He remembered walking down that old dirt road.
It was the first Spring they let him do it—said he was growing big like pa and oughta manage for himself. They were right, of course, but it still wasn't fair how all the others got walked home, so he asked if she would wait for him at the well. Told her not to tell papa. She didn't.
And every day was the same. The sun shone right on through the orchard boughs and a soft breeze made their shadows do lazy dances. He was extra careful to avoid the sunny spots, too, cause the kids at school said they were hot like lava, and even though he didn't believe it, he liked what challenge it was. If anything, it was to nice to pretend he had nowhere to be.
But that wasn't true neither. He was the oldest—the big brother—and being the big brother meant work. Whether it was learning the fields, feeding the dog, or watching after his sister, he had to be responsible. That's what they told him. Be responsible, and at the very least, walk yourself home.
So he did, but he took his time—as much as he could till she got fed up. He'd skip across that lava and she'd call his name, again and again, like she was mad.
And while he wanted nothing more than to stay on that path—
It always drove him on—
Because he knew she'd be there in the end.
That's what he chose to believe. That's what made it work. But the truth was always before him, calling, and on that day when he couldn't hear her voice, he wondered why he ever chose to ignore it.
He remembered when he found it, abandoned and covered in dust at the base of the well. He picked it up.
And how awful she screamed.
A worn, rust-colored weave. Short crown with a slight crease. And those darned brims...
He placed it on the ground. It was just a hat.
A stupid hat.
“Get over here—now!”
But it belonged to her.
McIntosh peeked over the smooth-stone siding of the well. His father, Apple Cider, glared at him from across the dirt-covered trail that led up to their barn. The old hoss looked bigger than usual, like a giant green griffon booger. He smiled.
“Boy, if I have to come get ya, I'll give ya something real nice to smile about!”
The lanky colt relented. He clenched the hat in his jaw and hurried over, keeping his eyes fixed on the path. He walked until he caught sight of his father's iron-brimmed forehooves, and laid the hat between them. They didn't budge.
“What's your problem, Mac?”
“My problem nothing.” He met his father's stare. “Ma never rolled her brims like that.”
“What does that matter?”
“She was breaking it.”
“Oh, horsefeathers! I don't care how she wears it so long as she does. Besides, you got no right pushin' her around like that. You're her big brother for crying out loud!”
“I don't care.”
McIntosh heard a stifled whimper. His heart dropped.
A small, freckled face poked out from behind his father's hind legs. It was soaked wet, and a pair of trembling eyes looked right at him through messy locks of blonde hair.
Applejack. She tattled.
“You don't care?” Cider asked, “you see what you did to her—your own sister?”
He saw, but no, he didn't care one bit. She shouldn't tattle on him—nopony ever tattles on their big brother. He braced himself.
“I never asked for no sisters anyway.”
Something snapped. Dull, hot—like water through his ears. He heard a cry, but muted—it seemed so far away.
He opened his clouded eyes and saw that he was sprawled on the ground. His father stood over him.
“You never say that again,” he said, “You hear me?”
McIntosh bit his lip. His head throbbed and his face burned, but he wouldn't cry—the old hoss can't ever see him cry. He nodded.
“And you never hurt any your sisters again, ever, or I promise you—”
Applejack stepped between the two, no longer crying. She gave McIntosh a quick, half-guilty smile before turning to their father.
“Papa,” she said, “I only cried cause Winona scratched me and it hurt. Honest.”
She raised a foreleg high and pressed it against her father's chest. “See?” she said, squinting, “right here.”
He brushed her hoof aside. “A.J., pick up your hat and go inside.”
“Papa it's okay I—”
Applejack averted her eyes, flush with fresh tears, and ran off toward the barn. The front door rattled, and McIntosh could hear her break down on the other side.
Cider shook his head.
“And what if I did the same to you?” he asked, “what if I bullied you some and took that old mare's kerchief away?”
McIntosh scrambled to his hooves. His skull burst, dark and fuzzy, but it didn't matter.
“Is that so?” Cider leaned in close. McIntosh stood as tall as he could—tried to match him eye-to-eye—but he lost his balance and stumbled. His father laughed.
“Boy, you have your grandpappy's fire, but that ain't gonna do you a lick of good now. You wait here.”
He scooped up the old hat and ambled off toward the barn.
