The badlands. A rocky little spot way down in the south end of Equestria where the sun burned hot and the winters never dared to appear. It was in this normally hard to live area that a small town had been set up, the rather prosperous settlement of Appleloosa. Named such because it had been funded and built by the apple family purely for the special apple trees it was growing. Once they had everything set up and running real tight those trees would produce food all year round, not only being the first to do so but also the only one to do so.
Applejack herself was excited to go see how it was all progressing for the first time and being able to ride along in the newly built steam locomotive was also a treat. It had taken quite some time and a pile of bits to take the outdated design of the first generation trains and make something more modern out of it but it was worth it. From simply upgrades like heating to complicated reworks to the coal fed engine it was faster, cleaner and smoother than ever before! A perfect contrast to the ancient rails that ran along to every corner of Equestria.
At the back of the train in a large private cabin lay several trees from her own orchard. Each one had been placed in a bed to protect the branches from the hard floor but the sight of it still proved comedic. Applejack’s constant checks on them like a worried mother did not help either and Rainbow had quickly ran out of jokes to make before the first hour had gone by or at least that is what Applejack had hoped. That is until she saw her get that telling grin across her face.
“Ok ok I will stop.” Rainbow spoke as Applejack glared at her. “I got to use the little fillies room anyway.” With that she hopped down from the top bunk of her bed and trotted away.
“Why did we have to take her along anyway?” Applejack asked out loud.
“Because she brings light and joy to our lives.” Starlight replied sarcastically from one of the top beds. “Or maybe she is just wanting a few days away from the winter weather, since the badlands are summer all the time.” She then added.
“I know what I am going for.” Pinkie called out from her bottom bunk bed.
“I am sure we all know that.” Starlight called back before Pinkie could continue, leading to a few laughs to follow.
“Come on girls, it is late already and some of us do have a lot to do tomorrow.” Twilight then spoke up herself with a yawn.
Stretching herself out on her bed Applejack started to notice that Rainbow had been gone on her bathroom break a little too long… Getting up she sighed and headed down the train to the back cabins to go look for her. Just as she had expected she found Rainbow to be sitting in between two of the trees with a story book.
“What, I figured they might appreciate a nice relaxing tale before bed since they do have such a long day tomorrow.” Rainbow said with a wide smirk. Applejack rubbed the side of her head and sighed. “Do you want me to tuck you in and read a story too?” She added.
“I swear to Celestia if you don’t go to bed I am going to tie you to the roof of this train.” Applejack snapped but her grin as she ducked out back to the sleeping cabins told Rainbow a lot. The blue pegasus did agree it was getting real late though and getting plenty of sleep so she could properly enjoy her time off doing nothing was always a nice idea. After a few more jokes between Pinkie and Dash it finally quieted down and the group found some rest. The train rolling on into the night carrying only the few girls from Ponyville and many boxes of supplies.
Come morning Starlight found herself roused awake as the train rattled sharply. Sitting up with blurry eyes she looked around confused before another greater shake threw her straight out of her bed and into Rainbows.
“Everypony wake up, something is up.” Twilight shouted as Rainbow woke to find herself face to face with Starlight. Embarrassed the unicorn rolled straight out of her bed and onto the floor.
“What is going on?” Starlight asked as she magically tidied her mane.
“Look over here!” Twilight called out causing Starlight, Rainbow and Applejack to rush over. Looking out of the window they find that one of the Buffalo tribes was stampeding right next to the train. Each one of them was noticeably bigger than the ponies and had enough speed to keep up with the train for at least a short while, each had the same two or three white and black feathers tied to a headband. The biggest at the head of the suddenly swerved and slammed hard into the cabin of the train, the sheer force nearly knocking it off the rails. With the girls bouncing around a smaller female buffalo jumped and hopped up onto the roof of the train.
Running down the length of it she had her sights on the end cabin with the trees but before she could get close one of the skylights flung open and out climbed Twilight.
