Braeburn awoke to the faint, far-off sound of a rooster's call. His heavy eyelids remained shut, unwilling to take in the world of consciousness. He found himself unnaturally warm, his limbs shifting underneath something large and plush. The stallion had never felt comfort like this, and he reveled in the feeling. His long blonde mane laid precariously across the right side of his face, the left wedged between a pair of burgundy cushions. He could vaguely remember where he was, only that there was no way in Equestria that his own bed was this comfortable. To his utter demise, Braeburn felt something prod his shoulder. The stallion groaned dismissively, delving his body into the blissful comfort. Another prod, leading to another groan.
The beige earth pony lurched into the air with a yelp of surprise, feeling his sore shoulder scream in protest. He grunted in pain upon landing, wincing and clutching his limb.
"Oh! Jeeze I'm sorry Brae, I forgot about that."
Braeburn's left eye fluttered open, his vision focusing on the sandstone-colored mare in front of him. While she wore an expression of worry, her lips had curled back into a small, covert snicker. Her mane was tied up in a damp towel, her coat slick with moisture. He guessed that she was fresh from a bath, ready for the day ahead. The stallion craned his head toward the ticking grandfather clock in the corner, finding that it was six o' clock in the morning. He must have slept through the evening as well as the night, something he had never been able to accomplish during his days on the farm. It was a privilege a seasoned workhorse such as himself would have previously called 'lazy.' But after feeling his body and mind so refreshed, the earth pony couldn't complain.
He took in only his closest surroundings, finding that his duster had been slung over the arm of the large couch. Thumper leaned in its scabbard against the wall to the left, next to his saddlebags. He gave Daring Do an inquisitive look, switching his gaze between her and his duster.
"What?" she asked before her face flushed. "You think I did that? Come on Brae, we're not that close. Now get up, we've got work to do."
Braeburn quietly laughed at the unintended accusation, slowly ascending into a sitting position. He turned his aching limb a few times, while Daring trotted through a door on the right. "Well g'mornin' to you too," he sighed with a grin.
"You gonna need ice for that shoulder?" the pegasus called from her room.
"Naw. It'll be fine," he replied, removing the blanket that he guessed Daring had covered him with. Braeburn allowed himself a smile at the gesture. Huh. Even under that brash exterior, she is one kindhearted mare, he thought. "So what's the plan?"
"That depends, do you drink coffee?"
"Ah reckon Ah never found the need to," he called back.
"Well I do, and I'm out, so we're gonna have to head down to the saloon."
Braeburn cocked an eyebrow as he pulled on his duster. "The saloon serves coffee now?"
Daring emerged from her bedroom, clad in her previous olive-green shirt and white pith hat. Her monochromatic mane and tail were still damp with bathwater, hanging limply without their usual defiant sway. "You've been out of Dodge for a while huh? That place serves everything nowadays, what with all the other stores closing down."
"Wait, what?!" Braeburn exclaimed, bewildered.
"You didn't notice all those 'closed' signs?" Daring asked. "Oh yeah, ever since that purple stallion came to town, he's been making all kinds of trouble for the local business owners. Seems that Sheriff Goldstar is having a hard time keeping him behind bars, considering what happened yesterday."
Braeburn furrowed his brow, his jaw slightly agape. What had happened to his colthood home in the past three years? The stallion remembered Dodge Junction to be a peaceful settlement, not the lawless wasteland it seemed to be turning into. How was this Sure Shot able to evade Goldstar McCain, a pony known for his rifle prowess and flawless record? He hoped to Celestia that the sheriff would be able to keep him in custody this time, for he didn't want to find himself in such an altercation again.
The beige earth pony pushed his stetson back, rubbing his forehead with worry. "What happened to this town?"
"Honestly, I have no clue," Daring sighed, rummaging through her saddlebags. "The first I saw of that bandit was the day you saved me. Since then, there have been a few of his friends out and about robbing some of the smaller stores in Dodge."
"His friends?!" Braeburn replied, utterly appalled. "Ya' mean there's more of 'em?"
Daring nodded grimly, stopping what she was doing. "Yeah. Nopony has been hurt yet, but that's only because they got what they wanted. The bandits haven't been seen for weeks now, so ponies have just assumed they got what they came for. Crime happens Braeburn, and unfortunately Sheriff Goldstar's age seems to be affecting him."
"His age? McCain's only a year older than my Pa!"
