• Published 27th Mar 2024
  • 420 Views, 39 Comments

Parks and Wilderness - stphven



A routine monster hunt goes wrong, stranding a lone guardsmare in the desert.

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Chapter 4 - Hay fries

I am Sergeant Glacier and I am contemplating desertion.

Sure, I’d be throwing away my career, likely spending time behind bars, and definitely disappointing my parents. But on the other hoof, I wouldn’t have to go back out into that desert sun. So, yeah. Tough call.

The flimsy wooden chair creaks as I lean back, gazing over the rundown little eatery we’ve taken shelter in. Simple wooden walls. Bright, rustic furniture. Homemade knick knacks covering every surface.

Kinda reminds me of home. Of course, the taverns back home would have a roaring fire and thick rugs along the walls. Even then you'd still see your breath condensing in front of you half the time. Far better than sweating a puddle into your seat, in my opinion.

I shift my weight, trying to expose more of my matted fur to the breeze of the ceiling fan. At least this place is cooler than the inferno outside. Private Fruit Punch and I had left Tranquility Springs early this morning, while it was still dark and cool. But by the time we’d reached Hoofrest just a few hours later I was already foamy with sweat and eager to be out of the sun.

Punch, with her shorter coat and mane, fared better. Upon arriving at the little community’s only café, she immediately started chatting it up with the other patrons. I’d have reprimanded her, but frankly I couldn’t muster the energy.

Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to remind her of proper Guard etiquette and discipline. While it’s never been a serious issue, I don’t want to encourage her habit of gossiping on duty. Perhaps her time studying with the Appleloosan buffalo, away from real guards and protocol, has left her out of practice? I can sympathise if so.

It’s been challenging maintaining a professional relationship when it’s just the two of us for days on end. She clearly misses having squadmates to socialise with. (And so do I, if I'm being honest). But I'm in charge of her and this mission; it’s important to keep things professional.

My strategy thus far has been to keep the both of us busy and focused on work. Myself with research and planning, Punch with standing guard, checking equipment, running errands, or whatever else I can think of. Hence why I eventually sent her off to order both of our lunches.

(Ok, that one wasn’t strictly necessary for squad discipline. But hey, rank has its privileges.)

She’s been over by the counter for a while now. Seems to be having an in-depth discussion with the proprietor. I'm not really sure what there is to discuss. There’s only four items on the menu.

Oh well. It’ll only be a few more days until reinforcements arrive. Either my sisters from Parks and Wilderness Guard, the long lost Appleloosan Guard, or both. That should give Punch some other guards to chat with, and hopefully they’ll set a good example for her. And, with any luck, somepony more senior will arrive and take over as leader of this operation.

I’ve never minded taking charge temporarily when the situation called for it, or when my specialist skills were required. But I'm finding that being the leader full time is… exhausting.

And kinda lonely.

Punch seems like a nice mare and decent enough guard. It’s a shame to have to keep distance between us.

Sigh.

I lean back and rest my eyes. The gentle breeze from the fan tickles my chest.

Life was simpler when I just focused on being the best guard I could be. Leading ponies isn’t something I’ve ever put much thought into. I just kinda ended up as sergeant without really planning for it. Maybe it’s not the right job for me...

The clip-clop of approaching metal hoofguards pulls me out of my reverie.

“Okay, so we’ve got toasted sandwiches with frijoles, salsa, pickles, and a side of hay fries. Plus I managed to scrounge a couple of ice waters. Here you go, boss!”

My ears shoot up at the mention of ice water. Sitting up and opening my eyes, I see Fruit Punch has finally returned, a tray of food balanced easily on each wing. I have no idea what half these ingredients are, but ice water sounds like just the tonic I need.

She slides my tray onto the table in front of me. I offer a grateful nod as I levitate one of the perspiring glasses. Leaning back, I bring the wonderfully cool beverage to my lips. In a display that would make my old squadmates proud, I down the whole drink in one go. The icy liquid rushes down my throat, burning with cold, before settling in my stomach like a lump of snow.

“Ahhh…”

Immediately I feel cool to my very core.

Bliss.

“Haha, yeah I thought you might like that.”

Punch is openly smirking as she sits down opposite me and digs into her sandwich. I let it slide. The chilly taste of home has put me in a good mood.

“Mmm, thanks, Punch. I needed that.”

“No prob, chief.”

I lean forward to attend to my food, a small smile making its way to my lips.

It’s decided, then. No desertion for me. I’ll just have to finish my first assignment as sergeant, do a good job of it, and then decide if it’s the right job for me.

But for now, I'm just going to enjoy lunch with my considerate partner.

“So,” Punch begins after taking her own sip of water. “Excited to get out into the field and do some real monster hunting?”

“Apart from the unbearable heat? Sure. I always enjoy fieldwork.”