“And where do you think you are going?” She snapped but the young buffalo dodged around and jumped from one cabin to the next. Turning around Twilight twisted her neck from the left to the right in circles. Bending down low the joints in her legs creaked before she shot forward. Her hooves barely skipped across the metal of the cabins as she went flying over the young buffalo. “Hang on, I just want to talk…” She tried to talk but surprisingly the young buffalo jumped clear over her in a series of graceful spins.
Annoyed Twilight took off at full speed. She quickly closed in but the buffalo dropped low and skid across the rooftops. Unable to stop Twilight was tripped over and went flying off the back of the train. Slipping down to the gap between cabins the young buffalo unhitched the connector and whistled. The pack broke off from the train and took all sides of the now slowing cabin. The girls left behind in the main part of the train watched as the buffalo began to take it away back down the tracks.
“My trees!” Applejack shouted angrily. Catching a face in the window she then gasped. “Pinkie?!” It was too late to stop and the train only sped up to get away from the attackers. With Twilight lost in the wilds and the trees now stolen they had no choice but to wait for the next stop to come up.
Appleloosa thankfully was not far and as soon as the train had halted they rushed out to get further help, only for Applejack’s cousin to interrupt them.
“Hey there. Welcome to Appleoosa!” He happily shouted with a massive yet forced smile.
“Braeburn, listen, something terrible has happened… ” Applejack began.
“You are telling me, you train is a full 4 minutes late. That is four minutes less for you to delight in the pleasures and wonders of… Appleloosa!” Braeburn continued began Applejack threw a hoof over his mouth.
“Can the sales pitch cousin, Twilights lost out there and our trees have been stolen!” Applejack explained.
“Oh, really… That is quite the issue.” Breaburn replied now suddenly nervous.
“A huge issue! Those buffaloes were all kinds of vicious and Pinkie has been taken by them. Oh I can only hope she is doing alright… Or is not going native too quickly…” Starlight added.
“I am mighty sorry to hear. Those dang blasted beasts showed up months ago demanding we take all the apple trees down and leave but we need them to feed ourselves, and keep our business running.” Braeburn explained.
“Do you have any idea why?” Starlight asked.
“Beats me. They never want to talk or work out an agreement, it is just one thing after another with them.” He sighed.
Out in the middle of nowhere Twilight plucked a piece of cactus off her flank and winced. Taking a deep sigh she straightened down her hair and started to march on across the hot dusty plains in search of the lost trees and the buffalo camp. Sneaking from one rock to another lest any scouts or spies see her she noticed in the distance a small plume of smoke rising up. Being sure that was where the camp lay she continued to creep forward with plans forming in her mind.
“Hey Twilight, what are you doing?” Pinkie asked.
“I am tracking the…” Twilight paused. Looking to her right she found the young pink mare to be sitting next to her with a sweetly innocent look. “How are you here?”
“Oh, they let me come with them.” Pinkie replied with a nod. Looking behind her Twilight only now noticed the dozen buffalo watching.
“Oh, heh well you don’t say.” Twilight said as the bufalos formed a circle around them.
“I do say, they are quite friendly.” Pinkie stated as she ran her hoof along the chin of one of them. Seeing this Twilight relaxed herself and smirked.
“Good to know your charms work on any guy.” She joked.
Escorted back to the buffalo camp the two mares sat on either end of a fire and were even given a bowl of… something. Twilight winced at the sight of it but Pinkie had no issues pouring the mushy stuff into her mouth.
“It is not as bad as it looks, a bit tangy and yes a little wild but if you close your eyes and get yourself in there you might be surprised at how much you enjoy it.” Pinkie said with a glance to one of the buffalos sitting nearby.
“I will take your word for it and while I do like to be open minded, are you sure you can trust them? They did rob Applejack and attack us at the train.”
“They had a good reason for that and there is someone who would like to apologize.” Pinkie spoke with a nod. Just on time a young and familiar looking female buffalo stepped out from around one of the tents. Twilight’s eyes narrowed.
“I do hope you can accept my apology. Believe me when I say that we did not mean for anyone to get hurt, we was just after those trees.”
“Even if I did believe you, robbing ponies and all is not good, miss… ?”
“Strongheart and we have a good reason! Those settler ponies are taking over the land, planting trees everywhere and because of their thoughtlessness we can not even run over our traditional stampeding grounds.” Strongheart explained.
