“Ya thievin’ varmints!”
The shout rang through the apple orchard accompanied by the sound of thundering hooves. A husk of rabbits raced over the grass, apples clasped firmly in their mouths, paws eating up the ground as they struggled to keep ahead of Applejack.
They were nimbler than she was, dodging under fallen branches and ducking through bushes, forcing the pony behind them to slow down and navigate around the obstacles. Between keeping half a mind on not crashing into the trees and all the weaving she was having to do to keep clear of the undergrowth she was never going to catch up to these critters.
Time to call in some help.
Her call was met by a distant barking. The echo of her voice hadn’t so much as died away before a brown and white streak raced up from the direction of the farm.
“Round ‘em up, Winona!” She instructed.
Her dog acknowledged the command with a yap and raced ahead of the rabbits to cut them off.
The rabbits squealed to a stop, caught with Winona ahead and Applejack behind. They squeezed together into a tight circle. Applejack could see that the stalks on some of the apples had snapped while the rabbits were running, forcing them to clutch the shiny red fruit in their forepaws.
“Now see here ya critters, you just give me back them apples an Ah’ll let you go on your way, no harm done,” Applejack stomped a hoof on the ground to emphasize her words and Winona gave a bark of agreement.
The largest of the rabbits, a white and brown splodged creature, placed his apple down on the grass with exaggerated care. Then he stuck out a pale pink tongue at Applejack and bit into it, bolting past Winona with the apple clamped between its teeth and the rest of the gaggle of rabbits close behind. Applejack was after them almost as fast.
“Get back here!”
Bobbing white tails flashed and winked at her as the rodents sprinted even further ahead. The thick hedges that grew over the fence that marked the edge of Sweet Apple Acres loomed up into view, putting a deadline on the attempt to stop the fluffy thieves.
A whistle signaled for Winona to cut the animals off so as to drive them away from impending freedom and back into the orchards where the critters could again be corralled. Applejack didn’t intend to be so polite when she asked for her produce back a second time.
Winona ran up alongside the herd, barking and yipping to her hearts content; taking full advantage of the survival instinct in the group of thieves who were, at their very most basic level, prey animals. Sure enough the tight knit herd darted away from Winona and back towards the trees to escape the noise and perceived threat. Applejack took up position on the other side of the rabbits. They were racing back deeper into the orchard, but the longer they ran the taller and stronger the trees around them became, and the thinner the undergrowth grew. Without that to hinder her Applejack had no trouble keeping pace; she and Winona now worked in perfect unison to keep the rabbits boxed in. Sensing the impending capture, some of the slower rabbits abandoned their loads and broke away to scatter among the trees. These deserters were ignored; Applejack knew that as long as she remained completely focused on those who refused to relinquish their stolen fruit then Winona would too.
Most of the rabbits had abandoned their apples and fled, but a handful still followed the brown and white leader who was refusing to give up. The farm dog pulled level with him and began to yip and nip playfully at his heels.
A hind foot lashed out and caught Winona square across the muzzle.
She stumbled as her paws caught under each other and pulled her to the ground, her momentum skidding her forward several meters before she came to rest in the dirt.
Applejack slid to a halt, her hooves spraying up dust as she dug them into the soil.
“Winona!” she said again as she dashed to her pet’s side. She nuzzled the dog gently and Winona whimpered in reply, but she didn’t get up. Applejack looked up from her pet just in time to see a flash of white brown disappear in the direction of the hedge.
“Those no good thievin’, sneakin’, stealin’ little varmints!” Applejack shouted as she slammed a hoof into the dirt.
A tendril of cold slithered though her chest. Winona still hadn’t gotten up.
“Winona, you all right?” She nuzzled the dog again.
Winona struggled to her paws, favoring her right front leg heavily. She gave Applejack a comforting lick and limped a few steps after the rabbits. Applejack almost had to repress a bittersweet smile at her pet’s determination.
