Good and Evil; such vastly different terms, defined in many a fashion. Light and Dark; polar opposites. While it is indeed a cliched notion, we never stop to look around and really think about the idea. One immediately ponders divinity on such a subject, but few open their eyes to see that these battles happen every day and on varying scales. Some are large and instantly recognized. The rest, however, aren't observed nor defined as such. But all in all, the struggle is the same. It can happen between two or even many. But every day, at least one soul in the world finds itself torn between the two. We all find ourselves at an impasse at one point in our lives, but the only thing we can do is hope that our decision will be for the best. If you haven't already, you will eventually find yourself having to make such a decision.
One can only hope that a little Good will come out of it.
Cheers of excitement and elation roared across the dry flat lands, bringing an uplifting air to the desolate outskirts of Appleloosa. The perimeter of the makeshift arena was lined with a red-painted wooden fence, bright in hue to warn passerby of the danger they could stumble upon. High in the rafters was a large audience, almost the entire population of the nearby towns. Ponies from all over the West had flocked to spectate the event, their eyes fixated on the long range ahead. Some even threw their cowpony hats into the air, unable to wait for the competition to begin. Behind the wooden bleachers and seats stood a tall announcer's box, where the mayor and sheriff of Appleloosa sat, visible from the competitors' bunker below.
The small stone alcove was filled to the brim with mares and stallions of varying age, all eagerly waiting for their names to be called. Each competitor sat upon a long bench, a few inspecting their weapons for any last-minute changes or repairs. The majority of them were young adults, ranging from their twenties to thirties. A couple, however, were barely even teenagers. The youngest was a pegasus filly, her wings looking too small to bring her airborne for more than a moment or two. She didn't seem like the type of pony one would expect to find an interest in rifles, but there she was, clutching a small lever-action in her forehooves. The stallion in the corner regarded her with concern, for she seemed to be shaking upon her end of the bench. He cast her a worried look as the filly traversed the filled room of ponies with her large blue eyes. She brought a wary hoof up to her brow, wiping a bead of sweat from under her swaying brown bangs. The stallion knew who she was, but it took a few moments for him to recognize her.
There was no mistaking who she was. Brown pigtails, a coat of white and the cutie mark of a smoldering .357 Magnum cartridge. It was the prodigy from Los Pegasus; the youngest competition shooter in Equestria. Despite her fame, the pegasus' name was mostly unknown in the desert. The stallion in the corner though, knew her name and face from the smaller sections of the local newspapers. If the articles had been correct, then he found her attendance unsurprising. Judging by the crowd of unrecognizable, mostly mediocre shooters, the filly would prove to be victorious this day.
He didn't know what it was, but something told the stallion to walk over and comfort her. He would have felt terrible if the prodigy competed with nervous hooves. The tan earth pony let out a snort, rising to his hooves and weaving through the crowd of ponies. It took a moment, but eventually he reached her. The filly didn't even notice his presence through her shifting eyes. The stallion sat aside her on the bench, shrugging his deep brown cloak to cover himself once again. At the sound of the fabric whipping around, she snapped her neck up to him, her eyes wide. She snapped her gaze to the rifle on his back, and then back to him.
"Easy now," he smiled, his voice gruff but calming. "Are y'alright?"
"Wh-Who are you?" she stammered, as if the stallion were about to shoot her on sight.
"Nopony who's gonna hurt ya', don't worry," he chuckled. "Now what's such a gifted little filly like yerself doin' shakin' like a leaf in a breeze?"
The small pegasus recoiled before exhaling a long breath, her chest deflating in an attempt to calm herself. "Oh...I didn't think anypony here would know me," she said. "I guess I'm just nervous."
"What's there to be nervous 'bout?"
"I don't know...I guess it's just weird being here alone," she said, causing the stallion's ears to prick up. She was all the way out here alone?
"Where are yer parents?"
"In Appleloosa, I guess," she sighed, looking down at her swinging hindhooves, dangling above the floor. "They're interested in the sights, so they left me here while they looked around."
The tan earth pony scowled, unable to hide the disgust on his face. It figured. This talented filly, judging by the newspaper articles, was bringing home prize money from several shooting competitions, all while her parents just collected and looked the other way. The very least they could do was simply be there for her, but apparently supporting their daughter wasn't very high on the list of priorities. Typical Los Pegasus ponies, he thought. It was a shame, really. But in the end, the stallion decided to bypass the topic. "Ya' know, just between you me, none o' these ponies here stand a chance against ya'."
The filly whipped her head back up to him, cocking an eyebrow. "What? Why would you tell me that? Aren't you competing too?"
The stallion laughed. "Naw. Ah'm gettin' on in years, and this is a young pony's sport. Ah'm just here fer the mayor to make sure nopony tries somethin' foul."
"Oh. Well, thank you sir," she said, fiddling with her rifle. The filly ceased her nervous movements and instead held out a hoof, introducing herself properly. "Aerial Ace. It's nice to meet you."
The stallion smiled, shaking her tiny forehoof with both of his own. "Bullet Tyme."
The sound of soft tapping echoed throughout the small range, emanating from the two large horn loudspeakers on either side of the announcer's box. The audience took a moment to quell their excitement, but eventually fell silent. Louder than expected, the horns reverberated a strong, prominent male voice.
