Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies

by Georg

16. Call of Duty Too

Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Call of Duty Too

“A cavalryman's horse should be smarter than he is. But the horse must never be allowed to know this.”
Steven Pressfield, The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great

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Time: 7:00 P.M. Sunday June 21, 2015
Location: Kansas University Medical Center, First floor conference room
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There were exactly twelve FBI officers of various ranks and positions in the room, just like the twelve Apostles, making Agent Karla Anacostia feel entirely too much like Judas for her liking. She recognized absolutely none of the other agents, and to make matters worse, did recognize the FBI District Director sitting silently at the other end of the room.

Pearlie Litz was a legend in the agency, mostly from people who had been stepped on in the process of his ascent to his present position. He was effective, determined, loyal to his superiors, and never allowed a grudge to die. It was said that to wind up on his list was a death-stroke to an agent’s career, because sooner or later, no matter what happened, even if an agent were to accomplish some glorious achievement, eventually that entry on the list would be checked off.

Clyde had told her once of an bureau-wide teleconference where one of the agents had unwisely asked one of the Questions That Shall Not Be Asked of the higher-ups on the call. Pearlie had moved to intercept, deflected the question, and said that he would be more than happy to consult with the agent who had asked the question later by saying, “Ah’m afraid I didn’t get your name.”

The agent, quite wisely, did not give it, and nobody on the call admitted to knowing him by his voice. So far today, Agent Anacostia had not done anything to get on Mister Litz’s list, as far as she knew, unless he had been watching Claire’s livestream and took issue with her growing friendship with the ponies.

“If there are no further questions, please pass your briefing packets back to the front so they can be collected.” Agent Hallman opened up his briefcase and began replacing the numbered folders inside, another indication of impending doom that Karla could not help but notice. In the event this all went to hell and back, there would be no paperwork on file she could point to, and blame flowed downhill.

“I actually have a question,” said one of the other agents. “Why isn’t Agent Anacostia driving the flying pony back to their base while one of us takes the unicorn straight to the airport? It seems to be a lot of trouble to take them both on a tour of the stadium before going to the FBI headquarters building to separate them. And isn’t the unicorn a little young to be representing her species in Washington?”

“Agent Anacostia has a friendly relationship with the aliens,” said Hallman. “Since the alien mayor refused our offer, headquarters believes the unicorn will be easier to deal with.”

You mean manipulate. And why separate them?

As if reading her mind, Hallman continued, “Headquarters analysis says the probability of a successful extraction is higher if the two aliens are brought to a secure, friendly setting where they can be peacefully separated in order for the unicorn to be persuaded to travel. Then the transition from the field office to the airport should be easier without any awkward interruptions. It was in the packet you received earlier.”

“Still, why involve a local agent in the transportation at all?” continued the agent as if Karla was not sitting right there, suddenly aware of the packet she had not received.

Hallman gave a quick glance back at Director Litz, who did not nod or otherwise make a single indication that most of this chicken dance was his idea. Although if everything went well, he undoubtedly would be the one up on the podium with the President accepting the citation. The unfairness of the situation had simmered for a long time, and Karla decided to let off some steam before something popped.

“For starters, their names are Widget and Goose,” she said abruptly, because if her career was going to go down in flames, there was no reason not to pour on some gasoline to make the trip memorable. “They are not just aliens; they are a teenage girl with a penchant for engineering and a dedicated military cadet, so you should be thinking that way. I am quite certain Goose would be tickled pink to visit the Navy Academy, and Widget would most certainly saw off a limb, pardon the phrase, to be let loose in one of our nuclear submarines with a wrench.”

Karla stopped there, because every word just brought her closer to calling the idiotic plan exactly what it was. Particularly, the stupid idea of separating them.

“I’ll pass that suggestion along,” said Hallman without changing his serious expression in the slightest. “Now, since the aliens have been broadcasting across the internet with Miss Bruener, you will be the sole point of contact inside the hospital so we don’t expose any of the other agent’s identities. With that in mind, you should be here with the agency car bright and early at oh nine hundred hours, for a departure time of nine thirty. With the side-trip to Kauffman Field, it should take you less than two hours to reach the FBI field office. At that point, we will convince the alien guard to accompany you back to their base, and the other agents will transport the unicorn alien to the airport, and then to Washington. Other than that, your involvement in the plan will be minimal, limited to transportation only. Do you have any questions, Agent Anacostia?”