She blocked Winona’s progress with a leg, taking care not to jostle her. “Whoa Nelly, they win this round. Getting’ you fixed up’s more important than a handful of apples.”
Applejack looked back in the direction of the farm; they’d run a long way, she couldn’t even see the weather-vane that crested the roof through the trees. It was too far for Winona.
Her stomach churned with the urge to chase after that blasted critter and buck him from here to the far side of Equestria; show him what happens when you hurt one of the Apple family –
No. I’ve got to take care of Winona first. But the farm’s so far, where can I…
She scanned what she could see of the distant hedge line, looking away from the farm and out past the edge of the orchard to where the uniform foliage of the apple trees gave way to sparse countryside populated by haphazard bushes and trees. Nothing out there but the Everfree forest and…
Applejack bent her knees and lay down next to her pet. As tenderly as she could, she picked the dog up by the scruff with her teeth and draped her over her back, wincing with every whine Winona made as she was moved.
Applejack tentatively got to her feet. Arching her neck, she could just make out the leafy roof of the cottage down along the path at the edge of the orchard. She set off, rolling her gait to make her walk as smooth as possible, but it still felt like every other step jostled Winona.
They hadn’t run as far from the fence as she’d thought; Applejack had barely been walking for any time at all before the rough hedge sprang into view. Moving past the bushes, along with the fence palings they concealed, to reach the path on the other side was a struggle. Normally she’d just buck a hole in the shrubs, jump the fence and be done with it, but as it was she had to push brushwood out of the way with her legs and hold it back with her teeth, which made twigs scrape across her face and catch in her mane. She hooked a front leg over the top plank and slowly hauled herself over it, trying to ignore the fact that her mouth was full of the taste of shrub while she endeavored to keep Winona clear of the twigs.
When she finally managed to pull herself over the fence and force her way out of the bush the farm pony couldn’t deny feeling silently glad when her hooves hit the packed earth of the path and she was finally free of that tangle of leaves. The path was empty. There was no sign of the small group of rabbits that she’d seen run this way, except for a discarded apple core in the grass at the far side of the trail.
Which was for the best, judging by the way her blood was boiling at the mere sight of the apple remnants. She probably wouldn’t be quite calm enough to be able to deal with them civilly.
Level-headedness. Yes. That was exactly what she needed right now. Applejack took a deep breath and clamped a lid on her simmering anger.
With the same measured, even pace she continued towards her friend’s home.
“You doin’ okay there Winona?”
The query was met with a small, unhappy ‘yip’.
At a good trot Applejack could make the trip from the farm to Fluttershy’s home in less than half an hour. This trip took her a good deal longer, and Celestia’s sun had definitely moved down a fraction or two in the sky by the time she came calling on her friend’s front door.
“Fluttershy!” She called and rapped a hoof on the wood.
The inside of the cottage was silent.
Even during the extensive time that it had taken Applejack to walk here she hadn’t stopped to consider that her friend might not be home. She’d had absolute faith that Fluttershy would be there when she needed her.
The silence of the cottage lingered just long enough for that certainty to flicker, then;
The door clicked open and the form of exactly the pony Applejack needed at that moment filled the space. “Oh, um, hello Applejack –”
“Winona’s hurt!” She turned to stand side on to Fluttershy to show her the injured animal in question.
“Oh my goodness.” Fluttershy took to the air, scooped up Winona and flew back into the cottage, leaving Applejack to trail in after her.
She stood awkwardly just inside the living room doorway as Fluttershy lay Winona down on a cleared floor space and began to run her hooves over the dog’s side.
“You let me know if this hurts at all, ok Winona?” Fluttershy said as she gently pressed at a spot near Winona’s front leg, waiting for a whine or a little bark in response before moving on to a spot closer to her leg. Fluttershy seemed to forget all about Applejack as the earth pony languished in the room’s entrance. She watched her friend examine her pet agitatedly until the pegasus pointed to her own couch with a free hoof.
