Across the Broken Planes
The train pulled to a stop a mile outside the Appleoosa station. Cracked dessert ground spread out in all directions with a near perfect blue sky stretching out to the horizons lined with rocky hills and plateaus. Only one thing marred the sapphire sky. A column of black smoke rose from the direction of the settlement.
Stepping off the train, Big Macintosh moved to speak with the stallions pulling the engine. “This as far as you go?”
The stallion nodded, looking worriedly out at the ominous cloud of ash. “Regulation. Station is closed due to the emergency; we either let you off here or a mile beyond town.” The stallion eyed the large red earth pony. “It’s not that far off and you have a sturdy set of hooves, you’ll make it just fine.”
Big Mac nodded and gave the smoke pillar a long, hard look.
“You got family out there?”
The stallion sighed and shook his head. “Well good luck to you then. Not exactly sure what went down, but it sure ain’t pretty.” Tipping his engineers cap, the Stallion returned to the head of the team and started down the track again.
Turning once more in the direction of Appleoosa, Big Mac broke into a thundering gallop across the plane.
Charred and twisted limbs reached towards the sky, a dark reminder of what used to be the town’s prized orchard. Most of the fires had been doused but embers still burned here and there and smoke poured from several of the buildings. Ponies were scrambling in the midst of it all. Bucket chains running from the well, ponies fetching supplies for this or that. The entire town was in chaos.
Stepping out of the temporary Sheriff’s building, the recently deputized Braeburn surveyed the damage with a heavy heart. Sheriff Silver Star was holed up in the infirmary with severe burns he received while evacuating a blazing school house, this left the yellow earth pony in charge of pulling the town back together. Turning his eyes to the tracks, he watched as another train sped by. A red blur on the horizon caught his eye. Smiling for the first time since yesterday morning, he galloped out to great his cousin.
“Thank Celestia you’re here, Macintosh. We need all the helping hooves we can get.”
“Happy to help,” Big mac replied as he surveyed the smoldering town with his usual appraising gaze. “What happened?”
Braeburn sighed. “I’ll tell you soon enough. First things first we need to clear some of that debris before it collapses.”
Nodding his head, the powerful red pony got to work.
That night, after most of the fires had been extinguished, Braeburn offered to share his tent with Macintosh. The deputy turned up the lamplight and threw his hat in the corner. “Bout a week ago these tough lookin ponies show up out of the blue, callin themselves the Roughriders. Lead by a mean looking peagasus goes by the name of T.R. Colt.” Braeburn sighed and sat down on his mat. “Well T.R. and his boys come riding into down and demand to see the Mayor, only we ain’t got one so we sent out the sheriff.
“T.R. introduced himself to all of us and gave us an ultimatum. He said we’d have to pay tribute to him and his, protection money as it were. If we didn’t pay up, bad things would happen. Well, you know Sheriff Silver Star. That pony is as stubborn as a mule and he didn’t budge an inch. They gave us three days to pay up, and we never did. We figured they just decided to leave well enough along, but then yesterday morning we woke up and,” he gestured towards the entrance to the tent, “suddenly the orchard was ablaze, ponies fleeing from the heat. It was still too dark to make out anything specific but a few folks say they saw some ponies in dark, carrying torches. No points for guessing who was behind it.”
Big Mac listened to the story with rapt attention. “When do we leave?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“This ain’t the kind of thing you let somepony walk away from.” Big Mac opened his saddle bag, pulling out a colt action rifle. It was designed to ride across the soldier, allowing for the user to tilt his head to look down the site and fire by kicking a leg. The gun was quite large and it was quite possible that it had been made specifically for the red earth pony.
“Oh Celestia, you’re talking about actually going out after them?” Braeburn eyed the gun warily.
“And how exactly do you plan on finding them?”
Big Mac shrugged his heavy shoulders as he began cleaning and inspecting his rifle.
Braeburn let out a heavy breath, lying down on his side. After several minutes had passed, he spoke. “If we do this, we do it right. I’m a deputy now and I can’t just go around allowing ponies to take justice into their own hooves. We find him, we bring him in. Alive. You got that?”
Sliding the pieces back into place, the rifle came together with a metallic click. Putting the gun away, Macintosh nodded. “We do it right.” Dousing the lamp, he took his spot on his own mat. It was going to be an early morning tomorrow.
