“You sure about this Big Mac?”
The background of the station was a cacophony of bustling ponies punctuated by the shrill whistle of the waiting train. Foals cried as they were dragged along by their parents, and the ambient chugging of the idling engine made it hard to hear much of anything.
Applejack was standing within a foot of her big brother speaking well above her normal volume to be heard over the constant noise. There was no worry about being overheard by a passerby – everypony at the station was occupied with their own agenda, with no time to spare for the unrelated conversation of someone within earshot. This was provided they could be heard over the background roar of the stations array of sounds, of course.
Big Macintosh took a moment to zip his suitcase closed after giving it one last check, the noise of interlocking metal drowned out amongst a thousand louder frequencies. He placed the suitcase on the ground besides his feet.
Applejack continued to balk as Big Macintosh lifted his suitcase off the ground with his mouth and began a slow methodical walk towards the train boarding area. Applejack kept up with almost double his pace, walking back and forth behind the bulky red stallion in an uncharacteristic display of worry.
“It’s just that it’s a long way to Appeloosa, almost two days, so that’s overnight too. You won’t know anyone there except cousin Braeburn, and you ain’t been away from the farm more than a couple days for as long as I can remember. You’re positive you wanna go?”
Big Mac lowered the suit case to clear his mouth for speaking as he stopped just in front of the waiting train doors. He turned to his sister, noting the worry in her eyes as a contrast to his permanently restrained demeanour.
“Braeburn said he needs me. That’s all there is to it. You know how I feel about the matter; Family comes first… despite what cousin Braeburn might think.”
“Macintosh!” Applejack’s face contorted from concern to admonishing anger. “I ain’t gonna let you go down there if you’re gonna make trouble. If you still ain’t on good terms with Braeburn then you’d just better stay here, I reckon.”
Big Mac sighed loud enough to be heard over the nearby idling train. “Braeburn and I get along fine, sis. We just don’t see eye to eye on everything.”
The glare he got back from Applejack prompted a further reassurance.
“Everything’ll be fine, I promise. Braeburn needs my help with the new orchard, and probably some work around town as well. After two weeks are up I’ll be on the first train back to Ponyville. You won’t even notice I’m gone.”
A small smile crept across Applejack’s face.
“I dunno about that…” She giggled slightly as Big Mac gave her his widest grin and nuzzled his head into hers in lieu of a hug.
“Alright, alright. Just promise you’ll try your best to be nice.”
Big Mac tossed his suitcase over the threshold of the train-car door, then turned back to his sister again. “Ain’t goin’ down to be nice. There’s work to be done-“ His words caught as the disdainful look formed in AJ’s expression. “-but, I promise I’ll try my best.”
Applejack managed a small smile.
“I suppose that’s good enough.”
Big Macintosh turned to enter the train but found himself pinned in place by the weight of AJ’s forelegs wrapping around him in an embrace. The hug caught him off guard, but he returned the gesture, albeit with a bit less force.
The hug went on for longer than normal, eventually prompting Macintosh to gingerly lift his sister’s hooves away. After one last look at the still bustling station, the red-coated colt stepped past the threshold of the beginning of his journey. Mid-way through the door, he stopped, as if caught by an out-of-place thought. Turning back, his mouth formed his words over the volume of the background noise.
“AJ, just a quick question before I go…”
Big Mac leaned out of the door and peered down the length of the train to the very front car. “Aren’t there ponies that pull this thing? I don’t see anyone up front, or any room for ‘em either.”
Applejack nodded enthusiastically. “Twilight was telling me about this just the other day, actually. Something about gears and engines and magic and a mess o’ other sumthin’ I didn’t quite understand… but the long and short of it is there’s nopony pulling it. Thing practically drives itself, she said.”
“Something about that seems odd to me.”
“Come on Big Mac, you ain’t even out o’ Ponyville yet and you’re already getting caught up on the silliest little things. Twilight said it’s all been tested, couldn’t be safer, and it means a lot less work – I don’t imagine the ponies pulling those trains were havin’ a real fun time.”
Big Mac answered with a reluctant nod. “Fair enough, I suppose.” Curiosity satisfied, he made his way finally past the train-car doors. Pausing just before the point of closure, Big Mac turned one final time to look back at his sister, still waiting patiently for him at the departure area.
“Take care, sis. Don’t worry. Like I said, I’ll be back before you even notice I’m gone.”
The door closed abruptly, followed by the hissing and chugging, signaling the start of the newly fabricated engine. Applejack pressed a hoof to the glass window of the train-door, letting it linger there for a moment before the series of interlocked cars began to move forward. Mac watched her hoof slip away as the train picked up speed, carrying the car he was in past the very end of the Ponyville station.
Despite everything he had said, Big Mac did have to concede that family obligation was not the most enticing reason for such a long trip. Two weeks in Appeloosa… and he already felt homesick.
“I sure am glad to see you cuz’!”
Big Mac responded with silence, perhaps due to the suitcase his mouth was occupied with. After meeting Braeburn at the train station, the pair had begun the short walk into the heart of Appeloosa, down the main stretch lined with stores and busy passersby. Braeburn had beamed with unparalleled enthusiasm when Macintosh’s face surfaced among the departing crowd surging off the train, and had barreled towards him with glowing eyes and an unsurpassed smile. Big Mac had acknowledged him with a nod, and a simple ‘Braeburn.’ The curt greeting hadn’t deflated the ‘native’ Appeloosan one bit, however – his smile had remained the whole while into town, and as he gave the informal tour of the town’s facilities. Every building explanation or scenery observation was punctuated by an exclamation of just how glad Braeburn was that his cousin had come down to give him a hand.
“So that over there is the bakery, and here’s the general store… that’s our local watering hole, The Salt Lick, fun place to spend time after a hard day’s work.”
Big Mac bobbed his head, but it was hard to tell whether it was in affirmation of Braeburn’s tour explanation or because the motion of walking along with carrying his suitcase prompted the movement involuntarily. Regardless, Braeburn’s hospitality continued at full force.
“The folks around here are real nice, cuz’. I know you’re gonna enjoy your stay. Lots of work to be done, of course, which I really appreciate you coming down for – but that’s no reason we can’t have fun afterwards, right?”
Mac gave no response. Braeburn’s smile faltered just slightly.
“And, uh… this is the hotel where you’ll be staying. I’d offer you room with me, of course, but the place is barely big enough for just one pony, let alone the two of us together. You understand, I’m sure?”
Silence. Braeburn’s grin wavered at the corners of his mouth, along with the enthusiastic punch his words held a moment ago.
“So, uh… oh, one more thing! Miss Sarsaparilla’s place opened up recently just down the street. Lot of nice girls thereabouts, in case you get lonely.”
This prompted a raised eyebrow, the first definite response Big Mac had given. Braeburn sensed the implication, and backpedalled in his explanation immediately.
“No, er, nothing like that. They’re nice girls; just good to talk to if you don’t have anyone else around. You know? Though, I can’t say that some of the boys around town don’t fancy the odd one a little more than they should…”
As if prompted by the timing of the explanation, a purple coated pony in a frilly dress spoke up almost on cue. Her outfit was the whole nine-yards of western show-girl expectations, complete with black garters and mane done up in an elegant and alluring bun.
“Mr. Braeburn, I have to ask who your friend is.” The pony’s voice was like a dribble of honey, tracing her tongue around every syllable before delivering it with sultry poise, all laced in a demure southern accent. She guided her eyes over Big Mac’s entirety – given his sheer size and build, there was a lot to take in. For his part, Macintosh had stopped in front of the hotel along with Braeburn before dropping his suitcase to the dusty ground. He met the purple filly’s gaze as she examined him, keeping his face locked in a noncommittal blankness.
“Ah, Miss Charity. This is my cousin Big Macintosh from Ponyville! He’s come down to Appeloosa to help us with setting up the new apple tree grounds, and give us some help around the town as well – Big Mac’s great with numbers and all that management type stuff. He runs the Apple Acre farms up in Ponyville pretty much all by himself!”
This prompted a sideways glare from Macintosh, noticing the glaring omission of his sister’s contribution to the farm’s operation. Despite the disdain in his eyes, his mouth kept silent.
“Big Macintosh, this is Violet Charity. She works down at Miss Sarsaparilla’s.”
Charity stepped up to the pair and demurely extended a hoof which Big Macintosh stared at before meeting it with his own. The two shook hooves, Charity batting her eyelashes as the farm-pony’s strong leg gave hers a good shake.
“Charmed, Mr. Macintosh. If you ever feel like some company in the evening, feel free to stop on by – I’d be happy to give you a night on the house.” Charity smiled brightly with eyes half-open as Braeburn’s mouth fell agape with a slightly exaggerated cough.
Big Mac raised an eyebrow as he lowered his hoof, paying no attention to his cousin’s evident shock. “I’m flattered, miss, but I’m afraid I’ll have to pass for the time being.”
