Stranger in the West

(Disclaimer: Hasbro owns the ponies, not me. Enjoy)

“That's a funny-lookin' Cutie Mark, mister. How'd ya get it?”

The stallion tilted his head in the direction of the voice. A little yellow filly stared back at him, a cock-eyed yet eager expression on her face. He glanced at the drink he held in his left hoof, then back at the little filly. She didn't look like she was going anywhere. He tilted his hat over his eyes and let out a sigh.

“Applebloom!” The filly bolted around, eyes widening. She shuffled a bit, making to escape, but ended up just spinning around in nervous half-circles. “What the hay have I told you about goin' up and botherin' strangers?”

“But sis, I was just curious! I ain't never seen a Cutie Mark like that before.”

“Ain't no excuse for interruptin' a pony's drink. That ain't how we behave at home, is it? So that ain't how we behave when we're visitin', understand?”

“But sis –”

“No buts missy. Go on back to your brother. We best be headin' out before cousin Braeburn takes off without us.”

The filly pouted and left with a 'humph,' dragging her tail lazily behind her. The other, an orange mare with sandy blonde hair and an oversized cowboy hat, smiled weakly and walked over to the stallion. Something about this pony made her uneasy. Maybe it was his charcoal coat or his unwashed, frazzled black mane and tail, or the cold, unfriendly expression he wore on his face. Maybe it was his equally grim attire – a smooth, buckled black felt stetson hat and a well-worn old duster coat. Maybe it was his rather unique Cutie Mark. Maybe it was the fact that he was the only pony in Appleloosa that she didn't know personally.

“Terribly sorry 'bout that, sir.” She hung her head just slightly. “My little sister's just been a bit Cutie Mark-obsessed lately. I mean, we all were at some point, right? Reckon it'll pass once she stops foolin' around and finds somethin' she's good at.”

He took a sip from his drink and set it back on the bar. Keeping it close in his left hoof, he turned towards the orange mare. She flinched ever so slightly – any other pony probably wouldn't have noticed. She was nervous, tense. As far as he was concerned, that was for the better.

“Reckon so,” the stallion said. He looked the mare over. From what he could tell, she wasn't the type to be easily frightened. She was strong: built for field work and hard labor, yet still thin and athletic. And she was pretty. Maybe not Manehattan fashion model pretty, but pretty just the same. Her eyes glowed like emeralds, and her freckles almost seemed to sparkle. Everything about her seemed honest, down-to-earth and just plain good. She made him sick. “Somethin' I can help you with, young miss?”

The mare kept up her smiling facade. The stallion's voice felt like gravel being ground into her ears. There was something wrong about him. Something...implacable.

“Oh, no. I was just uh...Just makin' sure there was no harm done is all. Name's Applejack, by the way. But uh, if you don't mind me askin'... That is uh, if I won't be causing any offense...” Her eyes shifted nervously. “How does a pony go about gettin' the chamber of a revolver for a Cutie Mark?” She knew it was never a good idea to prod an irate stranger, but her sister's question had piqued her interest. She had never seen such a Mark either. Sure, she'd seen bows and arrows on athletes and the like, but a revolver wasn't exactly something made for sport. What could such a pony's special talent possibly be?

The stallion shifted in his seat. His expression darkened and he adjusted his hat again. “Look, miss Applejack. I'm flattered by your family's interest. But you'd be best to leave this where it is.” He shifted away from Applejack and reached instinctively to his left side and put his hoof on a small, irregularly-shaped pouch. His golden yellow eyes narrowed and locked onto hers.

Silence fell over the bar. The eyes of the half-filled room sat fixed on the pair. Hushed whispers snaked through the air. Nervous hooves twitched, ready to bolt in or dash out at the drop of a hat.

“Then pardon my intrusion, sir.” Applejack looked around. The bar was still frozen in fear – in anticipation. The ponies stared unblinkingly at her and the stranger, wearing their souls on their anxious faces. “I guess I just let my curiosity get the better of me.”