"Yes, but compared to somepony your age, he can't match up," Daring explained flatly. "I'm sure it was just a temporary thing. Aside from yesterday, everything's been fine, I'm not too worried about it. Anyway, the bathroom is through the door behind me."
Braeburn raised an eyebrow. "Um, okay? What're ya' tellin' me for?"
"I can smell you from here Brae," she smirked, settling down on the couch across from him. "I get that you're a workhorse, but you need a shower. Go take one so we can go."
The stallion cocked his head back, giving his coat a covert sniff to find that she was entirely correct. Living in a barn didn't mean that he came from a dirty home, but a farmer such as himself wasn't exactly known for bathing every day. He held back his retort, and instead rolled his eyes sarcastically as he strode through the threshold she was indicating.
Braeburn closed the door behind him, stripping himself of his duster and cowpony hat. The bathroom was relatively small, bearing none of the furnishings that the living room had. On the right was a large wooden tub, next to a stand-in shower with its green curtain drawn. He slid the translucent veil open and turned the water on, an instantly-hot stream pouring from the shower head above. Braeburn stepped inside, reveling in the rough pressure of the water. He allowed himself a moment to wake, holding his head under the massaging water. The stallion placed a forehoof to the wall under the faucet, closing his eyes and letting his soaked mane fall over both sides of his face.
As his muscles relaxed, Braeburn wished that his mind would do the same. Despite Daring's words of comfort, he still worried about the possibility of confrontation. Sure Shot must have been some kind of bandit leader, judging by Daring's explanation of the goings-on in Dodge Junction recently. If he had friends on the loose, then would they plan to break him out of custody soon? Braeburn wondered how he was able to do it the first time, but found no point in entertaining the query. Instead he shivered at the thought of another gunfight. While he had successfully stopped Sure Shot the day before, he couldn't exactly call it a victory. The purple stallion hadn't even known that Braeburn was there in the first place. Had the shootout been between the two of them alone, Braeburn was positive that he would have lost his life. Even with his new-found talent of sharpshooting, the beige stallion had been hesitant to aim his Marechester at another pony, frightened even.
All in all, Braeburn couldn't evade reality. He had been utterly terrified of the situation. His pride deflated at the memory, still fresh in his mind. He sighed, bumping his head on the shower wall in shame. The workhorse simply wasn't trained to properly handle such an endeavor, and he would have run for the hills had Daring Do not been there for him. This previously safe treasure hunt had turned into something else entirely overnight, and grew more and more dangerous by the hour. During his years in the small town before Appleloosa, Dodge Junction had been one of the most peaceful settlements in all of Equestria, so what happened? Perhaps it wasn't the town, but simply the ponies in question. He had never seen the bandits before the day he saved Daring, so maybe they were from another town. Traveling criminals, it made sense.
Braeburn's head snapped up at the sound of a hoof rapping on the bathroom door. "Hey Braeburn! Hurry up in there, we've got history to change!"
The stallion sighed, realizing just how long he had been pondering under the massaging flow of hot water. With an enormous amount of effort, Braeburn quelled his uneasy thoughts and began to wash his coat.
It wasn't easy being patient for this long. In fact, it was agonizing. One thing after another seemed to bring her hunt for Cunning's legacy to a screeching halt, and it was all she could do not to scream into a pillow in frustration. Her restless wings beat the air a few times, although not hard enough to take flight. Daring Do groaned inwardly, slumping her haunches onto the couch with a huff. As soon as she sat, a faint tick tack came from the small, rectangular window near the ceiling. The pegasus looked up to see a large brown hawk, its feathers striped with black and gray. The bird cocked its head at the sight of her, tapping on the glass with his beak.
Daring raised an eyebrow as she flew over and opened the window, allowing Fenrir to glide into the living room. The hawk landed on the coffee table, careful not to scratch the finish with his sharp talons. The pegasus sat down in her previous spot as the trained bird cut the tie on his leg, offering her a small parchment scroll.
"What are you doing here Fenny?" she asked quietly, sincerely unaware. "A letter huh? Wonder what he wants."
Daring took the note and unraveled it, spreading its corners out on the table. After taking a careful look over her shoulder to make sure that she could still hear the water running, the pegasus read the letter to herself:
To Daring Do,
I hope you're well Missy. You ran off in quite a hurry yesterday without even saying goodbye. What happened to your manners? Well I guess it doesn't matter all that much, you have your own life, and you're a busy mare.