Charity only smiled back at him, waving her eyelashes in exaggerated flutters. “If you say so, Mr. Macintosh. Please do come by if you change your mind.”
And with that, the lilac coloured pony turned and headed down the road, giving a wiggle of her hips as she made her exit. Braeburn took a moment to collect himself before managing a reply.
“Er… Well… see, your first day in town, and you’re already making friends!”
Macintosh gave him a blank stare. Braeburn rubbed the back of his neck with one hoof awkwardly, before once again managing to bounce back into his usual enthusiasm.
“So, where did you want to head to first, cuz’? It’s a bit late to get working, so the rest of the day is up to you. Anything tickle your fancy?” Braeburn swept a hoof across the panorama of available sights and attractions the pair had passed on their way through town. He turned back to find Big Macintosh already halfway inside the hotel.
“I’m feeling a bit tired from the trip. Gonna call it an early night.”
Big Mac’s voice was dull, almost monotone. He had thrown his suitcase onto his back where it balanced expertly as he made his way through the doorway.
The sound of the door closing cut Braeburn off mid sentence. He stood silently for a short while in front of the hotel before letting out a sigh. In the middle of the town’s main street, an errant tumbleweed rolled in the wind.
“We’re gonna need you on the far end today. Lotta rocks and debris that need to be cleared out. You should find your group already getting started, just hop in and help ‘em where you can.”
A young looking pony with a subdued yellow coat nodded at Braeburn’s explanation, his customary gallon hat shielding his brow from the sun. As the enthusiastic colt dashed off to the end of the work site, his hooves kicked up a small trail of dust, which prompted Braeburn into a slight cough.
Work on the new field was going well, but slow. The original apple orchard had been a great deal less arduous; in the search for suitable farmland to cultivate, the settler ponies had stumbled upon a treasure trove left by nature. A single patch of hospitable, rich soil and potential seeding ground had been more than they had ever hoped for, turning a near hopeless venture of foolishness into a windfall of golden opportunity. What might have taken ages, if it had even been possible without the advent of such a cache of potential farming land, had been completed with unprecedented speed – and in only a year, the newly bustling community of Appeloosa had risen from the dark red dust.
That was the problem though: the rate of new ponies making their way to the frontier town was overloading the new and already fragile infrastructure. As fast the new housing could be built by the town’s best craftsponies, the residences were filled up, with still more folk waiting every day to be told there was room to accommodate their migration. If it was simply a matter of needing more houses, Braeburn was positive that a bit of extra work could sort things out, but things were more complex than that. Supplies so far out from any hospitable territory were scarce, water especially. The apple crops were the town’s livelihood, but with more mouths to feed every day, rationing was problematic. There were imports to be sold, and trades made for the bumper crop when it arrived, but the number of new occupants was simply more than could be supplied with the town’s resources.
So, they needed a new orchard. And, since it was well established that the oasis of land which had made their initial apple plantation possible was now completely packed full, something had to be done to make new land available. Soil tilling, irrigation, cultivation – but first and foremost, they had to pick an area to clear. Cliffs surrounded the town at every other angle, and the patches of land capable of eventually being leveled were packed with errant boulders, debris, and native vegetation. Braeburn had grown intimately familiar with cacti during his time at Appeloosa, a familiarity that had turned into deep-seated resentment when the succulent spiny flora occupied otherwise perfectly usable land that could have been filled with apple trees.
Asking for Big Macintosh hadn’t really been a choice – the workers in the town were hardy and ready to work, certainly, but nopony could measure up to the unrealistic standard of capability that Big Mac held himself to. He and Applejack had harvested the Applebuck Season crop at Sweet Apple Acres for years by themselves, and the normal intake of apples along with running everything on the farm besides. Braeburn told himself confidence was a necessity, even in the face of the daunting task the town was set with. That said, having Big Macintosh working at the speed of ten normal ponies was a great relief for the days ahead.
Braeburn decided to take pause from his duties as foreman and investigate his cousin’s progress. He didn’t enjoy the hooves-off approach per say, but the management needed to be done by somepony, and Braeburn had been set from the first day of exploration as someone who could get things done. Raising Appeloosa up from the ground had granted him the badge of leadership permanently, even though he never considered himself well suited for the role in the first place. He was just a pony who knew what needed to be done - something everyone in the Apple family seemed to have in common.
He found Macintosh in the west most quarry, shoulder to stone with a giant boulder. The rock Mac was struggling against was five times his size, like a small building made of stone. Other ponies were working further back closer to the main camp setup, pushing smaller rocks away, or shattering them in some cases. In many instances, however, almost every pony took the time to stare in varying degrees of awe at the amazing work being done in front of them by the comparatively colossal red colt.
Despite his innate strength, however, Big Mac was not a super-pony. The gargantuan boulder was presenting the hard-working farmpony with a bit of trouble, only yielding to his furious shoving an inch at a time. Braeburn found it as good a time as any to hop into the work in earnest.
Macintosh looked down when he noticed another body beside him. Braeburn smiled up at him as he turned his head, Mac giving a simple nod to acknowledge his cousin’s presence before tucking himself down and shoving against the rock again. The two ponies grunted together, straining against the insistent foundation of the boulder which began to give way in earnest. Even though Big Mac’s progress by himself had been admirable, Braeburn was no slouch when it came to physical labour, and together their combined force shoved the rock to the edge of the soon to be farming area, where it could wait for now.
As soon as the colossal stone slid into place, Braeburn backed away, panting and wiping sweat away from his brow. A cheer went up from the nearby ponies that couldn’t help but stop and watch. Braeburn took a moment to lift his hat off and give them a friendly wave, smiling brightly as he did so. He turned around to congratulate his cousin on a job well done – only to find him back to work, shoving another, much smaller rock towards the edge of the quarry.
“Hey Big Mac, that was a good show with that big one there, wouldn’t you say?”
Macintosh gave the final shoulder shove to plant his target into place, and then shrugged. His red coat was drenched with sweat from the combination of his hard work and the ever-present sun beating down from overhead, but he gave no sign of it agitating him, not even a short pause to wipe the sweat from his eyes. Again, it was right back to work.
Braeburn’s smiled dipped slightly. “You know should probably pace yourself, cousin! We’ve still got the better part of two weeks to clear all this out… It’s a lot of work to do, for sure, but you gotta be careful you’re not working too hard.”
Macintosh grunted as he pushed a rock several feet away from the edge line. He turned about face from the sizable stone and planted his front hooves in the ground as he reared his back legs up, pulling them in before delivering a mighty kick to the rock. The blow sent the grey rock bigger than two ponies flying backwards, tumbling over itself and landing well past the minimal clearance area for the new orchard plans.
“I’d prefer to get things done sooner, rather than later, if it’s all the same to you, ‘cuz.” The word sounded less familial when Macintosh said it, for some reason.
Feeling more acclimated to the disarmed nature of his conversational skills with Macintosh over the past day and a half, Braeburn tried to continue his optimism.
“T’ain’t no matter to me. Heck, I guess the sooner we finish, the more time left for you to enjoy your time in Aaaapeloosa, right?” Braeburn stretched the first syllable out for an exaggerated distance, beaming at the idea that Macintosh might be able to revel in the free time his extra hard work would afford.
Big Mac paused, half way through another boulder transfer. He deflated with a slight sigh, before going down and pressing his shoulder into the stone.
The answer didn’t seem quite as sincere as Braeburn had hoped. Overhead, the sun shone vigorously, drenching the ground below in its scorching rays.
The pace of Big Mac’s work continued for the next week. Despite Braeburn’s constant reassurance that they should pace themselves, and that two weeks was more than enough time, Macintosh pushed himself as though the deadline for construction had passed days ago. Every day was a flurry of heavy lifting and rock rearranging. All this, along with the process of tilling the soil, enriching it to make the ground hospitable for the trees that would need to be grown there, and the matter of hauling in the seedlings themselves. Every day, Braeburn was amazed his cousin hadn’t simply collapsed out of exhaustion. He took the opportunity several times a day to check up on him, ensuring that he was well hydrated and not on the verge of collapsing from sun-stroke. Every time Braeburn approached with a flask of water, Big Mac either shook his head in dismissal, or, rarely, gave a small nod and a ‘thanks,’ before returning to work.
The two shared short words over dinner at the hotel on the last day of the first week.
“Well, I have to say again, I’m just floored with how much we’ve gotten done in only six days! The orchard’s practically up and running now – just a matter of giving the soil time to acclimate and then moving the trees in. I don’t know how you did it, cuz. You’re a natural at this.”
“Eeyup.” Big Mac took a leisurely bite of dinner course in front of him, chomping on a mouthful of hay fries quietly as the bustle of the hotel dining area went on in the background. Braeburn felt the silence was uncomfortable.