The stallion rested his hooves on the bar. “No harm done.” He adjusted his hat once more and finished his drink.

The saloon doors burst open and a yellow pony-shaped blob of energy invaded the room. The crowd gasped and their heads swiveled to the entrance. A disappointed-looking yellow Earth pony dressed smartly in a brown vest and hat stood tapping his hooves impatiently.

“Cousin Applejack! You know how long you've kept me waiting? We gotta get 'round to the apple orchard before it gets dark, and you're over here socializin' and whatnot, and I'm out there waitin' around for you and Big Macintosh and li'l Applebloom to get your flanks in gear! Shame on you.”

Applejack planted a hoof firmly in her forehead. “Braeburn, it's barely three in the afternoon. We've got plenty of time. Now go on back outside and wait with my brother and sister. I won't be but another minute. Promise.”

“Pinkie Pie promise?”

“Braeburn,” she snapped, “would you just get on out there?”

Braeburn's face deflated. He whimpered and turned, weakly pushing past the saloon doors.

“There's somethin' just ain't right about that colt.” She turned back to face the stranger, who sat still as ever. He seemed more relaxed, but that somehow failed to put Applejack's mind at ease. She would still have to walk on eggshells or risk upsetting him again.

“I've met ponies like him.” The stallion slid his empty glass towards the bartender. “Mares, mostly. You sure do seem to have an interesting family, miss Applejack.”

The way he stressed his words put Applejack on edge. She knew an insult when she heard one, and under normal circumstances, she'd be damned if she didn't make the poor bastard who insulted her kin eat his words. But these were not normal circumstances. It was everything she could do to keep from calling him out on it, but she decided it was best not to let the situation grow any more tense. She really did need to be on her way anyways, she supposed.

“Well, I do need to get goin'. My cousin might be a few apples shy, if you know what I mean, but he's not completely full of hot air.” She turned to leave. “Don't think I got your name, though.”

She hung back, facing the door, waiting for some sort of answer. The stallion just sat there, buried in his black duster. He rolled his neck to a chorus of protesting pops and cracks.

“Best you leave before that cousin of yours kicks the doors in again.”

Applejack shook her head and sighed. She spared a glance at the stranger as she pushed the doors open. Just somethin' ain't right about him, she thought. I know it.

***

“You couldn't even get his name?”

“He ain't the kind of pony I want you talkin' to, anyhow, so you better just forget all about him, y'hear?”

Applebloom started whining, but Applejack chose to ignore her. When she got like this, there was just no reasoning with her. Big Macintosh, on the other hand, had been quiet all day, and Braeburn had been running his mouth about apples and apple harvests and apple trees and the apple orchard and apple pie production and apple accessories and Little Strongheart non-stop since they started the tour of the orchard. All in all, normal behavior for the Apple Family.

“Braeburn, if I can interrupt for just a sec.”

“Sure thing, cousin. What's eatin' atcha?”

“I was just wonderin' about that stallion back in town. You know anything about him?”

The joy and ease washed from Braeburn's face.

“He showed up yesterday evening. Nopony's ever seen him before, and he ain't talked much outside ordering a few drinks and meals. But I just know that a pony with a six-gun for a Cutie Mark is bad news.”

“Think I spied one on his hip, too. Reckon it's the only one I've seen in town since...well, since ever.”

“We try to make friends with ponies before shootin' 'em here, cousin.”

“You sayin' you don't have a single firearm in the whole town? That's a mite foolish.”

“Just 'cause we're friendly don't mean we're stupid. I keep one in my nightstand just in case, and I'm sure Sheriff Silverstar has one, too.”

“Oh, yeah, THAT's a relief.”

“Hey now, I didn't invite y'all here to criticize our way of life. But I see your point. I sure as hay don't want him stirrin' up any trouble.”

“I don't exactly see you runnin' him out of town.”

“Well shoot, Applejack. You know that ain't the Appleloosan way. Everypony's loved. Reckon that's true. I just...He just kind of rubs me the wrong way, you know? I mean, what if he's some kind of outlaw other shady type of pony?”