McIntosh heard the door open and shut, and sighed. The Autumn sky had already begun to darken, and it was getting cold. Even though harvest season had ended, he knew his father would find some way to put him to work. Always did.
He touched the old piece of cloth tied flat around his neck. Maybe he deserved it.
The barn door shuddered again, and his father returned with a large brown yoke fit across his shoulders. He clenched a smaller one in his jaw, and dropped it at McIntosh's hooves.
“You ever play horseshoes, Mac?” He didn't wait for a response. “Nope—didn't think so. See, we never got around to digging up a proper pit. Oh, and your mama always wanted a nice spot to go picnicking too—and I bet we could use a big ol' pigsty. Why? Heck if I know.”
McIntosh groaned. He reached for the knot behind his neck and undid the pink kerchief. It was a little dirty, but not torn or anything. He breathed a sigh of relief and tied it to the well-post.
The yoke fit tight—had since last harvest—and its grip bothered him already. He glanced up, resigned to a night full of orders, but his father said nothing. He just stood, waiting, and for a moment the old hoss almost looked tired.
Cider snapped to and adjusted his collar.
“You know what,” he said, “it can wait.”
McIntosh held silent. He wasn't about to question his father for passing up on a punishment. But still, it was strange; he saw that face before.
The Western orchards swelled beneath the rays of the setting sun. Autumn faded, and a Winter chill blew free against their backs.
Apple Cider lowered his head and made for the orchard's edge.
“We need to talk,” he said, “follow me.”
He remembered how quiet A.J. was; how he found her in the living room, curled up all silent on the armchair. No tears, no panic, nothing—she just stared at the wooden door on the other end of the room.
And behind it, everything was noise—shouts and heavy hoof-steps and tiny metal clangs. He strained his ears, hoping to make sense of it all, but the clamor was too much for him to bear.
And Applejack, she couldn't look away. He wanted to take her off, to leave the barn and forget that awful noise, but he couldn't. It angered him, scared him stiff, but in it he found a strange comfort, cause behind it all he knew it was still her. He knew she was still near.
He remembered how his father stormed out, arguing with the young nurse mare. The pair took quick notice of them, and his father's stare fell cold upon his.
“'Bout damn time you made it,” he said. “Wait here—do not leave her side.”
He looked at his sister, and she back at him. There were no tears. Nothing. Empty.
He placed their mother's hat on her head, and it fell past her eyes.
McIntosh shivered. He was already hungry and sore, and the yoke around his neck, tiny as it was, felt heavier and heavier. Worse yet—he couldn't figure out where they were. The Western fields were off limits, abandoned ever since he could remember, and yet they seemed to go on for miles. It was odd punishment—all that walking—but he figured it nothing to what he should've got.
His father slowed; they had made the orchard's edge.
“Come here, Mac,” he said, “take a look at this.”
The frail Autumn leaves crackled as McIntosh stepped forward, and when he broke the tree line, a sickening weight seized his stomach. Before them sat a few hundred paces of empty land, and beyond the blackened canopy of the Everfree forest clouded high above the horizon.
There was supposed to be a fence. All of Sweet Apples Acres was surrounded by a fence, if only to keep the critters from wandering. But here, at the one place a fence oughta be, there wasn't.
His father strolled on, completely unaware.
“Papa—wait—where ya going?”
“Ain't nothing to worry about—come on.”
McIntosh grit his teeth. Nothing to worry about? The old hoss was crazy as a soup sandwich. He knew full well how dangerous the forest was, and now he headed straight for it.
The lanky colt hesitated, but had no other choice; either follow and take his chances, or turn back and get lost in the deserted orchards. He pressed on and, to his relief, his father stopped halfway through the clearing. They settled at the base of a lone tree—the only thing standing between the forest and their farm.
“What do you see?” his father asked.
It was barren. No leaves, no fruit—nothing but thick, empty branches. The bark was proper; trunk sturdy; he couldn't imagine why it appeared so lifeless. And then he noticed something—a small carving scarred across the base of the trunk.
A.S. — His father saw it too, and nodded.
“What do you know about your great grandpappy Appleseed?”
McIntosh lowered his eyes. The forest thrummed behind his father's back.
“Granny says he started our farm.”
“That's right—what else?”
“How the zap apples started Ponyville.”
“And doomed it. Well, at first.”