But enough small talk. I know you're old enough to make your own decisions, but sometimes it's hard to keep my mouth shut. I worry about you kid. I may not know anything about this Braeburn, but I know about your track record. I just don't want to see you get hurt again, that's all. He seems like a nice pony and all, but so have the past few stallions you've associated with. Stallions his age nowadays have one thing on their mind and one thing only. I hope I didn't intrude, but I talked to him about it. Nothing personal, just a warning. Just please be careful, alright?
She read the letter several times, each word making her temper rise. Daring let out a small grunt of anger, tearing the note in twine over and over again. How dare he send a letter like this? She had told him a multitude of times that her life was none of his business, but that didn't seem to deter his tireless intrusions. Besides, she simply wasn't interested in Braeburn that way. Even if she was, who was Artemis to immediately assume that she was? What did he care? He wasn't her father, nor was he even a blood-relative.
However, that wasn't the part of the letter that particularly infuriated her. What in Equestria did that intruding stallion say to Braeburn about her life? Daring let her head fall into her hooves, clamping her eyes shut in anger. The pegasus had done all she could to escape that life, as well as keep it in the past. But of course, Artemis had to go and open his big mouth. She didn't know if she was more embarrassed or horridly appalled by her godfather's actions. What was worse, Artemis didn't even know the truth about her previous companions. He had been lied to all of these years, and it was starting to come back to bite her in the flank. However, there was one truth that she had told him about: the heartbreak. The haunting, undying pain that hadn't left her mind at ease even after so many years. Daring swore as the haunting memories overwhelmed her, forcing a shudder through her shoulders. Her pride faltered, and a sudden angry, warm tear trickled down her cheek.
"Darn it," she whispered heatedly, her voice cracking under the pressure. She loathed being so weak, or even letting her emotions get the best of her. She gasped at the touch of something sharp grazing her elbow. She looked up to find Fenrir, rubbing his beak against her coat affectionately, as if to reassure the pegasus. Daring felt her lip tremble at the effort, doing everything she could to stop the flow of new tears. She sniffed, petting the hawk's head with a hoof. "Do me a favor, and peck the hay out of your owner, okay?"
She smiled as Fenrir nodded, flapping his wings and taking off through the open basement window. After the hawk departed, Daring Do slumped into her hooves again, drying her moist cheeks. Perhaps it was better that Fenrir didn't give her the chance to write a reply, for she couldn't think of anything positive to say to her godfather at the moment.
"Okay, ready to go."
The dark-yellow mare shrieked, flicking her wings up in surprise. She whipped her head around to find Braeburn, his long blonde mane damp under his cowpony hat. The stallion was in the middle of putting on his duster when he froze at her cry. His bright green eyes were wide, his mouth slightly agape. "Ah...Ah'm sorry?"
"No it's okay," she sniffed, desperate to hide her bloodshot eyes. "Let's just go."
"Hold on now, have you been cr-"
"Let's just go!" Daring exclaimed, her anger spiking. Without another word, she avoided the stallion's gaze and walked out the door.
"So how long is this gonna take?"
"'Bout an hour or so," said the gruff stallion. The gunsmith racked Thumper's action, peaking a dull blue eye into its chamber. "Oh yeah, Ah remember this rifle. Yer Pa must'a been in a right mood ta' give ya' this. It's his family's legacy and all. But yeah, these 1894's are easy ta' clean. Won't be too long."
"Ah appreciate it," Braeburn sighed, attempting a grateful smile. With a nod, the withered gunsmith took the rifle behind the counter and out of sight. Suddenly feeling all too vulnerable without his trusty Marechester on his back, the riflepony turned around toward the front door. However, he found himself stopping at the sight of Daring through the window. She was facing the other direction, kicking up plumes of dust with a forehoof. He couldn't see the expression on her face from the angle, but imagined that it was the same look of agitation she had worn for the past half an hour.
The two hadn't exchanged a word since they left her apartment. Braeburn had no idea what had gotten under her skin in a matter of ten minutes, but found it best not to ask. However, he couldn't stop worrying about her. What was going on? Did he do something to upset her? The stallion had been certain that he saw the remnants of tears in her eyes. During the entire walk to the gunsmith's shop, Daring Do held her head low, letting her gray-scale mane veil her face. Her pace had been slow, her shoulders quivering as if to give out.
