It was a beautiful summer morning in the Whitetail Woods. Birds chirped happily in the trees, playing in the dappled sunlight shining through the leafy canopy. A shrill whistle pierced the calm, sending the panicked birds flying.
"Come on, scouts, we're almost at the campsite!" Cheerilee led her troop of Filly Scouts along the well-worn forest path. There were several dozen of the girls, of varying ages, and all wearing their official green skirts, berets, and sashes displaying their collection of badges. This was Cheerilee's first official outing as troop leader, and she was bubbling with excitement. Fluttershy followed closely behind her.
"Um, I think you're scaring the birds..." she said, "Do you really need the whistle?"
"I appreciate the advice, Fluttershy, but remember that I'm the troop leader and you're the assistant. I know what I'm doing. Filly Scout regulations say that the leader must be in contact with all the members of the troop at all times!" Cheerilee had been up all night memorising the Scout bylaws. "The whistle makes sure no one falls behind. Besides, I made sure I got one that sounds just like local birds, so they won't be scared!" She cut another thunderous blast, causing another mass avian exodus.
"Well, uh... okay."
Applebloom winced at the noise. "I'm gonna smack 'er. I swear." she mumbled under her breath. She and Sweetie Belle were walking together, just behind the two adults.
"Are we there yet?" asked Sweetie Belle, tugging on the hem of her increasingly itchy uniform. "We've been hiking all morning!"
"Just a little further, I promise!" said Cheerilee with another cheery tweet, "I've been coming to this camp since I was your age, so I know this trail like the back of my hoof. See, it's in that clearing up ahead." The trail widened, revealing a stone fire circle surrounded by a number of elderly, weather-beaten canvas tents. "Here we are! Welcome to Camp Apple Road, girls!"
Applebloom leaned over to whisper in Sweetie Belle's ear. "More like 'camp road-apple', right?" The two girls suppressed a giggling fit.
Cheerilee didn't hear them, as she was lost in a haze of nostalgia. "I had so much fun here when I was a scout! We used to have sing-a-longs, make s'mores, tell ghost stories... I can't wait to..." Her train of thought was interrupted by the sound of a scuffle near the back of the pack. In an instant, she was back in school-teacher peacekeeper mode.
"Hey, HEY! What's the problem, here?" She elbowed her way to the rear of the group. A circle of scouts had formed around the tussle, with no one willing to get close enough to intervene. In the center, Scootaloo and Silver Spoon were staring each other down, their chests heaving as they caught their breath. They weren't actively fighting at the moment, but the dust covering their uniforms showed that it was only a brief lull.
"Break it up you two!" Cheerilee shouted sternly, "I will not tolerate fighting on this trip!"
"She started it!" said Scootaloo, pointing an accusing hoof at her rival.
"I don't care who..." Cheerilee started.
"I did not!" said Silver Spoon haughtily, ignoring her, "You were the one looking at poop! What was I supposed to say? Should I have congratulated you on your find, perhaps?" A chorus of titters made its way through the crowd.
"It's called spoor, dummy." Scootaloo said, her cheeks burning with embarrassment, "It's a way of tracking animals in the wild."
"That's true!" Fluttershy suddenly piped up, then shrunk back as the crowd turned its attention on her, "Oh... um, I mean, that's a real thing. Spoor, I mean. You can find out where an animal has been by looking at things like its prints and, well, its droppings. If you want, I could teach you how to..." She trailed off when Cheerilee shot her a look that said 'Let me handle this.'
"Now, see here, girls..." she began.
"Like you could ever track wild animals." Sliver Spoon interrupted, "We all know you're just a big chicken."
"What did you call me?" Scootaloo growled, narrowing her eyes.
"Oh, you didn't hear?" Silver Spoon grinned sadistically, "Should I cluck louder for you?"
"Hey, back off, trust fund!" Applebloom shouted, pushing her way to the front of the group.
"Yeah!" added Sweetie Belle, "You mess with one Crusader, you mess with all of us!"
"Oh boy," Sliver Spoon rolled her eyes, "The blank-flank cavalry is here. I should have known you were too chicken to take me on by yourself."
"I don't need..." Scootaloo started, but was cut off by a painfully loud, piercing whistle. All the scouts held their ears until the noise stopped.
"That's enough of that!" said Cheerilee, glad to finally have their attention. "This is not how we conduct ourselves in Filly Scouts. Do you remember the scout oath? Everypony say it with me!" All the scouts followed along robotically, repeating the oath they had memorised:
"I promise to do my duty to Celestia and my country, to help other ponies at all times, and to always be honest, kind, cheerful, generous, and loyal."
"That's right!" Cheerilee nodded authoritatively, "We're Scouts, and we're here to have fun and make friends and learn about nature, not to fight and argue. Now, I'm willing to write it off as high spirits this one time, but I want you two to shake hooves and apologise!"
