The Outlaw, The Star and the Big, Big Sky
By TotalOverflow, 2012
It stretched out forever, it seemed.
Dirt, dust, rocks, shrubs, a skull...
There was no end. At least, not to this place. His felt very near. He may join that skull soon.
Nothing. That was the best word to describe it: nothing. There was nothing here.
Dirt, dust, rocks, shrubs, a scorpion...
Nobody, but him.
Braeburn jumped slightly, his face damp with a cold sweat. Sleep dirt clouding his vision, he looked up to see Starlight peering upside-down over him. He smiled, silently thanking her for waking him from that dream.
He had difficulty falling asleep last night, nervous the whole night about any unwanted visitors. A chirping cricket kept his focus for much of the time he spent on his couch trying to fall asleep, and though he considered playing a record, he didn't want to disturb Starlight and left the machine silent.
"Morning," she smiled, stepping away, waiting patiently for him to rise. Doing so proved difficult for the stallion, his back hoof having fallen asleep at some point, refusing to wake up without a fight. He winced at the pins and needles and sat up on the couch.
"Have a good sleep?" he asked, suppressing another yawn. The filly smiled and nodded.
She reached around and pulled the red book from somewhere and held it, gazing expectantly at him. "Read?"
Laughing, Braeburn stood and trotted over to the kitchen, his leg finally coming back to life. "First things first, Starlight. We gotta get somethin' ta eat."
"Oh, heh, yeah I guess it'll be apples again. Sorry, I really should get some more food. Just 'cause I'm an Apple don't mean that's all I gotta eat." Opening the cabinets, he grunted at the barren contents he should have expected to see. Had he used a little foresight the night before, he may have thought to buck a few extra apples for the morning. "Ah, well."
He tossed on his hat and vest. "I'll be back in two seconds, 'kay? Just gonna grab somethin' ta eat."
He swung open the door and instantly recoiled at the bright sunlight that attacked him. Eyes starry, he cantered down the path he knew well enough to navigate blind. He bucked the closest tree and scooped up a couple of the fallen apples (although he still didn't think to grab a few extras) and trotted back home on three legs.
"Breakfast is ready," he announced, closing the door behind him. Dropping the apples on the kitchen table he motioned for Starlight to come near.
"Thanks," she grinned, admiring the apple's sheen and biting in. "Mmm." Chewing slowly and thoughtfully, she kept her eyes closed.
Braeburn took an apple for himself, chewing quickly and swallowing. "So hey, Starlight, why don't we go over what ya learned yesterday, huh?"
"'Kay! Um, table, um, couch, um, hat..." she recited, pointing at each object in turn and spraying bits of apple with every word.
"Whoa now! Hold up!" Braeburn held up a hoof, stopping the filly whose mouth hung open in a gruesome display of her masticated morsel. He wiped a bit of chewed apple off his snout. "Y'all can't talk with yer mouth full! T'ain't proper for a filly like yerself!"
She just stared at him, jaw agape. His mouth sideways, he leant over and closed her maw with a 'clack.'
"T'ain't ladylike. Here, chew an' swallow b'fore you talk, even if you're asked a question."
The filly, blushing and frowning, chewed furiously and gulped loudly. Her bottom lip protruding in a petulant pout, she glared at him a moment before clearing her throat and resuming her recital. Naming nearly every object in the room she went on to say the simple phrases she had learned, such as 'Thank you' and 'good morning' and the like, her grin stretching ear to ear when she finished. Braeburn smiled warmly and corrected her on a few she messed up and the pair ended their meal shortly after.
"Great job, Starlight!" he declared, patting her shoulder, "you sure are a fast learner!"
"I," she began, "um...do good?"
"Oh yeah, real good! Why, by t'morrow, I reck-"
Knock knock knock
"Braeburn? You in?"
The stallion barely suppressed a yelp and shot his eyes to the front door.
"Uh," he stammered, "yeah! Just one sec!" When he looked back to the filly she was gone, her scarlet eyes disappearing behind his bedroom door. He exhaled, relieved and a little guilty.
"What's up?" he asked, swinging open his front door. Linky stood out front, wearing again the black satchels.
"Bandage time," she said, stepping inside as Braeburn made room. "Ah thought Ah heard voices. You got a visitor?"
Braeburn stuttered. "Uh, just...talkin' ta myself, heh." Linky raised an eyebrow and motioned for him to sit on the couch. He grinned awkwardly and seated himself, holding out his hooves as she removed her tools.
"Uh, did ya have a good sleep?" he tried to change the subject, his voice crackling a little.
"Ah s'pose." She snipped the bandages and peeled them from his hooves. "Good as Ah could have, considerin' recent events." After rubbing them clean of the dry blood with the moist towel she clicked her tongue and shook her head, frowning at his right hoof.
"Ah jes' can't figure," she said, "yer right hoof's all healed up."
He pulled his hooves away and examined them. Ol' Righty was pristine, aside from being a little pale from being under a bandage for the past few days. His left hoof however was still swollen and cracked.
"Yer left hoof's gonna need another day or two ta heal up, but it looks like yer right hoof is just fine." She wrapped his left hoof in gauze and packed away her tools. "Ah ain't seen anythin' like it. You do anythin' unusual ta yer right hoof lately?"