“Have you talked to the sheriff about him yet?”

“He's been pretty busy since we struck that truce with the buffalo. Thanks again, by the way.”

“So you haven't said a word to him?”

“Not one. He hasn't actually caused any trouble, so I figure it's best to leave him be.”

“Well, I'm gonna stop by Silverstar's office once we're done with this here tour. I'd like you to take Big Mac and Applebloom to our room at the inn, if that wouldn't be too much trouble.”

“None at all, cousin. Just don't go stirrin' up trouble where trouble don't need to be stirred up.”

***

Applejack waved goodbye to her siblings and Braeburn as they parted ways at Sheriff Silverstar's office. She poked her head in and called for the Sheriff, but was met by silence. The light outside was quickly fading, and she saw only a single candle alight inside. She made her way down the short hallway to the sheriff's office proper.

She called softly again for the sheriff, peeking through the cracked door. She could hear the gentle sounds of a pony snoring on the other side. Pushing the door open, she caught sight of Sheriff Silverstar, buried in mountains of papers and scrolls, his head resting in a puddle of saliva on his desk. He didn't look like he was in any sort of shape to do much of anything tonight. Applejack could take care of the situation herself anyways, she reckoned.

As she turned to leave, a piece of paper hanging on the wall caught her eye. There was a picture of a pony dressed in a black stetson and duster with words printed underneath, shouting at anypony who happened to glance in their direction:

WANTED

ARSON, BURGLARY, MURDER

OUTLAW “FLINT”

REWARD: 30,000 BITS

Applejack rushed back out into the street. She scanned around. Empty. The inn was equally vacant. There was loud music and quite a commotion coming from inside the saloon, as was normal for Appleloosa, at least in Applejack's experience. She conjured she'd make an appearance there, too, after a quick stop at Braeburn's.

***

The saloon was a ball of energy and happiness. The floor exploded to life as mares and stallions gathered to revel in the music. The fiddler and the pianist dueled, each vying to be king of the night. Tables became dance floors. Drinks and foods of all kinds flowed freely from pony to pony. The music stopped, hooves sounded applause, dancing partners changed, and it started once more. In a sea of happiness and merrymaking, one pony sat in striking contrast to the revelry around him. And a little yellow filly sat with him, hanging on his every word.

Big Macintosh and Braeburn had managed to lose themselves in the crowd. While Macintosh had been dragged off to dance by two particularly frisky young mares, Braeburn had been asked to join in the music act, keeping the beat and clapping away with the dancers. Neither had really noticed that Applebloom had gone to talk to the stranger again.

“That's so cool, mister! I wanna do somethin' like that some day. Oh, wait until I tell my friend Scootaloo! She loves cool stories. We could be Cutie Mark Crusader Cowgirls!”

The stranger chuckled, a smile briefly brightening his grizzled face. This little filly was quite inquisitive. She didn't seem to think that the world could be anything but nice and fun. He wasn't going to be the one to break it to her. That's why he'd left a few key points out of his stories.

“Well, I can't exactly tell a story about somepony without knowing that pony's name. So come on, mister! What's your name?”

“His name's Flint.”

The call came from across the saloon. The music stopped and the crowd turned to face the source of the words. The energy died; all of Equestria ceased to move. Applejack's face was a mask of rage. Her eyes narrowed to slits and watched Flint unblinkingly. She wore a saddlebag that was weighed down by a strangely shaped and heavy-looking object.

“Well,” the charcoal pony confessed, “seems like somepony's gone and figured me out. Matter of time, I suppose. But supposin' ain't gonna do me much good now, is it?”

“You get the hay away from my little sister you son-of-a-bitch.”

Applebloom sat, confounded, looking blankly back and forth between his sister and Flint. How could he be a bad pony? He seemed so nice, and he had such cool stories.

Big Macintosh shouldered his way through the crowd, coming to his sister's side.

“Uh...AJ,” he said cautiously. His eyes darted away from her judging gaze.