"Mares and gentlecolts, welcome to the first annual Appleloosan Cowpony-Action Shooting Competition!" said Mayor Coltwell. The crowd burst into jubilant cries, eager with anticipation. "We thank you for your patience, but it's all about to pay off! Today we have twenty entries, which means plenty of shooting for you to watch!"
The crowd burst into an uproar of stomping hooves. "Considering this is the first Appleloosan competition, we're going to have to explain today's events and rules," Coltwell explained through the speaker system. "First off, we have to apologize for one thing. As you all have been told beforehoof, we have not allowed unicorns to compete in this event. This rule has been put into place the ensure that no foul play alters the shooters' prowess throughout the tournament. This is not by any means a racial matter. We only wish to keep the competition fair and uninterrupted by any means of inside or outside cheating. To safeguard the matter even further, there are magical shields set around the range to prevent any unicorn spectators from compromising the purity of this event. Once we find a way to confine a unicorn's magic, they will be allow to compete in next year's competition. Again, we apologize for this unfortunate matter."
Bullet Tyme pursed his lips and nodded slightly to himself. He had wondered how Coltwell planned to keep anypony from cheating. All a unicorn would have to do is wince an eye at a gun to jam it and therefore compromise a pony's fate in the game. It was truly an unfortunate rule, but objectively, nopony could have a viable argument against it.
"Now that we're done with the ethical mumbo-jumbo, we can move on to how things are going to unfold," Coltwell continued. "The tournament will include..."
Bullet Tyme stopped listening and started to cast his awareness to the nineteen ponies surrounding him and Aerial Ace. While a few of them kept their confidence, the majority of the shooters started to show signs of nervousness and apprehension. An air of trepidation filled the small alcove, as if some sort of apocalypse was about to occur. The sand-colored stallion chuckled slightly in amusement.
"What's so funny?" came Aerial's voice.
"Maybe these ponies do know who ya' are, and it's just now dawning on them how badly yer gonna beat 'em," he replied, his volume low to avoid any eavesdroppers. "But there might be one thing standin' in yer way."
Bullet turned back to the filly, lowering his tone down to a whisper. "Ah wasn't lyin' when Ah told ya' that none o' the ponies in here stood a chance, but Ah'd feel bad if Ah didn't elaborate. Listen, there's a surprise at the end o' this here competition, and you should ready yerself fer it."
"Surprise?" she whispered back curiously. "Why are you telling me all of this?"
"'Cause Ah think ya' deserve to know," he muttered matter-of-factly. "Just be ready when ya' rise to the top today. Yer gonna have a choice to make, a gamble if ya' will. Don't take it. Jus' take the prize money and be happy with it."
Aerial gave him an appreciative smile, which Bullet returned. It was a gesture that made him regret the mayor's idea of such a surprise at the end of an honest shooting match. None of the ponies surrounding him knew what they were in for, and it was really just too bad.
"...And now, we call our first two competitors up to the stands," said Coltwell's prominent voice. Bullet turned his ears to the announcer's box, his eyes occasionally flickering to the nervous ponies around him. "To start the tournament for a grand prize of one-thousand bits, we call Hot Shot and Smolder. Please approach the stands."
The crowd cheered with applause as a gray earth stallion and an orange earth mare rose from the bench a few yards away, gathering their rifles and departing the stone bunker through the wide opening. As the cheers died down and the crowd went silent, the two ponies exchanged a friendly hoof bump of respect, laying their weapons on the respective chest-high benches. Fifteen hooves away from them stood ten clay targets, each the size of a small dinner plate. Five were placed in even increments at both ends of their lanes, ready to be shattered to pieces. Bullet watched the mare with the bright orange coat, eying her stance and concentration. He went to inspect her weapon from afar, but found his attempt useless at the announcer's next words.
"First up, we have Hot Shot. Hailing all the way from Baltimare, this young and upcoming shooter has made his mark in the seldom-seen Eastern Riflepony Society with his quick and impressive shots."
"Looks like shootin' has become popular all over Equestria," Bullet Tyme noted aloud. "And not just out West where earth ponies thrive."
"It's not just about combat anymore," came Aerial's voice.
"Well, competition shootin's been around fer hundreds o' years. But it's really only been a thing out here."
"Up until the Colt of the West came around, that is," she remarked. "Ponies hear of a stallion like that and interest sparks. Common nature, really."
Bullet chuckled heartily, amazed at the young filly's intricate sentences and sheer intelligence. "Nothin' gets past ya', huh? Yer parents must be darned proud o' ya'."
"Yeah. Yeah I guess," she sighed, her previous grin fading away as quick as it came. Bullet Tyme cast her a sorrowful sidelong glance, watching the filly exhale a long breath. The stallion folded his forelegs against his chest, sitting straighter upon the wooden bench with a grimace. He may not have known of her situation, but it still pained the aged stallion to see such a talented, innocent young pony deal with such neglect. Perhaps it wasn't as it seemed, but perhaps it was much worse. Darned city folk.
"So it's 'bout yer love fer the sport?" he asked, curiously touching upon what was truly none of his business. To his surprise, the young pony immediately responded to his query.
"A little," she said, her voice soft and with a melancholy tone.