“They did?” Twilight asked before letting out a long sigh. “I know how air headed some ponies can be so let me promise you that I will get to the bottom of all this.”
“I can not thank you enough but at the very least let us celebrate our new friendship as you rest for the night.” Strongheart offered and Twilight accepted. She did not know the most about buffalo tribes and would hate to pass up a front row seat to experience their culture directly. Looking at the bowl of mushy stuff though she shuddered. Some cultural bridges were easier than others.
Come the next morning Starlight, Rainbow and Applejack were all raring to get going. With packs heavy with camping equipment and snacks for long road they set out east from the orchard in search of Twilight and Pinkie Pie or the buffalo camp. They had no doubts that it would be a long and difficult hike across rocky cliffs and scalding sands but even if it suddenly turned into a blizzard with hail the size of wagons they would save their friends if it was the last thing they did! Only for them to run into the pair just down the road.
“Sup.” Pinkie said.
“Twilight? Pinkie? How did you escape those buffalo?” Starlight asked as Rainbow gave Pinkie a welcoming hug.
“We didn’t.” Twilight replied as Strongheart came out from behind a rock. “We brought one of them to talk about the cockamamie plan your family has been doing, Applejack.”
“My family ain’t done nothing wrong. We scouted out this area for months without a peep from those buffalo but now we start to bring food and houses and suddenly they have an issue?” Applejack snapped back.
“Did you at least talk to them before building? Because I happen to know that you built the orchard on ancient buffalo grounds!”
“I am sure they had a good reason to, we have not been here a day and I would rather trust my family than some random cow folk.” Applejack snapped with a huff to which the others gasped.
“I think we need to go have a talk with your cousin.” Twilight stated with a sigh.
Returning back to town Twilight took a moment to look around as they headed to the orchard. The buildings were strongly made and neatly organized, good foundations for expansion. Apart from all the industry focused buildings such as storage and processing there was a number of commercial and residential on top. Amusingly, the Salt Lick bar seemed to be the most popular place in the entire town as there were ponies coming and going all the time. It had been built wisely with the main commercial reason for the town existing being set up first for when the machines and factories would one day grow, in the meantime however it put a focus on pleasurable and interesting locations instead. It felt alive, not like a workplace but a community. Twilight passed by ponies drawing and painting, others dancing and singing. It was nice.
They found Braeburn out at a storage barn that sat between the orchard and the town looking over a few barrels of apples. Seeing the group coming up the path he gave a wave with his hat.
“Well shucks cousin, sure glad you managed to rescue your friend so quick.” He called out.
“Twilight rescued herself.” Applejack replied.
“And she is working for the buffalo now.”
“I am not working with them, I am taking their needs into consideration. Something that you two should have done before you decided to invade their land.” Twilight replied with a huff.
“I keep telling you we did not invade anything, right Braeburn?” Applejack added.
“Well not intentionally at least.” He awkwardly chuckled. “Look, we knew that there was buffalo tribes in the area but this was the only flat land for miles and besides we have built too much to pack up and move.”
“That is what I keep saying, surely you saw that as well?” Applejack said to Twilight.
“The foundations of the town are quite amazing but that is no excuse to steal the land of others.” Twilight pointed out.
“It sounds to me that they both have good points.” Rainbow Dash spoke up between the arguing causing all of them to look her way. “The Zebra have a camp outside of Ponyville and they are fine, why not just do the same here?” She explained simply.
“Well, that is not ehm quite the same… Right AJ?” Twilight said as she did not know how to reply.
“Yeah, that is… different and stuff.” AJ replied with a nod, and a shrug.
“Still, it might be a good idea to at least get the leaders to talk it out with us to help them get along better.” Twilight then spoke up feeling embarrassed over Rainbow being the smartest mare in the room for that one moment. Looking to Applejack she did not reply but gave an understanding nod. Twilight, Rainbow, Pinkie and Starlight all left to go find the town mayor but Applejack stopped Braeburn as he went to leave.
“You had better not ruin this for me.” She whispered with a glare. “I did not break my back every day to fund this first step only for it to stumble because you decided to not look where you were treading.” Getting up in his face she continued to glare before giving a huff and heading out of the barn to catch up to the others.