They set out in the grey hours before dawn, circling the town in widening circles, looking for any signs the Roughriders may have left behind on the hard packed dirt. That was going to be the greatest part of their challenge; the tough ground made for fewer tracks. Big Mac gave a low whistle, calling Braeburn to a halt. Pulling up short, the yellow earth pony trotted over to see what he had discovered.
Pointing a hoof at some trampled brush, Big Mac nodded his head westward. “They went thataway.”
Braeburn studied the bushes before looking off in the direction his partner had indicated. “There’s not much of anything out there to run to, just some hill country. How can you be sure?”
Macintosh grunted. “You got something else?”
“Fair enough,” Braeburn sighed. “Just wish we had a stronger lead to go on.”
It took them a couple hours to hit the hills. The sun had risen well above the horizon by now, putting the time around nine or ten o’clock. Holding up a hoof, Braeburn called for a halt. When Macintosh raised a questioning eyebrow, the deputy gave him a serious look. “Buffalo country, we need to barter for permission to pass.”
As if on cue, several bison moved out from behind hills and surrounded the two ponies. One of them, wearing a large feathered headdress, stepped forward to speak. “Braeburn, honored friend, it has been too long. What brings you to these pastures?”
Braeburn kneeled in respect, “Chief Thunderhooves, we come to ask for permission to cross your lands. We are in pursuit of out-“
The earth pony found himself suddenly interrupted as a much younger buffalo bounded into the circle, running up to give him a playful nuzzle. “Braeburn! It’s been forever since your last visit. What took you so long, huh?”
Chief Thunderhooves cleared his throat in an effort to regain control over the proceedings. “Little Strongheart, please. We are in the middle of something here.”
Blushing, Little Strongheart apologized and moved to join the circle of buffalo.
“Now then, as you were saying Braeburn?”
“Right, yes,” Braeburn started. “Two days ago, Appleoosa was attacked by a band of outlaws who have burned our orchards and left the town in ruin. We are in pursuit of them and believe they may have passed this way. Have y’all had any other visitors seek to cross your lands?”
Thunderhooves pondered this a while before speaking. “I am sorry that I cannot help you. A group such as you described did take refuge here two nights ago, but I am bound by the laws of my people to tell you nothing of them save that they were indeed here. Forgive me friend, but it would bring great dishonor to our people if we betrayed the trust placed in us by those that travel our lands.”
Braeburn sighed and hung his head slightly. “I understand, honored Chief.”
“Please, friends,” the Chief continued, “do not leave here in disappointment. For as long as you remain in our lands you may take whatever food and provisions you need, we ask for no price. Should you need room to rest, we can provide it. It saddens me that we cannot be more of service in your quest for justice.”
Braeburn nodded and thanked the Chief for his hospitality. Spitting on their hooves, the two of them shook and the deal was solidified. Turning to Macintosh, Braeburn gestured for him to follow. “Come on, as long as we’re here we might as well get something to eat.”
The two of them trailed after the buffalo, arriving at their village of tents in short order. Settling around one of the many fires, they gratefully accepted the bowels they were offered. The greyish brown mush may not have looked very appetizing but it was good sustenance for anyone with a long journey ahead of them. Didn’t taste half bad either.
“We can’t stay long here,” Big Mac reminded his partner. “T.R. gets further away every second we wait.”
Nodding, Braeburn took a mouthful of the mush he had been given and swallowing. “I know, we’ll leave at noon. See if we can pick up the trail again. Here’s hoping he didn’t change direction”
The two ate in near silence, only pausing to talk with the occasional curious buffalo. They were a nomadic people and tried to avoid larger settlements, so they didn’t get much in the way of news unless somepony came passing through.
At last it came time to leave. Making their way to the western edge of the Buffalo lands, Braeburn and Big Mac began looking for signs of their quarry’s passage. It was tough work, made even tougher by the dessert sun finally breaking through the cloud cover and giving the area its trademark heat.
A twig snapped and the earth ponies froze. Jerking his head towards a large rock off to the side of the path, Big Mac indicated they take cover and wait for their pursuer. A few seconds later, Little Strongheart came around the corner, looking worriedly over her shoulder.
“Does your father know you’re here, Little Strongheart?” Braeburn called out, stepping from behind the boulder.
“I reckon he doesn’t.” Big Mac replied, stepping out behind the young buffalo.