“At this rate, there’s not much left to do at all. I took a look at the numbers you did up the other night, everything looked fine and dandy! So that means the next week should be a breeze. We can take it easy… I don’t know about you, but I sure could use a day or two to relax!”
Big Mac chewed another bite of his meal ponderously, placing his chin on his hoof and staring across the table, just past his cousin and off at nothing in particular.
“So… you’re saying we’re just about done at this point then. As good as done, probably.”
“Yep, exactly! I’m as surprised as anyone, but you really brought your A game when you came down here, cuz’! I don’t know what we would have done without you.”
“Mm.” Another bout of chewing. Braeburn took the moment of silence to have a long draught of his dinner time sarsaparilla.
“So I was thinkin’ I could head back to Ponyville tomorrow, then.”
The sentence caught Braeburn off guard. His cheeks bulged as the surprise threatened to cause him to spew his cold drink across the table, but he restrained himself, which result in a panicked swallowing followed by a harsh cough. Macintosh simply stared forward blankly.
Past the strongest bought of the coughing, Braeburn pounded his drink back on the table, giving a worried look towards his cousin while he spoke with stifled coughs as punctuation.
“Tomorrow? But we… I thought you said you’d come down for two weeks!” Braeburn became caught up in another coughing fit. Big Mac waited for it to pass before speaking, taking a sip of his water as the opportunity presented itself.
“Eeyup. But now you’re saying we’re almost done. I reckon’ y’all don’t need me down here anymore, so I’m gonna take off back to Ponyille. Farm ain’t gonna run itself, y’know.”
“But cuz’… I still need your help! There’s planting to do, and books to manage, and… it’s all a bit complicated, you know? I was hoping you’d be down for at least two weeks to help us out. Besides which… you’re just gonna up and leave your cousin like that after barely seeing him at all?” Braeburn managed a weak smile, but he could tell from Big Mac’s sombre expression that the prompt had tugged on entirely the wrong string.
“No offense, ‘cuz’, but I don’t particularly fancy spending any more time hereabouts. Nothin’ bad meant about you or your town… but there’s work to be done back at home. Can’t leave my family hangin’ like that.”
Big Mac stood up from the table as he finished his sentence, placing his napkin demurely on the top of his plate and making his way towards the stairs going to his room. Braeburn rose frantically behind him.
“Wait, cousin Mac… I’m your family, ain’t I? You’re just gonna leave me hanging when I need you’?”
Macintosh paused on the second step, his hoof held mid air as he turned his head back to his cousin.
“Well, I suppose that’d put us on about the same page, wouldn’t it, ‘cuz?”
Hooves thudded on the steps upstairs as Big Macintosh made his way to his room, leaving Braeburn standing in momentary shock at the bottom of the staircase. He took a minute to collect himself before galloping up to his cousin’s room, wearing the least friendly look he had mustered in months. His hoof pounded on Big Mac’s door.
“Big Mac, open up!” He yelled loud enough to draw the attention of a patron or two from down the hall, who peeked their heads out their doors in curiosity. Undaunted, Braeburn continued his shouting.
“Macintosh, open this door!” Braeburn pounded his hoof on the wood a few times more for good measure, the vibration of his hoof impacting the door skewing his hat with the force of his knocking. Mid knock, the door popped open. Big Mac peeked through the small opening unassumingly, his face completely blank.
“Don’t give me that!” Braeburn pushed his way inside the hotel room as he yelled, glaring at his cousin all the while.
“Where do you get off saying something like you did, Big Mac? Them ain’t no words for family to throw at each other.”
“Funny,” said Big Mac calmly, gazing at Braeburn disinterestedly through half open eyes. “I didn’t think it’d be such a sore spot.”
“You’re darn right it is! Where do you get off saying I’d abandon my family, for any reason? Y’all know I love every member of the Apple clan, you and AJ especially-“
Braeburn’s last word faltered as he saw Mac’s expression change, going from a nonchalant disinterest to narrowed eyes and a grim frown.
“Because that’s just what you did, ‘cuz’. Don’t act like you don’t remember. The very first year, no more n’ a month after our folks passed, and you took off to make your fortune in this Celestia forsaken desert.”
Braeburn balked slightly. He couldn’t remember a single time he had heard Big Macintosh raise his voice in anger, if ever at all. The sound was unsettling – he was used to the substantially sized stallion speaking only in the most subdued fashion possible. Hearing him reprimand with extra volume was disconcerting, to say the least.
“Now, look here, I didn’t abandon you all, I just-“
“I can’t think of a better word for it. You knew things were gonna be hard on Applejack and me, but you had better things to do with yer’ time than stay and help your cousins on their farm. You wanted to go make a name for yourself, be the first pony to set hoof in a new and exciting frontier town… all of that was more important than your family.”
He hadn’t forgotten the conversation between himself and his two cousins those years ago. Maybe the incident had just slipped to the back of his mind, because he hadn’t seen it the way Big Mac was presenting… the whole thing had been a whirlwind of sullen relatives and dismal conversations, and suddenly an opportunity had presented itself, and he had taken it. He knew Big Mac and AJ could handle themselves, even if things might be a little… difficult. And he had let Macintosh know what the situation was before he had left. Surely Mac would have said something if…
He remembered now. The words had been quiet, and brief – even then, Big Mac hadn’t raised his voice. He had just asked in a sunken, pleading tone, if Braeburn would stay.
“Please, Braeburn. We need your help. AJ’s still not ready to run things here, and Applebloom’s just a filly… I can’t do it without you.”
“I’m sorry Mac. Really and truly I am… but an opportunity like this doesn’t come along every day, or even in a lifetime! If I pass it up now, there’s no telling if I’ll ever get a chance to be a part of something like this again. I know you and Applejack will be fine without me.”
The first train out of Ponyville the next morning had taken him to the sprawling southern dry lands that would someday become Appeloosa.
Braeburn’s tongue floundered around his attempt at words.
“Mac, I… you know that you and AJ… If I had thought…”
“I’ll be heading out tomorrow morning. If you need any help with the books before then, leave ‘em outside the door and I’ll take a look before I go.” Big Mac nudged his still stammering cousin towards the door, giving him a not-so-gentle shove outside into the hallway before drawing the door closed. He paused before the lock clicked, speaking out through a narrow slit in the doorway.
“But, it’s like I said… I’m sure you’ll be fine without me.”
The door slammed loudly. Braeburn stood in the hallway without a sound for a moment or two, before slowly making his way down the stairs and out of the hotel.
Braeburn and Big Mac met at the train station early after the first sunrise the next day.
“Morning, cuz’. You sleep alright?”
Braeburn glanced back and forth awkwardly. The station was practically empty this early in the morning – ever since the recent innovation of the new automated train systems, more frequent and convenient runs were possible, meaning folks with poorly timed schedule obligations could still find some kind of accommodation. In this case, Braeburn wasn’t sure he saw anypony else waiting for the train besides himself and his cousin. Speaking of whom...
“So, uh, Big Macintosh… I was thinking the other night…” The sentence took its time to assemble over the awkward pauses, but Big Mac said nothing, patiently waiting for his cousin to put the words together.
“Er… I was thinking maybe it would be alright with you if I came back up to Ponyville with you.”
Big Mac raised an eyebrow. “Come back ta’ Ponyville? Might I ask why?”
“Come on, cuz’… You know I miss you and AJ, and the rest of the family too, though they ain’t likely to be around this time of year… I just thought I could come up and say hi, you know? Pay a visit and see how y’all are doin’. It’s like I said last night, things are practically done on the new orchard, so I’m sure I could stand to take a few days off for… family.”
Big Mac lowered his suspicious eyebrow, but his face remained skeptical. The tone of his speech, however, gave no indication he was anything but complacent. He shrugged. “I suppose if you feel like making the trip and ya’ think the town’ll do alright while you’re gone.”
“Aw, they’ll be fine. I ain’t as in charge as people like to think… I just kind of know how things work. The place’ll run itself for a few days while I do something important.”
Braeburn’s grin was back in an attempt to convey to his cousin the implications of his visit, or what he hoped it might demonstrate in regards to the past night’s discussion – but Big Mac said nothing, simply nodding his head slightly and staring patiently at the train station docking area, waiting for the vehicle to arrive.
The hiss of steam announced the incoming train several minutes later, wheels screeching as it pulled into the station. Big Mac hefted his suitcase in his mouth, likely substantially heavy, though it was tiny in comparison to Mac’s sizable frame. Braeburn had opted for a more easily portable set of saddlebags slung onto his back, containing the things from home he’d need for a several days visit at Ponyville. Macintosh approached the ticket counter with his luggage, but stopped when tapped on the back by a hoof from Braeburn.
“No worries about the tickets, cuz’, got it all sorted out.” Braeburn beamed as he brandished the two boarding passes from the side of his bag. “Least I could do for all the help you gave in the last week.”
“I’d’a been able to pay for ‘em myself.”