“You can sit down over there if you want to.” Fluttershy didn’t once take her eyes off her patient, even while she was speaking.
Applejack hesitated, but then accepted the offer and seated herself awkwardly onto the chair.
It ain’t as if having me standing around is going to do anyone any good anyway.
She took off her hat, fiddling with it in one hoof. Her eyes remained fixed on Fluttershy as the buttery pony continued with her ministrations. Applejack hadn’t the foggiest idea what her friend was doing, but she knew that she could trust that Fluttershy did. She also knew that Winona was probably fine but…
But there’s no harm in making doubly sure.
A gentle push on her shoulder stirred her out of her thoughts. Angel was perched on the back of the couch; his normally disgruntled features now set into a softer expression of concern and shared worry.
But it wasn’t his expression that made Applejack pull forward out of his reach.
After all, the critters that stole from her orchard had run off the Apple family property awfully close to here.
“Ah don’t suppose you got a rabbit round here on the rather large side? Mostly white with a big patch of brown on his head?” She pinned Angel with a stare. “One of your friends maybe?”
Angel seemed to pause for half a minute, then he waved a paw in the direction of Winona.
He waved again, more energetically.
Applejack took a guess at what he was trying to ask. “A group of them critters decided to raid my orchard. One of ‘em didn’t want to return what he’d taken, even when me an Winona stopped asking nicely.”
It was like a small storm passed over Angel’s face. He hopped down from the back of the couch and bounced out of the back of the cottage with the air of a bunny on a mission.
Applejack was left to fidget on the couch by herself. She focused on her breathing, making sure it was smooth and even as she tried to calm the prickling fear in her mind, but no matter how hard she tried to focus on some other inane detail of the room her eyes would slide back to Winona, and the sight of Fluttershy carefully testing the farm dog’s leg or examining her muzzle would relight the panic afresh, forcing her to attempt to get her frantic breath back under control all over again.
Angel reappeared from the back of the cottage and bounced over to her feet, demanding Applejack’s attention. A small group of rabbits, all vaguely matching her description, cowered behind him. Angel jostled them into a line and they trembled in place, each one looking like it desperately wanted to bolt but didn’t dare to with Fluttershy’s favorite pet watching. With the other rabbits sorted Angel stood back and folded his arms over his chest.
Another whine from Winona made Applejack twitch in place, but she didn’t look up from the animals in front of her.
A little burst of humor untangled a bit of Applejack’s dark mood. Angel and Winona played together, and she supposed that made them friends, but… a criminal line-up? Really?
Or perhaps the little rabbit was doing it as much for her benefit as his.
She ran an eye over the collection of critters. One or two of them crouched down on the floor, as if they were trying to disappear. Apparently Angel’s wrath was a thing to behold.
“Ah don’t think it was any of these rabbits.” She said after the moment of scrutiny.
Angel managed to look equal parts relieved and miffed.
The whisper of wing beats heralded Fluttershy’s presence as she landed softly next to Applejack on the couch.
“Um, Angel, what are you doing?” Fluttershy said.
Applejack put her hat back on her head and adjusted the way she was sitting so that she could face her friend. “Angel here was just helpin’ me to find the critter responsible for Winona takin’ that tumble.”
Fluttershy gave a little gasp and cover her mouth with a hoof. “You mean a bunny hurt Winona?”
Fluttershy turned a cold stare on the group of rabbits, the iciness of which was definitely at odds with her normally warm-hearted nature.
The tightness that had formed in the pit of Applejack’s stomach since spotting Fluttershy’s home though the trees finally started to loosen. The fear that her friend might be sheltering the rabbit that had injured Winona and then run off without a backwards glance simply didn’t stand up to the arctic fierceness that was leaking through Fluttershy’s words.
“Now you look here little bunnies; you all know that stealing and hurting others is wrong, so whichever one of you did this had better apologies to Applejack right now or -”
Applejack placed a restraining hoof on Fluttershy’s shoulder, cutting her off. “It’s alright, ‘shy, it weren’t none of these ones.”