Karla shook her head rather than say anything, because several rather pithy comebacks that would have gotten her reprimanded were fighting to be spoken. She collected her leather-bound portfolio and swept out of the door when dismissed, leaving the rest of the FBI agents to whatever follow-up briefing they were planning. What was worse, she had seen a number of cheery yellow plastic pistols stuffed into a cardboard box under a table along with extra Taser cartridges. When the FBI ‘invited’ Widget to take a trip to the nation’s capital without her friends and family, it did not look like the agents were going to take no for an answer.

And she couldn’t warn Goose or Widget.

Although later, when she was looking at the bag of movies she had picked out of her collection at home, she thought of something that just might work.

- - Ω - -

Foxhole Paintball. The two words did not go together, except near Fort Riley. There was something to be said about people who train for hours and hours how to shoot artillery, fire tank cannons, use machine guns, and qualify with rifles, and then go out to find something fun to do that involves shooting each other with plastic balls filled with paint and pain. It is said there is something for everyone, and in this case, a dozen ponies and people in mixed array were darting from one plastic obstacle to another, trying their best to paint each other in polka-dots.

To be honest, the pegasi started it by asking just the right question.

And the unicorns contributed by magicing up a leg-mounted rig with velcro straps for one of the more common paintball guns, and a way to practically mutate a standard plastic visor into fitting onto the pony guard helmets.

General Hackmore tried to pick up the tab from the paintball store who ran the field, but was rebuffed by the proprietor, who was tickled twelve shades of pink paintballs to have this kind of publicity. He even offered Gregory a loaner paintball gun and equipment in case the general would like to lead his troops from the front lines, which was promptly turned down. Thankfully, the soldiers and miscellaneous civilians enjoying the festivities saved him a spot behind the plexiglass shield for the observation area so his uniform did not get smeared by erratic shots, and after most of an hour watching his soldiers, men and women alike, get reliably paint plastered, found himself rather enjoying himself. Even if there was no way he wanted to be out there himself.

“Colonel,” he called out during a lull in the festivities. “A word, please.”

LTC DeJoya passed his paintball gun to a fellow MP and moved close enough to the general to have a conversation, despite the noisy crowd. “Yes, sir?”

“As much as I like seeing our out-of-town guests enjoying themselves, it seems that the — as they say — Honor of the Regiment is at stake.” He indicated the field of battle, where Left and Right had just popped up over an obstacle to provide synchronized crossfire for one of the unicorns, who was taking the entirely unsportsmanlike approach of using his paintball gun by floating it around the corner and pasting the distracted artilleryman with four rapid shots to the chest. “Do you think you might win one of the matches for a change?”

“We’re trying as best as we can, sir. The Quartermaster Corps had them down to a pair of pegasi once.”

“Hm…” General Hackmore got out his SMEPED and punched in a phone number. “I didn’t ask you to win fairly.”

A little over an hour later as the sun was just starting to go down, four black SUVs pulled into the parking lot and the Ranger platoon that had been at the farm strolled over. Most of the people had started to go home since it was getting dark, but the soldiers were fully kitted out in their night vision gear and apparently ready to take the fight through the night.

“Good evening, Lieutenant Forsythe,” said Specialist Grace, whose emerald-green coat had taken far more than her share of paintballs over the evening, making her look oddly beleaguered instead of stoic for a change. She sharply saluted the husky Ranger, then wiped a blob of purple paint off her hoof. “Were you wanting to get in on the festivities? We still have plenty of paintballs left.”

“Yes, Ma’am. If you’ll accommodate us for the next few hours.” The lanky soldier grinned, making his teeth gleam from behind the camouflage paint that he was still wearing. “We may not be Navy Seals, but we own the night.”