“I'll deal with your worthless flank later. Take a look. Here in my saddlebag.”

Big Macintosh fished around and found a piece of paper, a wanted poster with a picture of the stallion that sat only feet away. He was wanted for murder. More importantly, he was wanted for murder and Big Mac left his kid sister with him unattended.

Flint brought his hoof to his chin and twisted his head around, piercing the silence with a loud snap. He got up from his stool, standing on all four hooves for the first time in hours.

“Reckon you should step out of here before you do something you regret.”

“I ain't gonna abide a Celestia-damn murderer in this town.”

“You're awful attached to a town that ain't yours.”

“My kin's town is my town. You wouldn't know a damn thing about that.”

“Suppose not.”

Their words hung in the air like a fog, penetrating into the ears and hearts of the crowd until it finally sunk in. They were petrified with fear.

“How many ponies does somepony have to kill to rack up a thirty-thousand bit bounty? Five? Ten?”

Flint sighed and shook his head. There'd be no reasoning with this one.

“Let me ask you something, miss Applejack.”

“Go to Hell.”

“In time. Now...You ever even shot a gun before?”

Applejack reached into her saddlebag and pulled out Braeburn's revolver. It was a bit clunky to operate with hooves, but it worked well enough. She took aim and pulled back on the hammer until she heard a distinctive click.

Flint laughed.

“Lemme be more specific. Have you ever shot a gun at somepony. Not as easy as you're thinkin' it is.”

“I ain't gonna shoot nopony. I'm gonna shoot animal.”

“Quite clever, miss. Quite clever. Y'know, there's a reason I wear this here hat.”

His hat shook and began to rise. It became enveloped in a purple aura, floating just high enough to reveal the horn that was controlling it underneath. Applejack faltered for just a second. Flint jumped to the side, hooking his arm around Applebloom and bringing her up to face level. With his magic, he slung his revolver from his hip and pressed it against Applebloom's temple. All emotion fled from his face, his yellow eyes staring back at Applejack from behind her sister, like needles poking her soul.

“You very handy with that gun, miss? If you are, best tell me now so's we can avoid a whole mess.”

Applejack's hoof started to shake. She could feel tears beginning to well up in her eyes. She tried to suppress them, but not to much avail. Big Macintosh stood next to her, every muscle in his body ready to spring into action and tear into the bastard that was holding his sister hostage.

“Didn't imagine so. Now, I also didn't imagine getting myself into such a mess, but if you'd kindly put the gun down, your little sister gets to keep her brains inside her happy little head.”

Applejack's world turned cold. She couldn't very well shoot Flint – she'd run the risk of hitting Applebloom. And she couldn't do much of anything else, either, or she ran the risk of the outlaw making good on his threats. She felt her foreleg drop and her hoof release the revolver. Her body went stiff and her eyes unfocused. She felt like her ears were stuffed with cotton. The world seemed at a distance.

“Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be takin' my leave.”

Flint made his way to the door, Applebloom still clutched in his foreleg, his cold six-gun pressed tightly to the side of her head. He backed through the saloon doors and, like a ghost, disappeared into the night.

Slowly, the crowd in the saloon came back to life. Ponies looked around at each other with a mixture of shock and anger. Slowly, their gazes drifted towards Applejack and Big Macintosh.

Applejack's legs gave out. She crashed to the floor hard, but she didn't realize the pain. Big Mac sat down next to her, eventually coming to rest on his belly as his sister was. The crowd murmured, but nopony knew quite what to do.

***

Flint was a silhouette against the black of the night. His coat rippled like a shadow in the breeze. Applebloom kept her distance. She was still processing what had just happened. Applejack said that Flint was a murderer. Applebloom didn't even know that sort of thing really happened outside of stories. She couldn't believe her. Her sister had been wrong about Zecora, after all. Maybe she was just wrong again. She had to know for sure.

“Um...Mister Flint?”

Silence answered her.

“Mister Flint? Is it true what my sister Applejack said? You really...you really a murderer, mister Flint?”

