The Pearl sisters were contesting the assay results again. Pinkie's co-op subcommittee had signed off on her measures – and the part-time assayist's work – twice now. But here was Black Pearl again, demanding an expert to be brought down from the college in the West Valley to make an 'unbiased assessment'. Pinkie knew she wasn't anything approaching an expert, and the part-time assayist hadn't even gotten his degree from the college before coming out to the new lands, but Fair Weights was an honest and clever pony, and the equipment was the next best thing to new.
Those two pests just didn't want to admit that their cultivation scheme wasn't paying off like they thought it would. Pearls weren't dryland crops, and their elaborate rituals weren't producing useable seed pearls, let alone gemstone quality stone.
The fact was, nopony in the East Valley were getting gemstones out of their acreage other than the Corundums. Everypony had gotten so excited in the early summer when Ruby Red's first big gems had passed through the co-op's hooves, that a lot of rockhoppers had wasted their time and soil on malformed lumps of nothing in particular. Pinkie was of the opinion that everypony would have done better to concentrate their sweat and tears on another boring season of slate and other pavement-quality rock, the hay and butter of rock-farming.
A lot of co-op members were going to be behind on their dues for the year. Pinkie's attention drifted from the lower half of a grumbling Fair Weights muttering his irritation into the shadows underneath an half-disassembled assayist desk and returned to her swelling belly. Oatmeal's tuition in her distant school in the Middle Valley, and the way that little Gneiss ate his head off, and with this new one getting ready to join the family… well, they'd lived on less, she supposed.
And the store wasn't all that deep in debt. Their receivables were more than enough to cover the bank notes and payables. Assuming nopony else defaulted this year.
Two families in the old Quartzite Draw claims had thrown in the horseshoe last winter, after it was obvious that the leyline was played out, and the only way anypony was getting any further yield out of those upper slopes was by bloody-minded effort and toil. Pinkie and Bed had agreed to write off those debts as irrecoverable. Nopony was going to chase failed rockhoppers for their old debts to the co-op, even if it was in aggregate almost as much as Oatmeal's tuition for a season.
Or Gneiss's, when the time comes to send them both.
The Quartzites, on the other hoof, had made the brief seasons of bonanza pay, and both Red and Purple were looking pretty prosperous these days. They'd plowed the magic back into the soil and the dirt, exploited the deep ponding of ley-line magic on their claim as far as it would go, and now, today, they were harvesting high-quality white marble and flints in wholesale lots from their land. Pinkie was optimistic that she could get them to pick up the abandoned claims technically in the possession of the co-op, if only she could get one of the Quartzites to come in for a meeting and agree to the transaction.
"I give up, Missus Pinkie," said the pale yellow stallion, as he scrambled out from under the desk. "I can't see a blessed thing wrong in there that could cause a weighing error. Let alone… here, let me show you."
Fair Weights got up and picked up one of the slightly off-centered 'pearls' sitting on a tray off the side of the office. He carried it over to Pinkie, and held it up in the frog of his left fore-hoof.
"See? Looks like a pearl, good-sized, too, if not of the first water. But," he bobbed it up and down in his hoof, and then tossed it at Pinkie.
She fumbled a bit, but caught it in her own hoof. And then her eyes widened.
"Damn right it's too light. And not only too light by mechanical weighing, but too light to the hoof. Here!" He took the 'pearl' back, and placed it on the assaying station, and then took up a small hammer his mouth, and brought it down sharply on the sample.
It split in half, and spilled out a small puff of dirt and sand. What was left was a thin shell of yellow-white pearlescence, even more irregular on the inside than it had been on the outside.
"See that? Just a thin veneer of nacre over a little clump of dirt. I really kind of think this type of stone just isn't meant to be farmed. I talked to Keshi about where the Pearls came from, and she admitted that, back home, they had pried these things out of animals, can you believe it? I've never heard anything so barbarous!"
Fair Weights, unlike many of the rockhoppers and settlers of the East Valley, had never been in the service. As far as Pinkie was concerned, his sensibilities were a little, hrm, overwrought? Nopony lasted long in the EUP being so squeamish.
"Well, it was a good try, I suppose, but if this is what they're producing, I can't see that they'll get any further going the way they are. They're sure they can't try again on a creekbed and do something with irrigation?"
"Aw, shucks, they think I'm cheating them, they don't want to hear anything from me."
"Maybe I should try talking to them again? Talk's cheap, cheaper than having the college ship out a specialist to eat her head off for a week before telling the Pearls what we could tell them ourselves, if they'd just listen."