After some grumbling, the two girls reluctantly complied, not making eye contact as they muttered a half-hearted apology.
"Good." said Cheerilee, "That's that, then. Everypony pick a tent and get your bags unpacked. There's room for four in each, so get to know your roomies. I don't want to see any more fighting!" The crowd began to disperse, having nothing left to gawk at. Applebloom and Sweetie Belle caught up with their friend, helping her pick up her backpack from where it had been dropped during the fight.
"You okay?" Applebloom asked.
"I'm fine, I'm fine." said Scootaloo, her cheeks still flushed.
Fluttershy approached them timidly, "I'm sorry about the uh, spoor thing. I didn't mean to embarrass you."
Scootaloo shrugged. "It's okay, you were just trying to help."
"What animal were you tracking, anyway?" asked Sweetie Belle, "That sounds like fun!"
Scootaloo's mood brightened instantly. She looked around with a conspiratorial glint in her eye, then motioned for them to come closer, pulling a heavily dog-eared book out of her bag.
"I'm looking for this!"
It was a colorful book with lots of pictures, the kind intended for young children. The cover depicted a wild-looking creature, resembling a pony but much larger, and covered in shaggy brown fur. The title read: The Foal's Guide to Bighoof.
Sweetie Belle squinted at the illustration. "What is that, some kind of monster?"
"Bighoof isn't a monster!" said Scootaloo defensively, "He's the missing link between ponies and... and..." she paused, thinking, "...whatever came before ponies. Horses, probably. He's gentle and misunderstood. That's why he's always spotted in places like this," she gestured to the woods around them, "and not in scary places like the Everfree Forest. I'm gonna find him, and get my cutie mark, and then everypony will know me as the famous bighoof catcher!" She puffed out her chest, imagining the hoards of admirers jostling to get the autograph of the brave pegasus girl who finally captured the wily and elusive creature.
Fluttershy looked at the book thoughtfully. "Where did you get this?"
"It's the library's only copy," Scootaloo said, hugging it protectively, "I check it out every week to make sure no one else gets it."
"I've heard of bighoof before." said Applebloom, "Applejack says it's just a myth made up by ponies who've hit the salt lick too hard."
"He's not a myth!" Scootaloo said, her voice cracking slightly with the force of her conviction, "He's real! I know he is!"
"Hey, okay, if you say so, Scootaloo." Applebloom said, trying to calm down her friend, "Listen, me and Sweetie Belle are gonna go claim a tent before all the good ones are taken. Peachy Pie said she'd split one with us so we wouldn't have to bunk with the jerk patrol." she tilted her head in the direction of Silver Spoon and her friends, "We'll catch up later, okay?"
Scootaloo grumbled a bit as she watched them run off. She and Fluttershy continued to walk together in an awkward silence for a moment, until she spoke up again.
"You believe in bighoof, right?" she said, looking up hopefully. The question startled Fluttershy, even though she knew it was coming.
"Well, I, um... I guess I..." she stalled, avoiding eye contact. Eventually she sighed, giving up. "No, no I don't. Not really."
The look on Scootaloo's face was heartbreaking.
"I'm sorry." Fluttershy said effusively, "It's just... I don't think there's any evidence that..."
"Yeah, well, whatever." Scootaloo said coldly, turning away from the older pegasus, "'Scuse me, I have to go unpack." She trudged off towards the tents, leaving Fluttershy alone.
Making themselves at home on the rusty, army-style cots, the girls found themselves with some free time. They fell back on the traditional pastime of all scouts sharing a tent: idle gossip.
"...so I was hanging out in Rarity's boutique the other day," said Sweetie Belle, giving the cot springs an experimental bounce, "And this lady walks in with these, like, diamond things stuck right in her eyeballs!"
"Ew, gross!" said Peachy Pie from her cot.
"I know, right?" Sweetie Belle gushed, "Rarity said not to stare, 'cause it was something called 'Twinkle Eye Syndrome.'"
"Oh, you mean Twink Eye?" said Applebloom, "My granny had that once. The doctor gave her some eye drops and it went away after a couple a' weeks."
"Does it hurt?" asked Peachy Pie breathlessly.
"Nah, it just makes it really hard to see. She said it was like looking through a kaleidoscope all the time." Applebloom stretched her legs casually, "It was kinda funny, really. You shoulda' seen her bumping into gates and knocking over fences..."
"Could you guys shut up? I'm trying to read!" said Scootaloo irritably, her nose still buried in her book.
Applebloom sat up, eyeing Scootaloo quizzically. "You're still obsessin' over that?"
"What do you care?" Scootaloo said sourly, not looking up, "Bighoof's just a myth, remember?"