“We will give you our best. This should be interesting,” said Grace before trotting back over to the paint-splattered guards.

And for the next hour, it became increasingly so. The deepening twilight corresponded with the Rangers getting more accustomed to their new weapons and the tired ponies getting more inaccurate. When it became dark enough for the Rangers to put on their night vision gear, the tide turned dramatically. General Hackmore could not even see what was going on any more other than sharp commands out in the darkness and the splat of paintballs hitting their armored targets. After the last round where the ponies only managed to get one of the Rangers before being eliminated, the paint-splattered unicorn from before trotted over to the general and saluted.

“Sir, you seem to have placed our forces at a disadvantage.”

Hackmore smiled even though the decorated mare could not see him well in the gloom. “Our men train to fight at night. Every soldier, truck, tank, and plane can fight at any time of the day.”

Grace nodded very slowly. “Trust me, General. We understand completely. Optio Pumpernickel?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

The voice came from right behind General Hackmore, in an area that he could have sworn on a stack of bibles that was completely empty of man or beast. It was absolutely unfair how a pony who did not even come up to the middle of his chest could make Hackmore’s heart slam into panic mode, much like having a silent grizzly bear appear at your elbow, complete with mouth froth and bloody claws. After all, the only time he had seen the hefty batpony was during the day, which upon a few moments of thought seemed quite appropriate. To make matters worse, Pumpernickel’s sharp-tongued wife was standing right beside him, with their energetic little foal in the back-carrier who seemed to be laughing at him just as much as Grace was keeping her humorless stoic appearance.

“If we may take a few minutes, General. I’d like to brief the Optio on the scope of the exercise tonight and get him fitted for a paintball gun.”

“Very well.” The general saw them off with a distracted salute and waved over the Ranger commander when they were far enough not to be heard.

“Lieutenant Forsythe, do you think you can take him?”

“Him?” Forsythe looked at the lone batpony, who was awkwardly being equipped with one of the pony-adapted paintball guns. “One on nine, and us with night vision? Fish in a barrel, sir.”

After about five quick games with the rest of the pony guards standing on the sidelines beside Hackmore, he had to admit the Ranger was right. Pumpernickel made a good show of it in the dark, and managed to nail one or two soldiers every round, but the result was fairly predictable.

Until it wasn’t.

“Gentlemen,” announced Grace in a loud voice once the game was over. “Before we go back to the farm this evening, I would like to make a minor change in the last game tonight. Over here, please. Laminia, follow me.”

The Rangers all lined up in the observation area, chatting casually as victorious soldiers tended to do, while Grace strolled out into the dark combat arena, lit only by the glow of her horn. Lamina twisted around in the impossibly flexible way that ponies were able and hefted her little foal out of the backpack carrier, giving Stargazer a little nuzzle, then plunking her firmly down on General Hackmore’s lap.

“If you would please watch Stargazer for us, General.” Laminia gave him a sharp-toothed smile. “We’re going to incentivize my husband. Oh, and hold this.” She passed over the sheathed blade that Pumpernickel had been wearing every time Hackmore had seen him over the last few days, much like it had been part of his body. “It’s the Honor Blade of Clan Starlight. Try to keep her away from it. She’s got a few years before it becomes hers. And if you lose it, my husband will kill you.”

The two objects were awkward to juggle, so he settled for tucking the sheathed blade under one arm while holding the little foal much like a human baby, only heavier. Both of the dark ponies were out of sight by the time he looked back up, and in a few moments, Grace came trotting out of the darkness as well and stopped in front of the cautiously jubilant Rangers. Something was obviously up, because each and every member of the pony guards had stopped whispering among themselves and were watching the paintball arena with considerable trepidation, much as if they were dreading something terrible about to happen.

“For the sake of this exercise,” announced Grace, “both sides will be treating this as a non-lethal combat exercise. No force will be permitted more than simple blows or touch-strikes. We Royal Guards refer to this as Wolf, Sheep, and Hounds. Your goal, gentlesapients, is simple. Shoot the sheep at the other end of the arena.”

On cue, somewhere out in the darkness Laminia’s melodic voice called out, “Baaa.”