Little Strongheart jumped at the sudden appearance of the two ponies she had been sure hadn’t noticed her. “I-I couldn’t just sit by and do nothing,” she protested. “You said they attacked Appleoosa. Even if father isn’t going to help you, that place is like a second home to me now. I couldn’t just sit back and do nothing.”
Big Mac rolled his eyes, giving Braeburn a sideways glance. Braeburn shook his head and leaned in closer to the buffalo to speak. “Alright, you can come but only if you can make yourself useful.”
“I can tell you which direction they went,” Little Strongheart suggested. “I’m also pretty much the best tracker in the tribe. You can ask any of the other buffalo.”
Braeburn nodded. “Good enough for me, let’s get a move on.”
Beaming with excitement, Little Strongheart turned south. “They went that way. I think they may be headed for Colt Creek Canyon.”
“A lot of good hiding places there,” Braeburn muttered. “Good place for an ambush.”
Big Mac nodded in agreement. “How far away is it?”
Braeburn shrugged his shoulders. “A day and a half from Appleoosa, probably a full day’s ride from here. We should get started if we want to catch them. Lead the way, little sister.” Turning south, the trio set off in high hopes.
“Getting pretty dark, we should break for the night.” The stars shone high in the night sky, Luna’s moon barely a sliver against the speckled black. A dark mass sat on the horizon, the cliffs through which Colt Creek ran. Braeburn examined the tree they had stopped beside and nodded. “This is as good a place as any.”
Little Strongheart gave a happy sigh of relief and flopped down on the ground. “Thank Celestia, I’m exhausted. What do we have for dinner?”
Big Mac opened one of his saddle bags and tossed out some dried travel provisions. “No fires tonight. This is what we got.”
The young buffalo took a few tentative sniffs at the rations and winced. “This is it? Why can’t we cook something up proper?”
Braeburn shook his head. “They might have lookouts that would spot the fire and it would be bad of us to give our position away. No tents either, they might spot those from the cliff.” He took his rations and settled down. “We’re going to be getting up and making our way to the canyon a couple hours before dawn, so eat up and rest while you still can. Tomorrow will be a busy day.”
Pouting, the young buffalo ate her food reluctantly and took a place opposite the earth pony’s to sleep.
“Can’t believe you talked me into letting her come,” Big Mac muttered. “It’s a dangerous business, what we do tomorrow.”
The yellow earth pony nodded wearily. “I know, but she was the only way we could have found this place. We were going completely in the wrong direction after all.” He sighed and leaned back against the tree. “She’s like a sister to me, Big Mac. I don’t want to see her getting hurt, you understand?”
“Good.” Waiting until the soft sounds of slumber rose from the sleeping buffalo, the two earth ponies saddled up their bags and started for the canyon.
They reached Colt Creek Canyon an hour before dawn, the first rays of light beginning to trickle over the horizon to their left. The crack in the rock face was narrow, as was the trickle of water that flowed from it. Countless years of wind, rain and flowing water had worn the rock faces smooth and flat. With a wary eye on their surroundings, the earth ponies entered.
Big mac, having the gun, went in first. The passage was too narrow for them to enter side by side so they were forced to walk single file. If there was any shooting to be done, Macintosh would need a clear line of sight. Cloth bags tied around their hooves muffled the sound of their hoof beats, making their passage near silent. There were plenty of signs indicating recent use of the canyon. Scratches on the rocky floor from the passage of hooves told them they had found the right place.
“There should be something like a cave or an opening around here,” Braeburn said, keeping his voice low to avoid echoes. “I can’t imagine fitting a group into a space like this for too lo-” A sudden rumbling caused him to break off his sentence. Looking up, his jaw dropped and he pushed Big Mac forward, diving out of the way of a surprise rock slide.
“Well, look what we have here.” A voice cackled from somewhere in the canyon. The two earth ponies had fallen into a more open, circular area of the canyon. Glancing about wildly, they tried to pinpoint the source of the voice. “A true blue cowboy and his trusty side kick. Nice to see you again, Appleoosa boy! So glad you could drop by. I see you brought some muscle with ya.” Looking up, Braeburn spotted him. Standing at the edge of the canyon, high above the two of them a grey pegasus pony with a silver mane glared down at them with a wicked grin. A scare ran down one side of his face, crossing a milky white right eye and twisting part of his mouth into a permanent sneer. “My, you are a big fella aren’t ya? Had we met under slightly different circumstances, I’d have been happy to offer you a job. Might be kind of awkward now though, seeing as I’m bout to kill you.”
