After a truly eventful day, the sun had finally set, allowing Luna's moon to cast a pale blue light over Appleloosa. Taking in the beautiful vista, Braeburn laid on his back atop the slightly-angled roof of the small barn home, his forehooves behind his head. On his right was his brown cowpony hat as well as Thumper, sheathed and unloaded. To his left was Applejack, practically mimicking his position with her hindlegs crossed.
Before Daring Do left, she and Braeburn had agreed to meet at Appleloosa's train station in the morning. He couldn't put a hoof on it as to why, but the stallion had never been more excited about anything in his life. Tomorrow he was going to leave for Dodge Junction and find the proof of Cunning the Colt's existence. To think that all these years nopony else had thought of him to be more than a myth, and then a pegasus from Canterlot found his trail. Braeburn couldn't help but wonder what the legendary cowpony had left behind. Was it his personal rifle, or even the gold he stole from Dodge Junction's bank? Fortunately he wouldn't have to wait too long, for if anypony could find Cunning's "legacy," it would be Daring Do.
Ever since Braeburn read the first book in the series, he had wondered what it would be like meeting the bright-eyed pegasus. It was a colt's dream, but somehow her character was simply that intriguing. Perhaps it was merely the writer's skill in portrayal, but the stallion was able to relate to the character on a number of levels. Her craving for adventure, her tenacity and even her pride, something that Braeburn seldom showed. He knew it was just a fictional character in a book meant for readers much younger than him, but he still longed to find a friend with such qualities.
A friend. Braeburn laughed silently to himself at that thought. When was the last time he called a pony that? The cowpony couldn't remember. Ever since he and his family moved away from Dodge Junction, his life had been nothing but work. Three long, grueling years of monotonous apple-bucking and melancholy, leaving no room in his life for the privilege of friendship. Braeburn took pride in his work, but he longed for something more. Had he been destined to only harvest fruits for the rest of life, being born into the Apple Family? Sometimes it certainly felt that way. Ever since he and the other settler ponies founded Appleloosa, Braeburn couldn't even look at the single red apple on his flank. When he first discovered his natural talent in farming, he was extraordinarily happy. But now his cutie mark was a representation of his dilemma, and nothing more. The stallion envied his younger cousin in this manner. She was indeed a farmer like him, but her life was constantly filled with adventure. Not only did she have five best friends willing to do anything for her, but she was also the Element of Honesty, and a hero of Ponyville. Applejack always had something interesting going on, contrary to Braeburn's day-by-day routine. The once ever-jubilant stallion had been reduced to nothing more than a blank canvas craving color.
But then out of the blue, the pony he had always wanted to meet emerged into his life, offering everything he would ever need to make sense of his distraught being. It was just too good to be true. At first Braeburn thought he was dreaming, but then the most amazing day of his life drew on and on. No mere dream could keep pace after this amount of time, at least not one that he ever had.
But then again, what would happen if Daring Do was wrong? How much time could they be wasting when Braeburn could be doing something real to save the farm? The apples were a lost cause until new ones grew, but that wouldn't be for six months. Bullet Tyme had been especially cynical of Daring's story, despite the facts she had presented. Braeburn and Applejack had retold her words to the middle-aged stallion once she left, and his reaction wasn't anywhere near positive. He said that they were wasting their time listening to such farfetched tales. The beige stallion didn't argue with his father, but merely told him that this was the farm's only chance of surviving. He ended the conversation at that, without another word. He hadn't seen Bullet Tyme for the rest of the day after that. His father departed from the home, leaving Braeburn and Applejack to stand meekly in his wake. He suspected that Bullet went to his brother's house in downtown Appleloosa, where he usually went to cool off. It didn't matter to the cowpony, for he now had a way to save his family's business.
"Ah'm a mite sorry Ah have to make ya' go home tomorrow Cuz," said Braeburn.
"Don't be sorry Brae, savin' the farm is more important," Applejack replied matter-of-factly. "Ah can visit ya'll another time. We still had fun today though, right?"
Braeburn smiled, gazing at the starlit sky. "We sure did. Best birthday ever."