The little foal on Hackmore’s lap stopped wriggling and called out, “Mama.”

“You, are of course, the wolves,” Grace continued. “Optio Pumpernickel has been given strict instructions not to shoot any of you in the face or the balls. You, however, may try to shoot him wherever you want. Your side will be victorious if you score a torso hit on the defender and the sheep, and our side will likewise if all of the defenders are disabled without the sheep being tagged. Begin.”

With that, the paint-splattered unicorn walked over to General Hackmore and sat down a short distance away. “You can sit next to me if you want,” he offered, because there was the possibility of getting ponysitting assists if Stargazer continued her wriggling ways.

“I’m leaving space for the first of your soldiers. Own the night indeed,” she responded with a faint sniff. “I expect it won’t take Pumpernickel too long.”

“Dada,” exclaimed the little foal, clicking her forehooves together in horsey applause. “Dada.”

- - - -

Corporal Menendez loved being a Ranger, and this evening had been the crowning glory of his career to the present. Paintball with aliens, what a concept. Even better, paintball that they were winning. Sure, the ponies had some pretty unhuman tricks, like literally firing around corners, but they were newbies to the sport, and fresh meat, particularly when the sun went down. Even the spooky batpony with all the pale stripes in his coat was nothing but a fast target that needed to be led more than usual.

Admittedly, adding another one of them to this last game was going to be tricky, but scuttlebut had it that the only reason the batmare mom wore armor was because of a scare she had a year ago, and that she really did not have any military training other than how to keep it polished. So shoot the fast one, shoot the fat one, and enjoy a break until tomorrow when everybody would meet up at the farm to see the ponies go home. Easy, peasy.

All of the platoon lined up behind one of the plastic obstacles and began to work their way forward, crouched down while keeping all the fields of fire covered. Which was when Menendez noticed something missing.

“Hey, where’s Fitzgerald? He was right behind me.”

“Fitz?” Lieutenant Forsythe gathered up the platoon and counted noses, only to find one missing. “Anybody see where Fitz went?”

“Maybe Batman got him,” said one of the Ranger with a chuckle.

“I didn’t hear a paintball,” said the lieutenant. “Okay, pair up and watch each other’s backs. Treat it like a horror movie where you don’t leave anybody by themself. This alien has some tricks we may not have seen yet.”

“You got it, Ripley,” called out one of the Rangers to a general wave of chuckling by the rest of the soldiers.

“Dude,” said another Ranger, who was crouched down by an obstacle and looking back over his shoulder. “If anybody say ‘Game over, man!’ I’ll shoot ‘em mysel— YOW! SONOFABITCH!” The Ranger jumped up in the air and grabbed at the gap between his helmet and the back of his neck, which oozed paint. “The bastard shot me! He was right here!”

“Suppressive fire,” hissed Forsythe. “Hose down that area.”

The air was filled with the hissing thump of paintballs vanishing into the green-lit darkness of their night vision equipment right about at the same time that Menendez realized he was at the back of the group. Unfortunately, his realization was triggered by the feeling of a powerful furry limb sweeping around his neck at the same time two legs grabbed him in a crushing grip around the waist. Then there was a brisk and muffled whoosh of air, and he could see the glare of headlights along the road from between his feet, although a few hundred feet down. Or so it seemed.

“Hold onto your weapon so we don’t drop it on anypony,” hissed a gravely tenor voice in one ear, which was boosted by the muzzle of a paintball gun pressing into the underside of his jaw. “Try to shoot me and I let go.”

“Yessir,” squeaked Menendez. In a matter of seconds, he was dumped next to Fitzgerald, under the watchful eye of the division commander.

“And that’s two, Stargazer,” said General Hackmore, holding onto the bright-eyed foal while pointing at him. “One, two.”

“Twoo,” burbled the happy little pony.

By the time the exercise was over and the last Ranger accounted for, she had gotten up to five.