His father leaned against the barren tree and smiled. A sharp, wooden crack rang out from within the Everfree, but he didn't flinch. Didn't mind one bit.
“Eeyup,” he said, “When our family settled, they weren't the only ones struggling. All of Ponyville was starving—the little seed that it was. Course your granny went and found them zap apples, and things went good for a while. But—as you know—that crop is a strange kinda magic. Some won't grow without their kin nearby, and when your granny took them first seeds, well...”
He waved at the empty branches overhead. No fruit.
“She was just a filly, but as it was the forest creatures got hungry, and they came lookin' for what was rightfully theirs. Problem was, Zap apples ripened for one day out here—but in the forest they grew all the time. The creatures weren't expectin' that, and they found nothing, so what do you reckon happened?”
McIntosh knew the answer, but couldn't speak. The forest growled heavy—faint groans and low, throaty cries. Or was it his stomach? He shook the thought from his mind.
“They came here?”
“Eeyup.” Cider adjusted his collar. “But Appleseed, he wouldn't stand for it. He couldn't—not if it meant his family and friends starving. So you know what he did? He entered that forest, all on his own. Didn't tell nopony. For three days and three nights he stayed there—but he didn't fight nothing and he didn't hurt no one. He did what he did best.”
McIntosh found his courage and glanced into the dark depths of the Everfree forest. Something shifted in the shadows—something quick. His heart fluttered. Nopony was crazy enough to go in there.
“What did he do?” he asked.
“Planted, of course—spread all kinds of seeds. Healthy green grasses from below the Winsome Falls and bunches of berry shrubs from the Royal Gardens. Even had herbs and healing plants and funny magic flowers. He single-handedly turned that forest into a ripe and beautiful place.”
He rubbed the back of his head and chuckled. “Course I wouldn't venture in there, Mac. You know, boogiemares and such.”
McIntosh laughed weakly. He didn't need any convincing.
“Anyway,” his father continued, “the creatures were satisfied, and they agreed to remain in their forest home. But before Appleseed left, they gave him one last parting gift—a seed of their own, from deep within the Everfree forest. They called it a sign of their friendship, and told him to never plant 'till his own time came.”
“Why,” he continued, “he always showed me that seed when I was just a little colt and—Hoo-wee—one time, when your Great Uncle Oaks had a bit too much, he—”
“But pa,” McIntosh said, “what happened to him? And the creatures? And that seed?”
Cider caught himself and sighed. He looked up, proud, and tapped the barren tree.
“Here rests my grandpa Appleseed, and now stands the Warden—a friend of the forest, our undying protector. To this day, the creatures of the Everfree don't pass this point, except to share in the fruit of our Western orchards. Even then they come in peace, cause the Warden's always watching, and I suppose they have too much respect.”
McIntosh gawped at the lonesome tree. He had never heard such a story before—not from his father or his granny or anypony. So why now?
Besides, it wasn't truthful—couldn't be. Everfree creatures didn't make peace, and he learned plenty from his father to know that no seeds lasted that long, and no trees lived forever. That he was sure of—nothing lived forever.
His father coughed.
“That said, I still don't like being out here—specially after dark. Let's go.”
And in a moment they were off, back into the safety of the orchard's edge.
McIntosh took one last look behind them. The Everfree fell hush—suddenly calm and peaceful as they walked away. And then he felt it—unmistakably; they were being watched.
A slight chill lifted from the West and passed through the unstirring forest. It brushed against him, soft, like the lightest of touches. It was a strange sensation—a comfort unlike anything he knew—and something within told him not to go.
But the sun continued its descent. Autumn faded. Winter was soon to come.
That cold wind blew, and the Everfree forest seemed sad.
He remembered how useless he was, how he could do nothing.
Nothing while his father hollered and nothing while the doctor pleaded back. Nothing when his mother cried out and nothing when the nurse strode outside, head held high, her sobs soft on the Spring air.
And Applejack, she just looked at him. That's all she did—look and wait—cause she didn't know no better, cause he would make it all okay.
That was his job. He watched after her when they couldn't; he learnt the fields every day; he walked home all on his own. He was responsible, just like they said—the big brother, and all he could do was cry.
“Then get the hell out!” his father yelled, and the doctor emerged from the abrupt silence behind that wooden door.
