The 'little brother' stood sheepishly on the porch of Pinkie's husband's new co-op store. Well, it wasn't actually a porch yet, more of a dry patch of gravel in front of the door-frame. They hadn't been able to get in a proper door, yet, either, so the entrance was covered with a bit of canvas rigged on its own frame so that the 'door' swung open like it was, you known, an actual wooden door.
Maybe Pinkie was getting a little tired of being on the back end of nowhere when it came to shipping costs and deliveries. And two days hard march from the nearest grove of carpentry-quality trees. They actually had cut stone sufficient to build up a nice front patio for the co-op, if Pinkie could find some cheap labor to help her level the ground and lay the stone.
If there was anything in surplus in this end of Rock Valley, it was stone, cut or otherwise. Pinkie and Bed Rock had been lured out here with the promise of high-quality stone and gems, sufficient to likewise lure eager new settlers to make a living at the rock farming game. The East Valley was full of would-be rock farmers.
Increasingly hungry, frustrated, ineffectual rock-farmers. Nopony had found the 'sweet soil' yet in this end of the Valley. What they did find, was barely worth working. The soil just took magic, and took, and took, and took, and gave almost nothing back. Pebbles. Gravel.
Like the stuff currently resting happily beneath her brother's misplaced little sibling. The fool.
Not her little sibling, thank Celestia and all her stars for that much. One of Hardtack's idiot little brothers, looked exactly like him, last time she'd seen Hardtack. Must be fresh out of the pool. Literally wet behind the ears. That was a new record, if Hardtack had conjured a new sibling, and then lost control of him before Pinkie could produce a foal for her new family.
Close enough, she though, her hoof sneaking its way back to her ever-rounder belly. Today was a good day, not sick at all.
Well, not before this idiot Tack boy decided to ruin her otherwise-happy day. And interrupt her inventory count.
With Bed Rock away, now that Pinkie thought about it. Oh, she wasn't worried about the Tack clone. Clones were harmless to their families, she'd never heard of one becoming violent. They were innocents, pliable and generally willing to do whatever you told them, if you got their proper attention first.
But if you left them a way out of their orders, they were as prone as any other underpaid laborer or underling to take a scarper. And most families - including her own! – didn't bother to pay their 'little siblings' a damn thing beyond room and board.
Pinkie didn't blame the Tack for hightailing it out of Ponyville. If Pinkie had been the little sibling, and not Cherry Bread, she'd have left a long, long time ago. Which she had… done, on her own terms, almost as quickly.
So bad example.
"Tell me it again, Flapjack. Tell it to me slow, and don't leave any little bits that you think weren't especially important this time, because I think we're miscommunicating somehow. Why are you on my husband's patio?"
"Is that what this is? It looks like gravel. I thought patios was something fancy ponies had, like Canterlot unicorns or somethin' like that. Y'all rich ponies already, big sister?"
"I ain't your big sister, you slap-hock pop-skulled galoot! That was Hardtack, and he ain't here! I ain't the one to take you in, on account of we're not siblings. I also don't have work for you, as we don't have money, and barely have enough food to keep our neighbors and ourselves from eating the seed-stones. I can't take you in, and I got no obligation to do so. What the hay made you come all this alicorn-forsaken way from anywhere important or useful?"
"Cherry Bread was always saying how generous you were, how much y'all loved us siblings. Was… was Cherry Bread wrong? Did you, I dunno, lie to her?"
The silly galoot was tearing up, his lip quivering. If he weren't a full-grown alicorns-damned earth pony stallion, twenty-five stone if he was a pound, it would be cute. As it was, it was just kinda… sad. And silly.
"No, damn your eyes, I wasn't lying to my little sister. But I told her no damn communications, none whatsoever. I didn't want to ever hear from her again! Never! I can't keep from messing with her if she won't stop messing with me! And that means you other little siblings, too! This ain't Ponyville, I've left the family behind, Rock Valley doesn't know from 'little siblings', and they don't want to hear about it!"
"Aw, please, Miss Loaf, I came all this way, and I ate my last bit of bread back in Salt Lick. I'm a good worker, you know Hardtack. We ain't none of us lazy ponies."
"No, you just run the first time somepony leaves a gap in your instructions, don't you? What are you, the fourth one Hardtack's let get away?" Pinkie glared out past her idiot brother's idiot clone at the darkening skies, and the first few heavy droplets of the rains. Spring weather was turning out to be brutal this deep into the high plateau.
"Fifth one, I think, ma'am. Mr. Tack, he didn't say, but the Cookies, they gossip something fierce."
"Bah, get your pooka flank in here, it's going to be coming down manticores and basilisks in five minutes, and I won't leave a drowned pony in front of my husband's place of business."
She let the clone into the front of the store. It didn't matter so much if he didn't kick the mud off of his hooves in there, it was still mostly packed dirt.