* * * *

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Time: 5:45 P.M. Central Standard Time, Sunday June 21, 2015
Location: The Bruener Farm, Randolph Kansas
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“Summer spruce-up, summer spruce-up,” hummed Dakota as he took pictures of the busy ponies scurrying around the farmyard. He could not have been happier. In San Francisco, he had the odd privilege of living in the basement of his ex-wife’s sister’s house, and occupied his evenings and weekends doing household maintenance and painting for Cynthia and Karl when he was not down at a club working security. It kept him busy and made for a tidy little sum under the table at the cost of living in a space that officially was a one-car garage, although it was the cleanest garage in the whole state, and a damned sight larger than his bunk on the Saipan back when he was in the Marines.

Sunday afternoon here bore a striking resemblance to his usual weekend household tasks in San Francisco. Some of the ponies had decided to travel in order to send their thanks to the various churches and philanthropic organizations this morning, so while Mister Bruener and his wife were being kept busy in Topeka doing various meet-and-greet social things with the pony mayor and her bodyguard, the ponies were engaging in one of the their social activities here.


The farmstead had a lot of outbuildings but only two houses, one old roughly cubical one that the elder Bruener had lived in, and the new, larger mostly flat house that Jon Bruener had built so his physically infirm father could move in with them, not have to deal with stairs, and have the rest of the family to support him. Unfortunately, the old man had passed away a few months after the new home was built, leaving the newer Bruener house for the remaining family and the older house used as box storage for most of a decade. Big Brick’s construction company was in the middle of painting and minor alterations on the newer house, so the ponies had decided to fix up the old house as a way of saying thanks.

Seeing how much a single pony could work was a shock to Dakota. Having over a hundred of them digging in to shingle, paint, rework windows, pour concrete, plant flowers, trim bushes…

He shot enough pictures of the process that Dakota was getting a blister on his shutter finger. The SF Times had become the place to get pictures of ponies in action over the last few days. And if they followed the rules on his employment contract, Mister Dakota Henderson was going to wind up with enough money to buy the Winnebago he was renting and still have the cash for a down payment on a condo in San Francisco.

As the afternoon sun turned to dusk, Dakota found himself helping to set up a video projector outside of the Bruener seed warehouse. It was a variant of the quonset hut that he had seen on many military bases, only with a concrete back wall that was being painted white so the outdoors projector would have something to work on, and speakers being arranged in an arc around the concrete slab at the base.

“Now basketball is a game I bet we can beat you at,” said Dakota when he spotted a familiar shade of green in the ponies milling around the basketball goal. They had the obvious objective of getting it removed intact so it would not cast a shadow across the movie ‘screen’ behind it, but were having some issues. “You need some help, Lucky? Up for a game of one-on-one?”

He was taking photos while asking the question, so the effort of keeping the green stallion out of frame was distracting. Not so distracting that he did not notice it when Lucky’s adorable little filly glommed onto his leg and looked up with those huge violet eyes.

“C’ama!” she declared.

“Oh, you little rascal.” Dakota scooped up the little foal and held her in the crook of his left arm while still holding his camera with the opposite hand. “Guess I’m not going to be helping you take down that basketball goal now.”

“Actually, I was just looking for somepony to keep Clover busy while we worked,” responded Lucky. “Everypony… and lift.”

The steel pipe lifted straight up in the air, supported by a unicorn’s magic and two pegasi on the far end and a half-dozen ordinary ponies on the other. In a matter of minutes, it was placed up against the side of the quonset hut building with some other awkward chunks of machinery that needed to be put out of the way, and Lucky trotted back to him with a happy smile.

“By the way, Mister Henderson,” he started, “I talked to the Chronicle editors by phone this afternoon. They’ve been very happy about your photography, and they made a generous donation to the town’s relief fund out of the proceeds. And Clover has one of your lenses.”

“What?” The camera bag was on the opposite side of the little filly, so how she wound up holding his macro lens and peering through it was beyond him. She was holding it very carefully, though. And the way she wrinkled up her nose while peering into it was cuter than heck. Dakota eased the camera out, let it focus, and took an adorable close-up of the introspective little foal.

“Can I use that one?” asked Dakota, showing the camera’s preview to her father. “I know you didn’t want any pictures of her getting out, but that’s just cuter than words, and only shows her face.”