He remembered. No more shouting. No more crying. Just that silence—the loudest he'd ever heard.
The doctor reached into his smock and removed a metal flask. His hooves trembled, and he was white as a ghost.
McIntosh glared at the far horizon. The sun was maybe a hoof and a half from setting, and his father wandered ahead like he somehow got lost.
It was hooey—all of it. Draggin' him around all cold and hungry in that little collar, trying to scare him at the forest, and telling his silly stories just to pass the daylight. It was nothing but old tricks—old tricks for an old hoss.
Cider settled beneath an old gala tree and stretched the jitters from his legs. His breath billowed out, and for a moment a cloud of wispy fog blazed low against the rays of the setting sun.
“Darn cold,” he said, “goes straight to my bones nowadays.”
“Maybe we should go back.”
“Oh no—I ain't done with you; matter of fact, do you notice anything strange about these parts?”
McIntosh surveyed the area. The orchards were thickest here, but nothing seemed out of place. He had been through this grove many times before.
“Oh come on, boy—what have I been teaching you? Look at this one above us.”
He did, and it looked fine. Its boughs wore a mix of Autumn colors—gold and red and brown—and they bore no fruit, but all that was normal for this time of year. Come Spring, the tree would flower, and—
No. It wouldn't, and he saw why.
“Eeyup,” his father said, “this grove hasn't bore fruit for nearly forty years. Never replanted.”
Cider cleared a patch of dry leaves and lowered an ear to the dirt. He stomped his front hoof once, twice, and smiled.
“Cause my father—your grandpappy, of course—made it so.”
McIntosh eyed the ground warily. It was just another story—a stupid foal's tale. He wouldn't bite, but his father paid him no heed.
“See, Grandpa Crispin wasn't an Apple by blood. He was born to a family of brewmasters, and left his home real young to try his hoof at it here in Ponyville.”
“Come on, pa, it's getting late...”
“Well,” his father continued, “he found work—some long-gone pub called Ms. Pink's—and that's where he met your granny. Soon enough he marries into the farm and uses its orchards to make the best cider Ponyville had ever seen. Suppose you can see how I got my name.”
McIntosh glanced at the budless boughs. “Wasn't much of a farmer.”
“Oh, he was a fine farmer—but a better brewer—and not everyone appreciated that. You're familiar with the Rich family, ain't ya?”
“See, them Riches ran business 'round here, and brewing happened to be the most lucrative, so when Crispin came around, well, he stepped on some pretty powerful fetlocks. At first they tried to play him nice—buy him out, treat him all business-like—but the stubborn old hoss refused. They didn't like that, so they got dirty.
“Next thing you know, their youngest is Mayor of Ponyville, and all the town's brewers are put on the nut—shut down—just like that. Your grandpaps couldn't make a bit neither, and he almost sold this place. Almost, but didn't.”
McIntosh noticed his father tapping lightly against the frozen earth. One two three, one two three—tap, tap, tap. It bothered him.
“So,” his father said, “you know what he did, right?”
“He played their game—played it good. Got in touch with an old friend from Ms. Pink's—the daughter, actually—and started a nice little operation. A barrel here and them feisty griffons were willing carriers; A keg there and the buffalo guarded his stock as it railed through the Plains. And Pink's daughter? She got everypony working—all those brewers who the Riches put outta business. Pretty soon, this side of the Great Divide was the wettest land in Equestria.”
Tap, tap, tap...
Cider shot his son a sly grin. “Get it now?”
Tap, tap—McIntosh grit his teeth. “Course I don't!”
“They went after him,” his father said, “and he ran from town to town just to stay outta trouble. See, things got dangerous—they painted him an outlaw—said he and Pink's kid did nasty things just to have their way. Gave them nicknames too—Clydesbarrel, and hers was—”
“Bonnie Buck.” McIntosh shook his head. “Come on, pa—that's silly. The Buckin' Bandoleros? Killed fifty coppers in Dodge? Ambushed by old Oakley's gang? You can't be—”
“Course I'm saying that, but ain't none of it true. Sure, your grandpaps was a fiery one, but he wasn't no cowboy and he wasn't made for running. Things just got out of hand, and when it caught up to your granny, well, that was too much. She begged him to stop, Mac. Begged him—his own wife!”