Braeburn hesitated, wondering whether or not to walk through the door. It wasn't like they were dating or anything, but the stallion still felt worried for the pegasus. Not much could have happened while he was in the shower, so what was it? Was it better to simply ignore it? Ah dunno, he sighed inwardly. Ah don't think Ah did nothin' wrong. Maybe it's just somethin' else entirely.
Taking in an apprehensive breath, Braeburn adjusted his duster and strode through the door. The summer heat had cooled down, considerably more comfortable than the day before. Even a slight breeze uplifted the dust from the roads every now and then. He approached the pegasus mare, looking down at his own hooves. "It'll be 'bout an hour."
Daring said nothing, only replying with a slight nod of acknowledgement.
Braeburn's curiosity got the better of him. "D-Did...Did Ah do somethin' wrong?"
"No Braeburn, you didn't," she said in nothing more than a whisper, her voice hoarse. "Just don't worry about it."
"Kinda hard not to," he replied, gathering his courage. "Look, Ah know we just met the other day, but if ya'-"
"Why didn't you tell me about what my godfather said to you?" Daring interjected, looking back at him. Her once bright rose eyes were now dull, their corners marked with faint, red veins. She didn't respond in anger, but in pure curiosity. Regardless, Braeburn still froze. His mind raced, attempting to deduce just how she had found out about Artemis' warning. Daring waited patiently, although unblinkingly.
"Uh..." was all he could think to say.
"I'm not gonna be mad Braeburn. I just wanna know."
"It just...It just seemed private. Ah didn't wanna intrude or nothin'," he answered, suddenly feeling extraordinarily anxious. He absentmindedly dug a forehoof into the dirt. "Ah'm sorry."
Daring exhaled through her nose, looking away from him.
"Is there somethin' ya' wanna talk about Daring?" he asked bravely, taking a step toward the mare.
"Just drop it Braeburn."
The stallion cocked his head back, furrowing his brow. His immediate instinct was to do just as she said, and simply let it go. However, Braeburn couldn't do that. He knew the risks of pressing the matter further. For all he knew, she could simply drop the offer that she had presented and leave him in the dust, but Braeburn couldn't watch her go through this unbearable melancholy any longer.
"Ya' know what? No!" he exclaimed, his patience finally depleted. The pegasus whipped her head around, her expression bewildered. "You were completely fine this mornin', and then all of a sudden yer as mad as a bat outta heck! Ah know we haven't known each other long, but if we're really friends, then you should be able to tell me if somethin's botherin' ya'! Right?"
Silence rang in the abandonned dirt road for what seemed like hours. Braeburn's chest heaved, his temper unjustifiably rising with his words. After a quiet moment, Daring Do furrowed her brow, a small snarl forming on her lips. The stallion stood tall, ready for her retort.
"It is none of your business Braeburn," she hissed, her eyes alight with fire. "You have no clue of what I've been through, and have no idea how difficult it is sharing my life. I've kept it to myself for a reason."
"Well it looks like you had a real good idea," he said sarcastically. "'Cause all yer gettin' out of it is pain."
"How would you know what kind of pain I'm going through?!"
"Look at you!" Braeburn yelled back. "Ah don't have to know what it's like bein' you. Yer losin' yer cool over a simple quandary! It's pretty obvious that yer in pain Daring, and all Ah'm tryin' to do is help ya'!"
"Nopony asked you to help me!" she barked, her voice losing its measured tone.
Braeburn exhaled, controlling himself. Anger wasn't how he was going to crack the shell, and he knew it. The riflepony looked her dead in the eyes, his expression as well as his voice softening. "Well it's about time somepony did."
"Why do you keep insisting on this?" she asked, a desperate tinge in her words. "Why do you keep trying to pry into my life?"
"Ah don't mean to pry," he replied softly.
"Then what is your problem?!"
The pegasus shuddered, her last sentence laced with something more than mere questioning. Her shoulders loosened, her chest deflating. Daring Do had come into his life with a sense of independence, of self-assurance. However, the mare standing in front of him now was not that pony. Her entire body trembled, her eyes calling out for help, even if she could never admit it.
"My problem is that you were the first pony Ah could ever call a real friend," he said quietly, taking another step toward her. "And friends help friends, or so Ah'm told."
"You just met me Braeburn," she said in a trembling whisper. "Why do you care so much?"
Braeburn uttered a humble chuckle. "Ah guess Ah can't just stand idly by and let a friend go through so much pain."