He spun his hoof around. Nothing unusual, that he could figure anyway.
"Not that I know of."
"Hmm. There's been a lot o' weird things happenin' lately, an' this is jes' one of them."
"Tell me about it."
She finished packing her bags and stood, looking at him, her deep pink eyes glimmering for a moment. "What happened yesterday?" The question came suddenly.
Braeburn glanced around nervously.
"Ah mean," she continued, pacing a little, "first that whole space rock thing, an' then the buffalo...An' then you jes' disappeared fer the rest of the day."
Braeburn swallowed, thinking quickly. "Yeah, uh, I had things I needed ta take care of here."
"Ah mean, it's none o' mah business, Ah s'pose...Ah jes' was-" she caught herself and sighed. "Ah guess, well, Ah was hopin' to...to talk ta someone. Someone who knew what was goin' on."
Braeburn blinked. "Well, um, y'know...I didn't really hear everythin' anyway."
"Ah guess. Still..." She inhaled slowly and turned to face the stallion. "Could you...Ah mean, do you mind if we jes'...y'know, jes'...jes' talked, fer a bit?"
He wasn't prepared for this. Brushing his golden mane aside and biting his lip, he glanced sidelong at his bedroom door.
"Sure," he answered finally, "sure. Just gimme a minute an' I'll meet ya outside."
Linky smiled slightly and moved for the door. "Thanks."
She closed the door behind her with a soft 'click.' Braeburn fell back into his couch, eyes closed and hat slipping down his snout.
A moment passed and he stood, fixing his hat. "Starlight," he said softly, walking over to his bedroom door. He opened it to find Starlight crouched on the ground, staring up at him with wide, questioning eyes.
"Who?" she asked, "who was?"
"Um, who was?" she pointed for his front door.
"Oh! Oh, that was Linky."
"Linky," she repeated, pursing her lips.
"Yeah, an' she wanted ta talk ta me for a bit, so, um..." he looked around the room, before tapping the tip of his hoof against the floor in decision. "Why don't ya practice writin' down your letters for a while?" Going into the kitchen and rustling around for any blank paper, he set out the quill and ink at the kitchen table. Starlight followed him, the red book clutched in her arm.
"Yeah, why don't ya practice for a bit an' I'll be right back."
"Read book?" Starlight asked, placing the book on the table.
"Well, I can't right now, I hafta-"
"No," she interrupted, and pointed at herself. "Me read?"
Braeburn made an 'o' shape with his mouth for a second. "Oh, uh, sure, if ya feel up to it. There're some big words in there, though."
Starlight smiled widely and sat down at the table, flipping open the book and staring at the writing and scribbling on the papers, the quill in her teeth.
"So, uh, I'll be right back."
"Bye!" she waved. Braeburn smiled and stepped outside.
Leaves fluttered noisily in the wind. A warm wind, blowing from the south, slipping between the cool shade of the trees. A fly buzzed nearby, and the dry and dusty ground felt strange under Braeburn's barren right hoof, still a little tender. Linky dragged her hooves as she walked, furiously frowning as the two casually strolled through the apple trees.
"It's jes-" she began, then sighed. "Ah dunno."
Braeburn, for once, didn't know what to say. He cleared his throat, and broke the silence anyway. "I guess things have been quite different lately."
"There was another quake yesterday," Linky said flatly, "out west. Ah wasn't there but that's what Ah heard."
The river babbled and gurgled as the pair drew near. Linky dipped her hoof in the clear water and wiped it in the short grass.
"Ah'm kinda scared."
Braeburn looked up to her. Her violet eyes watched the river, unblinking, her curled blue mane falling on her forehead.
"Ah mean, this stuff ain't normal. Quakes are one thing, but not this many, not like these quakes. An' then thing's'r fallin' from the sky, an'..."
"An' the buffalo," Braeburn offered.
Linky looked up into the distance for a moment. "Y'know, that's kinda funny. Ah guess...Ah guess whenever Ah think 'bout the buffalo, Ah don't..." she exhaled a long breath. "Ah feel a li'l better. Ah don't feel as scared."
Braeburn frowned. That wasn't what he meant. "What do ya mean?"
"Well," she said, turning and walking slowly along the riverbank. "Ah helped a buffalo once, out in the desert by the quarry. Not too long ago; just under two months, Ah think. Anyway, his hoof was hurt an' he was alone. Ah guess Celestia - or someone - was watchin' out fer us, 'cause Ah jes' happened ta have my gear with me.
"The buffalo didn't want mah help. Said it wasn't their way, ta accept help from others. But Ah convinced him otherwise. His hoof was real strange, very different from ours, but similar in ways too. They're cloven, see? They got a split right down-"
She paused when she saw Braeburn's eyes glazing slightly, much as he tried to pay attention.
"...Anyway. Ah helped him back ta their camp an' met some o' the others. This was jes' a li'l after the whole apple orchard fiasco, so they were still a li'l on edge 'round me but once they heard how Ah helped one o' them, they invited me ta stay fer the evenin'."
"I'd have expected them ta shoo you away," Braeburn blurted, his voice a little sour, "I mean they said they didn't want help, so..."
"Well Chief Thunderhooves was a li'l apprehensive 'bout it, but he was real kind. Ah spent some time with them after. Not a whole lot, but enough ta get ta know them a li'l better, an' they're good folk. They're strong, an' even though they get angry easily, they don't forget who their friends are."