"Kinda hard to believe that such a talent doesn't have no drive behind it," said Bullet.
"Oh, there's a drive alright," she said, although without any sort of convincing tone. "It's just...money."
"Money?" he repeated, bewildered.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Just because I'm from Los Pegasus means I must come from a rich family. I know the drill," she huffed.
"Ah didn't say that," Bullet said quietly. "But Ah'll admit that was my thought."
Aerial scrunched-up her nose a bit in a small scowl. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have told you that. Can you keep that to yourself?"
He nodded, regretfully putting the pieces together. "Don't tell me that yer prize money pays fer yer family...does it?"
The filly looked away from him, folding her tiny forelegs. She looked annoyed at herself, possibly for what she had revealed. The stallion silently berated himself for his assumptions. Her parents weren't stuffy, neglectful ponies, they weren't very well off. Regardless, the least they could do was simply be there for her in the stands. With that thought, Bullet still had something to be annoyed at, and that kept his mind busy for the time being.
"My parents are both unemployed," she started, but was silenced by Bullet, whom raised a hoof.
"Ain't none o' my business, Aerial," he said. "But Ah get it."
"...and then there's the local mare, born and raised here in Appleloosa: Smolder. She's here to defend her honor as the town's fastest-shooting mare, wielding a Marechester Model 1892, chambered for the .38-40 round. She will be the first to fire. Ladies first, I always say. The clock will start when the first round is chambered."
While the stallion known as Hot Shot waited with his rifle on his bench, the crowd as well as the rest of the competitors watched the orange mare load her short-barreled lever-action. Once Bullet counted the eight cartridges pass through the loading gate, he watched the mare take up a rather interesting stance. Smolder reared up on her hindhooves, one leg outstretched forward while the other crouched low underneath her. Instead of shouldering the weapon, Smolder held the Marechester low at the hip on her right side.
"Is that normal?" asked Aerial incredulously.
"Fer her it is," Bullet noted. "Not all ponies shoot the same way, ya' know. Some can't even hit the broad side of a barn with a 'normal' stance. Just watch."
The earth mare held the weapon close to her side, blowing her yellow bangs out of her eyes. Model 1892, huh? he thought. She switched, Ah guess. Shorter lever throw, smoother action, smaller and cheaper caliber for light recoil and higher magazine capacity. Nice change o' pace, but she'd need an octagonal barrel to make up fer its short length. If she loses, it'll be because o' accuracy. That boy's .45 Colt will deliver a heavier recoil. Judgin' by his small frame, s'not a good plan, Ah reckon.
However, the first round wasn't about accuracy; it was about speed. At only fifteen hooves away, the shots weren't exactly difficult, except for when they were at speed. All in all, the task wasn't as easy as it seemed. The targets were small for a reason; to challenge the pony to hit them as quickly as possible, disregarding pinpoint accuracy. Besides, a shattered plate of clay left no discerning marks indicating point of impact. Bullet Tyme remembered all too well of his rather poor skills when it came to speed shooting in his day. It was his biggest flaw, and he had never found the skill required to practice the finite art. So when he saw a pony capable of such a thing, the stallion found them to be truly fascinating.
A warm gust of wind blew down the range, ruffling the mare's burning yellow mane from her face. Bullet watched as she exhaled a silent breath, trained to know when and how to shoot. Once her chest deflated, the mare racked the lever downward and back quicker than most, firing the first shot as soon as the round loaded into the chamber. The rifle didn't move an inch as a loud pop echoed downrange, immediately followed by four more in impressive succession. In a couple of quick seconds, all five plates broke into many sharp, splintering shards of hardened clay, raining down from their stands a few hooves above the ground. The audience exploded with applause, whistling and stomping their hooves in praise. Smolder grinned broadly, placing the rifle upon the bench and waving politely to the crowd.
"See what Ah mean?" Bullet mused. "All it takes is fer a pony to find comfort with their rifle. Not to mention what the rifle is in the first place."
"What do you mean?" asked Aerial.
"Ah know Smolder from town," he started. "She came here a month after we founded Appleloosa, and immediately took an interest in the sport. She used to fire a .44 Magnum caliber, but that's a round too powerful to fire from the hip, where she was the most comfortable. Seems like she finally found a gun that she can shoot well."
"You seem to know a lot about rifles," she replied, offering a kind smile.
"This used to be my life, little Miss Aerial," he smirked nostalgically. "So yes, Ah know a thing or two."
"Is that why the mayor made you a security guard?"
Bullet chuckled softly. "Well, that's one reason, Ah reckon."
"Just the one?"
The stallion shot her an amused grin. "Ya' sure are a curious one, ain't ya'?"
"I like to know things," Aerial stated simply.
"Ah guess so," he replied, turning his attention back to the match. Apparently they had missed Hot Shot's attempt, but the end result was obvious by his downtrodden expression. Despite his early dismissal from the tournament, the stallion still shook the victor's hoof before he departed the range.
"So if you won't answer that question," Aerial continued. "then would you tell me about the Colt of the West?"
That caught Bullet Tyme off-guard, but he held it together by not showing it on his face. He looked to the young shooter, who wore an expression of pure wonder. Unlike her previous questions, it looked as if this one meant much more to her. "And what makes ya' think Ah know him?"