"Hey, that's just what Applejack told me." said Applebloom, sounding more than a little hurt by her friend's harsh tone, "You don't have to bite my head off."
"It does seem sort of unlikely, though." said Sweetie Belle, "I mean, there are tons of weird creatures in the Everfree Forest, but if there was something like that living so close to us you'd think we would've found one by now."
"Well, I don't care if I'm the only one who believes." Scootaloo said grouchily, "You'll all see, once I find bighoof and get the coolest cutie mark ever!"
"Why are you acting like this?" said Applebloom. She was starting to lose her temper herself. "We're your friends, remember? Besides, there's got to be easier ways to get a cutie mark."
"That's just it!" said Scootaloo, slamming her book closed and hopping off the cot, "I don't want to get mine the easy way! Can you imagine living the rest of your life with something lame like a hammer or a cloud or a piece of fruit as your cutie mark? I couldn't stand it if I was forced to be boring!" She hopped off of the cot, sliding her book into her backpack, which she hadn't bothered to unpack, and shuffling it into place between her wings.
"Pardon me for wanting to do something interesting with my life!" she shouted on her way to the door, "And pardon me for thinking my friends might support me!" She attempted to slam the tent flap on her way out, only making a disappointing fwup noise.
The other girls sat in stunned silence for a minute.
"What's wrong with fruit?" said Peachy Pie, looking at the peaches on her flank.
"Don't mind her, Peachy Pie." said Applebloom, "She just needs to calm down. She gets into little funks like this every now and then."
"I don't know," said Sweetie Belle, "I've never seen her act this funky before."
"She'll be fine." Applebloom assured her, "Trust me, all she needs is a little fresh air. She'll get this outta' her system and we'll all be laughing about it by lunchtime."
Several hours later, the scouts gathered around the fire for lunch and a lesson in camp cuisine. Cheerilee was in the center, shoveling hot coals over the lid of a dutch oven.
"And that's how you do it!" she said, sweating a bit from the heat and exertion. She had almost regretted lugging the heavy cast-iron pot along on the hike to the campsite, but it was turning out to be a perfect tool to teach the scouts about campfire cooking. "In just fifteen minutes, we'll have fresh, hot biscuits for lunch! Any questions?"
Sweetie Belle raised a hoof. "When do you put the dough in?"
"Well, you have to... I mean, before you..." Cheerilee stammered, looking back and forth between the coal-covered dutch oven and the clearly still-full mixing bowl. She cleared her throat, recovering her composure. "Okay, uh, that was just a practice run. Help me dig the oven out and we'll do it for real this time."
"Miss Cheerilee! Miss Cheerilee!" shouted Applebloom, running up to the campfire with Fluttershy. "Have you seen Scootaloo? We've been looking all over and we can't find her!"
"What do you mean you can't find her?" asked Cheerilee, instantly forgetting about her biscuit problems.
"We had an argument, and she went outside, and she took her pack with her." said Applebloom, "I thought she was just going for a walk or something, but she hasn't shown up for hours! I think she went into the woods!"
Cheerilee's heart sank. One of the scouts was missing on her watch. She'd had nightmares about this very scenario for weeks leading up to the trip. "Are you sure she left the campsite?" she asked, struggling to remain calm, "Maybe she's just hiding from us?"
"Don't worry," said Sweetie Belle, "If she's hiding, I'll get her to come out." She took a massively deep breath. "SCOOTALOO'S A BIG CHICKEN!" she shouted, "BAWK BAWK BAWK!" As her words echoed through the trees she threw herself on the ground, covering her head with her hooves protectively. A long moment passed as the scouts stared at her. Eventually she lifted her head and looked around fretfully.
"Yeah, somethings definitely wrong." she said, "She's usually punching me by now."
"I'm afraid it's sort of my fault," said Fluttershy, "You see, she and I were talking about..."
"What do you mean it's your fault!?" said Cheerilee, panic edging into her voice, "Did you tell her to go in the woods by herself!? Why would you do that!?"
"I mean, I said something that upset her and I feel responsible for..."
"Okay, it's okay! Everything's okay!" Cheerilee shouted, frantically flipping through her scout handbook, "There are procedures for missing scouts! Nopony panic! Everypony stop panicking!"
"You're the only one panicking." said Applebloom, looking at her doubtfully.
Cheerilee barely heard her. Flop sweat beaded on her forehead as she scanned through the handbook. "I've found it!" she said, "It says we need to have the whole troop line up and start searching in concentric circles around the campsite..."
"That won't work." Fluttershy interrupted, "She doesn't want to be found." Fluttershy was uncomfortable with acting so forceful, but with Scootaloo's safety on the line she felt the need to take control. "A big search party would just scare her off. But if just one of us looks for her we can track her down and convince her to come back."
"I can't do that!" Cheerilee said shrilly, "I've never been off the path! I'd be just as lost as she is!"
