Stranger in the West, Part 2
(Ponies are © Hasbro)
“Oh, good. You're awake.”
Flint half-opened his eyes. The world around him was a fuzzy, cool fog. Fluorescent lights scorched his corneas as his pupils dilated and the room around him solidified. A cotton-white earth pony mare hovered over him, wearing a grim expression on her face.
“Don't panic. You're in Ponyville urgent care. My name is Nurse Redheart. When I found you on my way here this morning, you were laying unconscious by the road. I brought you here immediately.”
Flint looked about himself, feeling for his satchel and revolver. He found neither.
“I had to remove your belongings so I could properly examine you. They're just over there.” She gestured behind her, where a large cardboard box sat on an unused cot. “Don't worry, their contents remain undisturbed. However, you were in dire straits when we brought you here. You could have easily died of dehydration had I not come along just when I did. You're a very lucky stallion.”
He gave the nurse a sideways glance and narrowed his eyes. He formed what could have been a scowl under the tired mass of wrinkles and cracked skin that occupied his face. He felt his lips split in several places, and he could taste his exposed flesh. The wet of his new wounds was a welcome relief from arid staleness of the rest of his mouth. His tongue scratched like steel wool. His teeth felt like tree bark.
Around his mouth, the lines of his face had deepened. His eyes were dried, pink and bulging against his skull. The stubble that had accumulated around his chin was sandpaper. His horn had chipped slightly around the grooves. His mane had thinned and lost its luster, and his coat frazzled. His journey from Appleloosa had drained him of every last nutrient and every drop of water in his body. He didn't think he was so lucky. He was still alive.
“Don't worry about payment. This was a complimentary treatment. I don't think it's right to charge somepony bits in a situation like this. But I will need your name.”
Flint's head swiveled over, his eyes finding hers. His scowl deepened, the lines of his gaunt face turning to cracked folds. He flexed his jaw, gritting his teeth behind his lips. He stared at her for a long while, but she didn't budge. He chuckled.
“Mighty grateful for what you've done, miss. And I reckon I ain't never woken up to a prettier mare in my life. But you've gone and made the biggest mistake of yours, bringin' me here.”
“Don't expect you to understand. Not yet. Will soon, though. I don't imagine you'll look back very fondly on your memories of today. Reckon by sunset you'll be wishin' you'd left me to die.”
“Is that a threat, sir?”
“Not at all, miss. That's a statement of fact. Now if you'll excuse me, I've business to attend to.”
“I'm afraid I can't just let you leave.”
“I'm afraid you ain't got no choice.”
Flint sat upright, then shimmied off the cot onto his hooves. Every muscle in his body protested. Every nerve ending moaned in dull pain. His bones creaked and popped. He was in no condition to be up and moving about. He didn't imagine he would need to be for much longer, anyways.
He stepped over to the box on the other cot and peered in. Coat, satchel, holstered revolver. It was a damn miracle, he thought, that nopony had noticed what that last one was. His horn lit up and he lifted his belongings into the air, slipping them on one by one. He brought a hoof up to his head and matted his frazzled mane down. He caught his reflection in a mirror hung on the wall and smirked briefly before turning back to Redheart. He pondered what she had said, and decided that leaving may not be the best idea quite yet. His dusky expression lightened. He had a plan.
“Perhaps we got off on the wrong hoof, young miss. I won't be leavin' if'n you're wantin' me to stay. But I do need a bit of help with one thing.”
Redheart's face contorted. “And what would that be?”
“Well.” He turned and faced the mirror again. “Do you know a miss Applejack?”
“Applejack, it's been a week since you got back. Are you sure you still don't want to talk about what happened?”
Twilight watched as her friend, stubborn as ever, ignored her, deciding instead to devote herself entirely to bucking the apples from the trees of Sweet Apple Acres. Twilight sighed. She couldn't recall ever seeing Applejack like this. She wasn't just focused on her work, she was completely unresponsive. So she had been since returning from Appleloosa. She knew that Applejack wasn't usually one to openly express her feelings, but this was taking it to another, darker level. Whatever happened out in the West must have been particularly upsetting.
“You've barely spoken to anypony. Even your own family. Just help me understand? Please?”
Applejack stopped for a second and tilted her head at Twilight before resuming her work. She reared up and, with the force of a freight train, launched her back hooves into the nearest apple tree. The bark splintered and apples rained down around her. Inspecting her work, she heaved a heavy sigh.
“Nothin' doin', Twilight.” Her voice was a low, turbulent whisper.
