The front door opened and a stallion stepped out. He closed the latch quietly to avoid waking anypony and looked longingly at the house for a moment before walking away. The sun was not up yet, but he had to leave his family and go to work.
Promontory was employed by the railroad. As a burly earth pony, he and his crew had no trouble pulling trains where they needed to go. The weathered engineer cap he wore had seen many miles of track while perched atop his black mane. His job often left dust, dirt, and other accumulation all over him. The grime might be less noticeable on his brown coat, but the hat was beginning to look bedraggled.
It had started clean, with light blue stripes on a pure white background and crisp, precise seams. Now it showed all the colors of the railroad, the land which its rails traversed, and the cargoes they pulled. There were black spots from the tar on the wooden ties, brown and ocher streaks from the desert sands carried by the wind, and even purple and red splashes from when he'd helped unload berries, cherries and apples from the train. It used to be perfectly round and its bill was a sharp crescent that kept the sun out of his eyes. It had been pretty and stiffly starched. Years of sweat and toil had taught it the shape of his head, however. When he took it off it folded easily into his saddle bags and he even used it as a pillow to take a nap while waiting on a return train. The hat was comfortable enough, even if it didn't quite keep the sun out of his eyes anymore.
His headgear was issued by the railroad and Promontory was thinking about submitting a request for a new one, but doubted it would be approved. They wouldn’t spend any more money than they had to, even though the company was not hurting for capital. In fact, they had just bought another new locomotive. The more powerful engines made the need for manual labor obsolete. The new train had replaced one whole crew of ponies, but more importantly to the company, it had eliminated several wages to pay.
It was only a matter of time until the railroad was operating nothing but the dominant trains. Eventually, all the workers like Promontory would be replaced as easily as a pony would replace an old hat.
He walked into the depot, glancing around for his crew. The other stallions Promontory worked with were his friends. They had seen a lot together, and all of them knew how to work hard. They all had their own hats, the universal mark of railroad ponies. It was a symbol of the job. Promontory carried the hat with him wherever he went. Ponies in the towns along his route always remembered what he did, even if they didn't remember his name.
The crew put on their pulling harnesses and walked out to the string of coaches. The sun was beginning to break on the horizon. As the ponies worked to put the day’s train together, Promontory gazed at the horizon. Dearest Celestia, it’s a beautiful sunrise. Please grant me the time to see tomorrow’s.
He knew that one day he would lose his job. It wasn’t this day, and probably not the next, but it would happen eventually. The company wasn’t going to just stop buying locomotives. Promontory didn’t know what he would do when that day came. A pony couldn’t just get another job and expect one to be available.
Since he was still employed, however, he had a task to complete. The idea of slacking off in his work never occurred to Promontory. Not only was it dishonest, getting lazy might also put his job on the chopping block sooner.
The coaches were arranged and connected. The seven a.m. train to Appleoosa would need them. The crew of ponies pulled the string of coaches up to the station for boarding.
While the passengers boarded and found places to sit, the train crew gave every coach a thorough inspection. A few axles needed greased, a few bolts needed tightening. Promontory wondered who would do it when the crews had all been replaced by locomotives. Would he be lucky enough to stay on as one of the few ponies that were still needed?
The conductor came by with his pocketwatch, signaling five minutes to departure. It was time to harness up and do final checks before heading out. Each member of the crew checked the others. Pulling a train was not to be taken lightly, and special care was needed.
Earth ponies all had some ability to move heavy loads, although Promontory and his crew members generally were better than average. All that force, however, needed strong connections in order to move a heavy train. Even then, they had to avoid breaking couplers every time they left the station. Could a machine be so careful?
On the dot of seven, Promontory eased against his harness and started forward. The train was ponderous, but gradually succumbed to the will of the crew. Leaving the station, there was nothing ahead but miles of track and room to run. The wheels of the coaches clacked on the rails, providing a background to the hoofbeats.
Promontory lowered his head a little to keep the sun out of his eyes. He’d seen the route before and already knew what the scenery looked like. He wished there was something to keep his thoughts off the worry in the back of his mind.
His job was not his whole life. That would be his wife and children. The foals were still in grade school. They would need support for years to come. If it was only him that would be affected by unemployment, Promontory would have been less concerned.
A threat to his family was one of the triggers that brought out the defensive paternal instincts in any stallion. But how did you fight something that had no body or mind? How could you resist a sudden lack of livelihood?
The train got to Appleloosa on time. While the passengers disembarked and new ones boarded, Promontory continued to think. It was an unpleasant way to pass the time, but he couldn’t seem to pull himself away. He wondered if his crewmates were going through something similar. Probably. They had all been quieter than usual lately.
Did they need emotional support? Did he? Somepony to say, “Don’t be depressed, you have a family and friends who love you.”
As Promontory and the others hitched up to the train again to pull it back, he realized that he shouldn’t let himself fall in such a pit of despair. No matter how his job stood, he had to remain the same pony he’d always been. Others were counting on him, just as he relied on them.
The sun was on its downward arc as the train picked up speed, heading back towards the home station. Promontory adjusted his hat, thinking of his family again. His own foals loved that old hat. Whenever it went missing from the hat rack at the front door he knew to go looking for the young-uns. Sure enough, one of them would have it on, little eyes peeking out from under the brim, and he would have to chase him or her around the house, huffing and puffing until he caught and tickled the thief into returning the heisted headpiece.
Promontory continued to pull. He knew the next day he would be making the same trip again. He would continue to pull the train to Appleloosa and back until he had to do something else. If that happened to be finding a new job, perhaps one that didn't require a hat, so be it. His friends and family supported him, a more powerful force than the heavy train barreling along behind his racing hooves. They would be there for him just as he would stand strong for them. The job might leave him, but they never would.
Edits by Dafaddah