Cider rose, reared back, and struck the gala's trunk with his hind legs. He stood tall as a shower of Autumn leaves fell upon his seething figure. There was no questioning his strength—or his temper—and McIntosh decided not to push him any further.
“He stopped alright,” his father continued, “put that whole operation in the hooves of Pink's daughter. Now there was a mare with a knack for peddlin'! She kept right on it, and every barrel of Crispin's cider came with a story—the truthful one. Oh, she got the town in a mighty fuss, and before you knew it they rebuked the Riches' office, and Bonnie Buck went and took it for herself.”
“But pa,” McIntosh said, “if grandpa stopped brewing—where'd she get the cider?”
His father glared at him, and for a moment McIntosh thought he spoke out of place. But the old hoss smiled, and rapped the ground once more.
Tap, tap, tap—and McIntosh finally heard it.
A hollow thump.
“See,” his father said, “everypony wondered the same thing—and that's the point. Those Riches thought they stopped the brewmaster cold, but they were only scratching the surface...”
In one practiced motion, he seized a large uproot and pulled hard, backing off as the ground where he had sat lifted and gave way to a small, grooved chamber. He crawled in halfway—as far as his girth allowed—and emerged with a wooden flask clenched firmly in his jaw.
“Mithpikh”—he spit it out—“Miss Pink's kid set things straight again. And once she did, your grandpa Crispin had a proper business—the same we run today.”
He popped the top off, took one sharp sniff, and cringed.
“More or less.”
McIntosh watched his father reseal the chamber. All it took was a few leaves and a bit of dirt to make the gala look ordinary again—just like the others in that empty grove.
But he saw it now. Just below the cold earth sat an untold number of darkened hollows—the size or stores of which he couldn't hope to figure out. What it all mattered, if anything, he didn't know. But they were there, among the roots, eating away.
His father nodded and walked on. Nothing seemed out of place. Nothing, except to a keen eye.
And McIntosh followed. That was the point.
He remembered that silence.
It was unbearably loud. He could hear his own terror, building, as if he were trapped in a dark room with nothing but the beating of his heart and the cutting flow of his ragged breath. It pressed against him, heavy; pushed him back, but he had to fight it. He had to, because the darkness wouldn't pass, and just beyond that dimming door waited the only light he'd ever known.
And still she waited. She waited because he asked her to, because she knew he needed her most. She knew he was scared—too scared to go alone—and that he wasn't never brave, or big, or strong. He was just a boy who liked to hear his mother's voice; a stupid colt who played in the sun and would never be like papa.
The door shuddered, creaked open, and as his father walked out, he wondered why she'd waited at all.
“What you rackin' your brain over, boy?”
McIntosh sprung forward and wheeled around, falling over his hooves in the process. His father appeared overhead, a look of mock concern on his face.
“It's a school filly, ain't it?”
“Get off, pa.”
“That's a shame. You oughta keep your eyes open, but I guess you ain't too good at that, huh?” He laughed.
McIntosh crawled forward and rose to his hooves. They had stopped somewhere along the Eastern edge of their farm, right next to the old dirt road, and just ahead rose the smooth face of a familiar hillside.
He knew it well enough. Every Winter his father would scrounge up a few pieces of junked lumber and fashion them into makeshift sleds. He'd pull him and A.J. all the way to the top, again and again, until their faces went numb, and their bodies got froze solid. Even then he'd take them up some more, cause he never got tired himself, and he liked how it made them laugh.
But no snow covered its slopes now, and it looked much smaller than before. The top seemed so close, and McIntosh figured he could pull his own sled up this year.
“When'd this damned thing get so big?” his father asked. His shoulders sunk, and for a moment his yoke brushed upon the ground.
“Oh well,” he said, “last one up rubs granny's hooves tonight.”
It was a good sledding hill—always had been. Its peak rose high above the orchards, and the lack of trees on its Northern face made for a fitting slope. But the climb, it was always the worst, and the bitter chill drove unimpeded as they walked.
For McIntosh, it wasn't too bad. He made good time, only pausing when his father stopped to catch his breath. As much as he enjoyed the breaks, the daylight faded with every step, and it only got colder. He pushed on, weary, and finally reached the top.
His father followed and slumped to the ground with a heavy sigh.
“Not fair” he said, fumbling at his collar, “this darn thing was weighing me down—I swear.”