"Coulda fooled me with that display yesterday," Braeburn grumbled.
Linky stared at him sideways. "Ah guess you left early, 'cause the sheriff an' Ah had a li'l talk with Thunderhooves. He was real sorry 'bout the commotion he caused. Said he'd been on edge lately, an' yeah, they have been actin' a li'l out of sorts the past couple weeks. But..."
She sighed and walked back toward the apple trees, kicking absentmindedly at the grass. "Ah trust them. Y'know? Ah know they wouldn't act like this if they ain't got a good reason."
"Just 'cause they think they've got a good reason don't mean it is."
"Braeburn," she shook her head, "you don't know 'em like Ah do. Ah trust 'em."
Braeburn grunted. "My trust ain't so easy ta give."
The pair fell silent for a moment. Braeburn padded the grass uncomfortably, throat dry and heart bitter.
"They ain't the only ones actin' a li'l strange lately." Linky's voice was low and she observed Braeburn with slanted eyes. Braeburn inhaled deeply.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I'm..."
"Silverstar an' Ah been tryin' ta sort things out with 'em," she said, beginning to trot away, "we could sure use your help, Braeburn."
"Ah thought you were a good, kind an' trusting colt, Braeburn..." she looked back to him with sad eyes. "Please don't prove me wrong."
She left. He watched her go, his lips parted and parched. He didn't want any of this. Blinking furiously, he stared at the ground. His hoof started itching. He scratched it.
Was he doing the right thing?
Warm sunlight seeped through the branches and hit his neck. He took a small drink from the river and walked slowly for home. He'd need to go into town today. Yesterday, he reasoned, it was acceptable for him to stay home most of the day. It was a celebration, after all. But today there was work to do. Duties to be done, ponies to talk to, forms to fill. Besides...He needed to keep up appearances.
The door creaked lazily as Braeburn pushed it open. Starlight, still seated at the table, looked up to him through her dark, swirly mane and smiled.
"Hi Burn!" she grinned, "I read!" Holding up the book, she waited patiently for him to walk over and look. The yellow stallion smiled broadly.
"That's great, Starlight! How much did ya read?"
"Um," she turned the book back to herself, flipped a page or two and moved her hoof about halfway down the right page. "Here!"
"You read all that by yourself?" Braeburn said, genuinely surprised, "shoot, Starlight! Did you have any trouble?"
"Um, little." Starlight pointed at a long word.
"Uhh..." His nose crumpled, Braeburn struggled to pronounce the word. "Re...redemp...tion. Redemption. Dang, it's been a while since I've really read anythin' worth readin'."
"Yeah, I think it means somepony tryin' ta make up for bad things they've done. That even though they do somethin' bad, they ain't bad people. They can be forgiven an' still be a good person."
"Oh." Starlight frowned intently at the word. Braeburn stepped closer and read aloud the phrase in the book.
"'There was one pony, a stallion who was beyond redemption. Years of evil doin's an' hate had removed any good from his heart.'"
Braeburn whistled and paced for a moment. "Y'know Starlight, I don't know if I agree with that."
She turned and watched him. "Why?"
"Well, I don't think that anypony ever gets to a point where there ain't any goodness left inside. I think...I think that deep down we all want ta do the right thing. We all have some good inside us."
Starlight nodded slowly.
"Anyway, um, so..." He shuffled awkwardly, glancing around the room, "I'm gonna need ta go into town t'day. There's things I'm gonna have ta do, but I'll be sure ta drop by often, 'kay?"
"Yeah, it's just around the corner."
She pointed at her book. "Town like...Tambelon?"
"The city in the book? Haw! I wish! No, Appleloosa's just a li'l place 'round the corner."
"Apple!" she grinned
He laughed. "Yeah, well apples are sorta the 'theme' around here. Only apple orchard for a hundred miles. Only place any apple trees would grow, really. Used ta be just desert, save the scrub by the river. When my family an' I were lookin' over places we could settle, here was the first place I suggested. I knew this would be the perfect place ta grow apple trees."
Braeburn looked distant, lost in a memory. "'Cause I was here once b'fore." The pair stood silent for a minute before Starlight became antsy, suddenly slamming her book shut and trotting over to him. "What town...like?"
"It's a nice place, lot's o' ponies of all sorts. Not that big, but gettin' bigger every day, it seems. Been about a year now since we built it."
"No, no..AAAAPPLELOOSA!" he brayed, "gotta say it right!"
She giggled. "I go to Appleloosa!"
Braeburn paled. "Oh, no! No, not yet!"
She frowned. "Why?"
"Uhm..." He licked his lips. Should he tell her the truth? He was already up to his snout in lies...but would she understand, let alone comprehend his explanation?
Braeburn set his eyes. She was smart. Very smart, if her capacity for learning was any indication. The least she deserved was honesty. Even if she was the only one he was honest with...
Pacing the floor, he searched for the right words to say. "I'm...I think there's...There're some ponies - well, not just ponies. People, who might want to..."
He groaned. The filly in his room watched him with intense interest.
"Remember out at the crater yesterday?"
"Remember how I said that there's bad people out there? Well, I'm worried that some bad people are lookin' for you."