Braeburn’s smile was unfaltering. “No doubt you would, but I figured I’d do my part to pay you back.”
The single ticket held extend in front of Big Mac was a bright red, almost the same colour as his coat. He grasped it between his hooves, opting to toss his suitcase onto his back again with a flick of his head.
“No problem, ‘cuz.”
The two colts made their way to the train door where an automated mechanism stared at them from the door. A simple flash of the tickets prompted a loud buzz and the sliding open of the train-car door. Macintosh entered first, walking slowly toward the nearest available seat and setting his suitcase on the floor. Braeburn took a few minutes to look around the car before settling, remarking on the comfortable looking nature of the interior. Mac simply nodded unenthusiastically.
Within several minutes, the train doors hiss and clamped together tightly, followed by the noisy outpouring of steam from the smokestack. The wheels began to turn, along with the first laborious clack of the engines dragging the cars across the laid out rail. Much faster than it seemed possible, the train was up and running, leaving Appleloosa a tiny speck off in the distance.
The first stretch of the ride gave Braeburn an opportunity to look around the train. After a quick tour, he deduced that he and Big Macintosh were the only passengers that early in the morning. He had attempted to gain entrance to the engineering car before realizing that this train, and all the trains in operation since a short while ago, were no longer operated by a real pony. Instead, a complex system of automated gears and magical levers told the train where to go, and how fast it needed to go to get there on time. All in all, much more efficient and less prone to error than a live conductor – and the same to be said about the automated engine instead of a group of ponies hauling the several tons of metal and passengers across giant stretches of land.
Big Macintosh said little, as had been the trend since his arrival in Appleloosa. He stayed in his seat for the first several hours, staring out the window at the passing scenery, or what little of it there was. Appleloosa and the surrounding area were not known for their scenic view. Miles and miles of dry, flat desert stretched out in every direction from the train, along with cacti and the occasional desert creature peeking out from its shade behind a rock. Big Mac didn’t see much of interest, but there was little else to occupy his time in any case, so a scenic observation seemed the best choice.
After a while, Braeburn made it abundantly clear the early wakeup was taking its toll on him. Work schedules in Appleloosa varied a good deal from the ‘waking with the sun’ policy at Sweet Apple Acres, and the lack of sleep coupled with the week of hard work had left him feeling utterly fatigued. After several false starts at conversation with Big Macintosh, the sandy yellow earth-pony settled in for a short nap on the most comfortable set of seats he could find – not a difficult task, given the two cousins had the train essentially to themselves. Braeburn found himself thinking about his visit as he drifted off to sleep. He hoped Applejack would be happy to see him…
Braeburn awoke an indeterminate amount of time later with the sensation of an insistent nudging prodding him in the side. He heard his name being muttered through the haze of his vanishing sleep.
“Braeburn, can y’all wake up?”
The Appleloosan blinked, rubbing his eyes with his hooves to clear the sleep. How long had he napped for? And what was so important he couldn’t be allowed to rest for the duration of the trip? At least one of those was worth vocalizing.
“Big Mac? How long was I asleep for?”
“Not too long, ain’t important. Just had something I needed to direct your attention to.”
A long yawn followed an exaggerated stretch as Braeburn got up from his makeshift sleeping quarters. His hat had become skewed in his sleep, and now hung lopsided to the left of his head, leaving a lock of bright orange bed-hair poking out from the lifted side. Still woozy, he followed Big Macintosh’s beckoning directions all the way to the side window, which Mac lifted open, letting the wind buffet the open section of the car.
“D’ya wanna just peek your head out there and tell me if you can see what I thought I saw? Looks like something big at that there end of the tracks…”
Braeburn popped his head out the window as directed, squinting his eyes in the fast moving breeze. He directed his gaze to the far end of the train, and then followed the tracks forward as far into the distance as he could manage to see – a point that was approaching rapidly given the train’s level of acceleration. The cars were passing through one of Appleloosa’s many neighbouring cliff passages, with great red rock walls on either side. And, just as Big Mac had posited, there was something in the middle of the tracks at the end of the cliffy area – a giant obstruction, larger than the biggest boulder they had moved off the new orchard, was firmly planted in the center of the train’s path.
Mac’s voice cut through the whistling of the fast moving wind as Braeburn pulled his head back inside. “Look like a big ol’ rock sittin’ right in our way?”
Braeburn nodded, unsure of what further to say.
“Jus’ checkin’. Ain’t no need to worry, I reckon’. I’m sure they’ve got all sorts o’ fancy mechanisms in place to check this kinda stuff.”
For some reason, Braeburn’s blank expression in response left Mac feeling a little unsettled.
“Braeburn? There is somethin’ in place to make sure we don’t up and crash, ain’t there?”
“I… think so…” Braeburn metered his words carefully, biting his lip as he glanced out the window again. His visible anxiety prompted a raised eyebrow from Big Macintosh.
The yellow colt hopped to his feet from the seat he had taken after his glance outside the window. “I’ll go take a look at the engine room. Like you said, probably nothing to worry about… I’m sure we’ll pull up to a stop just a little ways away. Gotta be something in place for this kind of thing.” Braeburn’s momentary nervousness seemed to vanish, and he ran through the door adjoining their cart with the next, down on his way to the closed door of the operations room he had examined earlier. Big Mac simply looked on with concern.
A minute or two passed with no word from his cousin. Mac poked his head out the still open window, and saw the giant impasse still planted firmly in place – now looking a great deal larger and more imposing than it had at initial detection. The train was approaching quite rapidly, with no sign of slowing down.
Mac pulled his head back inside and calmly but speedily made his way down the series of train cars, stopping when he reached the sight of his cousin frantically scrambling through a search of the series of panels on the front of the next car.
The voice that answered him was an exaggeration of cheerfulness, an attempt to mask the nervous undertone that carried it. “Nothing to worry about, cuz’! Just tryin’ to find some kind of emergency stop button, you know, or something like that. Just in case the train doesn’t stop on its own, of course, which I’m sure it will. Really nothing to worry about.”
Mac furrowed his brows further. He walked to a nearby window and lifted it upwards, peeking his head once more outside and looking down the tracks. After a moment, he drew his head back in.
“Cuz’, don’t you fret! Like I said, I’m sure there’s a measure in place for just this kind of situation. Just trying to see if there’s something I missed, you know, in case of a malfunction, or just for extra safety.”
Most of the panels on the door were hanging wide open, numerous switches and buttons in various states of attempted activation. Now Braeburn was yanking open the more firmly closed compartments to find bundled sets of wires. He contemplated for a moment, a small collection of sweat forming on his brow, before yanking a pair of the wires outward with a snap.
“Those wires ain’t no problem, just checkin’ all the options, you know. Ain’t no matter, should be pulling up to a stop any minute now.”
Big Mac’s voice raised above its normal subdued volume for the second time in as many days. “Braeburn-“
The word was cut off mid-syllable, hanging in the air for a moment along with the disarming lack of sound that followed the pause when forty tons of metal suddenly stopped moving. The world hung still for a moment, time slowing to a crawl
It quickly reasserted itself with unprecedented volume. A screeching scream impacted the ears of the two colts inside the train, along with the rapid loss of gravity. The floor beneath them sailed upwards, quickly abandoning all pretence of proper directional assertion. Braeburn and Big Mac found themselves tumbling through the air into whatever object cared to bar their passage, sailing backwards into the rest of the train as the cars realigned themselves mid-air. The operations room door that Braeburn was forced to leave behind at the insistence of his new momentum took no time exploding into a shower of sparks and rapidly disassembling metal, followed by the rest of the nearby car along with it. Braeburn opted to close his eyes when the first brilliant flash of impromptu welding nearly blinded him, imagining that whatever happened going forward was likely out of his hooves regardless.
He felt his body tumbling for a while, the occasional impact of an unseen object jarring his body in various places, and likely, he suspected, leaving bruises in their wake. Though, he assessed at this point that if the train ever stopped moving, bruises would be the least of his concerns.
Meeting the ground was an impactful event. The hissing screech of metal on rock left his ears for a moment, only to be replaced with the sound of ten separate cars smashing into the dirt and sliding until their momentum vanished. The landing went relatively smoothly – Braeburn surmised the train had jostled in position a number of times before finally falling, and it was likely something of a miracle that it had chosen to land in relative mimicry of its original position. He thought all this while his ears filled with the grinding of metal on solid ground, moving forward with no vision until the train finally slid to a halt. At last, he opened his eyes.
The scene in front of him was one he could have done without. Shards of metal and sparking wires, along with the mangled mess of what had once been a spacious and accommodating train-car interior, now sandwiched together in a marvel of unintentional post-modern engineering, courtesy of their friend the road-block. Braeburn groaned, the impact of his various visits to the numerous interior objects catching up with him. His side hurt something fierce.
He found after attempting to stand, however, that his legs were still functional, if a little shaky. That was something. He said the first words that came to mind, yelling them through the mass of compacted train cars.