McIntosh grunted and settled beside him. He closed his eyes, trying to focus on the sun's faint warmth, but it didn't help none. He shivered, and something poked him in the side.
“Here,” his father said, prodding with the wooden flask, “this'll warm ya up.”
“But granny says—”
“Hooey! Granny says lots'a things”—Cider paused, blank-faced—“But, uh, better not bring this up around her.”
McIntosh eyed the flask carefully. It wasn't like his father to let him drink—specially after Braeburn got sick everywhere at last reunion's bonfire—but he wasn't gonna make a fuss of it. Only babies would do that.
“Fine,” he said, snatching it from his father's grasp. He uncorked the top and chugged.
Next thing he knew, everything burned. A sickening sensation fell upon his stomach, and he coughed a great deal—so much that he made himself dizzy. Cider buried his head in a fit of laughter.
“What's the matter,” he said, “your cousin teach you how to drink? Nah, give it here—let me show ya how it's done.”
He swished the flask lazily overhead and, still giggling, managed a slow, careful swig. He nodded quietly, teary-eyed, and cleared his throat.
“Eeyup,” he said, a cautious hoof to his mouth, “real good stuff.”
McIntosh chuckled and wiped the tears from his face. The sick feeling passed, and he felt good and warm on the inside. His father stole an extra sip.
“It's great, isn't it?” he asked, “All this, I mean.”
McIntosh followed his father's eyes. The sun was now a faint sliver on the horizon, and it painted the sky a gentle color—like the orchard's Autumn leaves.
And below, he could see everything. The open edge of their farm, so far off, and the Warden, a tiny gray speck, standing against the Everfree like a raft before a waiting sea. He saw the fruitless groves, still healthy and strong, feeding off old spirits and dusty tales. And Ponyville, it looked so small, almost swallowed by the yellow flatland beyond, and even further he could trace the snow-capped peaks of the Canterlot range.
The setting sun laid one golden ray upon it all, and he wondered if any of it would ever look the same again.
He noticed his father watching him. The old hoss smiled soft, but his eyes didn't match. They looked tired, confused—like when he told Applejack about the birds and the bees after Winona was born.
“What's the matter, pop?” he asked.
His father looked away. “I'm sorry I struck you, Mac, I had no right.”
“It's okay, old hoss, I didn't feel nothing.”
“So I'm old now, huh? Ain't that something.”
A steady wind washed over them. McIntosh watched a group of geese fly against its current, flapping wildly, fighting to stay airborne. It was all so silly, but he couldn't really blame them. His father sighed.
“Not much history here,” he said, “but me and your ma spent a lot of time on these slopes. She loved the view.” He shrugged. “Guess I didn't care none for it myself.”
A large goose fell behind its flock. He honked like mad, sunk lower and lower, but the rest didn't seem to notice.
“Mac,” his father continued, “I may be a lot of things, but a fool ain't one of 'em.”
Cider lifted the flask and took a few strong pulls. He didn't cough, or spit, or flinch; only his hooves moved, trembling as they reached for his collar. It unlatched, and his hefty brown yoke fell.
McIntosh felt his anger explode. He was stupid for forgetting it, for leaving it behind. The one thing he promised to keep—the only thing he could actually protect—now tied around his father's neck.
The pink kerchief fluttered in the breeze as Cider rose to his hooves. He stood firm before McIntosh, but for the first time in the young colt's life he could see that his father was frozen with terror.
“Son,” he said, “let me tell you a story.”
But it wasn't no story. There were no magic forests or fearsome creatures, no crooked villains or wild heroes. The pages never turned, and no amount of imagination could change what bound him every day.
Because he remembered: The way his father approached them, how heavy his hooves fell upon the floor; His face tender, eyes vacant—how he couldn't even look their way; And that bundle in his arms, the pink cloth stirring, how soft it cried.
His father cradled her gently and whispered: “This here's Apple Bloom. She's your baby sister.”
And he remembered so well, because that was the day his mother died.
Cider laid her kerchief before him.
“I'm sorry,” he said, “I'm a coward.”
McIntosh felt a bitter warmth prick his face. He had every right to get mad—at himself for being so forgetful, or his father for taking it without saying—but it was too tiring to care. None of it mattered anyway, so long as he had it back.
He ran his hooves over the soft fabric, and his heart dropped.