Five rounds were slid into Thumper's cartridge gate with natural ease. The riflepony twirled the weapon around his hoof, racking the action in the same motion. The front stock fell into the stallion's right hoof, immediately lining up his shot through the iron sights. The rifle barked with a resounding bang, its projectile shredding an apple into tiny pieces over twenty-five yards away. With unprecedented speed, four more apples exploded from the rounds.
Braeburn exhaled, lowering the rifle. The stallion had only been able to sleep a few hours the night before. He had tossed and turned in his bed, his mind never settling down completely. Thankfully, he didn't feel fatigued in any way. The riflepony ejected the final smoldering shell, flipping it gracefully into the scabbard on his back. He had practiced the motions for the better part of morning, reenacting how his father used to do it. Thumper was like an extension of himself, as if it were a part of his body. Wielding the weapon was unbelievably easy. Perhaps his father was right; shooting was just in his blood. Considering the apples had been rendered useless from the scorching heat wave, they made excellent targets. He set them up in the flat-lands a quarter of a mile behind the farm in order to preserve Applejack's slumber. Although, he wasn't sure if he had been far enough away.
Braeburn whipped his head around to find a dark yellow pegasus, clad in her previous cloak and saddlebags. The expression on her face could only be described as priceless. Her jaw hung limply, rose eyes wide in disbelief.
"Daring?" Braeburn asked. "What're ya' doin' here?"
Daring Do collected herself, shaking the awe from her face. "Sorry, I guess I just got excited about this expedition. Anyway, you never told me you were a riflepony!"
"Ah didn't know until yesterday."
The pegasus' jaw dropped again. "You just started shooting yesterday?!"
"Yeah, my Pa says that it runs in the family. Ah reckon he was right," Braeburn said with a humble smile.
"Well it's a darned good thing I hired you then," Daring said, the fleeting ghost of a grin appearing on her lips. "I'm sorry I came by so early. I went to knock on your door but then I heard the shots. I ran over as quickly as I could to make sure nothing was amiss. I'm glad to see I was wrong. Anyway, are you ready to go?"
"Oh. Well Ah gotta see my cousin off. She's been visiting from Ponyville. Ah'd hate to leave without sayin' goodbye," the stallion explained.
"Of course," said the pegasus. "Lead the way."
By nine o' clock in the morning, the train had finally arrived at Appleloosa's station. The doors opened, allowing a few ponies to exit the passenger cars. Most of them were residents of the small town, and the rest were the seldom-seen tourists. Applejack turned to her cousin and Daring Do, the saddlebags on her back filled with unused supplies. Braeburn had given the yellow pegasus his Stetson, its brim shielding her face and mane from a sidelong glance. He didn't want any of the out-of-towners recognizing her and causing a scene, and Daring was grateful for the favor.
"Thanks again fer comin' by cousin Applejack. Ah hope to see ya' soon."
"O' course. Maybe ya'll can come by Ponyville and help with Winter Wrap Up. We seem ta' need more ponies every year," said Applejack with a smile before turning her head to Daring. "And don't worry, Ah won't tell anypony back home 'bout ya'."
Daring grinned from underneath the brim of the over-sized cowpony hat. "I appreciate that. Thank you Applejack."
The orange mare wrapped a foreleg around her cousin, whom returned the favor. She then held up a hoof to Daring, and the pegasus bumped it with her own.
"Ah really do hope yer right Daring," she said. "Farmin' has been in our family fer generations, and Ah can't bear the thought of my uncle's orchard goin' outta business."
"I wouldn't have asked for Braeburn's time if I wasn't absolutely certain about this," the pegasus said with a determined look. "Don't worry Applejack, I will do everything I can to find Cunning's treasure. I won't let your cousin down."
Braeburn was taken aback. Her words were laced with such sincerity, such passion. She truly believed with all of her heart that the treasure was out there, waiting to be uncovered. Her confidence made the riflepony grin like mad. They were really going to do this. Braeburn never felt so sure of the treasure's existence until then.
"Thank ya' kindly D," said Applejack, turning to leave. "Good luck you two. Now go and make history."
"We will," replied Daring.
"Have a safe trip!" Braeburn called after his cousin, whom had boarded the train waving a hoof.