I levitate a couple of fries into my mouth, slightly wary of the sandwich. They taste exactly like hay fries you’d find anywhere else in Equestria. Promising start.

“How about you? Excited?”

Fruit wiggles her ears.

“Apart from the unbearable heat? You bet! I’ve met a few dragons before, y’know, so it’ll be interesting to see how they compare with our desert troublemaker.”

“Oh? Ah, that’s right. You’re said you’re with the Harmony Corps, correct?”

“Bingo. Meeting guards from all different species and cultures; swapping guard techniques and history; all that good stuff.”

The Harmony Corps is a mixed species branch of the Guard, recently established by Princess Twilight. Word is they’re more focused on diplomacy and the magic of friendship than actual guarding. From what I’ve seen of Punch, that seems pretty spot on.

I quickly take a bite of sandwich to hide my grin. The flavour’s… interesting, but I’ve certainly had worse from the commissary. After finishing the first mouthful, I continue:

“Mmm. Well, I’m sorry to say our troublemaker’s probably not a dragon. Though that’s good news as far as I’m concerned.”

“Huh? Didn’t you say yesterday Miss Miles got chased by a juvenile dragon?”

I shrug.

“That was just speculation. I took a look through the town’s records last night. Not a single dragon spotted in this area in the town’s entire history.”

Fruit pouts at this. The effect is somewhat undermined by half a sandwich she’s crammed into her mouth. She looks like a grumpy chipmunk.

I take a (somewhat daintier) bite of my own sandwich. Texture’s a little weird, but the flavour’s growing on me.

“They do have Sand Wyrms, though. They’re dragon-ish, but probably not our troublemaker.”

“Fo wha oo oo fink ih iff,” Fruit asks around her food.

I quirk an eyebrow.

“Swallow, Punch.”

She swallows and grins sheepishly.

“Sorry. So what do you think it is? Our troublemaker?”

That’s the million bit question.

After interviewing Miss Miles yesterday - then making sure I hadn’t broken her - then reassuring her that Tranquility Springs was unlikely to be invaded by dragons - we eventually tracked down a few other potential witnesses. On the one hoof, there was no more fainting. On the other hoof, there wasn’t much concrete information, either. Some folk claimed to have glimpsed a strange shadowy creature, usually from afar or at night. Their descriptions were vague at best, contradictory at worst.

Not surprising, really. I know how these small towns are. Somepony says they saw a windigo, or a bunyip, or a vampony, and suddenly that’s all the town talks about for weeks. Soon enough, folks are seeing the monster in every shadow, hearing it in every gust of wind, and generally scaring themselves silly.

While the lack of reliable witnesses can be frustrating, it’s probably for the best. Better the townsfolk be too scared than not scared enough. The last thing we want is a gang of curious teens playing at being monster investigators.

Still, we needed some more concrete information about our quarry. Hence our trip to the town archives and library later that evening.

“Well, according to the records, there are quite a few large predators native to the region. Mountain Lions, Sand Wyrms, Sand Sharks, Sandipedes, Sandy Claws-”

“Seriously? Do they just call every animal they find “Sand” something?”

The thought had definitely crossed my mind. Allowing a brief smile, I reply:

“Think I should get them a thesaurus?”

Fruit bursts into snorting giggles, and I can’t help but chuckle along.

“Heheh. Anyway, these very sandy predators are usually found much further out in the Badlands. But now and again one will wander closer to pony settlements.”

I levitate a hay fry, waving it for emphasis.

“Problem is, none of them particularly match Miss Mile’s description. So either her imagination got the better of her-”

“I think she was doing a lot of imagining yesterday,” Punch grins.

“-or the creature isn’t native to the area. Wait, what?”

“Nothing,” Punch beams innocently, her tail swishing side to side.

I eye her suspiciously, before popping the fry into my mouth.

While my search through the archives hadn’t turned up any leads, it wasn’t a complete waste of time either. Studying exotic creatures and planning how best to deal with them is a comfortably familiar routine. I was able to power through all the material the library had on them in a single night. Armed with this new knowledge, I felt it was time to visit the scene of the crime, as it were: the rocky wastes south of Hoofrest, where Sandy had her close encounter.

We’ll be heading out that way as soon as we’re done with lunch and refilled our canteens. The Parks and Wilderness Guard might frown upon my venturing out into potentially dangerous wilderness with only a single guard as backup. But I figure that between my tracking skills, and Punch acting as aerial scout, we’ll be able to spot any potential threats long before there’s any danger.

Not that I'm expecting to run into anything dangerous, or even find the exact location of Miss Miles’ encounter. But there’s always a chance of finding tracks, droppings, or other clues which only an experienced PWG like me would pick up on. The prospect of some good old fashioned fieldwork almost makes me eager to head back out into the heat.

Almost.