"Missus Pinkie, they think I'm cheating them on your say-so. Last time I was up their way, that good old colt of theirs was polishing a long, odd-looking spear and giving me the stink eye!"
"Haw! They were just rattling your cage, Weights. You can't let that sort of thing put you off your feed. Go get some supper from the kitchen, and call it a day, we won't have any call for you until Thursday."
Gneiss woke up, just then, almost as if he'd sensed their conversation coming to an end. Pinkie went to collect him from the daybed in the back office, figuring he'd settle down and stop crying if he got a chance to stretch his legs.
They needed to check on the operation, anyways.
The original co-op shack had been converted to storage, and the new store was a purpose-built one-storey which still managed somehow to be sprawling. It might have been the way that Bed and Pinkie had just kept adding wings and additional extensions off of the original structure, but it took up most of the north side of the compound, now. Storerooms, the central store, the dining rooms (plural!), the kitchens, and the dry and cold storage. It was almost as big as the central Valley co-op, and from what little Pinkie had seen of the old West Valley co-op store, bigger than that venerable establishment.
The main reason for the expanse of their over-grown complex towered off on the southern fringe of the gravel-lined central yard, a half-dozen silos, two elevators, and two full-mast windmills. The day's winds, quite brisk for mid-summer, meant that both of the windmills were running full-out, and Pinkie could hear the heavy grumbling noise from out in the yard. Hyper little Gneiss galloped out ahead of his mother, yodeling in delight.
Gneiss loved the grindstones.
Pinkie and Bed Rock were still paying off the note to the Rock Valley Bank for the capital investments which the grain mill complex represented. The revenue flow more than paid for the services of Mill Bill and Hopper Colt and their collection of part-timers and carters. And the overflow from the supplies in the silos meant that the costs for the kitchens and the dining-rooms were at absolute rock-bottom. It all made sense financially, Pinkie was positive of that, and the other members of the board of directors, after having gone back and forth and back again over the books, endorsed her judgment.
But stars, wasn't it a lot of bits to tie up in a facility? And it was the main reason why the East Valley co-op was so much bigger than it should have been. The swarm of Oats and Furrows and Plowshares had filled up all the gaps in the settlement pattern left by all of those mayflies giving up the horseshoe and abandoning their claims back in the early years of settlement. The East Valley turned out to be some of the best dryland cropland in the western provinces.
It was almost enough to make one give in to the grain-farmers' demands for a weather-team.
Meanwhile, they had more grain than they could grist, and more flour than they could ship overland. Pinkie had sent some letters to the railroad company's management suggesting a spur line south off the main line to Applewood, but it was one tartarus of a long road over some pretty poor territory. In fact, some ponies - who sounded like they knew what they were talking about – said it would make more sense to run a spur off of the proposed line down into the southern provinces. But that would require a bridge over…
Ghastly Gorge. The absolute eastern border of the Valley, one way or the other. Nopony with a lick of sense settled the open acres available on the edge of the Gorge. Too many explorers over the years had been eaten by critters or otherwise disappeared down that way. Pinkie was just thankful the monsters of the Gorge largely stayed in the gorge.
Until Pinkie and the co-op board could convince somepony to run a rail line into the Valley, though, they were stuck with overland haulage. Which was turning out to be one of the most expensive aspects of the whole business. Which, also, was driving this craze for highly portable gemstones or ensorcelled widget-stone. Why go and put all that food into hauling a couple tons of pavement-stone overland into Salt Lick City and the depot there, if you could just pack out a hundred stone or less of high-value precious rocks or gems?
Great idea, but the execution… so far, only the Corundums had figured out the process, and even they ended up producing cheap garnets for the most part, only occasionally carving a low-end fire ruby out of their blessed soils.
Gneiss danced around the spinning grind-stones as the part-timers worked over the controls, directing the scoop-machinery and the belts that brought the grain into the grinder, and the flour out into barrels or back into the silos. Pinkie engaged in a shouted conversation with her two millers, discussing nothing of particular interest or import, mostly chewing over the ongoing grinding of the winter crops. Between the winter barley and wheat, and the spring oats, barley, rye and wheat later in the year, it meant that the mills were running at best, four or five months out of the year.
Pinkie would have preferred it if the damn things were paying off their loans year-long, but nopony had figured out how to grow summer or fall crops and get them harvested in the dead of the year. The farming-ponies and the pegasi and the Princess did so many miraculous things, what was one more miracle among the rest? She didn't understand it, not really. If a pegasus weather-team could help the small-grainers produce a third or fourth crop, she might even re-consider her opposition to the whole concept.