They all headed down to the Mayor’s office in awkward silence only to find that he was busy with several important meetings and would only have some time later that evening. Annoyed they split apart to pass some time.
“I am going to go see the sights.” Pinkie said with a wave as she headed straight to the Salt Lick.
“Well, I am going to get to know Strongheart more in the orchards. If you excuse me.” Twilight spoke up next before leaving with a flick of her tail.
“Fine with me, come on Braeburn let's talk business.” Applejack added last as she gave her cousin a push to get moving. In the end that left Starlight and Rainbow standing awkwardly in the streets.
“This really has not gone the way I expected.” Starlight sighed. “Sure the sun is nice but I did not think we would be stuck between diplomatic debates, you know?” She asked to Rainbow as they began to walk down the road with nowhere to go.
“Eh I find it quite interesting myself. I always thought that two kingdoms wanting the same spot of land would be all... Raining magic swords down from the skies as the women and children run screaming for cover. The feudal lords of each respectful castle laughing to each other and playing checkers over who would win the rights to the slave mines and featherum golems until, boom! Plot twist, the adviser of each kingdom that they had been trusting so heavily this entire time turns out to be the same handsome and young stallion who betrays them both thus taking all for themselves in a glorious display of power! You know?” Rainbow spoke loudly as she waved her hooves about to copy some actions.
“Totally.” Starlight replied with a shake of her mane. Stopping in her tracks she gave Rainbow a smirk. “In fact you are right, that is a good idea. You are really on point today, Rainbow.”
“When am I not?” She asked just cute enough that Starlight could not tell if that was sarcasm.
“Good… Point. Do you still have that notepad, the one that you keep writing stuff down on when you think nobody is looking?” Starlight asked to which Rainbow went a touch red.
“Oh yeah, let me just…” She replied while bringing it out from under her wing and flicking it open. “Hmm not that… Or that…” Rainbow muttered as she flickered through the pages. “Spoilers, spoilers, Star… I mean, Twilight crackships…” After about half the pages were gone through she folded them away and brought out a pencil with the other wing. “What did you need again?”
“We are making a plan and I want you to write down everything we find.” Starlight instructed.
After taking a peek into the Saltlick to find Pinkie dancing on a table with two stallions while already wearing some kind of old fashioned feathered outfit that had a far too short dress and some rather interesting leggings they promptly moved on. Leaving town they were hot on the trail of Twilight and Strongheart and after only a quick trot they spotted them walking into the orchard. Ducking from tree to tree Starlight listened to find them talking about buffalo culture. Something about a long history that went generations to do with the stampeding ground being something something… Starlight had stopped listening at that point due to Rainbow literally just walking behind the two as casual as could be. Using her magic she gently picked her up and levitated her around to the tree she was hiding behind. Throwing her hooves up she gave Dash an exceptionally annoyed look and in response Dash gave her an, ‘oh sorry’ motion back.
Now following more stealthily they watched Twilight and Strongheart take plenty of time to casually see the sights of the orchard. Twilight would point out some facts about the trees and fruit, to which Strongheart seemed quite interested, and in turn Strongheart would tell her more about the culture of her people. They would repeat this for some time while wandering around the trees lazily until finally they both sat down to take it easy. Starlight watched carefully as Twilight eventually snatched up a few fallen apples and offered a few to Strongheart. Being so curious about pony ways and the land they inhabit she took them gratefully. That first taste of juicy apples grown with the love and care of earth pony magic was special, Starlight could practically see the stars in her eyes. It gave her ideas as well.
Taking an apple or two with her Starlight trotted down from the orchard to the town with plans already brewing in her mind and Rainbow hard at work writing down everything she had seen. Taking a bite into one such apple she looked around in wonder of where Applejack and Braeburn had gone. Her eyes caught sight of the Salt Lick where a stallion stumbled out wearing what she could have sworn were Pinkie’s net like stockings… He walked as if his legs had all been randomly switched around and promptly fell over into a trough of water. For a moment Starlight was curious but getting closer picked up the sound of what could only be described as giggling, chanting of some kind of word she had never heard before, and… Well, the only way she could describe the noise was a half dozen ponies doing the tango through a mile of honey. She dared not look and took an instant 180 instead.