Flapjack looked around at the sad, empty racks of nothing in particular arranged artfully around the sides of the main room. A few cans here, a shelf of relatively fresh bread and muffins, a rack of shiny new hammers and shovels and rakes and implements of destruction, and some pails in the corner. They took up a pitiful small percentage of the shelving Pinkie had so-optimistically nailed together with their spare lumber, before she realized the relatively low demand being exerted by their nearest neighbors, and the difficulty of arranging regular deliveries of dry goods up from Salt Lick.
She'd stopped after lining the walls nose-high. No need to put in the higher racks that she'd had in her family's supply shops attached to their dining rooms back home. There was no point in building shelving for inventory they didn't have, no matter how fast they could sell them through to their increasingly desperate customers.
Bed Rock wanted to start extending credit, but Pinkie was worried that if nopony's claims paid out, they'd be bitless. She'd never been bitless in her life, and wasn't sure if she'd be able to handle it.
She saw the starving clone staring at her fresh bread and muffins. The afternoon crowd hadn't come in out of the nearby rock-fields, and from the look of the weather outside, nopony would until evening. The food would be a combination of dried out and soggy by the time it was dinner.
"Go ahead, Flapjack. Those will just go to waste. Flour, flour I have." Pinkie glared at the offending sacks in the other corner. The sooners had moved out here without their significant others for the most part, and none of them could bake for a wish or a buck. They wanted the cheap and fast stuff, that they could eat without fighting with a field oven or fancy kitchen equipment. They'd come in and overpay for her fancy muffins and breads – she'd sold plenty this morning at breakfast – but in bad weather, the food would just go to waste.
The starveling clone devoured four muffins before he was satiated. After the third one, Pinkie got tired of watching somepony enjoy her baking. she stood staring out at the hard, driving rain. The runoff was curling down along the bottom of the track towards the main road west. She'd told those damn foals that they'd run the track along the blasted gully-line, and that it'd wash out every five weeks in the season. And there… there it went. Watch that sucker go!
"What are you looking at out there, Miss Loaf? Wow! That's something else. I- I was walking that a half hour ago!"
"And nopony will be walking it again for a couple days, I think. Foals, the lot of them. Good thing I busted a better track out across the back forty, and up the ridgeline. Don't worry about it, we're not cut off. The back track isn't wide enough for Bed Rock's cart, though. He'll probably be late, until we pack the supplies saddle-bag-style when he gets here."
"Bed Rock – I remember him! That stallion they were talking about, looked so handsome in his reds and buffs!" Flapjack blushed, looking thrilled at the memory. Pinkie remembered something she'd suspected about her brother Hardtack, who'd never had a marefriend while she'd been home, and hadn't talked about such things after she got back from the war. Or ever been mentioned in connection with a potential wife. Huh. OK.
Pinkie gave her brother's clone a Look. "Keep your hooves off the merchandise, boyo. The locals are kind of traditional about that sort of thing."
Flapjack looked around at the empty shelves, and blinked in confusion. "Uh… yes'm. If there were any merchandise, I'd keep out of them. Uh, is there anything I can do for you to… pay for the muffins?"
"No bits, I'm guessing?"
"No'm, spent my last jangle for some bread in Salt Lick. I can work, I swear!"
"Damn right you can. I was in the middle of taking inventory when you interrupted." Pinkie picked up a ledger, counted the last three cans of beans on the shelves, marked them down, and closed the ledger after cleaning off the quill and putting it carefully away.
"That being done, let's go clean the pots and pans and suchlike. They'll be starving and covered in mud when the rainstorm lets up. We need to get the dinner-rush bread and such going."
"Who's 'they'? I didn't see anypony for miles!"
"Don't be surprised when they come out. These hills hide a marvel's worth of filthy mud-grubbing rock farmers where you'd never think they were scrabbling. Just wait until the dinner-bell rings, and they descend with half the mud in the province sticking to their hides and hooves."
And so they cleaned, and they baked, and Flapjack avoided telling Pinkie about anything important at all. And when the rain let up, and the skies cleared, the rock farmers started tumbling down out of the hills all around the co-op. And not a one of them had a jangle more than Flapjack had to pay for their bread and muffins.
Pinkie had to break out the fresh ledger and start taking credit - just out of basic equine decency, just to get through dinner without shaming anypony. Once everypony was full, the porch outside was full of a good dozen or so locals resting on dry rock for a change. Or, rather, less-muddy gravel. Pinkie and her little sibling followed the last farmer out of the salesroom, which had been churned to a bit of mud itself from the hoof-traffic. They joined the group sunning themselves as the clouds broke and Celestia's sun began to warm the cold mud into something a bit drier outside.
Flapjack hadn't said a word since the first rock-farmer had appeared like magic in the co-op. Some of the siblings were like that, never talking to ponies who weren't family. Pinkie wondered how he had fed himself on the way between Ponyville and her front door if he wasn't willing to talk to outsiders.
She talked over the progress of the farmers' claims with the resting ponies, how they all were faring. Almost everypony here had gone into the East Valley before Bed Rock and her had set up shop; nopony had tried to make a claim in the middle of winter, or in the waning days of fall, either, for that matter. It felt like Rock Valley was holding its breath, seeing if the sooners would make anything of the new settlements, or if they'd just wash out like a badly-placed hoof-track.