She frowned. "Why?"
"I-I don't know, Starlight...I'm not even sure it's you they're lookin' for, but...well, I don't know what they might do if they do find you. I think you're in danger. An' if anyone sees you now, before you can talk normal, they might get suspicious and..."
"Bad...people?" she asked, her face etched with concern.
Braeburn simply nodded.
"Bad people," she said, stepping a little closer, "good...inside?"
Caught off guard, the yellow stallion's mouth fell open. Rubbing his snout with his hoof he fell back into his couch.
He released a long breath. "I'm not sure, Starlight. I'm not really sure about anything, anymore. All I know is I want to protect you." He spoke softly. "I need to. I can't let anything bad happen to you. I can't lose you."
Starlight stepped close and put a hoof on his shoulder.
"So...so you understand?" he asked.
"I'm sorry I've been tryin' ta keep you hidden, Starlight. I know it ain't right, keepin' you cooped up in here like an..." he shook his head. "I promise that soon we'll go into town together. T'morrow!"
Starlight beamed. "'Kay!"
~~~APOCALYPSE IN APPLEOOSA!~~~
THE END OF THE WORLD!
Braeburn sighed and tossed the newspaper aside. Once again, 'The Mosquito' had managed to maintain a high standard of insanity. He considered recommending the editor for immediate committal as he trotted away from the newspony, who resumed hollering the absurd headlines. The sky was dull and the air was cool for a summer day. Life once again occupied the streets of town: ponies resumed their daily lives after the holiday's reprieve, although as holidays go it was not exactly a relaxing one.
As of now, the town seemed no different than it had a week ago. Small groups of artists once again lined the dusty roads sketching whatever passed by and stallions regaled each other with tall tales of gunslingers whose existence was dubious at best. Even from the other end of town the saloon's automated piano was clearly heard blaring jaunty tunes and a traveling salespony had set up shop near the clock tower proclaiming the benefits of his supposed 'cure all elixir.' Laughter rose from nearby: a young pair of ponies had taken to reading the weekly paper and found endless amusement in ridiculing it. They were not alone, Braeburn realized, as he found Slate, leaning against a wooden pillar out front a nearby building, reading and snickering to himself.
"Slate, buddy," Braeburn forced a smile, cantering over, "Whatchya got there?"
"Hey Braeburn, ain't seen you fer a while!"
"Yeah, I've been busy. Is that the paper?"
"Yeah, it's great!" The blue stallion chortled, holding it out for Braeburn to read the headline.
"I don't see what's so funny 'bout it myself," he remarked, pushing the paper away. "I didn't even know you could read."
"Minty's been givin' me lessons. An' c'mon! It's hilarious!" Slate turned the paper back to himself and pointed out a line. "'Massive sinkholes appearin' all over, turnin' planet into cheese! Stars fallin' from the sky!' It all sounds like somethin' out of a pony tale'r somethin'!"
"But," Braeburn stammered, "but this ain't no pony tale! This is really happenin'!"
"Yeah, Ah s'pose," the stallion shrugged, "Ah guess jes' seein' 'The Mosquito' 'port on it jes' makes me realize how crazy it all is. Don't seem so serious when 'The Mosquito's talkin' 'bout it. Ha ha, looky here!"
Braeburn, immensely perplexed, read the line Slate pointed out. "'Eyewitnesses have reported seein' town local Braeburn actin' strangely suspicious lately, sneakin' around an' stealin' space rocks-HEY!"
His face crumpled in disgust as he snatched the paper away to read the rest. "What the...'Seen with mysterious bags around his neck'...What! How was I the cause of all this! Ooh that editor's really done an'-!"
"Ain't it hilarious?" guffawed Slate, "imagine, you of all ponies! Whatever reputation this paper had run dry once they accused you of chicanery!"
The yellow stallion's jaw opened and closed in frustrated confusion. Slate took the paper back and contented himself with the senseless articles.
"So...you don't believe any of it?"
"'Course not! Y'all'd have ta be plum loco ta take anything 'The Mosquito' says seriously!"
Braeburn chuckled nervously.
"Actually," Slate said suddenly, tucking the paper under his arm, "now that Ah think 'bout it, it was really jes' what Ah needed. Things ain't been the greatest lately, an' Ah guess a good laugh was all Ah needed. Things ain't so bad, Ah guess. Things'll work out! They always do."
Braeburn glanced sullenly around town. Most other ponies had seemed to share the same line of reasoning as Slate, milling about happily and chatting amongst each other. Like nothing had happened at all.
"So!" Slate announced, beginning a light gait down the road, "how're things lately, Braeburn?"
"Huh? Oh, uh, fine, I s'pose."
"You okay? You've been spendin' a lot of time at home lately. Minty an' Ah've been a li'l worried 'bout you. We figured it'd be rude ta jes' barge in an' ask, though. 'Sides, we ain't even sure where you live."
Braeburn cleared his throat and stretched his lips into a smile. "Nah, I've been doin' fine. How 'bout you an' Minty?"
"Well, Minty's jes' down at Ms. Seam's place now gettin' fitted fer the dress."
"What dress? No! You don't mean the dress!"
Slate giggled. "Heh heh, yup."
"Why shoot, Slate! That's great news! When's the big day?"
"Li'l under a month. Minty wanted ta have it soon as possible."