That was the most that Twilight had heard her friend say all week. This wasn't the sort of behavior that she'd come to expect from Applejack, so she knew something was wrong. But she was good with magic, not with ponies. But she wasn't going to leave her friend in the cold just because she didn't know exactly how to deal with the situation.
“I just want to make sure you're all right.”
“Don't go worryin' on my behalf.”
“I'm not worried, I'm concerned. You know, because I'm your friend?”
Applejack stopped for another moment. She looked tired – drained. Not exhausted as from labor, but deeply, unsettlingly tired, like somepony had shot a hole in her soul and drained every last drop of emotion. Her coat and mane even looked just a shade darker. Her emerald eyes no longer twinkled in the sun. Every movement looked pained and artificial; every hoof-fall hinted at just the slightest bit of hesitation.
It didn't seem to make much sense to Twilight. Everypony seemed to make it back in pretty fair health, and Applebloom even wound up with a stylish new hat. Neither she nor Big Macintosh seemed any worse for wear (but then again, Macintosh was a hard read, being almost uniformly silent at the best of times). Whatever was bothering Applejack must have been more personal.
Twilight's ears perked up and she turned, smiling, to Applejack.
Applejack was staring at an apple that lay on the ground. It was bruised, with an earthworm-sized hole snaking through the middle. She sighed again and turned to the next tree in the orchard. She offered not another word to the purple unicorn.
Time flowed like molasses as minutes dragged into the length of hours. Twilight and Applejack walked in silence, interrupted only by the occasional chirp of a bird or smack of hooves against tree bark. Applejack stopped for a quick breather, resting back on her haunches and staring up into the sky. She sniffed and sighed again lightly.
“Twilight? You think...you think I could ever kill somepony?”
Twilight's blood ran cold and the hair on her neck stood on end. Adrenaline flooded her system and her pupils shrank. She could feel her heart, heavy, pounding in her chest. A million thoughts raced through her head and she couldn't hold onto a single one.
“W—what do you mean by that?” She inched imperceptibly away from Applejack.
“I mean, can you see me pointin' a gun at somepony and pullin' the trigger?”
“I—I don't think I've ever thought about this sort of thing before, to be honest.”
Silence descended again like a fog. Applejack stared down, distracted, contemplating her hooves. Her eyes moistened.
Twilight found herself unable to move. She stared long and hard at Applejack, waiting for her to move, to speak – to do anything.
“I don't want to be a killer, Twilight.” Her voice cracked. Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes, but she blinked them away. “But if it means protectin' my kin...”
“What on Earth are you talking about? Is this about Appleloosa?”
“I just—I ain't gonna explain it to you. Not right now, anyways. Ain't somethin' you need be concernin' yourself with much.”
Twilight sighed. She started to relax, sitting next to Applejack and offering a comforting hoof. It was all she could think to do. Applejack sat still, a statue resting in the shade of the apple orchard. A breeze picked up, picking up stray leaves in a graceful aerobatic ballet. On sashayed up beside Applejack's nose, provoking a sniffle and a hearty sneeze. Her mouth formed a weak smile. Twilight let out a soft giggle and stood back up, trotting and stretching in the sun. She turned back to her friend.
“Why don't you come back to town? Pinkie Pie's holding a picnic in the park, and it would be great if you could come.”
“Thanks, Twilight. It might just be a good idea to get my mind off things. I'll just need to stop by the barn to get my saddlebags and some grub.”
“I wouldn't worry too much about it. You know how Pinkie can get with food.”
“Yeah. That's why I'm gonna bring my saddlebags.”
Twilight stifled her laughter. It was nice, she thought, to see her friend in relative good spirits, even if it was just for a few moments. She started off back towards town, but stopped and turned halfway around.
“Oh! I almost forgot. I was talking to Nurse Redheart earlier. Apparently, she found some stallion by the side of the road on her way into work this morning. She said that he knows you.”
Applejack bolted to her hooves. Her eyes were alive with a fiery energy. Apprehension dripped from her quivering lips. The muscles in her legs tensed. She lowered her head to Twilight's level and narrowed her eyes.
“She happen to get his name?”
“No, she said that he wouldn't give it.”
Her heart stopped.
“You, uh...you happen to have a description of this here stallion?”
“Yes. She said he was a dark gray unicorn with black hair and yellow eyes. Do you know him?
Her soul froze.
“Twilight, I don't think I'll be able to make the picnic today after all. Matter of fact, I think you should just have Pinkie call the whole thing off. Have a nice, quiet day inside. Redheart happen to say anything else about this stallion?”