“Well… I suppose. Since you asked.” The stallion snagged a pair of water bottles from a passing pony, took a look at how Dakota’s arms were overloaded, and gestured him to the nearby picnic table. “You know, Jon’s going to be tickled pink when he gets back and sees this,” he added, waving a water bottle at the farmyard in general. “Nopony told him.”

It was an impressive sight indeed, from where Kota was sitting. The chicken coop was gleaming under a fresh coat of red paint inside and out, all the grass had been trimmed within an inch of its life, every flower bed bloomed with abandon (minus a few snacks here and there). There was just a tiny bit of painting cleanup remaining on the old house, supervised by an unusually young pair of ponies.

Even the equipment had been taken out and exercised by a combination of eager ponies and local farmer volunteers who showed their guests just how the unfamiliar tractor and big round baler worked. The swather had been cautiously cleaned while all the younger ponies were lectured on how dangerous it was while running, then each of the smaller ponies was chased out of the tall grass so there would not be any other accidents.

After everything was prepared, they went to work. It was a little like a parade, or some farming movie where every tractor and truck moved in perfect harmony, and made for some very pertinent photos. Once the incomplete hay field Mr. Bruener had been working on was all swathed, dried, baled, and the big round bales placed in neat rows at the end of the field, there was a small celebration along with a few samples of the end product, which the ponies agreed did not taste quite the same as home. Then the tractor and equipment had been brought back into the yard to be polished until they gleamed like the tin outbuildings.

The riding lawnmower had been an exceedingly popular attraction, and the line to drive it around the already trim yard was constantly refreshed by ponies who would finish their time in the seat, then run around to get back in line with the rest for another run. Personally, Dakota thought the hardware attention was mostly from the farming ponies who had never seen an International Harvester or John Deere before, and they were certainly making the best of their time by seeing the most interesting sights (in their opinion) before returning home.

It was a little distracting to see a half-dozen multicolored tails hanging down from the inside of the threshing chamber of the combine, but the engine had been disassembled across several nearby tables so there was little chance of it starting up randomly. The oddest part was the one mullberry-colored pony standing in the combine’s cab, doing nothing but looking around.

After taking a picture, Dakota had to ask Lucky just what was going on.

“That’s Miss Cheerilee,” he said. “She’s a teacher. Can you say teacher, Clover?”

“Tch!” said the foal, squinting at the distant pony through the lens she was still holding.

“She’s watching for the Cutie Mark Crusaders,” continued Lucky. “I figured that a combine with so many ponies poking around the insides would be an irresistible target for them. Since they found their cutie marks, life has gotten quieter, but there are still times…”

Dakota snickered as he shot several zoomed in photos of the combine with all the twitching tails hanging out of it. “Remember, I helped put out the fire in the kitchen that Sweetie Belle started, and kept Apple Bloom from kicking that poor peach tree in the back yard to pieces. I still don’t know why you call them crusaders. I mean how important is one of your cutie marks anyway?”

“Shh!” The steel shoe of Lucky’s forehoof felt cool against Dakota’s lips, and for a little green horse who bore more than a passing resemblance to Kermit the Frog, he seemed to be far more serious than anybody had a right to be over a tattoo.

“Cutie marks are extremely important to young ponies,” said Lucky in a dead serious tone of voice. “The longer a pony goes without one when growing up, the more stress they are under, but paradoxically, the more powerful the cutie mark can turn out to be. There’s even a mental disorder, Late Onset Symbol Trauma that can be caused if a pony doesn’t get their cutie mark until they’re an adult. I know one who didn’t get his cutie mark until after he had been in the Royal Guard for nearly a year, although it turned out well in the end. Bloody, but about as good as it could have gone.”

“So, a kid who doesn’t know what they’re going to do with their life until they join the Marines.” Dakota raised his hand. “Guilty as charged. Got the cutie mark to prove it.” He rolled up his sleeve to show his bare shoulder, and the globe/anchor tattoo. “Didn’t want to go as far as the rest of my unit since I thought I might want to work for The Company when I got out.”