Patting the blue stallion on the shoulder, Braeburn grinned in admiration. "Well I sure am happy for you! I'm gonna be the best stallion, right?"
"'Course! Who else could it be?"
The two laughed and shot the breeze for a minute, Braeburn thankful for the social interaction. Slate asked about Braeburn's hooves and Braeburn yammered about how great it was to see the clock tower again. It felt like ages since he'd just talked with somepony.
Slate had to excuse himself as Minty would be expecting him soon, and Braeburn tipped his hat and watched him go. The last few minutes energized and brought a smile to his face and he trotted down the road, humming tunelessly to himself. He poked his nose into the bakery to find it bustling once again and he caught two young colts fighting in the alley over a bug or something. So far, at least, life in Appleloosa had returned to normal.
Occasionally a flash of colors would brush the edges of his vision and his heart miss-stepped, assuming immediately that Starlight had snuck into town, bringing his short lived bliss back to earth. He found himself glancing over his shoulder towards home rather often, although it was hidden from sight behind buttes and hills of rock. Starlight was smart, he reasoned, she knew better than to sneak away now that he had explained the situation to her. He inhaled and resumed his leisurely walk until somepony's pale pink dress fluttered in the breeze and he twitched again.
"I sure hope Starlight's okay..."
Presently he found himself before the sheriff's office, its murky blue panelling and barred windows dimmed in the shade, bearing down on him with an intimidation only a criminal should feel from such a building.
"Snap out of it, Brae," he muttered to himself, "you've got a job ta do."
Voices came from behind the half-open door as Braeburn neared and when he stepped inside he found Silverstar, Chisel and Cinder all huddled around the desk looking over a large map of the western deserts. All eyes turned upon the yellow stallion as he entered and his own flashed with uncertainty.
"Braeburn," Silverstar said with a moment's hesitation.
"Sheriff," Braeburn replied. "Mornin' Chisel, Cinder. What're y'all up to?"
Cinder took the initiative. "Lookin' for a new place ta dig."
"Ain't lots'o places worth anythin'," Chisel grunted, marking a point with an 'X'. "Could you excuse us a sec, gents?" Silverstar said abruptly. "Brae, can you join me outside fer a minute?" The quarry ponies exchanged a confused look and Braeburn swallowed, stepping back out onto the porch. Silverstar followed momentarily and closed the door behind him.
They just stood there, looking out into the street. Braeburn chanced a glance at the sheriff, whose eyes had narrowed, mouth hidden beneath his mustache. Licking his lips, Braeburn stared vacantly into the town, clearing his throat and shuffling uncomfortably. The sheriff's silence was almost deafening.
"Brae," he said at last. Braeburn squeezed his eyes in preparation. "I can't say I understand what's been happenin' these last few days. But durin' them - especially yesterday, I needed somepony strong ta be there, holdin' up the townsfolk an' assurin' 'em things'd be all right in the end. An' you weren't there."
The yellow stallion clenched his jaw.
"You caused quite a scene yesterday," the chestnut stallion continued, "makin' me wonder if you're really fit fer yer duties. I'm hopin' that yer time off yesterday gave ya enough time ta get yer things back in order and straighten yerself out. I don't have ta tell you how important the well-bein' of our town is ta me - ta both of us, an' I know you'd put the town's well-bein' ahead o' yer own."
Braeburn sighed. "I'm sorry, sheriff. I've just...had a lot on my plate lately."
Silverstar nodded, his voice unwavering. "Pressure an' stress can cause a pony ta do strange things. What I need is a pony who can stay strong even durin' the rough times. Yesterday forced me ta reconsider if yer really the right one fer the job."
Braeburn bit his lip and looked away.
"But," Silverstar exhaled, "I ain't really been the best leader these last couple days either. An' fer that, I'm sorry Braeburn."
Braeburn looked over in shock at the sheriff, who observed him with an unreadable expression.
"Brae, I don't think either of us were prepared for this...turn of events. Ever since them quakes started a few weeks ago, thing's have been...different, to say the least. Celestia knows I've been tryin' ta keep things under control, but..."
"Braeburn, if you know anythin' 'bout what's been goin' on lately or seen anythin' out of the ordinary...now's the time ta tell me."
His voice was not tinted with any measure of uncertainty. The sheriff was extremely perceptive. Braeburn could only stare at his hooves.
"I..." he trailed off.
"If we can get any clues 'bout what's goin' on, then we might be able ta figure things out with the buffalo."
"'Course I been talkin' to them," said Silverstar. "I've been trying ta smoothen things over with 'em, 'specially after yesterday's...incident, but they're still keepin' us at arm's length."
Braeburn snorted without thinking. "Can't say that surprises me."
"I don't know what's goin' on between you an' the buffalo." Silverstar's voice had become low. "But you'd better figure it out, an' quick. The last thing I need right now is prejudice comin' from my right hoof stallion. Now...have you got somethin' ta tell me?"
"I..." The yellow stallion peered into Silverstar's dull blue eyes.
There was no going back now.
"...No, sir. I...I have not."
Silverstar's eyes glimmered and he looked away. "...All right. I trust you, Brae. I know you'll do the right thing. I wouldn't put my trust in a pony who wouldn't."