Aerial pointed to Smolder, whom was returning to her seat down the bench. "You know her, and you said that you helped settle this town, so I assume that you know a lot of ponies."
Did all Los Pegasus families have such intelligent foals? Perhaps the word 'prodigy' stretched farther with this filly than most. "Why d'ya wanna know 'bout him? Ponies say he's got criminal blood in him; say he's a tickin' time bomb waitin' fer somepony to look at him the wrong way."
The white filly looked down to the rifle in her forehooves, her hindlegs returning to their previous swinging motion. "I don't think that's true...or at least, I'd like to think it's not."
Bullet Tyme lowered his eyelids, a single brow raised in interest. He let her go on, ignoring the multiple gunshots in the background. "...Ponies will always make even the simplest things seem bad, especially when it's not true. Ponies don't want to focus on good deeds, they want to focus on things that are scary; things that are bad. Again, common nature, I guess."
"Kinda young to be a cynic, ain't ya'?"
"You say cynic, I say realist," she smirked, fiddling with the lever of her small rifle. "But really, nothing in the papers said that he did anything wrong. In fact, they said the exact opposite. They said he was a hero."
"Do you think he's a hero?"
"Well, yeah. Why shouldn't I?" she replied. "I mean, he did save Dodge Junction's sherrif, as well as the lives of the town's residents. He was the reason that bandit leader is still in jail."
"Ah see yer a reader of the papers. Most fillies yer age have no interest in things like that," Bullet said, his expression impressed.
"I don't tend to get along with ponies my age. They think I'm...well, weird," she said somberly, wincing at her own words. "Maybe it's because I'm not like them. I don't like playing in the park or hanging out with friends. Oh...I'm sorry. You don't want to hear about that."
The filly rubbed the back of her head nervously, dismissing the conversation outright.
"S'alright Aerial," was all that he said.
"So are you going to tell me about him?" she asked again. However, the end of her sentence was accompanied by the mayor calling her name through the speaker system. Aerial groaned aloud, eliciting a grin from Bullet Tyme.
"Well would ya' look at that, yer up filly," he said, rising to his hooves as she did. "Just in time too. Ah gotta head on over to speak with somepony."
Aerial threw him a mock salute before picking up her rifle with her teeth and walking out to the range. Bullet Tyme grinned one more time as he walked down the line of competitors, excusing himself along the way. He walked along the outside of the red fence, casting a quick glance to see Aerial Ace bumping hooves with her opponent; a dark-green pegasus mare. Bullet didn't recognize the pony, and merely assumed that she came from another town, like Hot Shot. Give 'em heck, kiddo, he thought to himself.
Bullet Tyme circled the South perimeter of the range, behind the rafters that held the long wooden bleachers high in the air. Between the stands was the announcers' booth, its back door opened at the top of a spiral staircase. The stallion grimaced, turning his right foreleg and cracking the old joints a few times before ascending the steps despite the throb in his leg. He would never admit it to anypony, but his joints weren't what they used to be. His reactions were starting to slow, his body was following suit. Bullet wasn't by any means an old stallion, but he was swiftly approaching the hump. Years of hard work and shooting were starting to show in his body, and soon simple tasks had become a chore. His mind, however, hadn't changed a bit since his early adulthood. His thoughts were still as sharp as ever, and his memory had never wavered. He only wished that his body would keep up with his racing mind.
As he rose to the top of the staircase, Bullet was immediately greeted by three ponies. Two came from swiveling stools behind a desk full of papers and quills dipped in ink wells. The closest to him was Sherrif Silverstar, a dark-tan earth stallion with a brown mane under his tall Stetson. His face was adorned with a curled mustache, at the end of his long muzzle. He wore a navy-blue vest and a red bandanna around his neck, his sherrif's badge gleaming in the sunlight. On the other end of the desk was Mayor Coltwell, a portly mint-coated stallion. He too wore a vest, his a dark maroon adorned with gold buttons. What was left of his brown mane was combed over, as if to hide the hair-free patch atop his head. Upon the short stallion's flank was an inkwell spilled over a slip of parchment, but what it represented, nopony knew. From his forehead protruded a short, stubby horn. However, despite his race, Coltwell was known to be vastly incompetent in terms of magic. In the eyes of the public, he might as well have been an earth pony.
"Well howdy there Bullet," said Silverstar, his voice high and thick with a cowpony accent. "How're the shooters doin' down there?"
"Too nervous to have a single foul thought," he smirked. "Won't have to worry 'bout none o' them doin' nothin' wrong."
"Good to hear," said Coltwell. "Do you think that anypony down there will out-shoot our little surprise today?"
Coltwell chuckled heartily, gesturing to the other pony in the room. Invisible from the eyes of the audience on the far side of the announcer's booth, a stallion stood on his hindlegs, leaning back against the wall with his forelegs crossed. The earth pony had a coat of gold, his long mane and tail toned with two shades of blonde. Atop his head was a dark brown Stetson, its color matching the duster around his torso. The jacket had a long mantle that draped over his shoulders and down to his elbows. The stallion's eyes were a bright, brilliant emerald, their lids low and tired-looking. Aside him was a Marechester rifle, in its scabbard and leaning on the wall. At the sight of his father, Braeburn dropped to all fours and greeted him with a nod, a small grin on his face.