Daring lowered her head at that, clamping her tearful eyes shut and gritting her teeth. Braeburn took a final step forward, wrapping a foreleg around her neck. The pegasus let her head fall forward, gasping into his thick mane. He let her cry, hugging her tightly. He knew that she still wouldn't reveal her past so easily, but that didn't matter to him. She was making progress.
"Why am I d-doing this?" she choked. "How are you...Oh Celestia, why..."
"S'alright Daring," he said gently. "We all have feelin's. Simple as that."
"But I c-can't," she whimpered. "I can't afford to be like this..."
"Ah'm sure ya' can," he reassured. "Ya' don't have to tell me what happened now, only when yer ready."
Braeburn let the pegasus go, allowing her to dry her eyes with a hoof. It may have taken a minute or two, but eventually the pegasus recovered. She hiccuped a few times, avoiding his gaze in what he assumed to be pride. The beige earth pony could only smile, happy to finally help her progress. "Look, Ah'm sorry fer pryin', but-"
"No Brae...it's alright," she whispered in response, finally looking back to him. There it was; the brightness in her magenta eyes that made her the Daring Do he had come to know. "I should be sorry for being so defensive. I've just been so seclusive for the past few years, and I didn't know how to react to somepony just trying to help. But...I don't think I can let you help me."
Braeburn didn't answer, but simply let her elaborate instead.
"I think I just need to figure it out for myself. But I appreciate it Brae...You're a good friend."
Daring gave him another hug, this one brief but meaningful. "Now can we please go get that coffee?"
"O' course," Braeburn smiled, gesturing for her to lead the way. She complied, her usual quickened trot returning to her legs. The stallion couldn't help but feel relieved, as if an enormous weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Judging by Daring's uplifted demeanor, she felt the same way. Braeburn didn't know how long he had expected to keep Artemis' warning a secret, but was glad to let it go early. It didn't matter if she was still hesitant to reveal what it was that haunted her mind, for all he wanted to do was make the ordeal a little easier for her. For whatever reason, it simply bothered him to see her in any emotional pain. Perhaps it was just that colthood dream of meeting the protagonist that he related with on so many levels. It was almost hard to see such a brave mare wearing anything but a bright, defiant grin.
"So what is that stallion doing with your rifle?" she asked, starting a happier conversation as they walked down the dirt road.
"Oh, that's Gunmetal Grey, the only gunsmith my Pa would ever trust with Thumper," he explained. "Ah noticed that the action has been gettin' a tad rough, so Ah'm havin' him take it apart to clean, oil and grease the insides."
"So you had to do it now?"
"Yeah. Ah don't know too much about how it works, but my Pa told me that a rifle can jam when not properly cleaned. Ah'd rather not do nothin' to break it."
"So Thumper's been in your family for a while, huh?" she asked inquisitively.
"For as long as anypony can recall, Ah reckon," he agreed. "Yup, boggles the mind when ya' think about just how long an item can stay in one family."
"Do you know who originally bought it?" she asked, her curiosity evident.
Braeburn shrugged. "No clue. Pa reckons that the earliest pony in his family to wield Thumper was his grandpappy. Other than that, it could have gone back fer years and years."
"Things just get lost in history sometimes," Daring agreed. "When this is all over, I wouldn't mind investigating that rifle's legacy."
Braeburn chuckled. "Ah'm sure Ah wouldn't mind that, even if it is impossible."
Daring Do scoffed. "Is that a challenge Brae-Brae?"
"Only if ya' think you can do it," he teased.
"I think you're forgetting who you're talking to," Daring grinned. Braeburn gave a small, amused smile in response, elated to see Daring return to her old self.
Minutes later they arrived at The Final Chance Saloon. Yesterday the place had emanated an air of joyous laughter and conversation, but today was not that day. As soon as they came within ten yards of the railing-lined porch, the two could immediately sense that something was amiss. The jubilant voices had turned into louder, angered hollers.
As they hesitantly approached the old wooden landing, there was a cry of agony as the limp body of a black stallion was thrown through the large glass pane next to the swinging bat-wing doors. Shards flew around the unconscious cowpony, flying right in Daring's direction. Before Braeburn could move, the pegasus instinctively spread her wings and dashed backward, skidding across the dirt on her hooves. Before Braeburn could utter so much as a yelp of surprise, a prominent voice resounded from the interior of the saloon.
"Anypony gonna tell me now?"
"We told you, we haven't seen him!" came the bartender's angered voice.
"That's a lie!"