"I meant I should look for her." said Fluttershy patiently, "I can work my way around the site and pick up her trail. She shouldn't be harder to track than any other animal, and I have a feeling she'll be willing to listen to me."
"But... but you can't go alone!"
"I don't have a choice. You have to stay here to look after the other girls." Fluttershy was already filling her pack with supplies. "Just trust me on this, okay? I'll bring her back safe, I promise."
Cheerilee put the whistle in her mouth again as she mulled the plan over, blowing a few shaky tweets. It seemed to comfort her. "O... okay." she said after some time, "You can look for her. But if you're not back by sunset, I'm getting all the scouts together and we're doing it by the book."
Fluttershy steeled herself and gave Cheerilee a determined nod. "You can count on me." She hefted the pack onto her back and set off. Applebloom caught up with her as she reached the edge of the woods.
"Fluttershy, before you go..." she said, "If... when you find Scootaloo, please, tell her I said I was sorry. I didn't mean to make her so upset."
"Don't worry," Fluttershy said, trying her best to sound reassuring, "She'll be fine. I know what I'm doing." She felt a lump in her throat as she entered the forest, silently adding: 'I think.'
Scootaloo stomped noisily through the forest undergrowth. If no one believed in bighoof, she thought, she'd just have to prove it to them herself. The campsite was far behind her now, and it had been some time since she had seen signs of civilization. She stopped walking briefly when her stomach grumbled at her.
"Probably shouldn't have left until after lunch." she thought out loud. A few minutes of searching through the brush yielded a shrub full of plump, purple berries. They reminded her of grapes, though they were smaller and darker than the ones she had seen in the market. A tentative taste revealed them to be sweet and ripe.
"All right, I'm a natural forester!" Scootaloo said to herself proudly, "Only a couple of hours in the wild and I'm already foraging food!" She munched on the berries as she flipped through the Foal's Guide to Bighoof.
After she finished her snack, she looked around the forest, making sure she was alone. "I guess I'm far enough from the campsite to try a few calls." She took a few deep breaths, then let loose.
"YAWP! YAWP! YAWP, YAWP, YAAAAAWP!" she yelled in what she hoped was a bighoof-y way. She glanced around hopefully as the calls echoed around her, looking for any signs that she had attracted a bighoof. Seeing none, she squinted at her book again.
"Maybe my yawp's weren't barbaric enough." she said with a shrug.
She flipped to the section titled 'Tracking and Capture Techniques.' This was by far her favorite part, where it listed several live bighoof traps and gave instructions for building them.
"All right, now we're talkin'!"
She sorted through the various nets, ropes, and other bighoof-hunting supplies she had bought specifically for this trip, finally pulling out a collapsible shovel. She had a lot of work to do, and she figured she might as well get started.
Fluttershy crept through the underbrush, following the trail Scootaloo left in her wake. She relied on hoofprints when the ground was soft enough to leave them and looked for bent foliage and other subtler signs when it wasn't. Luckily, Scootaloo didn't know how to disguise her trail, and it was easy enough for Fluttershy to follow once she had determined which direction the filly had set out in. Still, the young girl had a few hours worth of a head start, and Fluttershy was going to run out of daylight eventually.
"Okay," Fluttershy said to herself, trying to think like her quarry, "I'm a little girl looking for bighoof. I'm upset, so I'm not thinking rationally, and I don't seem to notice how lost I'm getting." Fluttershy's voice cracked a little. She was starting to psych herself out. "I... I'm just a little defenseless girl and I don't know anything about finding my way through the woods but I just keep going deeper and deeper until I..."
Fluttershy let out a tiny eep at the sudden, unexpected voice and ducked behind a bush.
"Uh, excuse me?" it said again, a little louder this time.
Fluttershy forced herself to stop shaking, deciding she needed to investigate the voice. Whatever it is, she thought, at least it sounds polite. "Hello?" she called out, "Who's there?"
"Ah, yes, splendid!" said the voice, "Thought I was hearing things for a minute there. Would you mind awfully lending me some assistance? I've gotten into a bit of a pickle, you see."
Fluttershy followed the voice until it led her to a large hole dug into the ground. Sticks, branches, and leaves had been laid over it, making it look identical to the forest floor. That is, until something had walked over it and fallen through. She peeked over the edge, finding a haughty-looking deer staring back at her from the bottom. Fluttershy gasped, recognising him.
"Mr. Bucksley!" she exclaimed, "What happened to you?"
"Ah, the little pegasus from the cottage! So nice to see you in my neck of the woods!" he said, "Pardon me for not introducing myself properly, but I seem to have found myself in some sort of man-trap. Or deer-trap, as it were."
"Bighoof trap, actually." said Fluttershy. She slid down into the pit and helped disentangle the deer from the roots and branches littering the floor.