“Mac, he’s got us pinned in here,” Braeburn hissed. “Entrance is blocked off, we got no way out.”
Big Mac shook his head. “He’s not coming down here to kill us, he’s got his boys for that. I reckon they’re already down here.”
“Big and smart, I’m impressed Red.” T.R. Colt shook his head. “It’s a damn shame, really. Could a used a fine specimen like yourself. I’ll be leaving you boys to it then, be sure you say hi to my friends and smile real pretty when they gut ya.”
“Stay behind me,” Big Mac warned his partner, planting himself in front of the earth pony and readying his gun.
Braeburn cursed his luck for not thinking to bring along a real weapon, only thing he had on him was a rope. “Even if you do get em all, how the hay are we supposed to get out of here?”
“Colt left some of his boys down here to get us. They must have a back entrance or something to clear the rubble.” Big Mac shrugged his shoulders. “Doesn’t strike me as the kind of man to leave his own to rot.” Bringing the sights to his eye, Macintosh waited.
A gunshot rang through the air.
Cocking the gun, Big Mac took another shot and a second pony fell to the ground. “Y’all think you got something? Come on out and face me or I’ll show you just how yellow your bellies are,” Big Mac roared. The force of his voice startled Braeburn, he had never heard the normally soft spoken Macintosh raise his voice before. “Come and get me, you yellow bellied sons of donkeys.” Another gun shot, another man down.
The beast before Braeburn was an entirely different creature from the cousin Braeburn knew and loved. The Big Mac he knew was kind, gentle and never spoke ill of others. This thing in front of him was a blazing inferno of focused anger and precision. Braeburn couldn’t even begin to imagine what had happened to make him this way.
A voice called out from behind the rocks. “Buck this, this ain’t what I signed up for. Y’all can get yourselves killed if you want, but it just ain’t worth it. A gun flashed through the open air and landed on the ground. “I’m coming out now, I’ll come quiet. T.R. can go buck himself if he thinks we’ll throw away our lives for him.” Unarmed, a rust colored earth pony stepped into view with his head hung low. “We deserve whatever you got coming for us in town, but it beats dying out in some bucking gulch in the middle of bucking nowhere. Name’s Clyde, by the way.”
Nodding, Braeburn retrieved the rope from his saddle bags and bound Clyde’s neck. He made sure to leave enough slack for any others they could take alive. “Your pal here is smart, y’all should follow his example and throw down your guns. I’m not quite sure what’s gotten into my buddy here, but I don’t think he’d even feel it if you pegged him with one of your pea shooters. Why don’t y’all do the wise thing and come on out.” There were a few moments of tense silence before two more guns flashed through the air, landing in a pile beside Clyde’s piece. Braeburn smiled. “Very good, now come on out and get your share of rope before we run out.”
While Braeburn bound the other two captives, Big Mac allowed himself to go limp and fall back against the wall. “I think that’s about all I can handle,” he said in his usual, gentle tones. “Getting all worked up like that takes a lot out of a fella.” His eyes stared into space, his mind drifting to faraway places.
Braeburn took a worried glance at his cousin before turning back to their captives. “Alright you lot, how the hay do we get out of this place?”
“Got a back way in and out through a cave,” Clyde answered. Since being tied up he had decided to make himself as useful as possible to the earth ponies who had taken him in. “It’s hidden from the outside but we should be able to find it just fine from down here.”
With Big Mac keeping a bead on them, the group made their way to the rear passage with Clyde in the lead. The passage curved around and let them out about half way up the cliff, a quarter mile from the canyon’s entrance. The rock had been carved away into a narrow stair case, allowing all of the ponies to descend safely. The sun had just crested over the horizon as they were making their way back to the tree. An air of disappointment had entered Braeburn’s demeanor.
“What’s gotten into you?” Clyde asked the deputy. “You caught us, didn’t ya?”
“But your ring leader got away.” Braeburn replied. “Can’t track a Pegasus when they don’t leave tracks.”