“Big Mac! Where are you?”
There was no answer but for the hissing of heated metal.
Both ends of his car had been closed off by the force of the impact – but there at the side where the automatic door had been was now an inviting opening, beckoning him outside into fresh air and away from the mangled train fragments. He opted to follow the former door’s invitation.
The car he was in had only partially folded, meaning no unnecessary acrobatics were required to make his way outside. The fiercely beaming Appleloosan sun directly overhead was a welcome sight. There was the matter of the rest of the train, however.
A quick glance backwards revealed the remains of the rock, evidently less sturdy than he had anticipated, or perhaps simply yielding at the behest of the giant weight of rapidly moving metal. Several crumpled cars stretched out behind him in various states of wholeness... under one of them, crushed almost flat to the ground, he thought he saw something.
A glimmer of red under the sunlight.
He ran as fast as his legs could move him towards the bright colour protruding from underneath the newly revised train car design, poking out from what he believed to be the door in a former existence. Approaching from only several feet away, he saw the face that went along with the bright crimson.
“Big Mac! You’re okay!”
“…eeyup.” Mac was pulling himself forward with his front hooves, essentially crawling through the dirt along the ground as he removed the rest of his body from the smoldering debris. Braeburn ran to help him, grasping a leg as best he could between his hooves and pulling his cousin forward.
“You are okay, right? I got a couple bruises from the tumble…” As he finished his sentence, Braeburn took the opportunity to look over Big Mac’s entirety – he grimaced when he reached his hind right leg.
“…leg hurts pretty bad. Maybe broken.”
Braeburn nodded grimly at the sight of the disjointed limb. Legs were not supposed to bend that way.
“Can you walk at all? We should try and move away from here a bit…”
Big Mac raised himself to a standing position with his three most capable limbs before testing a bit of his weight on the damaged appendage. The pursing of his lips told Braeburn the leg was out of commission for the time being.
“…hurts a fair bit. Can still walk, just gonna be slower.”
“That’s fine, cuz’. Here, I’ll help you get going, put your leg up here.”
Macintosh did as directed without the thing of a complaint, placing his foreleg on his cousin’s back, and hobbling along with him away from the shattered wreckage of the new and improved train car design.
The two paused when they had made a good distance from the smouldering metal and debris.
“So it looks like that ‘automatic stoppage mechanism’ we were hoping for ain’t implemented in this design.”
Big Mac grimaced as he sat, bracing as much of his weight as he could away from his injured leg.
“I’m sorry cuz’. I had no idea something like this could happen. That boulder must have showed up overnight.”
“s’ not your fault.” Big Mac managed, still visibly pained by the soreness of his damaged appendage.
“What should we do? We ain’t even half way to Ponyville… and I don’t know if there’ll be anyone out to come help. No idea what kind of messaging system they’ve got in those things. Though, from the look of what just happened, likely not a good one.”
Big Macintosh simply nodded, before tilting his head backwards and staring up at the clear desert sky.
“We could try and make it back to Appleloosa… can’t be too far, probably only a day or two if we go at top speed.” Braeburn paused, and gave a glance down at his cousin’s injury. “But, your leg…”
“I can still walk, just gonna be a bit slower.” Macintosh spoke his reply through gritted teeth, standing up from the red dust.
“You think you can make it all the way back to Appleloosa like that?”
Mac tested his weight again, drawing another grimace before he withdrew it.
“Ain’t got much of a choice, do I?”
“I could make the way back myself. It’d take two days tops, and I’d be back here with a group of rescue ponies before you know it.”
“Dunno if I can make it as long as that’d take without water. Don’t feel too keen on sittin’ here waitin’ neither.”
Braeburn sighed loudly. He didn’t like the idea of leaving his cousin in the middle of the desert with no protection or resources either. Was forcing him to walk all the way back to Appleloosa really a good idea though? It’d take the two of them that much longer to get back to civilization.
The dilemma solved itself while Braeburn was locked in contemplation – he turned his gaze to where his cousin had been to find the injured red colt hobbling forward in the direction of Appleloosa.
“Mac!” Braeburn ran to his cousin’s side, lifting one of the red stallion’s front legs and bracing against him for support. Mac nodded his thanks.
“Alright. We’ve got a long walk ahead of us, but rushin’ isn’t gonna help us. Just take it nice and slow, alright?”
Big Macintosh nodded.
The result of a first day’s walking was a small cave along the giant cliff-face the train had driven them past. Coupled with the setting of the sun, the shade practically made the end of the trek seem comfortable.
Braeburn had realized half-way through the walk that despite the tumbling of the train, most of the items in his saddlebag were still intact, including the emergency supplies he brought everywhere with him – in this case, a small canteen of water, and firestarters. The pair had no food among them, but Braeburn posited that a small camp-fire might be a good idea, both to scare away would be night predators, and provide a small feeling of homeliness. Big Mac had given his one word agreement, and the fire had been lit, and was now smoking and crackling peacefully at the edge of the cave.
“How’s your leg holding up, Big Mac?” Braeburn poked at the fire with a stick as he made conversation, acknowledging there wasn’t a great deal to discuss given the recent turn of events.
“’s alright. Doesn’t hurt too bad if I don’t think about it.”
“We’ll get you all fixed up soon, don’t you worry. I know this desert like the back of my hoof. Shouldn’t take us too long to get back to Appleloosa.”
Big Mac said nothing, simply staring at the brilliant flames in front of him as they swayed and danced in the night air. Eventually, he murmured a sentence even quieter than normal.
“Sorry I’m slowin’ us down. I appreciate yer’ bein’ so helpful.”
Braeburn gave his first grin since the crash of the train.
“Don’t you worry about it, cuz’. I know you’d do the same for me if I was hurt. After all, we’re family right? Kin gotta look out for one another.”
Mac was silent again. The fire crackled and spit as the two ponies sat beside it, neither of them managing to muster up anything further. Eventually, it was Big Mac who broke the relative silence.
“You like it here, Braeburn?”
“What, you mean in this cave? It’s no warm comfy bed waiting at home for me, but sure, it’ll do for now.”
“Not what I meant. Here, Appleloosa. You like it here?”
Braeburn considered the weight of the inquiry. Appleloosa was his home. He had built the town and orchard up from scratch where nopony had first thought it possible. It was his town, in more than just name, but in his heart as well.
“’course I do. Appleloosa’s my home. Watched it grow up since it was just a dream in my head.”
The fire popped several times more in the silence that followed Braeburn’s answer. He took it upon himself to break the silence this time.
“Is there a reason you’re asking, cuz’?”
Mac was silent for a moment, still staring at the swirling bunch of flames in front of him through half-opened eyes. Somewhere off in the distance of the desert, a wolf howled up at the brilliant moon overhead.
“Was just wonderin’ if it was worth leavin’ for.”
Braeburn’s disposition sank, but he answered regardless. “Not the time or the place to bring that up, Mac. But, if you need to know… yes, it was worth leaving for. It’s like I said… you and AJ did just fine, and chances are Appleloosa wouldn’t be here today if not for me and the other settler ponies. Is there a reason you’re harpin’ on this?”
“Jus’ curious. Town’s nice enough, no doubt. Real good job you did puttin’ it together. Just suppose it’s a matter of priorities.”
“And what do you mean by that?” Braeburn’s voice took on a hint of anger now, a sign of growing frustration at his cousin’s avenue of inquiry.
“There’s plenty o’ stuff I coulda done with my life if I left the farm… Apples are all I’ve ever known, but there’s a whole world o’ possibility out there. Just wonderin’ what’s so different between us. I’ve been on the farm my whole life cuz’ my family needed me, but you ran off at the drop of a hat to chase your crazy dream.”
Braeburn turned to his cousin now, his face contorted in anger.
“Where do you get off, Big Macintosh? If it wasn’t for me and the rest of settlers, Appleloosa wouldn’t be here today, and neither would any of the ponies that make a living there. This whole desert would just be one big empty pile of dust. You’re saying you think that’d be better?”
Macintosh leaned back on the rock he had found as a seat, staring up at the cave ceiling. “Ain’t sayin’ no such thing. Just wonderin’ why you don’t feel bad for leavin’ your family by themselves when they needed you.”
“It’s because there’s more to life than family sometimes, Mac.”
Again, the fire took over the lull in the conversation, filling the would-be silence with the sound of the crackling flames. It went on for longer than before.
“Well, I guess that’s all there is to it then.”
Big Mac raised himself from the uncomfortable makeshift seating and walked as best he could to a corner of the cave away from the fire, lowering himself to the ground and closing his eyes, apparently attempting to sleep.
Braeburn found himself still fuming at the conversation that had just passed. He wasn’t about to let the discussion end so abruptly. Rising from the ground with a scuffle of his hooves on the dirt, he made his way to Big Mac’s impromptu sleeping quarters.