There were not too many places that Applejack could have gone so Starlight started with the closest building first, the general store. Asking the store owner she found that he seen Applejack heading down to the hotels. A good lead. With Rainbow still following closely behind Starlight headed down the streets and around to where the main hotel stood. It was a big one, designed to keep any and all visitors happy for some time. Going inside it was rustic and had a lot of wood with simple cloth furnishings but it felt warm and welcoming all the same.
“Good morning, my name is Starlight Glimmer. I am looking for my friend Applejack?” She asked the older looking mare behind the desk.
“What a polite girl, your friend is up in her room. Let’s see, 302 but she did ask to not be disturbed.” The old mare replied.
“I will make sure not to bug her too much. Thank you.” Starlight said back. Giving a nudge to Rainbow they made their way to the stairs and headed straight up to the third floor. Quietly she knocked on the door of 303 and tried the handle to find it unlocked. Going inside she went across the room and opened the window. With a flick of her horn and a nod of her head a glowing path appeared outside connecting her window to the next room over.
“Oh this is just like when Mistress Mullthorn used the fourth crystal of Zanith to create a light bridge in order to sneak up on the pudding trolls.” Rainbow admitted with a squee as she bounced through the window almost too enthusiastically.
“Just keep quiet, we are supposed to be spying remember.” Starlight said with a hiss.
“Don’t worry, I will be as silent as… Oh.” Rainbow spoke up as she poked her head around the corner and looked into the other room. Getting the note pad out she began to furiously scribble down several notes which in turn left Starlight quite curious.
“What are they doing?” Starlight asked as she placed her head on Rainbow’s back to try and get closer.
“Getting right down to business.” Rainbow replied with a giggle. “I knew that AJ was the aggressive type but damn diddly donuts I did not know she was that kind of gal.” Rainbow then muttered to herself causing Starlight to stand perplexed. Using her magic she lifted her back hooves up to lay on top of Rainbow, pushing her head down she looked around herself to find Applejack standing around a table and whiteboard full of maps and papers. Breaburn looked stressed already and AJ was practically sweating with how intense her scheming was being.
“Oh you mean literal.” Starlight said relieved.
“Heh yeah, sure. Literal.” Rainbow quietly said back. “They are cute together…” She added as a whisper.
Ignoring Rainbow’s overactive imagination she used her magic to hear what they were saying. Apart from some heated back and forth about relocation costs and time management the biggest thing they were trying to work out ways to maximize further profits in the future when taking buffalo relations into account. They were prepared to give gifts and delay construction all over if it meant at least finding some small truce, although the reason was less about noble goals and more about keeping the project on pace.
Seeing that Twilight was focused on the traditions and care of the buffalo tribes while Applejack was all about the industry and care of the pony town Starlight started to now see some middle grounds that could hopefully work for both of them. That was her grand plan after all. Spy on both sides of the argument and see the best way forward that biased minds could not. It was genius and now she had all the information they just needed to work out the small details. Flaring up her magic again she shrank the light bridge down and lowered the square Rainbow was standing on to the ground. Hopping off her back she returned to the otherside of the hotel, this time to get a room so she could put it all together in peace.
Several hours passed by quite quickly. With the evening sun high up in the sky, it was finally time to meet up with the mayor and as they all returned to the town square they found Starlight waiting for them. She gave them a wave and had a large noteboard set up just outside ready for her presentation.
“What is going on?” Twilight asked as she got closer.
“I have come up with the perfect answer to all our issues my dear Twilight.” Starlight replied confidently.
“What about the meeting with the mayor, or the buffalo chief?” Twilight asked raising an eyebrow.