"Bighoof, eh?" he raised an eyebrow at her, "I hadn't pegged you as the cryptid-hunting sort."
"It's from one of my scouts." Fluttershy explained, "She's gone off on her own, and I'm trying to find her."
She grabbed onto the deer's midsection, using her wings to lift him out of the hole. He was heavier than she was used to lifting, but she managed to get him high enough that he could scramble out on his own. They brushed themselves off and sat by the edge of the pit, catching their breath.
"You haven't seen her, have you?" she asked, "Orange pegasus, scout uniform, about this big?" She held her hoof the appropriate height off the ground.
"I'm afraid I haven't seen much this afternoon," he said dryly, "As I've spent most of it at the bottom of a rather large hole."
"Oh, I guess that's true." said Fluttershy, looking down dejectedly, "Well, if you see her, try to find me and let me know, will you?" She put her nose back to the forest floor, attempting to pick up the trail again.
"That I will, that I will." said the deer, "Have a few harsh words to say to her myself, I don't mind telling y... I say, what are you doing now?" Fluttershy had found something small and lumpy behind a tree, and she was using a stick to prod at it.
"It's Scootaloo's, I'm sure of it!" she said, a look of grim determination in her eyes.
"You make a habit of examining your scouts', ah... leavings, do you?" he sniffed.
Fluttershy ignored his tone. "Judging by these seeds, she's been eating purple barberries."
"Oh. Oh my." said the deer with sudden understanding, "That could be quite serious. You'll need to find her within a few hours or..."
"I know," she said, "but I'm more worried about this." She pointed to a set of prints in the soft soil that seemed to follow Scootaloo's. They were large and indistinct, but mostly, they were large. "It looks like I'm not the only thing in these woods that's tracking her."
Scootaloo groaned, her stomach churning. This was the sixth time she'd had to duck behind a tree in the last hour, and it was quickly going from annoying to scary. She was feeling increasingly woozy and her heart was pounding rapidly in her chest. The summer heat, which she'd previously found pleasant, was becoming unbearable. All she wanted to do was lie down and sleep, but what little she remembered from first-aid class told her that was a bad idea.
She squinted at the sun, cursing herself for not bothering to memorize which direction it set in. Her pack had been full of things she thought she'd need to find bighoof, most of which were now spread across the forest as part of her various traps. She regretted not bringing a compass, or a canteen, or anything really useful. She regretted not paying attention in the wilderness survival lessons they'd had in previous scout meetings. She doubled over as another painful cramp twisted up her stomach. She was really starting to regret the berries.
The sound of a twig snapping behind her made her jump. "Who's there!?" She turned around unsteadily, the forest continuing to spin around her. She willed her eyes to focus. Something big was moving slowly in the distance.
"Bighoof? Is that you?" It seemed startled by her voice, freezing in place.
"Don't run!" Scootaloo shouted, "I won't hurt you!" She stumbled forward, trying to catch up with the creature before it escaped, "Please, bighoof, I just want to..." She stopped.
It wasn't bighoof. It was... something else. Turning to face her, it opened its jaws impossibly wide and snarled at her through a pair of monstrous, sickle-like teeth.
Scootaloo screamed. There was barely enough time to turn around before it was on top of her. She felt its powerful forelegs wrapping around her, holding her down. It sunk its fangs into her backpack, spearing it. She wriggled out of the straps, managing to get free and scramble away from the thing backwards. The pack was stuck on its long teeth, and the creature backed off for a moment, attempting to free its jaws. She finally got a clear look at it as she pushed herself away.
It looked like some sort of enormous cat, although the way it hunched over its muscular front legs made it seem almost bear-like. It's fur was covered in a complicated spot pattern that transitioned into stripes along its tall, tufted ears and short, stubby tail. Scootaloo gaped at it in shock; it was easily twice as big as she was. Shaking its head violently, it ripped the backpack apart. Shreds of paper spilled out, billowing out of the pack like snowflakes.
"My... my book...!" Scootaloo whimpered. Angry tears welled up in her eyes as she watched the tattered remains of The Foal's Guide to Bighoof slowly settle on the forest floor.
"You ripped up my book, you big... stupid... thing! I hate you! I hate you!" Incoherent with rage, she grabbed a rock and chucked it feebly at the creature, watching it bounce harmlessly off of the beast's furry hide. It turned to face her again, a low, rumbling growl in its throat.
"Oh, crap." she said, her senses returning to her.
She pumped her already aching muscles as she ran, not daring to look behind her. It was so close she could almost feel its breath on the back of her neck. A protruding tree root caught her hoof and sent her tumbling, knocking what little air she had left out of her lungs. She tried to get up, but already she felt the thing's forelegs wrapped around her again, lifting her forcefully off of the ground. She screwed her eyes shut, bracing herself for the inevitable bite.