“So that’s it then? All you’ve got to say on the matter?”
The red coated colt said nothing.
“Darn it, Big Mac, I ain’t done talkin’ about this!”
The answer came from Mac without movement.
“No, that ain’t it. You can’t just prod and guilt me like this and then turn off when I’ve got something to say back. You tell me what makes you so sure that I’ve done something so wrong… why you think having a dream, or a life outside your family is such a sin.”
The silence hung for a moment before Big Mac managed an answer.
“Havin’ a dream ain’t nothing to be ashamed of, and neither is goin’ after that dream. I ain’t holdin’ it against ya’ for doing what you wanted with your life.”
Big Mac propped himself up on his forelegs, turning to face his cousin.
“What I do have a problem with, is you thinkin’ any o’ that takes priority over your family. Family’s the one thing in this world you don’t get a second chance at. The folk that are closest to you, who care about you the most… ain’t no reason for givin’ ‘em less than everything, because they’ll do the same for you. Or at least… that’s the way it oughta work.”
Again, Braeburn found himself slightly dumbfounded. His mouth hung half open as Big Mac continued speaking.
“I’d’ve been the first person to give you a pat on the back and help you on to that train down here, Braeburn, if you hadn’t been getting on it with me an’ AJ needing you to stay so bad. That’s what I learned about you when you left – that no matter how bad your family needs you, you’ve got priorities higher than that. And that’s where you and I don’t get along – family’s everything to me, to all the Apple family asides yourself. I ain’t gonna force you to see things my way, but I also ain’t gonna forgive you for doing what you did when we needed you the most.”
Big Mac turned onto his side again, using his hooves as a makeshift pillow as the fire crackled several feet away.
“Sorry again for slowin’ us down so much. I’ll see you in the mornin’.”
Braeburn stood silently for a moment before making his way back to the fire. A couple kicks of dust and the flames were extinguished, leaving the moon as the only light for miles, shining onto the desert from overhead. Silently, the yellow colt curled up, and tried his best to fall asleep amidst the not-quite silent ambience of the desert in the background.
The next day’s walk felt a good deal more arduous. Whether because injuries had taken their time to settle, or because the early start meant longer underneath the sun, Braeburn found himself aching and exhausted only hours after he and Big Mac set out. Though the morning had started with Big Mac insisting he could walk fine on his own, a couple near-collapses by the red farm-colt had prompted assistance from Braeburn, and the two now walked together. At around half-past noon, by Braeburn’s estimation, he was in dire need of a break.
“What do you say we take a breather here for a minute, Mac?”
Macintosh shrugged noncommittally.
“’rather keep going, but if you need a break, I ain’t gonna keep walkin’ without you.”
Partly because you need me holding you up in the first place… Braeburn thought.
“It’s a long way to Appleloosa either way, I don’t see the sense in killin’ ourselves in the sun before we get there.”
Mac shrugged again. Instead of sitting alongside his panting cousin, Big Mac remained standing, tapping one of his good hooves idly against the dirt as he waited.
Braeburn felt slightly annoyed. He might not be walking for Macintosh, but he was certainly doing his part to help him along – and now he was here being guilted into taking a short break after hours of walking in the hot sun?
“You know not everyone’s as hard a worker as you are, Mac. Some ponies need to take the occasional break.”
Since the night before, the atmosphere between the two colts had been relatively sensitive. Neither had spoken much upon awaking, and the words shared along the first part of the walk were mostly pleasantries – as pleasant as they could be given the circumstance. Braeburn wasn’t sure what had prompted the verbal jab at his cousin, but now the awkward silence hung in the air between them, the last thing he wanted with still at least another day’s walking to do.
“Jus’ seems to me it’d be a better idea to keep goin’ till we get back. Don’t see the point in dawdling.”
“It ain’t ‘dawdling’, it’s called taking minute to rest so I don’t pass out from carrying you all the way back to Appleloosa in one go.”
Braeburn didn’t feel himself when he was anything but pleasant – and from the words that had been shared the night previous, he didn’t think he had any reason to be scornful or bitter. The words had simply come out that way, likely due entirely to the frustration he had felt building up since his first friendly hello had been rebuffed.
Macintosh’s reply gave away no hint that Braeburn’s verbal jab had upset him – his tone was as neutral as ever. For some reason, this left Braeburn feeling a bit put out – he’d spent the whole of his cousin’s visit in an uncomfortable state of self-admonishment and accommodating guilt, and now when he had the nerve to speak up, Mac couldn’t even let out that maybe he had some kind of emotions as well.
“You know, Mac, maybe this says a little something about you. Ties in with everything you’ve been griping about. Holdin’ other folks to your unrealistic standards, whether it’s workin’ without stop or giving up their lives to spend ‘em with their family. Seems like maybe it’s not me who’s got the problem.”
No reply. Braeburn felt a heat burning inside him along with the sun from overhead.
“I’m tired of feeling like I owe you so much just ‘cause I did something with my life instead of sticking around in that going-nowhere town to help you on that stupid farm! Seems to me like you’re just jealous.”
The one word reply broke the damn that had stayed the rest of Braeburn’s frustration. He kicked a large bunch of dust into the air with his hind legs.
“Well if you’re so sure of yourself then you can make your way back to Appleloosa on your own!”
And before he could take a moment to assess the ramifications of what he had just said, Braeburn galloped off into the distance, leaving Big Mac standing by himself in the scorching desert heat.
Braeburn ran for a good while before finally stopping, panting loudly as he wiped away the sweat that had accrued on his forehead. He stood for a moment to catch his breath, before the weight of what he had done caught up with him.
Could he really just leave Big Macintosh out here in the middle of the desert like that? He knew that Mac was a hard worker, never a pony to give up when set with a task – but given the circumstance, he wasn’t sure this was a job Macintosh could complete on his own. By Braeburn’s best estimation, Appleloosa was at least another day and a half away, and that was at the best conceivable pace. He could probably make it back in half a day by himself, going at full speed with the occasional break. But as for Macintosh…
He didn’t know the area as well as Braeburn either. There was a very probably chance he would get lost. Even if Braeburn managed to make it back and bring help as quickly as possible, they might not find him in time. And underneath the heat of the sun with no water for miles…
Why had he said those things, when normally restraint was so easy? The undertone of Mac’s attitude had been evident since he first greeted him at the train station. Braeburn might have forgotten the particulars of their exchange those years ago, but he hadn’t forgotten what the disagreement meant in the first place. He knew about Big Mac’s resentment, though he was usually reluctant to voice it. Instead, he had stayed surly and quiet the whole time, or any time he had seen Braeburn in the years following their exchange, the number of which Braeburn could count on one hoof. Mostly, he’d heard about Macintosh’s feelings through Applejack, whom he had stayed in at least semi-frequent contact with. AJ was apparently quicker to forget… or at the very least, she understood why Braeburn had made his decision when he had. Applejack was a normal pony, not a bizarre semi-construct of work ethic and family obligation.
Why couldn’t Mac understand, or forgive? Braeburn had done everything in his power to be pleasant and accommodating, in understanding of his cousin’s not-so-secret ire. And at every turn, he had been met with sullen disinterest and emotionless response. He had tried everything, short of admitting he was wrong.
Braeburn sighed to himself, still standing underneath the blazing sun in a patch of desert. He wished Applejack was here. He knew she could have convinced Macintosh of his unrealistic stubbornness. That was one cousin Braeburn could count on, at least.
Applejack. When was the last time he had seen her? She and her friends had visited Appleloosa a while ago with the delivery of a new tree for the orchard, when the dispute with the buffalo had been mid-swing. It’d had been nice to see his cousin, even given the nature of the circumstance, and her friends had proved instrumental in helping to sort out the problems between the ponies and their native neighbours. So what about before that?
He couldn’t think of another time. Not since that day, when he had left. Had it really been that long?
Two, three years… he wasn’t sure. The days had blended together. There was so much to be done to get Appleloosa on track, to make it grow from a simple apple-seed dream in the ground into the boisterous town it had become. There wasn’t much time for family visits. He couldn’t think of the last time he had seen Big Macintosh before now, either. Unless, on that day he had left, the last time they had spoken was…
He had been gone a long time, really.
There was so much work to be done though, surely he couldn’t be blamed if he hadn’t written that often. Visits were out of the question, a long train trip while the town was still growing. Really, it was perfectly understandable that he hadn’t spoken to his cousin in…
The three years since he had begged him to stay.
He had only heard from Applejack more than a year after. She had told him things on the farm were going well, though difficult.
Maybe he had forgotten to write back to that first letter for a while.
Scuffling up a bit of dirt as he turned, Braeburn began the run back to the spot he had left Macintosh waiting. He hoped he was still there.