The doors slid shut after everypony else stepped into the passenger cars, and the train blew its whistle, smoke billowing from its stack. The two waved goodbye as the locomotive slowly left the old station, eventually disappearing into the tunnel in the side of a plateau to the East. Braeburn felt his Stetson being placed back atop his head. Daring had to stand on her hindhooves to return the hat before shaking her bangs from her eyes.
"Everypony's gone now," she said, wiping her forehead. "And that thing smells funny."
Braeburn shook his head with a small grin. "S'not that bad."
"Oh, it is," Daring confirmed with a pained look.
Braeburn turned his head at the faint sound of a whistle. From the East came another locomotive, chugging merrily along its tracks. A few minutes later it slowed to a screeching halt on the other side of the station. The short, three-car train faced the desert out West, in the direction of Dodge Junction. Unlike the Eastern train to Ponyville, the West Line was painted a flat black, its features sharp and angular.
Two of the passenger cars' doors slid open, revealing aged, uncomfortable-looking interiors. The conductor stepped out of the old locomotive; an earth stallion that Braeburn failed to recognize. He had a pale gray coat under a beige pocketed vest. His sleek black mane and tail were neatly-combed, free of perspiration despite the sweltering heat. Atop his head was a tan visor, matching his vest. Braeburn guessed him to be at least a few years older than himself, judging by the faint lines under his small blue eyes. The conductor withdrew a golden pocket-watch, flicking it open with his other hoof.
"Appleloosa to Dodge Junction, first call!" he announced to the empty station, his voice loud and prominent.
Daring couldn't have darted across the dock fast enough. She trotted with an excited skip in her step, Braeburn close behind. He adjusted Thumper's leather strap away from his neck as they approached the conductor, whom looked to the pegasus with a level of familiarity.
"Back on the Line already eh?" he chuckled before looking to Braeburn. "And I guess you've found yourself a bodyguard or something?"
"Not exactly," Daring laughed. "Artemis, this is Braeburn."
The gray stallion quickly grabbed the riflepony's hoof, shaking it eagerly. "Good to meet you Brae-Brae. Any friend of Daring is a friend of mine."
Braeburn forced himself not to wince at the nickname, striving to keep to his manners. "Nice to meet ya' too."
"Well do ya' mind opening the door Art? We're kind of in a hurry," Daring interjected, gesturing to the closed caboose at the other end of the train.
"Fine, fine. I can see you've got plans," Artemis said before turning back to the control panel in the conductor's booth. With the flip of a switch, the rear car door slid open. "Okay, there's no other ponies riding, so in you go."
Daring's wings flicked up from underneath her cloak, sending her a few feet into the air. "Full steam ahead then!"
Braeburn smiled at her elation as the pegasus soared into the rear car. Before he could bid farewell to Artemis, the conductor stopped him with a hoof to his shoulder. His expression had shifted from jubilant to serious, his eyes level with the beige stallion's. Braeburn did his best to smile, unsure of the response it would instill.
"Look, I know that it's not any of my business, but what are your intentions with her?"
Braeburn recoiled. "Uh, beg yer pardon?"
"I'm just looking out for her. That mare has had her heart broken too many times now, and I don't want to see it happen again," Artemis spoke in quick, hushed words. Suddenly realizing what he was implying, Braeburn felt his face heat up.
"Oh! No, it's nothing like that partner. I'm just helpin' out a fr...a friend," he stammered, waving a dismissive hoof.
However, that didn't seem to convince the gray stallion. "I know that's what it seems like now, but-"
"Hey Braeburn! Are you coming or what?" Daring called from the caboose of the train.
"He is, just making sure his rifle isn't loaded," Artemis replied. He then turned back to Braeburn. "It's not, is it?"
"Good, then get going."
Braeburn awkwardly nodded to Artemis, turning on a hoof toward the rear car. As he walked, his mind raced over the conductor's words. How did he know so much about Daring Do? Granted, the mare was bound to let other ponies know of her existence, that much was inevitable, but this stallion seemed to be much more familiar with her. Was he a relative, and how had Braeburn never met him before? He took the West Line monthly to Dodge Junction, and never did he meet with this new pony.