“She said that he wants you to stop by around one o'clock, if you could. Should I tell him that you can't make it, or—”
“Twi, now you listen to me. Don't you go anywhere near that stallion. Don't you talk to Redheart. Don't you talk to nopony. Go home. Right now. Trust me on this one.”
“Applejack, you're acting strange.”
“I can't just go into town, but it's not like I can pretend this'll all go away if I go and ignore it.”
“AJ, tell me what's going on.”
“Make sure you tell everypony to stay inside today. Or for however long it takes me to sort this out. Now, I just need to find—”
“Applejack, what the hay is going on!?”
“Twilight, you listen to me and you listen good. That pony's a devil in disguise. Now, I made him a promise that I intend to keep. Celestia help you if you try to get in my way.”
Twilight knew better than to challenge Applejack when she got like this. She gave a curt nod as she turned back in the direction of Ponyville, and spared Applejack a cursory glance as she trotted off. She normally made a habit of trusting her friend about things like this, but something told her that this was something she should investigate for herself. She dashed off full gallop, heading straight for Ponyville Urgent Care.
The Urgent Care door swung open, slamming against the wall with a thunderous boom. Twilight shuffled through the doorway, frazzled and out of breath. The lobby was full of ponies: some maimed in flying accidents or lyre-related mishaps, others with a case of the sniffles or flu, and a foal or two scratched up from too much roughhousing on the playground. She saw Redheart at the desk, and the pony she brought in earlier sitting relaxed in an adjacent corner of the room. The nurse looked nervous.
“Nurse, I was just over at Sweet Apple Acres, talking with Applejack. She said some...disconcerting things about your guest.”
He glanced over from his corner, chuckled, and stood up.
“That so? Mind enlightening me, young miss?”
“Well, for starters, she doesn't seem to have a very high opinion of you, if I'm going to be honest.”
“Can't say I blame her much.”
“She also said that she 'made you a promise that she intends to keep,' if that means anything to you.”
“You could say that's my whole reason for bein' in this little town of yours, young miss.”
“Would you mind telling us exactly what that means?”
“I suppose you all have a right to know. First, if you could, stand over by the door, please.”
Twilight shot him a cautioning look, but obliged. The eyes of the room followed her to the door. It was still wide open. A soft murmur broke out over the modest crowd of waiting ponies. They knew by now that if Twilight Sparkle was involved in something, it was probably going to get really interesting, really fast.
“Okay, that's about perfect there, miss. Now, you see that little thing on my flank? My Cutie Mark? You tell me what that looks like to you.”
“Well, I've only seen technical drawings and manuals before, but that looks an awful lot like a front-view of the chamber of a firearm. A revolver, to be precise.”
“Astute observation, miss. What do you suppose that says about my special talent?”
Twilight's eyes widened as the realization began to sink in.
“Looks like you see what I'm getting' at. Now, goin' from that, what do you suppose my business would be with miss Applejack?”
An oppressive, impossible silence descended upon the lobby. The shadowless luminescence of the halogen lights chilled the crowd, as they sat transfixed, frozen, waiting for whatever was coming next. Tension snaked through the air, coiling and choking the sound and energy from the anxious ponies. The sea of faces went blank as their eyes darted nervously between Twilight and Flint.
Twilight's horn sparked to life, electric light arcing and cracking in every direction. Flint drew his revolver from his side and fired off a shot centimeters from Twilight's left ear. She stumbled to her right, startled, breaking her concentration. Flint dropped his weapon and focused his attention on the door.
Twilight started up again, bracing herself for a surge of magical energy. Flint slammed the door into the unicorn, sweeping her outside in a single, brutal motion. White pain flared across her face and body. On the other side of the door she heard the sounds of the deadbolts locking. She sprang back to her hooves, ignoring her injuries, summoning again a fiery ball of energy to her horn. From the other side, Flint knocked on the door.
“Now young miss, you can go and fire off that little fireball of your and break back in here, but keep in mind that I've got me a roomful of hostages and a good few bullets left to put a dent in their numbers.”
She hesitated again, allowing the energy of her spell to escape into the air. She didn't want to test whether or not he'd make good on his threats, and she couldn't risk herself injuring any of the ponies inside, either. The glow of her horn died, and she heaved a shaky, choked sigh. There wasn't anything more she could do, at least for the moment.
Flint placed his gun back in its holster and swung around to look at the crowd in the lobby. They wore their terrified souls on their faces. He grunted and turned back to the door.