"Howdy Pa," he said, although weakly. His eyes were dark, and he didn't emanate his usual uplifting air. "Everything alright?"
"Yeah," he replied, knowing all too well what was going on in his son's mind. The matter had been discussed time and time again, and didn't need to be repeated here of all places.
"He could ask you the same question, Braeburn," said Coltwell with a grin. "You look terrible."
"Why thank ya' kindly, sir," he replied with a sigh. "Sleep hasn't come too easily."
"Well you better not be too tired to shoot, boy. I've got money riding on you!" Coltwell laughed, although without aid from the three ponies around him. Bullet Tyme cocked a suspicious eyebrow, his thoughts conveyed by the sheriff:
"Now Mayor, Ah know yer new to the town and all, but gamblin' is illegal here in Appleloosa."
"Oh Silverstar, you're too uptight sometimes," he smirked. "Technically we are outside of Appleloosa, therefore outside of its laws. Regardless, it's just a figure of speech."
Now why do Ah doubt that it's just talk? Bullet thought, holding back a scowl of disdain. Appointing Coltwell as the new mayor of Appleloosa wasn't exactly a popular decision, but he was ultimately better than his opponent. Appleloosa wasn't a town that really needed a mayor, due to its small size, but apparently there were reasons for it. Regardless, there was just something about the green unicorn that just didn't sit right with Bullet Tyme. Perhaps it was merely his own paranoia, but for now, he would be kept in close sights.
Coltwell returned his attention to the match below, as the two competitors waited for their round to begin. The mayor turned around on his stool and stumbled on his words as he hurriedly declared through the microphone: "O-Oh! Alright! Next up we have two pegasi, both here from Los Pegasus. First up is Lucky Lane, firing the Marelin Model 1894S, chambered for the rare .41 Magnum. The round is unusual and fairly pricey, but certainly gets the job done. After him, we have the favorite of Los Pegasus, the youngest competition shooter in Equestria; Aerial Ace!" The crowd whooped and cried out in applause, mostly from finite sections of the stands that weren't from Appleloosa. "Today she also wields a Marechester 1892. However, Aerial's weapon is the shorter carbine model, chambered for the .357 Magnum. First off is Lucky, fire when ready."
"Come 'ere boy, and watch this match," said Bullet, gesturing for his son to look. Abiding by Coltwell's wishes, Braeburn took a peek from afar, as to not let any pony see him from the window. "That white filly down there has some real talent. Smart little foal to boot."
"How d'ya know that?"
"Fer one, she's all over the papers outside o' town. Ah also had the pleasure to speak with her," Bullet explained. "She might be the next big thing in this here sport."
Braeburn replied with a yawn, his eyelids flickering open. "Might just be."
"Will ya' wake up? Ya' ain't gonna win by-" Bullet stopped mid-sentence. With that thought, an idea came to the stallion's mind; one that made him feel a surge of benevolence rarely found in his thoughts. He looked out of the corner of his eye to Aerial at the range below. She was so young; it wasn't right that she had to work so hard just to live. The filly couldn't have been more than ten years old, and yet she was the one supporting her household. Bullet Tyme dropped his expression of aggravation, instilling an odd look from Braeburn. He cocked an eyebrow at his father, his tired eyes tracing his face. "Come out here fer a second."
Bullet Tyme avoided the gazes of the sheriff and the mayor, grabbing the lapel of Braeburn's duster and dragging him outside. The beige stallion wordlessly followed his father down the spiral staircase, descending to the ground below. Once they were around the corner of the fence and out of earshot, Bullet stopped.
"Pa, are y'alright?"
"Yeah, nothin' wrong at all. Just listen fer a second," he explained, keeping his voice low. Bullet gestured to the range next to them; to the white filly raising her Marechester to the targets down the lane. "Ah talked to that filly fer a bit before Ah came back out here. D'ya know why she's goin' through all these competitions?"
"Fer fame? 'Cause it's a fun little sport?" Braeburn suggested with tired sarcasm, smirking despite himself.
"'Cause she has to, boy," he answered gravely, continuing on to retell the conversation her had with the small pegasus. When he was done, Braeburn winced slightly, casting a sympathetic gaze towards the range.
"Ah got an idea," he said. Bullet raised his brow, his eyelids low. "Ya' told her not to accept the challenge, right? Well, go tell her to take it."
Bullet furrowed his brow this time, his head recoiling back. "Have ya' lost yer head out in the sun, boy? That's not what Ah'm tryin' to-"
Braeburn held up a hoof to stop him. "Like ya' said Pa: Ah'm tired. You'll never know if it'll affect my shootin'."
The older stallion went to retort, but then quickly grasped his son's idea. His chest deflated with a long snort, turning into a hearty chuckle. For the first time all week, Bullet smiled at his son. "Good thinkin', boy."
"Either way, Coltwell paid us up front," Braeburn grinned, pointing to the stone bunker behind Bullet. "Aerial's round is over, go on and convince her to take it. Ah'll be up with Silverstar and Coltwell."