Braeburn's thoughts ceased once he stepped into the caboose of the train. The interior of the car was the complete opposite of the others he had ridden in, and was lavish by comparison. The floor was covered in a thin burgundy carpet instead of the usual hardwood. The walls were stained a dark brown, its gloss reflecting the soft illumination of the small chandelier hanging from the high ceiling. Two long couches lined both sides of the caboose, a table filled with papers and unused quills between them. On the far wall hung two large maps: one of Equestria and one of Dodge Junction. Both were littered with red tacks, marking certain points of the land. When Braeburn stepped into the car, he felt a rush of unnaturally cool air blowing through his mane. It was like he had stepped out of Summer and into early Spring.
"Like that?" Daring Do asked with a smile. She sat on the far corner of the couch to the right. The pegasus had removed her cloak and her bags, reveling in obvious comfort. "Having your own private car has its perks."
"Yer own car?" Brae repeated, bewildered. "Just how rich are ya'?"
"Pfft. I am not rich," Daring replied with a chuckle. "The Canterlot Museum of Natural History has just been good to me. You know, being its best private contributor. I didn't want to shove it in your face or anything, but I figured you were sick of this heat wave. A little air conditioning is nice in the Summer."
"Well it's much appreciated," Braeburn said sincerely.
He unloaded his saddlebags next to Daring's own, careful to kick his hooves off on the edge of the threshold. It felt like a crime for a workhorse like himself to be riding in such comparative luxury, but he wasn't about to complain either. Braeburn wiped the sweat from his brow as he slumped into the plush couch across from the dark-yellow mare, laying Thumper in its scabbard on his lap. He had never been granted privileges such as this before. The riflepony felt almost out of place as he gazed around the subtle, yet ornate furnishings.
"Ah guess that stallion is a friend o' yers?" he asked, attempting to fill the silence.
"Artemis? Oh yeah. He's actually my godfather," answered Daring, rummaging through a drawer under her couch.
That certainly explained the stallion's protective nature over the pegasus. Braeburn's curiosity clawed at his mind over Artemis' words, but he felt that bringing up such a matter would only give the next few hours an unbearably awkward feel. His relationship with Daring Do was what one would call business-like, not personal friendship. All in all, Braeburn didn't mind, for the reward that this journey presented was too much to let slip by.
However, Braeburn started to feel an odd tension as silence filled the air, despite the fact that Daring had occupied herself in one of the many scrolls that filled the drawer below. He shifted uncomfortably on the couch, wondering how to approach any sort of conversation. Daring Do gave the impression that she kept her personal life to herself. So what would they talk about for the next few hours? The weather or something trivial like that?
"Do you know how big this is?" asked Daring suddenly, catching the stallion off-guard. "To be able to find a treasure that everypony thinks is nonexistent?"
Braeburn exhaled, thankful to be conversing again. "Ah wasn't able to sleep 'cause of it."
Daring smiled, her eyes on the parchment she held in front of her. "Awesome. That means you're going to be a good partner then. A pony tends to worker harder if they're excited. But I guess you already know that, being a farmer and all."
"Ah have to be, the family business depends on it," Braeburn smiled.
Daring seemed interested in that thought, for she had set her notes on the table between them, facing the stallion. She wore an unreadable expression as she crossed her hindlegs. "Has the farm always been like this?"
Braeburn blinked. "Well...no. Ah reckon Appleloosa's only been around fer three years now, and in that time we've had no heat wave like this, but we make do."
"Why don't you have Weather Pegasi out West then?"
"Pegasi don't tend to like the constant heat out here, so none move out to do the job. Besides, we earth ponies are traditional folk, and we get by on our own means," Braeburn explained. "Ah reckon out West you stick out more as a pegasus than Daring Do the story-book hero."
"You're probably right," Daring chuckled before changing the conversation. "So then if you're from the Apple Family, why does your father have a bullet cutie mark?"
Braeburn cocked an eyebrow, unsure of why she was so interested in his family. "Uh, well...My Pa just married into the family Ah guess. His family is full of rifleponies, so Ah guess that's where Ah get it from."
"So can I ask why you wanted to bring that?" Daring asked, gesturing to the rifle across his lap. "You know we're not going to run into monsters or anything like that, right?"