Braeburn peaked above the bat-wing doors to see chaos erupting inside the packed saloon. Over a dozen ponies leaped from their seats and attacked a small group of menacing-looking stallions in the middle of the floor. An uproar of cries and yells exploded from the building, accompanied by the sickening cracks of hooves meeting skulls. As quick as they came, a veritable pit of intertwining punches and weaponized furniture formed in the saloon. In the midst of the chaos, Braeburn's eyes fell on one pony in particular.
His coat was a dark gray, his short mane and tail a sleek jet-black. The one eye that wasn't masked by a strapped patch was a dull orange, a shade that pierced through the riflepony's soul when it fell upon him. Unlike his assumed allies, he was a pegasus stallion, his left wing missing a few pinion feathers.
The alleged bandit ignored the calamity surrounding him, pointing a hoof directly at Braeburn. "There he is!"
Braeburn didn't have the time to contemplate who these ponies were are why they were seeking him out, for the pegasus drove his wings backward and darted through the air. Before he could so much as blink, the beige stallion felt the wind leave his lungs as he was thrown through the air. The two tumbled across the ground in a rolling heap, Braeburn instinctively throwing his forelegs in front of his face. However, he felt three consecutive blows drive into his stomach, forcing a gag from his throat. The jagged dirt road ground at the back of his thick duster as he slid, desperately trying to defend his body from the flurry of punches. As he deflected the blows, his mind raced for any way to fight back. Braeburn wasn't by any means experienced in hoof-to-hoof combat, but he still had the lean muscles of a workhorse. The majority of his strength was in one place in particular: his hindlegs.
The farmpony tucked his hindhooves underneath his attacker, taking a couple of punches as he gave his legs some room for momentum. With a cry of outrage, Braeburn drove his hindhooves into the pegasus' sternum, sending him flying into the air with a cough of blood. "Catch, Daring!"
"Got it!" came her voice. As quick as a flash, Braeburn watched as the dark-yellow pegasus bolted through the air above, snatching the bandit by the wing and turning into a barrel-roll. With a victorious yell, Daring chucked the gray stallion, his limp body colliding with the ground in a heap. The beige earth pony spent no time watching him tumble through the dirt, and instead switched his wide eyes to the entrance of the saloon.
He expected nopony to hear the gray pegasus' cry through all the ruckus, but found that he had been very wrong. He watched with adrenaline-fueled horror as three more stallions left the fight inside the saloon, running toward the two of them at a full gallop. Braeburn took the few seconds they had to scour his brain for a plan of action, ignoring the agonizing pain in his stomach and neck.
The workhorse had absolutely no clue how to use his forehooves in combat, for it was a skill simply unnecessary to a pony with his background. His reaction time was of no real use either, untrained to avoid the swift hoofwork of a punch successfully. These bandits certainly had experience, judging by his first attacker's seemingly-flawless assault. Daring Do, however, knelt toward the ground with a sense of confidence. He didn't speculate about how an archeologist had the experience needed for combat, but instead put his faith in her. As his time to ponder ran out, the world around him seemed to slow to a crawl when Braeburn made his move, hoping to Celestia that his bold idea would work.
Braeburn took an unexpected step forward, leaning his body low to the ground and spinning on his forehooves. With the grace of a seasoned apple-bucker, he threw the back of his body around and drove his hindhooves upward. The farmpony felt a grin form on his face as he felt them connect with the solid jaws of his opponents. Adrenaline coursed through his veins as he slid on all fours, turning his head in his partner's direction. In the back of his mind he could hear the two stallions falling to the ground without another word, but his full attention was now on the pegasus.
He felt his blood boil at the sight of his only friend taking a full blow across her cheek, her attacker winding up for another. A sudden rage erupted inside him, burning his soul in dire need for vengeance. Remembering the equipment Daring had lent him, Braeburn dove his muzzle into his saddlebags, immediately finding the coiled lasso with his teeth. He grasped the end of the rope, ripping it out of his bag and slinging it through the air. Applejack may have always been the victor in their foalhood rodeo competitions, but Braeburn was by no means a novice.
The loop of the rope found its mark, instantly wrapping around the stallion's neck. With a vengeful cry of rage, the farmpony yanked on his end of the rope. The black earth pony was pulled backwards through the air, falling to the ground on his side with a choked gasp.
"How DARE you strike a mare?!" he bellowed, running at full bore toward the recovering stallion. His vision had centered, tinted a dark red. All he could feel was hate, and an undying need to beat the dark earth pony into a bloody pulp.