Braeburn glanced over to the sheriff, his mouth searching for words to say but coming up dry.
"Let's just put the whole ordeal behind us," Silverstar spoke, moving for the door, "the last few days weren't the best time fer any of us an' I think we'd all appreciate movin' on."
Watching the sheriff's hoof reach for the door handle, Braeburn sighed. "Thank you," he said, "thanks for...for understandin'."
"I don't understand, Brae, an' I ain't pretendin' that I do." His response was flat, his eyes fastened on the door. "But what I - what the town - needs right now is strength. A pony who won't buckle at the first sign of trouble. And..."
Silverstar's voice became very quiet.
"...An' a pony who ain't afraid ta tell the truth."
After a second of silence, Silverstar pushed open the door and stepped inside. Braeburn, feeling nauseous, looked out into the roads of town again, and beyond into the distance toward the apple orchard. Somepony on the street laughed loudly and Braeburn's vest became uncomfortable. Tugging on it, he licked his lips and turned to enter the office.
"So, gents," Silverstar said cheerily, "any luck?"
Braeburn, trying to appear unfazed, walked on shaky knees to the trio of ponies.
"Naw," Chisel groaned, "we worked a long time jes' ta find the sandstone quarry. Now that it's gone..."
"I reckon it's had its toll on lots o' ponies," Silverstar said.
"More'n you'd think. Lotta ponies lost their jobs thanks ta that quake. Not jes' ponies from here in town, either."
Braeburn raised his eyebrows. "Ah, so that'd explain why I didn't recognize some o' the workers when I went out."
"Yeah," Cinder answered, "good, hardworkin' colts. 'Twas a shame ta see 'em have ta head home, knowin' they lost their jobs."
"Well, surely there's somethin' we could do for 'em," Braeburn proposed, "gotta be some sort o' work insurance or somethin' we could give 'em."
"Fer stallions from here in town, sure," said Silverstar, "but those ponies'r outside our jurisdiction. They gotta look to their own town fer support, even if Timber ain't exactly known fer its social security."
"Dang, they were from Timber? Poor souls."
"Yeah," Chisel said softly, "it's hard 'nuff ta get any decent work 'round there in the first place, or so Ah've heard. Gettin' permission from the Rattlers ta work outside'a town was a nightmare, an' now they ain't even got that. Ah jes' hope we can find a new site an' rehire 'em quickly. How 'bout here?"
"Naw, too dry; the ground'd just collapse," explained Cinder, "Ah rode out there jes' the other day."
"What 'bout by Tall Rocks?" Silverstar asked.
"No way," Chisel said, "too many coyotes. Ah ain't puttin' nopony in that sort o' danger." He scratched his scruffy jowl. "Hmm...What 'bout these hills here? Ah always though they looked like a good rock deposit."
"Nope, no good," sighed the sheriff, "that there's a buffalo jump, an' we ain't touchin' it."
"A buffalo what?" Cinder asked.
"A buffalo jump. They're like burial grounds fer the buffalo. Apparently, way way back, they were herded off those cliffs and killed by the dozens. Hundreds, even. The way they talk about it, they make it sound like it was some sort of war. Almost a genocide. They're...well, I'm sure you've noticed how small their tribe is."
"Who would do somethin' like that?" Chisel's mouth fell agape.
"Don't know, an' the buffalo won't say. But whoever it was, the buffalo ain't lettin' it be forgotten. I've been told they take trips out to the buffalo jumps throughout the year an' hold memorials for their ancestors."
Silence settled over the four stallions as all eyes fastened on the small drawing of a hill on the map. Braeburn found it unsettlingly easy to picture dozens of buffalo driven to their death on those hills, tumbling and falling over the sharp rocks, legs breaking and necks snapping...
He shuddered. A hoof stretched over the map and marked the hills with a red 'X.'
Little progress was made over the next half hour or so. The group eventually decided to investigate a tall cliff to the south on hoof, as the train didn't lead in that direction. If the area was suitable (and that was a big 'if'), they could begin laying new train tracks and transport the needed supplies to dig a new quarry. With any luck, work could begin within two weeks, and they could rehire their old hooves to help lay the tracks.
The wooden rail in front of the office creaked beneath Braeburn's weight. Cinder, Chisel and Silverstar had begun working over the specifics of the operation and Braeburn, feeling useless, excused himself and watched the town roll by, though his mind dwelt on other thoughts. A cold chill ran down his neck and he became queasy as his mental image of the buffalo jump returned.
And yet...he found entertaining the thought to be strangely enthralling.
He rested his chin on his hooves. A young filly in the streets tumbled over a rock and her father rushed over, helping her to her hooves as she cried out in pain. Braeburn immediately thought of Starlight, an adult in body, a child in mind. His hind legs twitched and he wanted desperately to run home and make sure she was all right.
He looked back to the young filly who hugged her father tightly. Braeburn never had any foals and he'd never considered it, but strangely, as he thought of Starlight, he felt as though he could empathize with other parents.
"I'm takin' care of a foal," he chuckled to himself.
Braeburn jumped and spun to face Slate and Minty, mere hoof-lengths away.
"Uh, oh, nothin', just talkin' ta myself!"
"You all right, Brae?" Minty asked sweetly. She wore the candy-cane socks Slate bought her and she carried a large package under her arm. "We haven't seen you 'round much lately. You been sick?"