Braeburn turned on a hoof back toward the staircase, but wasn't able to depart before his father called after him. The beige earth pony looked over his shoulder, his eyes falling unfocused upon the older stallion. Bullet Tyme sighed at the sight of his exhausted son, dropping the gritty veil. Berating him wasn't going to help anymore. "Chin up, boy. Things'll work out."
His son looked forward and away from him, dropping his head slightly. "Uh huh," he said, although without sincerity.
"Hey, just because ya' moved out doesn't mean that yer not still my son," said Bullet, his tone truthful. Braeburn seemed to chew on that for a moment before turning his head back to his father.
"And what's that mean?"
"It means that Ah still care 'bout ya'," he continued. "Ah know that you've got yer own thing goin' on nowadays, but yer still my son and my top worker. Are ya' gonna be alright, Braeburn?"
"Ah...Ah sure hope so, Pa," he chuckled, finally looking Bullet in the eye again. "Either way, Ah'll make sure Aerial gets her money. Ah hope this is fer a good cause."
"Darn tootin'," Bullet grinned. "And don't worry Braeburn, she'll come back."
The beige stallion offered a halfhearted smile before returning to the announcer's box above. Bullet Tyme huffed, although not without a sense of understanding. He knew all too well the pain of heartache, even if it was a different kind of pain. At least she didn't leave without giving them a gift first; a gift that not only brought their family business back from the grave, but also granted them financial comfort. Never before had Bullet Tyme felt so at ease in terms of money. A small fortune will do that. Even if it was at the cost of revealing an unfortunate heritage, it was all worth it. He knew that Braeburn appreciated the mare's parting gift, but the stallion hadn't seen his son so lonely and somber before. The ups and downs of a miracle, as it were.
Bullet Tyme shook his head, clearing his mind to return to the task at hoof. He looked up to find Aerial Ace returning to a small gathering of cheering competitors in the stone bunker ahead. A couple of them even shook her hoof or simple gaped at her in awe. The stallion smiled at the sight. At least they were being friendly. Bullet adjusted the strap of his rifle's scabbard and continued forward, hoping that Aerial would make it to the final round.
The competition had proved to be quite entertaining, to say the least. Even in his exhausted state of mind, Braeburn found his eyes glued to the range below. Throughout the many shooters, rounds and events, he grew more and more excited. While he hoped that the white filly from Los Pegasus climbed to the top, a part of him didn't care who it was. The stallion just wanted to shoot against somepony. Watching them compete stirred an adrenaline that he hadn't felt in a long time. He didn't wish to showcase his talents, for that had been done before. Despite his mild disdain toward his own fame, he was still known as the infamous riflepony of Appleloosa; the Colt of the West.
Every time that title had been uttered, Braeburn felt a grimace form on his face. He knew what he stood for, but not everypony shared the same idea. Once word had spread of his lineage, judgement had instantly fallen upon him. While some saw him as a goodhearted stallion, others saw him as some sort of threat. It was as if they expected him to snap at some point and rob a bank or something similar. Unfortunately, that was simply how ponies worked. An infamous criminal for an ancestor? Well then he must be a terrible pony himself. Perhaps that notion was just easier to take in rather than objectivity.
Braeburn tore his mind from such unpleasent thoughts, and instead returned his attention to the competition below. It appeared that he hadn't focused on anything around him for the better part of two hours. He looked to the sun through the observation windows to find it just past its apex, confirming his guess. Braeburn shook his carelessly-long mane from the side of his face, far too tired to scratch his itchy cheek. As he awoke from his melancholy stupor, his ears pricked up at the amplified sound of Coltwell's voice:
"...and now we finally arrive at the conclusion to this truly amazing competition! We've watched plenty of vastly-talented rifleponies shoot their way through this event, but only two remain to fight for the grand prize of one-thousand bits! We now call Smolder and Aerial Ace to the range. Load your rifles to capacity and come on down!"
Braeburn raised his eyebrows at the names, pleased to hear that Aerial had made it this far. He looked to his left to find Bullet Tyme, shaking his head at him. "Daydreamin' boy? Starin' off wistfully at the floor ain't gonna show ya' what's goin' on."
"Noted," he said quietly, shaking his head in an attempt to lighten the weight in his eyelids. He looked up to find Coltwell and Silverstar busying themselves with a few scraps of parchment; perhaps paperwork of some kind. Taking advantage of their distraction, Braeburn leaned closer to his father, whispering through his teeth: "Ya' think she'll win?"
"Hopin' so, or else Ah told her to take a challenge she won't have the chance to accept," he whispered back. Braeburn nodded, returning his gaze to the range below.
The benches had been removed from the long expanse of dry flatland, as well as the small barrier that separated the individual lanes. Now the mare and the filly stood at least one-hundred yards away from five red, circular targets, standing in a horizontal line thirty hooves from the ground upon wooden stands. He had previously been briefed on the challenges from Mayor Coltwell, but he still found this one to be peculiar, although interesting. The mere distance of the shots alone was challenging, but then the height of the targets was a factor worth consideration. It was a simple difference, but one that would completely throw an untrained shooter off their narrow line of equilibrium. The majority of rifleponies trained with level targets, situated only so many hooves off the ground. One would rarely think to practice with higher shots, especially at this distance.