“Papa,” he said, “you tore it.”
“Mac, please listen to me.”
“It'll be okay though, see? —It's not too much.”
“No, really. A little stitch would do it fine. I'm not as good as she was, but I reckon I could—”
Cider placed a gentle hoof over his mouth. “She”—he paused—“your mother had a choice.”
McIntosh could barely hear the words. His father pulled back, shamefaced, and clutched the wooden flask like a frightened foal.
“Her or the baby,” he continued, “that's what the doctor said, and I acted like a fool cause it wasn't enough. But there was nothing—not a damned thing—that anyone could do. Nothing, so she got one choice.” He brought the flask to his mouth. “And I tried to make it for her.”
He tipped it back, but nothing came out. It trembled in front of him, mocking, and he threw it to the ground.
“Despicable,” he said, “but she made her choice—the right one—and didn't shed no tears over it. And when the baby came, heck, she didn't cry neither. They were both so calm, so quiet, and when your sister looked at me I swear she almost smiled. I never felt more ashamed in my life.
“And your momma, she was leaving so quick—I didn't know what to do. I tried to tell her how sorry I was, how I never meant her no heartache, but she wouldn't have none of it. She just smiled at the baby and said, 'you have the best papa in the whole wide world. You're the apple of his eye, and he'll make sure you someday bloom.'”
His mouth knotted in a tight smile below heavy, downcast eyes.
“It wasn't fair,” he said, “she knew better than that. She knew how wrong it all was, and I wondered—why me?” He looked up at McIntosh, as if waiting for an answer. “But then she said one last thing. Do you know what it was?”
McIntosh shook his head. Tears welled in his eyes, and the unmistakable weight in his throat seemed impossible to contain.
“Well,” his father said, “she wrapped your sister up good and put her in my arms. Then she saw me there, holding that baby tight as I could—and she started to cry. She cried, Mac, but it wasn't sad or nothing. She looked surprised, like she ain't never seen me before—but the way she smiled, it's like she was always waiting. All I could do was smile back, and finally she said, 'I can't believe how much you've grown. You're so big now, McIntosh.'”
He shrugged. “And that was it.”
McIntosh buried his head in his arms. He tried to hide his tears, but it was no use—it never was. He wasn't strong like his father, or courageous like the Apples in his stories, and he was stupid to think it was anything different.
“Now you quit that and look at me,” Cider said. “I was never as brave as your great grandpappy and I was never as brave as my father. I ain't nothing like your mama was, and I sure as heck ain't nothing like you. You believe that, McIntosh.”
He bent low and set his yoke on its end. The collar stood up to his chest, almost thick as a tree stump.
“Stand up,” he said.
He tried, but his legs buckled beneath. He was cold and hungry, and more scared than ever before. It was no good—he'd never been no good, and his sisters knew it, and his papa knew it, and his mama knew it most of all. If only she could see him now.
Then something burned deep in his stomach, something he hadn't felt before. Of course she could see him—they all could. Always, cause they were hurt too, and even though he struggled to get past it himself, he had always carried on for them. As much as he wanted to quit, to lay down in his bed and cry, he never did, cause they were watching, and needed him to be brave.
He looked up—his father stood on lower ground. With one clean effort he rose and met him eye to eye.
“Son,” his father said, “all our family, they loved each other so much, and they loved their friends. They did everything they could to keep them safe so they could grow and love one another too. It don't matter how they did it or why—they just did. Your momma knew that, and I was too stupid to see it myself. I ain't gonna let that happen to you.”
He raised a hoof and tapped his son's collar.
“Darn thing's too small on you. Take it off.”
McIntosh grabbed hold of the latch and freed his bothersome harness. His father took his own, and with a mighty heave, fit it across his shoulders.
“This is your punishment,” he said, “you will carry my yoke home, and come next harvest, nobody wears it but you.”
“But pa,” McIntosh said, “this is yours.”
His father tried to laugh. “Eeyup, but not for long. I think it's high time I pass it on to you, just like my father to me and his father to him. Besides, I reckon you'll grow real big this winter—and me, well, I barely made it up this hill.”
He leaned close. “But you gotta promise me one thing.”
“You promise that you won't push your sisters around no more, or anypony for that matter. You remember the family that made you, and the friends that keep you good, and you don't be strong for yourself, but for them. Cause one day you're gonna carry that yoke, Mac, and you'll need more than just a strong back.”