As soon as Daring's attacker got back on his hooves, Braeburn had already arrived. Just as before, he dipped low to the ground and spun, bucking the stallion directly in the chest. However, this one didn't fly through the air as his two companions had. His build was large, rippling with lean muscle. The bandit took the kick in stride, huffing out a breath before charging at Braeburn. In his quickened sense, the farmpony instantly fell backward before his opponent made contact. Thankfully, the bandit fell for the trap. He leaped forward, sailing over the grounded earth pony. Braeburn poured all of his hate, his rage and his desperation through his hindlegs, and into the black stallion's torso.
The farmpony grinned like mad at the sound of ribs splintering. The bandit cried out in pure agony as he fell to the ground, the lasso still taut around his neck. Braeburn rolled onto his hooves, crouching and ready to vent his rage on anypony that dared to attack him next.
"Braeburn! Behind you!" shrieked Daring's voice, although in vain.
Before he could instinctively lash his hindhooves out, he felt something cold and hard slam against the back of his neck, throwing his entire body forward. He grunted in pain as his face was ground into the jagged dirt, the dust blinding his eyes and preventing him from opening their lids. He braced himself for a barrage of blows, but found that none had come. Coughing on the dry taste of dirt, he slowly stood up. His legs shook from the effort, every inch of his body throbbing in pain. Braeburn cracked his neck, each snap forcing a gasp from his lips. His mind was in a lull as it attempted to recover from the heavy blow. The stallion rubbed his blinded eyes, forcing them to moisturize and flush out the dust. Before he could focus his blurred vision, his ears pricked up at the far-off sound of galloping hoofbeats. He gazed down the road to find Sheriff Goldstar McCain, accompanied by Deputy Conners. They both ran with rifles in their mouths, McCain with an extra sheathed on his back. The sheriff's eyes widened on a spot over Braeburn's shoulder, signifying another attack.
Goldstar craned his neck back and threw his gold-engraved lever-action rifle through the air. "Braeburn!"
Even in his fatigue, Braeburn reached his forelegs out and caught the gun. His heart beat faster at the elation of holding a familiar weapon again, spinning it around his hoof and racking the butter-smooth action. In the same motion, the riflepony turned on his forehooves, kicking up a cloud of dust and shoving the barrel against the muzzle of a frozen earth pony. He smirked triumphantly at his alleged attacker, taking his hesitance at the sight of the weapon as an opportunity. The beige stallion bucked the rear stock forward, bashing it into the criminal's cheekbone.
Over to the left, Daring Do stood, panting heavily amoungst the bodies of two unconscious stallions. Her pith hat laid on its top several yards away, revealing her windswept monochromatic mane. Her olive-green shirt was coat with dust, its left sleeve torn above the elbow. Her right cheek had been cut, a thin stream of crimson trickling down her jawline. Braeburn sighed in relief, glad that she was more or less alright.
No more bandits seemed to leak out of the saloon, although the fight had done just that. Stallions as well as a few brave mares exchanged heavy blows inside and outside of the building. His eyes fell on one particularly impressive mare. The female earth pony seemed to mimic Braeburn's apple-bucking strategy, throwing a rather tall and lanky stallion clear over the railing of the front porch.
McCain and Conners slid to a halt on either side of Braeburn, firing their rifles into the air in warning. However, nopony seem to even hear the shots, but instead continued their massive brawl.
"Braeburn," Goldstar called, catching his attention. "We need ta' get them ta' stop, but we can't kill em'."
"Ah'll do what Ah can," he replied over the sounds of combat, his voice shaking.
"Good. Get the three on the roof, and Ah'll stop the ones out front."
Braeburn set his sights on a trio of fighting ponies, whom had somehow made their way to the angled, shingled rooftop. He racked the lever, aiming at a spot underneath a stallion's hindhooves. He pulled the trigger with a hoof, watching as the shingles exploded out from underhoof of the stallion. He jumped out of reaction, stumbling and ultimately sliding off the roof and colliding with the ground below. Despite their fallen opponent, two mares were still locked in a less-than-epic struggle, pulling at each others manes. But before he could gather the nerve to fire in the direction of a lady, Goldstar's extra bolt-action rifle barked next to him, splintering the wooden wall between a group of brawling stallions.
"ENOUGH!" he bellowed. At the sight of the shot and the sound of McCain's prominent voice, everypony whipped their heads around, ceasing their combat. "All ya'll better light a fire under yer flanks and get the hay outta here before Ah arrest more than Sure Shot's compadres!"