He found Big Mac closer than he had expected him. Despite his injury, the colt had managed to make a decent pace in the direction he’d seen his cousin run off – whether because he meant to find him, or because he imagined that to be the direction that Appleloosa laid on the horizon. Braeburn slowed his pace as he approached, sweating from a little extra beyond the heat of the sun. Macintosh said nothing as Braeburn approached, but he stopped his awkward three legged hobble and met his eyes as he came closer.
The words were difficult to find.
“Mac, I’m… sorry. I didn’t mean that, honest. I just imagine this whole thing has got me a little on edge, what with the crash, and the heat, and all… I really am sorry.”
It was the best he could manage without touching on the thought that had prompted him to run back in the first place. It drew a nod from Big Mac, at least.
He was always of so few words… unless you got him talking on the right subject. The one he had been very vocal about in the last few days…
Braeburn grabbed his cousin’s leg and placed it on his back, beginning the alongside walk in the direction of the setting sun.
“Appleloosa’s likely less than two days away by my count. Should be back in no time at all.”
Mac nodded, gritting his teeth slightly as he walked on. Strangely, Braeburn found the sight calming – it was odd to imagine that his cousin could feel any kind of strain, no matter how little he showed it. It made him think that maybe, they were both normal ponies after all.
The two shared few words as they continued their walk. Once or twice, Braeburn called for a stop to catch his breath, which Macintosh acknowledged without a word. He showed no sign of visible fatigue… but when his cousin remarked aloud about his thirst, Big Mac quietly grabbed the canteen from Braeburn’s bags and offered it to him. Braeburn had protested, saying the last of their water needed to be rationed carefully.
“Naw, it’s like you said. We’ll be back in town in no time at all, right?”
The remark had gotten a smile from Braeburn before he downed the last drops of liquid from the container.
Another night meant another campfire. There were no cliffs or caves to be found anywhere near the conclusion of the day’s walk, so the pair had settled into a patch of dirt mostly surrounded by cacti, in the hopes that the partial barrier might make the spot feel a little more enclosed. Braeburn had contributed the first snippets of conversation.
“Sure could go for a bite to eat when we get back… isn’t much to chose from out here.”
Braeburn had been down to his last stompstarter as well – a box of wood and matches that could be easily lit from a simple press from a hoof. He reasoned that, given his estimations, they would likely reach Appleloosa by the end of the next day, and as such, there was no reason to restrict the use of the thing that would let them feel moderately safe at night. Luckily no desert creatures had made their presence known through the course of the journey, but that didn’t mean they weren’t out there waiting for just the opportunity to do so.
With the lack of a proper shelter, they opted to leave the fire burning throughout the night. Big Macintosh was the first to turn in, lying down onto his side next to the fire. Braeburn followed suit shortly thereafter. He lay next to the fire, staring up at the stars over head for a while, before his voice spoke out over the noise of the flames.
“Mhm?” Macintosh was evidently still awake as well.
“How are things going… on the farm, I mean, with you and Applejack?”
“Fine. Good harvest this year. AJ and me manage to keep the place running.”
“Good, good… how about Applebloom? How’s she doing?”
“Goin’ to school. Don’t get her to help too much with the farm, bein’ so young. She’s always goin’ on about how badly she wants her cutie mark…”
“Kids at that age, huh? I remember when I was little, I wanted mine more than anything in the world… seems like an eternity for it to show up when you want it so bad.”
The fire’s ambience covered the hole of silence in the conversation with another bout of pops and crackles, sending the occasional spark into the air, where it quickly dissipated. Several minutes of near silence passed before Braeburn spoke again.
There was no response this time. Braeburn wasn’t sure if Big Mac had fallen asleep, or simply opted to remain quiet. He continued regardless.
“I ain’t sorry for what I did, comin’ down here to Appleloosa. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done with my life, and it’s made so many ponies’ lives possible… lives they never would have had if I hadn’t helped build the place up. But…”
The pause lingered over the sound of the fire.
“…but I am sorry for leaving when y’all needed me. I realized I ain’t seen you since I took off a couple years ago… that I ain’t asked how you and AJ were making out on the farm. That maybe I ain’t been the best cousin. So... I’m hopin’ you’ll accept my apology, for that, at least.”
Big Macintosh still said nothing, so Braeburn continued.
“I think I maybe understand where you’re coming from, not lettin’ this go for so long… You felt the same way I felt when you said you were takin’ off the other day. ‘cept you had a good deal more reason than I did to get upset about it. I didn’t even realize how long it’d been when I wrote you, askin’ for your help… three years!” Braeburn paused for a moment to collect his thoughts, tracing his hoof along the stars in the sky, in what he imagined must be a constellation he couldn’t remember the name of.
“I guess the difference between us… no, I don’t want to think there’s a difference. Because you’ve been saying ever since I first met you that you care about your family more than anything. I think I do too… maybe I just forgot about that. I ain’t gonna say I know you’re right, and that what I did was so unforgivable… I think maybe you need to see things from my perspective too. Not everyone can spend their whole life on a farm with their family, workin’ their hardest every day for a whole lot o’ nothing. Maybe I could have picked a better time to leave… but I woulda gone just the same if I’d had the chance the year after.”
Braeburn sighed, letting his hooves fall to the ground.
“Maybe you understand more than you let on, and you just don’t feel like forgiving me… and I guess that’s fine, if it’s the way you want to be. But it ain’t ‘cause of some awful reason that I left you two to take care of the farm like I did. It’s because I know you… I know the Apple family. We always manage to come through somehow, no matter how tough things seem. So I knew you’d be fine, even if I wasn’t around. I guess I just didn’t say it the right way.”
Turning to his side, Braeburn’s voice lowered to just above a whisper as he curled up in preparation for sleep.
“ I don’t wanna think about how hard that first year must have been… and if I could go back, maybe I’d have done things differently… but I knew you’d be fine, you and AJ both. Still… I am sorry.”
With a tuck of his hat down, Braeburn closed his eyes.
“Good night, Big Mac.” A wolf howled in the distance at the silvery moon hovering in the sky, almost drowning out the whisper from the other side of the campfire.
“Good night, Braeburn.”
Mid-afternoon the next day found the pair in another patch of desert, indistinguishable from the one they had rested at hours before. Braeburn had asked for another brief breather, feeling the toll of five hours of walking along with the aid he was giving Big Macintosh to keep him moving. He had paused to look off into the distance when he heard the loud thump behind him, the sound of a body falling into the dust. Big Mac’s legs splayed out on either side of him as he lay in the dirt, eyes half open.
“Macintosh! Are you alright?” Braeburn ran to his cousin’s side, eyes wide in distress. Mac raised one hoof and waved it in the air lightly as if to communicate that he was fine, but his face said otherwise, along with his words after a moment’s pause. As his hoof fell to the ground, he mumbled a real reply at a subdued volume. “’m fine. Bit thirsty. Leg hurts. Just need a minute.”
It hadn’t even occurred to Braeburn that his always undaunted cousin could be feeling the slightest fatigue. He had soldiered on from the moment the two had left the train, protesting the first several breaks and showing no sign of strain. Braeburn hadn’t thought about the lack of water, or the fact that Big Mac had been carrying a very injured limb since the moment he crawled out of the train.
Braeburn suspected that a minute might notbe long enough… but the longer they stayed out in the desert heat, the thirstier they would get, and the worse Big Mac’s leg would be when they finally got somepony to tend to it.
“Minute’s fine, but we gotta get goin’ soon… longer we stay out here, the worse shape you’re gonna be in.”
In spite of everything, Big Mac smiled, a sight Braeburn couldn’t remember seeing for the longest time. “Feels strange… you being the one telling me to hurry it up.”
Braeburn couldn’t help but grin back.
“When the time calls for it, cuz’.”
After several minutes had passed, Big Mac attempted to stand back up. His knees shook as his legs brought him upward, and from the look on his face, maintaining even a semblance of posture was difficult. Braeburn took his cousin’s leg again, placing it on his back.
“You just lean on me a little bit stronger. Ain’t too much further to go… I recognize that rock patch up in the distance, and then it should be just a short stretch and we’re home free.”
Big Mac grunted as he leaned his weight into his cousin, elevating his broken limb off the ground. For his part, Braeburn grit his teeth, but showed little sign further that holding up Big Mac’s considerable weight was a burden. After the two had braced themselves, they continued walking.
Uncharacterstically, Big Mac spoke up.
“Braeburn… why didn’t we just… follow the train tracks back to town…”
“Placement, mostly. Ain’t no shelter if you keep along ‘em for the first part. Besides which, ponies that laid ‘em out, namely, not me, didn’t have much of a clue how to get around out here. Fastest way to Appleloosa is through that stretch of cliffs we went through on the first day… guess they thought it was too much work to get a train through ‘em.”
Apparently the explanation was sufficient. Big Macintosh said nothing further, instead concentrating on each step he took, the amount of effort seeming inordinate for the simple act of walking. He couldn’t remember being this exhausted… a week’s worth of heavy labour, and now the lack of water and his injury… Big Mac was a hard worker, but even he had his limits.
