Across the plains, a thousand head of jackalope thundered.
"Keep 'em in line!" hollered Braeburn Apple, his ragged blond mane flowing in the wind as he ran. "Lariat, Spur, them's headed fer th'hills!" Two of the stallions galloped closer to the flowing carpet of jagged brown antlers, cutting off their exit. Like two puddles meeting, the errant peninsula merged with the larger group.
Over the next few minutes, the herd's panic gradually subsided, and the stampede came to a stop. The dust cloud they'd raised slowly melted away in the light breeze.
Braeburn trotted over to his cousin, McIntosh Apple, flush with excitement. "Whoowee! That rattler sure made a mess of things." He looked around. "Ah reckon here's as good a place as any for the night."
"Count'em up, boys," shouted Big McIntosh to the other five ponies.
The chuck wagon arrived about half an hour later. The commotion meant they wouldn't eat until after dark. While they waited, Spur played his harmonica to match the setting of the sun and the rise of the moon. Soon the smell of baked beans wafted through camp; Cookie Cutter's meals went a long way toward making the day's aches disappear.
The final day's pace was more sedate. Lariat kept a closer eye out for snake dens while they walked, and Spur played a tune he thought might keep the jackalope calm. They'd lost about twenty head in the stampede, but the rest were in fine shape. The chuck wagon rattled on behind them.
Together, ponies and jackalope rounded the foot of a mesa. Braeburn whistled, and tipped his hat. "Well now, ain't that a sight fer sore eyes." Nestled against the other side of the mesa was a bustling frontier town: Snakebit.
The herd halted while Braeburn trotted ahead. Ten minutes later, he returned with a pony wearing a tall white hat. Without further incident, they rounded the critters into a low-fenced corral near a ranch on the edge of town.
Four more corrals sat next to the one with Braeburn's herd. One had rabbits; the other three also held jackalope. "Snakebit's Autumn Auction is th' biggest livestock auction 'roun' these parts," said Braeburn to Big McIntosh, watching the herds mill around in their pens. "Why, Ah'm plumb grateful t'you fer helpin' out with th' drive."
"Anythin' for family," said McIntosh.
And then the waiting began. Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, stagecoaches carrying well-dressed ponies came into town.
The next morning, all interested parties assembled at a stage near to the corrals. The crowd milled about, their coin purses pregnant with riches. Two Pinkerton detectives, unicorns with sharp-filed horns, stood off to the side. No funny business would be allowed, and the ponies present knew it.
Starting slowly, then quickly increasing pace, the auctioneer played the crowd like a fine instrument. Bids were placed, bits were exchanged. After all was said and done, the auction bursar passed out bags of money to each of the drive heads.
"Hey cousin, look at this," said Braeburn, tipping his hat back.
McIntosh whistled at the size of the money bag. "Ah had no idea antlers were such a valuable commodity out here."
Then they paid the hired hooves. Cookie Cutter got a bonus for keeping them well-fed and watered. Spur said he'd stick around town for a while looking for work. Lariat booked a coach back to greener pastures. The others were Snakebiters, citizens of the busy little town, and they headed for the bank as soon as they'd gotten their pay.
McIntosh hefted the considerably lighter purse back into his saddlebag. He said, "My portion'll sure help out th' farm, 'specially with Applebuck season coming up, an' us needin' a few hired hooves of our own. So, where's this wagon you keep goin' on about?"
"Right over there," Braeburn said, pointing. Near the ranch where the auction had been held, a dust-brown pony stood in front of a covered wagon loaded with supplies. He wore a fancy vest more elaborate than Braeburn's, and his black mane was slicked back.
The other pony saw them, and waved them over. "Ah'm Dusty," said the pony, "An' you must be Braeburn Apple. Boy, you're the spittin' image of Bismarck."
Braeburn smiled, and shuffled a hoof. "Thanks. We all miss pa. So, these the supplies?"
Dusty gestured to a clipboard hanging from a nail on the side of the wagon. "Manifest's right there. Ah'll wait 'til you're good and satisfied."
Braeburn and McIntosh inventoried the wagon thoroughly and efficiently. "...and one dozen fairylights. That everythin', Cuz?" asked Braeburn.