Down below, the light-orange mare slung her rifle over her shoulder, blowing her vibrant yellow bangs out of her eyes. She sat down on her haunches, watching as Aerial Ace took up her weapon. Coltwell took then completed his announcements for the final match:
"This last round combines speed, accuracy and also dealing with unforeseen circumstances. This may seem like an easy task, but let me assure you that it's not."
"The hay kind of announcin' is that?" Bullet jibed aloud, catching the mayor's sidelong gaze. Coltwell smirked with only the slightest amount of annoyance. "Ya' sound like yer not sure o' what yer talkin' 'bout."
Braeburn and Silverstar snickered audibly, forcing fits of laughter back down their throats.
"...Up first is Aerial Ace. Shoot all five targets as quick as possible. Time penalties will be taken for every shot missed. Her time will start when the first round is chambered. Fire when ready."
The white filly reared up on her hindhooves, throwing her short rifle around her hoof, racking it in the same motion. Braeburn couldn't help but smile at that. He had thought that he was the only one who performed that trick. In the instant that the front stock of the small rifle fell into her left forehoof, the weapon barked five times in a mere three seconds, accompanied by the distant tings of the rounds colliding with the metal targets. Braeburn felt his eyebrows lift, impressed by the rapid display. At the last shot, Coltwell stopped the ticking watch upon the desk.
"Well look at that! All five shots completed in a matter of three seconds on the dot! Impressive work indeed! Next up is Smolder, here to defend her honor as the fastest mare in the-"
But even Coltwell's amplified voice didn't overcome the earthshaking boom that resounded over the desert. For a moment, time stood still, and nopony spoke nor moved an inch. Braeburn felt a cold shiver shoot up his spine as trepidation flooded his veins. He whipped his head around and looked through the door that led to the spiral staircase. To the North stood the short buildings of Appleloosa, only about half a mile away from the range. The stallion immediately spotted a cloud of dust and smoke forming above the West side of the small town, where the sheriff's office was. Adrenaline awoke his tired mind as the crowd behind him started crying out in shock. Braeburn turned back to the three ponies around him, staring at the sheriff.
"Silverstar, who did ya' have take watch over Appleloosa?!" he asked, perhaps louder than he intended.
"My brother sent his Deputy from Dodge!" he replied, his voice wavering. "Ah thought he knew what he was doin'!"
Braeburn's emerald eyes widened as realization washed over him. The sheriff wasn't aware of Deputy Conners' incompetence, and it probably just cost the inexperienced stallion his life.
The beige stallion turned on a hoof, throwing his sheathed rifle over his shoulder and bolting out the door, his father close behind. In his haste, Braeburn disregarded the height and leaped over the railing, his duster billowing in the air behind him. As the ground came closer, the stallion braced his shoulders and turned his head down. Braeburn rolled across the ground, digging his hindhooves into the sand and kicking off into a full gallop.
"Always gotta be the hero, huh boy?" came the gruff voice of his father alongside him.
"Darn Silverstar! Puttin' Conners of all ponies in charge o' town!" Braeburn grimaced, ignoring Bullet's sarcasm. "That stallion won't touch a gun but he expects to uphold the law?"
"Braeburn!" Bullet retorted. "Calm yerself, boy! Y'ain't helpin' nopony with yer anger!"
The beige earth pony growled to himself, knowing full and well that his father was right. With a snort, he shoved his adrenaline aside and did his best to focus to the task at hoof. He paced himself, slowing down to reserve as much strength as he could. Bullet Tyme huffed, seemingly appreciative at the speed difference.
Up ahead, the cloud of smoke rose higher above Appleloosa, growing larger as more black smog billowed from the town. As they reached the outskirts of the small settlement, their ears pricked up to the echoing sounds of fearful screams. What in Equestria was going on? The West finally had a year of undisturbed peace, and now this? As far as Braeburn knew, their weren't any bandits left since the fall of Sure Shot and his gang. But then again, that didn't mean that more wouldn't pop up in their absence.
The two earth stallions arrived at the edge of town, stopping in an alley between the barber shop and the local tavern. Braeburn's mind raced, searching for an answer as to what was going on. The smoke was rising over to the left, the tell-tale sign of a large amount of dynamite. He leaned against a stack of barrels, panting heavily.
"That's right over Silverstar's office," Bullet noted, pointing to the rising smoke. "Somepony's tryin' to harm him, Ah reckon."
"Ah hope Conners ain't there," said Braeburn. He stepped carefully out and into the main road, looking Westward to find the source of the smoke. His fears had been confirmed at the sight of Silverstar's office. The front of the small building was completely gone, splinters of wooden debris scattered across the dirt road. Dying flames burned around the office; remnants of the explosion. A few ponies were seen fleeing the area, taking cover in their homes and closing the shades. Braeburn felt a hoof wrap around his neck, pulling him back into the alleyway.
"What're ya' doin', boy?!" Bullet hissed. "D'ya wanna end up dead? We can't just run in there guns a' blazin'! We gotta be careful and plan out our moves! We don't know who's in there!"
"Ugh, yer right. Ah know," Braeburn growled, annoyed at his own haste. Thankfully, he didn't have to wait long.