It didn't come. She opened her eyes gingerly, watching in shock as the ground seemed to drop away beneath her. The legs wrapped around her midsection weren't the clawed monstrosities she was expecting, but were instead a pale yellow. She tilted her head up to see a familiar, upside-down face.
"Fluttershy!" Scootaloo gasped weakly, "You... you saved..." She trailed off as her vision blurred and she passed out.
Scootaloo woke up sputtering, a canteen pressed to her lips. She was lying in some sort of improvised tent, made from a tarp tied between a pair of trees. It was already dark.
"Oh, thank Celestia, you're awake!" said Fluttershy, "Don't worry, you're safe now. I've got a fire going outside, and that should scare off any more dangerous animals. Here, drink this." She offered the canteen again. Scootaloo tried to push it away.
"Berries..." she wheezed, "...sick..."
"Shhh... it's okay, they weren't poisonous," the older pegasus said reassuringly, "but they are an effective laxative. You're pretty badly dehydrated." She pressed the canteen to the girl's lips again, insistently. "Drink all of it, but slowly, so you don't choke. I can always boil some river water if we need more." Scootaloo calmed down as she sipped, feeling her strength gradually return. She had never imagined that water could taste so sweet.
"What was that... thing?" she said, shivering.
Fluttershy put a comforting hoof around the young girl. "Saber-toothed bobcat. It's a good thing I found you when I did. Poor thing was so confused."
"Poor thing!? It tried to eat me!"
Fluttershy hushed her quietly again, calming her down. "They don't usually attack ponies; they mostly prey on birds. I think it was an old one, though, almost blind. He must have seen your wings and thought you were something he could eat. It's a good thing you don't sound like a bird too, or he would have given you more than a little test-bite. They have excellent hearing."
Fluttershy stopped as Scootaloo's eyes welled up with tears again. "I'm sorry, am I upsetting you? It's okay, he only got your backpack!"
"I know, I know," Scootaloo sobbed, burying her face in Fluttershy's chest, "but he tore up my book! It was the library's only copy and he... he just ripped it up and now I'll never see it again!"
Fluttershy looked down at her compassionately. "Scootaloo, this is about more than getting a cutie mark, isn't it?"
"I don't know." Scootaloo sniffed, looking away, "I guess. Sort of. I just... I just remember seeing the cover in the library and he... bighoof, I mean... he just looked so... I don't know..."
"Lonely?" offered Fluttershy.
"...Yeah." said Scootaloo, "How did you...?"
"Well, you see... the library used to have two copies." She reached for her bag, pulling out a slightly more weather-beaten, but otherwise identical, copy of The Foal's Guide to Bighoof. "I used to check it out every week, just like you, ever since I was your age. Eventually, Twilight just let me keep it."
Scootaloo boggled at the book. "But... you said you didn't believe in bighoof!"
Fluttershy sighed. "I don't. Not really." She shifted her weight, hugging Scootaloo closer, keeping her warm. "I used to be obsessed about bighoof when I was little. I read about all the sightings, the theories, the hunters who looked for him. I wanted to meet him so much. But most of the sightings turned out to be hoaxes or misunderstandings."
"There are still some that aren't explained!" interrupted Scootaloo, "They can't all be hoaxes, can they?"
"That's how I felt, too. I kept holding on to the unexplained cases, thinking that one day we would finally find real, solid evidence that he existed. As I grew up, it seemed like we were always just on the verge of finding him, but no one ever got any closer. I kept waiting, but the evidence never came, just disappointment after disappointment. I realized that no matter how hard I believed, it wouldn't make him real."
"So that's it then?" said Scootaloo, her eyes downcast, "He's not real?"
"I didn't say that." said Fluttershy, "I said there's no evidence that he's real. There's a big difference." She tapped the book with her hoof. "I would love to know that bighoof is real. Almost nothing could make me happier. But I want him to be really real, not to just believe. Do you understand?"
"I think so." Scootaloo sniffed, "Why didn't you tell me all this earlier today?"
"Well, you didn't give me a chance! I wish you had just talked to me, instead of going into the woods on your own. Applebloom and Sweetie Belle were so worried about you! It can be dangerous out here if you don't know what you're doing!"
"Right, sorry." said Scootaloo, hanging her head guiltily, "Some forester I turned out to be, huh? My first time in the wild and I almost poop myself to death."
"Well, it turned out okay in the end." Fluttershy said with a small smile, "At least you left me a trail to follow, right?"
"Oh," Scootaloo blushed, "Ew."
Fluttershy chuckled warmly. "Don't worry. Cheerilee and the rest of the scouts are out there looking for us right now, so all we have to do is stay put and wait for them."
"All right." said Scootaloo, "But, when the others get here... Could you tell them you found me in a less embarrassing way?"