Especially if the prospect was enough to get the railroad corporation to run their damn rail line up into the interior.
Meanwhile, they were entirely self-sufficient in grains and so forth. They could keep as many carters and rockhoppers fed as cared to live up here on Celestia's vast back end. Flapjack and his three assistants were kept busy pretty much all week long, cranking away, taking flour and other foodstuffs in one end and kicking well-fed rockhoppers out the other side.
Flapjack had truly found his place in the world in the co-op's kitchens. His new cutie mark bore a very strong resemblance to the old one, differing in minor details that only a Cake or another baker-pony would have been able to identify. It mattered to Flapjack, though. He was very proud of his new mark, and Pinkie was proud for him. Especially since it had tripled his efficiency, and vastly improved the productivity of the kitchens.
These days, the kitchens sent out delivery-ponies to all of the major farms around the co-op, making daily deliveries to households throughout the neighboring hills and dells. Pinkie supposed that in a reasonable world, the local farmers would be feeding themselves by now, but with the co-op right there? Flapjack's ponies and their efficiency meant that the rockhoppers and the farmers could concentrate on pouring their magic into the soil, hour by hour, sunrise to sunset, without ever pausing to fight with their own baking or cooking or any of the rest of it.
They'd even accumulated a small corps of fast-hooved delivery-ponies who could carry still-piping-hot pastries deep into the back hollers in time for a nice, warm lunch for the dirty, hungry rock-farmers. Pinkie couldn't be prouder if she'd done it herself.
Pinkie had to pull her son out of the grainmill. He whined as she dragged him out by the scruff of his neck. She sometimes thought she was spoiling little Gneiss. Perhaps because she missed Oatmeal, she thought. Still, it might just be the difference between the two foals. Oatmeal had been a solemn child, quiet and reticent. Gneiss was flamboyant right from the moment he popped out in a sudden rush, as if he had been in a hurry to be born. Less than an hour's labor, and then, bam! Colt.
He was a bottomless hole when it came to oatcakes, though.
On their pass back through the showrooms, though, Pinkie found herself trapped by an unexpected bit of business. Seed-stone salesponies. Pies. The Pies were infamous in the Valley, purveyors of over-priced seedstone, incredibly expensive seedstone by Pinkie's estimation. She would never have been able to afford the gristmills if she'd given into the blandishments of the Pie salesponies the first half-dozen times they'd passed through the co-op.
The sales-pony this time was a very, very young colt named Sandstone, and a very, very little colt. Sandstone introduced the littlest colt to her and Gneiss as his little brother, Igneous. Gneiss and Igneous weren't really the same age – Igneous was probably closer to Oatmeal in age – but he was a very easy-going little colt, and he led Gneiss off to entertain the tiny Rock while his brother…
Sold at Pinkie. Again. Everypony knew about the Pie seedstones, how they gave a hoof up on everypony else when it came to growing nice, clean cladding – or pavementstone, or damn near anything else that required a certain amount of complexity in the growing. The East Valley's rock-farmers had figured out gravel, and rough building-stone, and to a certain extent, slate and flints. Stuff that required rough growth and un-directed, blocky construction? The East Valley's well-established farmers had that nailed down.
When it came to clever, cleanly grown construction-grade material, on the other hoof, well. That hadn't quite come along yet. And the damn Pies bragged day and night about how their blasted seed-stone could grow just about any shape your ambition required. Pinkie had seen demonstrations of their product at some of the recent provincial rock-fairs. They had been impressive indeed. As had been the accompanying price-tags.
Nothing was worth that mark-up. The co-op's ponies just couldn't afford Pie witchcraft, as far as Pinkie was concerned. No matter how clever this Sandstone was in his sales technique, no matter how affable and useful little Igneous was in supporting his big brother in their double-headed sales attack. Pinkie sent off both Pies with a bee in their ear about bothering her just before supper.
She only realized when she was feeding little Gneiss and chewing on her own muffin, that she'd forgotten she had planned to go out to talk to the Pearls. Oh, well, their impossible dreams of pearls grown in the drylands could wait until another day.
Pinkie fed her little colt, and dreamed of her absent filly away at school, filling up to the top of her silos with Rock Valley knowledge, Rock Valley wisdom. Pinkie would never be a Rock Valley pony, no matter how much she tried, no matter what she changed her name to. Oatmeal had been born in the Valley, and Oatmeal would truly be a Rock.
So would Gneiss, she hoped. This new foal, too, once he got done being born.