.

"Good think this stuff blends right in with your color," Prime commented.

"Sugarberry! Come skate with me!" grinned Wishbone, grabbing the mare's hoof.

"I'd best put some skates on first," she laughed, going to the bench to take care of that detail. Elaine was already tying up her skates when Wigwam invited her to join him on the ice.

As they moved off together, Wishbone taunted the Native Pony good-naturedly. "It's one thing to stay on your hooves with a mare beside you, but how good are you at racing?"

"Better than you," Wigwam flung back with a cocky grin.

"We'll find out before the evening is over," smirked Wishbone as he helped Sugarberry to her hooves. It was a pleasure to skim over the ice, and Sugarberry thoroughly enjoyed the exercise. Wishbone was for more agile than she was, but he accommodated his movements to hers while keeping up an incessant barrage of talk that kept her giggling throughout their time on the ice.

They had no sooner returned to the shelter when Wishbone took off with Frilly Flower; Sugarberry found Vanguard still talking with Chocolate Chip. Prime, for once, was nowhere to be seen until Sugarberry searched the rink to find him skating with another of the Sweetheart Sisters.

Tabby and Thomas were just moving out to the ice while Wigwam and Elaine continued to circle the rink; Sugarberry smiled to herself as she observed Chocolate Chip watching them, too. Only Agatha and Hubert sat at the edge of the crowd, and Sugarberry pulled Vanguard along with her to see how they were faring. "Come out on the ice!" invited Sugarberry.

Hubert looked at Agatha. "Yes, dear. Give it a try."

"I haven't skated in years," Agatha fretted. "I'd probably break a leg. Oh, I do hope Tabby's being careful!"

All eyes swung out to locate the pink unicorn, and Vanguard laughed. "I don't think you need to worry about that." Thomas kept Tabby close with a foreleg protectively surrounding her. "In fact," Vanguard added, "I like his style." He soon had Sugarberry similarly encircled as they took their turn on the ice.

"Look over there," Sugarberry directed some time later as she spotted a new couple enjoying the ice; Hubert had convinced his wife to brave the sport, and the two of them now were circling slowly but happily, the younger crowd zipping around them.

"I didn't know you liked to skate so much," Chocolate Chip commented when Sugarberry and Vanguard returned to the shelter for a break.

"Sure I like to skate; it's the cold weather I don't like. But tonight's not so bad."

"Take a turn with me, Sugarberry?" Prime asked, coming up to the ponies. "If that's okay with you, Vanguard."

"Only if Chocolate Chip will join me."

"Delighted!" the filly responded readily.

Prime was quiet until he had put some distance between himself and Chocolate Chip. "Is Chocolate Chip worried about anything that you're aware of?"

"Worried? No more than usual about keeping her grades up. Why do you ask?"

"She's just seemed kind of distant, especially since Wigwam showed up."


"So what gives with those two? Chocolate Chip assured me that they were through, but sometimes I'm not so sure."

"Maybe she's not so sure herself, Prime."

"So where does that put me?"

"As her very good friend who won't expect more from her than that."

Prime grinned. "I guess that's not asking too much." They were coming toward Vanguard and Chocolate Chip at that moment, and Prime very neatly stole the filly away while handing Sugarberry over to Vanguard.

"Welcome back," the country blue stallion smiled and kissed her cheek.

"Did Chocolate Chip say anything?" the mare asked.

"No. Nothing special. Why?"

"Prime thinks she's worried about something... or someone."

Vanguard watched as the younger ponies shot by. "She looks fine now." And the chocolate brown pony did seem to be enjoying herself at the moment, laughing and twirling with Prime.

The entire group from supper ended up at the shelter at the same time, and opted to sit out awhile over some hot cocoa. Hubert had just finished a story from his long sojourn in the Himalayas when Wishbone appeared on the scene.

"Ready for a race, Wigwam? The ice is nearly deserted."

"You ready to eat my ice chips?" Wigwam responded smugly.

"I'm ready to beat you," Wishbone grinned. "But to keep this honest, we could use some line judges at key spots along the track."

By this time, interest in the race had generated a crowd around the contenders. Vanguard, Thomas, and Hubert consented to position themselves to monitor the track and insure that the racers stayed in line.

When Wigwam and Wishbone lined up for the start, excitement was high. Agatha was given the honor of signaling the start of the race. As the white handkerchief dropped, the two stallions started off in synchronized movement; after passing Vanguard's post, Wishbone began to gain distance, but while making the farthest curve past Thomas he swung too wide; and Wigwam cut the space somewhat. By the time they flew past Hubert, the two were neck and neck; but the Native Pony pulled ahead in the homestretch and crossed the finish line first.

Wishbone wasn't subdued; he had enjoyed the challenge. After honorably congratulating the winner, he dared Prime and Chip to race. This led to a series of contests putting stallion against stallion, filly against filly, and stallion against filly.

The last race became a competition between Prime and Chocolate Chip; Prime had made the comment that even though he had already run several races, he could still beat any of the fillies. This goaded Chocolate Chip enough that she took up his challenge, and the two ran a tough match.

But Prime came in ahead; and Chocolate Chip, crossing the finish line at full speed suddenly lost her balance and began to fall. In an instant Wigwam was at her side and caught her up. "Steady, girl."

He held her, and time stopped as they looked into each other's eyes. For that moment, all who knew their past looked on to see the outcome; but it ended as quickly as it began. Chocolate Chip pulled herself away and went on to where Prime had stopped. "I let you win," she informed him.

Vanguard, coming in off the ice, raised an eyebrow. "What was that all about?"

Sugarberry said softly, "She loves him, Vanguard. She still loves him. She just won't allow herself to admit it. But Wigwam knows now, too, if he had eyes to see." She made a point to sit by the orange stallion as she removed her skates. "So how are you faring by now?" she prodded.

"There was an instant when Chocolate Chip forgot her grudge against me, Sugarberry. I saw again something of her true feelings. I'll wait for her forever if that's what it takes!"

Tabby, Thomas, and Elaine came by to say goodnight. "We're going home. What time do you want to head out to see the wolves tomorrow, Wigwam?"

With those arrangements being made satisfactorily, the Fairfaxes left, and Wigwam soon followed. Agatha and Hubert offered to spare Vanguard the walk across town by making sure Sugarberry got home safely themselves, but the stallion turned them down. "There were too many times in Vulcanopolis that I could only dream of walking Sugarberry home; I'm not going to miss out on the reality of it now. My dream quest has been fulfilled." The look that passed between him and the mare verified that the sentiment was mutual.

Agatha looked on approvingly. "That was beautifully stated, Vanguard. And now, the two of you can fill Hubert and I in on how your wedding plans are shaping up." The two couples left with a final wave at Chocolate Chip, Wishbone, and the others.

Meanwhile, across the city blocks, Wigwam stood outside his abode contemplating all that had transpired in the course of the day. He had not expected the ordinary morning to have blossomed into such a meaningful cache of hours. He still lamented the forfeit of the wolf, but it was tempered by the promise of the brown filly.

As he was about to go in for the night, he heard a distant sound from the direction of the Dark Forest. It was the howl of a wolf. Wigwam smiled, for it wasn't a melancholy call; it was a call of confidence in the future.

"Thanks, Manitou," the Native Pony whispered.

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