McIntosh weighed his father's words. They hung heavy on him, like the collar fixed upon his back, and it pained him to think about the long road ahead. But he saw his father bear it every day, and knew he could too.
“I promise,” he said.
“Good. Then you best get going—it's getting late.”
“Aren't you coming?”
His father waved him off. “I'll be a while. Besides, I reckon I'll beat you back anyway.”
McIntosh relented and, slowly, started for the roadside slope. His yoke dragged along the frozen earth, biting deep into the skin of his neck, and he wondered how he'd ever make it home. But he knew who'd be waiting—those who needed him most—and one way or the other he'd have to endure.
He gripped his mother's kerchief, ragged from his father's wear, and spread it full in front of him. A quick pull tore it in two, and he cushioned one half beneath the collar.
He turned back one last time.
“Papa,” he said, “were all them stories true?”
“Already answered that, you dolty colt.”
“I've been a good pa, haven't I?”
He thought for a moment, and smiled.
He remembered walking down that old dirt road.
It wasn't easy. His father's yoke pulled upon the frozen earth, forcing him to pause and lift it clean with every step. He wanted to quit, turn back—apologize for being weak. Maybe he'd get chewed out good, but anything would've been better than the weight of that collar and the cold of Autumn's final night.
And yet, quitting made no sense. If he left it all behind—even for one night—he knew he'd have to pick it up and continue on tomorrow. It was his to carry now. Nothing would change that fact.
So he pressed on. One hoof in front of the other, just like his father before him.
One step, two.
He remembered. Apple Cider was the strongest guy in town! Why, every Autumn he would saddle up and cart him and AJ around the orchards—just cause he could. Just cause it made them happy.
And they went so fast. The cart jostled and jumped—rumbled with their speed. Faster and faster, until the trees leapt clear off their path and all the colors of their boughs became one brilliant blur.
One step, two.
They thundered through the treeline and emerged in the midst of a great clearing. Before them the Everfree Forest sprung to life, as all its creatures came forth to witness their passing. There were thousands—big and small—all lined even with the Warden, and they watched in silence as his father flashed by.
Some of them smiled. Others began to cheer. One old Timberwolf even bowed its head, and wept.
One step, two, three.
He remembered when they saw the tip of their barn, glowing soft against the setting sun. It was the prettiest sight he'd ever seen, and he knew she'd be there in the end.
One step, two, three, four.
His father slowed. No, he thought, no—they must hurry! She was waiting, always waiting, and as the winter chill blew he swore she called his name.
Hurry! Hurry! Time was running out. No, the old man said—time was all they had. Nothing but time and that old dirt road.
Hot lava, lazy shadows and a soft breeze. He was home, and so were they.
Everybody! Great Grandpa Appleseed, young and strong, a single seed tucked snug in the brim of his hat; Grandpa Crispin and Granny Smith, so happy to be together again; even them Riches paid their respect as Cider walked by—course they wouldn't do wrong under the watchful eye of that pink-maned outlaw.
They parted, and that's when he saw her. His mother—as bright and beautiful as ever—resting in the shade of the family well. Something in her arms moved. A glimpse of pink.
She looked up, saw him, and smiled.
“Big Mac!” Applejack yelled.
He was home. Somehow he had made it back, and now his little sister stared at him from beneath her bent-brimmed hat.
“The baby's wont stop crying,” she said.
Of course the baby cried—she didn't know no better. Papa scooped her up and kissed her once on the head. Go home, he said, go home because he couldn't. Why, the baby cried, why—but she didn't know. He had to go because he missed them all, and he missed her, and he would take them all away.
Why? Why? Because that's who he was—because he was the only one who could.
McIntosh unlatched his yoke and followed AJ to the nursery. There the foal writhed and wailed—he wondered how granny could ever sleep through it all.
Quietly he approached, and, with utmost care, tucked her into one arm. He unfolded the second half of his kerchief and tied it through her hair—a great pink bow—and he and AJ laughed as it fell past her eyes.
No more tears. She was so calm, so quiet, and as she looked at him he swore she almost smiled.
He thought about turning back, to the great big hill where the old man rested, but they were gone, nothing more but Winter's night and the promise of Spring.
McIntosh smiled back.
“Let me tell you a story.”