“I need you to listen to me quite closely now, young miss. You bring Applejack here to me. We've got a score needs settlin'. She's got one hour. Every hour after that, I'm gonna take my little six-gun here and let her do what she's good at. Understand me, young miss? Now, she don't have to worry about bringin' her own gun. I've got one here for her. Good-as-new, fully loaded. On my word. You just gotta get her here so's we can do this. Understand?”
Twilight backed up against the door. Taking a step forward, she lifted her hind legs into the air and bucked with all the force she could muster. Her spells had taken too much out of her – she left little more than hoofmarks.
“Well, I'll take that as a yes. Might want to get that nose of yours checked out, too. It's bleeding somethin' fierce.”
She looked as best she could at her nose. A warm river of red snaked its way down her nostrils to her neck, dripping into little crimson puddles on the ground. As the adrenaline once again left her body, she began to remember the pain. She thought it might be broken, but she didn't have time to worry about her own problems. Wiping the blood from her snout, she turned towards her home, glancing quickly at the shape of Canterlot in the distance. Dark clouds were gathering, no doubt in preparation for rain. She bolted off, fighting the growing pain of her injuries, knowing what she had to do.
The distant clap of a gunshot echoed through the Sweet Apple Acres orchard. Lightning flashed briefly from the ground of the Ponyville town square. Applejack looked up, startled but not altogether unsurprised. She knew what she had to do. This time, she wouldn't hesitate. This time, she wouldn't let that bastard hurt anypony else. This time, she was ready.
“Spike! Quick! Take a letter!”
Twilight ripped through the library, searching frantically for a scroll to give to her assistant. Blood was still dribbling from her nose, painting the covers of books and lists and recipes. She found a blank scroll and threw it at Spike.
“Sure thing, Twi—Whoa! Twilight, your nose! You're bleeding! Look, it's even on this scroll that—”
“Spike! Take a letter! Now!”
Spike snapped his jaws shut and produced a quill and ink. He flattened the bloodied scroll against the floor and scribbled madly Twilight's every word.
“Princess. Urgent. Hostage situation at hospital in Ponyville. Request assistance. Please hurry. Twilight Sparkle. Did you get that, Spike?”
He toasted the letter, nodding to Twilight as its contents swirled out of the window and into the cloudy sky. Twilight fell to her haunches, hanging her head weakly. Spike dashed over, unsure of what to do. He looked about for something to stem the bleeding from Twilight's nose, but she lifted a hoof in protest.
“Just...leave me alone for a minute, Spike.”
Redheart sat calmly in her chair in the lobby. The room was eerily quiet. Ponies sat about in various states of duress, some simply shuffling their hooves back and forth while others lay as quivering piles of panic and terror. There wasn't much she could do. She was stuck in the lobby like the rest of them, and confined by the artificial boundaries set by her captor. Thankfully, nopony seemed to need immediate medical attention.
She watched Flint out of the corner of her eye. He was sitting by the door, his hooves and horn laboring over his weapon. He'd produced a second from his satchel, as he'd promised, and he was cleaning it meticulously, using the loose ends of his coat to polish the metal where it could be polished, and shine the wood where it could be shined. He triple-checked the chamber and counted the bullets each time, removing and replacing them as he did so. He moved back to his first gun, sliding the chamber out to the left and inspecting it.
“I can feel you starin' at me, Nurse. Can't say I mind much, but if you got somethin' to say then you best say it while you can.”
“You seem like you've done this before.”
“You sure as hay ain't dealin' with an amateur. I've done my share of hostage-takin'. Bit of a trademark if I'm bein' honest with you. I've got quite a fondness for it.”
She hadn't expected anything less, but hearing it from him sent shivers down her spine. He looked back over his shoulder at her, and she turned away.
“Why do you want Applejack so bad?”
She heard the distinct clang of metal hitting the floor.
“Best you hope she hurries along so you can find out. By my count, she's got about fifteen minutes before I turn this six-gun on one of you nice folks.”
A few more soft clangs sounded on the other side of Flint. He slid the chamber back into place and placed the weapon back in its holster. He went back to polishing the second gun. Redheart grimaced.
“You seem quite calm for somepony who's getting ready to kill somepony else.”
“It's one of those things that gets easier the more you do it. But I don't quite think you understand me, miss. Not sure I do myself. Not completely. Reckon it doesn't much matter now, though. Here she comes.”