“They never agreed on anything for months anyway, so why not just sort this ourselves. Braeburn and Strongheart are both pretty high up representatives too!” Starlight pointed out and they had to agree on that at least. Flipping the board over she cleared her throat and began. “It is simple. Based on research I did with Rainbow into the wants, needs and goals of both pony and buffalo I have come to a realization that the middle ground is simple. We will give them food, health care and housing the likes of which they could only dream off and for free too, in turn they will put that tribal strength into making up the cost back from working the fields. I am sure Strongheart knows just how wonderful our fruit is but something like apple pie is 10 times better! Now before you ask, yes I know one such issue was the stampeding grounds but that is simple. Much like our running of the leaves we will allow you to run along the paths during harvest seasons, that will cover a lot of work in advance while also doing your traditions. Everybody wins.” Starlight explained while pointing out one thing to the next on the board. Looking around the reactions were a touch mixed, like how Strongheart seemed into the idea while Braeburn was still thinking it over. Twilight though seemed embarrassed and was grinding her hoof into her face for some reason. “I know Twilight loves paperwork so we could even get little contracts and things going.” She added. “I got the idea mostly from watching you lot, what do you think?”
“Glimmy, honey, no.” Twilight said as she quickly marched over, wiped the board clean in a couple hasty strokes and then pulled Starlight to the side in a headlock. Whispering into her ear Starlight went from confused, to understanding, to embarrassed really quickly as she explained what exactly she had just proposed. Standing up straight she coughed.
“I think it sounds pretty good.” Strongheart spoke up causing the others to look towards her in unison.
“Do you even know what she just said?” Twilight asked questioningly.
“I am not dumb, she said that we can use the stampeeding grounds and that helps your apple trees so we can both enjoy the eh things that come from it.” She explained simply. Too simply.
“Yes, yes that is exactly what she meant. The harvest season is twice a year but it won’t harm the trees to do more than that so you are all free to come and go as you please, right Applejack?” Twilight asked her friend who, for just a minute, could see the light fade from her eyes as hours of intensive scheming was made pointless.
“Eyup.” Applejack said dryly. “Glad we could all come to such an easy solution.” She added causing the others to all give out a small and nearly forced laughter to break the mood. Tidying up her hair a touch she offered a hoof shake to Strongheart who accepted politely. “If you do want to make some money then feel free to come down anytime, this town is going to need every strong leg it could find.” She then added.
“Speaking of apples, how about I treat y’all to some cider and apple pie at the Salt Lick? I think we could do with a pint or two after such a day.” Breaburn added in an attempt to lift the spirits and give Strongheart some better memories of pony culture.
“You have cider? In the winter?!” Rainbow called out as she practically bounced clear over Braeburn in excitement.
“Cold and crisp just like the Apple family is known for. Why do you think we are building here in the first place, it is one of the only spots in equestria where fruit trees grow all year round!” He explained as they headed down to the local bar for some real relaxation under the hot evening sun. As they approached however two rows of ponies marched out from the bar in neat lines.
They formed a parade like group with each one of them dressed in a mixture of dancer clothing and traditional cowboy apparel. On a large tabletop that had been broken off and decorated with red cloth and pillows, much like that of royalty, they carried Pinkie who was practically glowing with a relaxed, warm, aura. Her mane had been tied up neatly while her tail pooled around her body like fine red wine. Standing on the table with her were two others that fanned her with giant leaves, although Breaburn wondered where exactly they even got those leaves from. The entire parade was chanting something and marching in unison, each one of them clearly drunk to the point of not knowing what day it was and yet on that razer’s edge of being lucid enough to still do things. As they strode past the stopped and formed into a group so Pinkie could look over the slack jawed others.
“Do you know that your workers are, or I should say were, some of the most pent up ponies I have ever met? Because they were and you know, as I was so charitably helping them to unwind… Two or three at a time… I came up with such a nice idea. A business proposition of sorts that could really help morale, the Cherry Soda! I can see it now. Stained wood and red carpets serving cider and special beers all year round with the most delicious of company.” Pinkie said slurred with a roll of her head. Tapping her hoof one of the ponies holding the table threw up what must have been a gallon jug filled with cider, that she began to drink from. Applejack did not know how to respond, Braeburn was scared and aroused all the same since he knew that there were at least 100 stallions in this town, Rainbow had the biggest grin as she watched Pinkie chug down that entire bottle and Starlight? She just smiled. God damn it Pinkie.