With yelps of fright, everypony that was still conscious fled the area, kicking up clouds of dust in every direction. Braeburn immediately looked over to Daring, finding her flying over with her pith hat returned to her head. She landed directly in front of him, her expression frightened and concerned. Her large, wide eyes quickly looked him over, gasping at the sight. "Braeburn! Oh jeeze you're cut up bad, are you okay?"
The riflepony could only nod, his exhaustion finally getting the best of him. Braeburn fell to his haunches, dropping the rifle gently to the ground. He panted with his head low, feeling something warm flowing over his cheek. His entire body ached in pain, fatigued beyond use. He heard Daring rummage through her bags as the sheriff and his deputy walked off to apprehend the unconscious bandits, saying that they would return momentarily. The riflepony closed his eyes, wincing in agony as his neck cried out at any miniscule twitch. He cringed at the touch of something soft wiping the blood from his face.
"Sorry," she spoke nervously. "Are you sure you're okay? You got hit pretty hard...a lot."
"Ah'll...live," he panted.
Daring Do took the next five minutes to disinfect his wounds and wrap them with thick lengths of gauze. He let her work, unable to move anyway. The pegasus slowly and carefully slid his heavy duster off his torso, instilling a faint grunt of pain through his teeth. She apologized relentlessly, wearily treating the stinging cuts and bruises on his neck and forelegs.
"How did you do all of that Brae?" she whispered, her voice gentle. Braeburn groaned, opening his dry eyes to acknowledge the pegasus.
"Ah dunno," he breathed. "Ah've never even been in a fight before. Ah just saw you get hit and Ah...Ah lost it. My body just moved, and all Ah wanted to do was hurt everypony..."
He cast a glance around the front of the body-laden saloon front. Braeburn's eyes widened at the sight of the stallions he had dispatched. One caught his attention over the rest; the muscular black earth stallion that was still curled up into a ball, crying out in agony over his broken ribs. The riflepony felt something shatter in his mind, and his shoulders started to quiver. "What have Ah done?"
"You did what you had to," Daring replied immediately, knowing exactly what he was thinking. "It doesn't make you a bad pony, Braeburn. In fact..."
The stallion slowly looked back to the pegasus sitting in front of him. Her body seemed to be trembling, as if to hold back another wave of emotion. "...Nopony's ever saved my life before, let alone twice. But you did...Thank you so much Braeburn."
Completely disregarding his injuries, Daring threw her hooves around his neck and embraced him gently. The stallion bit back a cry of pain, slowly returning the gesture. To his surprise, the mare planted a brief, grateful kiss to his forehead before hugging him again. The riflepony smiled, feeling his cheeks warm up with embarrassment. Anypony else may have regarded the gesture as a loving act. However, Braeburn was glad to feel nothing more than friendship in his relationship with the dark-yellow mare. It was all that he wanted, and he knew that Daring Do felt the same way.
As she let go, Braeburn asked: "Are you alright?"
"Yeah," she nodded, a small smile on her lips. "But it looks like Sure Shot's friends are taken care of. Won't have to worry about them again."
"Ah just hope that was all of 'em," Braeburn chuckled. "'Cause Ah don't feel too keen on doin' that again."
The two looked up at the sound of two sets of hoofbeats. Goldstar and Conners had returned, both wearing wide grins.
"Well look at you Brae," the sheriff cackled. "Seems like those bandits really did a number on ya'. But you did much more ta' them."
"Much more than Ah could'a done," Conners agreed sheepishly.
"Either yer keen on trouble, or trouble follows ya'," Goldstar grinned. "Regardless, Ah can't thank ya' enough Braeburn, again truth be told."
"Wasn't just me sir," Braeburn said weakly, his injuries burning in protest. "Ah wouldn't have been able to do it without Daring here."
"Really now," he replied, giving her an appreciative look. "Well Ah guess we missed that part of the show. Good job ta' you too miss."
Daring grinned proudly, bumping a hoof with the sheriff. After a few more words of thanks, the sheriff and his deputy departed, gathering a few passersby to help carry the unconscious bandits down the road and out of sight. Braeburn didn't care that he was still in the middle of the road, and flopped down onto his back. He smiled with his eyes closed, taking in slow, relaxed breaths.
"Go get yer coffee Daring," he said. "Ah'm just gonna lay here fer a while."