"Ah said on the ground!" came a low, powerful male voice. Braeburn turned his head around the corner of the barber shop, peeking out to find three ponies next to the sheriff's office. The voice evidently belonged to the short stallion, standing on hindhooves over a male and female; both pegasi. They both had coats of light beige, the mare's almost white. The stallion's mane was long and black, the other's multiple shades of brown. They wore brightly-colored, floral-patterned shirts, giving them the looks of tourists. The bandit held a large blunderbuss, pointing its funneled barrel to the backs of their heads. His coat was black as night, but still didn't hide the rippling muscle underneath his skin. His orange mane and tail were cut short, adding another level of intimidation to the bulky stallion. The couple shivered in fear under his rifle, their hooves over their heads.
Visible through the gaping hole of the office were a few more bandits, wearing red bandannas over their muzzles. They seemed to be searching for something, for they were tearing through the remnants of the building, flipping over desks and chairs in an attempt to find whatever they were looking for.
"What do ya' reckon they want?" asked Braeburn.
"They're lookin' fer somethin'...but what?" Bullet thought aloud. "Think they're workin' fer Sure Shot?"
Braeburn cocked an eyebrow. "What? Sure Shot ain't even bein' kept there any more. He's held outside o' Dodge Junction."
Bullet then finished the thought. "Yeah, and the keys to his underground cell are kept in Silverstar's office!"
"But if these ponies are tryin' to get him out, how in the hay did they figure out where we hid 'em?"
"We'll figure that out after we save those two hostages," Bullet replied, looking back out to the two pegasi laying on their stomachs. "Oh no."
"What's wrong, Pa?"
"Two pegasi we've never seen before, dressed up like they're from outta town," he growled. "Aerial told me that her parents were hangin' 'round Appleloosa."
Braeburn's eyes flew open, realization dawning upon him.
"We gotta save 'em, boy. Ah can't let that filly lose her parents."
"Right," the beige stallion said, immediately forming a plan.
Ignoring his father's words, Braeburn climbed up the stacks of barrels, jumping up and grabbing a hold of the edge of the tavern's roof. With a huff, he pulled himself up and onto the slanted shingles. The stallion looked back down to his father below, whispering: "Wait here and cover me if somethin' goes wrong."
"What d'ya think yer doin'? Get back down here!" he hissed back, his expression livid.
"Sorry Pa, but if we don't help them, nopony will get here in time," Braeburn replied, turning back around and running across the rooftop. There were three buildings separating him from the sheriff's office, and he had to cross them without being detected. Braeburn crept low over the shingles, wincing with every thump his hooves made. He cast a careful glance over the edge of the roof, finding the black stallion and his hostages grow closer with every step. He found himself stopping at the sight of the muscular pony, his mind alight with a certain memory. That black coat, his bright-orange mane...Braeburn knew the stallion, and trepidation washed over him once he recognized him.
He remembered how the large bandit struck a mare directly in the cheek, a mare that he hadn't seen in over a year. He remembered exploding into a rage, his blood boiling in his veins. This was one of Sure Shot's old followers, and that could only mean one thing: They were trying to break him out.
Braeburn gritted his teeth, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, gaining every yard he could to see what was going on. Sure, he could have easily disarmed the stallion from the opposite side of town, but then what stopped the others from taking out their hostages? That, and he couldn't simply shoot them. He had to pan his shots, and make sure that he avoided killing them if possible. He may have been an upholder of the law, but he was by no means an executioner. As he walked across the bakery next to the destroyed building, he crept low and crawled on his stomach. He silently unsheathed the rifle from his back, keeping it underneath his forehooves.
"Please! We haven't done anything wrong!" cried the pegasus mare. "We don't even live here! We were just-"
"Ah don't care what ya' say wench," the black stallion growled. "Ah'm keepin' ya' here fer insurance. Now keep quiet!"
Braeburn stopped dead in the middle of racking the lever of his weapon, his eye twitching. Insurance? The pieces started to come together now. They had to have known about the nationally-advertised competition, which gave them the best opportunity to strike. All they would have to do was take care of Silverstar, which they didn't need to do. So with Silverstar 'gone,' why would they need hostages for 'insurance'? Because of him; the Colt of the West. It only made sense to take such a precaution. To criminals, he was known as a threat; the pony that put Sure Shot behind bars. But why would they keep hostages out in the open like this? More than likely to broadcast them to any possible law enforcement, or even him.
"They're not in here!" came a voice from the interior of the office.
"We've 'checked again' three times now! Silverstar must have moved them!"
The large stallion engaged his blunderbuss, shoving the barrel to the back of the male pegasus' head. "Did you two move 'em?"
"Gah! Move what?!" he cried into the dirt. "We're just visiting from Los Pegasus! We're not cops!"
Their captor snorted, a dirty scowl forming on his face. He turned his head back to his unseen comrades. "Did ya' get anything from that blank-flank pony?"
Braeburn grimaced. Conners; they had him too. At least he was still alive.
"He don't know nothin' boss," came the previous voice. "Just some stupid guard dog fer Silverstar."
"Well hurry it up in there! Coltwell only gave us so much time!"
Braeburn's mind spun in his head, alight with confusion. However, he didn't have time to speculate, for something cold and metallic pressed against the back of his head.
"Ahhh...Braeburn Apple, I presume."