Flint stood unmoving, a rock atop the desert plain. Applebloom inched forward, then fell back on her haunches.

“Sure as the sun rises, little one.”

“But I don't understand. Why would you go an' kill somepony? It's wrong!”

“You're smart. But you're still just a kid. Too young to know much better, I reckon.”

“I'm not a baby, mister Flint! Tell me why you done those things my sister was talkin' about!”

He turned and faced Applebloom. She hadn't realized until now just how old he looked. Bags weighed down his eyes and scars marred his once-handsome face. Wrinkles stretched across his forehead and temples in patterns that looked like the footfalls of dancing crows. The skin of his face sagged just slightly, still strong and tough as leather but wearing down with age.

He glared at Applebloom, and she swore his expression somehow darkened. It was like staring into the face of death himself.

“Let me tell you a little somethin' about 'why.' As a concept, that is. I conjure you've already learned about Cutie Marks and whatnot in school. But you're still a little blank flank. No offense intended.”

Applebloom winced slightly at the phrase.

“Anyhow, you know that a pony's Cutie Mark is a representation of their special talent. Now, what's my Mark?”

“Looks like a part of a gun or somethin'.”

“It's the chamber of a six-gun. So, what do you suppose my special talent is with a six-gun for a Cutie Mark?”

“I guess shootin' guns.”

“And what are guns good for 'sides from killin' ponies?”

She didn't have an answer for him.

“See kid, I didn't so much choose this life so much as I had it thrust upon me. I was born with a damn six-gun in my hand. It was decided before I even left the crib what I'd grow up to be.”

“So you just gave in? What, you think it was some kind of fate or somethin'?”

“Destiny. Yeah, suppose. Look here. Way things work here in Equestria is like so: two ponies have a foal, and they name that foal somethin' like what they think their foal's gonna grow up to be doin'. My folks named me Flint, after the flintlock pistol. Yours named you Applebloom, and no doubt you'll be sportin' some sort of apple Mark on your flank mighty soon.”

“But that's just a name. Name don't mean who y'are.”

“You're wrong about that, little one. Name's a label, and a Cutie Mark's a brand. Ain't nopony has no control over it. You're born into what you're gonna be. Ain't nothin' can change it.”

“That ain't no excuse for goin' 'round and shootin' places up and...and thievin' and all that. You can still tell what's right and wrong. Your Cutie Mark don't tell you that!”

“I ain't never killed nopony who didn't have it comin'.”

“What about your parents? What do they think a' you? How do you think –”

Flint turned his head away from her. His scowl deepened.

“Oh mister Flint, you didn't –”

“Ain't never killed nopony who didn't have it comin'.”

Applebloom's eyes widened. Flint looked back her way, but she dodged his eyes. She couldn't bear his gaze, but she was frozen in place. Her stomach knotted and her eyes swelled. She couldn't believe what she'd just heard.

“Is that...how you got your Cutie Mark?” Her voice was a whisper.

He didn't say anything. He didn't need to. He turned away and sat staring up at the moon. An uncomfortable silence fell between them, interrupted only briefly by the occasional whistling of the wind or coyote call in the distance.

“I do think it was mighty noble of your sister to do what she did back in town. Quite respectable.”

Applebloom didn't react.

“Reckon I'll be wakin' up in my own grave here someday soon. I've done a lot of bad things what are catchin' up with me. Wouldn't mind so much if a pony like her were the one to put me there.”

“My sister ain't no murderer.” Her voice cracked and gargled. She sniffed and light tears streaked down to the tip of her nose. Her face was stern, staring at her fore hooves in the dirt.

“No, I don't reckon she is. But you don't gotta be a murderer to put a bad pony in the ground.” He looked over at Applebloom. A grandfatherly smile began to crack his face before he suppressed it. Tomorrow, he felt, was going to be quite the momentous day in the life of the little one, and he imagined it would be pretty big for himself, too.

“Get some sleep, little one. We're goin' back into town soon as the sun peeks up over those mountains.”