"Eyup. Every last oat, nail, rope, and light," confirmed McIntosh, pulling out the purse.
Braeburn counted the trader's share into a second bag, then placed the significantly reduced remainder back into the saddlebag. "Pleasure doin' business with you, Dusty," he said, holding out a hoof.
They shook, and the trader trotted away. "Well, compadre," Braeburn said, turning toward his cousin, "We're on our own."
They started out that afternoon. McIntosh took the first shift pulling the wagon. They made their way out of town, up the trail.
For a few minutes, Braeburn walked ahead in silence, keeping his eyes peeled for rattlers, cougars, and other varmints. Finally, he couldn't stand it any longer, and dropped back to converse. "Folks say yer sister helped free th' other princess from the moon this summer," he said.
McIntosh sighed. "Folks say rightly."
Silence reigned for another minute. Braeburn piped up again. "I betcha that'd make a good tale fer th' trail."
McIntosh looked at him. "Eyep." He plodded on at a steady pace past brush and cactus.
"C'mon, cousin," Braeburn said, leaning toward him, "We only get big news 'round these parts, not the details. Ah haven't seen her since that summer at yer pa's ranch playin' Gooseberry by the pond. How's little Jackie doin'?"
McIntosh smiled, a gleam in his eye. Braeburn realized McIntosh had been dying to tell the story.
"It all started this Spring, when we sent in a bid to cater th' Summer Sun Celebration. Seems this year, Princess Celestia picked our village to host. Now, Sweet Apple Acres has been loyal to th' crown fer generations, an' my sister Applejack had a bright idea. See, we were already gonna host the Apple Family Reunion to coincide. Why not have all our family pitch in and bake their specialties? But then th' trouble started..."
By the time McIntosh brought the story to a close, sunset was near and they'd gotten twice as far as their last camp on the way in.
"Well imagine that," said Braeburn, "My little cousin Applejack, a genuine heroine." He looked around. "Ah think this'd be a good spot t' stop today."
"Eyup." McIntosh halted, put on the wagon's brakes, and undid the straps.
They prepared their simple meal of oats. "Ah wish we could'a convinced Cookie t' come back with us," said Braeburn wistfully, "That pony has a real talent with food."
"Reckon that's why he got that spatula mark," said McIntosh. Clouds drifted across the western horizon. As the sun set, the sky turned a pale blue near the sun, while the clouds became firey orange and deep purple. He marveled at the glory of the heavens. On the trip out, he'd been too occupied by herding jackalope to pay much attention.
And suddenly, the sun sank. The stars glistened and twinkled, a vast ocean. It took his breath away.
The moon moved sedately into the eastern sky, its pearlescent and perfect surface shedding light on the lone prarie. Braeburn whistled. "That never ceases to amaze," he said.
"Ah can see why y'all settled out here," McIntosh said, still gazing up.
The following morning, Braeburn took his turn pulling the wagon. McIntosh walked ahead a ways, watching for things that might hinder them. They passed red rock formations, the land nearby sparsely grassed. They climbed moderate hills, and carefully made their way down the other side. They forded shallow streams, the water a blessed relief to their trailworn hooves.
They unhitched and stopped for lunch atop a hill.
As they ate, Braeburn told McIntosh about Appleloosa, and its relation to his father, Bismarck Apple. "He was a good pony, my pa," said Braeburn, "Stubborn streak as long as his farm's fence-line, kept the family fed no matter what. He'd always had a dream of movin' out west and settlin' new land, but circumstances conspired to keep him in Ponysylvania. He'd stay up nights planning th' town, lists of all th' jobs that needed fillin', supplies fer th' first few years, families that were interested in goin' out to th' frontier with him, an' financiers who'd bankroll th' town charter."
He looked to the horizon. "Ah'd stay awake at night listenin' to him mumble around the pencil in his mouth. I grew up dreamin' of the day we'd all move out here. Wide open land, far as th' eye can see. An' then, the accident happened. So Ma and I sold th'farm, gathered up his notes, an' got in touch with his contacts. Seems he'd been further along than we'd thought. We laid the foundation of th' courthouse just two months ago, an' we should be gettin' rail within th' year." He looked at McIntosh. "Thanks fer taking th' stagecoach out to Appleloosa from th' nearest rail stop, by th' way."