In the meantime, nopony had the bits to set up more of a homestead than the sad little tents most of the farmers had stuck up one draw or another in the neighboring hills. The search for sweet soil was absorbing every bit of energy her neighbors could spare from survival.
Speaking of which, somepony told her that Wild Oats had given up trying to turn rock over towards the Gorge, and had gone home to collect some seed stock from her family. Spring oats and barley, word was. That might ease some of the pressure on poor Bed Rock's back, hauling all of their supplies over the muddy and no doubt washed-out track down out of the Valley proper into the sooners' claims.
Basalt Block and his brother Fault Scarp said they might have a line on some Maressippi washstone, Scarp showed Pinkie a hoof-full of the characteristic blue and purple gravel. Good export-quality stone, if still kind of bulk and low-density-value. Not really worth packing out on the current roads, and too damn good to line those tracks and make them safer for carters to haul over. But their cousin Pyroclastic Flow had plenty of red lava popping on her claim. About as low-quality as you could get, and still call it 'rock', but it'd suffice for local roads.
Pinkie considered trying to talk the farmers into re-laying the track out to the main road again, but everypony was too exhausted and listless at the moment to listen. Maybe when they got out there and saw how much of the last corvee's work had been washed into the gullies and out of the roadbeds, they'd be more receptive.
That was when little Purple Quartzite came stumbling down out of the shadows falling over the draw that marked her and her brother Red's claim to the northwest, bleeding from cuts on her withers and dock, wild-eyed.
After some yelling and shouting, the crowd organized itself into a rescue party, and the whole assembly went galloping up the Quartzite draw, to see if they could pull Red Quartzite out of the mudslide that had buried the unfortunate stallion in his tent. Pinkie carried her first aid kit with her, and Flapjack followed, silent as ever.
The Quartzites ended up sleeping with Flapjack in the back room with Pinkie that night, mostly to keep an eye a the disoriented and badly battered Red, who had been insensate with more bruises than Pinkie cared to think of, and a compound fracture of his left rear leg. She hadn't been a medic in the EUP, but she remembered enough to set a break.
Damn, she was ready for Bed Rock to get back.
The rescue party had found Red Quartzite buried under what looked like half the slope, and it had taken some time to dig the unfortunate out of the ruins of his property. Some of the other rock farmers had been excited about something they'd found in the washout, but Pinkie had been too occupied in finding the missing stallion, and getting him patched together when they'd dug him out.
She was sure she'd hear enough about whatever the rockhoppers had been yelling about in the morning, or tomorrow evening at the latest.
Pinkie'd emptied her shelves of baked goods to fill the heroic crowd back up before they struggled back to their claims and tents for the night. She left the store-credit ledger be while she gave those exhausted ponies their 'second dinner', but resolved to be stricter in the future.
The co-op wasn't a charity, after all.
In the morning, Flapjack was up before Pinkie was, and got the ovens running early enough to fill a couple shelves with hot piping bread and baked goods. It was more like Pinkie helped Flapjack, than vice-versa. She wasn't feeling the best after all that exertion the day before, and it didn't help when the breakfast crowd had to be called out to pull Wild Oats and her cousins out of the bog the track up to the main road had become overnight. The new excitement helped Pinkie get past her morning sickness, sure enough.
At least the carts those sooners had gotten stuck up to their hubs had been full of flour and seed. Their loads had been lightened right into Pinkie's storeroom, in exchange for store credit and all of Pinkie's remaining hoes and rakes and farming implements of destruction, such as she had on hoof.
Bed Rock and Pinkie hadn't planned on supplying grain farmers in their original business plans. Pinkie hadn't known, but Bed Rock should have thought about it. She'd talk it over with her husband when he got back. If he ever got back.
The Oats girls went off with Wild Oats and her seed-stock, to get to working on planting more flour – no, more grain. Pinkie needed to stop thinking like a Cake, and to start thinking more like a co-op manager.
Ironically enough, there still wasn't an actual co-op to claim the couple's 'co-op store'. The sooners just weren't organized enough yet to incorporate. Bed Rock had brought the paperwork, carefully copied out by the accountants and business managers of the grange back in the main Valley, and the creation of a grange for the East Valley was just waiting on everypony to make enough of a start to justify all the fuss and bother.
In all of the excitement and the unexpected business, Pinkie had left the kitchen to Flapjack, who kept the ovens going, and kept feeding ponies as they appeared. The sunny weather kept a decent churn of neighbors from all over the new stakes that whole day, and the next day too, and some of them even still had cash bits to pay Pinkie. By the time Bed Rock straggled in over the back track, cart and all, Pinkie's shelves were empty, she and Flapjack and Purple Quartzite were laying some of Pyroclastic Flow's lava gravel in the showroom, and they had a ledger full of credit accounts, and more than a few jangles and bits in the cashbox.
"What the discord is your brother Hardtack doing here, Pinks?"