***

The sun eased its way over the horizon, plodding lazily along, in no hurry to resume its daily duties. On the edge of town stood two ponies, silhouetted against the rising sun. The air was stiff and dry, the new light from the sun baking the beaten earth. Weary ponies peeked from their windows as the two walked into the streets.

Flint stopped. He scanned the area, looking into the windows and under the doors at the nervous Appleloosans. Not a single one stirred. He snorted and waited in the street for his target to come out.

Applebloom was nervous. She didn't know quite what to expect. She hoped to Celestia that she'd just be going home today and nothing too bad would go down, but she was wise enough to know that's not how things usually turned out. She was scared.

The doors of the saloon opened slowly and a disheveled Applejack made her way out. She clasped Braeburn's revolver as best she could as she walked out into the street, facing Flint. They stood yards apart, Applejack glaring daggers at Flint, and Flint gazing blankly back. From the windows of the saloon, Big Macintosh and Braeburn watched anxiously.

Flint lifted his hat above his head with his magic, once again revealing his scarred horn. He looked to his left and placed it on Applebloom's head. She started a bit.

“Go on over to your sister.” He lifted his gaze back to Applejack. She hadn't budged an inch.

The sun was climbing higher. The sky was already a solid blue, having escaped the clutches of the dawn. The three ponies in the street stood as statues, the two earth ponies reunited, leaving Flint by his lonesome.

“Applebloom, you go on inside with your brother.”

She did as her sister told her without protest. She slid under the swinging saloon doors and greeted Big Mac with a hug, then joined him and Braeburn in watching the showdown in the street.

“Reckon I don't quite understand you, Flint,” Applejack said, her eyes still fixed on the charcoal stallion's own.

“Makes two of us, miss Applejack.”

A breeze picked up, whistling through the alleys of the town. Some dust took to the air between the two ponies. Neither flinched. Neither blinked.

“I'm a bad stallion. Ain't no sense in denying it. I was bad since the day I was born. And that was a long time ago. Long time ago indeed. Figure my number should've come up ten times by now. Don't fancy I'll make it to eleven. How 'bout when that clock starts singin' we find out?”

Applejack looked at the clock tower. It was one minute until the hour chime would sound. She pulled back the hammer on the revolver. She would be ready.

A minute passed, and the clock sounded the hour. Applejack was a blur of color. A shot rang out. Inside, Applebloom buried her eyes in Flint's hat. Big Macintosh and Braeburn looked away. The street was still.

Applejack stood with her foreleg outstretched, the revolver hot, smoking. Flint hadn't moved. His gun still rested on his hip, secure in its holster. Applejack looked at her gun, pointed just a few degrees to Flint's left, then, lowering her weapon, looked back at Flint. He nodded to her, and she nodded back.

“Don't reckon you'll see me grievin' if they string you up someday soon. I've a mind to kill you myself should I see you again.”

“Lookin' forward to it, miss.”

Flint turned away, his back to the town. He glanced one last time over his left shoulder.

“Tell your sister that she's right. She's a lot smarter 'n she looks, y'know.”

Flint walked off, sparing not a single look back. Slowly the streets filled with anxious ponies, looking about themselves and Applejack, wondering just what had transpired even after seeing it with their own eyes.

The rest of the Apple family joined their sister in the street. Not a word was spoken. Applebloom looked up to her big sister, eyes wide and wet. Applejack looked down at her and nodded. She nodded back.

In a matter of minutes, Appleloosa had returned to its daily routine. Nopony seemed to give much thought to the events of the morning or the previous night. The town was remarkable in that way.

***

Somewhere in the hard West of Equestria, a charcoal gray stallion tossed and turned under the stars, searching for redemption and for the mare who would someday end his journey. Looking up, he caught sight of a shooting star and followed it to its terminus. It pointed him East, towards a little town not too far from Canterlot. He'd let the fates and stars dictate his life up to this point, so he decided that now would be a Hell of a time to stop. He sat up, rejuvenated, and began his last journey East.

~~~~~~~~~~

Thank you for reading.

              ~Mister-Hand