“Oh… that’s good.” Fluttershy almost seemed to deflate as she relaxed, then she refocused on the still cowering rabbits and blushed, “Oh! I, um, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be so angry with you all just then, especially since none of you actually did anything wrong and I ah… I’m, um, sorry.”
By the time she had finished talking Fluttershy was so far hunched over that she was her nose was practically buried in the seat cushion.
Angel rolled his eyes and shooed the other rabbits back outside.
Applejack realized that she hadn’t heard Winona make a sound since Angel had come back inside. She twisted on the couch so that she could see the floor space where her dog had been. The floor that Fluttershy had used for her impromptu examination was once again bare. A spike of irrational panic stabbed through her, but it was quickly crushed by a union of reason and logic.
The fact that she could see Winona curled up in a basket not three meters from where she had been looking helped too.
Winona was resting her head on the edge of the basked, seeming thoroughly disheartened.
Applejack jumped down off the couch and walked over to her pet, comforting her with a scratch behind the ears. Winona’s tail thumped against the edge of the basket as she tried to wag it in the confined space.
Fluttershy’s hooves clicked softly on the wooden floor as she moved to stand beside the farm pony.
“She’s mostly ok,” Fluttershy said as she treated Winona a quick pat too. “There are a couple of bruises and I, um, think that her front leg is sprained. But she doesn’t seem to have broken anything.”
“Thank you kindly for checkin’ her over. An Ah’m sorry of gettin’ all panicky on you there; just, when Ah saw Winona fall like that… she gave me a real fright is all.” Applejack scuffed a hoof on the floor.
“That’s ok! I mean, I couldn’t even imagine how upset I’d be if Angel ever got hurt.” Fluttershy said in a rush to comfort her friend.
Hungry for as many pats as possible, Winona stood and moved to get out of the basket, but Fluttershy pressed gently down on Winona’s hindquarters until she was sitting again. Applejack raised an involuntary eyebrow.
“You need to rest,” Fluttershy said, her words were directed to Winona. She turned back to Applejack, “I’m sorry, but need to keep an eye on Winona while she recovering so, um, I’m going to need her to stay with me for a little bit while she gets better.”
But I need Winona at the farm to –
No. There was a reason she’d brought Winona over to ‘shy in the first place, and that would all be null and void if she didn’t actually listen to her friend’s advice.
Applejack sighed. “How long exactly?”
“Well, a few days. But if you really need her then I’m sure, um, I could probably bring her back by the day after tomorrow –”
“No, a few days’ll just have to do. An Ah know you’ll take good care of her.” Her last words were mostly to finish off convincing herself; she knew Fluttershy didn’t need reminded of it. Taking good care of animals was a given for her.
“Oh yes, of course!” Fluttershy said while treating the basket bound Winona to a new round of belly rubs.
The tangerine earth pony cast a longing glance to her pet. With her dog checked and sorted she didn’t have any practical reason to stay, but leaving meant leaving Winona, fragile injured Winona, here. Where Applejack couldn’t see her. Or look after her. Or regularly check up on her.
But I can hardly stay forever either, and standing here dithering is just silly.
She felt a strange compulsion to shake Fluttershy’s hoof, but decided that a hug was probably a better way to show her thanks.
“Ah suppose Ah should be off then. Those trees ain’t gonna buck themselves.” Applejack kneeled down to bring herself eyelevel with Winona, “now you’ll be a good girl and behave yourself for Fluttershy won’t you?”
Winona licked her across the muzzle. She straightened and pushed a hat back up out of her eyes.
She nodded to Fluttershy, “Thanks again for takin’ care of her.”
“Oh, it’s not a problem.” Fluttershy smiled.
Applejack was halfway through the door when she paused and called a promise back over her shoulder; “Ah’ll stop by an’ visit real soon.”
With a tip of her hat she was out the door and headed back to the work that she had already delayed for too long for that day.