Applejack stood strong in front of the Urgent Care building, her back arched and her head held high, a mask of fierce determination adorning her face. The Urgent Care door swung open slowly. Standing silhouetted against the unnatural halogen lights was Flint. He stepped out into the square, closing the door tightly behind him. Lightning crashed and a few sparse raindrops started to fall. A wind picked up, blowing Flint's duster coat and Applejack's hat into a frenzy. Flint lifted the polished gun from his satchel with his magic and placed it on the ground.
“Doesn't look like you brought a weapon.”
“Don't reckon I'd need one to do you in.”
“I take it your friend found you?”
“No. I came here on my own. I made you a promise. Said I had a mind to kill you myself should I see you again.”
“You willing to make good on that?”
“Reckon we're about to find out.”
His horn lit up and he slid the gun over to Applejack. She picked it up and inspected it for sabotage. She tested the hammer and the trigger and slid the chamber out to count her shots. She had a full six.
“You're a strange pony, Flint.”
“I've been called a lot of things in my time, miss Applejack. I don't believe 'strange' is one of 'em.”
The rain grew heavier. Distant thunder boomed, shaking the earth as the clouds cried. A wicked wind swept the trees about, twisting and bending and buckling their branches and trunks. Curious eyes poked out from the windows of houses, staring down at the two statuesque ponies in the square.
“So, how do you imagine we're gonna go about doing this?”
“Next flash of lightning, miss Applejack. Could be a while, but I don't recommend lettin' yourself get relaxed. I've seen ponies die on account of that.”
The two stood tense in the storm, their guns at their sides, ready to be drawn. The rain beat harshly against their bodies but neither yielded. Runoff rainwater began to pool at their feet and the wind threatened them with its shrill banshee howl.
And the lightning flashed.
Applejack stood with her hoof outstretched, the gun in her hand smoking. She was breathing heavily, shakily. Flint brought a hoof to his chest, taking in what had happened. His back left gave in and he slumped to the ground.
“Mighty good shot, miss. Mighty good shot.”
His head hit the ground with a soft thud. From behind his hoof a stream of perfect crimson flowed like a mighty fountain. The rainwater that had pooled around him began to tint red.
The rain slowed and ponies filtered into the streets. A large crowd circled around Applejack and the body of the outlaw. A crack appeared in the clouds behind the library, and a chariot descended softly into the square. The Princess stepped down and scanned the area for her student. On cue, Twilight emerged from the library, bloodied cotton and tissue stuffed in her nose. They exchanged glances, but neither spoke.
The storm died away completely. A melancholy murmur filled the void. Applejack dropped her weapon and let her hoof fall to her side. Her face was devoid of emotion.
The Princess walked up to Applejack, her protege in tow. She matched Applejack's gaze, staring off past the horizon. The crowd hushed as the princess unfolded her wings. Minutes passed, and nopony moved. The Princess turned her head and looked down at Applejack.
“You're a very courageous young pony, Applejack.”
She stared back into the distance. Ponies began to break off from the group, resuming their evening routines. After just a few minutes more, only the Princess and Applejack's friends remained. They gathered behind her in solemnity.
Applejack looked down at her hooves, then over to Flint. She saw something sticking out of his satchel – a book. She walked over, each step a mile. She knelt down and picked up the sizable tome. It was a journal. Prying open the covers, she found a freshly-penned note:
For the mare who set me free.
Many thanks, Applejack.
She thumbed through the pages. Some of the entries were decades old. Others were unfinished or torn out completely. The life of a criminal was between those covers. A complicated life. A conflicted life. The story of a stallion that Equestria had no use for. A story worth remembering.
She balanced the journal on her back and she turned towards her friends. They stared back at her with a mixture of warmth, sorrow and awe. Even the Princess's face was grave.
She glanced back at Flint, then started towards home, walking past her friends and down the boulevards of Ponyville.
The stars twinkled and a cool breeze sifted through the apple orchard. Under the moon, a tired orange pony help in her hooves a book. She placed it on the ground in front of her, brought up a candle, and opened the front cover.
Thank you everyone for reading. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. As always, I thank you for the time you've devoted to appreciate my work. Here's to many more to come!
1) I just know someone's gonna interpret the whole apple orchard scene as shipping. Well, it isn't. Sorry!
2) When you read the part just after Flint dies, this music really sets the mood. Like, super good. – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvYh3uQpqXc&feature=related
3) If there's enough interest, I might write a “Journals of Flint” story to explore the contents of his parting gift. If that sounds like something you'd like to read, drop me a line on my DeviantArt page. Same pseudonym.
4) I like making lists.