"No problem." She rustled the youngster's mane playfully, "You just rest here and I'll look after the fire. I've got a thermal blanket if you get cold and some oat bars if you get hungry."
"Wow, you really thought of everything, huh?" Scootaloo looked at the older mare thoughtfully, "You know, you act different when you're out here in the woods."
"Do I?" Fluttershy blushed, suddenly back to her old self, "I... uh, I didn't notice..."
Scootaloo laughed. "It's okay, I like it. You're more... confident."
"Well, um, thanks." Fluttershy said with a bashful smile, "I guess I get that way when I'm doing something really important. Now, try to get some rest, okay?" She smiled at her, then left to take care of the fire.
Scootaloo rolled over, getting comfortable. She tried to relax, listening to the chirps of crickets outside the improvised tent, but something was nagging her at the back of her mind. She couldn't help thinking about the animal that had attacked her.
"Stupid bobcat," she said to herself, "Even the animals out here think I'm a chicken." Something about that thought made her pause. "It's okay," she said, trying to reassure herself, "Cheerilee's gonna be here any minute now and she'll be... she'll..."
Scootaloo's eyes snapped open.
Tweet. Tweet. Tweet. Tweet.
Cheerilee stared into the woods almost catatonically as she walked, the whistle in her mouth like a pacifier. It made a noise every time she breathed out. The scouts were on their eighth circuit around the camp, and it was getting darker by the minute. Applebloom had her flashlight out as Sweetie Belle consulted the scout handbook.
"It says that in a prolonged search, we should look out for signs of putri... putre..." she faltered.
Applebloom leaned over, helping her out. "Putrescence."
"...Putrescence, like maggots and carrion eaters, that might be attracted to corpses."
Sweetie Belle wrinkled her nose at the handbook distastefully. "Who the heck wrote this thing? Isn't it supposed to be for children?"
"The better question is why we're even out here." Silver Spoon said irritably. She had been on the verge of a tantrum for the entire search. "Just because that little twerp got herself lost we all have to..."
"Shut up," said Applebloom, glaring at her, "I think I hear something." She aimed her flashlight into the rustling bushes. "Scootaloo, is that you? You can come out, we're sorry we made you mad!"
"Even though you were being kind of a jerk!" added Sweetie Belle. "What?" she said defensively as Applebloom glared at her, "She was!"
The leaves parted, revealing a flustered yellow pegasus.
"Fluttershy!" said Sweetie Belle, "What happened? I thought you would've found Scoots by now!"
"I did," said Fluttershy with a mixture of frustration and panic in her voice, "But she ran off again! She said you were all in danger! I lost her at some point, and now it's too dark to pick up the trail again!"
"Oh, you've got to be kidding me!" said Sliver Spoon, stamping her hooves in frustration, "Why would she go and do a thing like that? What could possibly be so dangerous that..."
There was a low growl from somewhere in the bushes. The scouts instinctively froze in place. They looked around, unable to pinpoint the source of the noise.
"Just... stay calm..." said Fluttershy quietly, "Don't panic... As long as we don't antagonise it, it will leave us alone..."
"It!? What's 'It'!?" Silver Spoon said in a tiny shriek.
"Shhh!" said Fluttershy, "It doesn't want us! Any other pegasi here, keep your wings folded. Stay quiet... it'll lose interest when it figures out that we're not..."
Cheerilee was fully hyperventilating now, staring at the bobcat just ahead of her with pupils the size of pinpricks. The only part of it visible through the bushes were its vicious teeth and its milky-white eyes. Muscles tensed in its legs as it prepared to strike.
"BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK!"
Scootaloo charged out of the woods, flaring her wings and stamping her feet. "BUCKA-BUCK BUCK BUCK! Come and get your chicken dinner, ya big dumb fuzzball!" She blew a furious raspberry, then turned tail and dashed off into the woods, the bobcat giving chase.
Fluttershy, in shock, hesitated for a split second before she took off, desperately trying to catch up. The rest of the scouts looked at each other as the forest went quiet again.
"I just hallucinated that, right?" said Silver Spoon, her face locked in a rictus grin, "'Cause I've clearly gone crazy."
Tree trunks flew past Fluttershy's face. She was weaving through the forest recklessly, flying faster that she had ever flown before, but it wasn't enough. She caught brief glimpses of Scootaloo and the bobcat below her, but she couldn't get close enough. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she cursed herself for not learning how to fly like Rainbow Dash. The sound of rushing water came from up ahead.
"The river! Oh no, she'll be trapped!" she yelled, trying to pump more speed out of her aching wings. As the trees thinned out ahead she could just make out Scootaloo, now turned to face her pursuer and backing up against the steep bank of the river. She was completely in the open, and the bobcat had cut off her only escape route.