"Thanks for th' ticket," said McIntosh.
"That town's growin' faster'n a hog-fertilized orchard, I tell you what." Braeburn said. Then he sighed. "But he planted th' seeds, Ah've only watered them. Reckon Ah've got a wide hat to fill."
A sudden noise made them both look at the wagon. They locked eyes with a young pronghorn buck, who looked just as surprised as them. He had one of the smaller parcels of oats in his teeth. Then he narrowed his eyes, turned, and darted off.
"Dagnabbit! Come back here!" hollered Braeburn, galloping after him. For a few moments, he thought he might catch up. Then the buck kicked him in the jaw and accelerated.
Braeburn was simply outclassed. The buck was at least twice as fast as an earth pony. Amazed by the speed, he slowed to a trot.
Then he heard McIntosh far behind him. "Braeburn! Braeburn!"
It took him a minute to get back to the wagon and McIntosh. He rubbed his jaw with a hoof. "Dagblasted coup-countin' natives!" he shouted in the direction of the buck.
"Coup?" asked McIntosh, a puzzled look on his face.
"Fer pronghorn bucks t' grow up in their elders' eyes, they gotta touch an enemy an' get clean away," Braeburn said. "Thanks fer stayin' with th' wagon. If this'd been a raiding party, an' you'd followed me, we'd've been picked clean. The town's dependin' on me t' get these here supplies, an' Ah almost let'em down."
"Ah'll haul th' next leg" said McIntosh, maneuvering himself into the wagon's straps, "You keep an eye out."
The sunset was just as amazing on that second day, and they made good time. But the next morning was grey and overcast. They walked on, apprehensive. McIntosh tried to lighten the mood by sharing the tale of the dragon his sister's friends had chased off a mountaintop, but after the telling was done, silence fell.
A sharp caw caught their attention. About a dozen lengths to their left, a blackbird landed on a dessicated buffalo skull in a gully. Braeburn shivered in the wagon's harness. "Well, that ain't somethin' you see every day."
By mid-afternoon, Braeburn estimated they were only another half a day from Appleloosa. From the top of another small rise, he pointed. "You see those two mesas way off in th'distance?" he asked.
"Appleloosa's just around th' one on th' left." He smiled. "We're almost there."
A blackbird's caw sounded, but this one was much louder, and much deeper. Braeburn's ears went back, and his eyes got wide. "Thunderbird! Run!"
A low thrumming noise echoed off nearby hills. McIntosh looked up.
An enormous black shape soared overhead, and for a moment, McIntosh thought it was a dragon. But the shape was of a massive bird of prey. Each time it flapped, thick black stormclouds rolled off the wake of its wings. Idly, he realized how Appleloosa watered their crops without pegasi.
"RUN!" shouted Braeburn a second time, and pulled the wagon as fast as he could gallop. McIntosh followed. They dodged holes and rocks, cacti and fallen logs. Behind them, a wall of rain and lightning surged toward them.
"Over there!" cried Braeburn, heading toward a dark hole in a cliff wall. It was a cave. As they neared it, they saw that there was a somewhat steep slope at the entrance.
"Keep going!" said McIntosh, dropping behind. Braeburn nearly stumbled. The wagon had never felt so heavy, so ponderously slow. With a grinding noise, the wagon's middle stuck on the lip of the cavern.
With a mighty shove, McIntosh pushed the back end of the wagon inside. Braeburn did lose his footing this time, and fell forward. The interior of the cave was level, and wide enough for the wagon to comfortably fit.
The sound of the downpour was nothing compared to the thunderstrikes that echoed all through the cave, as Braeburn struggled to his hooves. He yelled, "Cousin McIntosh!" But he was deafened by the thunder. He pulled off the straps holding him to the wagon, and turned around.
McIntosh stood inside the cave, panting from the exertion, safe from the lightning. They looked at each other, and smiled. Then they both laughed with relief. They'd made it.
But as the noise of passed, they heard another voice laughing.
"Well, what do we have here?" asked a light grey unicorn stallion, leering. "Two little lost sheep. And they brought presents!" Behind him, the cavern was dimly lit, enough to see a light pink pegasus mare and a massive blue earth pony.