"I've...I've been feelin' a li'l under the weather. I've been kinda busy lately, too."
"Yeah," Slate nodded, "we've noticed, which is why we were wonderin'-"
"-If you'd like ta come over t'night!" Minty smiled her radiant smile, her cyan coat gleaming in the sun. "Ah'm goin' ta be makin' sweet potato stew an' we'd love ta have you!"
Braeburn's mouth watered at the thought of Minty's sweet potato stew. It had been months since he'd been invited over for her cooking.
"Well dang, that sure sounds like a good time!" he grinned excitedly, but he remembered Starlight and his smile faded.
"Oh...But I can't. Sorry, I've...got, um...I'm gonna be busy t'night."
Minty flattened her mouth and sighed. "Ah understand. Ah'm sorry ta hear that, Brae. Ah hope ya feel better soon."
Braeburn tipped his hat and the pair trotted off.
"Ah told you he's been a little strange lately," he heard Slate whisper. That stallion never did learn how to whisper properly.
"Uuuugh," groaned Braeburn, leaning upon the wooden post again. "I wanted that stew." Starlight was making his life exponentially more complicated by the day. A week ago, he'd while away the days chatting with anypony and everypony, often spending the evening at a friend's house for dinner and hanging around the saloon in the late hours. He sighed, wondering if life could ever be like that again.
When he was happy. He was happy back then, right? Without Starlight, he could be...
A cord of guilt twisted in his gut.
"How could I even consider that?" He mumbled. Thinking about Starlight's childlike excitement at the red book, her glee at each new word learned and wide grin at every apple she ate brought a smile to the stallion's face. A different smile, not like the smiles he smiled when around his friends in town. This was...different. He wanted to see her happy again.
A whistle echoed around the town as the train announced its arrival, its loud chugging bringing Braeburn's attention back to reality. Yawning and stretching, he blinked hard and poked his head inside the office. He told the sheriff that he'd go off for a while and check back later, and Silverstar smiled and nodded. A minute later Braeburn cantered down the road toward the general store, listening to the jingling of the bits in his vest pocket.
"...By then I was pretty tired, what with running back an' forth an' back an' forth between here an' town an' it turns out the southern cliffs were marked by bandits, so that place ain't gonna work for a new quarry."
Braeburn nodded. "Nope. But t'morrow Cinder an' Chisel are gonna check out some hills to the east." Braeburn lifted his bowl and poured the remnants of his supper down his throat.
Starlight imitated him.
"So what'd you think, Starlight? My potato stew ain't as good as Minty's but I think it turned out pretty good."
"It was good," Starlight pondered, licking her lips, "but needed apples."
Braeburn laughed. "If my father were here he'd agree, I'm sure."
Starlight dug around in a pile of paper on the counter, searching for a blank piece and pulled out her quill.
"What was in stew?" she asked, scribbling. "Potato, and, um..."
"Carrots, an' a bit o' celery."
"Uh, what're you doin', Starlight?"
She looked up to him with her large, scarlet eyes. "I want to remember."
Braeburn chewed his lip for a moment and glanced around his house. Papers covered in scribbles and drawings were strewn about, nearly covering the floor. He'd bought a whole stack this afternoon and she went through them in a matter of hours, writing every word she knew over and over. The record player played a slow, harmonic song of bells and flutes, a record Braeburn had nearly forgotten about. At some point in the day, Starlight had managed to figure out how to operate the machine and dug out his records from behind the couch. When he first discovered this, Braeburn was rather distraught, fearing somepony may hear and investigate, but he couldn't stay angry at the filly who twirled and danced about in time to the musical device.
He smiled. In one day she had managed to nearly triple her vocabulary through reading and writing with little assistance from Braeburn. She'd read the first three chapters of her story, and eagerly retold the travels of Swift, a poor pony from the streets of Tambelon and Shimmer, a unicorn princess in the castle who, in a series of unfortunate happenings, wind up lost in the forest together.
"...in, a, bowl." Starlight dotted her note proudly.
"So, uh, Starlight," Braeburn said slowly. He'd been meaning to ask her this for a while, but she probably wouldn't have been capable of explaining it earlier, let alone understanding the question. Now, as he looked into her eyes, he couldn't hold back his curiosity any longer.
"I was, wondering...um, w-what do you remember?"
Braeburn coughed. "I mean, when I found you two days ago, you were real out of sorts. Do you remember where you live? Where you came from, where your family is?"
She sighed. "No. I don't remember. I remember...only this."
Moving for the piano she reached up and pulled a piece of paper off the top and presented it to Braeburn. His jaw dropped at the sheer intricacy of the picture.
Drawn in long, thin lines of black ink, a pair of spirals intersected and swirled into each other, dotted with small triangles and diamonds and surrounded by crude drawings of animals, filled with even more dots and shapes. A bear, a bird, a dragon, all held in an eternal dance on the piece of parchment. Tendrils of diamonds and circles wrapped across the page, dotted and scattered with an almost eerie elegance. It was like nothing he had ever seen, and he could only stare at its beauty.
"You...drew this?" he asked dumbly.
"Yes," she replied, sadly, "I...I see it, sometimes. When I sleep."
"I don't know. I feel...I know it. I know that place."