Throwing her last bit of strength into her wings, she dove towards Scootaloo. Shutting her eyes tightly against the rushing wind, the last image she saw was the bobcat in mid-leap. She barely registered hearing an odd twanging noise as she barreled into the younger pegasus, rolling along the ground with her as she landed. Fluttershy curled around her protectively, screwing her eyes shut even tighter as she braced herself.
A long moment passed.
"Fluttershy?" said Scootaloo from underneath her, her voice muffled slightly.
"Don't worry! I'll protect you!" Fluttershy squeaked, quivering with terrible anticipation.
"It's okay, Fluttershy. Look up."
Fluttershy risked a peek upwards, then her jaw dropped. The bobcat was suspended in a net tied to the branches above them. It swayed gently as it struggled.
"Bighoof trap number 23." said Scootaloo, smiling up at her meekly.
Fluttershy hugged Scootaloo close, tears of relief running down her face. "Don't you ever do anything that dangerous again!"
"Okay, okay!" Scootaloo said, giggling from the heady rush of adrenaline, "I'm done with being bobcat bait, no problem!"
"I thought I'd lost you!" Fluttershy continued, "How did you find the rest of the troop?"
"Oh, I didn't." said Scootaloo, "I just hid in a bush until you passed me, then I followed you. I figured you'd be able to find them quicker than I could."
Fluttershy blinked. "That's... actually pretty clever." she said, "Don't ever do anything that clever again, either."
The next day, the sun rose lazily over the campsite. Scootaloo sat by the fire with a slice of bread impaled on a stick, trying for the third time that morning to make toast. She looked up at the sound of a scuffle near one of the tents.
"Come on, Silver Spoon! You can't stay inside all week!" Diamond Tiara shouted.
"No way!" Silver Spoon shouted back hysterically, "Why on Equestria are we still out here when that THING almost killed us!?"
"Ugh, you know they took the bobcat to some wildlife preserve, or something. It's perfectly safe now! Come out, you're embarrassing me!"
"NO! I'm never coming out!"
Scootaloo rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to her breakfast. Applebloom and Sweetie Belle walked up to join her.
"Hey, what's up?" said Applebloom.
"Not much." said Scootaloo, "Want some toast? There's a few pieces that aren't too burned on one side."
"No thanks." Applebloom shifted in her seat awkwardly, "Listen, about last night... We're cool now, right?"
"Yeah, we're cool." Scootaloo smiled at her, "I was kinda bein' a jerk."
"See, that's what I said, but..." started Sweetie Belle, "...I mean, uh, whatever. I think I will have some toast." She crunched on one of the charred slices, looking down sheepishly.
"Nah, you're right." sighed Scootaloo, "I shouldn't have let the whole bighoof thing come between us. One of us could have gotten hurt because of me. No cutie mark is worth that."
A thought occurred to Sweetie Belle. "Hey, maybe you already have a bighoof cutie mark, but it's just hiding!"
"Aaah, don't say that!" giggled Scootaloo, "I don't want a wily and elusive cutie mark!"
They laughed together for a moment, the tension between them melting away. Out of the corner of her eye, Scootaloo noticed Fluttershy on the other side of the camp. "Hey guys, could you watch this for me?" she said, "I have to go take care of something." She trotted over to the older mare, getting her attention.
"Hey, Fluttershy." she said timidly, "I just wanted to say thanks for... well, for everything."
Fluttershy sighed with weary affection. "I'm just glad you're safe."
"Yeah, me too." Scootaloo said, "Uh, how's Cheerilee doing?"
"Better." said Fluttershy, "I was just checking up on her. She's teaching a basket-weaving class over by her tent right now. I think she's finding it nice and boring." She gave Scootaloo a sly look. "But it sounds like that's not really what you wanted to ask me, is it?"
"Well, no, I guess not." said Scootaloo bashfully, "You see, I've been thinking about what you said last night, you know, about bighoof? I guess I realized that I was being a little naive."
A look of concern flashed across Fluttershy's face. "Oh, I was just telling you my opinion. You don't have to change what you believe just because of me!"
"No, it's all right." said Scootaloo, "What you said made a lot of sense to me. And I've been thinking... If bighoof is real, and I meet him someday, he'll probably just turn out to be some smelly, hairy animal. I think he's probably a lot more fun to imagine than he could ever be in real life." She coughed, pawing at the ground nervously. "But still, um, do you think I could, uh, borrow that book sometime? Just for a little while?"
Fluttershy grinned. "Go ahead and keep it." she put a hoof over Scootaloo's shoulders, "And you know what? If you do find real evidence of bighoof someday, make sure I'm the first to hear about it, okay?"
They sat together for a while, enjoying the summer breeze. It was a beautiful day in the Whitetail Woods, and the birds chirped happily in the trees, playing in the dappled sunlight shining through the leafy canopy.