Braeburn could sense his cousin’s fatigue. Mustering as cheerful a voice as he was able, he made an attempt at encouragement. “Don’t you worry cuz’, not too much further now. Just keep up this pace and we’ll be in Appleloosa before sundown.”
“I hope so.”
Several more minutes of walking passed before Big Mac spoke again.
“I miss Applejack.”
“She’ll be happy to see you when you get back then.”
“Come on, cuz’. Talking like this’ll tire you out. Let’s just keep walking.”
Despite his best efforts otherwise, Braeburn found himself calling another break after several more hours. Though he wasn’t noticing the heat as badly as his cousin, the sun overhead combined with the effort of carrying the brunt of Big Mac’s weight was taking its toll, necessitating another brief stop before they carried on. The sun was beginning to set now.
Big Mac had collapsed onto the ground again, eyes closed tight. Braeburn had given him a worried look, but another wave of Mac’s hoof had allayed his momentary fears – just for a minute, he had said, and I’ll be up and ready to go.
Mac’s eyes had flown open when he heard the sound of Braeburn shouting.
“Dang it! Get, get off!”
Several feet away, Macintosh saw Braeburn shaking his leg wildly. Something was dangling from his yellow coat, just inches above his hoof, leading to the rapid movement in an attempt to dislodge it. After several seconds, the thing went flying off into the dirt. Braeburn ceased his flailing, drawing his leg up to examine it.
Braeburn gave the explanation without further questioning.
“Some kind o’ snake, musta snuck up on me. Bite hurts somethin’ fierce…”
Mac forced himself to stand, groaning as the accumulation of the last week and a half surged through his weary muscles.
“You gonna be okay?” Mac’s words sounded slightly strained as he made his way over to take a look at the bite alongside his cousin. Braeburn was sweating slightly, and his eyes had a half glazy sheen, like he was on his way to sleep. His words came with some difficulty.
“…should be fine. Couple of the species round here are poisonous, but it’s not too much to worry about. We’re almost home, right? Just need to make it a bit further. Come on, we should get going.”
Mac’s voice was thick with concern as he placed one of his legs on his cousin’s back. He kept his weight off as he questioned.
“Braeburn, are you sure? You don’t look like you’re feeling too good.”
“Perfectly fine, just a little sore! Come on, let’s get moving.”
Braeburn took his first step shakily, and Mac felt his cousin’s leg wobble as it threatened to give out.
“Come on! We didn’t make it this far, to… give up because of some silly critter.”
The two stepped together for several feet before Braeburn paused. His face looked ill, and his legs were shaking in agitation. He mumbled to himself as he took another few steps.
“Ain’t, gonna… just a bit further… “
A small grunt left his mouth as his legs gave out, sending him face first into the dirt. Macintosh, having been using his cousin for balance, followed suit, plunging down toward the ground with unexpected velocity. The two ponies lay there in the brilliant sun, panting arduously.
“…’m sorry Mac. Didn’t mean to let you down again…”
Macintosh said nothing. His legs ached. His head was spinning from lack of hydration. Somewhere several feet behind the pair, an angry snake hissed and slithered away, leaving a trail in the dirt.
The sun made its descent past a great cliff in the distance, bringing the darkness of night along with it. A wolf howled at the first glow of the moon as it rose into the sky.
The sun rose the next day in Appleloosa, beaming brightly and showering the town in its warming rays. The town had been in a panic since the reports from Ponyville, saying the morning train had failed to arrive. With Braeburn missing, it had taken some time to organize a search party, and the next day the group of ponies had followed the tracks to find the smouldering wreckage of metal alongside the shattered fragments of the boulder that had obstructed the train’s path. They reported back that they had found no sign of the train’s passengers. Some saw this as hopeful news – others assumed it meant the worst.
After the third day with no sign Braeburn or his visiting cousin, most folk had given up hope. The work on the new orchard had continued as per the planning, but everypony arriving to plant the trees or sow the soil had done so with a grey cloud over their head. Work went much slower, with nopony feeling up to their best effort with their leader gone.
A pony had been setting up his fruit stall for the morning when he saw it – something off in the distance alongside the rising sun, slowly making its way towards the town. He couldn’t make out what the something might be, as the brilliant sun made it hard to see – even shielding his eyes, the brightness was too much. He could only speculate at what it might be – buffalo? Native ponies? Someone on their way to town from out in the desert?
The last was evidently the most accurate. As the sun rose above his head, Big Macintosh walked slowly towards the town of Appleloosa. He carried his cousin on his back, and his head was low to the ground, teeth gritted in determination as he made his way forward.
One of the ponies called to attention by the shopkeeper who had seen the approaching figure had recognized the pony on Big Mac’s back – almost everypony in town knew that face, and that hat. Braeburn looked to be unconscious, but it was indeed him being carried towards Appleloosa by a red-coated pony with a look of steadfast certainty on his face. As soon as the first pony had recognized him, everypony in the area had run out to meet the approaching stallion. Big Mac had collapsed as soon as the townsponies reached him, but he had done so slowly, making sure not to send Braeburn tumbling to the ground. The ponies had bombarded him with questions, immediately noticing his injured leg, and asking how long had he been walking for, what had happened, was everything alright. Macintosh had managed to murmur out a semblance of a response before fatigue overtook him.
“Braeburn’s hurt, bit by a snake. Needs a doctor. I could use some water.”
And with that, he had passed out, bathed in the heat of the sun and the frantic concern of half the town around him.
Several days of recuperation later found Braeburn and Big Macintosh on yet another train ride, this time with a group of strong-legged ponies pulling it at full force towards Ponyville.
The doctor had fretted over them equally, showering them with concern. Another few days, he had said, and Big Mac’s leg would have been written off, thanks goodness they made it back so fast. Many ponies had paid them visits in the infirmary, wishing them well and professing their amazement at the story – what had happened to the train? How had they survived in the desert without food and water, and still made it back so quickly with Mac’s injury? They were particularly amazed at Macintosh’s arrival, managing to carry his snake bitten cousin despite his own injury, to the edge of town. Big Mac had said it was nothing – he had just said that neither he nor Braeburn were the type to abandon their family when they were counting on them. Braeburn had smiled, and agreed.
The train was on its final stretch to Big Mac’s hometown. He was relieved no one in Appleloosa had known him well enough to write to his sister and inform her of the accident – that would have been several days of unnecessary worrying. Now, he was coming back just on schedule, and could happily explain what had happened without AJ fretting unduly.
He and Braeburn had selected the car furthest from the front, both of them lounging in the comfortable seats and watching the scenery. Mac’s hind leg was in a bulky cast which had been signed by everypony in Appleloosa, and was now more signatures and ink than plaster. Braeburn had managed to make it out of the doctor’s supervision without such a garish accessory, but he had been educated on the dangers of snake bites and given attention to his various bruises as well. Both of them had consumed record-breaking amounts of water, drinking until the last drop ran from the pitchers they were offered, and then asking for more.
Braeburn spoke up after giving a glance out the window at the rapidly moving scenery.
“Doesn’t look like too much further… should be at Ponyville in the next hour.”
“Sounds good to me.” Big Mac had stated repeatedly after the first day that he would take care to acknowledge his cousin’s travel estimations from that point forward – his accuracy had been one of few blessings on the walk back to town.
“So what are you gonna tell Applejack when you get back?”
Big Mac pondered for a moment, following Braeburn’s gaze to the window before tilting his head back and stretching. It felt like his body had worked a whole Applebuck season in a single day.
“Not sure. Gonna hafta mention it… just don’t want make her worry.”
“She cares about you cuz’, and she’s gonna worry no matter what you tell her. I think you should just give her the whole story… for simplicity’s sake.”
The red colt sighed in resignation. “Eeyup. Just gotta find out how to do that…”
It had occurred to Braeburn in the last several days how much he missed hearing his cousin speak. For a stallion so great in size, Big Mac’s voice was calming and peaceful. It felt nice to speak and hear such a gentle response, where before, there had been gruffness or silence.
Big Mac lowered his head, removing his hooves from behind his neck and placing them onto the soft material of his seat. “Mhm?”
“Do you think Applejack will be happy to see me? We got on well enough when she came down to Appleloosa last time, but I thought about some things since then… is she still mad at me?”
“Nope. AJ’s not the kind ta’ hold a grudge. She’ll be happy to see you, I reckon.”
The clacking of the trains wheels on the newly renovated track took over the conversation for a moment, rattling at the pair through the body of their train-car.
Braeburn’s sentence cut off at his first word as Big Macintosh held his hoof aloft to signal a pause. The train rattled for a moment longer before Mac spoke.
“I’m glad you’re coming home to visit, Braeburn. It’ll be nice to have more family around.”
Braeburn smiled softly at Big Mac, who did the same in return. The two shared another moment of relative silence.
“It’ll be good to be home, Big Mac.”