“He can’t fly far, not on those wings,” another one of the ponies spoke up. “He thought we wouldn’t notice but I used to be a doctor. He’s got some kind of arthritis creaking up his joints. Sure he can glide and jump pretty good, but any kind of actual flying would have him in pain by the end of the day.”
“So what you’re saying is…”
“He’s still around here somewhere, yeah. Probably leapt from the cliff to get a good gliding head start.”
Stepping close to the deputy, Macintosh nudged his shoulder. “Can’t go chasing after him now, not with these three in tow. He’ll have to wait.” They were approaching the tree.
“Yeah, I know. And by the time we’ve turned these three in he’ll be long gone.”
“Well then, let me save you the trouble and take them off your hands now.” Came a voice from ahead of them.
Looking up in shock, Braeburn and Macintosh watched as T.R. Colt came out from behind the tree and threw Little Strongheart to the ground. Placing a hoof against the young buffalo’s head, he grinned wickedly. “No here’s what’s going to happen. You throw down your gun and send my boys over, and I’ll be generous enough to let this pretty little thing go. If you don’t…” he began applying his weight against Little Strongheart’s head, the little buffalo squirming from the pain. “Well, let’s just say things will get messy.”
Big Mac reached to ready his gun but Braeburn stayed him. “We don’t have a choice this time, cousin. He’s got us by the throat.” Walking over to Clyde, Braeburn began to undo his ropes while Big Mac unharnessed his rifle.
“Clyde, go on ahead and bring his gun over here,” called out. “That’s a mighty fine piece he has.”
Clyde picked up the gun and hesitated for a second.
“Come on Clyde, get it over here. Give it to me!”
Clyde turned and smiled. “Sure thing boss.” He pulled the trigger, a shot exploding from the rifles barrel and passing straight through the pegasus’s kneecap and causing him to crumple to the ground. The next shot hit one of his wings at the base, nearly severing it from the rest of the body.
“Celestia bucking dammit Clyde, what’s gotten into you?” T.R. roared. “You’re dead, do you hear me? DEAD!”
“You’re a damn fool, Ted.” Clyde sneered. “You just left the rest of us back there to die and you thought we were just gonna come running back to you? The Roughriders are done, Ted. It’s time we owned up.”
T.R. writhed on the ground, a stream of obscenities flowing from his mouth while Braeburn comforted Little Strongheart. Big Macintosh scowled at the former leader of the out laws, a gentle “tap” on the head rendering him unconscious. “Bandage him up. Won’t be no justice done if he dies before we get home.”
Clyde walked up to stand behind Braeburn. “I hate to do this friend,” he leveled Big Mac’s gun at his head, “but I figure I just helped you nab your catch so you owe me a favor. What’s going to happen here is I’m going to take this gun and I’m going to disappear.” He raised his eyebrows at Macintosh who had started to approach. “Nah ah ah, stay put now. Let me say my piece. Y’all won’t have to worry about me, you can be sure I’m staying well clear of your little town after this mess. What I need is a fresh start and with dear old Theodore out of the way I finally have the makings of my very own posse. You got your bad guy, the day is yours. Now the rest of us are gonna leave, and you’re not gonna follow.” The rust colored earth pony smiled. “You said it yourself, if he don’t get help soon he’s not going to make it.”
Braeburn swallowed. “Fine, get out of here.” Big Mac gave him an incredulous look. “Ain’t got much of a choice, do we?”
Chuckling, Clyde lowered the gun and stepped away. “I’m glad you could see reason. Go on and take your prize, cowboy. Perhaps we’ll meet again someday.”
Braeburn shot a challenging grin back at the outlaw. “You can count on it. As soon as I see justice done with this here Pegasus, I’ll be coming after you next.”
The russet pony laughed. “I’ll be looking forward to it then. Take care of yourself now, next time we meet I’ll just as likely buy you a drink as shoot ya.” Rounding up his companions, Clyde galloped off into the west.
“You sure we should be letting them go?” Big Mac wondered after the retreating outlaws.
“There will always be another chance,” Braeburn said with a sigh. “I’ll catch back up with them eventually.” Turning northwards, Braeburn helped Little Strongheart back to her feed while Big Mac slung a bound T.R. across his back. “Now let’s get going. It’s a long ways back to buffalo country and I want to see this son of a donkey live long enough to get what’s coming for him.”
With that, the three of them galloped off across the broken planes, the wings of victory speeding them home.