McIntosh stamped his hooves and snorted. "We don't want trouble."
"It's a little too late for that," said the unicorn, lowering his head as if to charge. His horn glowed. "Turn over your goods, and we'll let you walk out of here."
Braeburn wondered what spells the unicorn knew. "Now don't be hasty here," he said, walking in front of McIntosh, "Perhaps we can come to some sort of financial arrangement." It was a bluff. After paying the trailhooves, the cook, and the trader, he barely had enough left to pay the town's financiers and McIntosh.
"Hah!" laughed the unicorn, "There's enough gold in these caves to start our own bank. Now don't get me wrong, your bits are appreciated. Just leave the wagon, and head on out into that storm. There's a town not far from here. And if you tell the sheriff we're here, we'll hunt you down and gut you." This last was said with no humor at all.
The Apple cousins looked at each other. "Gooseberry?" said Braeburn.
"Mulligan," replied McIntosh. Suddenly, he swiveled and kicked Braeburn-
-straight toward the unicorn! The startled unicorn's horn let off a bolt of white energy which passed harmlessly beneath Braeburn, who slammed into the unicorn. Then it all became a blur of flying hooves and horseflesh and instinct.
Yet somehow, a single burning thought kept him going, aimed his hooves where they needed to go, gave him the focus to duck at just the right moments: Appleloosa, his pa's town. His town.
And as swiftly as it started, it ended. He found himself standing over two unconscious stallions. The pegasus was lying against one wall, wiping blood from her mouth. With fear in her eyes, she leaped into the air and flew out of the cave.
In the distance, the cry of the thunderbird echoed once more.
Braeburn winced as he moved. His right hindleg hurt, but he figured he could walk on it. "Let's get out of here, cousin," he said, turning to McIntosh.
But McIntosh lay unmoving against the wagon. His side was singed by what appeared to be spell damage. Braeburn was horrified; how much more damage was there internally? Then he shook his head and worked his way under McIntosh. He loaded his unconscious cousin into the wagon, hitched himself up, turned it around, and pulled the wagon out into the rain.
The storm towered over Braeburn. As he pulled the wagon, he grimaced; his leg was hurting more than before. But his cousin was wounded, the supplies were in danger, and those two outlaws could wake up at any moment. Steeling himself, he ran.
The rain had made the dry desert ground muddy, and he could feel the wagon getting stuck. But he kept his eyes on that distant mesa, and the road home. He ran, avoiding the obstacles in his way.
He galloped, forcing himself to breathe in a rhythm. In-out-two, in-out-two. He pictured Appleloosa as it would be in a year: rail station, clock tower, stores on both sides of main street.
The ground sucked at his hooves. The wagon got heavier.
The pain in his leg became a dull throb.
He pictured an orchard full of family trees, each a gift from a different Apple in the traditional manner.
He could picture the rail stallions pulling trains into Bismarck Station, running for days on end without stopping. If they could do it, so could he.
Was the mesa closer? He couldn't tell.
The sky grew darker. Night must be falling above the clouds. At least it had stopped raining.
The sun shone, briefly, across the underside of the vast storm. It looked like a rippled sea of gold. Then it set.
The clouds parted, and there was the moon, pure and unblemished. A note of pride struck his heart: an Apple had done that.
The pain throbbed, and he winced. Yet he had to keep going.
With the moon lighting the night, nothing mattered any more except the rhythm.
And suddenly, he was in front of the infirmary, unhitched from the wagon, pounding on the door. Then, he was lying in front of the infirmary, gazing up at Doc, who had an expression of surprise. "Cousin's in th' wagon," he muttered. And then he lay still.
When he came to, it was daylight. He was lying in the soft white sheets of the infirmary. A needle was in his foreleg. His right hindleg felt stiff and sore. He was exhausted.
Across from him, on another bed, McIntosh's torso was covered in bandages. He looked at Braeburn with a curious expression. "Feelin' better?"
Braeburn smiled weakly. "Eyup."
McIntosh laughed. Then he said, "Half a day. 'Member you were tellin' me about your pa? I figger that hat fits just right."