Braeburn looked again to the paper. In the center of the page was a small circle: a ball with tiny markings on it. He felt as though he should know it as well. It seemed strangely familiar to him.
"This...this is really beautiful, Starlight. You're a real artist."
She blushed. "Thank you."
"But it won't do ta have your art an' work tossed all over the house! C'mon, let's get this place cleaned up. Then why don't we read a li'l more? Did Swift and Shimmer ever get away from that bas...basi...balis..."
"Basilisk!" chimed Starlight, scooping up loose papers and dropping them in the paper bags Braeburn carried his groceries home in.
"Right, that big lizard thing. I sure wouldn't want ta see one o' those things in real life! But I did see this real big snake once! Scared the pigtails right off my sister! Me an' my cousin, Applecore, chased it down an' caught it! It was a corn snake I think, so it weren't dangerous. We were jes' li'l colts, an' we thought it'd be hilarious ta put it inside Marmalade's hat. We hid behind the barn an' listened, just waiting for her ta find it. The only thing louder'n Marmalade's scream was the sound of her hooves as she ran after us!"
Twenty minutes passed and they collected and sorted all the littered paper. They ate a few sweet buns Braeburn had bought for desert, and he lit the lamp as the sky dimmed with evening shortly after. The record player hummed away in the corner, and together they read a few chapters in the story, Starlight asking persistent questions, trying to satiate her intense curiosity. Braeburn explained the story's events and the new words best he could, but even he had no clue what a 'burgoo' was or why anypony would want to eat it.
In the distance, the clocktower bell could be heard tolling nine times and Braeburn barely suppressed a yawn.
"I want to see Appleloosa," Starlight said suddenly, staring out the window. "I want to meet Minty and Cinder and Marmalade and see the clocktower. Is the clocktower bell like the Bells of Tambelon?"
"Naw, far as I now the bells in the clocktower ain't magical." Marking their page with a scrap of paper he closed the book and stood, stretching and yawning again. "It's gettin' pretty late, maybe we should hit the hay for the night."
"Tomorrow we go to Appleloosa?" she said excitedly, jumping to her hooves.
"Yeah, I think so."
She squealed in delight and scooped up the book in her arms. "Can't wait! Appleloosa!"
Braeburn's face beamed as he removed the needle from the final record. They had managed to play through every record he owned, some multiple times. "Well let's get a good sleep then, if we wanna get up early an' go into town."
Starlight ran into the bedroom (the book still clutched in her arm) and pounced upon the bed. "Good night!" she said.
"G'night, Starlight," he answered, drawing her curtains and pulling the covers over her. Her light blue coat radiated with happiness, her eyes filled with excitement at the day ahead. Braeburn, although not as thrilled at the prospect of going into town with her, still couldn't resist breaking a smile at the filly's enthusiasm. He stepped out of his bedroom and pulled the door shut.
"Don't let the bed bugs bite," he said.
"WAIT! What bugs? They bite?"
Ten minutes later Braeburn closed the bedroom door, taking care not to say anything else that might force him to thoroughly investigate the room again and prove to a certain filly that there were no bugs (or spiders) anywhere. He did find an old coat of his he hadn't seen in years during the search, so it wasn't a complete waste of time.
Dimming the lamp and placing it on the kitchen table, Braeburn laid out a blank sheet of paper and his quill and ink and seated himself. Over to the right, propped against the counter wall, was the drawing of Starlight's. He stared at it for a few moments, swearing he should recognize it, sighed, and dipped his quill in ink, turning to face the blank sheet.
"All right," he hummed to himself, "there's lots to do tomorrow. I need ta make sure everything goes perfect."
STARLIGHT: he wrote, FRIEND FROM OUT OF TOWN? NEED TO HIDE MISSING CUTIE MARK...
Twisting and writhing, a rattlesnake slithered through the short, bristly grass, hunting a a small mouse that had taken to exploring beyond its hovel at night; a fatal mistake. The serpent, letting out a short hiss, drew upon its prey, bearing its venomous fangs. Its meal was not to be, as a blaze of deep red shot by and a scorpion leapt upon the mouse, drilling its stinger into the soft flesh of the rodent's neck, silencing its squeals of terror. The snake slithered in a wide circle, observing these events with slips of its tongue.
Movement to the left startled the snake and it coiled defensively, hissing and rattling its tail. It regarded the creature, a large, white thing that drew near, and it bared its fangs in fear and hunger. The white creature made a sound and a flash of unearthly white flames flew from a pair of glimmering horns upon its head, striking the ground mere inches away from the snake. The serpent screeched and slithered away, deciding to search for food someplace far away from that thing.
Moving slowly, the sleek white creature approached the edge of the cliff and overlooked the valley and the town below.
Between its long, spiraling horns two dark eyes squinted in a smile.
A/N: Unfortunately, life has gotten in the way of my writing, and I fear I may not be able to finish this story. I have some of the backstory written, and there are many scenes that I had envisioned and hoped to see realized, but I need to embrace the possibility that they may never come to fruition. Regardless, I wanted to share this story with you and get some feedback on what is written. Don't expect to see this on Equestria Daily anytime soon...I wouldn't submit it to there until it's completely ready.
I hope to hear comments and criticisms, and I would love to finish this story someday, but for now, please enjoy what there is.