“Um… yeah.” Lucky nodded while keeping Clover between his forehooves. Despite the infant pony just peering through her new toy at everything around, it was fairly obvious how quickly she could change directions and escape. “Anyway, I sent them down to the machine shed, because there’s a mother cat there who just had kittens. That should distract them. Those three darling little scamps just got their marks a week or two ago and they’re still trying to find out just what they mean.”

“Like that unicorn horn mark on your butt means you… Um…” Dakota scratched his head. “I got nothing.”

“It’s a young unicorn’s horn,” clarified Lucky, turning a little sideways to show his mark off. “With sparks to show their early spellcasting. It relates to my talent of teaching young unicorns how to use their first magic.”

“One of the crusaders is a unicorn,” said Dakota, who had moved to scratch Clover’s ears like she seemed to want. “I remember her cutie mark was a musical note, but her talent seems to be setting kitchens on fire.”

“Sweetie Belle’s special talent seems to be related to music,” said Lucky. “If you’re lucky enough to hear her sing, you’d understand. It’s far, far more powerful than setting things on fire. The remarkably interesting thing about the crusaders’ new cutie marks is they are all the same in some regards, which is exceedingly rare, like they have a linked talent. Up until a few weeks ago, there were ponies who could have sworn they all had linked invisible cutie marks in destruction. When I started tutoring Sweetie—” the green pony let out an amused chuckle and wrinkled his nose up at his daughter “—they acted like I was galloping through the streets of town with a barrel of fuel oil and a torch.”

“They can’t have been that dangerous,” countered Dakota. “They’re just kids.”

“The town has a special insurance bracket for those three,” started Lucky. “They’ve wrecked at least five buildings, damaged a dozen more, disrupted nearly every event for the last few years except for Nightmare Moon’s release, and that was before they really got together so it doesn’t count. They did, however, manage to set loose our world’s source of elemental chaos from being imprisoned in a statue, so that makes up for it.”

Dakota really felt he should stand up for the cute little rascals. After all, if he could kidnap them all back to San Francisco, his girls would award him the Best Dad of the Century award, and even his ex-wife might be impressed enough to grant visitation again. Well, before he was thrown in jail for a thousand years by the cops. “Yes, but while they’ve been here—”

“In three days, they’ve managed to accidentally start a fire truck’s pump and made a hose run wild in a crowd, taken a police car out of gear and let it coast until it hit the back of another police car, dropped a policeman’s talkie device into the bathtub, made the Catholic priest in Topeka say the f-word in the middle of the service, twice, and somehow managed to flood the underground parking area at the Kansas statehouse. And that,” Lucky concluded with unbreakable certainty, “is why Miss Cheerilee is standing guard over the combine’s cab even with the engine taken apart and the key in my saddlebag.”

The green pony reached one leg into his bag, felt around for a while, then emerged with a small zippered bag, which he opened.

It was, of course, filled with keys except for one empty space and a note.

“Taking the big scooter down to the cool dirt pile area, signed Scootaloo,” read Dakota with his head turned sideways. “What big scooter?”

There was a snarl of gasoline-powered fury from the equipment shed, screams of tiny pony terror, and the farmer’s four-wheeler went bolting in the direction of the road, with all three of the Cutie Mark Crusaders hanging onto various parts of it for dear life.

“Can you watch Clover? Thanks!” And the chunky green stallion was off like a shot, headed after the vanishing four-wheeler and followed by the teacher who had been watching the combine, along with several other townsponies. It was educational to see certain other members of the community who promptly turned and started walking in the opposite direction, leaving Dakota to presume they had directly experienced one of the crusaders’ previous ‘events’ and did not want to wind up in any more of them.

Dakota promptly rescued the rest of the keys from Clover before she too decided to drive something, and stuffed them into his knapsack. “I don’t think your father wants to chase you down too, little lady. Tell you what. Why don’t we walk around the festivities and take a few more pictures. Do you think you can ride on my shoulders?”

She could. And it made everybody who looked in their direction smile, so Dakota could not complain one bit.