"Ah know," the riflepony sighed. "My Pa said Ah should keep it with me. It's a family heirloom after all. Ah don't like the thought of what this weapon is really made for, but Ah just don't like leavin' it alone."
"He seemed like a pretty nice stallion," Daring commented.
Braeburn scoffed silently. "He can seem like a lot o' things."
"What do you mean by that?" the pegasus asked.
"He..." Braeburn trailed off. "He wasn't exactly delighted to hear that Ah was leaving to help ya' find Cunning's treasure. He said it was just a foal's tale, and that Ah was wastin' my time instead of workin'. My Pa can be pretty bull-headed sometimes."
"So he doesn't believe in Cunning's existence?"
"O' course not. He wasn't there when you showed us the proof."
"But I didn't show you any proof," Daring corrected. Braeburn tilted his head at her. "I told you that I found proof, but never did I put it in front of you. So why do you believe me?"
Braeburn immediately looked down to the rifle in his lap. The question took him by surprise, for he didn't know how to answer it exactly. Why was she asking him this now, while he still had the chance to turn tail and run back home? She must have had a lot of faith in his decision to stay, that much was evident. However, the query wasn't about now, it was about yesterday. Why had he accepted Cunning the Colt to be a real pony so willingly before seeing the clues himself? For all he knew, Daring could have been lying about the whole thing. How did Braeburn even know that her name was really Daring Do? She could have just as easily dyed her mane and tail, making up the story with some kind of ulterior motive. Was the humble farmer really just that desperate to save the farm? This whole endeavor could have been some sort of scam.
"Ah guess Ah just need it to be true," Braeburn sighed, his gaze unfocused on the leather scabbard before him. "Ya' just don't sound like yer lyin'. Everything my family has worked for is about to fall apart, and Ah can't let that happen. Even if yer just a really good actress or somethin', Ah have to believe that this is real. Ah just...Ah just have to."
"Do you know what the best attribute of an archeologist is?" asked Daring as soon as he finished his sentence.
Braeburn looked up to see that the pegasus' rose eyes had erupted with their signature fire. "What?"
"Faith," she said simply. "Sometimes not all of the proof is set before us, so we have to find it. But what gives us the energy to keep driving forward, even when all seems hopeless? Faith. Without it, we wouldn't know of the civilizations from long ago, we wouldn't know where the Sapphire Stone was hidden, and we wouldn't know if The Colt of the West was a true story or not. This is a quality that I'm happy to see in you, Braeburn. The world has stomped on your dreams but you don't let petty things like arrogance or cynicism get in your way. No, instead you look past your troubles and do whatever you can to solve them."
Braeburn found himself speechless as Daring withdrew a tall bottle of dark-yellow liquid from her saddlebags, as well as two empty glasses. The stallion recognized the label, emblazoned with a large red apple and the words, Apple Family Cider: Appleloosan.
"Your father gave this to me. Thought you'd want some so you don't dehydrate."
Braeburn accepted the glass that was poured for him. "That'd be just dandy."
The two drank in silence as the door to the caboose slid closed. Braeburn hadn't noticed that the train was still idling, and that they hadn't left yet. He made a mental note not to consume too much of the cider, for there were no stops between Appleloosa and Dodge Junction. However, Daring didn't seem too worried about the three-hour ride ahead of them. She drained the glass in a single gulp, exhaling loudly as she triumphantly slammed it to the table.
"Seriously, I cannot let you guys go out of business," she said with a grin, which Braeburn returned.
The loud whistle of the old locomotive wailed, and the caboose lurched forward as the train crawled down its tracks. Braeburn turned his head around and gazed out the window, watching the train station as well as Appleloosa slowly fade away in the distance. A few minutes later they reached cruising speed, and the dusty town disappeared over the horizon. It was only then that reality hit him: he was really doing this. He was joining Daring Do in a quest to find Cunning the Colt's treasure. While he worried about leaving his father on a particularly unfavorable note, Braeburn couldn't help but smile at his luck. He was going to save the farm, no matter what tried to stand in his way. He didn't care if his name was on a plaque in some museum. Because deep down, he only wanted to make his family proud.